Eddie Wilson finds Rimbaud
The major action of Martin Davidson's film Eddie and the Cruisers concerns an investigative reporter's effort to link the disappearance of Eddie Wilson, the lead singer of the rock group "Eddie and the Cruisers," to Arthur Rimbaud, the 19th century French poet. Eddie's swan song is a rejected before-its-time "concept" album entitled A Season in Hell which is also the title of Rimbaud's adieu to poetry. The outward story of the film concerns the missing tape of "A Season in Hell," but the major thrust focuses on the effect of the lead singer on the members of his band some 20 years after his almost certain disappearance and death. This paper links Rimbaud and Eddie Wilson through images and interpretations of nostalgia in Martin Davidson's film and Rimbaud's poetry, especially The Drunken Boat, A Season in Hell, and in several Illuminations, thereby giving more insight on the effect Eddie had on his entourage in the film and Rimbaud's effect on modern writers, readers, and moviegoers. The film's investigative reporter, Maggie Foley, uses Rimbaud as a "hook" to Eddie Wilson in order to sell more copies of Media Magazine to its nostalgia crazed 1980's public some 20 years after the legend's disappearance. My goal as a teacher is to hook this film to Rimbaud, other French symbolists, and other poets like Wordsworth to attract more students of literature. This paper will compare Rimbaud's poetic quest with that of the rock artist, show how the rock artist positively and negatively affects his group, mention some influencing of Rimbaud on modern readers, and conclude with a positive statement on teaching.
1. Arthur and Eddie
A preliminary comparison of Rimbaud's poetic quest with that of the rock artist will prepare viewers to see how the film works and point to Eddie's influence on his band and public. At the start of the film, viewers learn that Eddie's car plunged into the Raritan River shortly after a record studio rejected his "concept" album, A Season in Hell. The image of drowning recalls The Drunken Boat [Le bateau ivre] when the boat-poet can no longer proceed as a boat or visionary. The drunken boat cries, "O let my keel burst! O let me go to the sea !" [O que ma quille éclate! O que j'aille à la mer!" (Fowlie, Rimbaud, Works 118-119). Then the seer longs for childhood and a different safer type of boat and water:
If I want a water of Europe, it is the black
Cold puddle where in the sweet smelling twilight
A squatting child full of sadness releases
A boat as fragile as a May butterfly.
Si je désire une eau d'Europe, c'est la flâche,
Noire et froide où vers le crépuscule embaumé
Un enfant accroupi plein de tristesses, lâche
Un bateau frêle comme un papillon de mai.
The theme of childhood is associated with escape and failure since the visionary longs for a return after a brief magical mystery tour.
In the first flashback of the film, spectators witness how Frank Ridgeway becomes Eddie Wilson's songwriter when he suggests that Eddie use a cesura, and gives Eddie's band a concrete example from the preface of A Season in Hell.
Frank: One evening I took beauty in my arms. And I thought her bitter. And I insulted her.
Eddie: Sounds like shit, right ?
Frank: Now with the cesura. One evening I took beauty in my arms. - And I thought her bitter. - And I insulted her.
Eddie: Now that's got class! Hey kid, you can stay.
In the preface of "A Season in Hell," the poet rebels against childhood's traditional notion of poetry and remembers that the problems started when the poet lost his "treasure." Wallace Fowlie interprets "treasure" as the innocence that Rimbaud tracks down in all his poetic experience (Critical Study, 89). At the end of the section "Bad Blood" [Mauvais Sang] in "A Season in Hell," the treasure becomes the "extent of my innocence" (91). In his critique of Rimbaud, Fowlie concludes that, "Art is a retrogression in time, an effort, visible in countless signal instances, to recapture childhood and its oneness with the universe (89). In the "Illumination" "Dawn" ["Aube"], the poet recalls when he held the summer dawn in his arms, removed her veils, and chased her:
--- I wrapped her in all her veils and felt something of the immensity of her body. Dawn and the child collapsed at the edge of the wood.
On waking, it was midday.
--- Je l'ai entourée avec ses voiles amassées, et j'ai senti un peu son immense corps. L'aube et l'enfant tombèrent au bas du bois.
Au reveil il était midi.
(Fowlie, Works 214-215)
Fowlie experiences this poem as one of quest and discovery, a parable of childhood whose greatest moments are so close to absolute that they cannot be recalled at will. The child's first games, like hide-and-seek with the dawn, are his first poems. To catch dawn is to end the game and wake up in the real world - noon. In later games, which are the real poems, he reenacts the same stories by means of images. Both the games and the images have their origins in the darkest region of the child's being and memory (Critical Study 136-137). To extend this interpretation, if the awakening of the child brings an end to the game, a return to the real world, then every poem or work of art is also a dream, which, upon completion, returns the reader-spectator to everyday life. This extension sheds light on Eddie's desires when, on the beach, and at dawn, he expresses his goals to his new songwriter Frank Ridgeway:
I want songs that echo. The stuff we're doing now is like bed sheets. Spread em, soil em, ship em out to laundry. Our songs - I like to fold ourselves up in them forever.
Eddie wants to gain immortality in his songs with the idea that he can wrap himself up in each dream and never wake up. This dream image helps us experience the biggest hit in the film, "On the Dark Side:"
The dark side is comin nothin is real
She'll never know just how I feel.
Out of a shadow she comes like a dream,
Makes me feel crazy makes me feel so mean.
Nothin gona save me from a love that's blind
Slip to the dark side across our line.
Is the dark side the dream world, the only space where one can possess this love?
The desire for immortality and the impossible in poetry is what defeats both Eddie and Rimbaud. After the rejection of his "Season in Hell", Eddie, with his girlfriend JoAnne Carlino, flee to his favorite childhood place, a junkyard called "Palace Depression." The old man who was overseer and father figure for Eddie was a dreamer who believed that one could build a castle out of junk. Wilson places himself in the same category when he toasts his Depressed Palace, "Her we are guys, Edsels, Norges, Dumonts, and Eddie Wilson! Alone at last! Here's to nothing fellas!" The old man and Eddie's wish to build a castle out of a pile of junk is treated in the section "Alchemy of the Word" in à Season in Hell." Fowlie defines poetry as the capture of the trivial and commonplace which in the alchemy of the poetic word emerge changed and significant. After the derangement of the senses, poetry is the creation of a new universe from sources so humble and trite that no one save the poet himself could remember them (Critical Study 102). Nathaniel Wing assesses "Alchemy of the Word" as the dilemma of poetics which seek an impossible reference (38). With the hallucination of words, Rimbaud tries to explain his visions of childhood when:
I saw quite frankly a mosque in place of a factory, a school of drummers made up of angels, carriages on roads in the sky, a parlor at the bottom of the lake; monsters, mysteries...
je voyais très franchement une mosquée à la place d'une usine, une école de tambours faite par les anges, des calèches sur les routes du ciel, un salon au fond d'un lac; les monstres, les mystères...
According to Wing, the role of hallucination is to breech the barrier between the hostile material world and the protagonist's unconscious (78). Thus, the poet loses heart when his words cannot transform the idea, when he cannot make a castle out of a pile of junk. Just as nostalgia is bittersweet; sweet for the memory, bitter because it is impossible to reach physically, the absolute of poetry is grandiose in its quest, heartbreaking in its failure. "Palace Depression" is the conflicting place that Eddie uses to recall his childhood, the bittersweet treasure which finally causes Eddie to sell out his dream.
image of Eddie toasting "nothing" in his "palace" recalls
Rimbaud's "Illumination" "Sale" ["Solde"]
in which he puts up for sale:
what the Jews have not sold, what nobility and crime have not enjoyed... what time and science need not recognize; Revised voices: the brotherly awakening of all choral and orchestral power and their immediate application; the unique opportunity of freeing our senses! Works(252-255)
ce que les Juifs n'ont pas vendu, ce que noblese ni crime n'ont goûté... ce que le temps ni la science n'ont pas à reconnaître... Les Voix reconstituées; l'éveil fraternel de toutes les énergies chorales et orchestrales et leurs applications instantanées; l'occasion unique de dégager nos sens!
Nathaniel Wing reads this "Illumination" as the liquidation of "voyance," where we have the ironic image of the visionary poet as a hawker selling out a poetic program no longer considered valid. It is a negative "art poétique" which delates the poet's aspirations and inventions of a new poetic language (32-38). In the flashback failure sequence at Satin Records Studio Eddie Wilson answers guitarist Sal Amato's plea for giving the public what they want, saying that if you cannot be great, there is no sense in playing music again. The conflicting codes ofvisionary poetics up for commercial sale in Rimbaud's "Sale" appear in Eddie and the Cruisers' "Season in Hell," except here, their idea is not at all up for sale. At the Palace Depression when Eddie compares himself to the Norge refrigerators and the Dumont televisions, he places his music in the same conflict. In "Alchemy of the Word," Rimbaud echoes this impossible quest, creating beauty out of the ordinary, the infinite with the finite, seasons with castles:
O Seasons, O Castles!
What soul is without faults? (200-201)
Ô Saisons, O Chateaux!
Quel âme est sans défauts?
In Davidson's film, this dilemma is summed up in the two words of Eddie's treasure, "Palace Depression."
2. Sending the Genie on His Way
James Lawler's interpretation of Rimbaud's "Illumination" "Genie" [Génie] will help us experience more fully Eddie's influence on his entourage. Lawler interprets Genie not as an alter ego of the poet, but a desire to be God or poetic language(97). The poet of "Genie" says that "We must hail him, see him, and send him away"(Works 256-257). ["Il faut le héler, le voir et le renvoyer."] God, or poetic language, must be hailed and recognized as the source of meaning and miracle, but also distanced. Lawler explains:
We must see his glory, but acknowledge it as eternal and separate, and transcending our particular needs. In fact, he must be like the language of the poem, that is humanly meaningful and yet strange, near and yet unsoundable. The paradox of sending him further ahead is the means we have of preserving the nature of love, so that it remains both "affection égoïste" and "passion pour lui." (97)
If we try to possess love, God, poetic language, or the absolute, we lose it. Ideal truth by definition is stagnant. Rimbaud sees the paradox and cannot continue to write, but he advises us to go the Genie's way, "To follow his eyes, his breathing, his body, his day" (Works 256-257). [Suivre ses vues, ses souffles, son corps, son jour."]
If we follow Eddie as the Genie, we will experience the film better, and have another, if not deeper, understanding of Rimbaud's concept, "The I is the Other" [Je est un autre]. The "other" is Eddie and the film functions to show Eddie's effects on his band: mainly Frank Ridgeway the songwriter; with minor attention to JoAnne Carlino, back-up singer, Sal Amato, guitarist, Kenny Hopkins, drummer, and Doc Robbins, manager.
Following Maggie Foley's investigative report on Eddie Wilson, some 20 years after his death, viewers see Eddie in a series of 7 flashbacks. To focus on Eddie's importance to the group, Davidson usually places Eddie in the center of the frame, or at least, in the center of the viewers' perception, with the other characters, much of the time, on the edge of the frame. The major character in the present is Frank Ridgeway, now an English teacher. We witness most of the past through his eyes, with flashbacks being tipped off by a zoom to a close-up of his face.
In the first flashback, Frank is at his desk after school and recalls how he landed the job with Eddie in a bar on the Jersey shore. In this "rehearsal-cesura" sequence, no one receives the camera's attention like Eddie. We see him in the center, from the right side, the left side (not the dark side), the back, constantly circling with the last shot, a close-up of eddie's face, when he tells the cesura expert Frank, that he can stay. Contrary to Wilson at center frame is the cut to the present with Maggie interviewing Frank, with both characters on the edge of the frame. Frank refuses to talk about the past, and likewise in the next sequence with Doc Robbins, the group's booking agent turned deejay, both he and Doc are on the edge of the frame as they talk, and as Frank refuses Doc's idea of reforming the group to pursue a career, since the Group's records are selling again the the present nostalgia craze.
In the second flashback, seen through Frank, again with the tip-off camera zoom to Frank's eyes, viewers hear JoAnne and Frank's first conversation about Rimbaud. Both are on the edge of the frame, but when the scene switches to the beach, we see Eddie front-on as he explains his echo poetics to Frank. Eddie's significance is further cinematically enforced as he continues to talk from the past to Frank in the present lying in his bed and smoking.
The set-up for the third flashback is a Holiday Inn where Maggie interviews Frank, while Sal Amato and his present day Cruiser impersonators are on stage profiting from the nostalgic interest in Eddie. After the same zoom to Frank's face, the flash takes us back from the impersonator's version of "The Dark Side" to the real Eddie Wilson's rock and roll creation of the song from Frank's rather sober lyrics. On a roof top overlooking the ocean, Eddie commands the attention of the camera, and the whole group, as he turns "Dark Side" from an off-stage minor poem to a center stage performance, from Apollo to Dionysus, from words to music. The camera then switches from the real past to nostalgic past as Sal takes his present day audience down memory lane with corny lines like "sand in your shoes, ants in your pants, secret weapon in the wallet, magic of the first time, slow dancing, submarine races, hickies, etc," which leads to another flashback, either through Frank or Sal's eyes, to the sequence of hits "Wild Summer Nights" and "Tender Years," which are nostalgic even from the point of view of their actual time. Eddie is always center stage, but upon hearing these songs, I, a moviegoer and Jersey guy, enjoyed this scene as I reminiced about my tender years, echoing the lyrics: "summer loves, beach romance, magic in the night, filled with dreams, lost in never-never land;" and pleaded along with the singer for the tender years to stay. Upon reflection, I realize that these were not the tender years I lived, but the tender years I wished or invented to have lived, not the authentic past. Sal earns his living on Eddie Wilson nostalgia and not on any real past of his own, and he does have talent, seen in Frank's eyes as he is surprised at the quality of Sal's voice. After the set, Sal explains his bitterness to Frank about the tapes of "Season in Hell." Again, the camera situates them on the edge of the frame as Sal laments, "Guys like you and me, they strike oil in your garden and all they find is dead tomatoes." Sal seems to be a loser who was and is totally dependant on Eddie and jealous and angry with him, his one shot at stardom.
In the following concert flashback at a rich, small college, Eddie is at the height of his career, an anti-intellectual who ridicules the rich college students, and yet who is idolized by them as he incites them to Dionysian frenzy. The backdrop sign reads "Spring Madness" as the camera focuses on Eddie, side to side, up and down, and close-up dead center. We recognize this sequence from the beginning of the film, when we thought we were seeing a live performance, but only to be fooled by being in a documentary video room of Maggie's magazine. After this flashback, Frank explains to Maggie that he stopped writing because when Eddie died there was no more music.
The final two flashbacks come, not from Frank, but through Kenny, the drummer, and JoAnne, the back-up singer who give Frank a better view of the past than he can give himself. When he meets Kenny on the Atlantic City Boardwalk, a curious cinematic effect occurs. We see Kenny and Frank conversing and walking along the boardwalk from left to right, with the sea in the background, and then with almost no warning, we see them walking right to left, with the sea again in the background. Is this a 180 degree violation where the camera crossed the 180 degree line without warning to disorient the viewer? Usually these cinema violations have a purpose. But, on a closer viewing, we see the two at the start of the sequence walking in front of a glass building. Therefore we have a mirror image of them walking left to right. As the camera moved right to left, we leave the mirror image and pick up the two men again, and maybe with a little more pan, 130 degrees in all, we see them walking right to left against the sea, which is really the way they were heading in the first place. This camera trick has symbolic importance, because Kenny is about to reveal to Frank more truth about the past, and this time not subjective impressionistic truth. Realist Kenny Hopkins tells Frank to grow up when it comes to nostalgia, not to think of just the good times, but the whole story. Up until now, we have seen the past nostalgically through Frank and Sal's eyes. Through Kenny and JoAnne's realist eyes, Frank will receive a clearer vision. Our fir perceptions can deceive us, as the camera trick proves. What appears as a full circle of truth may only be half-true. Kenny's retrogression reveals the truth about saxophonist Wendell Newton's heart attack, which, in fact, was caused by a drug overdose, or was a suicide. I wish Davidson would have spent some more time on Wendell's story, but he uses his death-suicide at the symbolic "Ebb Tide Motel" to set the tone for Eddie Wilson's poetic suicide in the Raritan River. From Wendell Newton's death scene, the camera cuts to Eddie Wilson who leaves the stage unable to perform "Tender Years." His interest in entertainment is receding partially due to the Ebb Tide Motel tragedy. This is the last time we see Eddie on stage; the final flashback at the Palace Depression is his formal adieu to Rock and Roll. JoAnne and Frank, however, are ready to accept reality, and send Eddie on his way, as they hand the missing tapes of "A Season in Hell" to Doc whose success dreams are tied up with Eddie. But, JoAnne and Frank are ready to go a different way, as in the words of Rimbaud's poet to the Genie, "Greet him, see him, and send him away."
3. Real History vs TV Hipe
The film ends with Eddie framed in the center singing "Dark Side," but we soon see that this is a video tape of Maggie's show on Eddie and his Cruisers. Maggie gives the audience in the film, not us the real viewers, the nostalgic hype on Eddie:
The innocence of the 50s was over, and so was rock and roll as we knew it. We were entering a new age [camera close-up of Maggie at the bridge of Eddie's accident], an age of confusion, an age of passion, of commitment. Eddie Wilson saw it coming [He did?]. "A Season in Hell" was a total innovation for its time. It was a signal of greatness yet to come. Eddie Wilson was a step ahead of us and I don't think we caught up with him yet. Eddie's been dead for almost 18 years, but his music is as alive today as the day he recorded it. For me and for everyone who listens to music, Eddie Wilson lives and always will.
This corny speech, corny because it is clichéd and inconsistant with Eddie's words or personality, is accompanied by black and white photographs of Eddie and his band, framed much the same way as the flashbacks, until the final image of an extreme close-up, black and white, of Eddie's face, and especially his eyes. The image is panned immediately to the real Eddie Wilson on the street looking through the video store window at Maggie's show. Maggie's show is over, and so is the trip down nostalgia lane. The only people left are the real Eddie Wilson, not center frame anymore, and we the viewers. It is, as the first words of the "Adieu" section of Rimbaud's "Season in Hell," "Autumn already." [Automme déjà]. Our season with Eddie and the Cruisers is over and we have to go back to the everyday world. Moviegoers have had a more intimate look at Eddie and know that it is not perhaps the rejection of the album that causes his suicidal plunge, but the arrival at the end of his illusions of being great. The last image of maggie's Eddie is his eyes. The last image of Rimbaud's poem "Vowels" is "O! Omega, violet ray of the eyes" (Works 121) [O! Oméga, rayon violet de Ses Yeux."]. Fowlie, in his own poetic way, teaches us that "Rimbaud was always moving toward the final vowel, toward the O of Omega which would be the end of illusions, the moment when he would slay the poet in himself" (Critical Study 107). The only scene which treats Eddie in a non-flashback is the finale where he moves out of the center frame down the street and leaves us in silence. Is this silence the strategic pause that Frank demonstrated with Rimbaud's preface of "A Season in Hell"? Or, as Eddie joked in that scene, "Yeah! My way with the caesarian," this silence can be the birth of Eddie's poetry-music to his public, by his life being cut short. The pun on cesura and Caesarian is indicative of the cinema art itself as it cuts from past to present to past to give us different manners of viewing nostalgia, and how to integrate it with the present. The cutting of past to present shows the effects of Eddie's genius on the various members of his group in a manner more immediate than that of chronology. It also points to Rimaud's influence on our age.
4. Following Rimbaud
While Rimbaud may think of himself incapable of reaching the absolute in poetry, he does inspire many artists to continue in his steps: Claudel, Cocteau, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan, and the latest, that I learned, Françoise Sagan, who, after reading Rimbaud's "Aube" marveled that someone had the genius to write it. For her, it does not matter if God exists, or if she can write anything similar. What matters is that she has to run in the same direction (146-147). She adds that the "Illuminations" always gives her the impression that there is a fire somewhere, and that she has to put it out with something written. Rimbaud gives her the desire to be a writer, not dependant on him, but to continue in his vein to capture beauty on earth. She says, "In short, I discovered that morning [when she first read Rimbaud] what I liked and what I was going to like above all for the rest of my existence" (146-147) [Bref, je découvrais ce matin-là ce que j'aimais et allait aimer par dessus tout pour le reste de mon existence."]. That's the way I feel about French literature and the need to have someone to teach it to.
In Frank's first scene in the film, we see him in front of his class teaching "Tintern Abbey:"
And so I dared to hope,
Though changed, no doubt, from what I was when first
I came among these hills; when like a roe
I bounded o'er the mountains, by the sides
Of the deep rivers, and the lonely streams,
Wherever nature lead: more like a man
Flying from something that he dreads than one
Who sought the thing he loved....
Is nostalgia escape, or resurrection of memory? Rimbaud stops writing poetry, Eddie Wilson runs out on his friends and public, but I have a feeling that Frank Ridgeway, the teacher, will take the rest of his weekend cesura to think about how to preserve, experience, and illuminate poets' dreams, and be back in the classroom on Monday to continue his lesson by asking students again, "So, What's Wordsworth getting at?"
Davidson, Martin, Dir. Eddie and the Cruisers 1986.
________. Rimbaud: A Critical Study. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1967.
Lawler, James. The Language of French Symbolism. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1969.
Sagan, Françoise. Avec mon meilleur souvenir. Paris: Gallimard-Folio, 1984.
Wing, Nathaniel. Present Appearances: Aspects of Poetic Structure in Rimbaud's "Illuminations." Mississippi: U of Mississippi P, 1974.