Hollywood Sign by Vlastula under a Creative Commons licence
Filmmaking is a youthful art, barely a century old, although arguably its roots are as old as humanity itself. In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chauvet cave paintings, he theorises that in flickering light the ancient images briefly appear animated and so must be counted as the first ‘movies’. Otherwise, early civilisations, we presume, must have relied on storytelling – and poetry – for imagery, exciting yarns and morals-of-the-story. What, after all, is The Iliad but an epic movie in words? Millennia later, Hollywood repaid the debt by turning it into a CGI-bloated Brad Pitt vehicle.
The traffic between poetry and the cinema isn’t always so futile. Sometimes it’s positively a love-in, although most of that affection comes from poets towards films. On the whole, the cinema tends to pinch titles from lines of verse (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Days of Wine and Roses, North by Northwest) or has a character quote lines, sometimes subtly, sometimes less so. For example, Rutger Hauer’s character in Blade Runner changes Blake’s prophetic vision ‘America: A Prophecy’ to indicate the end of the dream of democracy. Frost’s ‘Nothing Gold Can Stay’ is used in The Outsiders to show the youthful protagonists’ fading innocence. The examples are legion. Then there are the biopics of poets, of which the less said, the better.
Poets were quick to show their love of the upstart art. Apollinaire swiftly realised the power of cinema to shape dreams. In 1917, Apollinaire wrote:
It would be strange, during an epoch when the absolutely most popular artform, cinema, is a picture-book, if the poets did not try to create images for the thoughtful and more sophisticated souls, who will not be content with the filmmakers' clumsy imagination.
Other poets took him at his word. Gabriel D’Annunzio wrote the screenplay to silent Roman epic Cabiria. Antonin Araud acted in two classics of silent cinema – Abel Gance’s Napoleon and Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc. Perhaps the two most famous poets to move into film-making were Jean Cocteau and Piers Paolo Pasolini, who transformed their gift for linguistic imagery into one of cinematic poetry. One thinks of Jean Gabin passing through the mirror in Cocteau’s Orphee or Pasolini’s use of setting in Medea. Poets’s involvement with cinema remains patchy, but there continues to be interesting areas of cross-over. At the more commercial end, Owen Sheers adapted his novel Resistance for the big screen, while nearer to home, Alistair Cook’s filmpoem project attempts to expand both what words and images can do when combined.
Films cost money, and so most poets’s responses have been to write a poem, which doesn’t require a camera and a crew, only pen and paper. If you can, track down The Faber Book of Movie Verse, a loving, loveable collection edited by Philip French and Ken Wlaschin. Here you’ll discover poems in praise of every aspect of the cinema, from its silent days to individual stars. Film sceptics and fans are both catered to. Personally, I like Patricia Jones’ ‘Why I Like Movies’, which manages to be both in thrall to and dubious about the delights of the flea-pits; she puts her finger on the transformative thrill that keeps bringing us back to the multiplex, that latter-day Chauvet cave:
I like the movies because
faces becomes monuments to promise.