Wednesday, May 27, 2015

movies and poetry

movies have always been a part of my life.  i can recall the summer of 1977, which was dominated by a movie called Star Wars.  the lines of people to see this film were astonishing. i had no idea what an impact it would have, both the movie and the response it provoked among the movie-going -- that is, nearly everyone -- public.  even today as i write this you can find dozens of fan magazines and internet sites devoted to the  Star Wars franchise.  even its creator, george lucas, recently had his face on the cover of Time magazine and was interviewed by bill moyers about the spirituality of jedi knights.  i wouldn't be suprised to find a book called The Tao of Yoda.  anyway, that summer i stood with my brothers in broiling heat along a wall in the parking lot of the century cinemas, which, when i think about it, was probably one of the first multiplexes in the sacramento area, for over four hours to see this space opera.  i remember that breath-taking scene after the movie opened when the camera panned to the red planet tatooine.  then the evil empire's star destroyer took what seemed like an eternity, for a ten-year-old boy, to pass overhead.  there are much better movies, of course, but Star Wars is such that it became more than a movie.  it was an Event.

such is the power of movies.  it would seem all the arts of this past century were influenced in some form by cinema.  and no one is more influenced, i would argue, than writers, especially poets.  ever since eliot was working on a manuscript tentatively titled, 'He Do the Police in Many Voices,' poets have styled grammar into montage, slo-mo, and jump-cut techniques splicing image into image, from High Modernism down to our own Post-Postmodernism (or whatever you'd like to call contemporary writers) that is influenced by cinema.  i think of john ashbery as being an example of this, as well as a poet directly opposite of ashbery, thom gunn.

so why is it so difficult to find a good movie about poets and poetry?  it would seem movies would be as obsessed with poets as poets are obsessed with movies since characters are, as often as not, loners bent on some kind of mission, kind of like writers.  for example, the hard-boiled detectives in film noir are sort of like poets since both are loners who work in mediums that underwrite the gritty and grotesque, as well as the sublime.  working in grammar will lead one to very dark places, and this journey is usually taken alone.  it is the same with the grim detectives of film noir.

i could go on and on, but i want to skim over cliche, or stereotypes, to wonder out loud why there is a scarcity of good movies about writers at work in the craft of poetry.  there are movies about poets, such as the recent film about verlaine and rimbaud called Total Eclipse, but the seldom work well for the poets are often shown as not-too-distant cousins of the families you find on the jerry springer show.  i mean, a movie about a poet will more likely be about his/her dysfunctional life than about the working life of a writer.  yet there have been movies about other artists, painters and musicians, that are inspiring, or at least, decent.  Basquiat was a quiet movie about a so-so artist with a major drug habit, and we needn't look too far to find the life of mozart in the film Amadeus with its bitter rivalries and soaring music as a triumph of filmmaking.  so come Hollywood is unable to dramatize the working writer?

perhaps the problem is not the writer-as-artist but that writing is an interior process, a process fiendishly difficult to film.  in her Nobel lecture, polish poet wislawa szymborska said poets' work is 'hopelessly unphotogenic.'  poets stare at a blank piece of paper or computer screen and scratch out a few lines, only to erase a couple a little later.  here are szymborska's comments about the intransitive nature of filming a poet at work: 'someone sits at a table or lies on a sofa while staring motionless at a wall or ceiling.  once in a while this person writes down seven lines only to cross out one of them fifteen minutes later, and then another hour passes, during which nothing happens. . . who could stand such a thing?'

the answer to that question is apparently no one.  even if Hollywood does make a movie about a poet -- and don't get my griping wrong because there are many movies about real and fictive poets -- the film will most likely fixate on his/her misfit nature.  take the movie bases loosely on charles bukowski's life Barfly.  overall it ain't bad but it would seem the character henry chinaski is some kind of gutter messiah who can only get drunk and get into fights.  and when he does pick up the chewed nub of a pencil, the camera stares blankly at him then quickly jumps to the next scene.  so we have no real idea if he is a poet at all, or how he writes, or what he writes about.

movies about musicians and painters are more successful, i guess, because one can visualize, or auralize, the artist's creative process.  for example, martin scorsese's short Life Lessons lovingly and obsessively details the painter lionel dobie, in action before a canvas.  there is a beautiful image of nick nolte as dobie rumpled and covered in acrylics, beholding his work-in-progress as if it suddenly spoke to him.  and, of course, it did speak to him -- we see him leap into the canvas with broad slashing strokes.  to show the action of writing, a filmmaker would have to take quite a different tack because it is not a physical activity.  one doesn't leap so dramatically into language, though the process and the finished poems might very well give one the shivers.

summer is indeed  the traditional time for movie-going, and poets are just as avid about films as the rest of their fellows, quickened by the need to sit in a refrigerated darkened room with dozens and dozens of others before a huge two-dimensional screen.  movies, it would seem, are our collective unconscious, written, as one early 20th-century wag said, in lightening.  as for movies about poets i'll quote a few lines of a poem titled, 'a film,' by the french poet alain bosquet and you can judge for yourself: 'now that my life is coming to an end/a director want to turn it into a film/. . .would i agree to play myself(?)/. . .i insist:/no profiles, please, no flattering grins./as for my books, whose fidelity i now find questionable/they'd better be signed by some other poet.'

[reprinted from poetry now (august 2001)]


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