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.


  1. Re: "Lautegeicht"
    I believe the term is " Lautgedicht", commonly translated as "sound poem". You may want to look at Hobert Sielecki's videopoem, "Lautgedicht" here:

    as well as this one by Eku Wand:

    Also, Man Ray's "poem" could perhaps be simply read as an example of Dada art, useful to conceptual artists who worked with text, especially this homage to Stéphane Mallarmé's "Un Coup de Des" by Marcel Broodthaers:

    RE: " we need (text) (or dialogue, or narration) for a poetry-film to be called a poetry-film?"

    Excellent question. In fact, it was this question (by Geof Huth) that prompted my investigation of the genre in 2009. As I have stated elsewhere...

    I believe that the answer is Yes... as long as the genre in question is not a "film" (as in 'poetry-film') but a poem (as in "videopoem"). Perhaps you can explain the interchangeability of your terms in your March 7 post:

    "This 'video-poem' interests me because, like works of YHCHI above, it did not, it sounds like, necessarily set out to make itself into a 'poetry-film'..."

  2. Tom, thanks for the correction and the links.

    Of course I understand the context of Man Ray's poem as a conceptual and possibly Dadaist work—I felt it served as a way to illustrate, in the context of the post, the importance of language to poetry, and therefore, as an extension, to poetry-film: the question you acknowledge above.

    As pure, fantastic coincidence (I honestly hadn't noticed your comment till I was already steeped in its construction) your Manifesto is the focus of my most recent post. Of it (your Manifesto) I have a few questions. I'm delighted to find that you have found an interest in my pursuit.

    To answer your question, to me, there is no reason why the terms you mention should not be interchangeable. As I have described in this and my most recent post (on your Manifesto), there seems to me to be a number of ways that we can categorize films that fall into the genre that is being referred to by so many names. To me, this method (of categorization) seems less problematic than trying to control the language applied to the medium.