Saturday, November 5, 2011

EXCHANGE ON FILM AND POETRY by Thomas Fink and Eric Monder

Thomas Fink: Let’s begin with film aesthetics. In your 1994 book, George Sidney: A Bio-Bibliography (Greenwood Press), you argue that Sidney’s movies from the forties through the sixties “not only challenged the aesthetic principle of classic Hollywood cinema, but also anticipated, and influenced, modern styles of filmmaking” (1).

While the classic Hollywood “style was to maintain suspension of disbelief in the storylines by concealing the manufacture of the production” (4), you indicate various strategies that Sidney uses to foreground this “manufacture.” One involves narration. You compare “the structure of many Sidney narratives” to “the unfolding of an origami object—its parts are revealed along the way through digressions (or “set pieces”) that do not, at first, seem to add to the story” (16). Characterizing “Sidney’s cinema” as “one of character, mood and incident,” you nevertheless assert that “the seemingly disembodied vignettes. . . do contribute to the understanding of character development or a general theme.”

I want to understand how, in your view, Sidney and later innovative practitioners disrupt narrative via digression or perhaps reinvent narrative as a weaving of digressions and how these formal choices produce thematic consequences. (And I use the adjective “thematic” because you use the noun “theme,” but I’m quite willing to suppose that a movie or poem may have contiguous themes and not one central theme.) In the light of Sidney’s work and what you find most compelling in recent years, I’d also like you to unpack the powerful, evocative statement: “Narrative space (whether a train, a show boat, or a stage) often becomes a character itself, and the pattern of repetition, returning to specific spaces, creates thematic, not narrative, development” (16).

Eric Monder:
In Pilot #5 (1943), Franchot Tone’s character returns to the location where he had “sold his soul” to a corrupt local government (by helping to evict an indigent couple from their home); his epiphany leads to his voluntary demise during a WWII mission, so it dramatically strengthens the ideological theme (standing up to fascism, whether “foreign” or American home-grown), but does not necessarily strengthen the character’s dimensionality.

In Show Boat (1951), Howard Keel’s Gaylord makes a realization about his departure from his marriage when he accidentally meets Ava Gardner’s Julie on a boat (but not the show boat, where both of them had become stars). Julie informs Gaylord that he he has not only left his wife but a child as well. This information prompts Gaylord to return to the original boat, the show boat, and his family, including the daughter he didn’t know he had. Again, there is a circularity of narrative, which offers a neat closure for Gaylord though not for the tragic, mixed-race character of Julie, who is excluded from the traditional family structure and that original space.

In The Eddy Duchin Story (1956), Tyrone Power’s Eddy finally meets the son he barely knew (Duchin rejected him because his son was a painful reminder of his late wife). Either by accident or design (I don’t remember), Duchin takes his son to a NYC park, which used to be the location of a nightclub, the very place Duchin met his first wife (Kim Novak), the boy’s mother. It is at this point, Duchin tells his son that he is dying of leukemia. Again, a circularity of the narrative and a return to a space, which is affecting on a level of grand melodrama and minor suspense though does not necessarily develop narrative or character in a significant way (we already knew about the illness and Duchin’s impending demise—it is only a matter of telling his son).

Fink: These examples help me understand the concept of narrative space as “character” with thematic implications. In the case of Pilot #5, I wonder whether Sidney is simultaneously promoting the ideological theme and indicating how mechanical it is for Hollywood to have to crank it up again and again. In later experimental cinema and even, perhaps, in an occasional contemporary Hollywood “art” film, is there a further use of such space as character in ways that make it more difficult to locate thematic intention?

Monder: By their nature, art films and experimental films confuse thematic concerns. How would you answer your question vis a vis modernist poetry or your own work?

Fink: In the 1920s, the first critics of modernist British and American poetry wanted to emphasize the thematic unity of their objects of attention while acknowledging the difficult multiplicity of references, tones, and “events” in the work. For example, between 1922, when it appeared, and around 1970, every critic seemed to stress that Eliot’s The Waste Land was not just a collage of fragments but a text with a coherent center—for example, a critique of the sterility of post-World War I European society through juxtaposition with the great myth and literature of the past. By the seventies, with the influence of continental theory, critics were returning to texts like The Waste Land , Wallace Stevens’ long meditative poems, H.D. myth-inflected work, Pound’s Cantos , Marianne Moore’s collage-poetry, and other texts to show how various themes interrupt and complicate each other without resolution at the end. From such a perspective, yes, The Waste Land includes elements of critique of Eliot’s contemporary culture, but the insufficiencies of ancient cultures are also manifested, traces of the poet’s personal life infiltrate in ways that cannot persist in being read as wholly “universalizing,” seams between collage-elements are not stable, sometimes bursts of language resist any thematic recuperation, and the “whole” is not reducible to a statement or image.

As for so-called postmodernist poetry written after World War Two, what we’re calling “thematic confusion” is evident from the beginning. (Of course, to cite only one example, some scholars perceived the William Carlos Williams of the long poem Paterson as a modernist and some as a postmodernist, and others find the binary itself too problematic for use.) Among the Black Mountain poets, Creeley and Levertov in the fifties and sixties were more thematically coherent in a given poem than Charles Olson, who believed in leaping directly from one perception to another. But disjunction is a fundamental technique of New York School poets like Kenneth Koch, Frank O’Hara, and John Ashbery. In my own poetry, I am often interested in the collision of various themes, though I would not fetishtically “mess up” a poem that works well yet consistently pursues a specific theme.

Regarding another form of disjunction, you observe that “Sidney frequently undercuts the iconic expectations and relationships between star and audience” (10). Do contemporary Hollywood filmmakers use this technique, and if so, is it still able to have a similar impact? Why or why not?

Monder: I don’t think contemporary Hollywood filmmakers as a lot are trying to undercut generic expectations any more than most Hollywood filmmakers of the past. Those who experiment this way are usually (still) on the margins of the Hollywood scene (whatever that is anymore). For example, I don’t see Spielberg even wanting to achieve something different from the typical bourgeois narrative (rather, he reaffirms it), but a director like Abbas Kiarostami is more apt to make film like Certified Copy, which challenges the very idea of narrative and character development. Since those expectations have changed over the years, a Kiarostami must “up the ante” to have a true impact. In retrospect, Sidney seems like that latter kind of filmmaker, yet he worked within the system, so it is difficult for many to appreciate him the way they would a true pioneering independent (e.g. Oscar Micheaux or Orson Welles). Using Welles as the more celebrated version of Sidney, I would argue Welles’ work would have had greater impact, or at least a different impact, in its day. His techniques and ideas have been appropriated over the years, so an uninformed contemporary viewer would not necessarily notice what is different or special about them.

Does any part of what I am saying resonate with you vis a vis John Ashbery or the other New York School poets or is it too difficult to apply to such a different form with its own unique history?

Fink: Neither mainstream nor innovative poetry are solid commercial ventures, to say the least, so a Spielberg in poetry is not being rewarded for “conformity” significantly more than a Kiarostami, even if in most cases, though not all, mainstream poets have greater access to the kind of cultural capital afforded by traditionally respected publishers like Norton or Knopf and magazines like The New Yorker and Poetry. However, what you are saying does resonate with the poetry of Ashbery and company.

Much as it would be interesting to focus on a good-sized portion of the New York School, Koch, O’Hara, Guest, Schuyler, and Ashbery (to cite the figures generally mentioned as the forefront of the first of several generations of the “School”) have as many telling differences in the ways that they deploy disjunction as they do similarities, and a perusal of “second-generation” poets like David Shapiro, Bernadette Mayer, and Ted Berrigan would multiply those differences. So I’ll just discuss Ashbery and those outside the New York School who have “upped the ante.” (And in the interests of brevity, I’m going to do a great deal of simplification.) Ashbery’s best known poem is “Self Portrait in a Convex Mirror” (1975), which might seem to be a coherent meditation on a Mannerist painting by Parmagianino. However, if one really reads rather than sails through the poem, s/he finds that generally, every few sentences (and within long sentences), the drift of thinking goes somewhere else, a “place” that cannot clearly be predicted from where it had been. Parmagianino’s painting receives a great deal of attention but does not center a narrative with a determinate trajectory. Contexts multiply. And the ringing conclusion does not conclude in a way that can contain what precedes. In fact, it may raise more questions, however dramatically “final” it sounds as a statement about a privileged moment of perception in relation to presence and absence.

Even if “Self-Portrait” and many of the poems, long and short, that follow it use conventional syntax, unlike “Europe” and other poems in Ashbery’s The Tennis Court Oath (1962) that dismember all standard models of sentence structure, the poet’s work offers no encouragement for a reader’s retrospective reconstruction of a clearly delineated conflict, complication, climax, etc. And if one somehow discovers “character development” in the text, s/he is making powerful use of her own imaginative (you might say, projective) capacity. In fact, where one character is “speaking” and another has yielded the floor in an Ashbery poem is surely a matter for conjecture, and this New York poet follows Gertrude Stein’s tendency to distribute pronouns throughout a text without tying them to specific human antecedents. For over fifty years, Ashbery has utilized the linguistic tools and signals of narrative—for example, forms of transition like subordinating conjunctions pertaining to space and time—and small bits of plot only to thwart their usual functioning.

On the other hand, to those who appreciate (and write about) this kind of work, these texts do not give the impression of 100% randomness or arbitrariness. It is presumed that the disjunctions—leaps from one image to another, from an image to a trope, a trope to an abstraction, an abstraction to an image—possess a “logic” that may or may not be able to be articulated. It could be a dream logic, a metonymic chain that reveals the functioning of words saturated with social significances and their evasion.

About the time that Ashbery was writing “Self-Portrait,” what would coalesce—at least according to the narrative of literary historians—as Language Poetry in the late seventies and early eighties on the east and west coasts of this country was beginning to gather its forces by concentrating on advanced continental and other theories of language and political discourse. Language poets constructed texts that “upped the ante” through a disruption of syntax that, in some cases, exceeded those of The Tennis Court Oath, through the placement of intervals of disjunction even smaller, through the resituating of lines on the page, through the use of complex procedures such as those introduced by the French Oulipo as early as the fifties and even through the breaking up of words and introduction of “nonsense”-words. Narrative and character development became even more difficult to fathom, even as, in the eighties, writers who were in sympathetic dialogue with the Language poets were conceiving of a “new narrative” that included disjunction as a strategy. Nowadays, “post-avant” or “post-Language” poets are not “upping the ante” in the sense that they are not necessarily finding ways to be even more disjunctive; what they perceive as innovation is the reintroduction of strategies of coherence alongside the kinds of disjunctive modes that Stein and a handful of other modernists, New York School poets, Language poets, experimental feminists, and others made available.

I’d like to hear more about what you consider the most invigorating and influential cinematic techniques used by Orson Welles. And then I’m wondering if you can tell us how Abbas Kiarostami or a similarly representative filmmaker develops strategies that are even more “revolutionary” than those of his precursors.

Monder: That is interesting about the superficial parallel in the history of poetry. A simple example of a “revolutionary” technique in Welles would be his use of multiple narrative levels and points of view in Citizen Kane (1941), though how much this could be attributed to the screenwriter (Herman Mankiewicz) should be considered, since only a few of Welles’ films really do this. Nevertheless, this “breakthrough” from traditional linear narratives—at least in Hollywood---is often attributed to Welles (in his first film yet). Stylistically, his films also have a consistent use of bold camera angle experiments (particularly with wide angle lenses). Multiple narrative levels and points of view are much more common today in mainstream films. Of greater interest to me, actually, is Welles’ deconstruction/reconstruction of film elements in his marvelous art forgery “documentary,” F for Fake (1974), one of his last films: Welles takes “found footage” and joins it with his own to create a reality that doesn’t exist, or at least is questionable. Thus, Welles questions the very notion of “the documentary” as reality and, at the same time, cleverly comments of the theme of his subject—art forgery! It is a highly self-reflexive, Chinese-box sort of film. Today, anyone can create this effect on YouTube—sometimes crudely, sometimes in a more sophisticated way than F for Fake. But I still marvel at the fact the film was made in 1974, and up until then, there had been only minor experiments of this sort in the avant garde.

A note about Kiarostami: he, too, blurs the line between fiction and nonfiction in some of his films (before it became fashionable). I found a quote by Jean-Luc Nancy regarding Kiarostami's 1992 film, Life, and Nothing More...

[I]t all looks like reporting, but everything underscores (indique à l'évidence) that it is the fiction of a documentary (in fact, Kiarostami shot the film several months after the earthquake), and that it is rather a document about "fiction": not in the sense of imagining the unreal, but in the very specific and precise sense of the technique, of the art of constructing images. For the image by means of which, each time, each opens a world and precedes himself in it (s'y précède) is not pregiven (donnée toute faite) (as are those of dreams, phantasms or bad films): it is to be invented, cut and edited. Thus it is evidence, insofar as, if one day I happen to look at my street on which I walk up and down ten times a day, I construct for an instant a new evidence of my street (Jean-Luc Nancy, "On Evidence: Life and Nothing More, by Abbas Kiarostami," Discourse 21.1 (1999), p.82).

In the more recent Certified Copy (released in the U.S. this year), Kiarostami toys with traditional character development (and undercuts the narrative development simultaneously) by creating fully-rounded characters who seem to become other people as the story progresses (or at least makes you wonder about them) and the ambiguity remains until the final moments. David Lynch has also experimented this way—my favorite of his in this respect is Mulholland Drive (2001). I don’t think you will find anything quite this bold in earlier mainstream films (Welles’ or anyone else’s), though I might be forgetting something. In all these cases, I believe the reception has been mixed. Not everyone loved Citizen Kane in its day, not everyone loves Certified Copy. But Citizen Kane is much more accepted (and cited as influential) today, so it is likely Certified Copy will be considered more mainstream in the future.

What future outlook do you see for poetry? Are there trends you could cite? What period (or specific poets) seem to be influencing younger writers?

Fink: Some recent trends in contemporary American innovative poetry have important thematic components. Poetry connected to environmental movements, Queer Theory (and especially transgender concerns), Web 2.0, the reclamation of history by people of color, or work that combines two of this categories is likely to have increased visibility and number of practitioners for the rest of this decade, and the dialogue among practitioners within each group will likely produce substantial complications. Thus, possibilities of “statement”/demystification of statement and aesthetic modes of delivering such communications will multiply. The poets’ points of solidarity and conflict with one another—often played out in blogs and other social media—may shift and will become increasingly evident, so more and more divergent positions within such areas as ecopoetry, transgender poetry, and new media work will supplant any sense that the practitioners should be lumped together.

To recall Robert Creeley’s dictum, “Form is never more than an extension of content,” the struggle to establish a solid relationship between new perspectives and information and poetic forms will engender both new formal constructs and yet, perhaps contrary to Creeley’s point, may influence how the content itself is absorbed. As often is the case, evolving (hard) scientific, social scientific, and computer scientific knowledge will put pressure on poets to expand or transform their linguistic, auditory, visual, and kinesthetic imagination.

Ecopoetry has been around a long time, so I should mention that, in the texts of ecopoets like Brenda Iijima and Jessica Grim, the relatively simple, declarative, descriptive modes of eco-forefathers like Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (both still writing) give way to a discourse that complicates declaration, description, and focus while providing markedly different aesthetic pleasures.

Since the cinema and poetry are our foci here, I want to mention the cinematic poetry of Paolo Javier and Peter Nickowitz. Both poets (and there are undoubtedly others I’m not thinking of or am not yet aware of) not only write poems that include the cinema and metacinema as subject matter—I think especially of Javier’s “Ladies and Gentlemen—Mr. Bill Murray” in ways that complicate Frank O’Hara’s homages to the movies, but they “shoot” poems as though they were movies, and Javier also has also produced powerful comic book poetry. These cross-genre innovations can certainly be elaborated in different directions by poets to come.

To move to another aspect of film, do films really need music to manipulate the emotional responses of audiences? Or does a relative lack of music make a movie too “naked,” and if so, why?

Monder: I found your answer a bit startling. I knew that that race, gender, and political issues had become addressed in modern poetry, but I thought (or would have thought) that was the trend (say, 1980s - 2000s) and now something else, less didactic or obvious, would be emerging, as we both acknowledged--in our earlier exchange--has happened in the cinema. Not that cinema and poetry could be considered on the same track, as we also acknowledged, or that generalizing this way is very useful.

Fink: What I’ve been trying to convey is that contemporary innovative poets have taken up the challenge to address these political issues in ways that are “less didactic or obvious” than mainstream writers tend to do.

Monder: So I'll move on to music.

Music does not need to be present at all to evoke or manipulate emotional responses. The visuals alone could do that. It is noteworthy that several provocative films have no (or at least very little) music--Hitchcock's Rope (1948) and The Birds (1963), Ackerman's Jeanne Dielmann (1975), and many avant garde classics. Originally, in fact, Hitchcock wanted no music in the famous Psycho shower scene. I think music has the potential to greatly influence a viewer's feelings about a scene or an entire movie, particularly in a melodrama (melos = music in Greek) that employs a leitmotif, but music could also have the opposite effect (either by the filmmaker's design or mistake): thus, a score in a Godard film will probably not manipulate a viewer's response in the traditional sense. If anything, it will most likely repel the viewer in the same way Godard's editing style is oft-putting. But if that was the intention, that is also a sort of manipulation.

I guess you could call the films without music I referenced "naked," but I don't really think of them that way because each one has very sophisticated uses of sound--just not musical sounds.

Fink: Yes, it makes excellent sense to speak of “sophisticated uses of sound” without necessarily including music. The lack of music can force viewers to attend more carefully to that sound.

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