Deadpan or Just Dull?

If I had three days to write a story about Paterson, New Jersey, before I saw the film Paterson, I’d have been sure to include the famous waterfall, and definitely something about Paterson poet William Carlos Williams and his easy-to-grasp dictum about poetry: “No ideas but in things.” I’d also make some use of the city’s industrial history and, if  it reasonably fit the story, mentioned Hurricane Carter.

You could say that, since Jim Jarmusch’s film Paterson has all these things, I’m something of a screenwriting savant. Or you could say, since I’ve never once set foot in Paterson, his film is about as poetic and authentic as a Wikipedia page. I know I’m supposed to love Jarmusch, the great uncle of independent cinema, but I can’t help feeling like I’m being put on when I watch his films, like their deadpan simplicity and see-through gags are daring me to call “Bullshit!”

Adam Driver

Adam Driver in “Paterson.”

I was so irritated when I left Coffee and Cigarettes in 2004 that I swore I’d never go to a theater to see one of his films again, but the buzz about Paterson lured me back. And it is, after all, about a poet with a day job as a bus driver, whose creative life is not too different from my own.

A Paterson bus driver, named Paterson, goes to work every day and manages to get verses of poems written, sometimes with obvious inspiration, and sometimes just from airy nothing. His girlfriend, more of an unfocused dreamer than he is, both inspires him and provides some counterpoint to his discipline and his measured approach to poetry. His one frivolous habit is taking his dog for a walk every night and tying him outside a bar while he goes inside to drink.

One thing you can say for Paterson the script is that it makes excellent use of the red herring. We’re encouraged to fear that his dog gets stolen, and all along we figure the resolution will have something to do with Paterson yielding to his girlfriend’s insistence that he try to get his poems published. Though the one major setback isn’t completely unexpected, it wasn’t quite what I saw coming either. Although I didn’t like the film much, I concede that the end was sweet. The balloon home to Kansas flies away without him, but he wins because he has a rich creative life, not because his poem gets published.

It’s also one of the few films that shows how difficult writing is, without being tedious, but that’s largely because Ron Padgett’s poems, which Jarmusch used for the script, are so accessible and lovely. One of them, “Love Poem,” Padgett himself reads about nine minutes into this podcast.

“Love Poem” reminds me of something a director I know once said about Joe Swanberg’s films, which landed him his Netflix series Easy: Why does every single character listen to LP’s? You could say that a screenwriter, like a poet, doesn’t just make content out of a world that already exists but creates a world, and if the Swanberg of Drinking Buddies, like the Baumbach and Gerwig of Frances Ha, wants to make a world where everyone’s so cool that vinyl records are the rule and not the exception, then that’s their prerogative.

“Love Poem,” according to Padgett, is a poem he wrote in the 1970s. It begins as an ode to a brand of matchstick, and cleverly turns into a description of his love for his woman. That it still speaks to us via Jarmusch means it’s a quality poem. That Jarmusch has Paterson’s girlfriend gush about the contents of the poem, the shape of the logo on the matchstick box? That could mean we’re witnessing a vision of creativity that’s right at home in a loving relationship, as opposed to the tortured genius who keeps his loved ones out of reach, but it also goes to show the limitations of Jarmusch’s ability to create a world. We’re expected to swallow that two people in 2016 are both taken by an antique-looking matchbook. It’s whimsicality bordering on twee.

It gets worse yet in the bar Paterson takes his dog to every night. Like Jimmy’s Corner on a good night, it’s a white person’s fantasy of a cool black bar: 70s R&B and a 60ish barkeep with a folksy appreciation of local history. Their discussion of who belongs on the “Hall of Fame” wall behind the bar is plain clumsy. That Paterson’s girlfriend wants him to get a cell phone and he refuses, you could see as a reflexive position on the antique world these characters live in, as if Jarmusch knows we’re noticing all the anachronisms and makes Paterson a guy who, like Jarmusch, is consciously holding onto this unique world, but I wasn’t buying it for a second. I wanted more reality, more plot, and higher stakes.

 

 

Panique

It’s 1947 in a suburban village outside of Paris, and a lonely Jewish photographer named Monsieur Hire (shortened from Hirovitch) patiently endures the gossip and pettiness around him, not seeming to mind his pariah status too much. It’s more a matter of broken-heartedness about his ruined marriage than grief over any recent mass deportation that might have happened, but that implication is certainly in the air too.

Mr. Hire starts taking a special interest in a younger woman who’s recently out of jail, but when a 40-some-year-old neighbor turns up dead in a vacant lot with her purse missing, guess who gets blamed for it?

panique-rialto-poster

That’s Panique, directed by Julien Duvivier, who’s better known for Pépé le Moko, co-written by the Belgian screenwriter Charles Spaak, based on the novel by Georges Simenon.

It’s tempting to compare it to M, or to see some contemporary parallel to literal panic in it, and I’m sure that’s what most critics are seeing when they come across this re-discovered work. As a hunk of nostalgia, though – and who doesn’t want to walk through an old village before Parisian sprawl overhelmed it, and while a carnival is in town no less – it sticks in your craw because it damns the villagers themselves. One of the great themes of post-war literature, the passive wickedness of the upright citizen, was already being written about.

It also clocks in at a spartan 91 minutes, one of the things that makes the scripts of this period so elegant, and still so pleasurable to watch.

You can see the twist at the end coming a kilometer away, and yet that’s beside the point. Duvivier seems to have returned to France after a World War II period spent in Hollywood, with a bit of pith for the simple villagers. He wasn’t humming “The Green, Green Grass of Home,” that’s for sure.

Toni Erdmann

The movie theater was packed at a matinée of a two and a half-plus hour German comedy. Had me in stitches the whole time.

“Stitches”? The whole time? I enjoyed it the whole time, but one of the many charms of Maren Ade’s script for Toni Erdmann was its sad, bittersweet tone, even when it went completely madcap. Then again, even when she’s being screwball the metaphorical content is on point, even poetic.

toni-erdmann

Peter Simonischek and Sandra Hüller  in “Toni Erdmann.”

Ade teaches screenwriting at a university in Berlin, and her scripts are always writerly – her feature Everyone Else at the 2009 New York Film Festival arguably more so than this one. The success of Toni Erdmann shows that a dose of humor makes the medicine of a dense script with a subtle sense of conflict and resolution to go down smoother.

It only takes a few scenes to establish that its lead character Winfried, an old, divorced music teacher, will go to any length for a joke, including cheap disguises and ludicrously fake identities. A scene with his ex-wife and her family, and the obvious fondness they have for him, shows what a harmless goon he is. That goes a long way in helping us forgive him as he crosses line after line with his daughter.

Winfried’s daughter Ines is a power-yuppie worming her way into the elite levels of European capital, and Winfried crashes her corporate-centered social calendar among oil speculators in Bucharest by using the pseudonym Toni Erdmann. If most dreamy-eyed screenwriting students are writing stories about sons and daughters hitting an impermeable wall in their fathers, their teacher (in Berlin, anyway) has written a masterpiece that turns the journey around: A father is trying to enter his stone-cold daughter’s world.

The script also achieves something most writing students would get a rap on the knuckles for, but Ade does it so seamlessly no one minds: It starts out as Winfried’s story, but after he appears to leave Bucharest for the first time, Ines steps in as the main character. Elegantly done.

It has one of the most perverse sex scenes I’ve ever laughed through, and a very memorable birthday party gone wrong. At the end of her nerves emotionally, her doorbell blaring, Ines has to answer it naked, and decides to turn her birthday party into a nakedness-required affair. One after another her colleagues arrive and get sent away, with a few exceptions, and you figure you can see where the gag is going. But that’s just the start of it!

It’s probably going to win the Best Foreign Film Oscar, so it will be around.

Why I Love Horror Films This Week – and I Hate Horror Films

I’ve never liked horror as a genre, and yet the most timely film in theaters right now is Ouija: Origin of Evil. I came across it at the end of a horror film bender I started a week or so ago. I could blame Trump, but really the devastating fall cold virus that’s been haunting the continent dropped off a demon spawn in my bloodstream for a long weekend, and it just seemed right.

It started with 2016’s Sacrifice (written and directed by Peter Dowling, based on S.J.Bolton’s book), a Wicker Man knockoff about an American obstetrician who moves to her husband’s hometown in far northern Scotland – Big mistake! This whet my appetite for 2013’s Neverlake, written by Carlo Longo and Manuela Cacciamani, whose credits include production-managing The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou. The story, not unlike Sacrifice, is about a British girl who goes to visit her Italian father in southern Tuscany and finds he has more than just a passing interest in the the bizarre fertility rituals of the Etruscans. When production managers start writing stories, you can expect them to be about this exciting.

legend-of-hell-house-2.jpg

“Which Oxford twit dies first?”

This made me crave a classic, so I watched 1973’s The Legend of Hell House. I recall this one being the late movie on television – one that was so late getting started, it seemed unthinkable that anyone could tolerate watching it in a dark house. It’s about a team of scientists and psychic experts who go to spend a week in a house haunted by a patrician serial killer.

By now I was sensing the old familiar patterns of horror of films, and the minute Pamela Franklin appeared as Florence Tanner, the young psychic whom the “real scientists” don’t respect, I said to my wife “She’s going to get sexually violated,” and she was. Horror films tend to be moralistic. Dionysian pleasure, and especially sexual precocity, get rewarded with violence.

They’re also often about self-righteous believers in science and reason getting their comeuppance, and that’s why the classic British horror films are the best. Enter Christopher Lee or Basil Rathbone talking about how thank goodness we don’t believe in superstition anymore, and wait for the spirit world to make a stunning comeback. Take that, Oxford twit!

Richard Matheson, who wrote The Legend of Hell House based on his own novel, had a long writing career that included the novel I Am Legend, episodes of Night Gallery, The Twilight Zone, and The Night Stalker, and screenplays for the series of Roger Corman versions of Edgar Allen Poe films from the early 60s like The Pit and the Pendulum.

For good measure I thought I’d watch Children of the Corn, the 1984 film written by George Goldsmith based on a Stephen King story. This is about kids reimagining Christian fundamentalism in a brutal and childish way. One thing I always found frustrating about horror is the need of story-tellers to reveal “the secret” inside the story: the nuclear accident or experiment on monkeys that went awry and got covered up. It makes me tune the stories out for offering so much new information just when they’re promising clarity.

In their defense, horror films are often just about perfect in length. 90-100 minutes of tight story-telling that rivets you for the first 60. Then comes the unnecessary backstory about a sexually abusive bishop or Nazi doctors.

trailer-for-the-vampire-western-a-girl-walks-home-alone-at-night-preview

Sheila Vand in “A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night”

For this, among other reasons, 2014’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, written and directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, is in a class by itself. Setting the film in an imaginary Persian underworld called Bad City, she takes the moralism inherent in horror and jacks it up by turning a feminist vampire on the loose. Her vampire, who devours drug dealers and shows mercy to prostitutes and children, is someone we get to see having downtime, enjoying English language music in her apartment. Her cape, coupled with a striped shirt, is equal parts burqa and vampire cape, and manages to evoke Jean Seberg from Breathless.

Amirpour has a new film coming out soon, and has to live up to the hype of being “the next Tarantino,” but I hope she just keeps writing stories like this. Really A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night is a love story that uses horror as a setting. No bombshells from the backstory needed come the one hour mark.

Which brings me to Ouija: Origin of Evil, a film that reviewers kept insisting is “actually not that bad,” which is true enough, for an hour. It’s written by Mike Flanagan and Jeff Howard. Elizabeth Reaser, who many of us know as the diner waitress-siren of death from Mad Men, has bills she can’t pay so she starts spicing up her scam psychic business with a ouija board, and lays a moral trap from beyond the grave for herself and her daughters.

That the film is set in 1967 fascinates me, and that the dad figure who almost returns to make the family whole again in the conservative, Hitchcockian way, is a priest who’s obviously regretting his celibacy, also makes this movie extra titillating. So many lovely plants in the first hour of this film, you hope for a tight story, and just then it spins out of control. This week has been all Trump versus Hillary, which the Times is calling, correctly I think, a final rematch in the intra-generational fight inside the Baby Boom.

What hell they’ve unleashed on us.

Elevator to the Gallows

Louis Malle was to the French New Wave what the Kinks were to the British Invasion. Though he is not the first name you think of associated with it, nor the second or third, he is clearly of it and did many of the things it did first and better.

That’s what occurred to me yesterday as I left the matinée screening of Elevator to the Gallows (Ascenseur pour l’échafaud) on the last day of its run at Film Forum. It was quite a sight: There were two dozen of us, by my count, which included one couple and all the rest of us solo viewers. What is it about arthouse cinema that inspires the same kind of following as weekday masses, where widowers and heartsick people worship in semi-private? But I digress…

MBDELTO EC006

Jeanne Moreau and Yori Bertin, “So tired, tired of waiting, tired of waiting for you-ou-ou.”

Ascenseur pour l’échafaud, written by Malle and Roger Nimier based on a novel by Noël Calef, was released in France on January 29, 1958, but didn’t come to the U.S. till the summer of ’61. In that interval, both The 400 Blows and Breathless came out. In the U.S., Hitchcock released both North By Northwest and Psycho, and a Papist became president. What a time.

Malle’s better known film The Lovers (Les amants) was also released in the fall of ’58, and in the interval between Elevator‘s French and U.S. releases, The Lovers caused a famous obscenity trial in Ohio, which it ultimately won. (The Kinks later got blackballed by the U.S. music business, and couldn’t tour right when the Beatles and Stones were solidifying their following with major U.S. tours.) So The Lovers became known as Malle’s first big film, and its upper middle class characters, and decidedly middlebrow atmosphere, put him at odds with the New Wave.

Elevator to the Gallows is basically a pulp novel story with higher aspirations, like lots of early Truffaut and Godard, and also looks like a New Wave film. Seeing Jeanne Moreau’s face lit by flashing lights, her makeup smudged, makes it feel like a low-budget labor of love. In the new digital restoration, you can see the boom operator’s reflection in the glass phone booth. Having seen it, I feel like I’ve been to Paris in ’58, and I can’t say the same for the Plaza Hotel or Mount Rushmore, as many times as I’ve seen North By Northwest.

Like Psycho, it begins like a step-by-step crime film, but instead of killing its heroine and becoming an admittedly unique whodunnit (a dull one, in my opinion), it sustains the tight time frame in three different stories: Tavernier, the man who just killed his rival, stuck in an elevator; the woman whose husband he just killed (Moreau) having a meltdown because she believes she’s being stood up; and the impulsive teenagers joyriding in Tavernier’s car, using his name. This all goes on a delightfully long time till the final unraveling.

The young couple playing the part of rebels is every bit as compelling as the kids in Breathless or A Band Apart, but Malle would never have been content with a story that was all about them. When Moreau finally tracks them down, it’s like an adult has broken up her teenagers’ beer party. Never mind your theater of rebellion, a broken heart is at stake here.

This is the kind of art-babble that kept me from going to grad school, but here it goes:

Elevator to the Gallows is ultimately a conflict between what medium is authoritative. It starts with the crime novel, which is just a point of departure. You know Tavernier will ultimately get caught, it’s in the title, but which crime will he get caught at, and how? Once he’s in custody, the free-wheeling New Wave locations give way to 100% atmosphere. The police station looks like a minimalist theatrical set, and we see some of the Malle we’ll get to know in My Dinner With Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. It looks like interrogation – simple dialogue – is going to one-up the detective story, and have the last word, but in the end it’s photography that’s decisive.

It’s often remembered for its Miles Davis soundtrack, and that’s a good enough reason to keep watching this film:

Slimier Things

Why are dystopian road movies all full of people wearing leather, and yet we never see any cows in them?

I’ll never forget Roger Ebert asking Gene Siskel that while reviewing a Road Warrior knockoff in the late ’80s. It seemed like a fair question to me at the time, since I hardly gave a damn about the movies then. Years later, of course, I would have found it a buzzkill. It’s a movie! Suspend that disbelief.

Coincidentally, this week a friend sent me a very funny 2003 article entitled “The Biology of B-Movie Monsters” on the same day I decided I really ought to finish watching Stranger Things, the Netflix hit of the summer that I’d lost interest in. The article, by marine biologist Michael LaBarbera, is full of musing like, “Enlarging an insect to this size raises other interesting problems that don’t arise with large vertebrates. Take the respiratory system.”

Yes, take the respiratory system. LaBarbera uses his favorite old films to give us some readable discourse about the kind of work his colleagues do, studying the metabolism of shrews and all that, so he’s not really defending disbelief. And yet I could not get around my own disbelief about Stranger Things, which was, by most accounts, just enjoyable TV. Friends kept saying they sat and watched the whole miniseries in two sittings, and I’d shyly say I’d gotten to the last episode and couldn’t finish it.

stranger-things-eleven-image-0

The girl in the vintage dress is the only person who knows what the hell she’s doing.

Not that the series lacks its charms, like seeing Matthew Modine return with a sinister side. As Vox points out in a profile of the designers who did the series’ opening credits, Stranger Things gets a lot of things right about the period, the early ’80s. But it also has a very contemporary girl power message.

I often say that thrillers are defined by the nexus of evil inside them. Is it supernatural? Science fiction? Government conspiracy? Corporate? A killer on the loose? The series is not a thriller, so different rules apply, but eventually I want to know, what kind of villain are we facing here? What’s it going to take to topple it?

As the title implies, there’s always something stranger in Stranger Things, and that bottomlessness leaves me unsatisfied. It’s a government coverup of a military-scientific experiment gone awry, with a cheap Freudian father-daughter thing at the center, and a break into the extra-dimension. Robert Rodriguez can do this in Planet Terror, since he’s playing for laughs, but after four hours I want to know just how strange things are.

It also hurts the series that it’s so innocent. You know you’re never really going to see anything gruesome: The first three minutes of Saving Private Ryan are scarier. It compensates by dialing up the gross factor. The portals to the next dimension aren’t clean, Escher-like discontinuities, they’re nonsensically membraneous, and the parallel world covered in slime, a place where walking causes the sucking sound of aspic being tossed from a vacuum-sealed can. I found myself wanting to skim the action scenes and get to the unrequited teen romance.

A lot of people are looking forward to the return of this series. I guess, like M.J. in the “Thriller” video, “I’m not like other guys.”

Location Location Location

You don’t write a story based on a location, or do you?

I’ll never forget the day I was having bagels with two friends, one a producer and one a director, and talking about story ideas. The producer had access to a college campus in the Caribbean – we could have free reign over it, since a family friend of his was the president or provost or something. He kept bringing story ideas around to the campus. “Y’know, if we set that at the college…”

Nor will I forget the sunken look on his face when I finally told him to lay off the Caribbean campus ideas. If  we wanted to make a film on a college on an island, we’d be better off shooting in Puerto Rico or the D.R. where flights from New York are relatively cheap. The location is the easy part, I told him, let’s write the best story we can.

I stand behind that, and yet locations have a way of inspiring. Of bringing joy, or creeping out. Last week I was up near the Vermont border and took a walk up Presbytery Lane, where the Presbyterian Church has a camp it is trying to sell. It’s full of weird vistas like this:

If these lawns could talk.....

If these lawns could talk…..

I thought about a young couple going to ask one of their fathers for money for their wedding and finding him on retreat with a bunch of Christian Brothers, telling them “No,” they can’t have an advance on their inheritance, and a tailspin of a plot that ends in a standoff with a hunting rifle. Also maybe a shaved-headed cult leader who welcomes visitors to stay in the one building but, whatever they do, don’t go talk to the people up the hill!

Both of these notions suit my long-term obsession, stories set in tourist destinations in the off-season. But notions don’t inspire. Visions do. Smells do. Cicadas do. Shadows do. Cheap but beautifully dated architectural flourishes do. Creepy old Protestant ghosts do.

It’s still a good idea to write the story first, but half of writing is dreaming.

Captain Fantastic

One of the few must-see films in theaters this summer was Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic. A drama about an off-the-grid, beyond-hippie dad whose abilities as a parent are challenged by his wife’s absence to battle an illness, the story eventually becomes As I Lay Dying in reverse- and I’ll leave it at that.

Ross wrote a very original script, and Viggo Mortenson is getting praise for his performance as the dad, and rightfully so, but the kids are moving too. Still, any time an indy film like Captain Fantastic strikes a nerve – and it ballooned in July from four screens to over five hundred, before deflating again this month – I wonder why. Why this film? Why now?

Capt F

Thrift Store Olympians Unite! Viggo Mortensen and (half) his brood in “Captain Fantastic.”

Well, the psychological journey in Captain Fantastic is remarkably similar to the Bernie Sanders moment in American politics. For millions of idealists it was the month the bill came due, the season of acceptance and resignation.

In any case, the arc of the hero’s journey here is remarkably inward-looking. It’s the dad’s struggle to keep fighting or to relent in the face of his father-in-law’s overwhelming case for why the kids should leave their revolutionary upbringing behind. It’s a beautiful, elegant script, to have so much action, but the heart of the drama spinning around the axis of a person’s decision whether to keep on fighting.

If anything, I’d say Ross the writer plays too many cards to prove his point. The scene in which eldest son Bo mangles his first romantic tryst with a girl at a campground by breaking down and proposing marriage to her drives the point home far enough – that these kids are truly not prepared for life within cell phone range – we don’t need the wrenching dialogue scene that says so. Likewise the family’s acoustic version of “Sweet Child of Mine”: tear-jerking to some, cheeseball to others.

It took me some time to adjust to the scale of the plot as I watched this film. The very first scene, in which Bo kills a deer in a gruesome fashion during a family hunt, and his father anoints him a man for doing so, creates the expectation that we’re going to see something more epic and violent, some independent film iteration of Gangs of New York even. In retrospect I suppose he was merely establishing that this family was beyond Mendocino, this was not a lifestyle revolution, but a revolution-revolution.

My friend Joe Krings edited Captain Fantastic. I know he’d be upset if I said how superb the editing is. Editing, like funeral attire, should never call attention to itself, and that’s more than a passing compliment. I’ve always thought editors are like morticians or maybe taxidermists: Once it’s shot, it’s dead, and it’s up to the editor to make it look alive. Ideally you don’t notice the editing, and that must have been difficult achieving just that with all the multiple-person conversations, and hand-held cameras, taking place.

It’s heart-breaking watching revolutions die out, and watching the smug get smugger. Kudos to Frank Langella (as always) for bringing some humanity to the villainous father-in-law. It’s no laughing matter, not this summer.

Where Poetry Lives

“Where do poems live?” is a harder question than “Why is the sky blue?” “It depends”  may be the most accurate answer, but a live reading never did a poem any harm, and many are only alive when read aloud.

I know where screenplays live. They live on the screen – where the film is. The script itself is a demo version of what the film might be, and screenwriters have to be able to value a script as a script. Novelists published and unpublished have the pleasure of calling a work complete. Of course they’d love to see a stack of hard covers at a bookstore, but a PDF on an iPad is the same kind of experience as a student reading a used copy of Hard Times the night before her European History 102 exam, or at least the distinction is tiny compared with the ways we experience poetry.

The novel, I guess, created a planet full of people with rich psychological lives, the place where most literary thought lives being the interaction of page and eyeballs. My father would have turned 83 yesterday, and he rarely read books but could spend hours reading newspapers cover to cover with the same solitary exploration. I wonder at his thoughts on the civil war in Liberia, just like I wonder what my wife thinks of the row of George R.R. Martin novels on my bookshelf at home. He rarely talked about issues, but if asked could give you an informed opinion, inflected by his own experience growing up with “the war.”

There’s a famous story about Augustine of Hippo meeting Archbishop Ambrose of Milan. Neither one of them were saints yet – Augustine wasn’t even a Christian yet – and he was awed by the fact that Ambrose could read without moving his lips! To Augustine, who was no dummy, it was revolutionary that literature could live in the eyeball-page axis. To him and presumably most people, the written word was just shorthand for where literature really lived, spoken aloud.

bridge poem

The Whitney Bridge in Minneapolis is better known as the John Ashberry Bridge for the poem along its span.

It made Ambrose and his weird new faith alluring, to have a psyche and a conscience so private. This was the year 400, and already we were on that slippery slope to virtual reality helmets.

Poetry lives a double life, on the page and in the spoken word. Poems live on monuments, and some get domesticated for service at weddings and eulogies, but mostly they live being read aloud in small groups. Some friends of mine get together every once in a while just to have some drinks and read poems…at home, where we can control the audio. It’s slightly gauche in this setting to read your own work, at least before you’ve introduced some other published, contemporary poetry or dropped a few classics on the group.

Hearing poems made me write poems, and from this I got drafted to read with a group called the Verbal Supply Company, which hosts quarterly readings, usually at a bar called Halyards, not far from my house in Brooklyn. This Monday we’re moving to the Upper West Side for an evening. The group is celebrating its fourth year, so we’re all just doing extra short sets, and this time around many of the writers will be doing excerpts from memoirs and longer-form fiction. I’ll be doing some poems.

M_160312_0705

A previous Verbal Supply Company reading being called to order (photo by Brad Hamilton).

 

“Where do poems live?” is above all a practical question, to the person reading his or her poems. An article from 2014, by a poet named Rich Smith in Seattle, exhorting poets to stop using “the poet voice” keeps getting recycled online. It’s a reason people avoid readings: the dullness of readers, most of whom aren’t in fact performers, emphasizing the cadence and clarity of their work at the expense of any “Shazam!”

I try to be sensitive to that and give it some spoken-English life, but I can also relate to poets trying to honor their poems as literature, to insist on it having some life on the page the way a chapter of a novel does. We can’t help adding a dose of Saint Ambrose.

In its four years, the Verbal Supply Company has insisted that its readers come to a “rehearsal,” and guess what? The readers are more focussed, and the excerpts or poetry more thoughtfully read, a step closer to a theater showcase than an open mic night. When deciding, “Where does this piece live” at least a writer makes a conscious choice.

Past readings are archived online on the VSC website. So you can open a beer and listen at home. Tip your bartender. The third from the top, “Not Yet Fully Monetized” from last summer, is a good one to start with. (If you’re partial to morehastohappen, you can skip to my few poems at the very end, at 1 hour and 8 minutes.)

A Trip To the Moon

What if I proposed a short film like this?

“An astronomer-wizard presides over a committee of astronomers, who meet in a formal session like a medieval guild, but with chorus girl pages delivering phallic trophy-telescopes that the astronomers merely carry like scepters…until they hold them high and they magically turn into stools to sit on.

“The wizard proposes that they take a trip to the moon via a rocket – not a rocket strictly speaking, but a giant projectile bullet of sorts. The committee objects to this so strongly an altercation breaks out, resulting in the wizard brow-beating them into listening, and commanding them all to take off their jackets, put on protective undergarments, then put the jackets back on. He takes them on a tour of his rocket workshop (They had been a committee of six scientific poobahs, but suddenly they are five, and decidedly more clown-like.) He then shows them his launching capability, and soon they all climb aboard the steel-riveted capsule, and a sailor launches them using a gunpowder fuse, again with female attendants to wish them bon voyage, now in swimsuits.

Le_Voyage_dans_la_lune_1902

George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon.”

“They fly to the moon, hitting old man moon in the eye – the moon like all celestial bodies having a human face –  before disembarking and having the marvelous experience of watching earth rise over the horizon the way the moon or sun rises in ours. Soon a tongue of flame distracts them, and they go to sleep with stars and planets looking over them. They wake up after the planets conjure snow to fall on them – it being colder on the moon when the earth sets than it is here.

“They climb underground, to a lush tropical land full of mushrooms of many shapes – one clearly a morel. An acrobatic, trouble-making demon starts harassing the astronomers till the leader smites the being with a stick, causing him to explode into flames, but then reappear completely alive. This goes on a few times till dozens of underground birdmen capture them, and put them on a showtrial of sorts, till they all six of them escape and race back to the capsule, which they’re able to launch themselves by pulling it off a cliff.

“They land back on earth – in the sea, among picturesque sea creatures, before getting tugged ashore, and the public erupts in a pageantry-filled celebration, chorus girls in swimsuits and all, and they dance around a statue that reads, ‘Labor omnia vincit’: Work conquers everything.”

That’s George Melies’ “A Trip To the Moon” (“Le Voyage dans La Lune”), from 1902. It’s also on Youtube, the same 2011 restoration featuring the soundtrack by Air and a panel of text explaining how the colorized version was re-discovered in Spain in the 1990s and digitally restored from the original hand-painted print. A color film from 1902!

 

Its not surprising, I guess, that there are attractive women showing plenty of thigh cheering the astronomers on  every step of the way, like the showgirls carrying signs saying what round it is in a boxing match.

It’s curious, though, that they took a trip to the moon at all. This would have been 40 years after Jules Verne’s “From the Earth to the Moon,” the book it’s said to be based on, but 60 years before President Kennedy. Some say that the Russian rocket scientists Konstantin Tsiolkovsky was the first to seriously propose a rocket trip to the moon, and that was in (guess when?) 1903, a year after Melies’ film. Was it artists who led the way to one of the great scientific achievements of last century?

Le voyage dans la lune couleurs 5

“Were going to the moon, girls!”

Elon Musk got a lot of people excited this year by demonstrating a rocket landing on dry land. I guess it’s no coincidence that the  first moon landing crew landed in the ocean – that’s where our imaginations had gone. Tsiolkovsky spent lots of his career trying to develop a collapsible metal dirigible – while Melies was doing theater – and that’s the best they came up with.

It’s also curious that Netflix knew it should suggest this film to me. I often wonder what the algorithms that choose music or media for us are thinking. I was ready to give it lots of credit till I saw what it saw as a good next move. “More Like This…”

The king fu film Big Boss, Cosmos, or The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Imagination is hard work, but work conquers everything.