Wednesday, April 27, 2011

HP Lovecraft: Fear Of The Unknown

I am quite fond of Godard’s old axiom that the best way to criticize a film is to make another. Thus I can’t help but consider Lovecraft: Fear Of The Unknown to be a near perfect criticism of the risible Dreams With Sharp Teeth. While Dreams With Sharp Teeth was content to tell us that its subject is a very important influential man, Fear Of The Unknown actually deigns to tell us why. While Dreams With Sharp Teeth painted Ellison’s work in broad generalized strokes, almost incidental to his cult of personality, Fear Of The Unknown actually takes the time to explore Lovecraft’s work volume by volume. And while Dreams With Sharp Teeth was content to mythologize its subject on a level near hagiography, Lovecraft not only portrays a warts and all view of Lovecraft’s work and character (easy enough) but takes the time to dig in and explain just what formed that character, and the surprising evolutions it took and most importantly how that character formed the work that still resonates today. A body of work that articulates the anguished feeling of immensity of the universe and time in a Godless universe (Or rather a God filled one).

The film assembles a who’s who of guests, eloquent and pleasurable to the last: Ramsey Campbell, Stuart Gordon, Peter Straub, John Carpenter and The Omnipresent Neil Gaiman (China Mielville responsible for what is perhaps the most influential essay on Lovecraft in recent years is conspicuously absent). While it would be easy enough for the documentary to fall into a trap of just being talking heads; Fear Of The Unknown manages to find a near perfect balance, using the interviews to illuminate the copious biographical detail, interspersed with Lovecraft’s own voice taken both from his voluminous personal correspondence and his own work. Thanks to the decades of artistic interpretation that Lovecraft has inspired the film is never at want for interesting visuals either. Visuals which sometimes even enter the realm of the impressionistic as in a fascinating montage set to a reading of Lovecraft’s infamously racist “The Horror At Red Hook” that distorts photos of old New York immigrants into monstrosities, drawing a clear line between Lovecraft’s Xenophobia and Racism to his more metaphysical horrors. The film not only holds Lovecraft accountable for his personal faults but his stylistic ones as well. Neil Gaiman in one of the film’s highlights gleefully deconstructs and parodies Lovecraft’s adjective dependant style and the dubious nature in which his standard first person narrators calmly dictate that they are going mad/being menaced by creatures beyond time. As in “I am calmly writing this as I am going mad, and oh dear there is something horribly monstrous at the window which I had also better take the time to write about.” (Incidentally Gaiman is perhaps the ideal critic of Lovecraft as he’s proved himself capable of capturing both Lovecraft’s awe inspiring immensity and absurdity. The former in the superlative “A Study In Emerald” the latter in the hilariously bitchy “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar”.)

Yet even more impressive then the way the documentary doesn’t ignore these faults of Lovecraft as a person and an artist is the way it doesn’t use them to dismiss him as so many do. It simply uses them as context in its admirably complete portrait of the man.

The film captures some footage that is absolutely heartbreaking in retrospect. If you have any affection for Guillmero Del Toro as a filmmaker at all (and I find it hard to believe you would be here if you didn’t) then prepare to have your heart crushed at the sight of him rapturously monologuing about the greatness of The Mountains Of Madness.

Like all great documentaries it is unafraid of contrary opinions. Once again contrast this to Dreams With Sharp Teeth, where every talking head stayed on the message that Harlan Ellison is a beautiful unique snowflake mistreated by the world, Fear Of The Dark is unafraid to have interviewees out and out contradict its thesis. For example, the last third of the film advances the theory that stories such as The Whispers In The Dark and At The Mountains Of Madness advance a softening of his views on his monsters and thus his xenophobia. Yet guests argue that these stories can just as easily be read as Lovecraft siding with the slave owning elite, however monstrous, against a malignant as ever lower order of rabble. The underclass is after all the underclass whether you call it a Suggoth or an Italian.

The film does make a few headscratching decisions, for example the film features comprehensive interviews with Stuart Gordon arguably the only filmmaker to capture Lovecraft on film with (limited) success. Yet for some reason he never comments on the stories he himself adapted. The film falls to the standard trap of the insecure documentarian, spotty reenactment footage which would be more understandable if not for the wealth of visual material otherwise present. Most unfortunately though the man hired to “read” for Lovecraft bears an unfortunately sounds like an ultra fey Vincent Price.

Yet these surface flaws cannot help but feel somewhat paltry. Documentaries with such complete understanding of their subjects and the place that their works hold are rare.


Troy Olson said...

This sounds very interesting and your review makes it sound worth watching. I'm not a huge Lovecraft fan, but am always intrigued at the mythos he created and their obvious impact on people like Del Toro and Gaiman. He does seem like someone calling out for a good documentary.

I see that I can watch this online for free, so I'll go check it out immediately. Thanks for the heads-up!

Bryce Wilson said...

Let me know what you think Troy.

I think the Doc might even work better for someone who has no prior knowledge of Lovecraft. It's a pretty ideal primer.

Neil Fulwood said...

Great review, Bryce. I'm definitely going to make a point of tracking this one down.

(Big fan of Gaiman's Lovecraft pastiches too, btw. 'A Study in Emerald' is inspired and 'Shoggoth's Old Peculiar' hilarious.)

le0pard13 said...

I want to see this! Like Troy said, thanks for the heads-up.

Craig D. said...

Gah. This came out in 2008 and I wasn't aware of it? Oh well. Added to Netflix queue.

The film falls to the standard trap of the insecure documentarian, spotty reenactment footage

Bleh. Gonzo did this, too. What gives?

Bryce Wilson said...

@ Neil: Thank you Neil. A Study In Emerald is one of those damndable Gaiman short stories that you can only wish was a series of fifteen books.

@ Le0: Let me know what you think?

@ Craig: I'm pretty sure you'll like it Craig. The Reactment footage is really bizarre in both since both Gonzo and Fear Of The Unknown contain such a staggering wealth of visual material to draw on.