P. Adams Sitney. The Cinema of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2014.

_____________________

            review by Mark Steven

 

Prose Kinema Revisited

On  Adams Sitney’s The Cinema of Poetry

 

Ezra Pound’s encounter with Pier Paolo Pasolini ranks as one of the twentieth century’s most politically charged intersections between two aesthetic ideologies. Their meeting took place in Venice, in 1967, and Pasolini wasn’t even supposed to be there. As we know, he stood in for an associate slated to interview Pound for the third time, but who had been called away to attend his sick father. Olga Rudge was right to be suspicious of the firebrand director, poet, and essayist – though the cause for antipathy is never made fully explicit, it seems that Pasolini the communist was there to hold the elder poet responsible for his wartime fascism. “Oh let an old man rest,” Pasolini recites Canto LXXXIII back to its author. “That’s how this Canto ends. I know well, Pound, that I’m here to disturb your rest.” (26) While the interview is mostly focused on literary matters, and on Pasolini’s interpretation of Pound the man via Pound’s poetry, what makes it even more fascinating is the blunt hostility that attends a confrontation between the Italian communist and the American fascist. That hostility would resurface several years later, retroactively making its presence here known, in Pasolini’s final completed film.

Released in 1975, the year of its director’s death, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom is Pasolini’s lacerating satire on fascism, which takes shape as an adaptation of the Marquis de Sade’s unfinished novel into the Repubblica Sociale Italiana, where the atrocities imagined by the seventeenth century libertine find their historical match under Mussolini’s governance. “Despite my total fidelity to de Sade’s text,” Pasolini wrote in a forward that appears on a title-card before the film,

I have however introduced an absolutely new element. Instead of taking place in eighteenth century France, the action takes place practically in our own time, in Salò, around 1944 to be exact. The means that the entire film with its unheard-of atrocities which are almost unmentionable, is presented as an immense sadistic metaphor of what was the Nazi-Fascist dissociation from its crimes against humanity.

Within this circumambient literary frame, there are multiple allusions to artistic modernism, and to Pound’s modernism in particular. The palatial mansion in which the film is set functions as an ornate death-camp, though it is also replete with artworks that are fascist kitsch as well as artworks by those Pound admitted to Pasolini as having “liked most,” including Fernand Léger, a pastiche of whose cubist paintings papers most interior surfaces. “On the bridge of Perati,” one of the fascists drunkenly echoes Cantos LXXII and LXXIII, “there flies a black flag, the mourning of the Julian regiment that goes to war. On the bridge of Perati, there flies a black flag. The best young men lie under the earth.” In the film’s final scene the fascists torture a band of kidnapped adolescents, who are taken outside and burnt, choked, eviscerated, scalped, sodomized, and whipped to death while the four men take turns watching from a second-floor room and through binoculars. As the penultimate participant arrives to observe his three accomplices he jokes about drowning communists and, as the scene draws to its end, Pound’s disembodied voice is heard over the transistor radio, reading Canto LXXXI. “The whole tribe is from one man’s body,” he asks: “what other way can you think of it?”

What we encounter in this scene is not just the film’s damming implication of poetry within the sphere of biopolitical violence, but also a stylized reaction to the intrusion of literature into a different medium. That the fascists watch the violence from a distance, through binoculars, allows for the film to formally occupy their shared perspective: the cinematic apparatus foregrounds itself in the binocular distortions, and those distortions detach from embodied points of view to become a framing device for the scene as a whole. Subjective experience thus shapes objective matter in a series of unattributable and distancing wide shots taken from the exact position of the spectating fascists. As Joan Copjec once suggested, in this scene the form itself “seems to be affected by what it describes.” (206) Here we are witnessing the operation of what Pasolini describes as a “free indirect point-of-view,” a technique in which the visual frame warps to its characters’ perspective but without being attributable to any one character. It is an iteration of what Pasolini’s most discerning reader, Gilles Deleuze, would call the “perception-image,” which he describes as “the purest vision of a non-human eye, of an eye which would be in things” (83). For Pasolini, this technique is the principal means by which cinematic art competes with literature in attaining to the status of poetry – small wonder it does so, here, in reaction to the adversarial presence of Pound’s Canto.

 Adams Sitney’s excellent new book, The Cinema of Poetry, takes its title from the 1965 essay (“I’l ‘cinema di poesia’”) in which Pasolini proposes this theory of a free indirect point of view, which for him responds to but is not identical to its literary equivalent. To be sure, it should be thought of as a reactive form, with which cinema demonstrates its autonomy from literature whilst nevertheless absorbing literature’s privileged access to subjective experience. Sitney quotes the director on the nature of this intermedial dynamic, insisting that a free indirect point of view liberates “the expressive possibilities compressed by the traditional narrative convention through a sort of return to the origins until the original oneiric, barbaric, irregular, aggressive, visionary quality of cinema if found through its technical devices” (23). Sitney’s opening chapter provides a valuable reconstruction of Pasolini’s sometimes painfully elliptical theory by emphasizing the films in which its author discerned cinematic poetry of this kind – beginning, naturally, with the dreamlike sequences of Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí. The films include Michelangelo Antonioni’s Il deserto rosso with its colourfully neurotic worldview; Bernado Bertolucci’s Prima della rivoluzione where the “obsessive immobility of the frame” (25) is analogous to a loving fixation; and Jean-Luc Godard’s Bande à part, in which stylistic intrusions are said to betoken an unrestrained vitality. The free indirect point of view shots of these films are contrasted, illustratively, with the direct point of view shots belonging to the coffin-bound corpse in Carl Theodor Dreyer’s Vampyr.

This example-rich yet largely theoretical chapter informs the book’s first half, “Poetry and the Narrative Cinema in Europe.” In this half’s remaining three chapters, Sitney explores how “the cinema of poetry” manifests in the work of three significant European filmmakers: Dimitri Kirsanoff, Ingmar Bergman, and Andrey Tarkovsky. Kirstoff’s 1926 film, Ménilmontant, is approached as an early and imperfect iteration of free indirect point of view insofar as the director’s refusal to utilize intertitles enables a “larger aesthetic strategy of utilizing both ambiguity and rhetorical indetermination to maximize the connotative effect of his shots and cuts” (35). The chapter on Bergman surveys a handful of films – Tystnaden, Persona, and Fanny och Alexander – to show the conditioning force of a psychosexual trauma. “At the heart of the neurosis that generates the free indirect point of view of the film,” Sitney describes Persona, “I found a primal scene disturbance: a fascinating and terrifying fantasy of parental intercourse after which the analysand imagines himself as an unwanted byproduct, the survivor of an unsuccessful abortion” (42). The final chapter on European cinema is dedicated to Tarkovsky’s astonishing Zerkalo, a film whose oneiric style – singularized by elemental fixations and bravura sequence shots – results in part from a sublimation of poetry written by the director’s father first into the narrative’s psychical agon and then into its visual logic.

That first half of the book is written in accord with Pasolini’s 1967 clarification on his thesis: “speaking of a cinema of poetry, I have always meant to speak of narrative poetry.” (33; 106) The book’s second half, “Poetry and the American Avant-Garde Cinema,” explores the possibility of a non-narrative cinema’s relationship with lyrical (though not necessarily lyric) poetry – what Sitney follows Pasolini in calling “poetry-poetry.” (110) With this half of the book, Sitney takes seriously Parker Tyler’s suggestion (originally made to Maya Deren) that we distinguish between “the theory of poetry, its possibilities as such in the film medium, and on the other hand the practice of poetry, as concentrated in the avant-garde film.” (108) Shifting from theory to practice means a shift from poetics to poetry, and then from poetry to specific poems. Indeed, the remaining chapters all feature directorial responses to named poets and poems: Joseph Cornell to Emily Dickinson; Lawrence Jordan to H. D.; Stan Brakhage to a whole range a writers, including Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and Charles Olson; Nathaniel Dorsky and Jerome Hiler to John Ashbery and George Oppen; and Gregory Markopoulos to the poetry of Ancient Greece. The chapter on Brakhage provides the clearest engagement between the grammar of film and poetic form. “Absorbing the lesson of Stein’s astounding sensitivity to language,” we read at one point, “the young Brakhage quickly made himself the most subtle and the most comprehensive master of cinematic rhythms” (155). However, it is the last chapter, on Markopoulos, which yields the most interesting results – not least because Markopoulos’ masterpiece, Eniaios, constitutes a truly promethean realization of the philosophical belief in poetry as an ontologically constitutive force, a nurturing substance in which humankind should dwell. Eniaios is an eighty-hour cycle in twenty-two films, edited down and spliced together from the director’s previous works, and designed to be projected on a hillside in Markopoulos’ ancestral village, Lyssaria, in South-western Arcadia. Here it is not just the film’s architectonic that responds to poetry; additionally, the spectatorial experience of cinema itself, as a collective event, is brought to realization as the post-romantic ideal of a fully articulated Gesamtkunstwerk.

This book is important and should be read because it provides an authoritative account of poetry’s impact on cinema, without ever reducing the mutually reactive operations of either form to merely analogical reflections of the other. While there are plenty of studies on the transformative absorption of film into poetry – think, for instance, of the variously convincing accounts of a multimedia modernism – Sitney presents us with some major insights into the other side of things. It shows us that, for cinema, poetry is stylistically constitutive and aesthetically determining. Aside from that overarching thesis, what this reader enjoyed most about Sitney’s book are the numerous moments of thick, loving description. That is what we encounter here, for instance, in an account of the “inspired poetry” that is the final sequence of Tarkovsky’s Zerkalo:

From the recital of ‘Euryduce’ to the end of the film, the filmmaker offers a sustained paean to the Russian landscape and to the image of the mother as a presence within uniquely cinematic time. He follows the swimming shot with a wonderfully constructed dolly through an empty room of the dacha in color. The camera pushes past a lace curtain into the sunlit room, where the only movement besides that of the camera dolly is a puppy playing atop a bureau. As if representing the point of view of Alexei – his free indirect discourse – the tracking shot turns in the room toward a window. On the sill a volume of poetry is open, its pages moved by the breeze. But as soon as the image tracks beyond the book, we see the boy outside; he appears as if materialized from the volume of poetry walking toward his mother, now the old woman played by Maria Tarkovskaia. He carries a feather as an emblem of his poetic vocation. If this detached perspective constitutes Pasolini’s ‘free indirect point of view,’ it is in the service of a cinema of poetry of a lyrical intensity beyond what Pasolini would allow for the poetics of filmmaking. (90)

What makes descriptions like this one so satisfying is their willingness to attend both form and style. What makes them not only satisfying but also exciting is the necessary conjecture, when form and style behave in such a way as to force the viewer into speculative figuration (“As if”; “appears as if”), for it is moments like these that cinema overcomes its brute objectivity to occupy the utopian space of an immaterial poetry. Here, in Sitney’s analysis, the cinema of poetry is not just a concept, idea, or theory; it is also a critical practice – a way of viewing and writing that, following David Bordwell, we might call the poetics of film criticism. Sitney finds recommendation for such a poetics in the words of Tarkovsky himself: “artistic texture,” claimed the director, “is always richer than anything that can be fitted into a theoretical schema” (100).

_____________________

WORKS CITED:

Copjec, Joan. Imagine There’s No Woman. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2002.

Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 1: The Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam. London: Continuum, 1986.

Pasolini, Pier Paolo. In Danger: A Pasolini Anthology. Ed. Jack Hirschman. San Francisco: City Lights, 2010.

Sitney,  Adams. The Cinema of Poetry. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2015.