To me, the cinepoem is the collision of two distinct forms of artistic practice—poetry and experimental film. While this collision seems to be at the very least potentially fruitful, I think it also forces many troubling questions. For example, how does one draw on the imaginative, conjuring powers of the poem while at the same time harnessing the more literal semantics of moving images and sounds? And why do this? What is the value of combining these two established forms?
When I seek out work that might answer these questions, I find two varieties that, for my taste, do the opposite. One tries to embalm the imaginative world of the poem into “the visual.” If the poem uses the word river, this approach always seeks to show us a visual representation of “river.” I don’t think either form is served here. This approach limits both the suggestive world of the poem and the expressive possibilities of images and sounds. Another approach is so ethereal and abstract that I feel adrift and lost as I try to connect the dots between the images, the sounds, and the poem; my brain hurts and I want to look at cute and funny kitten videos for a while.
Is there a better approach that takes advantage of the properties of both genres? If there is, I think it’s a delicate balance. In my own work, I do try to ground the poem in a visual context that is literally connected to the world of the poem, but only by directing the viewers’ wonder—not by embalming the poem in some narrow visual construct. With this in mind, I’m working toward creating a more imagined or subjective sense of the world of the poem, one that suggests a character’s point of view. I think this strategy can be more suggestive and allow more space for the viewer’s imagination. Also, I’m working toward a simple, clean visual aesthetic, one that doesn’t drown the poem in visual data. I want the viewer to be open to the nuances of the voice, the language of the poem, and other sound components. The idea here is to braid language, sound, and image so they strengthen and further one another.
Can it be done? I think so. I have seen at least two works that I think set the standard for how well this genre can work. La Jetée, the 1962 film by Chris Marker, while not a cinepoem, brilliantly balances the spoken word elements with its images and its sound design to create something new that would be impossible without the contribution of each component. It mainly uses simply composed still images that suggest the larger world of the movie, along with a evocative voice track that forces astounding correspondences between what we see and what we hear. Thank you, Chris Marker. Also, I think a recent cinepoem by filmmaker Michael Langen called Heliotropes (it’s on Vimeo) ingeniously balances the tensions of the genre. Langen’s approach draws on nuanced animation and compositing techniques that abstract the image and open up the imaginative world of Brian Christian’s poem. It’s a really a striking and affecting work. These two films represent a kind of ideal for me, a kind of holy grail, as I continue to adapt Elizabeth Bishop’s poems and work to balance the tensions of the two forms.