Between the Lines

How does cinema reflect upon poetry? On three new films and a complex kinship

By Andrew Chan

How much rustling foliage and sotto voce narration qualifies a movie as “lyrical”? The word calls to mind an inexhaustible repertoire of images: the surreal underwater reverie in L’Atalante; the cobalt-tinted sea and sky in Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight; the oneiric landscapes of Tarkovsky, Pasolini, Malick. Though disparate in tone and subject, these tableaux share the aim of eliciting reverence, emerging as if from the same amniotic silence that gives rise to poetic speech. And like great lyric poetry, these images enact a drama of opposing objectives, sensitizing us to the tactility of the artist’s materials while also seeking to transcend the limitations those materials impose on expression. Yet, in spite of these parallels, filmic lyricism remains an imprecise concept that, when indiscriminately applied to any work that tends toward the ruminative or the sublime, can register a hint of sanctimony—as though cinema were a sinner in need of poetry’s salvation.

It’s difficult to compare poetry with cinema on the basis of technical apparatus. It might therefore seem useful to map the contours of a lyric mode, some spirit or vibe or feeling—what Federico García Lorca might call duende—that floats free of the contingencies of either medium. Lyricism manifests in endlessly conflicting guises: it can impart to a film a semblance of timelessness or a heightened awareness of the present; it can establish a sense of intimacy or grandeur; it can thrive on both granular detail and heady abstraction. Yet there’s a more timely reason to find the odd couple of poetry and film intriguing: in contemporary culture, there are hardly two art forms as well-matched in their chronic insecurity, or more similarly enmeshed in the critical bellyaching their alleged obsolescence engenders. This year, three new films have interrogated these issues implicitly as they grapple with what it means to live the life of a poet.

What does it profit a young art form to piggyback off of poetry’s age-old portentousness? Since antiquity, lyric poetry has stood tall among literary genres, exalted for its ability to nudge the semantic weight of words into a state of near-musical abstraction. But a hyper-awareness of its own ineffectuality has long been a part of its lifeblood, often presented as a principled rejection of our coldly utilitarian world. Poetry, as W.H. Auden wrote, “makes nothing happen.” Or, in the words of critic David Orr, it’s “beautiful and pointless.” These dictums riff on that immortal Wildean shrug “All art is quite useless”—a sentiment intermittently invoked and interrogated in Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson. Set in the industrial New Jersey town that provided the title for William Carlos Williams’s modernist epic, this scrupulously unassuming slice of life follows a bus driver (Adam Driver), also named Paterson, as he works his route, overhears the conversations of his passengers, indulges the creative whims of his artist-baker wife (Golshifteh Farahani), and caps each night with a drink at the same bar. Inserted between these routines are moments when he puts pen to paper, sometimes right at the steering wheel, jotting down lines reminiscent of the colloquial, declarative free verse that Williams revolutionized in poems like “The Red Wheelbarrow” and “This Is Just to Say.”

These interludes have the amorphous, half-formed quality of a daydream, and serve as respite from the off-kilter realism that marks the rest of the film. Handwritten text appears across shots of sunlight and waterfalls, while Driver as Paterson reads his words in voiceover with a dopey, caesura-heavy monotone. As he sifts through a grab bag of subjects, ranging from a vintage brand of matches to the pangs of romantic longing, his words maintain a low-energy equilibrium, the better to attune us to the ways in which lyricism can assimilate itself into the texture of the everyday. Like most movies about the creative life, Paterson makes no real attempt to examine the sputtering mechanics of an artist’s process. But here that neglect takes on its own ascetic purposefulness, in service of a protagonist for whom such mechanics are anathema. In each interlude, Paterson’s verse pours out unimpeded by doubt or deliberation, as if he were operating under John Keats’s notion that “if poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.”

Jarmusch has expressed his affinity for the ’60s literary circle known as the New York School, praising the unpretentious, conversational plainspeak that some of its members—including Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems in Paterson—so playfully cultivated. If the film has the air of an ars poetica inspired by those writers, its vision of poetry is ultimately more utopian and egalitarian. Those who love poetry but are frustrated with its perceived elitism will recognize the cake-and-eat-it-too conundrum of wanting the art form to take itself less seriously. In the attempt to strip poetry of its highbrow trappings and restore it to an ordinary matter-of-factness, how can it retain its capacities for epiphany, for rapture—the very qualities that have cordoned it off in the ivory tower? For Jarmusch, the answer is simple: the lyric impulse has always been everywhere, ready to be accessed at any time. It’s there in the film’s cyclical structure, which employs the span of a week in a villanelle-like pattern, each day its own stanza bookended by the same rituals. It’s in the quirky recurring images of identical twins, whose appearances throughout the town introduce a thread of visual rhyme. It’s in the way a minor character repeats the phrase “A-ha!” like a chiming refrain.

Poetry’s usual insistence on its own profundity, its obsession with scaling the heights of canonical greatness, can be off-putting, though surely this comes with being one of the few art forms whose very name can be conferred evaluatively. Only by suspending judgment can Jarmusch begin to suggest poetry’s omnipresence as a kind of magical, even preverbal life force. What’s most refreshing (and also most frustrating) about Paterson is that it doesn’t much care whether its title character or any of the other amateur wordsmiths who briefly occupy the screen with him are actually good poets. In fact, the film openly embraces the modest, the bland, the unpolished. In one scene, Paterson has a serendipitous encounter with a young girl who happens to be a budding poet, and the piece she shares with him is all the more touching for its lack of precocious virtuosity. As for the protagonist himself, the only person to acknowledge his talent on screen is Laura, his wife, who implores him to make copies of his notebook for safekeeping.

A Quiet Passion

It’s not often you find a movie about an artist that is so blithely indifferent to the demands of aesthetic worthiness, that focuses instead on the fundamental urge to create anything at all. In the figure of Paterson we regard the poet not as some mystical font of genius but as an introverted neighbor who, when called upon, becomes the town healer. This certainly resonates with one aspect of the William Carlos Williams myth, which links his day job as a beloved local physician to the proudly provincial, communitarian streak in his writing. Jarmusch takes the poet’s commitment to the “American grain” and his oft-repeated commandment “No ideas but in things” at face value, filling scenes with the kind of quotidian sights and sounds on which Williams’s most famous poems so lovingly linger. But anyone who has read Williams’s frequently baffling Paterson will balk at the idea of him as a patron saint of lucidity and accessibility. In disregarding the raw experimental verve with which the poet strived to compete with the Pounds and Eliots of the world, the film’s approachable lyricism can sometimes feel like the result of a misinterpreted dogma rather than organic inspiration.

It’s not entirely fair to judge Paterson on how accurately it captures the complexity of Williams’s achievement. But its failure or reluctance to do so nevertheless illustrates some of the challenges of fastening a variegated lyric sensibility to the screen. How do you translate the sensation of poetic language—seeing it on the page, hearing it in the mind’s ear, taking in the often contradictory worldview that becomes indivisible from its sound—into a coherent stream of moving images? The challenge is all the greater when the movie in question is a biopic, the conventions of which require a filmmaker to make choices about how faithful he wants to be to historical truth. While Pablo Larraín has resisted that genre classification for his take on the life of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, it’s safe to assume he selected his subject in the hopes of illuminating him in some substantial way, and that the film’s stylistic unorthodoxy is intended to get at a biographical reality deeper than any straight reenactment could.

So what does Larraín have to say about Neruda and his poetics? Neruda refuses to arrange its subject’s life into a conventional drama of personal hardships and milestones, offering instead a fragmented account of a period in the 1940s when the writer, then a senator and one of his country’s leading Communists, became a fugitive after publicly condemning President Gabriel González Videla. Episodes depicting Neruda (played by the remarkable Luis Gnecco) clinging to his lifestyle as a bon vivant while in hiding with his aristocratic wife are intertwined with a metafictional caper involving a bumbling, mustachioed policeman (Gael García Bernal) on his trail. Save for some cartoonish antics—Neruda leaving handwritten notes for his pursuer, cavorting with prostitutes, and giving the time of day to fans, including a drag queen in a brothel—not much sticks in the memory from either of these vaguely sketched narratives. And it seems nothing is supposed to, since the film is largely apathetic toward the incidents and relationships that constitute a person’s private life. As a portrait of a historical figure, Neruda has two conflicting goals in mind: to privilege the myth over the man, while also exposing that myth as a flimsy illusion.

At least part of this myth is that of the Neruda immortalized in Il Postino, the 1994 art-house hit that popularized the writer’s swooning love poems among a mainstream international audience. In Larraín’s film, the poet is asked on multiple occasions to recite one of his old chestnuts, “Tonight I can write the saddest lines…,” and each time we’re encouraged to interpret the request as a joke, a false projection of romantic steadfastness that Neruda’s life as an unrepentantly hedonistic champagne Communist puts to shame. The film’s decision to focus on the political Neruda is a strategic one, an attempt to revise our one-dimensional understanding of the writer as an earthy love king. But Larraín, who has shown no lyrical finesse in his otherwise stylish previous films, doesn’t give much attention to Canto General, the sprawling political masterpiece Neruda was writing in this period of exile. As a visual stylist, Larraín is also at a loss when trying to re-create Neruda’s capacious spirit, that swelling sensuousness which suffuses his work even at its most civically minded.

Neruda conceives of lyricism not as an overflow of sensory pleasure or emotional passion but as one grand illusion, akin to the soaring rhetoric that politicians wield so suspiciously. Instead of finding visual analogues for Neruda’s linguistic universe, the film trains all its devices on showing us the smoke and mirrors of a literary persona, placing its actors in front of artificial backdrops, cloaking images in a scrim of purple light, and building toward a metaphysical climax that finds truth and falsehood nesting inside each other like Russian dolls. All this to deliver the banal insight that the realities of Neruda’s life don’t actually matter, that what counts is how his self-made mythology was, as Auden might have put it, “modified in the guts of the living.” The usual terms of cinema and poetry’s relationship are reversed here: it’s not lyricism that lends the film its ring of higher truth, but film that deconstructs the lyric’s beautiful lies.

Tarkovsky once hailed the potential of cinema to be “the most truthful and poetic of art forms,” implying that the link between truth and poetry was self-evident. “Poetic reasoning,” he wrote, “is closer to the laws by which thought develops, and thus to life itself.” This romantic conception of the lyric as necessarily revelatory—as literature that, in Maya Deren’s words, “creates visible and auditory forms for something that is invisible”—has come in and out of vogue. However unintentionally, Neruda’s impulse to treat the lyric as a work of fiction, an unreliable piece of narration voiced by a constructed persona, dovetails with interpretive approaches to poetry that emerged in the mid-century American academy and have held sway ever since. For the New Critics, the text was an impersonal, self-contained object, best experienced when cut off from any claims to authenticity or intentionality endowed by its origins. For post-structuralists like Roland Barthes, the “author” was effectively dead, his identity a mere distraction from the feelings and impressions elicited in the reader.

It’s interesting to note the opposite trend in cinema, whose claims to aesthetic value and moral import are still frequently built on the premise of authorship. If filmmakers have coveted the uncompromising expressive freedom and auteurist individualism that poets enjoy, it’s proof that the old-fashioned Hegelian dream of poetry as “the absolute and true art of the spirit” has not been completely supplanted. Where Paterson and Neruda are most interested in celebrating their subjects as purveyors of certain agendas, of big ideas whose lyrical power is verified by the society that adopts them, Terence Davies’s A Quiet Passion—an unconventional portrayal of Emily Dickinson—is wholly committed to the notion that poetry stems from the most private recesses of the writer’s soul. Which is to say that, unlike Paterson and Neruda, Davies’s film takes for granted that poetry is an outlet for honesty, for catharsis, a music made possible only by human suffering.

“No poem that does not open itself like a wound,” wrote Derrida, “but no poem that is not also just as wounding.” With her excruciatingly compressed lines, her fascination with the boundaries of physical and psychic pain, and her slanted rhyme schemes that give the impression of a brilliant mind limping its way through consciousness, Dickinson easily lends herself to this formulation of poetry as inner violence. But just as Williams and Neruda are often banished to their pigeonholes, so is Dickinson burdened with the persona of the gnomic spinster, pallid and asexual, scribbling furiously in her notebook in some dark corner of a room as the world carries on without her. It is a credit to Davies’s underappreciated gifts for characterization that, while he evinces no embarrassment about Dickinson’s unrelenting morbidity, he also restores to her a cunning sense of humor and a meaningful social life.

In its opening scene, A Quiet Passion teases us with the early stirrings of the poet’s sassiness, as teenage Emily (Emma Bell) engages in a theological sparring match with a glowering headmistress. Later, in the hands of Cynthia Nixon, the adult Dickinson is envisioned as a woman standing her ground in a patriarchal society by means of immaculate comic timing. Particularly hilarious are her scenes with a sharp-tongued proto-feminist friend named Vryling Buffam (Catherine Bailey), who dazzles her with crackling one-liners and sexual innuendo. Far from being socially inept, Dickinson has the intelligence to use these interactions as a training ground for her art: her religious confrontation as a school girl prepares her to dismantle the puritanical convictions of the era with her own razor-sharp logic, while her camaraderie with Buffam nurtures the mischievous tone that would go on to animate so many of her poems, several of which are recited by Nixon in voiceover. It’s common, when talking about Dickinson, to marvel at how much experience and insight she infused into her words despite a life of extreme seclusion, but A Quiet Passion doesn’t treat her like a neurotic shut-in or pathological specimen. In a genre so often fueled by received knowledge, Davies does something miraculous by making a Dickinson biopic that, at least at the outset, views her as a figure of delight.

An alternative to Paterson’s vision of a poet coasting on his modesty and emotional mid-range, Davies’s Dickinson is an artist of hyperbolic states, one who feels more keenly than others and is capable of “measuring every grief she meets” (as one poem had it) at an atomic level. When the time comes, around the halfway mark, for her inevitable plunge into bitterness and paranoia, the effect is devastating. “You see what a vile person I’ve become?” she cries. Even while extolling the lyric as an art form that elevates experience, Davies understands that its ability to give shape and order to emotion comes with its own set of exasperating limitations. In one harrowing scene, we bear witness as the poet convulses on a bed. The stillness of the camera has an expertly numb resoluteness, as if echoing Dickinson’s ironic boast “I can wade Grief – / Whole Pools of it – / I’m used to that.” While Davies seems to have freed himself of the anxiety of locating cinematic correlatives for Dickinson’s genius, or her pain, he is just as acutely aware as she was of what it means to contain human misery within the artificial confines of a shot or a stanza. This, finally, is the force of lyricism moving through images. Like no other film about the poet’s vocation, A Quiet Passion evokes the strain of one meager voice chiseling its way into the silence.

Andrew Chan has been contributing to Film Comment since 2008.