Arthur Cravan, the ‘boxer/poet’, may be a footnote in the annals of the Parisian and New York art scenes of the early twentieth century, but his story is one of the more intriguing – sometimes the best material sinks to the bottom (of the page).
Born Fabian Avenarius Lloyd, in provincial Switzerland, Cravan ‘made his name’ in Paris as a dandy, a drinker, a critic, and all round provocateur. Inspired, or exalted, by the knowledge he was the nephew of Oscar Wilde, he sought sensation and scandal and turned most things into a fist fight, at which he excelled. His writing, expansive and opinionated, was less regarded than his exploits; his greatest creation, as historian Charles Nicholl puts it, was himself.
‘Cravan vs Cravan‘, Isaki Lecuesta’s 2002 documentary, participates in this game of self-mythologizing, treating Cravan as a kind of fiction, historical, but elusive, a figment of other people’s desires (so much so, there are moments when you fear it might be a hoax). One of those people is Frank Nicostra, an ex-boxer turned writer, who seems totally absorbed by his ‘identity’ with Cravan, the boxer and poet. Lecuesta builds his film around Nicostra: using him as narrator, interviewer, stand-in, and possibly, a patsy.
“This is the story of a ghost. This is my story,” intones Nicostra over a brooding, nocturnal image of the sea and then we find him standing apart, as if unseen, at an art gallery reception. Frank Nicostra as the ghost of Arthur Cravan eavesdropping on the chattering classes picking over his remains? The idea is contrived, tenuous, but it gives a different spin to the trail of photographs, sites of interest, and testimony from historians and enthusiasts. For what emerges is a portrait of a man (Cravan) with a restless appetite for life, aggressive, voracious, brutal. Full of bravado. Protean and contradictory; elusive, perhaps, but not enigmatic and certainly not a ghost.
Or is Frank Nicostra the ghost, the shadow, pale and admiring, of a man whose way of living inspired Dadaists, Surrealists, and a modernist poet?
The title of the film seems to pit the two men against each other. Outside the ring, it would have been no contest. Nicostra was a European champion, but in the story of Arthur Cravan, he is less than a footnote.
[An ex-boxer turned investigator on the trail of a rogue whose fate increasingly resembles his own: now that’s a nice noirish premise. Angel Heart meets Out of the Past?]