Thursday, 30 April 2009

the poetics of film school

Turning to the Page

I remember that cavernous silence
after my first declaration of love,
then, feeling I must have been misunderstood, saying it again,

and, years later, with someone else,
exclaiming, "That was so good!"
and the foreign language she - who was
speaking English - used in response.

I learned there's nothing more shaming
or as memorable as an intimacy
unreturned. And turned, therefore,
to the expected silence of a page,

where I might simultaneously assert
and hide, be my own disappointment,
which saved me for a while.
But soon the page whispered

I'd mistaken its vastness for a refuge,
its whiteness for a hospital
for the pathetic. Fill me up, it said,
give me sorrow because I must have joy,

all the travails of love because
distances are where the safe reside.
Bring to me, it said, continual proof
you've been alive.

So I mentioned in one of my last posts that I bought two new books of poetry the last time I went to Oxford, one of which was Stephen Dunn's 2004 The Insistence of Beauty. I must not have paid very close attention when I was picking it out as I read the whole thing last night and was somewhat disappointed. The only poem I really liked was this one above, Turning to the Page. The rest of the poems feel too watered down, too unfocused, and though it sounds strange, not enough about words. I think he loves himself more than he loves words and it shows on the page.

I don't really love the poem above, but I think the last two stanzas are brilliant and perfectly encapsulate two of the 'big' ideas of writing. One is the how and why we write, the need to validate a life lived in words and on paper, to understand actions through disciplined phrasing. I love especially 'mistaken its vastness for a refuge' because I think that any writer can understand the feeling - sometimes a blank piece of paper is a curse, a taunt. But most of the time it is a refuge, 'a hospital for the pathetic', the melancholy, the lonely and I think he captures this sentiment very well. The other thing I loved about this poem is its undercover reference to poetic history - the Wordsworthian 'emotion recollected in tranquillity' which comes through clearly in the first half of the poem, but especially in the idea that 'distances are where the safe reside.' Personally, I don't agree with Wordsworth's poetic prescription, but still it's interesting to see contemporary poets striving toward this model and how it works itself out in their poems.

In other completely unrelated news, I had my first digital film-making class last night. I think it will be fun to learn how to make a film and finally get off my lazy arse and work out how to use Final Cut Pro, but I'd forgotten what some aspiring 'creatives' are like. I don't want to pre-judge my fellow students too harshly, but why is it that people are just desperate to do something as a career when they hardly even like the medium they so desperately want to work in. I took this class because I love film and have always wanted to learn how to make films so that I can mess about on my own. I don't necessarily want to work in the film industry or become a filmmaker - I'd just like to learn more about it. Like most of the other art forms I'm interested in, craft is fascinating to me. For me, film should be a marriage between storytelling and photography - all my favourite films balance this well, even if I do tend to favour films which are technically or cinematographically (making up words again...) more interesting than the story they're trying to tell. I suppose Russian Ark is a good example of this - as stories goes, this one is pretty meh, but shooting an entire 90 minute film in one single take is nothing short of miraculous.

And this is where the film-making class gets really interesting, because I don't even think any of these other 10 people who profess to be desperate to work as film-makers have even thought about the visual side of film. Maybe it's because I have a background in photography that I get so hung up on the visual and the cinematography, but I nearly died when, at the end of our first course, the instructor gave us 20 seconds to decide on our favourite film and share it with the class. I can't remember them all, but of the ones I can people said:

Annie Hall
Kill Bill 2
When Harry Met Sally
All About My Mother
High School Musical 3 (Sadly, this isn't a joke)
Steam: The Turkish Bath

I have to make a short film with these people!!!!! The course instructor said his favourite film was Star Wars, which even I can admit isn't a horrible answer - if we're going for cinematic history and breaking new ground - but it's a coward's answer. I toyed with saying Lars Von Trier's The Five Obstructions - probably the only film I've ever watched more than 5 times - or Andrea Arnold's incredible Red Road , which was shot largely in Von Trier's Dogme 95 style - a movement I'm very interested in that focuses on 'purity' in filmmaking: hand-held cameras, shot on location, no additional sound work, natural lighting and so on. In the end though, I went with Bertolucci's 1970 film The Conformist which I saw last year at the BFI on a big screen. It's possibly the most visually stunning film I've ever seen - the story is compelling enough to hold your interest for two hours - but the amount of care that went into the photography and editing of this film is obvious in every single frame. To make a movie with such precision and such artistry, this is what I think the goal of film-making should be.

It's all for fun anyhow, something to distract me from my looming chapter deadline. And I'm looking forward to seeing the final project and messing around on my own in between. So keep your eyes peeled - in 10 weeks I'll have a monstrosity of a short film created by a group of rom-com loving 'storytellers' (as the course instructor now insists on calling us) to post up here for your viewing pleasure.


Anonymous said...

looking forward to your film. Very much enjoyed this post which warrants, I've decided, more than a quick lunchtime scan while I chomp down an apple.

Stephen Dunn, by the way, is a Norton author. Have you read the last Adrienne Rich collection? I think you might like it.

Phoenicia said...

I knew he was a Norton author - it's plastered all over the index page. He's not bad, mind, just not great. But then this is only a judgement made from reading one book, so not comprehensive by any means.

I haven't read the last Adrienne Rich collection, but perhaps I'll pick it up next time I'm in Oxford. Thanks for the recommendation!