Movies show us ourselves as we had not yet learned to recognize us—something in the nature of daily being or happening that quickly gets folded over into ancient history like yesterday’s newspaper, but in so doing a new face has been revealed, a surface on which a new phrase may be written before it rejoins history, or it may remain blank and do so anyway. – John Ashbery, “The System”
The work of John Ashbery (b. 1927), this country’s most celebrated living poet, engages the cinema on many different levels and in ways that are just starting to be explored by scholars. Indeed, a type of cinematic style and consciousness informs Ashbery’s experiments in creating and subverting meaning through syntax, the sense of place and space in his poems and his frequent juxtaposition of “high” and “popular” culture.
Ashbery rose to prominence in the 1950s and 1960s, with his 1975 Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror winning the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. Although not himself a surrealist, Ashbery's work has been influenced by surrealist filmmakers – his poetry plays with syntax and tone to interrupt and undermine meaning, and sometimes to suspend sense itself, even as it continually suggests events and half-glimpsed narratives.
A lifelong, ardent cinephile, Ashbery dutifully attended campus and local film club screenings during his undergraduate years at Harvard in the 1940s while fully immersing himself in European film, as well as the classical Hollywood cinema so important to his childhood, during his decade in Paris from 1955 to 1965. An occasional and insightful film critic, many of Ashbery's poems and plays make clear reference to the movies that helped inspire them. On the occasion of John Ashbery being awarded the 2009 Harvard Arts Medal, the Harvard Film Archive has invited America's greatest modern poet for a rare conversation about what cinema means to him and to his work. The program assembled here includes favorite films and fond memories as well as works by filmmakers influenced by Ashbery's poetry.
Special thanks: David Kermani; Scott MacDonald; Fleur Buckley, British Film Institute; Rob Stone, Library of Congress; Jack Megan, Office for the Arts at Harvard; the Office of the Governing Boards, Harvard.
Directed by Guy Maddin.
With Leslie Bais, Caelum Vatnsdal, Shaun Balbar
Canada 2000, 35mm, b/w, 6 min.
Print from Zeitgeist Films
Of his friendship with maverick filmmaker Guy Maddin, Ashbery has said, “I share Maddin’s fascination with the clunky poetry of so many silent movie titles.” “Clunky poetry” is also an apt description for this short film, Maddin’s homage to silent cinema, a kind of mash-up of Soviet avant-garde filmmaking, German expressionism and Griffith melodrama.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon.
With James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler
US 1933, 35mm, b/w, 102 min.
Print courtesy of the Library of Congress
Busby Berkeley's irrepressibly exuberant and insouciant valentine to the early sound musical is a quintessential James Cagney vehicle, tailored to the quicksilver, expressive gestures and crackling speech of the former hoofer turned screen gangster. Reflecting Ashbery’s fascination with the process of making art, Footlight Parade provides a front row seat to the stage behind the stage, revealing the scaffolding of studio artifice to be as artful and entrancing as Berkeley's famously electrifying song and dance numbers. Preserved by the Library of Congress.
Directed by Pierre Prévert.
With Charles Trenet, Pierre Brasseur Julien Carette
France 1943, 35mm, b/w, 104 min. French with English subtitles
Written by surrealist poet and acclaimed screenwriter Jacques Prévert (Children of Paradise, Le jour se lève), Adieu, Léonard is a remarkable comedy directed by Prévert's brother during the Nazi occupation of World War II. A dark farce seemingly inspired by American screwball comedy, and anticipating postwar black comedies such as Arsenic and Old Lace and The Ladykillers, Adieu, Léonard concerns a petty thief blackmailed into plotting the murder of the town innocent, who happens to be filthy rich. The restless shifting of mood and tone throughout the film from broad comedy to dark satire points to Prévert’s roots in surrealism. Ashbery himself has fond memories of seeing the film in Paris in the 1950s.
Filmmakers such as Phil Solomon, Abigail Child and Nathaniel Dorsky have acknowledged the poetry of John Ashbery as a profound influence on their own work. Ashbery’s radical play with meaning, form and syntax can be seen as providing some of the underpinning for the experimentation with montage and with the treatment of the image by filmmakers as otherwise disparate as Dorsky, Child and Solomon. This program offers three examples: Child’s Mutiny (1983), Solomon’s The Exquisite Hour (1989/1994) and Dorsky’s Triste (1974-1996).
Directed by Mark Robson.
With Kim Hunter, Tom Conway, Jean Brooks
US 1943, 35mm, b/w, 71 min.
Print courtesy of the Library of Congress
Legendary RKO producer Val Lewton's most intensely personal and unnerving film, The Seventh Victim is also one of the great American films of the World War II years, and one of the few to render vivid the uncertainty and underlying anguish of the period. In her effulgent screen debut, Kim Hunter stars as a tender young woman who cautiously leaves her repressive orphanage school to search for her elder sister, who has disappeared ominously somewhere in Greenwich Village. Introduced to the film by his Harvard classmate Edward Gorey, Ashbery later wrote "Despite its second-tier cast and modest production values, The Seventh Victim captures the weird poetry of New York in a way that few films have ever done." Preserved by the Library of Congress.