In Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon’s Remembrance of Things to Come, a thoughtful and illuminating survey of Denis Bellon’s photo-reportage between the two world wars, the filmmakers provide a framework for the interpretation of Bellon’s artistically rendered, zeitgeist images as prescient, historical documents that, in hindsight, provide an insightful glimpse of the looming, profoundly transformative world events that would unfold at the first half of the twentieth century. However, in this subjective, often arbitrary process of contemporal assignment of the meaning of images, the intersection between logical deduction and extrapolation continues to be amorphous and untenable. In this cognitive processing of “history as prophesy”, when does documentation end and mythification begin? This ambiguity lies at the core of Isaki Lacuesta’s elegantly conceived essay film Cravan vs. Cravan on the enigma of Arthur Cravan – the legendary poet-boxer, Dadaist, writer, critic, eccentric, provocateur, editor of the notorious Left Bank cultural publication Maintenant (whose readership included such notable personalities as Ezra Pound, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein), and nephew of famed Irish playwright and novelist Oscar Wilde who, in 1918, set alone on a boat off the coast of Mexico bound for Argentina to reunite with his expectant wife, poet Mina Loy, and disappeared.
Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd in Lausanne, Switzerland, Cravan’s early life would be marked, not only by the abandonment of his father soon after his birth, but also by the family’s closely guarded silence over a quietly buried scandal involving the family’s famous uncle (Wilde’s imprisonment under homosexuality charges of gross indecency). Whether in search of a father figure, or simply fascinated by the sensation caused by the taboo circumstances that led to his uncle’s downfall and marginalization during the final years of his life, Cravan would become obsessed with the idea of him, even reporting fabricated sightings and conversations in articles that would be carried by such reputable newspapers as The New York Times. But more importantly, this potent combination of celebrity and scandal may also be seen as a catalyst to Cravan’s immersion in the avant-garde community of turn-of-the-century Paris, relishing his role as instigator, provocateur, and cultural critic who equally attracted the attention of Dadaists, Surrealists, Impressionists, Fauvists (most notably, his friendship with Kees Van Dongen), and especially the Futurists, whose aesthetic fascination with the speed and strength of mechanization not correlated favorably with the radicalism and bluntness of Cravan’s writing, but in some ways, also personified the physical ideals of industrial machinery with his ruggedly handsome, charismatic, intimidating, and complex persona as a pugilist and intellectual.
Moreover, in filming re-enactments and conducting personal interviews from the perspective of Frank Nicotra whose own unusual career trajectory as boxer turned filmmaker and writer (and occasional poet) bears more than a passing resemblance to that of Cravan, Lacuesta illustrates the often colliding interpenetration of documented reality and subjective memory, between creation and fabrication. This permeability of historical record may be seen in the controversial classification of Cravan as a painter, an attribution that, ironically, evolved from Cravan’s practice of publishing under an array of pseudonyms, specifically, in his use of the name Edouard Archinard for an article in Maintenant that links him (whether validly or not) to a series of paintings by an obscure, turn of the century artist, Edouard Archinard (a connection that is dismissed by Cravan scholar and editor, María Luisa Borrás). Similarly, this historical distortion may be seen in Cravan’s self-created celebrity, a penchant for fictionalization that is perhaps best exemplified by his instigated exhibition match in Barcelona with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack “Galveston Giant” Johnson (who, then plagued in America by controversy over his interracial relationships, sought refuge in France shortly after his second marriage), claiming several nebulous and unverifiable titles across Europe (including a purported match with an Olympic champion in Greece) in order to position himself as a valid contender. Sustained in the ring for six rounds only by Johnson himself who had consciously tried to prolong the fight as requested by the event’s sponsors, Cravan was easily overpowered by the heavyweight champion, a defeat that would inevitably punctuate Cravan’s departure from Europe and migration to New York City, once again turning to his cultivated associations with the European avant-gardists – a community increasingly in self-imposed exile from the Great War – this time, hosted by famed artist Marcel Duchamp (that led to his fateful encounter with Futurist muse and poet, Mina Loy).
Incorporating elements of biographic documentary, historical re-enactment, and essay film, Cravan vs. Cravan, too, invariably serves to reinforce the subject’s inexhaustible sense of irreconcilable contradiction and self re-invention, in essence, orchestrating an elaborate semblance of real-life performance art that enabled – and continues to inspire – the very transfiguration of personal memory to public mythology. Concluding with the blurry, disintegrating archived footage of Cravan in the midst of his workout – perhaps for a boxing match – unfolding in slow speed, the degraded image encapsulates not only the elusiveness of Cravan’s ephemeral (and often veiled) persona, but also the tenuous, often indefinable bounds that exist between the contextualization of a historical image and its signification.
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