This Guy Who Was, Like, Really Mindblowing and Amazing and Stuff
Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams
Written, directed, and produced by Darin Coelho Spring
October 5, 2018
If you have Netflix, you have access to a remarkable documentary that this review is not about. It’s called Struggle: The Life and Lost Art Of [Stanislav] Szukalski (2018), a Polish-American sculptor of astonishing genius, who escaped being one of the central figures of the twentieth century in part because of his off-putting egocentrism and in part because much of his life’s work was destroyed during the Nazi invasion of Poland. He had some problematic issues as well, but I’ll leave those for you to discover, if you follow my recommendation to the source. What is central to the documentary is that near the end of his life, the man was discovered by a group of young admirers, and sat still for many hours of interviews that captured his compelling but not-entirely-commendable personality. It also has enough of his work on hand, both sculpted and painted, to sell the premise that this is a guy whose art mattered, whose life is worth knowing about.
You will find similar attributes powering Bukowski: Born Into This (2003), about the great outsider poet and novelist Charles Bukowski, which in addition to many tastes of his work had lots of footage of Bukowski being Bukowski, for better or worse; and Dreams With Sharp Teeth (2008), a portrait of Harlan Ellison that also mixed excerpts of the prose with the sight of Harlan being Harlan, also, for better or worse.
It becomes a little harder when the artist in question has passed before one frame is committed to film. It can be done. Ken Burns, who excels in films profiling figures who died before he picked up his camera—sometimes, before he picked up his very first camera, or even his first rattle—does it with extensive use of stills and contemporary letters of the personalities under discussion. You watch his documentary on Mark Twain and you emerge feeling like you’ve met Samuel Clemens; you watch his documentary on the Roosevelts and you emerge feeling like you’ve known Teddy, Franklin, and Eleanor (and to some extent, Alice). This is the biographer’s function, making you feel like you’ve met these figures who you’ve never encountered, and—in the case of artists—selling you on the idea that these people are every bit as much worth your attention, if they didn’t have it before, as they were to their chroniclers.
This brings us to Darin Coelho Spring’s Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams (2018), a profile of the seminal poet, fantasist and important contemporary of H.P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard.
Smith is a fascinating figure. Born in 1893, beset by social anxieties and other health problems, he never ventured very far from his home town in Auburn, California, and spent much of it in a cabin with no electricity or running water. He wrote fantastic poetry, receiving extravagant praise for an early collection, but with the coming of the Great Depression turned to pulp fiction, producing dense and lyrical tales suffused with otherworldly strangeness. He produced many paintings as well, illustrating some of his work and some of Lovecraft’s; but was so shattered by the loss of his parents, and by the deaths of contemporaries Lovecraft (and to a lesser extent, Robert E. Howard), that he turned away from fiction and busied himself, for the rest of his creative life, as a recreational sculptor. His reputation endures today largely due to the efforts of anthologists like August Derleth, and re-issues over the years by publishers like Ballantine and Penguin. He is no household name, but as Harlan Ellison points out in the closing moments of this documentary, so what? His circle exists. People are still discovering him. It is clearly one of the documentary’s ambitions that you will be one of them.
And here is one of the problems. When you do a documentary about Bukowski, you are helped by the happenstance that he spent his life writing about himself, or aspects of himself; you get a sense of his character from his writing, and of his writing from exposures to his character. The same is true of Harlan, and of Twain (in and out of Ken Burns). Smith is a more oblique sell, and not just because his memory does not survive in so much as one frame of motion picture film. Hearing his poetry, which is excerpted at length, one does get a sense of the rhythm and flow of his language, and of the strangeness of the spell he cast; seeing his artwork both drawn and sculpted, you get a sense of that, as well. I, a virtual Smith virgin, and in that sense the target audience, walk away with the clear impression that he had an imagination and that he shore could write a good pome. The outlines of his life are fascinating, even if he emerges as a distant figure glimpsed in photographs, whose inner life is best expressed by the testimony of experts and enthusiasts like S.T. Joshi and Cody Goodfellow.
Too much of these talking-head sections are, alas, taken up by the straining for metaphors, for adjectives, describing the spell cast by a Clark Ashton Smith story, without ever quite capturing it. Sure, I get the impression that he knew his way around otherworldly cosmic strangeness, and I can see how precious it is to all these enthusiasts when they convey exactly how he blew their respective minds, but they ring this bell so much that other questions are abandoned. Just based on what they said, I do not know, for instance, whether Smith’s characters had adventures, whether they had personalities, whether they had romances, whether they ever had conflicts with one another, whether they ever reflected the problematic racism visible in Lovecraft or Howard, or whether those stories were just catalogs of mind-blowing oddness. That the Smith reader encountering these words may already know the answers quite well, and may be rolling eyes at the ignorance of this neophyte, is beside the point. I know I’m a neophyte. I proclaim it. The point is that these are the elements that were not quite communicated.
As the portrait of the ebb and flow of an artist’s life, Clark Ashton Smith: The Emperor of Dreams does quite well, even if it suffers from the relative remoteness of its subject. It provides a fascinating portrait of this guy who, until late in his life, was an outsider in every sense of the word, and of the relatively small footprint he left on the community where he lived. But as a hint that his fellow is worth future investigation, it falls just short of ignition. He’s on my list. But then, he was before.
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