Well Versed

PARIAH and other Films of Poetry

By Nick Dawson | December 27, 2011
Pariah (2011)

The Caribbean-American writer and poet Audre Lorde was a significant influence on PARIAH's writer/director Dee Rees, who says that Lorde's 1982 autobiography, Zami: A New Spelling of My Name, had a huge impact on her. “When I read her story, I felt that I wasn’t alone and it gave me hope for my own journey,” says Rees. In order to give Adepero Oduye – the actress who plays PARIAH's young heroine, Alike – a stronger sense of her character's personality, Rees gave Oduye a copy of Lorde's Zami and a collection of the late writer's poetry. Lorde's writing also was a major influence on Rees when she sat down to pen the evocative and deeply personal poem that Alike – inspired by one of her teachers to “go deeper” – writes in the film. Describing how Alike is “broken” and yet free, it is a beautiful and empowered piece of writing which gives viewers a profound insight into Alike's pain, her dignity, her intelligence. While filmmakers have traditionally been cautious about mixing movies and poetry, PARIAH is one of a number of films over the years that has effectively utilized poetry as a way of shedding light on a protagonist's inner life. (James Franco’s lyrical portrait of the poet Hart Crane, THE BROKEN TOWER, is coming out soon from Focus World.)  In the following slideshow, we will look over a disparate collection of films that have grappled with cinematic depictions of poets (both real and fictional) and their work.

Stevie (1978)

In the 1978 film STEVIE, an adaptation of Hugh Whitemore's 1977 play of the same name, Oscar-winner Glenda Jackson gives a memorable performance as Stevie Smith, the brilliantly original 20th century British poet. Smith only found fame in her later years, and STEVIE sees Smith looking back over her life, often directly addressing the audience as she sifts through past romances and her friendship with her aunt. Whitemore, who adapted his own play for the screen, added to the film version a character called “The Man,” voiced by Trevor Howard, who is not only narrator but also, like Jackson, reads a number of Smith's creative and idiosyncratic poems. Though the film played only very briefly in the U.S., it earned Jackson and her co-star Mona Washbourne (who played Smith's aunt) Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress nods at the Golden Globes, plus the passionate support of a number of critics. Vincent Canby in the New York Times wrote, “Stevie, in Miss Jackson's splendid performance, is funny, fragile, demanding, suicidal, brave and never at a loss for the kind of words that light up the conventional world she clung to, even as those words turn the world upside down.” The film, said Canby, was about Smith's words, and was “not...for anyone not interested in language, particularly the uses to which Stevie could put it. ...Miss Jackson and Stevie's poetry reveal the spirit inside the woman.” Joe Baltake, another reviewer who fell in love with STEVIE, neatly summed up how the film, though based on a play and largely stationary, managed to feel so alive. Wrote Baltake, “the piece is stagebound but also, somehow, surprisingly cinematic because [it is filled] with a sharp array of words - the tricky, observant wordplay of Smith's poetry (which Jackson reads directly into the camera at intervals) and Whitemore's affectionate imagination of the bracingly articulate conversations between Smith and her aunt, who lived together.” STEVIE fittingly closes with Smith's movingly and unsentimental last poem, “Come, Death,” in which she pleads, “Come, Death, and carry now my soul away.”

Looking for Langston (1989)

There will probably never be a more original or unusual biopic than LOOKING FOR LANGSTON, the posthumous portrait of the gay African-American poet Langston Hughes by Isaac Julien, the black British filmmaker. It is a riff on Hughes' life, times and experiences, filtered through and interspersed with Julien's contemporary perspective. The poetry of Hughes is just one of the literary elements in play here, and we also hear Toni Morrison (among other people) reading poetic works by members of the Harlem Renaissance (incidentally, an artistic movement that greatly influenced PARIAH writer-director Dee Rees) such as Richard Bruce Nugent and James Baldwin, and the contemporary writer Essex Hemphill. Describing LOOKING FOR LANGSTON, reviewer Gary Tooze writes, “Extracts from Hughes’ poetry are interwoven with the work of cultural figures from the 1920s and beyond..., constructing a lyrical and multilayered narrative. Julien explores the ambiguous sexual subtexts of a period of rich artistic expression, and the enduring cultural significance of these pioneers’ work.” Julien's film stresses Hughes' historical importance by showing that he is just as present in Robert Mapplethorpe's black-and-white pictures of African-American men as he is in other images seen here, such as footage from Oscar Micheaux's “race films” from the 1920s. Though Hughes' poetry is hardly a dominant aspect of the film, at some screenings it was not heard by audiences at all. Upset at both the film's treatment of Hughes and at Isaac Julien's failure to clear the use of the late poet's work in LOOKING FOR LANGSTON, the Hughes estate successfully got some theater owners to turn down the sound during the parts in which his poems were read. However, in one sense, the whole film is a Hughes poem. In his excellent analysis of LOOKING FOR LANGSTON, Rufus de Rham contends that Julien's film is “More of a visual poem than a strict narrative” and, like a great piece of poetry, it cannot be properly understood or appreciated the first time it is experienced, but must be returned to in order for its many complexities to gradually manifest themselves.

Poetic Justice (1993)

Following the huge success of his debut film, the 1991 urban drama BOYZ N THE HOOD, African-American writer-director John Singleton began thinking about his next film."I wanted to do something totally different from BOYZ, but in the same area,” he told Roger Ebert. “You can only really write about what you know about. ...I figured, well, all these guys are getting killed on the streets. What's happening to their girlfriends? And then, boom! The story just came to me. I woke up at 4:30 in the morning. I said, 'I'm going to have this character. Her name is Justice, and she writes poetry.'" Thus was born the idea for Singleton's 1993 film, POETIC JUSTICE, in which Janet Jackson plays the title character, a feisty young woman living in L.A.'s impoverished South Central neighborhood who deals with her tough life – and, particularly, the recent death by shooting of her boyfriend – by writing poetry. (The actual poems were written by the great African-American poet Maya Angelou, who also has a small role in the film.) Justice's poetry, which Jackson recites both onscreen and in voiceover, is the expression of the tender side of her that she is otherwise unable to show. While on the streets, she postures, "I'm gonna fuck up your sorry ass, nigga," but when writing alone she is able to give voice to the thoughtful, vulnerable and introspective Justice hiding behind that belligerent facade. Or, as she simply states to her love interest, Lucky (Tupac Shakur), "I write what's in my heart." Her poetry is more than just personal, however, as it not only sums up her life, but also the lives of the people around her. In one of the most poignant moments of the film, we hear Justice recite these haunting, resonant words: "Alone, all alone. Nobody, but nobody. Can make it out here alone. There are some millionaires with money they can't use. Their wives run round like banshees. Their children sing the blues."

Mrs. Parker and The Vicious Circle (1994)

The brilliant brains of the Algonquin Round Table are celebrated in all their brutal wit in Alan Rudolph's richly textured 1920s period piece, with the queen of that crowd, Dorothy Parker, at the very center of the film. Conceived by Rudolph as "a period biography of a literate woman," MRS. PARKER AND THE VICIOUS CIRCLE features many of the most famous comic jabs thrown by the film's real-life characters. To give the film a feeling of authenticity, Rudolph tried to create a hedonistic, free-flowing atmosphere amongst his cast members by having them live together in a crummy hotel, play poker all night, and allowing them to improvise extensively in their scenes. However, Jennifer Jason Leigh, the actress charged with playing Parker, lived apart from her fellow actors, sequestering herself in a room at the Algonquin Hotel and devouring all of Parker's writings, ultimately finding that the woman she was playing "had a sensibility that I understand very, very well. A sadness. A depression." Parker, of course, was not just a poet; she was also a gifted writer of short stories and screenplays, a caustic critic, and a writer who is maybe most quoted for her tart table talk. For all the famous quips that Leigh gets to spout in VICIOUS CIRCLE, the moments that are most revealing of Parker involve her poetry. Rather like in STEVIE, Rudolph's film features the elderly female poet reading her work directly to the camera. While breaking the fourth wall, Leigh's Parker recites the poem "Observation," saying:  ''If I abstain from fun and such,/I'll probably amount to much;/But I shall stay the way I am,/Because I do not give a damn.'' Dissecting this pivotal moment in the film, Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman wrote that "the words [are] delivered with cruelly elegant deliberation, so that each one stings like acid. ...The blithe devastation of that last line is as toxic, as fearless in its nihilism, as anything that ever escaped the lips of Johnny Rotten. Because I do not give a damn. Life sucks, and then you die."

The Basketball Diaries (1995)

Shortly after getting a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars for his fine performance as Johnny Depp's sweet, mentally handicapped brother in WHAT'S EATING GILBERT GRAPE, Leonardo DiCaprio showed a grittier side of himself by playing the poet Jim Carroll in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES. Based on Carroll's autobiographical book of the same name, it chronicles on the writer's teenage years, during which he excelled at high school basketball but was secretly a heroin addict who prostituted himself in order to get money for his fix. Its grim, real-life subject matter makes THE BASKETBALL DIARIES a difficult film to watch. However, it is somewhat more bearable because juxtaposed with the horrendous and depressing scenes we see onscreen is DiCaprio's voiceover –– taken directly from the journals Carroll wrote as an adolescent –– which gives us the young writer's elevating poetic perspective on what he was going through: "This city turns people into shadows, light gone from their eyes / And so I write these words to escape these hopeless streets / I will learn to fly." There is a curious dynamic here because adolescent poetry, by definition, is self-involved posturing filled with melodramatic exaggeration –– Roger Ebert wrote of the voice-over in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES, "Like most poetry written by teenagers, it is puerile romanticism, painfully sincere, viewing life as tragic because the author is not happy" –– and yet Carroll's teenage experiences were so awful as to justify using a heightened language that is usually merely fanciful hyperbole. Ultimately, critics concluded that the dramatization of Carroll's work failed to live up to the words themselves. The New York Times' Janet Maslin wrote that the young Carroll had "described in neon-bright detail" his traumatic teens in "journal entries that would establish him as a baby Burroughs," but that hearing Carroll's words as voiceover in THE BASKETBALL DIARIES was a jarring experience "since the film has no poetry of its own." The San Francisco Chronicle's Edward Guthmann concurred with Maslin, deeming that director Scott Kalvert had failed to find "a cinematic equivalent for the tough, tortured voice that Carroll brought to his book."

Slam (1998)

In 1998, director Marc Levin won both the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera D'Or at Cannes for SLAM, his stirring film about a young African-American man in Washington D.C. who discovers in poetry a potential escape from a life of crime and poverty. Saul Williams, a real-life hip hop poet, played Ray, a wannabe rapper from the D.C. 'hood of Dodge City who gets busted when a drug deal goes awry, and is then sent to prison awaiting trial. In the joint, he is goaded by his fellow inmates but –– inspired by writing teacher Lauren (Sonja Sohn, another actor-poet), who has spotted his verbal gifts –– he responds with words rather than fists, railing in a rap poem about how the prison system and the status quo is what they should be fighting, not each other. Unexpectedly bailed, Ray reconnects with Lauren and is introduced to the electrifying world of poetry slam competitions, an arena in which he excels. While many of the film's plot elements are somewhat hackneyed, it is SLAM's poetic aspects –– and the performances of Williams and Sohn –– that make it special. Bob Graham of the San Francisco Chronicle wrote, "This is not mere recitation ––  it is personal expression of the most intense kind. Imagine the Romantic poets as jazz artists. The poetry shows up everywhere in this film ...and turns into an exhilarating and moving experience. Not only do various characters present poems as set pieces, poetry also grows out of exchanges between them. It is the product of alert minds and unfettered spirits." In his rave review of SLAM, which he called an "emotional powerhouse," Rolling Stone's Peter Travers neatly summed up the inspirational power of the film: "SLAM is a different kind of prison movie: It offers art as a way out.”

Before Night Falls (2000)

As a follow-up to his acclaimed debut film, the Jean-Michel Basquiat biopic BASQUIAT, painter-turned-filmmaker Julian Schabel focused his attention on the life of another fascinating creative figure: the gay Cuban poet, playwright and novelist Reinaldo Arenas. BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, which stars Javier Bardem in an Oscar-nominated performance as Arenas, is based on the 1992 memoir of the same name and tells the writer's remarkable life story. A gifted poet from a young age, Arenas flouted convention by refusing to hide his homosexuality and writing what he wanted, resulting in his imprisonment by the Castro government. After a number of failed attempts, Arenas escaped from Cuba and made a new life for himself in New York City. After only seven years of freedom, however, Arenas discovered that he had contracted AIDS. Uninsured and increasingly too ill to write, he committed suicide in 1990, aged just 47. In BEFORE NIGHT FALLS, much of Arenas' poetics can be found in his actions – his life was an act of rebellious self-expression, and his writing was an extension of that. As a boy, he wrote his first poems by carving them into trees; in a powerfully symbolic scene, Arenas' grandfather, intolerant of his writerly talents, angrily chops down one of the trees. Schnabel also uses a number of his subject's poems in the film, with Bardem reading them in voiceover at different key moments. (Significantly, though the characters speak in English, the poems are recited in the original Spanish, meaning these are truly Arenas' words, not a translator's.) BEFORE NIGHT FALLS also embodies the spirit of Arenas' poetics in itself. Describing a scene in the movie where Arenas' best friend Pepe Malas (Andrea Di Stefano) tries to escape, The Guardian's Peter Preston wrote that “though Schnabel sticks close to the facts ...he allows himself one literal flight of poetry which turns biography into art. The hunted, seeking escape, have built a balloon in the shell of a church. They are poised to fly to freedom. But Di Stefano hijacks the balloon for himself and we see it drifting over a tiny town before plunging to earth. There was no balloon. That single scene is pure invention. Nevertheless, it's a total fit, the fragile, taunting lyricism of escape. It helps make BEFORE NIGHT FALLS much, much more than a conventional biopic. It allows it to match the poetry in Bardem's sweetly guttural narration of Arenas's texts."

The Business of Fancydancing (2002)

When SMOKE SIGNALS, a 1998 drama about a trio of young Native Americans on a road trip, won the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival and became one of the year's breakout indie hits, it greatly increased the profile of the movie's writer-producer, Sherman Alexie. Previously known as a poet and fiction writer, Alexie opted to follow up this success by directing THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING, a film that is as personal, complex and intimate as one would expect from a poet. Made in 2002, it draws heavily on Alexie's own past and grapples with the concerns that have preoccupied him: its central character, Seymour Polatkin, is – like Alexie – a Native American poet who grew up on the Spokane Reservation in Washington state, but left as soon as he could and is now troubled by the fact that he is successful in the world beyond the reservation, but an outsider in the world he abandoned. The film's title is also the name of Alexie's first book of poetry, but Seymour is not just Alexie's alter ego but also that of the actor who plays him, Evan Adams. While Alexie is a married family man, Seymour is openly gay, something he shares with Adams, a prominent Native American playwright and actor who, like Alexie, fled the reservation in pursuit of a creative career. We seldom see Seymour more clearly in THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING than during the scenes when he is performing his passionate and powerful poetry (written by Alexie) in front of enthusiastic bookstore audiences. Nevertheless, Seymour is conflicted about the role that his ethnic background plays in how he is perceived. "I'm the affirmative-action poet," he says at one point. "They have to let some brown man rail against the injustices in the world." Alexie, though, is a poet first and a filmmaker second, and thus THE BUSINESS OF FANCYDANCING is a poet's attempt at cinema rather than a cineaste trying to make something poetic. The narrative arc is fragmented, Alexie dotting around in time and space as he mixes dramatic scenes with poetry, music, tribal dance (including the "fancydancing" of the title), footage from old home movies, and scenes in which Seymour is confrontationally interviewed on a TV arts show. Furthermore, Alexie has a great ear and his dialogue, at its best, is itself pure poetry. In a scene where Seymour is discussing with his old friend Agnes (Michelle St. John) the past and roads not taken, she asks him, "Why do we always talk about impossibilities?" His response? "Because without that there's only silence."

Sylvia (2003)

Beautiful and fiercely passionate, Sylvia Plath tragically took her own life at the age of just 30, her suicide making her the poetry world's equivalent of Marilyn Monroe. When, in 2003, writer-director Christine Jeffs set out to make SYLVIA, her biopic about Plath produced by Focus Features, she faced a major challenge. Frieda Hughes –– Plath's daughter by fellow poet Ted Hughes and, after the latter's death, her literary executor –– decided that she did not want to encourage further poring over her mother's life (and death), and so prevented Jeffs from substantially quoting any of Plath's poems. Jeffs did, however, use what small amounts of Plath's words were permitted very effectively and with great power, and SYLVIA opens with lines from the seminal "Lady Lazarus." Plath (played by Gwyneth Paltrow), her head laid down, her eyes closed, reads the following: "Dying/ Is an art, like everything else./ I do it exceptionally well." A raw examination of Plath's relationship with Ted Hughes, a future Poet Laureate of the United Kingdom who overshadowed Plath with his success, SYLVIA may not contain a great deal of Plath's poetry, yet Plath's and Hughes' work addressed their personal lives with such uncomfortable directness that, as Roger Ebert wrote, it "violated their privacy in a manner both thorough and brutal." In that sense, SYLVIA is, in fact, a direct representation of Plath's work, and more so because of Jeff's suitability to her subject. The New York Times' A.O. Scott said that "the poetry that Ms. Paltrow and Ms. Jeffs enact together compensates somewhat for the film's skimpy use of Plath's own words." Wrote Scott, "Ms. Jeffs's understanding of Plath, like Ms. Paltrow's, is deep and sincere, and ultimately more intuitive than analytical. SYLVIA, rather than trying to explain Plath, wants to burrow into her personality without disturbing its mysteries."

Howl (2009)

Though Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman's HOWL has been described by some as a biopic of poet Allen Ginsberg (played here by James Franco), it is, more accurately, a biopic of Ginsberg's most famous poem, "Howl," the infamous literary colossus that launched the Beat Movement. Epstein and Friedman are best known as the directors of such non-fiction films as THE TIMES OF HARVEY MILK and COMMON THREADS: STORIES FROM THE QUILT, and in HOWL they retain their documentary filmmaker's reverence for accuracy, with every word in the film being a matter of historical record. HOWL draws from three texts: we see a recreation of the epoch-defining first performance by Ginsberg of "Howl" in 1955; a fascinating and extensive 1957 interview given by Ginsberg, which Franco acts out; and the 1957 obscenity trial, portions of which are recreated verbatim. (There are also two elements of HOWL that are wordless: black-and-white silent footage featuring Franco and other actors that depicts Ginsberg's life in the 1940s and 50s, including his initial interactions with Beat heroes Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady; and animations that bring to life the images of "Howl".) In his keen-eyed review of HOWL, New York magazine's David Edelstein wrote that the film "takes Ginsberg's momentous, paradigm-changing poem as its launching pad and landing place; its beginning, middle, and end. You could call it a deconstruction except that sounds too formal. It’s a celebration, an analysis, a critical essay, an ode. ...The result brings out everything that fed into "Howl," how it changed the culture in its first years of publication, and most important, the immediacy of the poem itself, which emerges from Franco’s incantation as the work of a Whitmanesque bard, a Blakean mystic, a jazz musician, a rabbi chanting to a crowd of davening worshipers." Expressing similar sentiments, A.O. Scott of the New York Times wrote that HOWL was trying to reproduce "a sense of what Ginsberg’s poem might have sounded and felt like at the moment of its creation, which is presented both as a specific point in recent history and an episode of transcendence. ... HOWL does something that sounds simple until you consider how rarely it occurs in films of any kind. It takes a familiar, celebrated piece of writing and makes it come alive."

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