The first time I watched this movie, this scene -- not the scene in which Warren Beatty pushes Natalie Wood to her knees, or frolics naked under the waterfall with the town tramp(the girl in the orange sweater here) -- made me prick up my ears. When Miss Metcalf (Martine Bartlett) made Natalie Wood read the Wordsworth lines aloud, I scribbled them on a scrap of paper and found the poem in one of my mother's college textbooks. I was about twelve or thirteen years old and for the next few days managed to slip a few lines of WW into all of my conversations as I tried to memorize Wordsworth's Immortality Ode. It's still one of my all-time favorite poems.
(ed. note: this post originally appeared on May 3, 2008)
"Is that what you want on your gravestone when you die -- that you raised the dividend to three dollars or four or even five or six or seven?"
William Holden in Executive Suite (1954)
Barbara Stanwyck & Louis Calhern (pictured, left,enjoying a smoke off camera) & with Fredric March, June Allyson, Walter Pidgeon, Nina Foch, Paul Douglas, Dean Jagger, and if Shelley Winters comes, can spring be far behind?
I’ve been teaching at the Vermont College of Fine Arts (VCFA) Postgraduate Conference for the past week, and while there I had a few moments when my vision of poetry expanded. I don’t mean this in any kind of New Age, epiphanic way, but in a real world utilitarian way. As a poet practicing the craft in the 21st Century, have you ever pondered what poetry is really doing—how it applies to life, how it affects people, how far is its reach?—in the age of the internet, streaming video, the rebirth of 3D in theaters, and the advent of Netflix in homes? Well, I think about it all the time, and I thought about it with a hyper-awareness this week in Montpelier, VT. I’ll try to recall a few of these moments this week for this blog.
The structure of VCFA is that, as a participant, you attend workshops daily (I taught a manuscript workshop); you attend readings throughout the week by all participants and faculty; and you attend craft talks by each of the faculty members. It’s intense but generous in its offerings. I condensed into an hour a craft class that I teach over the course of a semester at the University of Michigan called Cinematic Movement. Like I said, it’s intense but generous. An hour before the class my mother called me from Ohio. She was just checking in to see how things were going; I told her I was preparing to go teach a class. She asked me what I was teaching. I had to pause for a second to take all the varnish off of it. The problem is that I was still, just an hour before, pondering what, exactly, I really had to say. I told her, I was teaching a class on what poets can learn from watching film. She then followed up her question with a statement: “Oh, so this is about the book you just wrote.” I had to think about that, too, for a second…Yes, I thought, it kind of is.
In fact, though, the class I taught was about the book I wanted to write; it was about the ambition I had for the book I just wrote. I wanted to write a book in which people could engage as easily as one might engage watching a good film. In the class, I talked about the ability for the filmmaker to ground and orient a viewer both spatially and temporally in the scene—scene after scene. I talk about the ways in which matching action and shot sequences work to place us in a scene and to place us in a situation. If a film is even remotely competent, we, at least, know what’s going on, where we are, and who is creating the action. And I compared the need for standardized shot sequences—things like standard coverage and the 180-degree rule—to keep viewers situated in the scene, to the need for associative patterns and logical transitions in a poem to keep a reader grounded. I compared the failure in this structure to the moments I experience in a workshop when I say that a line or a word has “taken me out of the poem.” There is a certain form to the way shots are sequenced, and we are as acculturated to those forms as much as we are believers in the sonnet. At this point on the timeline, we expect a cut in film every two to three seconds—shifting points of view, toggling between images—and we don’t get dizzy. Avid editing suddenly makes some of our favorite classic films from the 60s and 70s feel slow.
But all of that is not the point.
The point is this: What do we use all of that for? Well, we use it to tell a story. We use it to forget that any craft is involved at all. We do it so that we can forget where the strings are attached. We do it to direct the focus on what is being said. Too often, as in the teaching of this class, we get overly fixated on craft to the detriment of content. I realize over time that teaching craft gets easier and easier. Teaching what to pour into is what cannot be taught; we have to choose that for ourselves, but this is the stuff that makes us artists of high art. Sadly, too few students want to hear this. At VCFA, I was blessed with a workshop that ranged in age from 26 to 78; that included, blacks, whites, Latinos, straights and gays; and that even had a range of religious beliefs. These folks had some shit to write about, and we got to talk about content and how to shape it through a few tweaks with craft. I realized that this was not my typical experience teaching a workshop, but it took me a while to really home in on why.
This occurred to me recently as I watched the awkwardly titled Lee Daniels’ The Butler. Despite the title, it’s not about Lee Daniels’ butler; Lee Daniels just directed the film. The movie is better written on a scene-by-scene basis than it is as a series of scenes comprising a film, but it is, nonetheless, despite its reliance on formula from time to time, better written than 95% of what is coming out of Hollywood today. (A few critics have knocked the writing for being too formulaic, but if this is the formula, more films need to get their hands on it. Cable TV and Netflix are kicking film in the ass because the studios seem afraid to make movies that really speak to the human condition, but that’s another blog entry.) On the surface, it’s a film that feels like my least favorite genre: the biopic. At its core, though, it’s about relationships: the relationship between fathers and sons, between husbands and wives, between neighbors, and the relationship among men who work together. There’s also the larger issue centered on the power dynamics between superiors and subordinates, which is threaded through each relationship in the film. This is the real strength of the writing in this one; this is found in its nuances, and this is what I found emotionally striking. When I see a film, I’m always asking if it, in some way, transcends its genre to offer something new, and in this case, Lee Daniels’ The Butler manages to cover the full life of a figure who is fairly unknown, but the film uses this figure as a marker of history. That is to say, we recognize the historical figures orbiting around his story more than we recognize the figure at its center.
If this film were a poem, it would be an epic poem. Twenty years ago, if you were to ask me what is an epic poem—what it does, even—I would have said that it chronicles the culture and history of a people by tracking the journey of a hero. I find that definition to be much too narrow now, though. Indeed, I think epics really teach us about the psychology and the collective thinking of a people by tracking a central figure who is emblematic of that experiential frame of mind over a span of years. When I saw Lee Daniels’ The Butler, I thought, Yes, why can’t we start teaching this? And where are our epic poems of the 21st century? I think we need to start thinking of content as craft and talk more about life when we talk about the art of the poem. The greatest artistic problem set before us is the greatest challenge we face in our day: talking across ethnic/racial lines, talking across gender lines, talking across lines of sexual orientation, talking across regional and generational lines. If we don’t attend to that problem, we might as well stay home and watch cable.
The subtitle to the film Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer, a documentary airing on HBO tonight
(June 10, 9 p.m.), is accurate: Nadia Tolokonnikova, Masha Alyokhina, and Katya
Samutsevich, who were arrested on Feb. 21, 2012, after performing for 40
seconds on the alter of Moscow’s Christ the Savior Cathedral, do indeed embody
many of the precepts of 1970s punk-rock culture. Although presenting themselves
as a band, they view their work as performance art as much musical performance.
A collective of unstated numbers of young women, Pussy Riot has found its most
effective communication tool to be planned “spontaneous” musical performances
that consist of rudimentary songs proclaiming their feminist,
the documentary, the members come off as tough-minded, resourceful, and wry:
“It’s not too hard,” one of them says of their punk-band strategy: “Write a
song and think of the place to perform.” Filmmakers Mike Lerner and Maxim
Pozdorovkin have footage of the group assembling at a protest site, divvying up
the musical duties (“You play the guitar”), and diving headlong into a song or
two before scramming.
the sacrilegious sin-crime and immediate arrest that made the group famous
worldwide lasted a mere 40 seconds captured on what looks like a jittery
cellphone, the bulk of A Punk Prayer
is taken up by the show-trial of what I’d call the Pussy Riot Three. Placed
behind a glass cage, the three women are allowed to make occasional statements,
but their defense team comes off irritatingly smug and complacent – it’s as
though the lawyers defending Pussy Riot lacked Pussy Riot’s own awareness of
just how offended the combination of defying the Orthodox Church and Vladimir
Putin’s leadership would be to the court system.
trial exerts a sickening fascination. The film is warmed by the comments of
some of the defendants’ parents. Soon after Nadia tells us that her father is “wonderful…
so supportive,” he proves it. A thoughtful, baby-boomer generation man, he tells
of being told by his daughter of Pussy Riot’s church-invasion plan as they rode
the subway. He says he immediately tried to talk her out of it, but “after a
few stops” on the subway ride, he realized she was determined to go through
with her actions. His reaction? “I started helping out with the lyrics,” he
Unmentioned in the
film is the debt Pussy Riot says it owes to the Russian poet Alexander
Vvedensky (1904-1941), himself a government-suppressed poet of organized
anarchy, and, like the Pussy Riot Three, a member of an art collective, OBERIU
(Association of Real Art). During her group’s trial, Nadia specifically cited
Vvedensky’s “principle of ‘poor rhyme’… He said, ‘Sometimes I think up two
rhymes, a good and a poor one, and I pick the poor one, because it is the one
that is right.”
Vvedensky poem collected in the superb, recently published An Invitation for Me to Think (NYRB Poets) includes lines that
could be a Pussy Riot lyric:
Will they cut or bite off their heads
It makes me want to puke.
All those about to die get cold feet.
They have activity of stomach,
Before death it lives as hard as it can.
But why are you afraid to burn up, man?
Nadia and Masha are
serving two-year sentences in prison camps; Katya was released on appeal. One
key moment in A Punk Prayer occurs
during a break in the trial: When informed that Madonna had written the group’s
name on her back to display it at one of the concerts, and had donned a
balaclava onstage as a gesture of solidarity, the faces of Nadia, Masha, and
Katia are intent, avid. They seem not to be thinking, “Cool! A big star likes
us, maybe we’ll become famous, too, and be freed!” Instead, what their faces
communicate is: “Oh, good. Maybe she gets it. Maybe some of her fans will now
hear about us and get it. Our message still has a freedom on Madonna’s back,
and in covering Madonna’s face. She’s not as good as we are at communicating
this freedom, this audacity, but she’ll do until we get out.”
(After tonight’s premiere, Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer will be repeated on June 13, 16, 18, and