Poetry in Motion
When it comes to exploring the works of the great poets, including Tagore, and bringing their work to a wider audience, there is no better medium than film writes Caspar Walsh.
I have a lot of respect for the poets who have truly mastered their art but I confess, I sometimes struggle with the demands of denser works. I know that the reward for sticking with a lovingly crafted text can be amazing but sometimes I just want a poet to hit me in the heart - before my mind has to break a line or stanza down into its clever component parts.
I’m an amateur poet myself so I know it can be an infuriating medium to get right. My own poetry is inspired by the visual world and I do my very best to recreate the experience and emotion on the page (and screen) with varying degrees of success. Indeed, one of my poems was the inspiration for a short film called Stairway that I then directed in the 1990s and I am pleased to report it won the Portobello Film Festival Golden Boot Award - sponsored by Doctor Martins!
When poetry is successfully matched to the moving image it ignites the imagination and brings greater clarity to sometimes tricky, inaccessible texts. And so, inspired initially by Tagore - his incredible output of poetry and the continuing impact of his work on filmmakers the world over – this offering of the Projections column explores films borne from the works of some of histories greatest poets.
Rabrindranath Tagore: various films which he directed himself
The legendary poet and mentor to the family who founded The Dartington Hall Trust, Tagore’s influence stretches down the centuries. I live half a mile from Dartington Hall and visit The Barn Cinema on the estate regularly as a lifeline in my role as a film writer and a lover of movies for the best part of 40 years. Until I researched this piece I had no idea of the scope and phenomenal output of Tagore’s creative work or his powerful influence on filmmakers including the great Satyajit Ray who has created so many films including Teen Kanya and Charlulata, the latter being a documentary named after the poet himself. Filmmakers from across the world have already paid homage to Tagore’s work through their own. Following on from the UNESCO designated Year of Tagore in 2011, the way has been paved for a new generation of filmmakers to bring his poetry and short stories to an even wider audience.
Keats: Bright Star (2009) directed by Jane Campion
I first read a poem by Keats on a toilet wall when I was ten years old. I had no idea what the poem meant but someone had taken the trouble to write it so it must have been important and since I am obsessed with the stories of history, I’ll admit I am an easy target for most forms of period drama in cinema. Jane Campion’s work has a unique, brooding darkness that so often haunts me beyond the end credits. She ranks alongside the best directors capable of bringing history to vibrant life through film. Keat’s famous poem of the film’s title is recited in full and at dizzying speed over the end credits. Some poetry belongs on the page, some the stage. And working out which belongs where is an important task for any filmmaker.
Bright Star’s recitation in the film is a clear example of how poetry can be lost when brought off the page. But the power of Keat’s passion as a poet, as a human being expressing the pain and beauty of life, shone through the characters of the film and through the meticulous direction. Though his verse is sometimes wasted on me, through Campion’s moving interpretation of the last years of his life that I finally understood so much more about the man and the importance of his work.
Anonymous Anglo Saxon Poet: Nowell Codex - Boewulf Boewolf (2007) directed by Robert Zemeckis
I’ve seen two movie versions of this legendary poem, one filmed, the other an animation film mix. I’m firmly in favour of the latter as it takes the prize for sheer brilliance in bringing to life one of the greatest and often most obscure poems in the history of the written word. The 2005 version, Boewulf and Grendel had its moments but only highly expensive CGI (computer generated imagery) could have brought the hideous troll, Grendel to life in such a believable way.
Ray Winston starred as the hero in the animated ‘performance capture’ version and I found myself immersed in the tale from the very first opening cell. The compositors animated over original footage to make the more fantastical elements of the story come convincingly to life and again, for the first time I saw what all the fuss was about with Boewulf.
Dylan Thomas: Under Milk Wood (1992) director Les Orton
The text is dense and colourful and the rhythm and names of characters sing from the page. This is a work to be read aloud. We took the roles in class and, with the encouragement of an inspiring teacher, brought it to life.
Twenty years later, Richard Burton brought the animated version to the screen with his deep, honeyed voice. Here were all of Thomas’s creations on scratchy VHS - looking and sounding wonderful. Like Beowulf, this is another that could only really work as animation because of the focus on fantasy within the text. The magical feel of the harbour, the woods, the ghosts and locals that inhabit Thomas’s imagined world are pure visual poetry.
The Beatles: The Yellow Submarine (1968) directed by George Dunning
“He’s a real nowhere man, sitting in his nowhere land, making all his nowhere plans for nobody.” These words were burnt into my memory forever after watching The Yellow Submarine on a friend’s black and white TV in 1975. I’d heard the songs on the radio but never taken much notice of the lyrics until I saw them put to images; and for me, as a kid, cartoon images held a holy grail-like status. Perhaps some of the impact of The Beatles work as stand alone poets is lost; swamped by their standing as musicians. All You Need is Love took on a whole new meaning for me as the central, poetic narrative for the film and Yellow Submarine formed a big part of my soul connection to the Beatles and their unmistakable, timeless poetry.
Raymond Carver: Short Cuts (1993) directed by Robert Altman
I saw the film before I’d heard of the poet. Short Cuts is based on a series of nine short stories and a poem entitled Lemon by Raymond Carver. This is easily one of Altman’s most powerful and memorable works. Cruel, beautiful, comic, mundane and epic – just about summing up the whole realm of human experience.
The film then led me to Carver’s critically-acclaimed collection of short stories and poetry The Things We Talk About When We Talk About Love. Altman was a poetic filmmaker and with Carver he created a work of dark genius in this, one of my all time favourite films.