Last week’s screening of Le Sang d’un Poète (The Blood of A Poet) (1930) at the Union Theater was a confounding experience for many who attended. The UWM film archive was fortunate enough to have an actual 16mm print (age and origin unknown) in its possession. Those who had seen the short from the Criterion Collection release, or some YouTube derivative thereof, were either frustrated with the quality of the print or intrigued by the prospect of seeing the film on a screen larger than that of the garden-variety 15-inch laptop. Of course, cinephiles tend to split two ways–they are either purists when it comes to proper ratio aspects and grain count, or Luddites who prefer their darlings to be presented in their current state, no matter how dusty they may be.
Those outside the realm of unhealthy obsession gained the best experience from the screening. Today, if there is still any sense of aura and mystique that enshrouds the avant-garde films of Jean Cocteau, it is that of witnessing something weird that escapes any verbal description; a palette cleanser or a shock to the system. Due to the tarnished and murky nature of the print, the lack of English subtitles might have rendered some other film virtually unwatchable. However, in the case of The Blood of A Poet, this may have worked in the filmmaker’s favor.
Before the days of public domain films plaguing video sharing websites, and even before I knew what bittorrenting was, technologically-challenged kids had to hustle to come about means of obtaining films that were not readily accessible at video store chains. The Blood of A Poet, among other film snob gateways like Un Chien Andalou (1929) and Le Jetee (1962), were boldly recommended as essential consumption in Danny Peary’s Cult Films (the first to coin the term)– a very hip filmic bible in three installments.
Peary’s lists ranged from the easy-to-get mainstream to the hopelessly obscure. The film of interest was on the latter, at least about ten years ago (bear in mind my first visit to a Barnes and Noble was when I was sixteen). The last conceivable chance of catching any of these films was to wait for their eventual appearance on Turner Classic Movies’ imports block that still airs around 2 a.m. every Sunday night. The biggies like Kurosawa, Bergman, and Tarkovsky are regular staples, with short films serving as bookends. After a year or so, many shorts were aired, all but The Blood of A Poet.
In my junior year of high school, I stumbled upon a copy of The Blood of a Poet. The copy did have English subtitles, but the white font often bled into the high-contrast video static, making the text illegible. It was akin to watching a movie with a gauze bandage over one’s eyes. I have not purchased the glowing Criterion restoration or any other addition; I still have that tape and it will probably fall apart in a few years because of the countless number of times that it’s been played and rewound. To this day, I do not have the faintest idea what is going on in The Blood of A Poet, but I am entirely satisfied with keeping it that way!
The privileged status of films like The Blood of A Poet owes something to their scarce availability and spotty source quality. In fact, because of the film’s difficult pre-production history, including Cocteau’s issues with the backers and the infamy that followed the release of L’Age d’Or (1930), theatrical exhibition was delayed by a year. Finally, the film’s subversive and anti-Christian undertones led to a conspiratorial underground fan base, which coveted and protected it like the Ark of the Covenant.
The film’s indecipherability is an important part of its provocative allure… the dim screen that occasionally throws out a backwards-walking-frontwards man, a laughing statuette and star-shaped bullet wound to the head shines through like a match in a dark cave. The spectators are aware, at least on a subliminal level, that they have only seen a dissipated remnant of the short film; they grapple unsuccessfully with the different images they had seen, or thought they had seen.
The elusive form of The Blood of A Poet lingers on through the battered 16mm print. Maybe some of the attendees will track it down for another viewing, others might never see it again, but its scratchy indelibility will survive, embedding a dream-like nuance beyond Cocteau’s control—the special effect of age and wear.