Visual Poetry

I like to point to music and other art I enjoy from time to time here at Bitterman. I am quite used to other people not enjoying these things as much as I, but I’ve never been one to conform to mainstream tastes. During its opening weekend Angela and I went to see The New World, Terrence Malick‘s take on the Pocahontas story. I originally started writing this post then but left it in an unprotected state and lost it due to my own error.
I have been a fan of Malick’s work since I discovered it around his second film, Days of Heaven. The wonderful AFI documentary, Visions of Light, discussed the efforts that the cinematographers (Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler) went through to capture its magic appearance, shooting most of the movie in the time between when the sun sets and the sunlight fades which is referred to as “the magic hour”. It gives the film a remarkable quality, dreamlike, an old memory caught on celluloid. As an American film from 1978 it allows you to see it as a piece of art, each shot thoughtful, delicate and beautiful. It leaves room in the story, the narrative and the visuals for you to interpret it yourself; you are not spoon-fed, led on a rope or treated like an idiot. This wasn’t as rare then but certainly is now.
This is a filmmaker who in 30 years has only made four films. His first, Badlands (1973), featured Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek and is based on a true tale of a killing spree in the Dakotas during the 1950’s. Even with such a dark subject, it is rendered openly and with an eye for the beauty in the everyday item.
His third film, The Thin Red Line (1998) is a World War II story taken from the James Jones novel of the same name. This is when the connection of the poetic and film really hit home to me. The narration is poetic but the visuals and the form of the film make it appear to be something other than just a “movie”.
I had been reading a rather amazing but dense book of essays about poetry by the late Mexican Nobel prize-winning writer Octavio Paz called “The Bow and the Lyre”. As a poet himself he sees with a poet’s eye; the idea he laid before me was found in an early paragraph…

“The unrepeatable and unique nature of the poem is shared by other works: paintings, sculptures, sonata, dances, monuments. To all of them can be applied the distinction between poem and utensil, style and creation…In fact, over and above the differences that separate a painting from a hymn, a symphony from a tragedy, they possess a creative element that causes them to revolve in the same universe. In their own way, a painting, a sculpture, a dance are poems. And this way does not differ much from that of the poem made of words. The diversity of the arts does not hinder but rather emphasizes their unity.”

Octavio Paz, The Bow and the Lyre (1956)
Translated and published in English 1973
University of Texas Press

The first part of The Thin Red Line is very much a visual and verbal poem; those waiting for a rip-roaring war movie were probably disappointed. The film didn’t romanticize war but did show how something can be terrible and beautiful at the same time.
The New World continues to be poetic, the eyes read and the ears listen to the story unfold. Though it is clear that life is difficult for the settlers, it is not bludgeoned against you, you are not spoon-fed plot points, character arrivals and meanings. Colin Farrell’s John Smith is drawn to the native people as much as he is pushed and rejected by his own. The rakish nature of his character seems well fitted; he is charming and attractive yet dangerous and not without agenda. As fearful and brutal as some of the English characters are, he represents the sucker punch of the Europeans who needed interaction with the locals for survival in both life and trade. He seems almost apologetic that he knows his nature well enough that he will choose sides, do his duty and return to his world after he gets what he wants.
It’s not as if the native people of the new world were not without fear, agenda and concern according to this telling. We are told that they do not have the words in their language for the deceitful actions the English are up to. The chiefs still want them gone and see them for the threats that they are. The difference seems to be that they have a better relationship with nature and their surroundings from their experience.
The comments I’m making don’t change whatever the real story was in the experience of either side. The tragedy of Europe’s “discovery” of the Americas is clearly documented in the book “Stolen Continents”by Ronald Wright. The filmmaker’s poetry is what interests me; Malick not only provides remarkable visuals, he also allows you to absorb and interpret what you see. I recently read a post by David Byrne about his thoughts on the movie and he remarked on how all of the prompts you received in the second half of the movie were provided in the face of Q’Orianka Kilcher, the young woman playing Pocahontas. I totally understood his review; it wasn’t where I would have started with the movie, but I totally agreed with his take on it.
We all take what we need from a song, a painting, a poem. I enjoy abstract art because I love to see how different people’s interpretations are. You can see and feel something very strong about these kinds of art and have a completely different and very strong take on it days, months, years later.
Between seeing this movie and writing this, I stumbled upon The Thin Red Line on cable; it was about halfway through the movie during a battle scene. I didn’t remember it being so forceful and kinetic though it was quieter than most Hollywood war movies. Once again though people were dying and others were being especially cruel, you had to engage in the visuals to feel the weight of the action. You weren’t being beat over the head like a Bruckheimer movie. The poem had a different meaning years later; not better, not worse, just different.

If you enjoy film or art or poetry, try the films of Terrence Malick. You can decide for yourself.