Jennifer MacMillan's The Garden Dissolves into Air (2006)
“Poetic”: Lord knows how many times I’ve flung that word about when describing a film. But what exactly does it mean?
In 1953, Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 put together a symposium called “Poetry and the Film.” The participants were: Maya Deren; playwright Arthur Miller; poet Dylan Thomas; poet/critic Parker Tyler; and filmmaker Willard Maas. The transcript of their discussion in Film Culture Reader (edited by P. Adams Sitney) makes for fascinating reading.
Maya Deren speaks of the poetic dimension as being “vertical” as opposed to drama and action being “horizontal.” She is distinguishing between the narrative (“horizontal”) and the lyric (“vertical”):
The poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a “vertical” investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms for something that is invisible, which is the feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement.
[…] In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a “horizontal” plane of development, of one circumstance—action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in 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. […] You can have operas where the “horizontal” development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.
Deren, in generalizing her idea to the other arts, also gives an example from dance: a pas de deux might be thought of as a poetic “exploration of a moment” after which the dance piece returns to its plot line.
Arthur Miller expresses the view that speech and sound are redundant to the art-form of cinema, whose potential lies in the image alone. (To my mind, this is an interesting if needlessly purist view.) He also differs with Deren in that action and drama—her “horizontal” dimension—are very important to him.
I think that the reason why it seems to many of us that the silent film is the purest film and the best is because it mimics the way we dream. We mostly dream silent, black and white. A few of us dream in technicolor, but that’s disputed by psychologists. It’s sort of a boast: Certain people want to have more expensive dreams . . . I think that the film is the closest mechanical or aesthetic device that man has ever made to the structure of the dream. In a dream, montage is of the essence […] The cutting in a dream is from symbolic point to symbolic point. No time is wasted. There is no fooling around between one important situation and the most important moment in the next situation.
[…] [I]n the drama there was a time, as you know, when action was quite rudimentary, and the drama consisted of a chorus which told the audience, in effect, what happened. Sometimes, it developed into a thespian coming forward and imitating action such as we understand action today. Gradually the drama grew into a condition where the chorus fell away, and all of its comment was incorporated into the action. Now for good or ill, that was the development of the drama. I’m wondering now whether it’s moot, whether it’s to any point, to arrange a scenario so that it is necessary (and if it isn’t necessary, of course it’s aesthetically unwarranted) for words to be added to the organization of images, and whether that makes it more poetic. I don’t think so.
I cringed when I read the condescending reaction of the men—especially Dylan Thomas and Arthur Miller—to Maya Deren’s views. Miller starts out disagreeing calmly, then quickly grows impatient with Deren. “To hell with that “vertical” and “horizontal.” It doesn’t mean anything,” he says, which provokes applause from the audience. Dylan Thomas (dripping snark) claims not to understand Deren’s ideas and sneers: “The only avant-garde play I saw in New York was in a cellar, or sewer, or somewhere.” [laughter from the audience]
One of Bill Nichols’ six modes of documentary is the “poetic mode.” He uses it to refer to a type of film—first dating from the 1920’s—that foregoes continuity editing in order to “explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions.” Rather than 'explain' or describe action in logical detail, these films might stress mood, tone, rhythm and form.
In the Bill Nichols-edited book, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, Annette Michelson writes that Deren was arguing (in the Cinema 16 symposium) prophetically for a certain "duality of linguistic structure, that very duality that [Roman] Jakobson was to propose, through his study of aphasia, as the metonymic and metaphoric modes..." (I know nothing of Jakobson's ideas, and would be glad to learn from those of you who do!)
Also: see Tom Gunning's excellent foreword to Abigail Child's book This is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film, in which Gunning also discusses the Cinema 16 symposium.
If you like, please feel free to share ideas on what "poetic film" or "poetry in film" might mean to you....
We've lost too many musical artists lately (Alice Coltrane, Anita O'Day, Michael Brecker) and now comes news of Peer Raben's passing. In memoriam of his work with Fassbinder, here are: (1) "Lili Marleen" sung by Hanna Schygulla [mp3]; and (2) "Blues for Franz" [mp3] from The Third Generation.