Have a Good Time

January 25, 2011

On “meanings and reverberations” and the writing of space out of film

Peter Bogdanovich gives an account of “film poetry” that “few readers of Poetry would dispute”:

What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative.  Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance.  This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images.  Among the other poets [in addition to Jean Renoir], D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.

So, that list: not very exciting, not very surprising that Bogdanovich should have a lengthy male canon of “real film poets” who are 90% white and whose total output ended (with Welles’s F for Fake) in 1974.  But I’m fascinated by the definition in the first sentence, and especially the attempt to detach “meanings and reverberations” from “the geography of place”—I think partly because it feels to me like such a good example of the kind of disavowal of film and its capabilities that we’re forced to make when we decide to get all programmatic about what counts and what doesn’t count as real poetry onscreen.  “Camera placement, and therefore”: in this paragraph, everything follows from the location of the camera in space, and somehow it follows from there that “geography” must be transcended?

There’s an implicit statement about the aims or the borders of poetry itself, here, that seems related to Daniel’s points on the ideological exclusion of experimental voices at the New Yorker.  A film historian as knowledgeable as Bogdanovich obviously doesn’t need to be informed that there are plenty of film and video artists whose work isn’t grounded in “the needs of narrative” at all, and is concerned either not at all, or almost exclusively, with “the geography of place.”  (So much is already being cut away even in the claim that the real poets of film are distinguished by their “use of the camera…”)  Yet it seems to go without saying that a conversation about film poetry should be limited to popular narrative filmmaking.  If the goal is to go beyond geography and narrative with a camera, then there have to be a camera, geography, and narrative.

Even within the terms of that discussion (which is a fine discussion to have), there’s plenty to dispute.  It’s certainly true that I find it harder to imagine someone describing a mainstream story-based film that happened to be computer-animated, for example, as “film poetry,” probably for a big constellation of reasons that it would be worth trying to unpack.  (And I’m sure there are obvious counterexamples, and I’m sure part of this difficulty for me would just be my lingering bad feelings about the James Franco Howl, where I thought the attempt to get to the heart of a preexisting poem by self-consciously ditching an established “geography of place” for an orange-gray digital cartoon world fell very flat.  Not that the courtroom with Jon Hamm, or indeed Franco as Ginsberg, felt much less flat to me.)  And this is definitely a nice opportunity to say that my favorite critique of mainstream narrative filmmaking as the production of “unique and personal images,” and its always interestingly unsuccessful efforts to erase (political) geography, would be Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself—which, I was recently really happy to see, someone uploaded to YouTube.  But it occurred to me that I was also jarred by Bogdanovich’s claim for an even more subjective reason, which is that of course I’ve been in the position of finding the language of some narrative films so beautiful or so quietly implicatively rich that I described their images and effects to other people or to myself by failing to describe them, and saying the equivalent of, “It’s like film poetry”; and the first three examples that came to mind (which might just be the same as saying “three of my favorite movies,” or maybe not) were The Piano, Days of Heaven, and Wendy and Lucy. Which are, I realize, three movies that not only basically refuse, to the extent that they can, to locate many of their “meanings and reverberations” “beyond the geography of place,” but that insist—visually, affectively, narratively, politically—on the impossibility, ever, of transcending that geography.  Bodies are stuck where they don’t want to be, and the painful effort of getting from one point to another is what’s under consideration.  Maps that are hard to read, not enough money to facilitate movement, vehicles that break, objects that block, companions who get lost, progress impeded by landscape and mud and dirt that sticks to shoes and clothes.  The geography of place absorbs so many hopeful reverberations, dully, the way an ocean absorbs a piano.

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