Directors Lounge 2008 • Berlin, february 7-17

Sunday, February 17

Keats and Yates are on Your Side

(SS) Saturday night, the Directors Lounge presented its second collaboration with the Zebra Poetry FiIm Festival. This project sets poems to film--film being anything that shows up on a screen--and for some poems, this process breathes new life into the medium. The good, from my perspective, was the poetic interpretation by Jochen Kuhn, who animated his poem Sonntag 1. This poem was a rambling narrative of one man's uninspirational Sunday walk through an archetypal deserted urban landscape. The poem and the animation explore how the absence of anything spectacular can actually produce an inspired work of art. The notion of writing a poem about not having anything to write a poem is about as postmodern as you can get. And yet, Kuhn makes the world of the narrator accessible and funny without losing the sense of ennui that inspired (or didn't inspire as it were) the poem. One of my favorite lines goes, "Normally your gifts regulate things but I'm too old to be gifted." The monologue has the quality of a balloon slowly leaking air and the animation does as well. The monochromatic gray palette reveals all kinds of typical scenes in urban dwelling but somehow they are magically empty as opposed to boring.

Another wonderful interpretation of film and poetry came from the Russian director Igor Strembitsky with his piece Podorozhni (Wayfarers). The poetry of this film is spoken not in a conventional story mode but through various living poets in the director's landscape. The camera leads us through a slightly terrifying mental asylum in the Russian countryside and we first meet a doctor who cheerfully looks after the inmates. He walks into people's rooms and introduces them to the camera. At one point he holds up a long-haired cat and tells it to smell the camera, "Smell the camera and be in the film," he says and there is this sense of spontaneous poetry alive in his words. The inmates also add to this sense of poetry by singing traditional Russian songs about love, the comfort of sleeping and waking to find your mother holding a glass of milk for you, the pleasures of springtime and all manner of subjects. At other points the film is silent and the inmates pose candidly before the camera reminding one of the photographs Diane Arbus became famous for in the 1960's. In richly rendered black and white, the faces of the inmates, rain dripping over leaves, the long spooky corridors of the asylum and the cat's curious face sniffing the camera all have the poetic power of a thousand words. Maybe it's cheating to call this poetry but the landscape is so lush and strange I don't mind. 

The poetry/film combination was not always successful however, and one example stands out for me as really atrocious. Taatske Pieterson's, One Person/ Lucy was a poem and a film that struck a continual sour note. The visual trick to this film was to have a woman's head repeated over and over again, each head representing the deaths of unknown masses which she rattles off line by line. One person dies by swallowing a bad cheeseburger, four people die from a roof collapsing on their heads. Each line is structured in the same way and the effect is not chilling, as I think it was intended to be, but more like one of those reactionary American news programs where everyone is about to die from some toothpaste or bleach product or another and the newscasters faithfully incite terror in the average human being over activities as simple as walking or going to the grocery store. Death is a really interesting subject, no doubt, but relying on the profundity of death to carry a really bad poem is like presuming that just by wearing a tight dress and a lot of lipstick, you will become sexy. There's more to death and sex than merely following a formula and there's more to poetry than words.