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Matthew Wright (eNuminous)
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Village Savant at Radical Madness, Owner of invisible caterpillar media.
Village Savant at Radical Madness, Owner of invisible caterpillar media.

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Poetry in Film: Art Forms and Images

Matthew Chenoweth Wright

2008


"Art is thinking in images."
-Victor Shkovsky

Poetic segments in film can be considered to be an encapsulated  art form, separate from mere film or poetry.  

Poetry in film, considered as a synergy between cinema and abstract image poetry, has a variety of effects and techniques, and is generally used to heighten emotional mood during poetic film segments.  

From it's use in dialogue and monologue, to voiceover and character narration, image from the film, in either contract or sympathy to the poetic image, combine to form a new art form greater than it's constituent media of poetry and cinema.

The images that exist in the minds of the listeners of poetry are combined with the visual images from the film.  

The juxtaposition of a literary reading of a poem, which can be as a narrative, dialogue or monologue during a segment of film can be taken out of the context of the film (it is, by definition, the segment of film that only contains the reading of a single poem and the accompanying images.)  

At the same time, the poem has the additional element of images from the film being supplied at the same time the listener is creating images in their own mind from the poem, so is no longer the original poem, but something new.  

This technique usually uses strong, memorable or popular poems, noted for strong imagery, alongside visually congruent, or occasionally completely opposite or dissonant filmed images.

There has been a considerable mix of opinion about poetry in film and filmed poetry as art, which is understandable considering the subjectivity of the media.  

While some, such as Boris Eikhenbaum (1926), compared poetic film to dreams,

"The face comes closer to you, then you see another face, a window, a street, etc.  It is as if you see a novel you've read earlier in your sleep"

others cede the responsibility for molding literate and visual images to our consciousness, such as Jean Epstein's (1926) view that,

"Cinema [was] the most powerful medium of poetry, the most real medium of the unreal."

Subjective classifications of forms of art can be very important if people are to have a common language to talk about the meaning in the art; knowing the differences between types of media can assist in communication and sharing of ideas about the art and the meaning of the intention of the artist. 

 Poetry, as a literary form or oral tradition, film, as a combination of image and sound, are two basic forms of art, as are dance, painting, drama, novels and photography itself.  

A mere dramatic presentation of poetry, such as an actor on the screen reading a poem, is still very much in the realm of poetry.  

However, the context of the entire film, that characters' actions in it before the poem is read, and any visual film images that complement or contrast the images that exist in the minds of the audience who hear the words of the poem can add much to the reading and meaning of the literature and therefore the experience of a poem in a film, presented in this manner, is different from the source media, poem and film.

In the movie "Apocalypse Now: Redux", the character of Col. Kurtz (Marlon Brando's renegade soldier/philosopher, targeted for "termination with extreme predjudice" by Martin Sheen's torn and disillusioned Capt. Willard in Francis Ford Copolla's 1975 retooling of Joseph Conrad's novel "Heart of Darkness") recites quotes from T. S. Eliot's poem "The Hollow Men":

The Hollow Men

Mistah Kurtz-he dead
A penny for the Old Guy

We are the hollow men
We are the stuffed men
Leaning together
Headpiece filled with straw. Alas!
Our dried voices, when
We whisper together
Are quiet and meaningless
As wind in dry grass
Or rats' feet over broken glass
In our dry cellar

...
...

This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.


During the segment of film this poem is quoted in, there are very deep tones, shadows and humidity, and air of resigned finality, of ceasing to struggle, and an almost pungent visual atmosphere, the interior of Col. Kurtz's house of death, a decaying playhouse the camera plays to, measuring in a poetic way the desperate interplay between Brando and Sheen, with the poem's visual images of defeat complementing the film's images in a way that adds an extra element to the poem's meaning, making the words more intimate --more about Col. Kurtz's insanity and self-aware mediocrity.  

The poem changes, and the movie segment is made more emotionally impacting.

In the film "Four Weddings & a Funeral", images of a funeral procession sadly winding it's way to the chapel are complemented by the reading by a mourner of the poem "Funeral Blues" by W. H. Auden. 

 The combination of the stark images in this poem stand in direct sympathy with the visual identity of this scene, again creating a synergy and an addition to both the film and the poem, exceeding the bounds of both.

Showing a metaphorical link rather than a direct connection is a different technique, showcased in some movies by using elements such as mirrors or water to suggest sexuality and desire, or other more dreamlike images, such as in the movie "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams", in which very poetic images are woven between poetic and dialogue-driven segments.  

Metaphorical images combine with solid, yet dream-like visual film to create a fantastic world for the audience to participate in, because poetry must have its images come directly from the listener's own experience.

Lyric film is a subjective experience for that very reason; the audience carries it's own world into the movie theater to merge with the world of a film.  As Juan Egea (2007) wrote,

"To state that a film is lyrical or poetic seems to promise a cinematic experience that will somehow differ from our ordinary experience of movies as storytelling.  

Such a statement also seems to assume that poetry creates a stir in the film's flow, that it hints at the road not taken for cinema as artistic production, that -- if only for a fleeting moment -- the medium of the moving picture is exonerated from being simply entertainment, just plot- oriented fiction or the mere photographic projection of reality.  

To state that a film is poetic ultimately suggests that we may in fact know what both the lyric and cinema really are.  It is, after all, a matter of essences."

Because of the extra layer of abstraction found in image poetry, it's art mutates when translated to screen, and the segments of film that are poetic also differ from pure film for much the same reasons; dialogue in film references the action, continuity and characters, and is also wedded to the images, but only these poetic moments in movies can create a completely direct emotional connection with the audience -- the poems are usually familiar and resonant works, which is the reason they are usually included in such films, and can take the experiencer deeper into the reality of the film, seeing a sympathetic or contrasting image combined with abstract words.


Bibliography

Dillon, S. (2004) Derek Jarman and lyric film: the mirror and the sea.  Texas: University of Texas Press

Egea, J. (2007, Spring) Poetry and Film: El Sol Del Membrillo and Los Amantes Del Circulo Polar.  Hispanic Review, 2007 (Spring), 159.

Eikhenbaum, B. (1926) Literature i kino (Literature and cinema).  Russia.

Emmens, C.  (1977, May/June) Poets and poetry on film.  Media and Methods, 13 (9), 42-46.

McConnell, F. (1979) Storytelling and myth-making: images from film and literature.  Oxford:  Oxford University Press.

Murray, E. (1972) The cinematic imagination: writers and the motion pictures.  Michigan: Ungar.

O'Neil, J. (June 3, 2007) Poet mom: poetry in movies.  Retrieved 7/10/08, from http://www.poetmom.blogspot.com/2007/06/poetry-in-movies.html

Sitney, P. (2002) Visionary film: the American avant-garde, 1943-2000.  Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Smith, A. (2004, Summer) Andri Tarkovsky as reader of Arsenii Tarkovsky's poetry in the film "Mirror".  Russian Studies in Literature, 40 (3), 46-63.

Vito, C. (2008) Guide to poetry in film.  Retrieved 7/10/08, from ChicagoPoetry







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