Blogs Crosscuts Walker Film

The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Two Desks and Multiple Definitions

In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production. “To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. […]

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John Baldessari, The Meaning of Various News Photos to Ed Henderson, 1973     Photo courtesy Video Data Bank

In the first of a series of contributions to the Crosscuts blog, the Walker’s inaugural Bentson Film Scholar, Isla Leaver-Yap, reflects upon a key term in her job title: the scholar, and how the definition informs her own production.

“To explain what I do is simple enough. A scholar is someone who takes a position. From which position, certain lines become visible. You will at first think I am painting the lines myself; it’s not so. I merely know where to stand to see the lines that are there. And the mysterious thing, it is a very mysterious thing, is how these lines do paint themselves. Before there were any edges or angels or virtue – who was there to ask the questions? Well, let’s not get carried away with the exegesis. A scholar is someone who knows how to limit himself to the matter at hand.”

And so begins the opening lines of Canadian poet, Greek classicist, and scholar Anne Carson in her short text “The Life of Towns.” I hesitate in how I should describe this text to you: should these opening lines be described as a short essayistic poem or a poetic essay? As readers, and particularly readers of Carson’s writing, the division between the scholarly essay and the poetic form is not always identifiable. Nonfiction writing by authors such as John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Nan Shepherd, and Robert McFarlane similarly attest to the porosity of scholarship and poetry, where moments of intense metaphor, narrative, imagistic writing, might lead us to rethink systems. And, by equal turns, close analytical writing adjacent to moments of poetic license might allow us “to see the lines that are there,” in Carson’s words.

In a rare early interview, Carson admitted to having two desks in her house: one for writing poetry, one for writing scholarship. The division was clearly personally significant, even if it isn’t always so clear (or crucial, even) to the reader. But like the clarity of two desks, the division between art and scholarship tends to be sharp. To put it bluntly: in place of poetic text, there is the art object. And so, as a term, scholarship remains fairly distinct as the analytical or systematic “reading” of the art object. Here is the object; there is the text about the object.

While it’s safe to say that the definition of the art object cannot be clarified here (nor should it), I want to identify what we might mean by this other, seemingly more stable term “scholarship.” The word unsurprisingly comes from the Greek σχολαστικός, which can be translated as “that which belongs to the school.” I find the Greek root term especially interesting because the difference between the school, the schoolmen, and the school pupils in this scenario is not entirely clear. In any case, it identifies a core principle of learning, though who is learning, who is learned, and what is learned is nebulous. Learning, then, is taking place.

The dissemination of Greek learning was via the format of “scholarly instruction.” This was a three-step process. The first part, called lectio, comprised a reading of a text; the second, meditatio, was a reflection upon said text; and finally the third, quaestiones, was the group’s responses to the text. This structure is essentially unchanged in its current form of the public lecture, the artist’s talk, or a filmmaker’s question-and-answer format that often follows a screening of the work where the filmmaker is present in the audience. The German word for “scholarship” is Wissenschaft and is a bit more specific than the Greek in that it can be translated literally as “knowledge.” More specific still, the German Forscher is a “research scholar.” But in its current English use, “scholarship” can be defined as the systematic pursuit of knowledge and learning.

Ralph Waldo Emerson’s landmark 1837 speech “The American Scholar” is a key text in identifying the characteristics of modern scholarship — crucial, in fact, for extending the analytical role to one of invention. “There is,” Emerson declares, “creative reading as well as creative writing.” His personal definition of scholarship broadens the purely systematic aspects of the scholar’s dependencies on primary texts and objects, into one of active participation, original production, and influence. Indeed, “The American Scholar” might allow us to arrive at definitions for the contemporary scholar: an individual who maps and engages with the migration of information and art; who is attentive to the contexts in which art occurs, and the unique temporal pressures that affects such the production of culture. As for my own definition, I would also fold in the enterprises of the editor, curator, and publisher. These are figures that each provides intermediary roles between information and knowledge, artist and audience.

The shifting definition of what scholarship is and what it might entail presents a unique set of interests in relation to the contemporary scholar’s approach to artists’ moving image – the position in which I now find myself (“film scholar” encapsulates a myriad of mediums: video, celluloid, installation, monitor and projection, to name only the most basic of distinctions). The key, then, is to admit that the contemporary scholar is one who endeavors to show facts amidst appearances by taking a position, while also holding on to the paradox that any position must be constantly revised in order to be accurate and responsive to the work, text, film or subject at hand. This is a peculiar period for contemporary scholarship; we live in an era that is both one of instant historicization and constant revision. Scholarship must reflect this. The formal distinctions between the desk of art and the desk of scholarship are useful in setting out starting positions, but one must admit that sometimes, maybe now more than ever, it’s useful to push the desks together.

“The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Part 2: The Filmic Essay” will be posted in a fortnight.

Super-Rare 35mm Film Print Comes to the Walker Shortly After Director’s Death

“I am never driven. Every film I’ve made has been an assignment.” —Alain Resnais In the 1950s, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker ran in the same circles as the French New Wave — Godard, Truffaut, Varda — but as part of the Left Bank Cinema Movement they made more politically charged films, decidedly alienating their […]

Alain Resnais, 1922-2014

“I am never driven. Every film I’ve made has been an assignment.” —Alain Resnais

In the 1950s, Alain Resnais and Chris Marker ran in the same circles as the French New Wave — Godard, Truffaut, Varda — but as part of the Left Bank Cinema Movement they made more politically charged films, decidedly alienating their work from the entertainment industry. Their short film, Statues Also Die (1953), later to be described by the famed film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum as “a combination of speculative art history, precise journalism, and a grim meditation on the various places and functions Africa and its separate cultures have assumed within white civilization,” was originally censored for 15 years because of its firm anticolonial stance.

Nowadays, though Statues Also Die is no longer censored or banned, public screenings are perhaps just as rare due to their antiquity. Rosenbaum wrote an article specifically about Statues Also Die amidst an extensive 2009 Resnais retrospective that screenings are “so rare that if you come across it in any venue […] you should drop everything to go and see it.” Not only has the preservation of this film been a delicate process, but we must also remember that theaters everywhere are throwing out their 35mm projectors for new DCP (Digital Cinema Package) formats. (I’m reminded of the Indiana Jones Trilogy VHS set I have at home, but without a VCR… or a TV.)

It should be noted as well that on March 1, 2014, just after his 50th film Life of Riley (2014) won the Alfred Bauer Prize at the Berlin International Film Festival for “opening new perspectives in cinematic art,” Alain Resnais died at the age of 91. His death came a year and a half after Statues’ co-director Chris Marker’s in July 2012. Together, they contributed more than 1oo films to movie history including Night and Fog (Resnais 1955), Hiroshima mon amour (Resnais 1959), Le Jetée (Marker 1962), and Sans Soleil (1983).

As part of A Riff on the Rif: In the Spirit of the Cinematheque Tangier, the Walker Cinema will be screening a short film series on Saturday March 29 called Censorship in Colonial France: Returning the Gaze. The program starts with the aforementioned super rare 35mm print of Statues Also Die, followed directly by a digital screening of René Vautier’s Afrique 50 — another French anticolonialism film which suffered a 40-year ban and for which the director was sentenced to a year in prison.

Additionally, the films will be followed by a short documentary/interview with the director René Vautier called Sand and Blood, and Associate Professor Joёlle Vitiello of Macalester College will be introducing the films. The Walker Cinema is one of the last places in the Twin Cities with both 35mm and DCP technology. Come join us for this once-in-a-lifetime occasion.

Treasures of the Scopitones: Discarded Wonders

Screening this evening, Treasures of the Scopitones shows an exciting history of a rare group of music films created by North African immigrants to France in the 1960s and early ’70s. Co-director Michèle Collery will be on hand to discuss the film at 7:30 pm. Full songs from Treasures of the Scopitones are playing in […]

Treasures of the Scopitones, 1999
Screening this evening, Treasures of the Scopitones shows an exciting history of a rare group of music films created by North African immigrants to France in the 1960s and early ’70s. Co-director Michèle Collery will be on hand to discuss the film at 7:30 pm. Full songs from Treasures of the Scopitones are playing in a scopitone on view in the exhibition Album: Cinematheque Tangier, a project by Yto Barrada through May 18, 2014.

In 1996 Michèle Collery and Anaïs Prosaïc browsed the musical archives of Daidy Davis-Boyer, a well-known music producer working in the 1960s, researching for a documentary about a Sephardic song called “The Crooners of the Casbah.” Davis-Boyer shot hundreds of scopitones — short movies created for a jukebox that projected 16mm on a small screen — and stored the less-in-demand negatives in her garage. Collery and Prosaïc noticed four boxes of 16 and 35mm reels in the corner; seemingly abandoned, the boxes were labeled “Arab.” The two already made documentaries about Arab music and culture and knew about the legendary scopitones that disappeared from circulation after running in Parisian cafes in the ’60s and ’70s. The scopitone was invented by a firm called Compagnie des Applications Mécaniques et Électroniques au Cinéma et à l’Atomistique (CAMECA) in the early 1960s. Café patrons wishing to see one slipped a coin into the machines which then played filmed songs.

After interviewing Davis-Boyer, they found these negatives were music films shown in suburban Paris cafés where many North African immigrant workers gathered to gather, talk, and watch the musical endeavors of artists from their communities. Davis-Boyer deemed the reels uninteresting to audiences and now worthless to her, so Collery and Prosaïc received them as a gift. Viewing them on a projector confirmed they were the disappearing scopitones, produced in France (not in an Arab country) by Davis-Boyer.

Collery told me her interest in making films about Arab culture stems from her travel to many Arab countries — Algeria, Morocco, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon — and from living in Tunisia and Qatar. Her radio show in Qatar about Francophone culture allowed her to introduce Algerian, Moroccan, and Tunisian songs the people there never heard. She knew to make an aesthetically pleasing documentary, she needed strong archival images to pair with the songs. “What attracted us [to the reels] is the socio-political element of songs telling stories about the mentality or evolution of a time now outdated … some sequences remind me of West Side Story or Fellini’s films,” Collery said.

The scopitones themselves magically pinpoint the problems affecting North African immigrants of the time — sadness over exile, racism, unemployment — through the poetic qualities, political consciousness, and modernity of the videos’ singers. Songs danced solely by women bear the lyrics, “I’ll never get married. I love the single life too,” and a group called The Golden Hands displayed three Moroccans resembling Jimi Hendrix on guitar. The expression of sexual freedom and ability to make rock ‘n’roll entirely debunked the perceptions other countries held of North Africans.

The singers and their descendants gathering in the café to re-watch these musical productions in Collery and Prosaïc’s documentary carefully point out there are “songs also about country, family, friendship, and fraternity … not just exile and separation.” In one, the popular group Idir dances around a sunny park, jubilantly singing, “women wear new garb and even men begin to dance … everyone is dancing, let yourself go, have a ball.” These videos are markers of the originality of North African singers and their insistence to have a good time amid other struggles.

From choosing the scopitones of best quality to finding interested producers in the company Canal+, Collery and Prosaïc shot the film in two days after contacting the singers through their record companies. Due to the lengthy process of gaining copyright to broadcasting rights, the total process took two and a half years.

Filming the reunion in the café was “a meeting full of surprises and warmth, very moving,” Collery said. Although there were generational gaps, the power of these people enjoying and engaging in part of the North African collective memory was immeasurable. The beauty of the selected scopitones with reactions from the café is what Collery believes “revives and introduces children and grandchilden of these immigrants to show the culture of their parents was not limited to the mosque and the land.”

The initial reception was successful in France, and Collery remarked that “in Algeria, it shocked some people … but in general the audiences were surprised and proud about the poetry, humor, and outspokenness of the writers.”

The Stuart Hall Project, Chronicle of Spirit

“When I ask anybody where they’re from, I expect nowadays to be told an extremely long story,” once said the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died February 10 at the age of 82. Hall was an English writer and theorist who co-founded the leftist cultural and political journal, New Left Review. He did this alongside […]

Stuart Hall at a rally, courtesy of BFI Film Forever

“When I ask anybody where they’re from, I expect nowadays to be told an extremely long story,” once said the cultural theorist Stuart Hall, who died February 10 at the age of 82.

Hall was an English writer and theorist who co-founded the leftist cultural and political journal, New Left Review. He did this alongside such famed intellectuals as Richard Hoggart and Edward Thompson, but came from a much different background than his colleagues. Born to an aspiring family in Kingston, Jamaica, he arrived in Oxford in the 1950s among fellow members of the West Indian diaspora. He achieved an excellent education and felt respected by peers, but was also faced with racism due to the color of his skin. He began to see how matters of identity extended into all facets of life. In a community that was ever expanding due to mass media, he therefore felt it was necessary to address issues of culture and politics beyond an audience of students, professors, and intellectuals. He started appearing on television in the ’60s and became one of the first figures to pose complex questions about racism and identity to wide popular audiences. He asked questions that led to more questions, and therefore pushed viewers, families in their homes, to continuously wonder about how things become the way they are, and how common perspectives are reinforced in daily life. Additionally, Hall published his thoughts and questions in essays, lectures, and short films, thus becoming one of the most frequently cited cultural theorists to date.

In 2013, acclaimed English artist and filmmaker John Akomfrah made a documentary film about Stuart Hall called The Stuart Hall Project, which will screen in the Walker Cinema on February 21. It is a beautifully crafted chronological exploration of Hall’s life through archival footage and the sounds of Miles Davis, with which Hall resonated deeply. But despite its adherence to a logical linear progression, the film overwhelms its viewers with the impression of infinity. Cuts disappear as we hear the sound of ocean tides, and a lonely record keeps spinning on and on in an empty room. Akomfrah’s film is masterful in that it highlights a man’s unique devotion to truth — a way for which we yearn, but which seems forever out of reach. This is a quandary with which Hall’s life was so intimately tied that it seems he himself, in spite of his death, has become endless — a spirit of heated curiosity and investigation.

This film is the most direct and succinct way of learning about who Stuart Hall was as a person, how he achieved such notoriety as a man of thought, and what ideas flooded his life. Despite his immense complexity and the complexity of life which he embraced so fully, audiences will leave the theater feeling as if they had met the man himself. But Hall was a man who devoted his life to questions beyond himself. To honor him, simply keep on being curious.

Dialogue: Producer Bill Pohlad on 12 Years a Slave and Working with Steve McQueen

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, […]

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso

Walker senior curator of film/video Sheryl Mousley, artist/filmmaker Steve McQueen, MoMA chief curator of media and performance Stuart Comer, 12 Years a Slave producer Bill Pohlad, and Walker executive director Olga Viso at the Walker.

On October 30, the Walker had the privilege of hosting the Minnesota premiere of Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave as the start of a retrospective that included McQueen’s Shame and Hunger and concluded with a dialogue between Steve McQueen and Stuart Comer, chief curator of media and performance art at MoMA. On January 12, 2014, McQueen’s film won Best Motion Picture-Drama at the Golden Globe Awards. Beside him as he received the prize was Minneapolis-based producer Bill Pohlad, who introduced 12 Years a Slave at its Walker debut. Following the film, Pohlad returned to the stage for a conversation with Sheryl Mousley, the Walker’s senior Film/Video curator and the audience.

Sheryl Mousley: Thank you so much for making this film. I think it’s a film that leaves you a bit overwhelmed. It might be hard for the audience to jump right into talking about it. It takes your breath away. I will ask the first few questions before we open the conversation up to the audience.

We know from watching the credits that it’s a true story based on a memoir by Northup Solomon written in 1853. How did you come to this story, and how did this film project start?

Bill Pohlad: The movie started with Steve [McQueen] really wanting to make a movie about slavery, and there was a lot of work done to come up with a fictionalized version of the story overall but nothing developed out of that that felt genuine enough. But then Steve’s wife found the book and gave it to him and it all started from there.

Sheryl Mousley: It’s such a beautiful film. The look of it is so cinemagraphically elegant and yet it takes you down a harrowing trail. I was amazed watching it tonight how you found that balance between this beautiful look of the film and this unbelievably difficult, painful life the characters were going through.

Bill Pohlad: I hadn’t actually spent a lot of time in Louisiana before the shoot, but it is beautiful in its own way. It’s haunting. The plantation was actually a real plantation where a lot of this occurred and you feel the ghosts of all that when you go down there. It’s always the director’s job to be a charismatic leader. And Steve really was that. In addition to having the vision for the film you have to bring everyone into this community to take on such a serious, heavy, and emotional subject. There was something very peaceful and graceful about [the set]. Certainly when we were shooting the scenes it was harrowing but there was also a sense that something great was happening here.

Sheryl Mousley: I think I read somewhere that when you were doing the cotton picking scenes it was 108 degrees.

Bill Pohlad: Nothing was fake in that regard. It was very difficult conditions to shoot under but you always related it back to what real people went through. We were shooting a movie, but they lived it.

Mousley then opened up questions to the audience.

Audience member: What do you want the world to do with this film?

Bill Pohlad: In the making of the movie you don’t want to be too conscious of what you want people to come away with because it tends to twist the way you’re making the movie. Everything becomes too logical. You try and make the movie on the very emotional level. Certainly now that we’re in distribution I’m hoping we’ll go beyond the cinema part of it, and let it become part of the dialogue in the mainstream so that we can face that part of our history and how it relates to our society today.

Audience member: I was wondering at what point in the development of the film did you get involved, and why did you choose this film?

Bill Pohlad: We were making The Tree of Life with Plan B and they had met with Steve and talked about what he wanted to do next. [Producers] Dede Gardner and Brad Pitt talked about doing something else together. I met with Steve and could see his passion immediately, and he already knew what direction the project was going in. I don’t want to say it was a ‘no brainer’ but with that kind of story and that kind of group forming around it, you know it has a good chance.

Audience member: It was a powerful movie that will stay with me, so thank you for making it. My question is, besides Solomon Northup’s book, what other research and documentation was used to adapt his story to film?

Bill Pohlad: We had done a lot of research before we found the book. When we brought [John Ridley] on as a screenwriter, he did his own research, and all the different groups involved (Plan B, etc) contributed their own as well. As we’ve gotten into distribution many more people have come into the equation to flesh out and give their blessings to the content.

Audience member: It seems to me for this film to have any effect, Americans have to really believe that this happened. My dad was the 15th of 16 children, only went to school until 5th grade, and was one of the smartest people I knew, but worked in a factory for 43 years because that’s all he could do. I’ve heard so much from so many people that tells me that this has a ring of truth to it. But I think we have a long history of people in this country saying “is that how slaves were really treated?” So my question to you is how have people been responding to this film?

Bill Pohlad: From everything I’ve read and the reactions I’ve witnessed, people have been taking it very seriously. But when you’re making movies you don’t overblow the effect it’s going to have. It’s not like one movie is going to change everything. But when you are able to put something like this film together and see the impact, you hope that maybe things just turn a little bit in the right direction. But I feel like I shouldn’t even be talking here. To hear your story, to hear everybody exchanging ideas on it—that’s what it should do.

Audience member: How much did the language of Northup’s writing help to paint a rich picture of the experience that he went through?

Bill Pohlad: We had the benefit of the book having his kind of musicality, his way of speaking. John Ridley and Steve, and Chiwetel [Ejiofor (Northup)] took that and blended it into the dialogue. I think it’s as honest as it could be relative to that sound from the writing.

Audience member: It seems some distant happening, and I just wanted to bring into focus that this is a current paradigm in America, it’s just undercover in many ways. My Question for you is who chained the “slaves?” What was the sensitivity on the set?

Bill Pohlad: I can’t answer that particular question, but generally the vibe on the set was really amazing. Steve has a very gentle way of being, and in the most difficult scene… you get those performances because the whole crew has a respect for everybody and for the subject matter. They create an environment where people feel safe to not only perform these very emotional scenes, but also deal with pretty heavy issues. How that happens is hard to break down, but you would walk around the set and know that everybody knew what was going on and that the vision Steve had would bring it across in a very genuine way.

 

On Site: Stephen Tobolowsky

Stephen Tobolowsky visited the Walker yesterday to screen one of his favorite films, David Byrne’s True Stories, which he cowrote with the director and Beth Henley. The tale of a small Texas town celebrating its sesquicentennial pulls its characters from the headlines of tabloids Byrne collected while on tour, and are wonderfully performed by Byrne, John […]

Stephen Tobolowsky (right) with senior Film/Video curator Sheryl Mousely (left) in the Bazinet Plaza after last night's dialogue.

Stephen Tobolowsky (right) with senior Film/Video curator Sheryl Mousely (left) in the Bazinet Plaza after last night’s dialogue.

Stephen Tobolowsky visited the Walker yesterday to screen one of his favorite films, David Byrne’s True Stories, which he cowrote with the director and Beth Henley. The tale of a small Texas town celebrating its sesquicentennial pulls its characters from the headlines of tabloids Byrne collected while on tour, and are wonderfully performed by Byrne, John Goodman, Spalding Gray, and Swoozie Kurtz.

Following the screening, Tobolowsky discussed his approach to storytelling, a skill he has a significant amount of experience in, both as a screenwriter, and as the host of his autobiographical podcast, The Tobolowsky Files.

Filmmakers on Site: The Search for Emak Bakia’s Oskar Alegria

On September 14, Walker screened The Search for Emak Bakia, with director Oskar Alegria on site to talk about his work with the audience. The screening was followed by Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1927), the inspiration for Alegria’s film, and live accompaniment by St. Paul musician Richard Griffith.The Search for Emak Bakia is as much an […]

Oskar Alegria in front of the sign for his film in the Bazinet Lobby

Director Oskar Alegria in front of the sign for his film in the Bazinet Lobby.

On September 14, Walker screened The Search for Emak Bakia, with director Oskar Alegria on site to talk about his work with the audience. The screening was followed by Man Ray’s Emak-Bakia (1927), the inspiration for Alegria’s film, and live accompaniment by St. Paul musician Richard Griffith.The Search for Emak Bakia is as much an exploration of language and meaning as it is a tribute to Man Ray’s film. Its narrative playfully breaks from linearity and reads more like a nonfiction cinepoem than it does a documentary film. In one of his contingent storylines Alegria finds one of Griffith’s CDs at Man Ray’s grave. He was so inspired by the music that he put it in his film.

Director Oskar Alegria and MN Musician Richard Griffith together on stage in the Walker Cinema

Director Oskar Alegria and MN Musician Richard Griffith together on stage in the Walker Cinema.

 

The two had a great time together.

The two had a great time together.

 

Making Poetry Films: Some Discoveries

I’m stingy at the box office, but last week I saw Life of Pi in the theater for the second time. The movie is a visual knockout, a delirium of color, probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen onscreen, but what I love most about it is it central metaphor. The script is deeply […]

Still from Amy Schmitt’s motionpoem, which adapts Erin Belieu’s “When at a Certain Party in NYC”

I’m stingy at the box office, but last week I saw Life of Pi in the theater for the second time. The movie is a visual knockout, a delirium of color, probably the most gorgeous thing I’ve ever seen onscreen, but what I love most about it is it central metaphor.

The script is deeply flawed. When the narrative is unveiled as an allegory, the telling is clumsy. But in that moment the film is transformed into a poem.

In my dual roles as literary director of Motionpoems–a poetry film company that will premiere a dozen new shorts at the Walker on April 24–and as a publishing poet, I am interested in the intersection of poetry and film. I’m interested in where the language of film intersects with the language of poetry. I’m always wondering what the forms have to teach one another.

It’s one thing to say that a script approaches the poetic. But what happens when a poem is the script? That’s what we do: At Motionpoems, co-founder Angella Kassube and I give great contemporary poems to our network of filmmakers and invite them to use them as scripts for short films over which they retain complete creative control. We do it because we believe film can introduce more people to the world of poetry.

Poems are, in many ways, perfect scripts. They often tell a story whether they’re narrative or not. They have a structure, a shape, and a progression of ideas, and they involve a speaker or implied speaker. More importantly, they are complete works of art, wholly contained and perfect.

We now have more than 30 films in our three-year archive at motionpoems.com. Here are some things we’ve discovered about this unique blending of artistic languages:

Pacing is essential.

Listening to poetry out loud poses a challenge for most people, a bit like being led on a blindfolded walk in a tangled wilderness. Poetry is a dense, convoluted landscape, and one can easily get lost if you’re not used to that landscape. Poets who are great readers of their own work are rare, mostly because their familiarity with their own work makes them tend to forget that every listener is new to it; often they simply read too quickly. For this reason, Motionpoems video artists don’t often utilize the poet’s voice, and choose to utilize a more careful voice-over instead. A film can pace a poem by slowing it down, pause it so the reader can catch up, and allow it to unfold on a timeline that’s organic to the way in which the poem might be absorbed by a first-time listener, not the way it might be read by a poetry aficionado.

Film can add layers.

A great example of excellent pacing is Scott Wenner’s adaptation of Norwegian poet Dag Straumsvag’s “Karl” from our 2010 season, but it’s also an excellent example of how a film can layer metaphors on top of a poem’s existing metaphors. “Karl” is, by itself, a haunting little narrative poem about a man who keeps getting misplaced calls from the police, but the film adaptation boldly sets the poem in the context of a derelict basement and uses two bugs—a moth and a spider—as central characters in the drama. Like Life of Pi, the film becomes an allegory for the poem, not a literal depiction of it, and as such, it multiplies the poem’s power to mean.

Film can amplify humor.

Most people think poetry is gravely serious. Not so. A lot of contemporary poetry is downright hilarious, but you wouldn’t know it from its sober façade on the printed page. A great recent 2012 motionpoem that takes its cues from film noir and turns a sardonic poem by Erin Belieu into a hard-boiled rant is Amy Schmitt’s adaptation of “When at a Certain Party in NYC.” The thing moves like a city bus: In this case a literal depiction is the perfect choice because the scenery glides by so quickly. Most poets chafe at any mention of the arts as entertainment, but film happily exploits the entertainment in art.

Film can restore poetry’s original power.

It should be said that what my Motionpoems co-director Angella Kassube and I are attempting isn’t to make poems better, or to interpret them literally, but to consider them as starting points for another art form, and thereby extend poetry’s typical readership. If, in the process, our video artists interpret, well, that’s a casualty of the process. Some will take exception to this, but it misses the point; our mission is to treat the poem as a creative start-point, not an endpoint. At The Playwrights’ Center, where I worked for a time, I was surrounded by theater artists, all of them collaborative by training and necessity. Poetry’s origin as an oral/performing art leaves it rather orphaned in print. Just as television is finally rediscovering the power of great scripts, Angella and I believe film can restore some of poetry’s birthrights.

We hope you’ll come see our new films at the Walker on April 24 and share in the discussion.

Headline Rewind: The Oscars and Ingmar Bergman

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was. News Event: The Oscars As the 85th Academy Awards loom only days away (they’ll air on ABC this Sunday night, starting at 6pm), a flurry of articles, previews, and opinionated diatribes […]

On weekends when the Walker Cinema is empty, Headline Rewind points out other worthwhile films that respond to headlines from the week that was.

News Event: The Oscars

the-oscars-and-social-media-by-the-numbers-630dfbfb1c

As the 85th Academy Awards loom only days away (they’ll air on ABC this Sunday night, starting at 6pm), a flurry of articles, previews, and opinionated diatribes inundate the Internet, either touting the significance or decrying the irrelevance of this annual dog-and-pony show. Whether it’s the ceremony you love or merely love to hate, there’s little denying the cultural import these festivities carry in American pop culture. As bettors predict the honorees, naysayers lambaste the absurdity, and pundits question whether they even matter anymore, there’s little doubt that the awards will be one of the most-watched televised events of the year, and that a select number of powerful Hollywood studios (and artists) will bask in the glow of mass validation until the cycle of self-promotion begins anew for the next installment.

Film Recommendation: Cries and Whispers by Ingmar Bergman

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Among the many filmmakers and cinephiles who have viewed the Oscars with a certain amount of disdain, Ingmar Bergman might be the most pedigreed. As the Swedish filmmaker writes in this brusque letter he sent to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences following the nomination of Wild Strawberries (1957) for Best Original Screenplay, Bergman wanted nothing to do with the “motion picture art humiliating institution.” Indeed, the director’s sobering examinations of human desperation, cruelty, and alienation would not seem to mesh well with the stolid, pseudo-highbrow message movies the Academy tends to favor. (Remember Crash? Or Argo, for that matter?) Wild Strawberries — the bittersweet story of an aging physician who reevaluates his life before accepting a prestigious award at Lund University (a ceremony he significantly considers a hollow ritual) — is available online at Hulu Plus and on DVD through Netflix. One of Bergman’s most well-regarded films, Wild Strawberries also (perhaps to the director’s dismay) won the Golden Bear for Best Film at the eighth Berlin International Film Festival as well as the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film.

"Hour of the Wolf," 1968

“Hour of the Wolf,” 1968

Yet if you’re looking to avoid all the Oscars hoopla by venturing into some foreboding Bergmanian territory, a treasure trove of intense, thought-provoking cinema awaits you online. In addition to the voluminous DVD offerings that Netflix provides, the website also offers Hour of the Wolf (1968), Passion of Anna (1969), and The Serpent’s Egg (1978) through Instant Streaming. The first of these, Hour of the Wolf, would be my personal recommendation: the director’s haunting, nightmarish foray into the horror genre (kind of) literalizes the demons that typically remain under the surface in his films.

"Cries and Whispers," 1972

“Cries and Whispers,” 1972

Hulu, meanwhile, also offers The Virgin Spring (1960) and Through a Glass Darkly (1961), as well as many other titles through Hulu Plus. But the director’s most emotionally devastating film — and also the one that (not coincidentally) strays the furthest from Oscar territory — is also available for free streaming on Hulu: Cries and Whispers. (Ironically, Oscar voters continued to dismiss Bergman’s indifference and lauded the movie with five nominations, including Best Picture.) Concerning a trio of sisters (one of whom is on her deathbed) in a Swedish mansion at the end of the 19th century, Cries and Whispers returns to familiar Bergman territory (faith, doubt, love, death) while atypically conveying those themes through lush, saturated color cinematography (by Sven Nykvist). Including a shocking scene that’s referenced in Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher (2001), Cries and Whispers achieves a naked empathy that’s cathartic in its honesty and ambition. If you’re hoping to balance the pomp and glitz of the Oscars with an unsettling appetizer (or if you want to avoid the awards altogether), check out this unflinching masterpiece from an auteur who cared more about cinema’s emotional depths than the laurels it might bring to his mantelpiece.

Report from Berlin: 63rd Berlinale

This year’s Berlin Film Festival has been full of new discoveries and projects by filmmakers with whom Walker has had a long history. Now on day 7, I feel I can share a better overview of what I’ve seen with a better perspective. Most days start at 9 am with a film that is in competition for […]

Berlinale-film-festival

This year’s Berlin Film Festival has been full of new discoveries and projects by filmmakers with whom Walker has had a long history. Now on day 7, I feel I can share a better overview of what I’ve seen with a better perspective. Most days start at 9 am with a film that is in competition for the festival’s top prize, the Golden Bear, and I’ll be running from one venue to another—often at opposite ends of town until midnight or later. I’m far from alone in this endeavor as there have been over 250,000 tickets sold as of the mid-festival. In addition to the festival’s official selections, there are 890 films screened as part to the European Film Market which runs parallel with the festival. At the market, there are 7,650 industry insiders taking part by buying and selling films across all genres.

From the competition, my favorite and the most buzzed-about title is Sebastian Lelio’s Chilean film Gloria, a striking portrait of an awkward, yet charming divorcee in her late 50s entering the dating scene. The thing that sets it apart is the raw performance by actress Paulina Garcia who embellishes her character with humor, vulnerability and passion. It was picked up for U.S. distribution by Roadside Attractions and it’s sure to make the Oscar list for the coming year.

This is a close tie with Ulrich Seidl’s final part of his new trilogy, Paradise: Hope, which is set in a fat camp for teens.  Reversing the Lolita story, one of the young girls develops an obsessive crush on the camp doctor, a man in his late 50s.  As with Seidl’s other films in the trilogy, it mixes humor with behavior that is often taken to extremes.

Urlich Seidl's Paradise: Hope Coutesy Strand Releasing

Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise: Hope
Courtesy Strand Releasing

Many films from Sundance have also come to Berlin for their European premieres like Matt Porterfield’s engaging I Used to Be Darker (produced by Steven Holmgren from the Twin Cities and playing to packed houses here); James Franco and Travis Mathews’ Interior. Leather Bar, a reimagining of the 40 minutes cut from William Friedkin’s film Cruising; Stacie Passon’s (she studied at the U of M) tale of fidelity in Concussion (produced by Rose Troche who was last at Walker with The Safety of Objects); and Kim Longinotto’s (her films Sisters in Law, Divorce Iranian Style, Shinjuku Boys, Gaea Girls all played Walker) heart-breaking documentary Salma concerning a Muslim poet who was confined to her home for 9 years starting when she was 13.

The Foum Expanded program is also presenting a focus on the work of Hélio Oiticica who may be familiar to Walker audiences for his CC5 Hendrixwar/Cosmococa Programa-in Progress installation realized with his collaborator Neville D’Almeida in which visitors remove their shoes before entering the space in the Burnett Gallery to lounge in hammocks, listed to a soundtrack of Jimi Hendrix music and to view the barrage of slides covering the walls. The festival has taken on staging one of the artists’ most ambitious variations of the work, Block-Experiments in Cosmococa-Program in Progress: CC4 Nocagions, a slide sequence with soundtrack that was installed in a swanky swimming pool for one night—unfortunately I hadn’t packed swim trunk (who would for Berlin in February?).  There is one more variation of the Cosmacoca that I’ll catch up with at the Hamburger Bahnhof on Friday. The head of the Projecto Hélio Oiticica, Cesar Oiticica Filho also presented the world premiere of his documentary on his uncle and there was a fascinating panel that included rare Super 8 films including the raw footage of Agrippina e Roma-Manhattan (Walker is in progress in digitizing the edited version of this title).

With just two more viewing days to go, I’m looking forward to Richard Foreman’s first feature film in 30 years Once Every Day, River Phoenix’s final film Dark Blood (yes, River Phoenix—he died before the shoot ended and the film was in limbo for decades), and the restoration of Shirley Clarke’s Portrait of Jason.

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