Film Poetry: Deforming the Surface pt. 2

Following is the second installment of my essay on film poetry. Read the first part here: http://cpoem.sunygeneseoenglish.org/2016/04/05/film-poetry-deforming-the-surface/

Even poetry that doesn’t heavily focus on the visual has to acknowledge the presence or absence of white space on the page. To be more specific poems have to deal with the dissonance created by the white space after a line break—this , in poetry at least, is the “subordination of plot to rhythm” that Stein is talking about, though I would submit that film/video has to deal with the same problems. These problems manifest themselves as synchronizing the CRT scan or editing (breaking, assembling, abrading) footage from different shoots to create the illusion of a seamless flow of time. Especially as a poet it’s easy to make the mistake of thinking that poetry in general handles the break in a way that is less illusory than, say, a Hollywood movie—we love discussing the myriad ways a line break can perform its duty. However, this duty is often exactly the same as a CRTs sync pulse, to “signal the beginning of each new video line.”(Ni.com, “Analog Video 101”). In a similar way editing for continuity (i.e. cigarettes don’t unburn themselves as a scene progresses) aims to create a smooth jump from one fragment to the next. Although the break/fragmentation is in the background operation of CRTs and moving images in general they also add force to Stein’s contentions about rhythm. In turn, filmmakers, poets and film poets alike are challenged to own up to the subordination and abrasion implicit in their work that might be more comfortable to forget. This process could easily be facilitated by comparison between film and poetry. For example, how could a jump cut emulate a poetic line that is gesturing back in towards itself?

In Film Poems Olsen shows there are other ways to “articulate the fragility of film’s performance” as Drew Milne writes in his introduction to the book. Milne describes this move as a historical one—reaching back to a time before Kodak, exploring what film meant then, subsequently breaking down cellulose’s rule and turning over fresh the area between film and poetry. This creates new possibilities in the same way that thinking through the mechanisms of film and poetry with a finger on the idea of film as surface does. Really, this line of thinking is just a focusing and slight modulation of Olsen’s. Rather than a historical question it’s a physical one: how far can we expand the definition of film until it begins to tear, and what does the tearing reveal? In her essay “To Quill at Film” (2013) Olsen puts a considerable amount of pressure on the definition and our minds: “Words are the film between what was said and seen and also the means of seeing that something is burning in the projector called language.” Although it seems like Milne was talking about the fragility of film as moving image Olson is talking about that and film as text. By thinking of words as film it reveals the troubles of language that might have otherwise gone unnoticed: something is burning. This quote is hard to decipher, but it valuably “articulates the fragility film’s [as text] performance” by reducing words to a means of seeing rather than the sight itself. The sight is what is burning, which to our eyes might be incoherent, but maybe it is the job of film poetry to align the incoherent destruction inside both mediums into something creative, though not necessarily harmonious.

Film and poetry are particularly suited to each other for this sort of creative destruction because they both are marked by a tension between progression and break. This came to light in the previous discussion of CRTs, but it also appears in Stein’s broad definition of montage, which brings us closer to the original French meaning of the word, assembly, rather than our default definition of a film device used to compress time i.e. the karate kid advancing in the tournament. In film poetry we have to come to terms with the fact that in either genre everything from plotless abstraction to the most straightforward narratives are assembled, not spun. Poetry being assembled from broken lines and film from cut pieces of cellulose. This definition of montage is useful to film poets because it pulls us away from the comfortable line break and its film analogs. It doesn’t imply two pieces that need bridging, but a large number of fragments that abrade/obscure/illuminate one another without the precondition of being next to each other in sequence.

A great metaphor for this action of film poetic assembly is experimental filmmaker Stan Brakhage’s “Mothlight,” which seems to be a film poem without words. By applying semi-transparent objects between two transparent layers of film Brakhage created a film without ever touching a camera. This very loudly champions the projector over the camera, and in doing so calls attention to the action of the film surface being pulled in front of the projector and obscuring the white light of the bulb. In other words, it calls attention to the fact that something (a filament) is burning the project) In addition, his method of applying objects to a surface mirrors the arrangement of words over a page—what possibilities can we imagine for poetry if every fragment had to be collected and possess the proper transparency? While we don’t actually have to use as painstaking in our assembly as Brakhage the way the layers of moth’s wings and leaves mute or allow the light through is a lesson in film poetic assembly. The difference being that creating a film poem calls for fragments with different properties, rather than the one property, translucency, that Brakhage is working with. Coming at it from a different angle, film poetry is like making something out of Legos and K’Nex that won’t completely fall apart. Given the lack of text in “Mothlight” it might be unfair to call it a film poem, but its intense focus on surface and arrangement certainly make it a lesson to film poetry, if not a unique definition.

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