Saturday, February 15, 2014

Lost Book Found, The Moose, Laux d' Artifice

Lost Book Found, (1996)
Jem Cohen

This week Prof. Godshall and I looked at a few films that are, again, representative of a number of ideas about poetry and film. The first of these is “Lost Book Found,” by Jem Cohen, auteur of a number of documentaries following and/or collaborating with musical talents from the eighties and onward, including Elliot Smith, Fugazi, Blonde Redhead, Godspeed You Black Emperor!, R.E.M., and so on. “Lost Book Found,” predictably possibly, is a film that also leans in the direction of documentary, “documenting” as it were, retrospectively, a trajectory that leads the narrator to obtain a mysterious and, arguably, poetry-filled, anonymous found notebook, as well as the filmmaker’s own thoughtful meanderings in NYC during the 80s and 90s as a street vender and filmmaker.

Last week, Godshall and I discussed the concept of the “poetic” in film, contemplating the ideas that this word encompasses for people who talk about films as possessing this uncertain quality: What does it mean when we say that a film is “poetic”? For one, the word seems at times to describe an emotional response: the film feels like a poem, it evokes a feeling that we describe as “poetic”—the elements (lighting, sound, editing, etc.) coincide in a way that produces a particular kind of emotional response—a response of the kind that we expect from a poem. It may be used to describe those moments in a film that present themselves in ways that permit expression that goes beyond the literal. In the case of “Lost Book Found,” we have a landslide of examples of this occurrence: scenes in which words from the abstract noun-lists that seem to fill the pages of “the lost book” (“forest, a clock, a fossil, undertow”) are spoken monotonously over sequences filled with unassociated, or freely-associated images of sign posts, shop windows, graffiti, trash blowing in the streets. Think back to scenes in “Wings of Desire”: scenes with eclipsed whispers and sullen crowds. The “meaning” behind these sequences is not immediately clear, and there is not, I suppose, a singular meaning to be extrapolated from them. In this sense, these sequences represent our general ideas about what a poem is like: there may be no singular “answer” or explanation. They lend themselves to subjective interpretation. As Max Greenstreet, who recommended to me “Lost Book Found,” said of the film “it 'thinks like a poem.'” They resist useful summary, in certain instances meeting that “requirement” for the poetry-film; they refuse an objective account; they encourage, rather, freethinking, imaginative thought. They "feel" poetic.

Another interpretation of the concept of “the poetic” in film is that it may arise at times in a film in which the progress of the narrative slows, stops, or otherwise breaks away from time as we experience it—a trick we see so frequently in film that we hardly see it at all, and one that is executed in an eternity of ways—it may involve a simple jump cut, for example, or a change in scene. There are moments in “Lost Book Found” in which Cohen shoots the footage “in slow motion,” manipulating the recording process in such a way that an image of a plastic bag swaying over a sidewalk is slowed slightly, almost imperceptibly at first. It is interesting that scenes like this, which manipulate time—specifically, in which time is slowed—also feel more poetic—as if there is the subliminal understanding that poetry also produces the effect that time has slowed or stopped. And it is likely that this feeling—this experience of time almost standing still—would be described by readers who find themselves enraptured by a work, “caught-up” in the world that the artist has created. Alternatively, it seems to be moments that are more literal, more realistic, and “natural” (that seem to portray time accurately) that that strike us as “less poetic.”

What happens during these moments—in which the viewer/reader becomes rapt? Godshall referenced a passage from Joyce's “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man,” which talks about the experience of “aesthetic arrest,” to help articulate this experience:

The instant wherein that supreme quality of beauty, the clear radiance of the esthetic image, is apprehended luminously by the mind which has been arrested by its wholeness and fascinated by its harmony is the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure, a spiritual state very like to that cardiac condition which the Italian physiologist Luigi Galvani, using a phrase almost as beautiful as Shelley's, called the enchantment of the heart.
In these moments of “the luminous silent stasis of esthetic pleasure,” which we might also describe as an emotional response to some poetic element, perhaps what we are experiencing is an absence of thought, a release from anxiety; we become something like wholly receptive vehicles, fully absorbed in the act of experience, pushed out of consciousness by the force of the vision that imposes itself, and it is this removal, this distancing from the self, this momentary separation that allows for a kind of enjoyment. 

To refer back again to our working criteria regarding the tentative aspects of the poetry-film, “Lost Book Found” does not seem to resist a useful summary—albeit one would surely need to leave out much about those moments that are most “poetic,” least literal, those that hold the most interpretive value. It does possess a pretty straightforward narrative structure, in line with our (admittedly increasingly worrisome) criterion that the poetry-film should typically not possess the same narrative conventions as a dramatic film (more on this in my discussion on “The Moose” by Elizabeth Bishop). Furthermore, the subject of the film does not appear to be a poem, an assertion based somewhat on the supposition that the “lost book” of the film should not be interpreted as a poem—a question we must leave for to Jem Cohen and to another day.

Rather, I think, bearing in mind the personal nature of the film, the documentary-style narrative structure, the effect of self-examination through an outward gaze, the constructed “seeking” nature of our protagonist-persona, the presence of spoken narrative text, the apparent method of inquiry in the film, and to an extent even the heavy editing and non-exegetic play with sound in the film, the film is able to fall rather squarely into the realm of essay-film (refer to essays by Adorno, Lopate, Rascarolli, and Renov, e.g., for more on the subject). 

The Moose, (1997)
Elizabeth Bishop

This four-and-a-half minute poetry-film is from an hour-long segment by the “Voices & Visions” television series and is another recommended by Max Greenstreet. The series began in 1988, and featured 13 major American poets. This short film obliterates our first criterion, by presenting us with, undoubtedly, a poetry-film, which uses a very conventional narrative structure to tell the story of the poem, which itself is narrative. It is questionable, however, whether or not the poem can be said to resist useful summary. One could, I think, summarize the film (and the poem) by saying that a weary traveler taking a bus from the coast of Nova Scotia “all the way to Boston” is suddenly struck with joy by the unexpected presence of a moose standing momentarily in the bus’s path. Such a summary is useful to some extent, in helping a reader to understand the basic structure of the film and the poem, but, how important to the poem are those aspects that are left out of this summary? What do we lose, in other words, as readers, by summarizing in this way?

There is much the textual poem “sees” that its visual counterpart (the film) does not reveal in its effort to portray the poem literally. In fact, huge sections of the poem are left out of the film: nearly sixteen stanzas altogether. We see nothing, for example, of the minutia described of the fog that appears in the full text of the poem:
Its cold, round crystals
form and slide and settle
in the white hens' feathers,
in gray glazed cabbages,
on the cabbage roses
and lupins like apostles.
What does it say of the process of poetry-film that the filmmakers found it necessary to omit such a large part of Bishop’s poem? Was the struggle they were attempting to overcome by their omission the struggle to portray the story visually in a literal way? What would it say about poetry as a whole, if we were to assume that some of the reasoning behind the abridged version was that the filmmakers felt that the full poem would not hold a television audience’s attention? How might Bishop have felt about this version of a poem that, evidently, took her 20 years to accomplish?

“The Moose,” surely another of the earliest poetry-films, satisfies two other of our criterion for the genre: (1.) the subject of the film seems to be a poem, and (2.) it is short (roughly the length it would take to read a typical poem). Of course, it satisfies this latter requirement by omitting a good deal of the four-page poem’s content, but in doing this, it comes to mirror the length of a “typical poem,” which we might say is about a page. 

As a note, “The Moose” employs a kind of pleasant and unusual construct: aberration not only through omission, but through the introduction of commentary and readings from multiple voices. A method echoed somewhat by the presence of the haunting “voice” of the book of Cohen’s “Lost Book Found.”
 The effect is unusual and pleasing. Although aberrated, it gives Bishop's poem a different sort of breadth, the breadth that comes from the sense of the poem effecting many lives, having a living audience and lineage. 

Laux d’ Artifice, (1953)
Kenneth Anger

Kenneth Anger’s films (brought to my attention by Zack Godshall) are an important inclusion to the topic of our conversation for a couple of reasons. For one, they raise the question of intent, and for another, the question of the necessity of a textual component in a poetry film. 

Consider the poem appearing below, by Man Ray. (Thank you for this example, Laura Mullen.) The title of this poem “Lautegeicht” (1924) has been translated from the German as “Loud Poem” or “Sound Poem.” The piece has at times been referred to as a painting of a poem or as an erasure, but even these terms imply that what is at the heart of the piece, despite the fact that there is no text in it, is a poem. (There is also this version of “Lautegeicht” floating around). 
Why do we grant or accept that “Lautegeicht” is a poem, considering it has no text? In part, I suppose it is because the black horizontal lines seem to equal about the length of words set in type on a page, that the combination of shorter and longer lines gives us the clear impression of words arranged in a logical order, and that these lines seem to be end-stopped rather than continuous, in the way of most poems. Certainly, visually, despite the tremendously important omission of text, “Lautegeicht” looks like a poem (similar to the way, perhaps, many films feel “poetic”). One implication of “Lautegeicht” is that a work may be referred to as a poem, even if it does not have text, if it is similar enough to a poem in some other substantial way.
Man Ray's "Lautegeicht"
But I think there is another important reason that we are able to agree on this classification of “Lautegeicht,” and that is that it calls itself a poem—it presents itself as one by Man Ray eponymously. This is what I mean by intent and also by the importance of the presence of language. If we do not need text in order for a poem to be considered a poem, then do we need it (or dialogue, or narration) for a poetry-film to be called a poetry-film? Is the artist’s intent enough, or should the film resemble a poem in some other way?

I do not mean to suggest that Anger has called “Eaux d’ Artifice” a poetry film. According to this interview, another of his films—“Fireworks,” perhaps his most popular—was awarded a “prize for poetic film,” but typically his films seem to be described as experimental. Indeed the line between experimental and poetry-films is a fine one. Especially since experimental films, as a rule, seem to be frequently referred to as “poetic.” In this article, (found on the Wikipedia page for “poetry-film”),
William Wees (author of several books on avant-garde film) says that “a number of avant-garde film and video makers have created a synthesis of poetry and film that generates associations, connotations and metaphors neither the verbal nor the visual text would produce on its own,” suggesting that one difference between experimental film and poetry film might have hinged upon the presence of text. As this same article states, many filmmakers that we think of as “experimental” have referred to themselves as “film poets” and their films “film poems,” but their descriptions of this genre seem simply to stand in contrast with dramatic cinema, documentary, and something called “abstract film,” which Maya Deren describes as imitating abstract painting. But these early definitions of poetry-film seem to do no more to define themselves outside of oppositional terms than to say that its films are “poetic”—poetic in the sense, I would guess, that I have tried to illustrate in the above section on “Lost Book Found.”
However, it would be unjust, it seems, not to allow for the claims that earlier experimental filmmakers laid about their works, for the artist’s intent. For the time being, it seems best to say that there have been historically two types of poetry-films: those that define themselves as “film poems” according to the description above (may not possess textual elements, but possess other “poetic” elements, i.e.: “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” many of Brakhage’s films) and those that place themselves within the realm of poetry-film by meeting another central tenet: that the subject of these films seems to be a poem (“The X Is Black,” “The Moose”). This premise allows that, following the example of Man Ray’s “Lautegeicht,” a poetry-film, like a poem, need not possess text. It also allows that Anger’s “Eaux d’ Artifice” could be called a poetry-film, even though it also contains no text. In making the distinction, then, in this case, the filmmaker’s intent would need to be consulted: whether or not “Eaux d’ Artifice” is a poetry-film would be based on whether Kenneth Angers would describe it in these terms.

Friday, February 7, 2014

The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Night Mail, Wings of Desire, The X Is Black

The Cabinet of Dr.Caligari, (1920)
Robert Weine

This film was recommended to me by poet and Professor Lara Glenum as an example of a gem of early silent cinema and of high German Expressionsim, and as a response to my request for films that should be considered in the search for understanding of the genre of poetry-film. From this perspective, it seems, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari should have rich interpretive value—in terms of the psychological and artistic status of high German art and antebellum German society’s psychological bents. According to one critic, Weine wanted to reveal the “uncertainty” of the human mind, which goes far deeper than we are able to predict or understand clearly. “Therefore, there are some aspects in this film which significantly involve with the idea of mind control, dual identity and psychological terror.” One can see how these tropes might reflect the psychology of German society at this time—a time during which Germany was occupied by American forces and grappling with defeat after WWI, for example. Certainly the psychological underpinnings of the film's concepts have important implications for a time in which Nazism was gaining a foothold in German politics as well. 
However, being that my research has pretty exclusively to do with the question of the history, development, and current status of the genre of poetry-film, and being that I have neither the background nor the time necessary to devote to explorations into questions involving these aspects of the film as fully as their importance and seriousness would require, I will need to bypass questions regarding the socio-political implications of the film—and the German Expressionist movement with which it is concerned/associated—altogether and focus entirely on the film’s merits in terms of its relation to the genre of poetry-film. (Although I will try to at least acknowledge the context of the films in the course of my study, I imagine I will need to ultimately observe and note this context only in passing, in order to remain focused on the purpose of this course.)
What is interesting about Dr. Caligari and the first few films in this study—I will address these individually as well as broadly in this response—is that they seem to bare little resemblance to my concept and experience of “poetry-films” as I understand them. For instance, in-line with the standard tropes of horror films, Dr. Caligari depicts a number of heroes and villains, is driven by its plot, and resolves itself in an orderly fashion. To me, this type of transparent linear structure does not reflect the ideology of more experimental films, which might cross into the territory of “poetry-film” with less resistance. The plot of Dr. Caligari, for example, might be summarized in a few short sentences, while, to me, one concept that seems somewhat essential to poetry and, likewise, poetry films, is that it resists this kind of summary—what’s more: its very essence and worth lies in this resistance, in the distinctive qualities of the thing-in-itself and in the difficulty of “breaking-down,” synthesizing, or summarizing the “poem” or poet’s logic or intent. While this film, as I have already implied, is unquestionably complex in terms of its socio-political implications, it does not seem to me to resist this basic exercise.
It seems that if one is to understand the film as an example of, or even a precursor to, the poetry-film genre at all, one might focus on the visual aspects of the film—the obscure painted backdrops and hazy, shadowy effects that seem, in truth, to be intended to reflect the “psychological” implications of the film more so than any “poetic” intent: the horror is expressed visually in unusual and disorienting ways as well as in the action of the film. Therefore, one might ask, “Do these artistic qualities of the film (observed in backdrop, lighting, etc.) merit a ‘reading’ of the film as poetry?” My feeling is that they do not. While they certainly are “artistic” and interesting, and I’m sure, important in regards to the time period and the movement to which they belong, the visual elements do not register as “poetic,” to any notable degree.
In any case, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is clearly not a poetry-film, despite the fact that certain aspects of its composition may be called “poetic." To what degree, however, can we understand the artistic, expressionist methods employed in this film to inform later generations that move with greater intent and distinction into the realm of the poetry-film? That is a question that we must keep in mind, I think, as we continue to move through the content of this course.  

Night Mail, (1936)
Benjamin Britten & W.H. Auden

This film was recommended by poet and poetry Professor Laura Mullen in response to the same request for examples of the subject of poetry-film. The implications for this film as poetry are far more direct, and stated neatly by the author of this post, which also provides ample information on the film’s origins and on the process of its creation. Though technically not a poetry-film (rather a documentary produced by Great Britain’s General Post Office with a poem spoken into its tail end), Night Mail utilizes the work of the great English poet W.H. Auden to celebrate the marvel of G.B.’s modern automotive mail delivery system. The author of the post referenced above provides some insight into the possible socio-political motivations for the making of the short documentary and into some of the technical aspects of the construction of the film, but Night Mail, I think, serves us mainly here as a prime example of one of the earliest instances of poetry appearing in film. What is interesting about this particular example is that, as opposed poetry-films “proper,” the main focus of the film is not its poetic content, but rather the poetry serves the purpose of the subject—“serves,” I mean, both topically and in its enthusiastic approach to that topic. Referring romantically in this occasional poem to the train as “her,” Auden states,   

Past cotton-grass and moorland boulder
Shovelling white steam over her shoulder,

Snorting noisily as she passes
Silent miles of wind-bent grasses.

Birds turn their heads as she approaches,

Stare from bushes at her blank-faced coaches.
The staccato rhythm and incessant rhyme of the four-part poem mimics both the monotonous chugging of the train’s engine and Brittan’s musical accompaniment, while the content of the lyric relishes beholding and describing the train’s progress into the lives, and through the emotive implications of mail, the hearts of English countrymen and women. It is interesting to note that poetry-in-film’s earliest history mimics one of the most prevalent utilitarian purposes of and traditions in poetry: to exalt, to compliment, to provide tribute. In this sense, Auden is the perfect choice to elicit a rallying response in viewers. Visually, the film survives as a lovely early document of trains, if you like trains, and a brief but rare revealing of the guts of a mail-delivery system. A short scene depicting a number of men standing, sorting before a much greater number of cubbies labeled with the names of towns, for example, is a quaint and accurate reminder of the lives behind the letters that appeared in early 20th century mailboxes. 

Wings of Desire, (1987)
Wim Wenders

The next two films were recommended to me by friend and great thinker Max Greenstreet in response to my request for fodder to help me along my quest for the meaning of “poetry-film.” Here, I think, in the film that inspired the super-Hollywood-Meg-Ryan-Nicholas-Cage production of City of Angels, we have a film that serves to define our understanding of the concept of poetry-film in much the same way as The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. By this I mean that both films, while they contain “poetic” elements, exist well within parameters of a traditional feature film. Wings of Desire has, for example, like Dr. Caligari, a pretty straightforward plot—a plot that drives the action forward to a defined climax and resolution—and, in this sense, is not extremely experimental. However, the film does devote large chunks of itself to spanning shots with little-to-no dialogue, or scenes in which the dialogue represents a muffled and partial excursion into the thoughts of the film’s seemingly countless characters. Perhaps it is this sparseness, the keen attention to language that becomes apparent in these scenes, paired with the deeply personal nature of the character’s thoughts that reminds us of poetry here.
Indeed, the film was, for Wenders, at least to some degree, inspired by the poetry of Rilke—and a poem titled “Song of Childhood,” written by Peter Handke at the behest of Wenders specifically for the film, is repeated in a singsong voiceover attributed to the mind of its central angel character, Bruno Ganz (“Damiel”), throughout the film. Peter Handke, according to Wenders’ own account (follow link above), also provided much of the interior “dialogue” of the film: the glimpses into the minds of its characters that the audience is privy to.
Certainly, in addition to the language of the film, the ideas in Wings of Desire are also poetic: the idea of angels, for example, serving as “witnesses” to the inner-turmoil of mankind, the idea of one angel, then, falling in love with a human and consequentially sacrificing his powers and immortality in order for the chance to have his love felt and reciprocated by the object of his adoration. (As I am writing this, I am realizing that if you were to replace “angel” with “mermaid” and flip the gender signifiers in the preceding sentence, you would have the story of The Little Mermaid.) Visually, the film is stunning: full of high-contrast, invisible shots; fascinating portrait after fascinating portrait of individuals in the crowd; backdrops that seem to flow effortlessly into the contemporary out of the “old world...”  

Max provided a comment regarding Wings of Desire to the effect that he remembered only certain scenes of the film as “being a Poetry Film”—or maybe a portion of the film, like the first third. I agree that if you were to isolate certain sections of the film, you might have a very interesting poetry-film indeed; but (putting its merits as a film aside) Wings of Desire, like Dr. Caligari is ultimately bookended and held together by the mechanisms of a more traditional film—to the extent that even Hollywood saw its potential to appeal to large crowds as a straightforward romance blockbuster.

The X Is Black, (1996)
Amiri Baraka

The last of the films I’m discussing this round was also recommended to me by Max Greenstreet—before Amiri Baraka died last month. I'm grateful to have the opportunity to study (if only very briefly) this important poet near the time of his sad passing.

The X Is Black is the first of the films that seems, to me, to land squarely within the realm of the poetry-film. This short segment, featuring the performance and poetry of Amiri Baraka was part of a five-part series originally aired by PBS, which was also released in its entirety as a CD titled “The United States of Poetry” by the first poetry record label, Mouth Almighty. To refer to the assertions made in my former posts, and in terms of its categorization as a poetry film, we may say of The X Is Black the following:
  1. The film resists useful summary.
  2. A poem is the subject of the film.
  3. The film does not possess a traditional narrative structure.
To expand on these (very much in-process) criteria, I suggest that we go through them one-by one:

(1.) The film resists useful summary. One could reasonably summarize a work like Wings of Desire, by saying the following:
In the film, angels serve as “witnesses” to the inner-turmoil of mankind. One angel falls in love with a human and, consequentially, sacrifices his powers and immortality in order for the chance to have his love felt and reciprocated by the object of his adoration.
While this summary is, undoubtedly, leaving out a great deal of the complexity of the emotional and visual achievements of the film, it is effective in expressing the basic events of the film. Because the film is primarily narrative (it tells a story) and because the subject of the film is primarily that story, the film may be summarized in the manner that I have done without omitting necessary information about the plot. However, an attempt to provide a summary of the plot of The X Is Black would sound something like this: “A man recites a poem.” Since there is only one action in this summary, and no climax or resolution, the summary does not resemble a plot. Rather, since (2.—I'm jumping ahead here) the subject of The X Is Black is the poem “The X Is Black,” a summary of the film would involve the explanation first that the subject of the film is the poem, and then, possibly, an attempt to summarize the poem, which, in itself, should present a number of challenges.
(2.) The subject of the film is the poem “The X Is Black.” This is proven, I think, by the lack of any actors or performers in the film besides the poet/author of the poem and by the lack of attention visually to any subject matter besides the poet and poem.

(3.) The film does not possess any of the conventions of a cinematic film: this has been demonstrated, in part, by the difficulty of providing a summary of the action of the film.
I think these definitions can continue, then, to serve us for now. But there is perhaps at least one other aspect of The X Is Black that might help us to distinguish it from other types of film, and particularly as a poetry-film: namely, that (4.) it is short; specifically less than two minutes in length—much shorter than a feature length film and only very slightly longer than a straightforward reading of the poem would take. My prediction is that, when a film strikes us as being “more like a poetry film,” it will satisfy these criteria: (4.) it will be a shorter film (it will adhere to about the length of an average poem or poetry reading in its duration), (3.) it will resist a “useful” summary, (2.) the subject of the film will seem to be a poem, and (1.) the film will resist conventional narrative structures.