Baltimore plays an important role in the American Masters documentary "Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive."
Edgar Allan Poe, still misunderstood after all these years.
That's the way Eric Stange sees it, and the writer/director of "Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive" says one of the primary goals of his American Masters film that premieres Monday night on PBS is to take viewers beyond what he calls the "Halloween Poe."
"What I mean by the term 'Halloween Poe' is the stereotypical or mythological Poe that exists as being a dark, creepy character right out of one of his own stories," Stange said in a Sun interview. "The conflation of Poe with the characters he has invented has been constant since the time of his death. … And at Halloween, if you go in one of these Halloween pop-up stores, you'll always find a lot of that kind of Poe stuff. That image is a staple of Halloween."
It is that time of year, after all. But what Stange finds underneath that deeply ingrained pop culture image is a much richer reality. The Poe revealed in this PBS film is a seminal literary figure in American modernism as well as a man of profound sorrow and existential loneliness. This Poe is an outsider who would not play the literary game in his professional life and could not come to terms privately with the untimely deaths of every woman he loved.
"Until I got into this, I didn't know how important he was as an editor and literary critic," Stange said. "But he was there at the center of American literature at a really formative moment. I thought he was just on the margins, a weirdo writing strange stuff. But he was in the mainstream in a very important way. "
Intellectually, Stange added, Poe was a "precursor of modernism in the way he delves into psychology, the way he would layer fear and sexuality and sort of a mixed-up sexual identity" throughout his work.
Stange has another important and personal goal for the film — to commemorate and celebrate a retired Baltimore theatrical set designer, Wallace Henry "Wally" Coberg. In 2008, Coberg called Stange up out of the blue and pitched him on making a documentary that he and a team of Baltimore colleagues had been working on about the deeper meaning of Poe's life and work.
Coberg didn't live to see the final product. He died in 2011. Stange says this film is inspired by Coberg's vision and passion for the poet, and that's why the film is dedicated to him.
The film, which opens in Baltimore in 1849 just before Poe's mysterious disappearance and death, features Tony Award winner Denis O'Hare as Poe, with Kathleen Turner as narrator and Chris Sarandon reading bits of Poe's works.
Stange chose well with the limited dollars of a PBS production. Turner's gravelly, recognizable voice establishes a serious, slightly dark, audio underpinning, while the craggy, lined face of O'Hare instantly delivers the kind of compelling visual image that's needed to help establish a biographical subject from another era instantly as a flesh-and-blood person in the minds of viewers today.
You look into O'Hare's eyes at the opening of the film and think, "Yes, this is the fevered and emotionally battered poet of death near the end of his own days on this earth."
Sarandon's rich readings, meanwhile, demand that you take the author seriously as a literary intellectual, not just a scaremeister of the Gothic genre. And yet, the readings are adroitly distilled for the attention span of TV viewers today.
"We were trying to get across the depth and seriousness of Poe's writing without boring people," Stange said. "Because, let's face it, a reading on TV can be kind of boring. So, you have to keep it short."
The success of Stange's film is the result of a lot of wise choices like the ones made in casting.
The filmmaker said he started scouting Baltimore locations in 2011 with Coberg, but they couldn't find what they needed here.
"From the very beginning, we both thought that's the way to open the film — with Poe's arrival in Baltimore in 1849. And so, we were looking for a place in Baltimore where we could actually shoot that," Stange said. "There's that great big old wharf building in Fells Point [Recreation Pier], but it was locked up and we found out it was not available. But that would have been the place to do it."
Outside of that, Stange said, "There just isn't enough of that Baltimore left. The waterfront is too built up."
Even the Edgar Allan Poe House was too small for a TV production, according to Stange, who eventually shot at Fort Independence in Boston Harbor.
The sets they built there are meant to suggest the rooms within which Poe spent his life.
"The idea in using these sets is that we had worked throughout to establish the film from Poe's point of view," he said. "And so, we thought, 'All right, if we just shoot everything in these same spaces, people will buy the idea that somehow this is the inside of Poe's mind.' And so, the space he ultimately imagines himself in is in some ways dungeon-like, although we played a lot with light there, too."
Creating the impression for viewers that they are within the mind of Poe might seem like a tall order, but O'Hare's compelling performance and the deep sense of impressionism that permeates the entire production makes the leap an easy one. For example, as viewers are told of the death of Poe's mother, Stange gives viewers the blurry visual of a young woman on a stage with her opera-gloved hand reaching toward the lens. She disappears into a kind of mist.
"That shot with the hand reaching toward the camera was meant to establish his point of view and the fact that the drama here is in Poe reflecting back on his life," Stange said. "And it is also meant to be if not a real-life recollection of Poe's because he was so young when she died, maybe a reflection of the way he would like to remember his mother."
If that's not impressionistic enough for you, wait until you see the repeated use of ink poured into water. I saw it as an invitation to Rorschach the mind of Poe.
"From the beginning, Wally and I talked about this, me wanting to create what I called imagistic shots," Stange said. "I didn't want to say impressionistic, because that seemed too arty. But it's Poe who inspires that. And I can see why all these artists for a century and a half have been inspired to do crazy things about Poe and his works. … He kind of challenges you to do stuff you haven't done before. I certainly found that in my case."
I am no fan of documentaries that use recreations. And I dislike them ever more when they mix the recreations with standard documentary talking heads and narration that are meant to be thought of as fact-based, as this film does. But Stange jumps into the deep end of the pool of impressionism from the earliest scenes, and I applaud his artistic derring-do. It feels as if he made a perfect choice to capture the mind of an artist like Poe who was looking at 19th-century American life with the eyes and sensibility of a modernist. This film is steeped in poetic license to be sure, but this is, after all, a poet the filmmaker is exploring.
Of all the choices he made, Stange said the wisest was in letting himself get infected by Coberg's desire to "set the record straight" on Poe.
"Wally wanted to make a film about Poe, but he and the team he was working with didn't have the money," Stange said. "But he kept calling me, and his passion for Poe slowly infected me."
They eventually got a $50,000 National Endowment for the Humanities grant off a proposal Coberg wrote. He and Stange worked on the film together until 2011. During that time, Coberg met someone from upstate New York on Facebook, and "after many years alone, began to fall in love," in the words of Stange. But on the very day in November of that year when his new friend finally came to visit him in Baltimore, Coberg died of a heart attack at age 63 before the two could meet, according to Stange.
On the website for the film, there's a tribute to Coberg that references the way in which both he and Poe seemed to be on the verge of new beginnings at the time of their deaths:
"Wallace (Wally) Henry Coberg, the creative vision behind 'Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive,' passed away suddenly November 18, 2011 at his home in Bolton Hill, Baltimore, the result of heart failure — his own passing eerily similar to that of his muse and subject Poe."
"Edgar Allan Poe: Buried Alive" premieres at 9 p.m. Monday on PBS.