Movies

O.K., so I don’t get to the movies too often. I do, however, maintain an entire blog devoted to videopoetry, Moving Poems, so whatever.

Up betimes and to set my workmen to work, and then a little to the office, and so with Sir J. Minnes, Sir W. Batten, and myself by coach to White Hall, to the Duke, who, after he was ready, did take us into his closett. Thither come my Lord General Monk, and did privately talk with the Duke about having the life-guards pass through the City today only for show and to fright people, for I perceive there are great fears abroad; for all which I am troubled and full of doubt that things will not go well. He being gone, we fell to business of the Navy. Among other things, how to pay off this fleet that is now come from Portugall; the King of Portugall sending them home, he having no more use for them, which we wonder at, that his condition should be so soon altered. And our landmen also are coming back, being almost starved in that poor country.
Having done here I went by my Lord Sandwich’s, who was not at home, and so to Westminster Hall, where full of term, and here met with many about business, among others my cozen Roger Pepys, who is all for a composition with my uncle Thomas, which upon any fair terms I am for also and desire it.
Thence by water, and so by land to my Lord Crew’s, and dined with him and his brother, I know not his name; where very good discourse; among others, of France’s intention to make a patriarch of his own, independent from the Pope, by which he will be able to cope with the Spaniard in all councils, which hitherto he has never done. My Lord Crew told us how he heard my Lord of Holland say that, being Embassador about the match with the Queene-Mother that now is, the King of France insisted upon a dispensation from the Pope, which my Lord Holland making a question of, and that he was commanded to yield to nothing to the prejudice of our religion, says the King of France, “You need not fear that, for if the Pope will not dispense with the match, my Bishopp of Paris shall.”
By and by come in great Mr. Swinfen, the Parliament-man, who, among other discourse of the rise and fall of familys, told us of Bishopp Bridgeman (brother of Sir Orlando) who lately hath bought a seat anciently of the Levers, and then the Ashtons; and so he hath in his great hall window (having repaired and beautified the house) caused four great places to be left for coates of armes. In one, he hath put the Levers, with this motto, “Olim.” In another the Ashtons, with this, “Heri.” In the next his own, with this, “Hodie.” In the fourth nothing but this motto, “Cras nescio cujus.”
Thence towards my brother’s; met with Jack Cole in Fleet Street, and he and I went into his cozen Mary Cole’s (whom I never saw since she was married), and drank a pint of wine and much good discourse. I found him a little conceited, but he had good things in him, and a man may know the temper of the City by him, he being of a general conversation, and can tell how matters go; and upon that score I will encourage his acquaintance.
Thence to my brother’s, and taking my wife up, carried her to Charing Cross, and there showed her the Italian motion, much after the nature of what I showed her a while since in Covent Garden. Their puppets here are somewhat better, but their motions not at all. Thence by coach to my Lady’s, and, hiding my wife with Sarah below, I went up and heard some musique with my Lord, and afterwards discoursed with him alone, and so good night to him and below, having sent for Mr. Creed, had thought to have shown my wife a play before the King, but it is so late that we could not, and so we took coach, and taking up Sarah at my brother’s with their night geare we went home, and I to my office to settle matters, and so home and to bed.
This morning in the Duke’s chamber Sir J. Minnes did break to me his desire about my chamber, which I did put off to another time to discourse of, he speaking to me very kindly to make me the less trouble myself, hoping to save myself and to contrive something or other to pleasure him as well, though I know not well what.
The town, I hear, is full of discontents, and all know of the King’s new bastard by Mrs. Haslerigge, and as far as I can hear will never be contented with Episcopacy, they are so cruelly set for Presbytery, and the Bishopps carry themselves so high, that they are never likely to gain anything upon them.

times pass
only for show
in this wonder-starved country
among levers and puppets

their music is one gear peaking
cruel and high


Erasure poem derived from The Diary of Samuel Pepys, Monday 10 November 1662.

If nothing else, the fact that the vast majority of roads are no longer intended primarily for walkers ought to temper our enthusiasm for road as a metaphor for life. In the American imagination, a road trip unwinds in a time apart from ordinary life where clarity is intermittent and undependable, but where life-changing visions are possible. A road movie is all about visions.

rough road

This weekend I saw two sort-of road movies by the same director, David Lynch: The Straight Story, which was wonderful, and Lost Highway, which was not. I guess what I most liked about the former was its gentle subversion of the genre, as its cowboy-hat-wearing protagonist travels back roads at the speed of a riding mower, yet remains a figure of immense dignity and charm. Stories unfold more naturally at a walker’s pace, I think, and the movie is full of great stories and characters. By contrast, the break-neck Lost Highway seems to revel in its own incoherence, and the characters are two-dimensional and unlikeable.

country road, West Virginia

Of course, coherence isn’t everything, especially when attempting to depict dreams and hallucinations. With its obsessive sex and violence, perhaps Lost Highway offers a truer glimpse into the American psyche, but The Straight Story isn’t exactly lacking in grit, either: its characters are haunted by aging and infirmity, mental illness and the loss of children, PTSD, broken families, even roadkill — a topic all too seldom considered alongside our romance with the road.

Plymouth Barracuda

The contrast between the two movies is especially stark in the ways in which they acknowledge, or fail to acknowledge, the world beyond their own, fragmented stories. If authenticity derives ultimately from a sense of rootedness, Alvin Straight’s odyssey has it in spades. Whereas in Lost Highway the natural environment is never anything more than background, The Straight Story intercuts regular, slow aerial pans to convey the vastness of the land. Lightning shows up for dramatic effect in almost every other night-time scene in Lost Highway, but never seems entirely real. But in Straight Story, the two thunderstorms are events, and the title character stops everything and sits down to watch them as intently as if they were movies, burning visions of blinding roots into the memory.

I wake from a dream of flying and being grounded — flying with my own wings, I mean, and then being stopped and held back by a ring of people who were all masquerading as me: Poetry.

Jesus. Did I really just dream that? I did, and I have no doubt what prompted it: watching HOWL on Hulu last night before bed. The hallucinatory animation sequences, full of flying and falling souls/poets/angelheaded hipsters, were clearly still percolating through my subsconscious.

Andrew Weil once wrote about psychotropic drugs that one’s experience is greatly determined by set (i.e. mindset) and setting. I think the same is true for many other kinds of mind-altering experiences, including reading novels and watching movies. My experience of HOWL was largely positive, therefore, in part because the setting was right. My belly was full, the chair was comfortable, and I had been actively searching for something to watch that would be slightly challenging, but primarily escapist entertainment. More importantly, I think, was my mindset, shaped by a couple of years of curating Moving Poems and studying all manner of poetry films, especially animations and film-poems or videopoems. I read the reviews of HOWL when it first came out and conceived the notion that it was basically a feature-length version of the kinds of things I most like to post to Moving Poems, and sure enough, that’s what I saw last night: a brilliant mixture of documentary, animation, and interview with the poem itself at center stage.

A couple other critical elements of my mindset help account for my reception. One is that I’m a strong advocate of free speech and gay rights, things central to the obscenity trial, which was the film’s chronological anchor and source of dramatic tension. I don’t often think about the kind of courage required to do what Ginsberg (and Ferlinghetti) did in pre-Stonewall days. The details about his and his mother’s involuntary consignment to mental institutions were sobering, too, and I didn’t know anything about that background to the poem.

Another thing that shaped my perception of the movie was my attitude about Beat poetry in general and Ginsberg’s poetry in particular: I’ve never particularly cared for either one, but I recognize their importance to 20th-century American poetry — which I am obviously very deeply interested in. From the opening seconds of the film, I was like, Holy shit, that’s the reading, man! The one that started this whole craze for live poetry readings (and later, poetry slams) that’s still with us 55 years later. But in general, I find Beat poetry boring, self-indulgent, and severely lacking in the kinds of silences I prize in modern lyric poetry. Perhaps if I’d had a more exalted opinion of the poem or its author, I’d have been disappointed with what the directors, actors and animator did with it. Instead, I thought they succeeded brilliantly, not only in bringing the poem to life, but as Stanley Fish pointed out in the New York Times, communicating something of the intellectual pleasures of literary criticism, and of reading itself — a real feat for any movie.

In my post-movie enthusiasm last night, I also read an interview with the filmmakers, Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, at TribecaFilm.com. As a connoisseur of film-poetry I was especially interested in their description of the process:

Q: So HOWL is a movie about poetry. How did you even start to conceive how to do that?

Jeffrey Friedman: Yeah, it took us a while to figure it out. We just approached it as we would any other project by starting to do research. We wanted to understand what went into the making of the poem; Allen’s creative process and his personal process; and what he had to go through to get to the point where he could produce this poem.

We wanted to understand the world that the poem [was] being introduced into, and the obscenity trial seemed like a ready-made theater to show that. We wanted the poem to live on its own, [which the poem does in] different ways in the movie: it lives as performance art, which is the way it was first presented to the world, as spoken word—it was really the first poetry slam—and in the animation, which was inspired by Eric Drooker’s collaboration with Ginsberg on a book of poems, including part of HOWL, called Illuminated Poems.

Rob Epstein: We wanted the poem to be a character. That was the starting point.

Q: I’m fascinated by your switch from doc to narrative. Were you always planning that with HOWL?

Rob Epstein: When we started immersing ourselves in research, we didn’t yet have a concept. Once we did, the first idea we had for the film was pretty close to what it ended up being: we knew we wanted to do a dramatic film that had the veracity of a documentary. We became less concerned with category than with approach.

A little later in the interview, they address the animation specifically:

Q: One of my favorite lines in the film is during the courtroom scene: “You can’t translate poetry to prose; that’s what makes it poetry.” Would you talk about the process of translation [sic] poetry into animation? Do you think it’s a better fit?

Jeffrey Friedman: Well, we don’t think of it as translation, we think of it as adaptation, the way you would adapt a novel. So you have to make it specific, because you’re creating something visual, so it’s a very specific vision that we try to imagine as what might have been going on in the head of the poet as these images were emerging.

We have all these different realities in the film. We have the present tense, all in color, which is the obscenity trial and the imagined interview with Allen, which was inspired by this Time magazine interview that he gave during the trial that was never published. And then we have flashbacks (in black and white) to events in his life and the first reading of the poem. But we also wanted the poem to live in a kind of timeless, unreal world, so the animation was a way of trying to create that.

I think the vividness of my dreams this morning is testimony to just how well they succeeded. Unmoved as I was by Ginsberg’s insistence on the importance of confessional authenticity, and by his over-all worldview with its achingly sincere, youthful visions of revolution, somehow I was captivated by a film about a poem I still consider terribly over-rated. I think that says something about the power of the film-poem genre in general, where the leaps, gaps and paradoxes of the poem guide the action, and where poem and film combine to make something greater than the sum of its parts. For Epstein and Friedman’s next project, perhaps they could take a look at Elizabeth Bishop’s work? “The Art of Losing” would make a great title for a movie…

First, watch the trailer. Real Via Negativa material, right?

I went to see the Tony Scott film Unstoppable because it was shot primarily in Western Pennsylvania, including a scene in Tyrone, two miles away. I never expected to actually enjoy an expensive Hollywood thriller about a runaway train. But from the opening freight-yard-at-dawn scene, I was hooked by the gorgeous cinematography, and the likeable characters and good writing kept my interest, too. Sure, there were cliches: the callous and stupid coporate headquarters guy, and the CEO interrupted in a game of golf to give his blessing to whatever strategy would best protect the bottom line. The Denzel Washington character might fit the magical negro stereotype, except I think that he is too central a character — more Everyman protagonist than sidekick.

But overall, I felt the movie rang true. Which is a curious reaction considering that the geography was completely fictionalized, the accents were wrong, and extrapolating from what little I know about the Tyrone shoot, the real world in which the film was shot got a complete makeover before the cameras rolled.

We obsess about authenticity in the U.S., but as Japanese Zen garden designers discovered centuries ago, making something seem natural often involves the greatest effort and artifice. It was fun knowing a little of what went into making this particular movie because of the way the action unfolds on several parallel tracks, figuratively speaking. Alert viewers from this area were rewarded with a couple glimpses of a real-life railroad chart showing the actual names of the places otherwise referred to by made-up names in the movie (itself loosely based on a true story), which led to a little bit of vertigo, and helped create the impression that we in our theater seats were on another parallel track.

This impression was bolstered by the director’s strategy of switching between the omniscient (silent) narrator’s view of the action and the live feed on TV, as watched by various ancillary characters. At one level, the movie — a 20th Century Fox production — is basically an ad for Fox, the sole news station on the scene throughout. A couple of swipes at TV news sensationalism prevent that aspect from becoming too oppressive, but still, the low-flying news helicopters capturing and broadcasting the action are key to nearly everything that happens.

Characters are also in constant communication with each other via cellphone, so despite the 19th-century mode of transportation at the center of the film, more than anything, Unstoppable is a paean to the immersive, all-pervading communications media in which nobody’s time is ever quite their own and space for reflection is increasingly squeezed out. The train (spoiler alert!) may ultimately have been stopped, but not the surrender of time and space to ever-more-immediate social and corporate media. It’s telling that the final scene is a press conference. I also gotta say, I wasn’t pleased with the blatant product-placement for the Hooters restaurant chain (which, I should explain for the benefit of international readers, is basically a gentrified titty bar). But maybe that’s an apt symbol for our electronic culture’s steady drip-feed of excitement and titillation.

Still, I would watch this movie again, if only to devote more attention to how pieces of my home region were prettified and reassembled. Of course, selective blindness and a certain idealization are intrinsic to the aesthetic act of framing. My own interest as a very amateur maker of videopoems tends to be triggered more by low-budget documentaries, but I’m also fascinated by seeing how reality can be stretched to follow the script of a big-budget star vehicle.

Then there’s the whole train thing. As regular readers know, our mountaintop property, remote as it is in terms of road access, is bordered on two sides by the main trunk line between Philly and Chicago. I’ve lived here since I was five, so I grew up listening to freight trains and waiting for them to clear our private crossing on the way home from school. Back in the 70s, when it was still Penn Central, we kids were told to stand at least 100 feet back when a train went through, in case it derailed — a not unrealistic fear. Penn Central did the bare minimum of track maintenance, trains rocked and swayed, and chaotic scheduling frequently led to our crossing being blocked by stopped freights for hours. When Conrail took over, things improved a lot, and the behemoth company that absorbed Conrail, Norfolk Southern, seems safer yet.

But Tyrone wasn’t chosen for filming because it happens to be a whistle stop on the main line; it was chosen because a single-track branch line goes right through the heart of town. From a sociological perspective, it’s been interesting to witness the intense expressions of local pride at being chosen for three minutes of cinematic fame because of something that most Tyroners had considered an inconvenience at best. As in many towns, this local rail line historically served as the line of demarcation between the richer and poorer parts of town. Landlords and homeowners with property on Railroad Avenue itself — not the most desirable real estate in the area — were thrilled at the attention and the new paint jobs. People from across the socioeconomic spectrum jostled for a chance to be an extra and appear for a split second in the movie. Knowing this, it was gratifying to see that our end of Brush Mountain got its own few seconds of glory without ever having to audition.

The Nittany and Bald Eagle Railroad was so key to the production, that had it gone the way of most other local rail lines and been abandoned when Conrail gave it up in 1983, I think Unstoppable‘s director and cinematographer would’ve had a much harder time achieving their desired visual effects. In a number of interviews, the movie’s stars have praised the bucolic charms of the area, and while of course we do have plenty of ugliness here as well — avoiding the grotesque scar of I-99 on the mountain above much of the N&BER line must’ve made the filming especially difficult — I don’t think I’m too biased in asserting that landscape plays a big role in the movie. I wasn’t the only one who found Unstoppable visually stunning. Roger Ebert wrote, “In terms of sheer craftsmanship, this is a superb film.” New York Times film critic Manohla Dargis elaborated:

Mr. Scott is partial to blunt, rapid cuts; whipping pans; and saturated colors. He likes twirling the camera around characters, like a sugared-up tot running 360s on a playground, a hyperactive visual style that can turn the screen into a blur of pulsating color. Here, working with the cinematographer Ben Seresin and some ace sound technicians, he creates an unexpectedly rich world of chugging, rushing trains slicing across equally beautiful industrial and natural landscapes.

Conflict over whether and where to derail this “missile the size of the Chrysler building” is a major driver of the plot, so they needed to contrast a beautiful yet thinly populated area with a small town (“Arklow,” shot in Tyrone) and rust-belt city (“Stanton,” shot in Bellaire, Ohio). Which area, according to the separate assessments of the “good” yardmaster and the “bad” guy from headquarters, should be turned into a sacrifice zone? Well, we who live in rural Appalachia know the answer to that one. In that respect, Unstoppable was a highly realistic film.

I was swimming through the air in my dream, popping in and out of television screens, the coolest talking head since David Byrne. Then all of a sudden, holy shit — things blowing up for no apparent reason, car chases, gunfire, clouds of poison gas choking people in their beds. Nobody who isn’t a psychopath has dreams like this! Except, right, you’re dreaming in service to a corporate titan in order to take down his rival, and we know from The Corporation that corporations behave exactly like psychopaths.

But wouldn’t this movie have been a lot cooler if you were using your idea-implanting superpowers for good rather than for evil, and targeting, say, Dow Chemical on behalf of the victims of Bhopal? Shouldn’t you really have contacted the Yes Men? After all, they share your fondness for abandoned warehouses and scenes with lots of floating and flailing about. They are masters at assuming new identities and making lies seem more attractive than the debilitating truth.

They dream big, too. They had hundreds of oil and gas executives lighting candles ostensibly made from human flesh, and convinced a conference hall full of New Orleans building contractors that doing the right thing was more important than maximizing profits. They embarassed the U.S. Chamber of Commerce into reversing its position on global warming. They led an effort at mass inception in Manhattan that involved printing and distributing an edition of the New York Times from six months in the future, which got over 100,000 people contemplating a world without war and hunger, and how really doable and ordinary that could be.

But you professional dreamers — what do you do? In your matroyshka-doll world of a dream within a dream within a dream, where was the green space among all those brutal modernist highrises? I didn’t spot a single park, not even a tree. You grew old together in the company of phantasms, living only for each other, as self-centered and cut off from the real world as the plutocrats whose yes-men you later became. And then to die without dying — what a fix!

Such an interesting word, fix. It’s what a junkie craves. When the fix is on in a movie about the mob, you know things are about to go horribly awry. A fix is a fundamental alteration, but not necessarily for the better — just ask a dog that’s been fixed. The Yes Men might be out to mend the world themselves, but when they interview a gaggle of free-market economists to see if they’ll say anything revealing on camera, they choose this more ambiguous word: How would you fix the world? And then, more mischievously: How would you like the world to appear on the blue screen behind your head? Which is tantamount to saying: Show us your dreams.

The Yes Men Fix the World was, to my mind, everything that Inception was not: droll, witty, thought-provoking and inspiring. Inception, a movie about the possibility of planting ideas in another person’s imagination, was really rather dull. There wasn’t any laughter in it. Where in the one movie, mud and grunge and empty suits are a source of comic relief, in the other they are mere fixtures, signifiers of seriousness for the director’s fundamentally unserious and impoverished imagination.

If you haven’t seen Inception yet, save your money. If you haven’t seen The Yes Men Fix the World, it’s available for free online. Go watch. And then, if you like, join up. This is one effort at collective imagination that doesn’t need to stop when the theater lights go up.

Driving home on the interstate, only billboards keep us from reentering the black-&-white world of a movie set in 1943. They beckon like lit windows in a whorehouse of dreams. We are adding up the clues & concluding that we lacked sufficient information to have known who did it or why, but perhaps it was better that way. The conventional presumption of entirely solvable mysteries, though essential to the genre, breeds false expectations about outcomes in what we like to think of as the real world. In this movie, the buzzbombs can die and drop anywhere; people turn pale as hospital gowns when they hear the buzzing stop. The droll & self-regarding inspector wields a folded umbrella like the idea of a weapon, & fails as much as he succeeds. None of the characters are wholly likeable: in this way, too, the film imitates real life, or at least the shadow-side of it. Ironically, though, it’s the abundant & dramatic shadows in the night scenes that stretch credulity, since the sources of light that cast them are, as usual in the movies, unseen & improbable. The green danger of the title concerns the breath, or lack of it, which we can assess by watching a leather bladder beside the operating table expand & contract. As for colors, green or otherwise, we are of course forced to take their word for it. From such flawed clues we deduce far more than we ought to, & allow ourselves briefly to believe in these frail people, in this fatal time.

Hard rain for Christmas, starting in the afternoon. Within a few hours, the water from my shallow well has a reddish-brown tinge.

The two-year-old sits in the middle of the carpet, dwarfed by the pile of her presents, which she evinces no interest in trying to unwrap on her own. Her parents take turns unwrapping them for her and exclaiming over each on her behalf. Gently they take the previous toy or book from her hands and show her the new one: Look, Elanor, look! To look is to grab. To grab is to become much too deeply engrossed. Doesn’t she know she’s on stage, here?

*

James Brown has died. What was he to me, that I feel his loss so deeply? White people and black people don’t even have the same thing in mind when they say funk: a blue mood, or the rank smell of sex?

Reading the eulogies, I start thinking of those two years Brown spent in prison, long after he had become a living legend revered by the toughest rappers. What must that have been like for him, and for the other prisoners? How I would love to be the one to write the story! But I can’t, and it’s not just a matter of being white and nerdy. My blue moods couldn’t possibly do it justice.

I’ve written probably all I’m going to write about James Brown already, in this poem — the screenplay for a very brief documentary, in which I do not appear simply because I’m busy doing the filming. Who directed, then? Good old blind Chance. I put a dollar in his cup when we were through.

*

Usually we go for a walk on Christmas, but the rain kept us all indoors. So instead we watched A Prairie Home Companion, directed by Robert Altman — speaking of those who have recently passed away. I liked the fact that the angel of death — or Dangerous Woman, as the credits describe her — takes out the bad guy near the end, but it changes absolutely nothing. And I cheered the stance of Garrison Keillor’s character, GK, who, while happy to include sentimental songs, remains steadfast against eulogies and memorials. “I don’t like to tell people how to feel,” he says, and “You play every show as if it’s your last.” The movie’s enigmatic ending can only be understood in the light of that sentiment, I think. It’s up to us to retell the stories and make them our own. How fitting that this turned out to be Altman’s own last work.

From ilovemountains.org.

I decided to include this brief documentary here as a kind of quick course for those who might be unfamiliar with the phenomenon of mountaintop removal, since I’ve made reference to it here in the past (most recently in my Campfire tale post). I don’t particularly care for the use of celebrity spokespeople and other outsiders to the region, which to my mind reinforces the notion that mountain people are incapable of speaking up for themselves, but otherwise I think the video gives a good overview of the crisis.

Some additional points to consider:

  • “Mountaintop removal” is a bit of a euphemism. This form of extreme strip-mining effectively obliterates the entire mountain by taking off its top and then using the “overburden” to fill in the adjacent valleys and ravines (a.k.a. hollows).
  • The forests will likely take tens or hundreds of thousands of years to recover, if ever. When the narrator refers to a moonscape, that’s not hyperbole. However, more aggressive species of grass will grow, and some local boosters of the coal industry talk about how this will open up the view and allow cattle grazing and the introduction of Rocky Mountain elk for big game hunters to pursue.
  • The practice of mountaintop removal is tantamount to ecocide. As mentioned in the documentary, the location of these mines in southwestern West Virginia and Kentucky threatens one of the most biodiverse temperate ecosystems in the world: what forest ecologists call the mixed mesophytic forest. This forest is simultaneously under assault by pulpwood companies who are stripping out everything, plowing, and planting red pine monocultures designed for short-rotation tree farming. Many species of salamanders, land snails, and beetles, and even some wildflowers and songbirds, will be threatened with extinction if the combined assault continues too much longer.
  • Mountaintop removal amounts to an undeclared war against the people and communities of this region. The mining companies display the same kind of callous disregard for life as the European companies that conspired to ship deadly chemical waste to Ivory Coast last month: it’s not that they hate poor people, exactly, they just fail to recognize them as fully human. The documentary shows this pretty well. Like any war, it also divides communities, with many people clamoring for the few, temporary jobs that this form of mining provides, even knowing that laying waste to the land will render it largely uninhabitable for generations to come.
  • What can you do? Besides helping to spread the word, consider supporting organizations such the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, West Virginia’s premier conservation organization, which has been tireless in its fight against mountaintop removal through every possible legal means. (The Highlands Conservancy is also, incidentally, one of the main reasons why the Monogahela National Forest is in such good shape.) Other worthy groups include Appalachian Voices, Kentuckians for the Commonwealth, and the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition.