Ever since the marriage of image and sound sealed the fate of silent films, sometime around 1930, the complementing media of cinema and books have been paired as direct opposites to each other. Sure, a good novel might be taken to the cinema, and a good film will have its script published in print – but the old cliché of opposite personalities speaking about, for instance, The Great Gatsby when one refers to Fitzgerald’s narrative and the other to Redford’s performance still holds true: if an image is worth a thousand words – another worthy cliché – some words need to be read, not heard, to be fully understood. This is the schism that sets poetry apart from cinema, these the irreconcilable merits of two forms of expression between which there seems to be no middle ground.
The use of written words in modern filmmaking is generally restricted to atmospheric details (the visualisation of a sign post, the content of an email in a computer screen, the use of old-fashioned writing in a period drama, the growing expectation as the viewer reads such email or letter). Similarly, references to books in general, but poetry in particular, occur primarily in the stale contexts of a biography, the filmic production of a play, or when the figure of literature as such is central to the plot, in movies about writers/poets (Shakespeare in Love), teachers and pupils (Dangerous Minds, Dead Poets Society) or actors (My Favourite Year).
But, what happens when a poem, or part of a poem, is added to the rest of the tools that combine to create the cinematic language? Moreover, what happens to the ‘poetic substance’ of the material once it is taken out of its literary context and placed within an audiovisual one?
The latter question is best addressed in terms of the semantics of the poem, which is transported from a context of pure, intrinsic meaning to a medium where meaning is derived from the synthesis of interrelated but discrete discourses (among them, the lyrical one contributed by the text). Hence, the weight and value of the poem will be conditioned by the film’s aesthetic proposition, which in turn activates the mechanism that stipulates the sense in which the poem is understood and interpreted.
Using a concrete example to illustrate the point, let’s consider Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams: the Mexican director’s non-linear narrative strategy, evident in his work before and after 21 Grams, lends itself perfectly to exploit the emotional element brought about by a poem. Not that one would immediately pair González Iñárritu’s aesthetic sense with, say, Tarkovsky’s ‘lyricism’; but certainly the use of parallel stories spiralling into one is prone to conjuring a meditative mood in the viewer. Awkward camera angles, distorted perspectives, grainy textures are all part of the aesthetic elements put at play by González Iñárritu to create a visual experience that is coherent with the narrative path of the film. In turn, his story goes back almost obsessively to the leitmotif of ‘life goes on’, which is complemented by the ethical/philosophical stance of ‘everything happens for a reason.’
Within this complex artistic edifice, and a good hour into the film, González Iñárritu makes use of the poetic device in its most direct form, by voicing a portion of a poem by Eugenio Montejo (who remains anonymous in the film) through the protagonist, Paul Rivers (Sean Penn). He offers by way of explanation/comfort to Cristina Peck (Naomi Watts), his lover, and the widow of the man whose heart Rivers now carries, the following lines: ‘The earth turned to bring us closer. It turned on itself and in us, until it finally brought us together in this dream.’ Cristina is left speechless by the intervention and, after a short pause, barely manages to answer: ‘That’s beautiful.’ Which is, of course, precisely what the (sympathetic) viewer should feel: a sense of awe provoked by the beauty of a poem that at the same time sheds further light on the central theme of the movie.
Inscribed within this web of dynamic elements that stimulate the interest of the viewer, the poem loses its autonomy and becomes a vehicle to reinforce the overall concept. Penn’s tone of voice, the close-up on his face, Watts’ reaction all are immediate cinematographic instruments that project the poem in the desired direction. They all combine in the construction of a message that is quite independent from the poem’s, and that should be strong enough to deflect questions of plausibility and verisimilitude which, for the purposes of that very message, are inconsequential. Thus, it would be pedantic to ask how does a very American math’s teacher learn about a Venezuelan poet. More interesting, though equally innocuous, is the fact that no English translation of Montejo’s work was available in 2003, when 21 Grams was released. Thus, the ‘appropriation’ by González Iñárritu and Fernando Arriaga (script writer) of Montejo’s poem is complete, with a translation that at the time was both original and unique.
The fact that in this particular instance the message of the film is at least compatible with the original potential of the poem is neither here nor there. The narrative and aesthetic discourses of the film could also pull in a direction different to the one originally intended by the poem, and consequently satirise it, humorise it, corrupt it or render it totally banal.
Thus, once the poem is introduced into an audiovisual context it mutates to become part of the cinematic code at the service of the producers of the film to create a specific effect in the viewer. Whether or not this ruse is effective depends, of course, on the director’s ability to manipulate the elements at his disposition in order to create a balanced and assertive end product. Which is not to say that there is any middle ground at all between poetry and cinema. It is, however, reassurance that well entrenched within the cinematic code, at least, there certainly is room for a more creative, albeit complementary, role for poetry in particular and literature in general.
A small piece commissioned by the Latin American Review of Books for its August issue, prepared together with my good friend Adolfo Calero.