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.  


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