10 Movies for Poets

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The cinema of poetry — those films based on poems, inspired by the lives of poets, or films filled with emotional and imaginative visuals — has given us some of the most resonant works of art in movie history. A selection of paintings, sculptures, and installations by legendary musician and occasional poet Genesis Breyer P-Orridge is currently on view at the Rubin through August 1. The artist has also curated a series of films, which started this week with Jean Cocteau’s retelling of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus. With these works in mind, we selected 10 more films that speak to the heart of a poet.

The House Is Black (1963)

I will sing your name, o exalted one I will sing your name with the ten-stringed lute Because I have been made in a hideous and strange form — Forough Farrokhzad

From critic Jonathan Rosenbaum on the devastating The House is Black, set in a leper colony and directed by renowned Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad:

Farrokhzad is widely regarded as the greatest Persian poet of the 20th century; her only film seamlessly adapts the techniques of poetry to its framing, editing, sound, and narration. At once lyrical and extremely matter-of-fact, devoid of sentimentality or voyeurism yet profoundly humanist, the film offers a view of everyday life in the colony—people eating, various medical treatments, children at school and at play — that’s spiritual, unflinching, and beautiful in ways that have no apparent Western counterparts; to my eyes and ears, it registers like a prayer.

Bright Star (2009)

Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art — John Keats

From Roger Ebert’s review of Jane Campion’s gorgeous film that depicts the relationship between 19th-century Romantic poet John Keats and Fanny Brawne:

What Campion does is seek visual beauty to match Keats’ verbal beauty. There is a shot here of Fanny in a meadow of blue flowers that is so enthralling it beggars description. . . . It is famously impossible for the act of writing to be made cinematic. How long can we watch someone staring at a blank sheet of paper? It is equally unenlightening to show the writer seeing something and dashing off to scribble down impassioned words while we hear him reading them in his mind. Campion knows all this, and knows, too, that without the poetry, John Keats is only a moonstruck young man. How she works in the words is one of the subtle beauties of the film. And over the end credits, Whishaw reads the ode, and you will want to stay.

Under Milk Wood (1972)

We are not wholly bad or good, who live our lives under Milk Wood —Dylan Thomas

From writer Tim Cook on this adaptation of Dylan Thomas’ 1954 radio play of the same name:

Dealing with a day in the life of the fictional Welsh coastal village of Llareggub, UMW takes in both the workaday lives of the villagers as well as their nighttime dreams and secret passions. Yet to call UMW a play is to do it an injustice; it’s more poetical, and filled with the private thoughts of the villagers, shaped by each other and the landscape around Llareggub. Through Thomas’ evocative lyricism, we come to understand these ordinary people, so ordinary they often appear quite mad, as their voices swim in our minds, lighting our imaginations, glowing in the darkness. UMW both plays with the quotidian and the psychological.

Zánik domu Usheru (1982)

During the whole of a dull, dark, and soundless day in the autumn of the year, when the clouds hung oppressively low in the heavens, I had been passing alone, on horseback, through a singularly dreary tract of country; and at length found myself, as the shades of the evening drew on, within view of the melancholy House of Usher. — Edgar Allan Poe

From Kinema on Czech filmmaker Jan Švankmajer’s Poe adaptation, which replaces actors with surreal objects:

To begin with, it may seem odd for a puppet animator, much less a Czech puppet animator, to even think of adapting such works as those of Poe. But, despite the problems of translating work that is as subjective as these two short stories are, the two artists have at least one thing in common: they both are exceptionally familiar with horror. As film critic Anthony Lane points out, “There are always moments in a Švankmajer movie when the wish to avert your gaze is only just overcome by the horrified need to see what happens next.”(9) Even the most “innocent” of Švankmajer’s works can be quite unsettling; when combined with Poe’s prose, Švankmajer’s visions are indeed discomforting, to say the least.

I Am Cuba (1964)

I am Cuba. Once, Christopher Columbus landed here. He wrote in his diary: “This is the most beautiful land ever seen by human eyes.” Thank you, Señor Columbus. When you saw me for the first time, I was singing and laughing. I waved the fronds of my palms to greet your sails. I thought your ships brought happiness. I am Cuba. Ships took my sugar, and left me tears. Strange thing… sugar, Señor Columbus. It contains so many tears, but it is sweet…I Am Cuba

From Bright Lights Film Journal about the stunning I Am Cuba, co-written by Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose work is quoted in the movie:

The filmmakers of I Am Cuba differed from their mentors in perhaps the most fundamental aspect — the visual. Whereas Eisenstein used cutting and dynamic composition in films like Potemkin, Kalatozov and his visual collaborators use a moving camera — a handheld Eclair — to bring their story to scintillating life. The first draft of I Am Cuba was a scene-by-scene re-creation of the Cuban revolution. Kalatozov and his screenwriter, the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, wisely scrapped this in favor of a more aesthetic approach. The finished film divides roughly into five episodes that chronicle the island’s recent colonialist and revolutionary periods.

Wings of Desire (1987)

Tell me, muse, of the storyteller who has been thrust to the edge of the world, both an infant and an ancient, and through him reveal everyman. With time, those who listened to me became my readers. They no longer sit in a circle, bur rather sit apart. And one doesn’t know anything about the other. I’m an old man with a broken voice, but the tale still rises from the depths, and the mouth, slightly opened, repeats it as clearly, as powerfully. A liturgy for which no one needs to be initiated to the meaning of words and sentences.Wings of Desire

From Slant on Wim Wenders’ achingly beautiful meditation:

The grand theme of Wings of Desire, Wim Wenders’s cultishly adored fantasy of overcoat-clad angels in Berlin as the Cold War’s end drew near, is storytelling in all its forms as a coping mechanism of the human race. Kindly Damiel (Bruno Ganz, whose sad but easy smile helps make this an indelible role) and his more objective but similarly empathetic cohort Cassiel (Otto Sander), whose wings are only fleetingly shown by Wenders, daily swap tales of the small behaviors and interactions they’ve witnessed after traversing the skies and streets to hear ‘only what is spiritual in people’s minds.’ (A steady chorus of interior speech, from brief, incomplete musings to ornate, torrential monologues penned by the novelist-playwright Peter Handke, floods the soundtrack.)

The Color of Pomegranates (1969)

I am he whose life and soul are torment. — Sayat-Nova

From the Guardian about The Color of Pomegranates, a loose biography of the life of Armenian poet Sayat-Nova:

The film opens with a male voice proclaiming ‘I am he whose life and soul are torment’ from a Sayat Nova poem. In his 2013 book, The Cinema of Sergei Parajanov, James Steffen states: ‘Much of the film’s thematic richness and emotional resonance derive from its dual vision as a film about [the poet] and as a coded autobiography of [Parajanov].’ Parajanov, who according to Steffen ‘was probably bisexual, with a preference for men, especially in his later life,’ used the brilliant actress Sofiko Chiaureli to play five parts, including the young male poet as well as female roles. ‘[Parajanov] made no secret of his sexuality, and indeed,’ writes Steffen, ‘one can find homoerotic elements in many of his mature films and artworks.’ The director was unable to complete new projects before being arrested again in 1974 on the pretext of homosexual acts, but as part of what appeared to be a wider political crackdown by the Soviet authorities determined to quell nationalist sentiment in the region.

The Mirror (1975)

It seems to make me return to the place, poignantly dear to my heart, where my grandfathers house used to be in which i was born 40 years ago right on the dinner table. Each time I try to enter it, something prevents me from doing that. I see this dream again and again. And when I see those walls made of logs and the dark entrance, even in my dream I become aware that I’m only dreaming it. And the overwhelming joy is clouded by anticipation of awakening. At times something happens and I stop dreaming of the house and the pine trees of my childhood around it. Then I get depressed. And I can’t wait to see this dream in which I’ll be a child again and feel happy again because everything will still be ahead, everything will be possible…The Mirror

From critic Maryann Johanson on Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, which contains poems written by his father, Arseny Tarkovsky:

Tarkovsky’s autobiographical — and deeply, sometimes abstrusely impressionistic — journey through one man’s life, from his carefree childhood “before the war” in an idyllic countryside through the upheaval of the war itself and into the present day, which is fraught with interpersonal conflict, such as arguments with his wife. The man is only barely glimpsed a few times, but we are meant to understand that as he lies dying from an unnamed illness, he is remembering his life… with all the lucidity that one might expect from such a state: that is, very little. What’s real and what isn’t, what’s past and what’s present is difficult to untangle: the same actress (Margarita Terekhova) plays both his wife and the younger version of his mother, for instance. Apparently this is the Tarkovsky film that Russians today like best of his — perhaps it reflects a certain Russian-ness that is hard for me to identify with. But Mirror is often seductively beautiful to look at: a brief image of a woman washing her hair is one of the most unexpectedly gorgeous things I’ve ever seen onscreen.

Testament of Orpheus (1960)

An artist always paints his own portrait. — Testament of Orpheus

From critic Keith Phipps on the final film in Cocteau’s Orphic Trilogy:

Described by Cocteau as a ‘farewell film,’ it’s a self-crafted elegy starring Cocteau as himself, an artist at the end of his life wandering through a symbolic landscape filled with his own creations (and guest stars Yul Brynner and Pablo Picasso). In the end, Cocteau takes comfort in the immortality of art, and therefore his own immortality, a sentiment that would seem far less moving and far more egotistical if it weren’t true. At a time when many saw filmmaking merely as entertainment, Cocteau saw in it the 20th-century equivalent of Orpheus’ lyre, a belief for which this trilogy serves as its own persuasive testament.

Papusza (2013)

What’s going on Everything wobbles That’s the world laughing — Papusza

From Ela Bittencourt on Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauzebout’s film about “the rise and fall of the most distinguished Polish-Gypsy poetess Bronislawa Wajs, widely known as Papusza, and her relationship with her discoverer, writer Jerzy Ficowski”:

Europe’s Romani people, commonly referred to as Gypsies, have been marginalized for so long that it’s rare for their stories to be included in mainstream cinema. It’s refreshing, then, to see Polish filmmakers Joanna Kos-Krauze and Krzysztof Krauze take on a Polish Romani group as their subject in Papusza, which portrays the life of poet Bronislawa Wajs, known as the eponymous Papusza, or Doll (Jowita Budnik). And though there’s little literal reading of poetry, the luxurious black-and-white cinematography of rich forests and sprawling fields comes across as the visual embodiment of the lyricism in Wajs’s work. The bioepic’s refined, languid look adds to the sense that the Romani, cast against austere snow-clad landscape, are the Earth’s eternal wanderers, its ultimate outcasts.