My Eyes Like Rays
My Eyes Like Rays
National Poetry Competition Filmpoem screening & poetry reading
Notes from the screening and poetry reading: for all the films please go to: www.vimeo.com/filmpoem
Poet Sam Harvey, Sarah Tremlett and Julia Bird from The Poetry Society
Really pleased to see a sell-out poetry reading and poetry film screening curated by Alastair Cook of Filmpoem at The Poetry Society, London on October 13th, where films were made to the winning poems from the National Poetry Competition of 2016. All the films were really noteworthy. Myself, poet Sam Harvey, filmmaker James Norton, poet Laura Scott, and Helmi Stil were there to present our work. Just to say, my jottings from the event are no reflection on those not mentioned.
Laura Scott’s poem The Grey Mirror (3:12, 2017) is centered on the memory of a house by the sea in Ireland. The processes behind James Norton’s evocative, lyrical filming became clearer when he told us that: ‘There was a shift in the poem, which had to be a character – it took ages to find an image for – I tried so many things’.
and if I went back to that house in Ireland where she took us in
out of the rain, I’d find it. If I stood in front of the mirror I’d see
how grey and specked with black its glass was and then I’d see
lines spreading around my eyes like rays in a child’s drawing
of the sun …
Laura gave a memorable reading that also made me see The Wizard of Oz in a new light.
Fran Lock’s Epistle from inside the Sharknado (5:12, 2017) is a dark testament to the destruction we are causing to the planet. Filmmaker Idil Sukan managed to create a paradoxical effect: using animated plastic dinosaurs (coming back to get us as the poem foretells), he reminds us of both the absence of the real thing and the pathos of the imitation; both a bittersweet visual sense of humour but also a real sense of the fragility of our world, and what we will end up with if we don’t protect it: a world of plastic memories.
We will come, seismic and genderless, thick sleeves
of meat, working the humid air like a grudge. You’d
better run …
In Never Say Never Say Never (6:10, 2017) directed, shot, conceived and edited by Adele Myers with poem by Patrick Errington and narrated by Evan DiLario, a couple struggle to let go. Myers, who trained as a dancer, as well as a filmmaker, sent me her rationale for making the film:
‘The poem itself had some strong imagery but I found it to be quite abstract also. I felt that the words flowed over each other well, but I initially struggled to latch on to a particular narrative, that I could explore in a visual way. My previous film for The Poetry Society, Birdfall based on the poem by Danica Ognjenovic, used a ballet dancer as a bird-like figure, so I decided to revisit dance again for this piece, to play with the symbolism of relationships.
I gleaned a sense that the poem could be about the final moment of a relationship, where the two parties were set to end; they know they need to end it, but are also resistant to actually doing so. I wanted to explore imagery involving two people trying hold on to their very last moment together, so that it did not have to end; “the last page unread”.
I also wanted the piece to have a dream-like or not so firmly fixed, timeless quality as if the couple were still sleeping, in limbo perhaps before the final split, “don’t wake, not just yet”. The film evokes memories or echoes of moments they’d shared together both tender and not so. With the dancers – Layla Al Khouri and Sandoop Dinesh – coming from different cultures it adds another dimension to ideas of relational struggle, which was hinted at, but subtly. Notions of misunderstanding are explored, mixed with tenderness that relationships can encounter anywhere. The poem circles around a sort of push and pull, back and forth for me and I really wanted capture that, to have a tension in the film, where you were not quite sure if they were in or out, even at the end as the poem’s final words relay: “when you leave, come back”’.
The Desktop Metaphor (2:48, 2017) by poet Caleb Parkin is an existential dance of the prosaic and mythical – ‘like The Great Stapler which attaches the night to us’ – with photocopier light opera by Helmie Stil (organizer of Filmpoem Festival 2017) and music by Lennert Busch.
The steady metrical repetition of the scanning motion of the photocopier (with both light and sound) creates its own hypnotic prosody, paralleling the anaphoric repetitions and enjambment of Parkin’s verbal images:
we were exoplanets with atmospheres of ink
ink full of bright mating cries
Parkin’s delivery is both matter-of-fact and playful. It is as if qualifying the ordinary with mythical statements, and reiterating them, is enough; belief is only in the mind. Stil’s photocopied face (which once would have been termed abject), adds to the humour of man’s position in the desktop universe, as well as enriching the constantly changing material spectacle).
In Parkin’s page poem, there is a zig-zagging rift of metaphoric blank space running down the middle of the page. Maybe we could think of this as a contemporary version of a medial caesura as in Anglo Saxon and Middle English verse, such as ‘Piers Plowman’ by William Langland (c.1330–1386). Parkin’s pause, or blank audio-visual ‘space’ takes on a new form through the iterations of Stil’s photocopier.
As the repetitive rhythm of the poem and photocopier work in concert, there is also a pleasing mirroring between word and image. As a director, mindful of the verse/image relationship, Stil has paired two beams of light that converge, like a beak shape, with Caleb’s narration of the words ‘the gull’:
mating cries from Gods of our Days like the Gull
the Gull whose beak marks the poles
the poles whose screams are tectonic
Helmie kindly sent me her notes that she also sent to Caleb during the filming process. It is really interesting to see her interpretation of the poem and also the nature of the scanning process itself:
‘The main idea is to focus visual on the scanner, I’ve filmed different angles of the lights of the scanner and I’ve scanned some items that relate to your poem. And because your poem is readable in different ways I was thinking of doing something with a split screen. So, on one side of the screen you see the light of the scanner, scanning, and on the other screen you see what’s been scanned.
I’ve scanned many things that you can’t name and some you can. What I felt in your poem is the emptiness of life, the feeling we should always put names on things instead of just feeling it, that we make things very important while there are many more important things in life. So, the scanner is symbolizing our life, scanning through it. The scans are representing the things we put/are “important” in our lives, like the Great Stapler.
I was very surprised and pleased to see what you can do with the scanner visually. An isolation of life, scanning through it.’
The Curfew (4:26, 2017) with poem by winning poet Stephen Sexton recollects his grandfather – his work as a miner and a disaster – and is consummately filmed by the well-established team of Alastair Cook, filmmaker James Norton and sound by Luca Nasciuti.
Nasciuti’s soundscape turns the simple act of opening an old suitcase and coming across objects wrapped in paper into almost an apocalyptic experience. The whole action takes place at Alastair Cook’s desk as he shares with us the emotional experience of reacquainting himself with a loved one, through the totemic qualities of personal possessions. Shot with an uncompromising lens, very different to the lyricism of Norton’s work with Laura Scott, boxing gloves or an old camera reawaken memories. These seem to build until ultimately Cook buries his face in an old blanket. The emotional delicacy of the process contrasts with the soundscape that creaks and clanks, rising and falling in volume, like a techno ship being tossed on the waves in a thunderstorm (echoing the later motif of the albatross). Cook’s voice brings a real verisimilitude to the poem: seamlessly blending with the lines in couplets, like a stream of consciousness, or a mental liturgy.
The memorial fountain says nothing
of the weeks before the rescue failed
but mentions God which, as my grandfather
used to say, is just the name of the plateau
you view the consequences of your living from.
Or something like that. He said a lot of things.
He grew wise and weary as an albatross
and left for that great kingdom of nevertheless.
I was paired with American poet Sam Harvey for Claire Climbs Everest (5:08, 2017). For me it was a really enjoyable experience to work blind, and finally meet Sam, who has a unique delivery that slowly draws you into everyday situations, which are then quietly isolated through a perceptive lens– as we found out in his poetry reading (including running into a deer, left on the bonnet of the car!). I also enjoyed our discussion with the lovely Julia Bird afterwards.
For my own part I can only recount my own intention for the poem:
The highs and lows of being in love. A teenage girl is left by her cello-playing boyfriend and her world temporarily falls apart.
Sam’s verbal imagery and the mountain metaphor provided a strong basis to work from. In some cases, I fell in step with a duvet / mountain convergence, and in other places I diverged creating parallel visual images from his verbal images. With quite complicated visuals I called on talented multimedia filmmaker and editor Howard Vause to help edit my footage and concepts into evocative images – without him the film would not have worked at all.
Overall the poem conveyed to me a more traditional, three-act structure as a poetry film, rather than a dream-like or conceptual narrative. As the ex-boyfriend in the poem was a cellist (so well-played by Sam Warner) I selected different types of cello music to reflect the emotional structure. I did not want to begin with Claire as already abandoned by her boyfriend, but catch her still ‘in’ love – in a Chagall-esque scenario that I had wanted to use for some time, and was realised so effectively by Howard.
This scene is made for me by several different aspects that come together: the music works in concert; the way I shot her, including the dress and the wind machine, and asking her to pretend she was being lifted in the air; my suggestion to have a kiss become a bird that carries Claire, and Howard’s suggestion to drop Claire on the mountain /duvet and layer Claire’s small figure over the concerned expression of her larger face. All the tweakings of this scene necessitated incorporating the exit of the cellist with Claire arriving in the right place after her flight. The result is a tribute to Howard’s skillful and imaginative image manipulation.
In terms of metaphoric visual imagery, I also managed to use crosses as both symbolising love and error – another theme I had wanted to transfer from a print series to incorporate in poetry films. Love and error keep slipping and sliding and the cross bears a different meaning as kiss or error depending on your point of view. These interplay with Sam’s mountain motif, or sometimes run parallel: the opening pan across the mountainous duvet is peppered with delicate love-filled kisses. Yet later they form a chain-link curtain that signifies the end of their relationship.
However, some verbal and visual images fuse as with the messy bedroom, seen in triplicate.
I go home some weekends to find
Claire’s bedroom covered in little mountains
of socks and t-shirts, the range across which she has trekked,
But when Claire leaves the room, in Sam’s poem she goes into her mother’s room, but in the filmic image she leaves the room wearing a pink hat and fake fur coat (as an enveloping stand-in for the mother) to go out. In discussing my use of colour, I would also argue that strong pink represents a strong feminine position, whereas the black and white scenarios signify Claire’s world bled dry of life (and even hope). Another reason for a pink hat is that it serves nicely as a little beacon to follow for a filmmaker in a crowded night-time tube station!
The parallel images continue but in some cases converge again through shared dynamics. As Claire visually ascends an escalator in the tube station, Harvey narrates:
… the Sherpa, cheeks flush rose with the cold,
that lead her through the eyelet of clouds
to the summit …
Towards the end, in speaking of Claire’s dad’s shirt which she finds, Sam describes her holding the shirt and again I parallel that verbal image:
She emerges with it clenched in her fist like a trophy,
like a fistful of snow from the white crown of Everest.
Here I wanted to return to the idea of the cross as kiss or love again (the father’s shirt standing for this love to me) and I wanted the kisses to appear from her hand, as if reigniting her sense of faith in people and wonder in life. So, Howard created the effect of kisses seeming to float upwards.
Another secret from the filming process is that Claire is played by two people – both my daughters – Georgie for the main role, but Hatti for the location shots, as she happened to be living in London at the time and Georgie wasn’t available!
I set out wanting animated special effects to support a sense of wonder and imagination at being in love (particularly for the first time), something very old-fashioned today but a feeling I think that hasn’t been entirely destroyed by the cynicism and pragmatism of our society.
I am very grateful to Alastair for this opportunity; it was an exciting way to stretch my filmmaking capabilities. I am also indebted to Sam for such a subtle and finely crafted poem on such a raw subject, and I feel the pace of his dry, American voice really counterpoints but underpins the drama on screen. I have learnt a lot about the craft of poetry as much as filmmaking.