/poetry/ /film/ /digital culture/

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Marginalia on Latour




__ ... __


So in Theol., a sacrament is said to consist of matter (as the water in baptism, the bread and wine in the Eucharist) and form, which is furnished by certain essential formulary words (OED).

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Films of Note: Screening in Chicago this Week

Canyon Passage (1946), dir. Jacques Tourneur
@ Music Box Theatre
Sunday, September 19 | 11:30 A.M.

The Girlfriends (1955), dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Sunday, September 19 | 3:00 P.M.
Sunday, September 19 | 6:00 P.M.
Monday, September 20 | 8:15 P.M.

Naughty Girl (1956), dir. Michel Boisrand
@ Delilah's
Sunday, September 19 | 6:00 P.M.

Let Each One Go Where He May (2009), dir. Ben Russell
@ Cinema Borealis
Sunday, September 19 | 8:00 P.M.

Diabolique (1955), dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Monday, September 20 | 6:00 P.M.

Gilda (1946), dir. Charles Vidor
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Tuesday, September 21 | 6:00 P.M.

Billy Childish Is Dead (2005), dir. Graham Bendel
@ Delilah's
Tuesday, September 21 | 7:00 P.M.

Patti Smith: Dream of Life (2008), dir. Steven Sebring
@ Transistor
Tuesday, September 21 | 7:30 P.M.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928), dir. Charles Reisner and Buster Keaton
@ Northbrook Public Library
Wednesday, September 22 | 1:00 P.M.
Wednesday, September 22 | 7:30 P.M.

Hollow Triumph (1948), dir. Steve Sekely
@ Portage Park Theater
Wednesday, September 22 | 1:30 P.M.

The Last Metro (1980), dir. Francois Truffaut
@ Alliance Francaise
Wednesday, September 22 | 6:30 P.M.

Have to Believe We Are Magic (various), dir. Kent Lambert and Jesse McLean
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Thursday, September 23 | 6:00 P.M.

Do It Again: One Man's Quest to Reunite the Kinks (2010), dir. Robert Patton-Spruill
@ Metro
Thursday, September 23 | 7:30 P.M.

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps (2010), dir. Oliver Stone
@ ShowPlace ICON Theatre
Friday, September 24 | 12:01 A.M.

Whirlpool (1949), dir. Otto Preminger
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Friday, September 24 | 6:00 P.M.

Henri Georges-Clouzot's Inferno (2009), dir. Serge Bromberg and Ruxandra Medrea
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Friday, September 24 | 6:00 P.M.
Friday, September 24 | 8:00 P.M.
Saturday, September 25 | 4:15 P.M.
Saturday, September 25 | 8:15 P.M.

Valley of the Dolls (1967), dir. Mark Robson
@ Music Box Theatre
Friday, September 24 | 7:00 P.M.

The Fearmakers (1958), dir. Jacques Tourneur
@ Music Box Theatre
Saturday, September 25 | 11:30 A.M.

The Mystery of Picasso (1956), dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Saturday, September 25 | 2:15 P.M.
Saturday, September 25 | 6:15 P.M.

Meet Me at the Fair (1953), dir. Douglas Sirk
@ Bank of America Cinema
Saturday, September 25 | 8:00 P.M.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Canyon Passage: Saturday Matinee at the Music Box

If Jacques Tourneur is more your style than Tommy Wiseau, then the screening of Canyon Passage (1946) at the Music Box this Saturday, September 18, at 11:30 A.M., is well worth seeking out.

The celebrated director of the Freudian horror favorite Cat People (1942) and the more subtly Freudian noir classic Out of the Past (1947) saddles up and turns out this big-budget Technicolor western for Universal.

Hoagy Carmichael plays the shiftless backwoods minstrel Hi Linnet. Not only is he the heart and soul of the film, but he also sings some really charming folk songs.

I have a pretty good sense of how lush the deep greens, yellows, and reds of Tourneur's film are going to look and feel against the golden panels and trim of the Music Box. But what will be the somaesthetics of viewing this film, set in the 1850s and released in 1946, in a movie house built in 1929, at 11:30 A.M. on a late-summer Saturday morning? Will we all disintegrate into this elaborate temporal vortex? How is that going to feel? Why doesn't anyone write film reviews that address this type of vexing question?

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Tommy Wiseau's The Room Friday Night at the Music Box

A tremendously important addendum to my weekly preview of film screenings in Chicago: At midnight this Friday, September 17, the Music Box Theatre will show Tommy Wiseau's cult masterpiece The Room (2003).

It has been called the worst film ever made. It has been called the greatest cult film of all time. One reviewer, after seeing the film three times, remarked, "I no longer know where The Room ends and I begin."

Is it a soap opera? Is it a melodrama? Is it a comedy? Is it a dark comedy? Is it the story of one teen's battle against addiction?

Unfortunately, Tommy Wiseau will not be present at the screening. But that doesn't mean you can't toss around the pigskin without him.

Visit the official site of The Room here.

View the full trailer below.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010


Rutherford, N.J. 1916.

Front Row (L-R): Alanson Hartpence, Alfred Kreymborg, William Carlos Williams, Skip Cannell.
Back Row (L-R): Jean Crotti, Marcel Duchamp, Walter Arensberg, Man Ray, Robert Alden Sanborn, Maxwell Bodenheim.

Everyone made it out to see Old Bull in the Borough of Trees.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Films of Note: Screening in Chicago this Week

The Sicilian Girl (2008), dir. Marco Amenta
@ Music Box Theatre
Monday, September 13 - Thursday, September 16 | 4:30 P.M.
Monday, September 13 - Tuesday, September 16 | 7:20 P.M.
Thursday, September 16 | 7:20 P.M.
Monday, September 13 - Thursday, September 16 | 9:40 P.M.

Le Corbeau (1943), dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Monday, September 13 | 6:00 P.M.

The Ninth Day (2004), dir. Volker Schlondorff
@ Loyola University (Klarchek Information Commons)
Monday, September 13 | 6:30 P.M.

Gabi on the Roof in July (2009), dir. Lawrence Michael Levine
@ Music Box Theatre
Monday, September 13 | 7:00 P.M.

Sleeping and Waking (2009), dir. Joe Banno
@ Facets Cinematheque
Monday, September 13 - Thursday, September 16 | 7:00 P.M.
Monday, September 13 - Thursday, September 16 | 9:00 P.M.

Breathless (1960), dir. Jean-Luc Godard
@ Tivoli Theater
Monday, September 13 | 7:30 P.M.

My Tale of Two Cities (2008), dir. Carl Kurlander
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Monday, September 13 | 8:00 P.M.

Riffraf (2009), dir. Justen Naughton
@ Music Box Theatre
Monday, September 13 | 9:30 P.M.
Thursday, September 16 | 7:00 P.M.

Exit Through the Gift Shop (2010), dir. Bansky
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Monday, September 13 | 6:15 P.M.
Monday, September 13 | 8:00 P.M.
Tuesday, September 14 | 6:00 P.M.
Tuesday, September 14 | 8:00 P.M.
Wednesday, September 15 | 6:15 P.M.
Wednesday, September 15 | 8:00 P.M.
Thursday, September 16 | 8:15 P.M.

Shadow of a Doubt (1943), dir. Alfred Hitchcock
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Tuesday, September 14 | 6:00 P.M.

The Elephant in the Living Room (2010), dir. Michael Webber
@ Music Box Theatre
Tuesday, September 14 | 7:00 P.M.

Blow-Up (1966), dir. Michelangelo Antonioni
@ Transistor
Tuesday, September 14 | 7:30 P.M.

Beneath the Blue (2010), dir. Michael D. Sellers
@ Music Box Theatre
Tuesday, September 14 | 9:30 P.M.

The Last Command (1928), dir. Josef von Sternberg
@ Northbrook Public Library
Wednesday, September 16 | 1:00 P.M.
Wednesday, September 16 | 7:30 P.M.

Flying Deuces, (1939), dir. A. Edward Sutherland
@ Portage Park Theater
Wednesday, September 15 | 1:30 P.M.

La Verite (1961), dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Wednesday, September 16 | 6:00 P.M.

Eat the Sun (2009), dir. Peter Sorcher
@ Music Box Theatre
Wednesday, September 15 | 7:00 P.M.

Carmen Jones (1954), dir. Otto Preminger
@ Music Box Theatre
Wednesday, September 15 | 7:00 P.M.

Biker Fox (2010), dir. Jeremy Lamberton
@ Music Box Theatre
Wednesday, September 15 | 9:30 P.M.

Eleanore & the Timekeeper (2010), dir. Daniele Wilmouth
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Thursday, September 16 | 6:00 P.M.

Modern Times (1936), dir. Charlie Chaplin
@ St. Xavier University (Warde Academic Center)
Thursday, September 16 | 7:00 P.M.

Gilda (1946), dir. Charles Vidor
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Friday, September 17 | 6:00 P.M.

Quai des Orfevres (1947), dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Friday, September 17 | 8:15 P.M.
Saturday, September 18 | 5:15 P.M.

Air Doll (2009), dir. Hirokazu Koreeda
@ Facets Cinematheque
Friday, September 17 | 6:30 P.M.
Friday, September 17 | 9:00 P.M.
Saturday, September 18 | 1:30 P.M.
Saturday, September 18 | 4:00 P.M.
Saturday, September 18 | 6:30 P.M.
Saturday, September 18 | 9:00 P.M.

The Phantom Planet (1961), dir. William Marshall
@ Portage Park Theater
Saturday, September 18 | 12:00 P.M.

King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962), dir. Ishiro Honda
@ Portage Park Theater
Saturday, September 18 | 2:00 P.M.

Diabolique (1955), dir. Henri-Georges Clouzot
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Saturday, September 18 | 3:00 P.M.

House of Dracula/ (1945), dir. Erle C. Kenton
@ Portage Park Theater
Saturday, September 18 | 4:00 P.M.

The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923), dir. Wallace Worsley
@ Portage Park Theater
Saturday, September 18 | 5:30 P.M.

The Wild Ride (1960), dir. Harvey Berman
@ Delilah's
Saturday, September 18 | 6:00 P.M.

Darkman (1990), dir. Sam Raimi
@ Portage Park Theater
Saturday, September 18 | 7:30 P.M.

The Southerner (1945), dir. Jean Renoir
@ Bank of America Cinema
Saturday, September 18 | 8:00 P.M.

The Girlfriends (1995), Michelangelo Antonioni
@ Gene Siskel Film Center
Saturday, September 18 | 8:00 P.M.

The Manster (1959), dir. George P. Breakston & Kenneth G. Krane
@ Portage Park Theater
Saturday, September 18 | 10:30 P.M.

Friday, September 10, 2010

They Stole It from My Subconscious!

From September 3 to December 14, the Gene Siskel Film Center (SAIC) is putting on a new film noir series. This is the second noir series that has come to us here in Chicago this summer (in addition to the Music Box's excellent August Noir City series), but the Film Center's program promises a new angle on the genre. The lineup of the series seems to have come about through a collaboration between Marty Rubin, one of the Film Center's programmers, and James Naremore, a professor emeritus at Indiana University. Applying the central thesis of his celebrated book More than Night: Film Noir in its Contexts (from which the Film Center series also takes its name), Naremore has this to say about the program and its lineup of films:

The film noir is usually associated with a cycle of dark crime movies from Hollywood in the 1940s and '50s--pictures about drifters attracted to femmes fatales, criminal gangs who pull off heists, private eyes who keep whiskey in their desks, and doomed lovers on the run. The form is usually downbeat in a smart, romantic way: “Is there any way to win?” Jane Greer asks Robert Mitchum in OUT OF THE PAST. “There’s a way to lose more slowly,” Mitchum replies.

This series will explore those films but will also show that the noir category is larger and more complicated than most viewers realize. We will discuss the phenomenon as an idea that originates in France in the 1930s, as a type of popular modernism, as an underground or low-budget cinema, as a style that undergoes changes over time, as an idea that has social and racial implications, and as a fashionable postmodern term that circulates throughout the contemporary mediascape.

Naremore's introduction sets us up to expect a lineup of films juxtaposing a few well-tested classics (e.g., Tourneur's Out of the Past) and a larger number of unusual, fugitive films that expand or challenge our basic assumptions about the film noir genre. What we get, however, is by and large a distillation of some kind of film noir canon -- a paean to some of the most watched, most discussed, and most written about films of the genre. The series kicked off last week with Howard Hawks's The Big Sleep, will round out September with Charles Vidor's Gilda, and will crest in October with Nick Ray's In a Lonely Place.

Now for months I've been toying around with the idea of proposing a series to Doc Films that would explore pretty near precisely the terrain that Rubin and Naremore's program stakes out for itself. Except that my series actually would take a serious look at unusual, fugitive films that expand or challenge our basic assumptions about film noir. It would mine the archive for noir films that develop cinematographic styles and techniques uncharacteristic of the noir genre writ large, that cross-pollinate with other genres (such as historical drama, melodrama, and horror), and that surface from the depths of the Hollywood-era poverty row -- all goals that Naremore's rationale seems to set for the Film Center series. That's why I mime Salvador Dali's (heartless and ludicrous) response to Joseph Cornell's Rose Hobart and exclaim that they (Naremore and Rubin) stole the idea for this kind of film noir program from my subconscious. The idea has been lurking there in my (admittedly conscious) mind for some time now, and the Film Center has publicized the concept but largely ruined the execution.

More than Night: Looking at Film Noir does include one genuinely offbeat film noir. It's called The Black Book, directed by the great Anthony Mann, and it's a darker than dark, deeply noirsh post-WWII take on the French Revolution. It had headliner status on the rough draft of my noir series, but its inclusion in the Film Center program (despite the humdrum nature of most of the rest of that program) ruins the freshness and originality of this particular feature. I banged my head against the wall when I saw Mann's film on the lineup.

Don't get me wrong: I laud any programmer's commitment to bringing even tried-and-true noir films to a wider audience (and the Film Center has that audience), and I welcome the chance to see each of these films on the big screen. But I do feel cheated. I'm counting on Naremore's introductions to make us see familiar films in novel, unfamiliar ways; I'm counting on him to explain, for instance, what makes a film like Gilda an unusual noir film.

Other series highlights include: Irving Lerner's Murder by Contract (Nov. 12/16), Joseph Lewis's So Dark the Night (Dec. 3/7), and -- a film that can never be screened too often -- Orson Welles's Lady from Shanghai (Oct. 15/19).

The tentative title of my series: Film Noir Offbeat and Off-Color. I'll refrain here from posting my proposed lineup for fear of further subconscious theft.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

The Collage Years Are the Best Years

Because they will probably never see the light of day otherwise, I've decided to post three unpublished (unpublishable?) issues of the Hamilton College Daily Bull composed when I was editor of this infamous broadside publication in 2008-09.

The black-and-white images that you see below would have each covered the front side of a single 8.5x14" bright yellow sheet of standard copy paper. On the back would have been two columns of local advertisements and campus community announcements for/pertaining to Hamilton and Clinton, N.Y. The bright yellow paper would have been visible in most public places on campus.

Though these particular issues went unpublished, for a while the collage technique used to create them served as standard practice for The Bull. And the issues that did make it to print stirred up quite a bit of confusion and controversy. If there were a clipping service at work on the critical reception of The Bull from this period, it would turn up a lot of opinion pieces like this one from the Hamilton College Spectator:

"The Daily Bull is a unique and quirky publication that finds its ways onto our dining tables to provide students with a spot of smug humor here and there. However, recently it has taken an extremely strange direction. Now we get random collages of pictures of overtly sexual themes and often are subjected to jokes and humor that does not make sense to anyone except the person who wrote it.

"The Daily Bull is not useless -- it allows students to request that lost and stolen items be returned, but it still has become more annoying over time. A once enjoyable and semi-respectable publication has taken a turn for the bland and boring.

"Shouldn't Hamilton students get a voice of whether the distribution of these materials should be aloud
[sic] in our common social spaces?"

I think most editors of The Daily Bull, those who preceded me and those who succeeded me, would agree that publishing that rag is like a bizarre sociological experiment. It makes a general audience captive to an "underground publication." Of course, the real irony is that there is no student underground at a college with only 1,700 students; there are just those who get it and those who don't. The collage years are indeed the best years. It will never again be that easy to shock and mystify an audience.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Eclipse Archives Bruce Andrews & John M. Bennett Collaboration

In 1979, Bruce Andrews and John M. Bennett produced a concretist poetry text called Joint Words, and Bennett published it under his Luna Bisonte Prods imprint in Columbus, Ohio. The text consists of fourteen one-line, two-word poems rubber-stamped onto white, index-sized cards and held loose in a small, white gum-sealed envelope.

Cover/Container Envelope

Title Page

At the end of last year, Craig Dworkin (and his editorial assistants at the University of Utah) produced a digital facsimile of Joint Words and added it to Dworkin's Eclipse online archive. Without commenting too extensively on the Eclipse archive itself, let me just say that I consider it to be the most elegant and methodologically rigorous literary/visual art resource of its kind on the web. Where Kenneth Goldsmith's Ubuweb archive astounds us with the breadth and depth of its collection, Dworkin's Eclipse shows us the potential for simplicity of organization and beauty of presentation in digital archiving. You can read about Dworkin's methodology for Eclipse in the essay he published in the Fall 2009 issue of boundary 2 here. (If you don't have access to boundary 2 online, send me a note and I'll email you a pdf of Dworkin's essay.)

Just as Joint Words should be read next to Robert Grenier's seminal Sentences, published one year before, the digital facsimile of Andrews's and Bennett's project contrasts significantly with Whale Cloth Press's recent digital remediation of Grenier's work. The Whale Cloth applet is extremely important for every student of late American modernism or late twentieth-century experimental poetry who will never have the chance to see Grenier's work within its current museal contexts. Now that this digital version is available, it's hard to imagine life without it. But the remediation reproduces very little of the tactile experience that Grenier's original work is meant to induce; the purpose of this outlet, as Dworkin would be quick to note, is precisely not to reproduce the materiality of the original work but to expand its field of distribution.


Unlike Whale Cloth, Dworkin has scanned rather than retyped the text of Joint Words, but I suppose we're still left with an open question as to what extent a mosaic of pixels captures the materiality of rubber-stamped ink. For what a personal, impressionistic testimonial is worth, I find the Joint Words facsimile to be the richest appeal to the senses available on Eclipse.

But what if we shift the criterion of judgment here from the senses to the sensorium? That is, what new sense of the project do we get if we focus less narrowly on the look and feel of the images on the screen and ask how the digital reproduction/remediation of Joint Words affects the overall experience of reading the text?

If we read Joint Words and Sentences online, in neither case do we experience the time of reading that we might say the authors built into the structures (that is, the manual apparatuses of reading) of their texts. Like turning pages, working through a stack of cards courts a slow, deliberate rhythm of readerly attention. Unless the reader of Joint Words or Sentences in their original formats levels the stack of cards and arranges them individually on a flat surface, this reader will not experience the same forward momentum and propulsion from one card to the next that "clicking through" the online work allows. (In any event, "spreading the cards" would create its own unique reading experience, something akin to "reading by field.")

If reading Joint Words is like reading a book with re-arrangeable pages, then reading the Eclipse facsimile of the work is like watching a text turned into a movie. Because the rubber-stamped cards constituting the text have been literally turned into frames, the experience of reading the digital text has become fundamentally cinematic. Clicking each frame to access the next one in the series, the reader controls the rhythm of this digital text/image montage.

Page 5

Page 6

As digital readers, moving quickly through each frame, we get a deeper impression of how the Andrews/Bennett collaboration recycles and riffs on its own language, recombining two-word syntactical units with repeated/reconfigured terms like "kak/kaak." While we see a minimal but meaningful juxtaposition on each card ("word kak" code-switches between English and Afrikaans to signify "word shit"), we also deduce a third term produced by juxtapositions or chains of signification among cards ("word kak" apparently generates "kaak stunt," either an absurdist "cake stunt" or a perversion of "kayak stunt"). Some of the chance symmetries among the "join[ed] words" have a less reflexive meaning than they would have for "analog readers." The phrase "white pulp" connects readers of printed matter to their medium of communication or display differently than it does for digital viewers. Looking at this phrase on the screen, we become acutely aware of our remoteness from the original document, the "white pulp."

But if the "cinematic" version of Joint Words deepens our understanding of the text's semiotics, it may limit our understanding of the rules of Andrews's and Bennett's game. Looking at this next three-frame series, I'm struck by how the digital reproduction of the text makes me feel like I can intuit less about the nature of the Andrews/Bennett collaboration.

Page 9

Page 10

Page 11

If we assume that Andrews and Bennett were individually responsible for one-half of each two-word unit, can we conclude that they both "marked" each card, i.e., that they each used a rubber stamp, i.e., that they each had a hand in the material production of the text? The facsimile of "boom boom" does not reveal (to me, anyway) any definitive differences in the physical marks on the card, and the close juxtaposition of two instances of the same word makes this frame seem like a good test case for this kind of judgment. But are there senses that I'm not using as I look at the screen that might indicate otherwise if I were holding the cards in front of me? And how incidental, how fortuitous was the "boom boom" coincidence, anyway? If Andrews and Bennett collaborated by "send[ing] links" through the mail to one another, how did they time their posts? Did Bennett send Andrews an initial word (or vice versa), and wait for a response before stamping card one and sending the next word? Or did Bennett and Andrews "stiff each" other, "send[ing] links" before they had received any word in the mail, before the other had had a chance to be seen and heard?

These may seem like trivial uncertainties given the simplicity of the text and its material production, and in some sense they are. I mention them only to suggest that on the web even a facsimile can suffer from some of the same drawbacks that we usually only associate with total remediations; they may make texts somewhat less than legible when readers are counting on the smallest, most minuscule, and (yes) most trivial marks on the page or screen to indicate such complex conditions of production as the dynamics of collaboration. Joint Words certainly is beautiful on the screen, perhaps because it has become slightly elusive.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Nightboat Will Republish Bern Porter's Found Poems

Because my post yesterday on Jena Osman and Bern Porter alighted so tenaciously on the topic of access to Porter's work, i.e., its limited availability (notwithstanding recent digital remediations) outside archives and rare-book collections, I want to post a short note today about the forthcoming republication of Porter's Found Poems. Nightboat Books, which recently released the first English translation of Édouard Glissant's Poetic Intention, will release their new edition of the classic Porter text on October 12.

Found Poems by Nightboat Books

Modestly priced at around $20, this book just might build that audience that Mark Melnicove, Kenneth Goldsmith, Jena Osman, and others have been trying in recent years to corral for Porter.

I'm curious to see how the Nightboat edition presents Porter's text. It's important to remember that Found Poems is a collection in the most literal sense; the book gathers what Porter considered to be his "best" detritus-based visual poems, produced during a period that stretched from the late 1920s to the early 1970s. Dick Higgins's 1972 Something Else Press edition (which can still be bought used here and here) arranged multiple picture-poems to a page, creating a kind of meta-collage (at the level of book design) of Porter's individual collage poems. I wonder if the Nightboat edition is a facsimile, a more or less faithful rendering of the Something Else edition, or some kind of departure from the original book design. Needless to say, for a work as visually intense as Found Poems, and for an author as invested in the signifying power of book production as Porter, these issues matter.

I'm ecstatic about this republication, and I commend Nightboat for the important publishing work that they're doing (and have been doing for years now).

Friday, September 3, 2010

Jena Osman on Bern Porter's The Wastemaker

Jena Osman has added considerably to the scant critical literature on Bern Porter by writing a new piece, titled "Bern Porter: Recycling the Atmosphere," which was published in a very recent collection of essays on poetics edited by Louis Armand. Thanks to Mark Melnicove, the executor of Porter's literary estate, for making Osman's article public. To follow Melnicove's efforts to keep Porter's work and the scholarship on it visible, visit this site regularly.

Osman, Jena, "Bern Porter: Recycling the Atmosphere"

Osman begins her essay by commenting on the fugitive nature of many of Porter's works (many can be found only in special collections at Colby College and UCLA). The difficulty of locating Porter's books and ephemera explains, in large part, the scarcity of critical literature on his work: scholars interested in visual poetry, book art, found poetry, and mail art more often than not need to travel to distant archives in order to see the work, and if they choose to write on the work they either have to imagine a very limited audience who also has access to these texts or to build an audience forceful (and vocal) enough to develop a resurgent demand for the republication of these rare works. Osman has avoided this 'archival' problem by focusing her essay on one of Porter's most well-known works, The Wastemaker, which has become readily accessible in the past few years through a digital facsimile edition on Ubuweb (courtesy of Mark Melnicove and Kenneth Goldsmith).

In fact, Melnicove and Goldsmith have added five of Porter's scarcest books to the Ubuweb archive, available here. To give you a sense of the difficulty of reading these works without digital assistance, let me just say that I can only find one used copy of The Wastemaker for sale online and that according to WorldCat only the Getty Institute in LA has a copy of the same book in its holdings.

For a critic or scholar, what is the value of reassessing an author whose work confronts the reader with the limitations of the print archive? (In most cases, bringing attention to Porter's work doesn't involve bringing it out of the archive, as scholars like to say, but bringing it out of an archive.) Osman, I think, offers several answers to this question, and they fall into three broad categories.

First, Porter's work is central to the history of literature that is very self-conscious and proactive about the advancement of technologies for literary production and reception. Osman notes that The Wastemaker is dedicated to Kenneth Patchen and Bob Brown, and she gives a brilliant reading of Porter's work (including his utopian manifesto for the fusion of science and art, I've Left) in light of Brown's seminal text The Readies (1930). Both Brown and Porter were deeply interested in building (hypothetical) machines that they thought would introduce new modes of production and reception into literature, radicalize the aesthetics of the printed page, and, at bottom, allow us to see and read text differently. Brown outlined a blueprint for his own reading machine in The Readies, and you can test out Craig Saper's digital realization of the machine here. Porter describes numerous mechanisms of this sort, and many new 'regimes of reading,' in I've Left.

Second, Osman suggests that Porter's work lodges a serious and forceful critique of post-war consumer culture by rewriting the visual language that promotes (and sometimes literally advertises) the regime of overproduction inherent in industrial capitalism but intensified under the new military-industrial complex. In Porter's work, Osman claims, we recognize an attempt to de-sublimate the creative energy perverted by the destructive impulses of the military-industrial complex; we see, as Osman puts it, an artist "converting the throwaway products of capital" into new "distillations" and "re- (or de-) contextualizations" of the imagery used to goad our habits of consumption. Porter's strategy of aiming his critique of postwar America at the language and visual culture of consumerism, I might add, seems especially relevant to the new world of marketing and advertising that has exploded in our digital landscape.

Finally, Osman makes a good case for studying Bern Porter's work despite the difficulty of tracking it down because, curiously, the basic strategies of Porter's work (appropriation, collage, word-image assemblage) point forward to the kinds of experimental art that have flourished in recent years through digital channels of production and reproduction. "One wonders," Osman says, "if Porter had lived in a time of scanners and web browsers, would his output and career as an artist have been less underground?" Probably, but probably not much less, given the continued marginalization of experimental poetry (especially visual poetry) produced on the web.

But Osman's rhetorical question points to another reason why Porter's work provides such an exciting opportunity for literary scholars at work at a time when the digital humanities are gaining more and more traction. The project of building an audience for Porter's work, for making it (belatedly) "less underground," requires the transformation of the 'archival problem' (traveling to read The Wastemaker) into a technological solution, that is, a digital recreation of the archive itself. This project involves, in other words, using the web-based methods of remediation and distribution that Porter's work pointed forward to (as Osman notes) and casting them back on the work itself, which now sits on remote shelves in far-off reading rooms (or in even more remote private collections), and to make as much of the work as accessible as possible. The point is not to hope for a dozen more articles on The Wastemaker, as if one easily accessible work could stand in for Porter's entire catalog, but to get your hands on all of the books, magazines, and ephemera that are out there (or to get in touch with those whose hands are firmly settled on them) and to make that dizzying quantity of material available for reading and reevaluation.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

Poetry and the Film, c. 1953

Poetry and the Film

I may be getting ahead of myself, but I think that if one theory is going to hold this blog together, it's going to be based on my conviction that freely digging around in archives--analog and digital, though my focus here will be primarily digital--often opens up the most exciting fields of critical inquiry. This summer I've been studying twentieth-century American poets who were active either in filmmaking or in film criticism/theory, and one of those key figures is Willard Maas. The other night I was checking out Ubuweb's collection of films by Maas's wife, Marie Mencken, and from there I ended up on Maas's audio page. The one recording archived there revealed to me an artifact from and a moment in the shared history of American poetry, avant-garde film, and criticism that I had previously known nothing about. On October 23, 1953, Willard Maas moderated a symposium hosted at New York City's Cinema 16, called "Poetry and the Film," that included an unlikely cast of mid-century literary figures and filmmakers: Parker Tyler, Maya Deren, Dylan Thomas, and Arthur Miller.

It's hard now, I think, to imagine a time when these five figures (including Maas) were contemporaries. It was certainly Maas's efforts as organizer that brought them together in one room, and it was probably this event alone that made Thomas and Miller aware of Tyler and Deren. Thomas and Miller both speak incredulously and almost contemptibly of the "avant-garde"; Thomas claims that he has only ever seen one avant-garde play in his life, and it was in a "cellar or sewer or something" in New York. Later, Miller accuses avant-garde filmmakers of aestheticizing drama (after Deren, in turn, had accused Miller of taking a "purist" attitude toward the filmic image).

More striking than contradictions and inconsistencies like this one is the overall incoherence of the debate, which reflects the difficulty of an inter-medial and inter-generic topic ("What is a poetic film?" is a question that no one, with the possible exception of Parker Tyler, answers here) and the absence of a common critical vocabulary to make the mutually suspicious and sometimes hostile participants comprehensible to each other.

Cinema 16

Tyler addresses the problem of a common critical vocabulary in the second session of the symposium, but his tactic in leading off the first session is to describe the two difficulties that immediately face critics attempting to define a "poetic film." First, Tyler suggests, we need to be clear about what we mean by "poetry," and second, we need to think about why the films we tend to call "poetic" (he names Cocteau's Blood of a Poet, Bunuel and Dali's Un Chien Andalou, and Watson's Lot in Sodom) strike us as being especially poetic as opposed to, say, intensely dramatic. Tyler puts the discussion on stable footing, but Deren derails it by speaking rather ineptly of poetry as a kind of essential "structure," which she describes as "vertical" in orientation and opposes to the "horizontal" orientation of drama (by which she means, incidentally, all forms of narrative). Within ten minutes Deren's notion of the vertical/horizontal is being lampooned and bandied around as a joke between Thomas and Miller. Miller ruthlessly attacks Deren's distinction between lyric investigation ("vertical") and narrative development ("horizontal"), while the anti-intellectual Thomas delights in weaving clever one-liners around Deren's clumsy pseudo-terminology.

Deren could have improved the discussion by defining the "vertical" and the "horizontal" as axes within the language of film imagery instead of suggesting that they distinguish one literary genre (poetry) from another (drama). As she defines them, her terms accomplish nothing more than a banal distinction between films that are plot-driven and those that are non-narrative. With the "vertical" and the "horizontal," Deren seems to be struggling for the more technical but more precise terms "metaphor" and "metonymy," but Tyler is the only participant who mentions metaphor (and he seems to think of it as interchangeable with "poetic language" instead of treating it as one type of figurative language). The result of Deren's misadventure in theorizing filmmaking technique, as you can hear for yourself by clicking on any one of the links that I've scattered throughout this post, is a discussion that never really addresses its foremost concerns: the function of lyric poetry in the age of cinema or the real nature of works that seem to combine the poetic and the cinematic.

You can also read a transcription of the symposium's first session here at Ubuweb, but without listening in you won't get a good sense of the stilted speech, clumsy diction, imprecise terminology, and fatuous blathering that characterize this bizarre moment in the early life of the post-war American arts (or "special interests," as they're called here) community. If you read rather than listen, you'll also miss something of the dexterity and rigor of Parker Tyler's comments, which are undoubtedly the highlights of this seminal inquiry into the shared life of the poetic text and the filmic image.

More to come on Parker Tyler in the next few weeks.