For my first ever movie review I'd like to start with the little-known visual masterpiece (and one of my all-time favorite flicks) BLACK CANVAS from 1976, a movie whose history is nearly as dark as its contents.
The film opens onto a completely black screen. Ambient, echoing sounds give the feeling of vastness and isolation. You hear a man wake with a start and call out into the emptiness. His calls fade away unanswered into the void. There is no color or definition save for the silhouette of a man in a suit and the natural graininess of the film. All is darkness. With every step the man takes, a faint glow appears on the ground and lingers as he walks on, slowly fading as he continues. The only visible things are the objects and surfaces the protagonist touches. They glow in an otherworldly light before eventually being engulfed in blackness.
This trick is intended to mimic the helpless uncertainty of total blindness. We see by touch, and as our memory of the exact positions of things fade, so do the objects onscreen.
Our unnamed silhouette of a man wanders through long corridors seeking escape, finding still more and more corridors. The effect is jarring. A few minutes into the film a distinct sense of helplessness pervades the mind. The longer he travels, the more panic sets in. It gets to be wildly discomforting, and before it can be too much to bear, or lose its effect, a glimmer of hope appears in the form of dim flickering torchlight.
The man searches for a way to it maddeningly as he stumbles in and out of disjointed hallways. He at last reaches it, but is separated from its source by iron bars. The light is coming from a small lantern held by a shadowy cloaked figure who stops before the bars. The man shouts for help, yet the figure is unsympathetic. It mutters a few noncommittal words before slowly pacing away into the distance. Alone again, the man resumes his quest for freedom. Foreboding noises steadily grow from behind him, forcing him to move more quickly. He looks for his pursuer and is greeted only by endless blackness.
This is one of my favorite parts of the movie because although the main character sees nothing, the audience is shown glimpses of terrifying and horrible monsters sliding through the background. This is executed beautifully as the man gets fed up of running and doubts there is anything behind him at all. I confess I cringed and whispered pointlessly to him to keep going as he shouted out for whatever was behind him to show itself.
Ultimately, he does escape from the catacombs via a staircase into a moonlit garden of forking paths. He chooses one and follows it down. At one point. he is able to see across to some of the other paths and notices cloaked figures like the one before. They are carrying lanterns and leading others down the trails. The path ends at the top of a sheer cliff. He is forced forward as monsters emerge form the shadows behind and he decides to jump rather than let them have him. The film ends with our protagonist tumbling into darkness.
This movie clearly draws inspiration from copious mythological sources. Thousands of years ago, people did not believe in heaven and hell. Instead, they believed in a single underworld where all souls went after death. The stone catacombs lined with coffins is showing us that this is a place of death and only the dead dwell here. The setting is cavernous and dark so even before we see the protagonist climb the stairs out, we already get the sense he is deep underground.
In Plato's Phaedo, Socrates states that philosophy is a purification process. Those who cling to worldly pleasures are intrinsically bound to the material world, inexorably attached to their tombs, and dwell in a half-place before true death. Not only that, but he goes on to say that the after-world must be hard to navigate and that guides must be needed to traverse it. He explains that souls who have committed crimes against their fellow man are denied these guides and must wander aimlessly in torment through the after-world until they are at last reborn.
This last sentiment changes the dark, sad finale into a hope-filled one. He is not falling into destruction or torment, but is instead being reborn here on Earth. He has escaped and found life once more!
Other parallels include the after-world guides are seen in such examples as the Boatman, the Valkyries, and Dante's Virgil which lead me to believe with ever more conviction that this is a story of a dead soul navigating the afterlife and being reborn.
Moreover, there are more references both ancient and modern hidden throughout the film suggesting to me that these inferences are not accidental, but planned. The several appearances of twin ravens hearken back to Huginn and Muginn. The function of the pursuant beasts to The Divine Comedie. The garden of forking paths to a lesser-known philosophical story of the same name. And finally the title of the film itself is a reference to the well-known series of painting that was ridiculed at first only to become recognized as great works of art upon closer inspection. I am speaking of Ad Reinhardt's "Black" or "Ultimate" paintings.
Even with all of my repeated viewings, I am sure there is even more woven into this black tale that I have overlooked. It is absolutely overflowing with symbolism and references. Inscriptions carved into the stone walls of the underground library are replications of passages found in the Voynich Manuscript, hinting at otherworldly origins to legendary, unreadable 15th century codex. The faces of the demons that appear in the background briefly are reminiscent of Japanese legends that are steeped in meaning, too. I believe every aspect of this film was planned out and executed perfectly. It is a shame it never received the recognition it so rightly deserves.
And now for a brief look into the dark history of this black film. The original reels were found buried in a warehouse in Los Angeles after a fire destroyed the building. Only the film's title, date, and director (George Marten) were printed on it.
It was shown at a few small art galleries but was largely misunderstood and was not well received. It was put back in storage where another fire ultimately destroyed it, but not before (miraculously) it was transferred to videotape. Copies of the tape were made and a few circulated around film schools, cult movie enthusiasts, and collectors. Still, it never quite gained a large following. Most of the tapes were lost or destroyed in the ensuing years, but at least one copy survived and ended up being uploaded to a website of the same name. This is where I first viewed it. I watched it religiously until it was finally taken down. The ownership of the domain expired and it brought you to one of those ads saying it was available and asking if you would like to purchase it.
I did some research and found out the former owner of the domain died unexpectedly at the age of 34, three years prior to the site being taken down. I regretfully have not seen it since. Every once in a while I do a search for it in hopes it will pop up again, yet all I've found thus-far was an old forum in which users talked about its history and rumors of curses for anyone who owns it. I can't quite write them off so easily as this film seems dead-set on destroying itself. Either way, if you get the chance to see it, I highly recommend it, curses be damned!