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January 8, 2005

An influx of reading and viewing material always yields interesting parallels. Here are two very interesting and vaguely dichotic notions on the literary merits of cinema, culled from my recent reading.

First is Ingmar Bergman, who introduces his collection of screenplays, Four Screenplays By Ingmar Bergman, by expressing his frustration at having to fit his films into a medium that, as he sees it, is in almost direct opposition to their final form:

Film has nothing to do with literature; the character and substance of the two art forms are usually in conflict. This probably has something to do with the receptive process of the mind. The written word is read and assimilated by a conscious act of the will in alliance with the intellect; little by little it affects the imagination and emotions. The process is different with a motion picture. When we experience a film, we consciously prime ourselves for illusion. Putting aside will and intellect, we make way for it in our imagination. The sequence of pictures plays directly on our feelings.

Now, Jonathan Rosenbaum, in Dead Man: BFI Modern Classics, first discusses the literary possibilities of films...

One possible reason why there's so seldom been much agreement about what consitutes a literary film is a common bias against film as an art form within the literary world, especially the Anglo-American branches of it. It's a bias inflected with a sense of unfair competition or outright usurpment...But at the same time it often regrettably rules out the very possibility of other kinds of literary films - films informed and enhanced by literary qualities that are original works rather than adaptations.

...before utilizing this quote from Kent Jones to explain how Jarmusch's Dead Man is not only literary but poetic in the most literal sense of the word:

In film criticism and cafe conversation, the word 'poetic' generally applies to films that evoke a lofty feeling of poetry (Wings Of Desire, The Piano). Dead Man is actually structured as an epic poem with rhyming figures (Blake's walk to the factory in Machine 'rhymes' with his final walk to the hut in the Indian village) and refrains (the film is punctuated by twisting journeys on horseback through rocky terrain, qoutations from the William Blake, and the crashing tremors of Neil Young's feedback electronic guitar score). Jarmusch also employs the rapid fades to black started during the train journey throughout the film. Sequences have no standardized shape, and the blackouts create an effect of pockets of time cupped from a rushing river of life.

All of this is true. Film is not a literary medium, and try as I might to make my own screenplays literary works in their own right, all those extra words will mean nothing when the screenplay is eventually translated to film (although the practice of publishing screenplays gives those words a merit of their own). However, the notion of a film that is literary (or poetic) in terms of form rather than content is one that I was excited to read about, as it's something I've given much thought to. I don't think it's a style of filmmaking that will ever have any sort of precedence or achieve much recognition; but it's something interesting for filmmakers to consider when structuring their work (or perhaps not - simply reading a lot, as everyone should, may subconsciously lay a more natural foundation for such structural technique in a filmmaker's writing - when the project is right for it, of course).

And, despite Jarmusch's frequent and literal use of Blake's work as dialogue in Dead Man, or my own use of Graham Greene quotations in Drift, I think it's important to note that mere acknowledgment and quotation of literature does not a literary film make. The recent faux-intelligent A Love Song For Bobby Long is more than proof enough of this. Quotations can be wonderful and enjoyable to read (and make soundbites of), but excessive use of them is not a quick route to profundity. Fake academics carry around books of quotes, like Kirsten Dunst and her Bartlett's in Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind, as opposed to those of us who don't necessarily remember all the quotes because we're too busy contemplating the work as a whole.

Posted by David Lowery at January 8, 2005 4:23 PM


Exellent post, David. I'll reply to it and your recent e-mail this evening some time.

Posted by: Matt at January 8, 2005 9:16 PM

I've just discovered your journal a couple of days ago and have been enjoying reading it. Congrats on getting in at South by Southwest and the Berlin Talent Campus, as well.

Just today, I was thinking about the literary qualities of film while I was working on my screenplay. I was thinking that these extra "literary" words won't really matter once the film is made, so as long as the "idea" of the scene comes across, and that's good enough.

Your post clarified a lot of this for me. Keep u pthe good work and I can't wait to see "Deadroom" (and, hopefully, many more of your films.)

Posted by: Aaron at January 8, 2005 10:20 PM

Welcome to the site, Aaron, and thanks for the kind words! I hope it continues to be a somewhat interesting read...

Posted by: Ghostboy at January 9, 2005 10:52 PM