Swoon is a Belgian poet filmmaker who makes films that try to blur the boundary between written poem and moving image. He mixes his own footage with found footage and sometimes mixes his own words with others. I like the quiet easy tone of his work. I like his manipulation of imagery. His work is a very difficult kind of work because it tries to make something new from two different things. Poetry is a perfect form all by itself. But film is never satisfied. It’s always looking for something to include within it. So it’s natural for film to go looking for poetry and try to bring it in. But poetry resists all alliances. Poetry seems content and willing to wait for centuries. It requires nothing. It doesn’t care what film wants. It will sit on a dry page in some crowded shelf somewhere waiting six hundred years for just a single pair of eyes to come along in boredom, open to the page, glance in, read half-way down and then slap the book shut for another six hundred years until someone decides to finish reading the goddamn thing. That’s patience. Film doesn’t have that. Film must be seen now or it withers. It begins to rot. Even if it’s digital. Digital films become confused and get lost in the forest of other digits. They may never find their way out again. So working with the two things and trying to get them together is very difficult but may actually make perfect sense.
This is a film poem triptych that is Swoon’s first work to include his own words. There’s a site for the film with more information.
This is a 1996 documentary by Noël Simsolo, featuring many interviews with Jean Cocteau himself, Jean-Luc Godard and actor Jean Marais. The great French director of films like ‘Blood of a Poet,’ ‘Orpheus,’ and ‘Beauty and the Beast,’ was also an essayist, poet, artist, and playwright. When I was a kid I read the book he wrote about filming ‘Beauty and the Beast.’ I understood little of it except that there was the general impression of someone working against constant hardship to attain a mysterious something. The book detailed his struggles with the subtleties of light, weather and performance in the pursuit of a mysterious quality that must be present in the fairytale. I knew that his efforts had worked because I had seen the film on television and understood that it was simply the most convincing fairytale I had ever seen. Another film with this totally mysterious quality is ‘Orpheus,’ which is Cocteau’s modern version of the Greek myth in which the great musician/poet descends into the underworld to bring his wife back to the world of the living. Cocteau’s telling of the tale is at once ancient and modern, always mysterious and always trying to get close to poetry. Whenever I see that film I feel that I am seeing an important picture of French artistic life in the late 1940s told through the prism of ancient Greek myth. The film sits in that fascinating period of artistic ferment and dawning of a new cinematic movement that was a reaction to the end of World War II. Possibilities in films of that period seem limitless. There is a calmness of the image, an almost casual approach to creating scenes. Things are becoming more fluid and less studio-bound. Films are beginning to lean toward poetry and art.
Even though I never really understood what was being said in the ‘Orpheus’ film, it is probably one of the most important influences on the little bits of work that I do in film and video. Various images and scenes from ‘Orpheus’ regularly pop into my head as I work.
One of the best things I think an artist can learn from looking at Jean Cocteau is to follow one’s own interests without worrying about being unqualified – pretending can eventually get you where you want to go if you do it absolutely.
I have very mixed feelings about the core group of writers known as ‘The Beats.’ They were Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac’s ‘On the Road’ is one of the milestones (or millstones, depending on point of view) of American literature. Ginsberg’s ‘Howl’ is one of the great twentieth century poems, and Burroughs wrote the distorted fever dream of homo-erotica known as ‘Naked Lunch.’ There’s lots of intensity in Beat literature and poetry. There’s a willingness to seek out the world and experience. There’s a seeming openness of mind. But every time I delve into the Beats and their work, I become listless, bored, irritable and worried. I find the general direction of their writing to be toward a distinct and virulent hatred of women. The glassy-eyed hero worship of these writers seems odd to me. Wouldn’t it be better to try rejecting their premises? Why do they still have such a hold over the popular imagination? Why hasn’t poetry been able to dispense with these people yet?
What I like about this documentary is that it does in fact touch upon this subject. What I don’t like about it is Johnny Depp prancing around with an unsmoked cigarette trying to convince us of his Beat/hipster/baggy jacket coolness.
The Beat hatred of all things female manifests itself most obviously in the fact that Burroughs stood his wife, Joan Vollmer, up against a wall in Mexico and blew her brains out with a gun. There’s great mystery surrounding his escape from the authorities in Mexico who quite naturally wanted to investigate and prosecute the man for murder. I would have prosecuted him too. He told various stories about playing a game of ‘William Tell,’ or inebriation or drug use to explain how it happened. But in order to fire a bullet through his wife’s forehead he had to lift the gun and point it at her. It sort of goes without saying. Would you be able to point a gun at your spouse? Hopefully not. I wouldn’t be able to even lift a gun in my wife’s general direction. So why was a man who blasted his wife’s head open welcomed back into his little group of Beat friends? Why would such a man become the life of the party in literary circles? Why would such a man love guns and fire them at tin cans in his backyard for the rest of his life? Good questions. Easily answered. Nobody gave a shit about the man’s dead, blown-open wife. She was just a lady in Mexico married to a bisexual genius. That’s the problem with the Beats. That’s the rock bottom attitude of the most important literary movement in America during the twentieth century.
Here’s what Burroughs had to say about killing his wife:
I am forced to the appalling conclusion that I would never have become a writer but for Joan’s death, and to a realization of the extent to which this event has motivated and formulated my writing. I live with the constant threat of possession, and a constant need to escape from possession, from control. So the death of Joan brought me in contact with the invader, the Ugly Spirit, and maneuvered me into a life long struggle, in which I have had no choice except to write my way out.
Let me translate that for you: “I killed my wife and was so inspired by the act of killing a female that I became a great writer. And I want to kill again. I have to constantly struggle with the urge. My writing helps with that.”
Get the idea? Murder inspires good writing… according to one-third of the Beat literary movement. The other two-thirds were just fine with that.
You may think I’ve gone too far or have some literary ax to grind. But I would suggest that reading the Beats without keeping these ideas in mind is self-deception. It’s all right there on the page if you actually read the stuff. These guys weren’t gentle spirits with open hearts and minds. They were brutal little elitists from Columbia University who were willing to kill and dump dead bodies into rivers in order to protect their group. Kerouac helped a friend dispose of a murder weapon, then took the murderer out to a movie. That murder, which was in fact the brutal slaughter of a gay man who was making advances, led to inspiration for Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg who all attempted and partially succeeded at novels based on the incident. Again, murder inspires Beat writings. If one really wants to get down in it, one would go so far as to say that the prime mover behind the Beat movement – its basic inspiration – was a gay-bashing murder in Riverside Park. People may say whatever they like about writers trying to work out the demons, but I see something much darker than that.
Kerouac later based the main character of ‘On the Road’ on Neal Cassady, a man who appears on film to be a psychopath. I’d be looking for dead bodies buried under any house that guy ever lived in.
I think the Beat movement should be done over for the twenty-first century. This time, try not to blast anyone’s brains out across a wall.
Krystal Cannon (PersonTV) made this short documentary about the Beat Generation in which she not only narrates as Queen Elizabeth, but also plays various roles including Allen Ginsberg, Joan Vollmer, Bob Dylan, Jack Kerouac, John Lennon, Edie Sedgwick and Abbie Hoffman. She gives a clear account of the Beat movement then moves into the general social reaction. She also makes some very interesting points about how women were sidelined even though many of them made great contributions to Beat culture. I think that what the Beats were working on is in very fine hands indeed with Ms. Cannon at work.
Thanks to Marc Campbell at Dangerous Minds.
This incredibly beautiful edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Raven’ was published in 1884 with illustrations by Paul Gustave Doré. Click on the images to see full sizes.
Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore–
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
“‘Tis some visiter,” I muttered, “tapping at my chamber door–
Only this and nothing more.”