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Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing / John D. Scott and the Art of Winning

It is a joy to read, listen to, and watch poets and be transported by poetry films but when a poetry filmmaker takes up the challenge of working in documentary form on one of the leading poets of our times, this is clearly cause for celebration. The premiere of Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing (screening and online 16th Sept to 23rd) will be at Fin Atlantic International Film Festival, Halifax, Canada*, https://www.finfestival.ca an extraordinary life’s work by award-winning Halifax-raised filmmaker John D. Scott. PLEASE NOTE: Unfortunately, only those resident in Atlantic Canada can see this film online, which I wasn’t aware of a few days ago. But please hold out for another screening, it is well worth the wait!!! And I will be posting about it as soon as I can.

Since the early Liberated Words festivals (2012 on) I have been lucky enough to watch the progress of John’s mammoth poetry film labour of love, translating Elizabeth Bishop’s poems. I suppose I have an empathy with large undertakings since The Poetics of Poetry Film has taken so much time (what with life, family etc.), and really has developed since 2005. I think both projects have become richer for it, being able to cast your eye and mind across a slowly evolving landscape has its own rewards for artist and viewer, as well as capitalising on changes in technology, as well. One of my early favourite Bishop / Scott poetry films is Sandpiper (2011, revised in 2014), a bird which the documentary reveals Bishop closely identified with. More about this film and an interview with John is included in TPOPF https://www.intellectbooks.com/the-poetics-of-poetry-film

Bishop was a painter as well as a poet, which perhaps has aided Scott in his poetry films to capture heightened realist, often almost fixed-frame scenes, focusing on a turning point moment. Her known ability for an ‘eye’, seeing details so sharply through her poetry, has enabled Scott to do the same with his lens. At times we have extraordinary close-ups on objects, plants etc. and the  illustrations are so perfect in feel and style, especially in that they remind you of Bishop’s own delicate and naieve work.

Scott has not only directed, filmed and edited this project, but he also delivers an intimate approach to narrative. He often talks directly to Bishop, drawing us close into the unfolding scene, and giving us the sense of his affection for her and her work. Such an approach counterbalances the isolated nature of her circumstances, and her mental terrain. This partly arose from early family tragedies, and then being (and feeling) a guest in many houses throughout her life, as well as hiding her lesbian identity under the role of an ‘ordinary’ person.  Such a state of mind also parallels how she found time moved too fast in New York, of herself rushing back and forth on the edge of things like the sandpiper; and trying to understand the nature of travel. All these elements are brought out so vividly in the film and show how poetry saved her life.

The quality of the final documentary has been achieved through close attention to the mise en scene, lighting, framing, quality of acting and editing, as well as surprising almost magical effects which blend seamlessly with stills, and live and animated footage. In this way the documentary extends the same components in some of the poetry films. A very good example of this, alongside combining the importance of place with a filmmaker’s interpretation (also seen in the documentary) can be found in the sublime poetry film First Death in Nova Scotia (2012). He has noted: ‘I loved the challenge of trying to see how a highly imaginative young girl might try to understand something as mysterious as death. This adaptation of Elizabeth Bishop’s poem was shot in Great Village, Nova Scotia – the town where the poem is set.  Part of it was shot at Bishop’s grandparent’s home where Bishop lived for a time as a girl and where critics believe Bishop experienced the events that happen in the poem.’ In this film, powerful and even amusing effects give a clue to the girl’s vivid imagination, in the face of being exposed to her deceased young cousin, lying in state in an otherwise ordinary and unadorned room.

You have to hand it to John in bringing to the screen poetry which has already won its place in so many hearts and imaginations. A director cannot totally re-vision such work nor be a slave to it. I know that John himself has acknowledged that the (much praised and instantly recognisable) look of the poetry films has extended his go-to style, but as it turns out if anyone was going to do it, John is exactly the right person. With a highly skilled team on both the production and acting sides his poetry film adaptations are like miniature cinematic jewels that reflect both the author’s voice/eye and the director’s eye, and give the audience a real sense of the thought and planning needed to achieve the final results.

After seeing the poetry films we have some idea what to expect in Elizabeth Bishop and the Art of Losing, which weighs in at 84 minutes. About a year ago I was privileged enough to see a rough cut of the documentary, as John had asked me for my comments, and I happily gave them; but really, this felt like teaching a ‘grandmother to suck eggs’. I also realised the full extent of research and teamwork required to make such a film and how, whilst respecting Bishop’s voice, scenarios and images, John effortlessly sheds new light on her life, (and provides a blueprint for creative adaptation), whilst revealing her battle with tragedy that ultimately propels her into her greatest work.

Without giving too much away, I just want to say that the highly crafted and sensitive construction of the narrative – its pace and audio-visual means of reveal/disclosure and momentum, are excellent. It develops organically, rather than feeling imposed, with really pertinent interviewees not only contributing to but extending the storyline. Having seen many of the poetry films already, it is fascinating, as well, to see how and where they are introduced.

In the poem ‘In the Waiting Room’ (1971) it is agreed that Bishop writes of herself as a child, and Scott thinks of this poem as an allegory for her life. Sitting stiffly in a stuffy, silent waiting room with her aunt, child actress Anneke Stroink reads about other parts of the world and their bare-breasted cultures in the National Geographic and is suddenly struck by her place in the universe. Looking around the room (the constraint of shoes, fragile hands, all set in low atmospheric light, often used by Scott) she believes ‘nothing stranger had ever happened’. Scott beautifully conveys yet another moment of realisation – that of Being itself, an existential gasp of a separate human who may not feel like others, yet is somehow connected to humanity beyond Worcester, Massachusetts.

Throughout the film the imagery, editing, timing, use of voice and register (particularly from John himself), and blending of still and moving image, all continuously contextualise and convey the poet’s state of mind.  Perhaps having got to know Bishop intimately through her poetry, John already had a feeling for how to convey the trajectory of her life journey in film.  It is important to say that not many filmmakers really employ the tools at their disposal for conveying emotional depths or stasis through editing. Just like the poetry films themselves the documentary also possesses gems of visual or aural genius (hammering blacksmith sounds); a playfulness that fixes and underlines a moment in your memory. Or, other images that are incidental but resonate and articulate, such as where light passes slowly over an old whisk: time and the home, still yet never still. Moments pass too quickly for the poet, caught in the throes of her own dilemmas with time and motion, with Being and being a guest, yet wearing the mask of an ordinary person.

There is so much to take away in this film about Bishop’s life, and it is delivered in a way I think she herself would have appreciated. This is a documentary that, rather than simply document, provides a personal, yet well-researched response to her from another creative artist, whilst adding to the existing literature on the subject. With all the storytelling powers of film, Scott sensitively expands our understanding of the vagaries of Bishop’s mind and world, providing a valuable resource for all lovers of her work.

*  I have heard that the festival will geofence the screening for only their region, but that the film will be screened at another festival soon.