By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
“Some people who don’t know in advance don’t recognize me at all,” he chuckles. “I had my voice dubbed by an actress. I’d never try with my own.”
I’ve just had the pleasure of tea and a showing of Harrington’s latest on a large TV in his bedroom. As most of Usher’s interiors were shot in his art nouveau–furnished home in the Hollywood Hills, I experience a twinge of déjà vu as we rise and make our way to the library: The demon incubus of Henry Fuseli’s “The Nightmare” on the wall observes our departure just as it greeted a visitor to Roderick Usher’s house in the film.
In the library, surrounded by antiques, reproductions of Bouguereau paintings, and a collection of Aleister Crowley’s works under glass, we discuss Usher on the eve of the film’s recent showing at Venice’s Sponto Gallery. A thick air of exhausted decadence hangs between us, and indeed suffuses the entire home. With its leaf-strewn courtyard in front and weathered stone pool out back, the house of Harrington has a faded grandeur to it, the sort of place you’d find some Evelyn Waugh hero lounging about, or perhaps Poe himself if you transported him to 20th-century Hollywood and put a few film credits under his belt.
“That was not an afterthought — playing Madeline,” says Harrington, greenish-hazel eyes staring out of his round noggin. “My concept of the story is that they’re twins. You can’t say they’re twins and have someone who looks totally different.”
Harrington’s a legendary Hollywood character, known for horror films that defy the genre, like the moody, introspective Night Tide starring a young Dennis Hopper as a sailor who falls for a sea monster, or the wickedly funny What’s the Matter With Helen? in which Debbie Reynolds and Shelley Winters play a pair of hapless murderesses. He gave John Savage’s career a boost in The Killing Kind, and did the same for James Caan in Games. He ran in an arty circle that included Gore Vidal, Anaïs Nin and Kenneth Anger, who used him as an actor in his celluloid ode to Dionysus, Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome.
Harrington’s previous film was 1985’s Mata Hari, starring Sylvia Kristel as the oversexed WWI spy. But the directing bug never says die, so Harrington has returned with this small gem, one that’s true to the Poe story while updating it to present day. In an added twist, Harrington plays Roderick as an effete Poe-like poet with a pet rottweiler named Lucifer, a yen for gin, and a bizarre obsession with his ailing sister. It helps that with a fake mustache Harrington actually resembles Poe.
I ask if his sexuality informs his filmmaking, referring to the cross-dressing stint I just viewed. Harrington doesn’t seem bothered by the query. His answer is simultaneously suggestive and elusive.
“I don’t believe in outing people, and I’ve never made a public statement about that. A person’s sexuality is their own business. But in general male artists who have a female component to their work have a great sensibility in the handling of women.”
His normally genteel voice does ruffle a bit, however, when it comes to the subject of getting Ushershown in the States. Although Europe has been especially welcoming, with screenings at film festivals in Paris, Munich, Turin and one this coming fall in the Spanish city of Sitges, film fests here have mostly given him the cold shoulder. I can only ascribe it to ageism, since Usher’s probably better than most of what comes out of those indie breeding grounds. Lack of interest doesn’t seem likely either: Sponto Gallery’s tiny space was filled to bursting with Harrington fans when Usher showed there as part of a double bill that included Night Tide.It was the second screening in their series “7 Dudley Cinemas,” so-called because the gallery is at 7 Dudley Avenue.Both films were cheered, and Harrington seemed delighted as he enjoyed a glass of white wine with his huzzahs.
“My whole career was based on the idea of something that looked commercial enough to get made, but would be what I wanted to do,” he says in the library, as I nurse my tea’s remnants. “If I’d been smart, at some point, I would have forgotten all that and made a film where the sole goal is commerce. Then I could’ve coasted for a long time. But I never tried.”
One overcast day a few weeks ago, my kids and I went to Long Beach’s El Dorado Nature Center for the Simple Living Festival (because nowadays sanity has to have its own trade show). The first booth I visited had been set up by a young couple who were displaying “Sustainable Cabinetry” — handsome chests of drawers whose particle boards were pressed from materials like wheat, newspaper, sunflower-seed shells or husks of bamboo. (With your head all the way in the drawer, you could really lose yourself in the fragrance. But when you came back to yourself, people were staring.) I felt greedy for these dressers. All a man with a mortgage really wants in the way of a countercultural statement is a secret treasure he can glance at in the house. “Try to guess what this is made from!” I collared my oldest son beside the bamboo dresser. I was elated near tears about this self-righteous teaching moment, mourning all the trees and forests his generation would never know.