What Do You Drink?
Mark Redfield's The Death Of Poe Imagines The Final Week Leading Up To One Of Charm City's More Infamous Deaths
Put yourself in Edgar Allan Poe's shoes in 1849. You're a visionary genius and your work still gets buried in the local rags. Whenever you come up with new ideas for journals, the door gets slammed in your face. The hair is getting thin on top, and middle age is creeping up on you. You should have finished up that college degree. And now, after thinking you have left Baltimore behind forever, you find yourself back on Charles Street. The cold October rains are moving in. The old feeling comes back, one with which Roderick Usher would sympathize--an iciness, a sinking, sickening of the heart, an unredeemed dreariness of thought, which no goading of the imagination could torture into aught of the sublime. And you've got a little extra change in your pocket. Wouldn't you go out for a drink?
In the locally produced and shot movie The Death of Poe, that question hangs in the air, as Poe sits, weak and weary in a small Baltimore tavern, at an undisclosed location. Two old friends from his abbreviated stay at West Point are sitting across from him. They offer him a beer. He says that he's on the wagon. They offer it again. He finally capitulates. Then he downs a tankard in a single gulp. It's all downhill from there. Several days later, he gets picked up, raving, in a Baltimore gutter.
"There are no facts" about Poe's final days, says Mark Redfield, the director, producer, and actor of The Death of Poe, which premieres locally this week. "No one will ever know what killed Poe or what befell Poe, and hell, no one will know why he was in Baltimore at that time."
That's a question anyone could ask. Redfield says he wound up here because his mother immigrated from Germany in the early 1950s. His mother learned English in Baltimore and worked at an arts supply store; his father taught at Eastern High School. After attending Towson University, Redfield stayed in the area and joined and founded several theater companies. For the past 20 years, he has worked as an actor, director, artist, and producer on stage and screen. In the process, he says, Poe's story--and his final desperate attempts to get financial backing from Baltimoreans--came to mean more and more to him. In Redfield's Death, Poe's last week is imagined as a final at-bat for a poet who isn't getting much support.
"There are a few things we do know," he continues. "He was rock-bottom poor, and Virginia [Clemm, Poe's young wife] had died a few years before. There's some evidence that he had met this woman who he knew as a child who was widowed and had come into money. He was down in Richmond, and raising money to publish his own magazine [The Stylus]. The summer he died he was writing suicide notes. He was living in [the Bronx, N.Y.], and that's where he was headed."
Redfield's movie begins on Sept. 27, 1849, when Poe arrived in Baltimore on his way north. A week later he was found raving in a gutter near a Baltimore polling station. He died several days later, Oct. 7, 1849, at the age of 40. Suddenly, he was sexy, dead, and famous.
When Redfield began shooting his account of Poe's last week, he understood one thing--the city that reads can drive anyone to drink. Redfield knows from his two decades working here. He founded a piece of the Action Theatre Company and watched it go dormant. And, as Redfield admits, it's not getting any easier for artists in Baltimore. At 10 p.m. on a Monday night, he and composer Jennifer Rouse--who also co-stars in Death--have just logged about 200 miles of rush-hour traffic from Philadelphia, where their distributor, Alpha New Cinema, is located. For years, as a local producer of horror films and owner of Redfield Arts Studios, Redfield has been struggling to distribute his works. Even without Poe's trademark mustache, the late-30s Redfield looks a little like his on-screen alter ego in his later days: dark, gray-haired, and a little on the melancholy side.
"For independent distributors, there's no retail," he says of the independent movie business. "Tower's filing for bankruptcy, Wal-Mart doesn't need you, Target's very difficult. Festivals are good for exposure, but every town has three or four festivals--you can spend a fortune just mailing stuff out. There's not a lot of money in the rental scene either."
But he's at it again. The Death of Poe debuted last month in Manchester, England, at the Festival of Fantastic Films, where Redfield had won a best independent award in 2004 for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which he co-produced, co-wrote, and directed. (Redfield and his Redfield Arts production company have also made Chainsaw Sally ["Killer Buzz," Film, Nov. 24, 2004] which will be distributed at the end of this year, and Cold Harbor ["Found at Sea," Film, Sept. 24, 2003]) And even as he talks about his latest project, Redfield can't help brainstorming ideas for future projects--among them, a horror-movie MacBeth and other movies based on Poe stories. The Death of Poe, however, holds a special place in his career.
There are, of course, plenty of movies that already feed on the Poe mystique, such as D.W. Griffith's 1914 The Avenging Conscience and Charles Brabin's 1915 The Raven starring Henry Walthall. Although Redfield claims inspiration from both movies, he says they traded on the idea of a mythic Poe as raving alcoholic. It's an image that Redfield says can be traced back to Rufus Griswold, Poe's infamous literary executor and biographer, who immortalized Poe as a drunken, demented, mad genius. Redfield hopes to take a different tack with his movie and engage in an exploration of Poe's inner world--and, in some sense, Baltimore's--over those final days.
"We didn't want to do a biopic," he says. In fact, Redfield says that the Hollywood trades have mentioned rumors of a big-budget Poe biopic floating around in the development ether for years. Instead of competing with a major studio, Redfield decided to focus exclusively on the last week of Poe's life.
"It wasn't because I wanted a juicy role," Redfield says. "The zero down in the bull's-eye was that I kept having the same problem Poe had with funding. I kept coming back to how difficult it was. I don't think he would have an easier time today than he had then."
Those financial difficulties might explain Poe's drinking, but how did he go from that first drink to incapacitated in the streets? "One of three things probably happened," Redfield says. "He was possibly diabetic and couldn't handle small amounts of liquor. He might have gone on a bender with friends. He could have been mugged."
Redfield took the three theories of Poe's demise and included them in one hallucinogenic mural bookended by images of Poe lying on his deathbed. The movie winds in and out of the possible routes Poe took before hitting his dead end.
The last version, called the "cooping theory," explores the possibility that Poe found himself shanghaied by gangs who were dragging Baltimoreans to the polls, liquoring them up, and then pushing them through the polling place, and then repeating the process until they couldn't stand up anymore. "We took the three and combined them into one bad night of hell," Redfield says. "We turned it into a sort of dream. By telling it as a dream, we got as close to Poe's actual state of mind as we could get."
The nightmarish quality of the final days explains the use of tilted camera angles and double vision, which gradually disorients the viewer. While the story begins conventionally enough--Poe on a riverboat heading to Baltimore--the scenarios gradually unravel. Of course, the problem with plotting this story was self-evident. For about half of that last week, Poe was on his deathbed, raving or in a coma. The Death of Poe opens with Poe lying in his coffin. "But the problem was you can only get weirder with [the movie]" after such an opening image, Redfield says. "So there was never an idea with beginning, middle, and end."
In the course of the movie, Poe spends three days in Baltimore looking for possible donors for his literary magazine. He is given three names by a mysterious stranger in Richmond, Va. Thadeus Wainwright (George Stover) is willing to donate, but his brother Zachariah (also played by Stover) refuses. A proud father (Curt Boushell) says that he can't contribute but asks Poe to critique his daughter's latest limerick. Finally, an Irish businessman (J.R. Lyston) puts the proverbial nail in Poe's coffin by telling him that a literary journal "isn't what the people want."
And Redfield says that if Poe was frustrated with Baltimore, after 20 years here, he is, too. "There's something I like about this city," he says. "I've tried to make art here and I've lived here. But this is a city that had the most vibrant jazz of any seaport town on the East Coast, and where is it today? This is a town that has to fight to keep the opera here, fight to keep the symphony here, and every single time 20 theaters get started, maybe one will survive. There was a commemoration just this Sunday at Poe's grave. There wasn't one local writer there. There wasn't one English student."
Despite that, Redfield says, Poe is, first and last, a son of Baltimore. Although he was born in Boston and lived much of his life in New York and Virginia, he began his literary career here by winning a whopping $50 dollar prize in a contest promoted by The Southern Messenger. And, of course, he ended it being dragged out of a polling station. And all the time in between, he dreamed of a place of the mind--and didn't make much money doing it.
So, was Poe experiencing Baltimore as a literal and metaphorical dead end? "I think so," Redfield says. So, yes--it's settled then. If Edgar Allan Poe didn't die in a bar crawl, he probably had ample reason for going on a bender--and Baltimore would have been the perfect place for it. You don't have much control over where you're born. But as The Death of Poe's journey into the land of madness tries to make clear, where you croak says a great deal about who you are.
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