Desire and death dwell at the dark heart of Curtis Harrington’s short films in much the same way that implicitly incestuous twins predominate in the first and last of them, both variations on a theme set by Edgar Allan Poe’s story The Fall of the House of Usher. (The first version, made when Harrington was just 14, is available on this set as a special feature.) Harrington acknowledged Poe as a sort of tutelary deity and Poe’s aesthetic of decline and decay would exert a decisive influence over Harrington’s films. Harrington’s work also bears the unmistakable imprint of Maya Deren’s groundbreaking experimental films, especially Meshes of the Afternoon with its surreal evocation of mental states and explicitly Freudian dream symbolism. In a sense, you could triangulate Harrington’s short films between their doom-laden decadence, their preternatural dreaminess, and their unerring eye for landscape. “Settings and all their physical features,” Harrington once wrote, “are very important in my films.” The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins had a word for the way Harrington uses landscape to reveal mindscape. He called it inscape.
Harrington referred to Fragment of Seeking as his “examination of youthful narcissism.” We have to take that last word quite literally since Harrington himself plays the seeker, a trenchcoat-and-fedora-clad young man, as well as the elusive blond-wigged object of his infatuation. The seeker and his quarry traverse the courtyards and hallways of an eerily empty hacienda, seemingly abandoned save for the shadowy presence of the third side of this particular love triangle, another young man who seems to offer an erotic alternative to the seeker’s ultimately doomed quest. For when the seeker finally seizes his prey, he clutches a corpse, of course. Fragment of Seeking is notable for touching, however dreamily and obliquely, on the issue of its maker’s homosexuality, a theme it shares with Kenneth Anger’s contemporaneous Fireworks. Harrington and Anger were friends and colleges; Harrington would appear in Invocation of the Pleasure Dome, and both men acted from time to time as the other’s camera operator.
Picnic extends and expands on the previous film’s themes. Here the young protagonist is situated firmly within a prototypical bourgeois family unit away on holiday at Malibu Beach. The locale’s rocky protuberances and listless sea combine to give the short an overall ambiance of stagnation and infertility. The boy wanders away from the familial repast at the sight of a blond figure strolling lackadaisically along the strand. Syntactic units from the earlier film are here reshuffled: There’s another empty house, another blonde, another corpse. This time around, the erotic object turns out to be a dead ringer for the sister, touching again on the Poe theme that seems to have haunted Harrington most: unspoken intimations of incest. And boy winds up being the corpse. Two shots seal the deal via the magic of unexpected juxtaposition. The first amounts to the reprise of a jump cut lifted from Un Chien Andalou: The young man climbs an endless stone staircase; at the top, he flounders and topples headfirst from a rocky outcrop into the sea. In the second, the camera pans from the blonde, all decked out in bridal finery, to her brother laid out in state on a bier; the camera moves along to the front door where we see the brother ringing the bell. It’s a succinct summation of Harrington’s themes accomplished entirely through “pure cinema.”
Compared to Picnic’s dense imagistic tapestry, On the Edge comes perilously close to feeling like a throwaway gag: Set amid the burbling mud pits of some post-apocalyptic wasteland (in actuality the Salton Sea), this short is almost entirely inscape: An elderly man sneaks up on an old woman (who may or may not be one of the three Fates) hard at work knitting in her rocking chair. In a trice, he snatches the sewing out of her hands and scampers off. You can probably guess the rest: When the thread runs out, his time is up. The Assignation invites comparison with Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now: The lush color cinematography used in both only brings out more strikingly the decrepit majesty of Venice’s slow slide into the surrounding marshlands. Harrington’s short is a long fuse quietly burning, as we watch a figure in a Venetian mask take a leisurely gondola ride along the city’s celebrated canals. The finale vividly illustrates Emily Dickinson’s famous line “Because I could not stop for Death/He kindly stopped for me.”
Also shot in vivid color, The Wormwood Star eschews narrative altogether, offering instead a portrait in image and sound of artist and occultist Marjorie Cameron, who would later appear in Harrington’s poetic fable Night Tide. In the style of most artist-centered docs, the camera moves across a succession of Cameron’s paintings. A couple of things set it apart, however: Cameron recites some inscrutable occult screed in voiceover, and the camera cuts away now and again from the artwork to showcase Cameron’s performance artistic posturing, as well as her fabulous, art-bedecked digs. It’s a slight film that only gets more intriguing the more you know (or maybe care) about Cameron’s involvement with ceremonial magic and the likes of L. Ron Hubbard and Aleister Crowley.
Made in 2002, when Harrington was 76 years old, Usher brings things full circle, comprising a larger-scale reworking of his first short. (Usher would also be the last film Harrington made before his death in 2007.) As in the previous version, Harrington plays both Madeline and Roderick Usher. Unlike his earlier 16mm shorts, Usher was shot on sync-sound 35mm with a substantially higher budget. Still there’s an inescapable home movie feel to the proceedings—especially when you discover that it was indeed filmed chez Harrington. There’s a sly humor evident in Harrington’s script: It’s hard not to read Usher’s ruminations on the alchemy of the artistic process, the fraught act of transmuting “base materials” into the gold of beautiful things, as Harrington’s ruefully deprecating assessment of his own career.
Just to give you some idea of the effort expended in assembling this set, the accompanying booklet contains 10 pages of notes detailing the process of acquiring viable prints and the extensive restoration efforts necessary to render them presentable. All things considered, these shorts now look remarkably good. Flicker Alley’s high-definition Blu-ray transfer is definitely the way to go here: The images are as sharp and clean as they’re ever going to get, and the two color shorts really pop in HD. The sound is reasonably strong, putting across Herbert Gold’s scores well, and conveying dialogue with sufficient clarity in the two sync-sound films.
Flicker Alley’s two-disc set contains an abundance of intriguing extras. First off, there’s The Fall of the House of Usher, the 8mm short Curtis Harrington made at the age of 14. Also included is The Four Elements, an evocative and almost incantatory documentary Harrington shot for the U.S. Information Agency in 1966 extolling the virtues of American productivity. Over the course of two in-depth interviews (one culled from the documentary House of Harrington), Harrington reminisces about his youth and early career. He recalls his first exposure to the horror genre (watching The Raven as a child and climbing under the seats in fright), the influence of Edgar Allan Poe, his job as a pageboy at MGM, as well as his friendship and collaboration with Kenneth Anger. Harrington talks at length about his "Bohemian days" living in France in the early 1950s, hanging out at the Cinémathèque Française, and his life-changing meeting with Mary Meerson. Finally, Harrington discusses his apprenticeship under producer Jerry Wald, a gig he only got through the intercession of filmmaker Albert Lewin, who was in turn impressed by the cultural capital Harrington had acquired in Europe. The illustrated booklet contains a retrospective essay from Lisa Janssen, the editor of Harrington’s memoir Nice Guys Don’t Work in Hollywood, as well as notes from Mark Toscano of the Academy Film Archive about their considerable restoration work for the set.
This collection from Flicker Alley is essential to understanding the formative (not to mention experimental) impulses of an underappreciated filmmaker.