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Saturday, November 3, 2007

Orpheus Returns (originally published 10/98)

A few years ago I taught a course in which we would take a single work of fiction and trace it through its varous incarnations in different media. We might, for instance, read Shakespeare's "Romeo and Juliet," then see a film adaptation of it, then listen to Tchaikovsky's "Romeo and Juliet," and finally see "West Side Story." It was both challenging and fun to teach, especially because the specific work under consideration changed each time the course was offered.

One year, I decided to make the myth of Orpheus the subject of the course. It seemed like an easy enough choice, since the story of Orpheus descending into the underworld to attempt the rescue of his dead wife, Eurydice, has been the object of countless variations down through the centuries. All I need do, so I thought, was to pick out a few representative examples from the copious roster of candidates. What I hadn't adequately reckoned on was how very copious the Orpheus-inspired stories actually are. It seemed that everywhere I turned I saw another film or novel or poem or opera that bore the imprint of Orpheus. The experience of preparing for that course made a deep impression on me, leaving me with a renewed sense of the importance of the stories we call myths.

I was reminded of my sobering encounter with Orpheus and Eurydice by the recent release of "What Dreams May Come." Richard Matheson's novel has long been acknowledged as one of the finest examples of the Orpheus myth rendered as popular fiction. If you've seen the movie and found the resonances with its mythic origins compelling, you may want to look for these titles on home video. Each one places a unique spin on the myth.

"Orpheus" (1949). Poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau updates the myth to modern day Paris. His Orpheus is a poet whose wife is taken from him by Death. An angel who has fallen in love with Eurydice helps the grief-struck Orpheus to pursue her into the underworld, using a mirror as a portal to the land of the dead. Cocteau was easily one of the most visionary filmmakers of world cinema. Using a few simple camera tricks and a wealth of imagination he creates a hypnotic and compelling fantasy world.

"Vertigo" (1958). One of my most startling realizations during the time when Orpheus nearly took over my life was the revelation that the Orpheus myth lies at the heart of this revered Alfred Hitchcock classic, a film I thought I knew well. Taking a break from my preparations for the Orpheus class, I watched this old favorite one night after some time away from it. About halfway through, it hit me: here is a story about a man who falls in love, loses his beloved to death, then becomes obsessed with bringing her back from the dead. He doesn't roam the underworld in search of her, of course. Instead, he latches on to a woman who strongly resembles her and tries to make her over into an exact replica of the woman he lost. And, like poor Orpheus, he loses her again.

"Black Orpheus" (1959). French filmmaker Marcel Camus transplants the myth to contemporary Brazil. His Orpheus is a streetcar conductor in Rio de Janeiro. Finding himself smitten with a young woman named Eurydice who has come to town for Carnival, Orpheus is soon in the doghouse with his jealous girlfriend. More serious troubles loom ahead, however. Eurydice is being stalked by a mysterious figure who has dressed up as Death for his Carnival costume. Camus deftly blends the original myth with voodoo mythology to produce a memorable cinematic experience.

"Highway To Hell" (1992). Screenwriter Brian Helgeland and director Ate De Jong created a postmodern riff on the story of Orpheus and Eurydice that defies adequate description. It begins with a young man whose fiance is abducted by a cop dispatched from Hell. Pursuing his beloved into the jaws of Hell, the boy traverses a landscape part comic and part horrific.

The breadth and variety of these Orpheus adaptations stand as proof of the power of the story that underlies them. It's no accident that the ancient myths have endured for centuries. I believe they are the windows through which we see into our collective soul. Small wonder, then, that movies, our pre-eminent cultural window on the world, can't leave them alone for long.

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