Saturday, May 19, 2007

Poetry, Film, Adaptation

Thought I'd come back with a fresh batch of mind-fodder. I’ve dropped off the face of this blog in the last couple of months; school is like a full-time job, only you have to pay to work there…and for that you need another job. The final report:

14 hours shooting film
20 minutes of exposed footage
36 hours of editing

resulting in...

a 3-minute final film.

Good-bye Intermediate Film Production! We had good times.

Anyway, the point of this post (oh yes, there is a point somewhere) is to talk about some ideas in screenwriting, filmmaking and adaptation. I was thinking about poetry...

(Thinking. Poetry. Dangerous combination.)

So, my film professor is making a series of short films illustrating a series of poetry portraits by Rilke. The interesting thing about these short films is that they aren't recreations of the poem; a narrator recites the poem while the film progresses, but sometimes the illustration occurs through contrast rather than straight-up recreation. For example, in his short film of The Orphan, you see a woman setting a table in a nice, pretty dining room - you think she's having guests over, but a twist at the end reveals her real loneliness. This is what resonates with the poem itself, even though the images may at first seem at odds with the poetry's language.

Another experimental filmmaker who visited a guest-lecture class last year was working on a similar project, only her subject was a series of poems by Neruda. We watched the one that represented his Ode to a Bar of Soap. Like my professor's film, this one involved a narrator reading the poem while the filmic illustration unfolded. Unlike my professor's film, this one was a recreation of the imagery of the poem; through a series of beautifully composed, graceful and sometimes playful shots, you watch a man bathe with a bar of soap.

I started to wonder - is this a deceptively simple statement about the imagery of the poem, or is it really just window-dressing for the poem itself? What I liked so much about my professor's film was the interaction between the poetry and the film - my professor wasn't trying to speak for Rilke, but he was speaking through him, and in this way imparted a second message to the poem. The other example didn't add meaning, and the most interaction that I found between the filmic illustration and the poem were the sound effects; hearing bubbles splash and the creak of the floor under the groaning tub added something to your experience of the poem, but the images, while very beautiful, didn't alter your understanding of it. This adaptation would have been just as effective had it been a reading on the radio.

Does beauty need to be justified by emotional effectiveness or thematic complexity? I don’t think that question comes with an answer, but it’s an interesting contrast to observe between the two poetry adaptations.

Poetry sometimes makes another kind of appearance in narrative films that carry a strong flavor of experimental influence, like Todd Haynes’ Velvet Goldmine, where some scenes incorporate the scrolling text of poems into the imagery of the film. It’s a technique used by Haynes’ former professor (who also visited our guest lecture class last year) in several of her experimental films. The text, appearing with no temporal or physical logic, adds to the visual and aural themes of collage, collection, reference, research and memory. Velvet Goldmine didn’t add much to my understanding of those poems, but the poems added a lot to the entire conglomeration of art and experience that is contained in Velvet Goldmine.

I’m trying to combine all three of these approaches in a short video I’m working on – a visual adaptation of a poem by E. E. Cummings. Because Cummings’ poetry is already highly visual, I decided that a narrating voice wouldn’t capture the full power of seeing the words. So, I’m assembling a stop-motion animation, in which the poem writes itself on forgotten objects, seemingly disassociated from the poem’s figurative setting, sometimes a more direct illustration of its imagery, but overall an attempt to capture its character: “i am a beggar always.”

This might be a very long way of saying that Naked Filmmaker posts will once again be scarce, due to more, uh, Naked Filmmaking (that sounds like the kind of video that YouTube would delete for terms-of-use violation…oh wait, they only do that to episodes of Buffy…porn is fine, as long as it doesn’t belong to Fox).

I am, however, holding onto my Netflix subscription, where the Toby Stephens stalking was temporarily delayed by school – but nothing can really stop the stalk. Right now, in my hot little hands, I have the first disc of Stephen Poliakoff’s Perfect Strangers (aka Almost Strangers in the USA). This is the same guy who made that statuette magnet, Gideon’s Daughter. I haven’t seen the more recent film (no Toby Stephens = discouraging; presence of Emily Blunt, however = very cool) so it’s going on my list. Anyway, there could be thoughts to come on Perfect Strangers, if I only had a brain.