Arthur Rimbaud, the greatest and youngest prodigy poetry has ever known, might have felt at home in the turbulence of the post-Beat 60s and 70s that Bukowski and Thompson inhabited and wrote about, although he wrote in France in the 19th century. Rimbaud believed in an excess of drugs, sex and madness as a path to Truth, following the William Blake dictum "the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom."
Although instead of a life-lived-on-the-edge functioning partly as a reflection of the state of the modern world, Rimbaud used excess more explicitly as a tool worthy in itself of delivering new modes of perception and literary brilliance. With a prose style that broke the contemporary restrictions and forms of poetry, and synesthesia, a purposeful confusion and interplay of the senses, Rimbaud hoped to become a "voyant," a poet-visionary who reached new levels of transcendent understanding by means of a "long, immense and reasoned deranging of the senses."
In Total Eclipse (1995), a young Leonardo DiCaprio, before his appearance in Titanic (1996), when he was still the darling of the indie set, plays Rimbaud in a brave and brilliant performance. The film chronicles the wild love affair between a teen-age Rimbaud and his mentor, accomplice and enemy, Paul Verlaine (David Thewlis, a seriously underrated actor), who was a prominent poet of the age and was later responsible for bringing fame to Rimbaud's works. When Verlaine receives some of Rimbaud's poems out of the blue, he is stunned by their daring and artistry and invites the young poet to come visit him and his family.
This begins an artistic and romantic relationship that threatens to tear apart Verlaine's family and sanity and culminates with Rimbaud shooting Verlaine before giving up poetry for good. DiCaprio succeeds in creating a believable and vibrant Rimbaud and evokes his arrogant and unflinching belief in art as a transforming act.
The scene in which Rimbaud disrupts a literary meeting and literally pisses on the works of other, conventional poets is hilarious and inspiring. At the same time, he demonstrates how this act can destroy the structure of one's life, particularly in the scenes in which he and Verlaine torment each other. However, the film only hints at the content of Rimbaud's actual poetry and descends into a fascinating, although ultimately unsatisfying soap opera. We are left wishing for a deeper depiction of the writing that lead to such havoc.
DiCaprio plays a kind of modern version of Rimbaud in The Basketball Diaries (1995), in which high-school basketball player, and soon-to-become noted punk rocker, Jim Carroll scribbles brilliant poetic nuggets in his journal while also battling a descent into heroin addiction. DiCaprio gives another unblinking performance, and the film is effective in showing how the initial elation of drug use quickly deteriorates into desperation. As with Total Eclipse, we witness the ways that excess provides breakthrough moments but is difficult to wield with any longevity. In Basketball Diaries we do get some relatively extensive scenes of Carroll drawing poetry from the texture of his life, and some powerful lines, but he is no Rimbaud.
Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters (1985) is a directorial effort from Paul Schrader, the celebrated screenwriter of Taxi Driver (1976). Schrader has always been obsessed with the darker aspects of machismo, as evidenced in such films as Raging Bull (1980) and Auto Focus (2002), and here he investigates the unusual and disturbing personality of Yukio Mishima (Ken Ogata), one of the most respected Japanese writers of the 20th century. In a style that is striking for its set design and stage-like quality, Schrader combines scenes from Mishima's own life with scenes from his books (including ones from the Sea of Fertility tetralogy, perhaps his most well-known work), allowing the viewer to draw parallels between the author and his inventions.
It is an interesting experiment, one intended to help us explore farther how a story emanates from a novelist's own experience and enhance our conception of the interrelationship between the two. That is: from a certain vantage point, is a life constructed like a novel? Is this a fair stance to take, both toward actual experience and the rules of artifice? Like Schrader himself, Mishima was an incredibly intense artist, and he wound up completely dedicating himself to his causes. A strict traditionalist who despised the modernization and commercialization of Japan and wanted his country to return to earlier modes and codes of conduct, including the samurai code, Mishima subjected himself to unbelievable physical regimens, while at the same time struggling with suppressed homosexual impulses. In the film's most startling and memorable scene, Mishima, who dedicated himself to the Emperor, and who built a private army, commits ritual suicide in front of his troops as a final comment on his beliefs.
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