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FROM THE CINEMA OF POETRY TO THE POETRY OF CINEMA

 

Tracing the Vertical in the Horizontal

Presented at the Weimar Poetry Film Award colloquium, "The Cinema of Poetry" on June 1, 2019, coincidentally the celebration of 100 years of the Bauhaus.

 

 

»There is an old proverb which says: Don’t try to do two things at once and expect to do justice to both.«
Buster Keaton, Sherlock Jr. (1924)

 

If we use the phrase »Utopian vision« today to describe the global influence of the Bauhaus, born here in Weimar in 1919, we can also apply the phrase to an event fifty years later, in 1969, when the Portuguese TV Station RTP broadcast (and immediately destroyed) a 2’43“ kinetic text work with voice-over on videotape by the experimental and concrete poet Ernesto Manuel de Melo e Castro, aptly titled, Roda Lume or Wheel of Light, which came to be known as the first videopoem. In his essay about videopoetry for Eduardo Kac’s 1996 anthology, New Media Poetry, de Melo e Castro writes, »a new medium is at first seen and judged against the medium that came before it.«

The medium that came before it, a so-called Cinema of Poetry, had no such precursor, as it attempted to fuse two mediums, one that depicted with images, the other that described with words, two »art forms« that had, for centuries, opposed one another.

We only need to rewind a mere 200 years, when the German philosopher and art critic, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, specified that there should be necessary boundaries between the visual and verbal arts because the nature of the visual is of space while the verbal is of time, warning artists and poets to observe the limitations of their medium to avoid a dangerous confusion of genres.

Fast-forward to Sergei Eisenstein’s essay on the Laocoon of Lessing in Towards a Theory of Montage. »I believe,« he writes, »that this strict separation into incompatible opposites is explained by the fact that in Lessing’s day neither Edison nor Lumière had yet supplied him with that most perfect apparatus for research and assessment of the aesthetic principles of art: the cinematograph.« [1] For Lessing, time belonged to the poets and space to the painters. Cinema, according to Eisenstein, synthesized the two: »His (Lessing’s) discussion does not embrace the perfect art which was able to synthesize both these principles into a new quality, cinema. Within each art form … there are illuminated the rudiments of the opposing features – not as something alien to it but as the potential data for the next synthesizing step.« To some extent, he was right. Film, like painting, does present itself as a framed image; at the same time, unlike painting, it reveals its meaning like poetry, sequentially, one word, one frame at a time.

In between 1919 and 1969, the Utopian vision best described by Dick Higgins as »an ongoing human wish to combine the visual and literary impulses«was fiercely opposed by experimental filmmakers, like Dziga Vertov, who called for »a decisive cleaning up of film-language, for its complete separation from the language of theater and literature«, but he also described himself as a film poet: »I am a writer of the cinema. I am a film poet. But instead of writing on paper, I write on the film strip.« [2] (One can’t help hearing Pasolini’s voice here, declaring decades later that cinema is »the written language of reality«.)

In the 1920s, these polemic and often poetic statements about the nature of cinema were all over the expanding word-cloud centered on this new art form. There was the »cinema pur« of Henri Chomette, echoed by Germaine Dulac, who claimed that »If cinema is merely… an animated reflection of literature … it is not an art. The new aesthetic is to divest cinema of all elements not particular to it, to seek its true essence in movement and visual rhythms.« The elements »not particular to it« were the presence of words, displayed as intertitles.

As mainstream cinema becomes more and more popular, the proponents for its status as the seventh »art« focus on distancing cinema from the other arts, particularly literature and theatre; in its quest for purity, arguments for its legitimacy therefore invoked the purest form of its rival, literature, namely poetry. »The cinema is poetry’s most powerful medium,« wrote Jean Epstein; »within five years we will be writing film poems.“

In the freeze-frame of this period, there are some notable exceptions centered around the use of intertitles which, to most of the avant-garde filmmakers, represented the encroachment of verbal signs on the screen, the unwanted visible traces of literature. Jean Epstein wasn’t so sure: »Looking at a film completely without titles is undeniably depressing, for psychological reasons; the subtitle is first of all a rest for the eye, a punctuation mark for the mind. A title often avoids a long visual explanation, which may be necessary but is boring and banal …« [3]
 

 

In L’Etoile de Mer, Man Ray did use intertitles, but they were hand-written lines of a poem by Robert Desnos, emphasizing that the »hand« of Desnos was present in the making and the meaning of the film. But for these six insertions of »poetry«, the film explored unpredictable Surrealist juxtapositions and experimental optics, including a gelatin-coated glass through which reality was presented in a painterly, impressionistic style. Robert Desnos saw titles as an integral part of the art of cinema. »Everything that can be projected on the screen belongs in the cinema, letters as well as faces. All means are good when they produce good films.«

 

 

Marcel Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema also used intertitles, demonstrating a conditional acceptance of verbal language in film; modifying the viewer’s reading of one-line verbal puns from the conventional left-to-right linear to circular, Duchamp effectively substitutes a new, spatial context that causes a momentary confusion in the viewer’s experience by playfully placing his words on rotating discs.

Alternating these rotating discs with drawings of non-concentric circles that produce the 3-D optical illusion of spiralling motion, that is, using two kinds of rotating discs, one with words, the other with spiralling circles, Duchamp seems to be reflecting on the fundamental structure of silent films – the alternation of reading and looking at images, words followed by images of bodies in action in space.

His use of an abstract form like the receding spiral is a substitute, a stand-in, for any concrete image of the world; it is essentially directing the viewer to experience a self-reflexive experiment, using film to analyze itself as an artistic activity.

Whether Duchamp himself believed that cinema was anemic is debatable; what’s relevant to a discussion of how do text-to-image relations affect the synthesis of poetry and cinema is that the word »anemic« hidden in the word »cinema« appears to substantiate my intuition that an inherent ambiguity in language (that a word like cinema can also hold the model of another word, anemic, whose meaning can infect how we understand the original, cinema) necessitates the presentation of the associated image as a type we call concrete, i. e., one that refers to objects in the material world. Any selection of the infinite choices of objects, no matter how random or how logical (as in the case of illustrative images) will not necessarily produce the intended effect of a poetic experience. The art of poetry films or videopoems first comes into being with the correct selection of the image (or series of images); we know it is the right one when it causes, at the moment of its encounter with a verbal ambiguity, a certain frisson, a noticeable intellectual or emotional reflex in the viewer.

In contrast, the notorious Dali-Bunuel collaboration, Un Chien Andalou, is literally an »eye-opener«: on the surface, it’s a satirical attack on both cinema and its audience – conventional filmmaking to please bourgeois sensibilities – but it’s also sending a clear message to future poetry-film makers about text-to-image relationships. Intertitles, the film appears to be saying, need not serve its basic conventional function, which is to establish and mark the passage of time. The film’s opening intertitle, Once Upon a Time, suggests a fairy tale with a traditional narrative structure but in fact what follows is a man sharpening a straight razor that is then used to slice open a woman’s eye. Interwoven with this sequence is a shot of a full moon sliced with the arrival of a thin, razor-shaped cloud. The five intertitles that separate the scenes into »chapters« (Once Upon a Time, Eight Years Later, Around Three in the Morning, Sixteen Years Earlier, In Springtime) become the literary equivalents to the visual incongruities that follow; their presence in the narrative is anti-narrative; their informational value is anti-information; their function, to provide contextual stability to what follows, points instead to the logic of dreams, the irrational and the repressed. All told, they are merely five ambiguous sign-posts on a 16-minute extremely disorienting journey (an example of early cinema that Tom Gunning characterized as ›a series of visual shocks‹); the word-image relationship in this »cinépoème« is heavily weighted on the trauma-laden scenes – the intertitle intrusions are minor; the images assert themselves as the dominant element.

A case could be made for the visual metaphors in the chapter headed by the title, Eight Years Later, that are created by the use of four consecutive dissolves (ants crawling out of a hand dissolves into a shot of a woman’s armpit on a beach, which then dissolves into a sea urchin, which then dissolves into an overhead shot of a figure on a street poking a severed hand with a stick) but, overall, the film’s five text-to-image juxtapositions (possibly the most demanding phase in the process of assembling a poetry-film or a videopoem) are almost ornamental to the more challenging incongruous (but not irreconcilable) image-to-image juxtapositions.

 

 

Of influential films and videos that followed Anemic Cinema, specifically those that revealed how text-to-image relations affect the synthesis of poetry and cinema, three should be noted: in 1982, Michael Snow releases »So Is This«, a 45-minute film entirely composed of successive single words on a black background, transforming the viewer into a reader, but what makes this work so innovative for poetry films and videopoems is that the one-word-at-a-time constraint it imposes on its presentation emphasizes not only the maximal control over the viewer’s experience that is attained when the duration of the words on the screen is manipulated, thus slowing or speeding up the reading process; indirectly, it brings attention to the natural silence of images, the quiet spaces between the displayed words, attributes we too often take for granted.


 



The following year, we get »Secondary Currents« by Peter Rose, a 15-minute film that similarly presents white text on a black background, but here it’s text-as-subtitles, translating and gradually mistranslating some unknown irrational language voiced by Rose. Halfway through the film, the voice becomes silent while the so-called subtitles continue to multiply, raised to the center of the screen. When the voice does return, it’s fractured into painful sounding monosyllables as if the speaker was stumbling about in pitch black room, accompanied by percussive clinking, clashing, hammering sounds; by this time the center of the screen is filled with a block of letters, jumbled as superscript and subscript, sandwiched between two very large inverted commas, until the complete screen is filled with hundreds of letters into a visual state of total chaos. The inherent ambiguity between spoken and written language that is only hinted at in the first minutes is exploited to the extreme until it culminates in a total surrender to a visual and audible anarchy the likes of which could not have been predicted at the opening subtitle, »I don’t remember when the voice began.«

Ultimately, the manner in which Peter Rose and Michael Snow utilize white letters on a black screen brings attention to displayed text as image that can be both stable and unstable; stable for its inherent familiarity, unstable for its inherent ambiguity.

 

 

In my 2011 Videopoetry: A Manifesto I categorized the works that I have just described as Kinetic Text; to date, I have collected more than 50 »contemporary« works in this mode from artists that include David Jhave Johnston, Anna Tolkacheva, Arnaldo Antunes, bp nichol, Caterina Davinio, Susanne Wiegner, Richard Kostelanetz, Peggy Ahwesh, Paul Sharits, Pierre Alferi, W. Mark Sutherland, Peter Weibel and Young-Hae Chang.

Elsewhere, I have written about three possible criteria for evaluating poetry films and videopoems: selection, modification and juxtaposition of text, image and sound. Often, the first decision facing the poet or filmmaker is selecting the image or images that will function as the best fit for the words we will hear or read on the screen.

 

 

In 1980, the video artist Gary Hill produces a 5-minute work »Around & About« that offers a constructive alternative to simply illustrating the text which in this work begins with the off-screen voice of the artist, »I’m sure it could have gone another way, a completely different way.« The 17 syllables in this statement take 4 seconds of »screen time«; for these 4 seconds, Hill shoots extreme close-ups of random objects in the room – the drawer of a metal filing cabinet, a light switch, two jackets hanging on a door, the corner of a keyboard, a jumble of cables, a microphone lying on a table, an edge of a wooden ruler, a crack in the concrete floor – in other words, an exhaustive sweep of all the unremarkable visual signs in his immediate environment. From these, he selects 17 shots, one for each syllable in this sentence. The effect of »equating« one of these images with a word is a difficult if not impossible »reading« of these text-to-image relations; the complexity is further enriched by the number of images required for longer words (for example, three images for a 3-syllable word like »completely«). Like Duchamp’s Anemic Cinema, »Around & About« is a self-reflexive experiment, using film (in this case video) to analyze itself as an artistic activity. What Hill is suggesting to the viewer is that the unfolding of meaning presented by the voice can be complicated by the rhythmic one-to-one rendering of image and syllable.

 

 

 

As one possible function for the image, this one-to-one rendering is substantiated when we look at Hubert Sielecki’s 2007 »ein lautgedicht« (»a sound poem«), in which extreme close ups of bare branches are synchronized with each sound made the poet Gerhard Ruhm as he performs the poem.

 

 

In the same year, Sielecki’s other collaboration with Ruhm results in the 2-minute »Ungleiche Brüder« (»Unequal Brothers«). In the poem, each line or sentence is about either Cain or Abel; these opposites are presented in one of two shots: a tidal wave either rolling to shore (when the recited line is about Cain) or receding (when the recited line is about Abel).

 

 

The self-reflexive experiment can also critique other conventions related to reading a poem; for example, there’s the situation of an everyday poetry reading. [4] My first videopoem had for its subject a poet (myself) reading a poem (»Sympathies of War«). I did not, as was customary, face the audience; between the camera and myself I placed a rear projection screen onto which slides could be projected. I sat in profile, between the screen and the projector, which »projected« my image as a shadow onto the screen. Another poet was given the instruction to say »stop« at various times during the reading. The videopoem played with the customary notion that a poet reading a poem (1) could be seen (only my shadow could be seen), (2) would be standing facing the audience (I was sitting, facing off-screen), (3) would recite the poem without interruption (periodically, I was interrupted by a voice off-screen, entreating me to »stop«) and (4) would remain the focus during the reading (a slide depicting a fragment of a stop sign was projected each time another voice (off camera) spoke the word »stop«). The work was recorded in real time, without any editing; to avoid being in the frame while I was interrupted by a voice telling me to stop, I leaned back out of the frame, allowing a different fragment of a stop sign to be projected for each instance the off-screen voice commanded »stop«. The image I used was not the iconic eight-sided sign; before the production, I had taken dozens of stills of the interior of a stop sign, each capturing a different detail of the white letters on a red background. Like the fragmented reading itself, the interruptive slides were fragmented, abstract versions of a stop sign.

 

 

The case of the post-war experimental filmmaker Maya Deren is a curious one: on the one hand, her films carried forward the 1920s argument for medium-specificity; in all her works, but most notably the 1943 »Meshes of the Afternoon« that was described both as a »film poem« and »poetic psychodrama«, text-image relations were never an issue because she, like her »cinema pur« predecessors, excluded the material presence of words, displayed or voiced. On the other hand, she was also a film theorist. On Oct. 28, 1953, she participated in a historical symposium whose topic was Poetry and the Film. Flanked by her adversaries, playwright Arthur Miller, poet Dylan Thomas and critic Parker Tyler, Maya Deren introduced a radical concept that would influence the way we could perceive and identify the poetic moment in a »dramatic narrative«: in her view, the narrative continuity we expect as viewers is necessarily a horizontal movement, while the poetic is distinguished by its vertical movement; »it is a ›vertical‹ investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment so that you have poetry concerned not with what is occurring, but with what it feels like or what it means.« [5]

It somewhat explains Deren’s fascination with dreams where there’s no sense of time, it’s outside of language, it’s an art-for-art’s sake »space for itself« carved out of a horizontal perception of narrative. For Deren, Shakespeare is a good example: »In Shakespeare you have the drama moving forward on a ›horizontal‹ plane of development, of one circumstance – one action – leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once and a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and at that moment he builds a pyramid or investigates it ›vertically,‹ if you will, so that you have a ›horizontal‹ development with periodic ›vertical‹ investigations which are the poems, which are the monologues where he brings together all the various images that relate to one singular emotional state, intensifying that moment in the horizontal development.« She concedes that in cinema too there must exist a horizontal development, but frankly, she is only interested in those moments that come periodically, after the horizontal development has run its course.

In his essay titled »The Cinema, Instrument of Poetry«, Luis Bunuel recalled Man Ray saying, »The worst films I might have seen, the ones that send me off to sleep, always contain five marvelous minutes, and the best, the most celebrated ones, only have five minutes worth seeing; that is, in both good and bad movies, and over and above, or despite, the good intentions of their makers, cinematic poetry strives to come to the surface and show itself.« [6]

If Maya Deren and Man Ray are justified in identifying poetry as vertical, intensified moments or five marvelous moments in a movie, are they not, in fact, describing the poetry of cinema? Does the »verticality« of poetry even matter?

Only if it’s useful.

Consider how important the »political« was to Eisenstein. In the following description, if one substitutes »aesthetic« for »political«, applying Eisenstein’s vision to the making of poetry-films and videopoems becomes clear and useful: »The juxtaposition of unrelated shots into new relations would jolt the audience out of a kind of aesthetic somnambulism and into a new awareness of the aesthetic relations of things. Montage would punch people into aesthetic consciousness.« [7]

 

Take Ralf Schmerberg’s 2003 cinema verité-style »Nach grauen Tagen«, (»After Grey Days«). For what feels like an interminable first 3 and a half minutes, we are witnesses to a chaotic extract of time in the dysfunctional world of a family of eight, 3 children, 2 crying babies, an aunt, a father, a harassed mother, and 2 loose bunnies on the floor of a tiny living room. The hand-held camera intensifies the scene with fast cuts of pans and zooms, darting from time to time to the mother in shirt and underpants, frantic to restore order. We hear accusations, complaints, the children screaming, there’s a children’s electronic keyboard playing in the background when the father decides to grab a vacuum cleaner and blow up a giant balloon. Unpredictably, the mother grabs the balloon, stretches the opening and forces her head inside. Suddenly, silence fills the room. We see her head inside the balloon, raised to the ceiling, the sky, she begins to speak with a soft voice, reciting the words to Ingeborg Bachmann’s poem, »To be free for a single hour/Free! Far Away! …« When the father bursts the balloon surrounding the mother, the concrete reality that has been written with this film has run its course and, in the vertical moment that has just passed, Man Ray could say, ›cinematic poetry has come to the surface and shown itself‹.

If the vertical notion of poetry helps us understand Maya Deren’s ›investigation of a situation‹, perhaps we can do the same for the cryptic messages in Pasolini’s essay (and its title), »The Cinema of Poetry«, a title that was co-opted by the leading historian of avant-garde cinema, P. Adams Sitney for his 2015 book. (In the 1968 »Manifesto for a New Theatre«, Pasolini uses a similar syntax to argue for »The Theatre of the Word« which he contrasts with »The Theatre of Chatter« and the avant-garde »Theater of the Scream.«) [8]

Because the contemporary poetry-film or videopoem is a singular example of a poem, I question whether we can attribute an entire feature-length »art film« to be so called. Poetry, poetic or poem, you choose. What is more useful is Pasolini’s emphasis that it is the concreteness of cinema’s imagery that »speaks« the poetry of reality most pronounced when it’s focused on the underworld of society.

And then, of course, we have his equivalent phrase to Maya Deren’s »verticality« – »free indirect discourse« or »the free indirect point-of-view shot«. By free, I imagine he meant that it was a technique to access the essence of poetry and it could come from anywhere, from languages that are verbal and non-verbal. By »indirect« though, I can’t help but think of its having been used by Michael Riffaterre to describe both the abstract term »poetry« as well as what a poem is and what a poem does: »Poetry expresses concepts and things by indirection; to put it simply, a poem says one thing and means another.« [9] And that, for me, is a better explanation of text-to-image relations in poetry-films and videopoems.

Indirect discourse is also inner speech, the interior monologue we hear when a poetry-film or a videopoem uses the poem as a voice-over. For Pasolini, the use of free indirect discourse signals a social consciousness.

 

 

 

Argentinian experimental filmmaker Azucena Losana is no stranger to political and social activism. Her 2009 »LoCo (paparazzi III)« uses Bolivian poet Oscar Alfaro’s conspicuously Marxist poem-fable, The Revolutionary Bird, for its voice-over; the success of this videopoem – to ascribe a »new meaning« to the original written poem – will depend on the artist’s selection of images. Losana finds and selects footage from a closed-circuit surveillance camera focused on a wildly gesturing homeless man who sits every day on his space of the sidewalk, surrounded by his belongings stuffed in plastic and burlap bags; as a ›free indirect point-of-view shot‹, the subject who self-identifies as Loco and has been papparazied day after day after day, has achieved a status unavailable to people of his station, his incoherent babbling translated into a visionary poem.

In conclusion, the questions facing us in 2019 are: How successful was this synthesis of the two arts? How do we measure success in contemporary poetry-films and videopoems? If it’s a work that provides »a poetic experience«, is there a perspective to experience the work »in the right way« so that we can say ›I understood and appreciated what the work was conveying‹ and, if so, whose criteria were we using, the filmmaker’s, the poet’s, the critic’s, the festival’s, the art world’s? There are different ideologies at work in every one of these perspectives and, depending on the weight of the baggage brought to answer these questions, the outcome can be negative, positive or neutral. Think grant applications and festival prizes.

Writing about videopoetry and poetry films, I naturally assumed that the best position, the best perspective I could present to my readers, is one of critical distance. It hasn’t quite worked out that way. For this essay, I have been listening closely to the many voices that have been presenting themselves to me, sound bites gleaned from books, essays, reviews, interviews, predominantly from filmmakers, filmmakers who may have also written, studied, written about what they believed about poetry, but filmmakers first. This was at the back of my mind as I was writing. But as the fortunes of life would have it, when it all began for me in the late ’70s, I was a poet not a filmmaker. That I had access to video was also fortuitous. That I was moved to experiment with video for the singular objective of advancing the range of experiencing poems, whether in sound, image or performance may account for some bias. I tend to look for the poem first. I hope I’m not alone in this. I think I hear another voice now, the voice of Gayatri Spivak, on the eve of celebrating the 40th anniversary of her ground-breaking translation of Jacques Derrida’s »Of Grammatology«, saying »it’s not about critical distance; it’s about intimate distance.«

The last word should go the one who actually makes it all happen – the audience. It’s got everything, Man Ray’s five marvelous minutes, Maya Deren’s verticality, Pasolini’s interior monologue, subjectivity … let’s always remember, one person’s gaze is another’s blur.

»There were fifteen short films crammed into a one-hour time-slot. One of the films was so good it caused me to completely zone out and not give the other works the respect and attention that they deserved. The voice in my head and I would have preferred some time to reflect on what we were seeing, but the movies kept streaming past, eventually in a blur …«

– Michael Scott, Swindon Poetry Festival, 2016

The lecture was presented in a shortened form on June 1st 2019 at the Colloquium »The Cinema of Poetry«, which was part of the 4th Weimar Poetry Film Award.


Notes
[1] Sergei Eisenstein, ›Laocoon‹, in: Selected Works, vol. 2: Towards a Theory of Montage, Michael Glenny and Richard Taylor (ed.), London: BFI 1991, 153–54.
[2] Fil Ieropoulos, The Film Poem, 2010. Metaphorically, of course. Scratching words into film was a technique used by Su Friedrich »Gently Down The Stream« (1981), Maurice Lemaitre »L’Amour réinventé« (1979), Peter Rose »Spirit Matters« (1984), Stan Brakhage »Novalis« (1994), Nick Carbo »Can you lower your trope please«(2005).
[3] Adams Sitney, Modernist Montage: The Obscurity of Vision in Cinema and Literature, Columbia University Press, 1990,  22
[4] See my recent essay, Talking Points, regarding the category Performance, videos of poets reciting poems.
[5] Poetry and the Film: A Symposium, Film Culture, No. 29, 1963. Maya Deren was not the first to equate poetry with the vertical and the narrative with the horizontal. In his 1947 book, The Film Sense, Eisenstein compares the horizontal movement or development of film shots to the horizontal, linear development of a »melody« in music, as opposed to the vertical orchestration that produces the effect of a »harmony«.
[6] The Shadow and its Shadow: Surrealist Writings on the Cinema, Paul Hammond, ed., 2000.
[7] Mark Reid, Cinema, Poetry, Pedagogy: Montage as Metaphor, 2005.
[8] David Ward, A Genial Analytic Mind: ›Film‹ and ›Cinema‹ in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s Film Theory, in Pier Paolo Pasolini: Contemporary Perspectives, Patrick Rumble and Bart Testa (1994).
[9] Michael Riffaterre, Semiotics of Poetry, 1978.