Poetry News

Peter Bogdanovich defines poetry on film

By Harriet Staff

On his blog Blogdanovich (yes, sorry, that's really what it's called), Peter Bogdanovich attempts to explain when it's appropriate to call a film "poetry." The term gets thrown around a lot in cinema to the point where it could be used to describe nearly anything more eloquent than Jackass, and even then there are those who would argue with that. But Bogdanovich breaks it down simply, in a description that few readers of Poetry would dispute, perhaps restoring the possibility that real poetry does exist on screen after all.

What distinguishes the real film poets is their use of the camera to convey meanings and reverberations beyond the geography of place or the needs of the narrative.  Camera placement, and therefore the composition, the lens choices, the lighting of the image, the camera’s movement, the particular juxtaposition of images, are all in the grammar for conveying hidden aspects of the tale or people—exposing a part of the theme, or the true meaning beyond simply the plot—endorsing, subverting, enriching the more obvious qualities of setting or performance.  This is why the finest filmmakers are generally always remembered for certain of their unique and personal images.  Among the other poets, D.W. Griffith comes to mind, and F.W. Murnau, Ernst Lubitsch, Josef von Sternberg, King Vidor, John Ford, Kenji Mizoguchi, Robert Flaherty, and Orson Welles.

Among all of these, Bogdanovich's choice for poet laureate of cinema will always be Jean Renoir. Renoir credits the success of The Southerner, based on a novel by George Sessions Percy and considered to be his best American films, to the aide of William Faulkner.

“What attracted me in the story was precisely the fact that there was really no story, nothing but a series of strong impressions—the vast landscape, the simple aspiration of the hero, the heat and the hunger.  Being forced to live a life restricted to their daily material needs, the characters attain a level of spirituality of which they themselves are unaware…  What I saw was a story in which all the characters were heroic, in which every element would brilliantly play its part, in which things and men, animals and Nature, all would come together in an immense act of homage to the divinity.”

Though it's surely not the best way to take in Renoir's poetry (stupid ads!), but you can watch the whole thing right here if you want:

Originally Published: January 18th, 2011