Saturday, April 4, 2015

Musings on Poetry and Interstellar (Christopher Nolan, 2014)

A friend of mine - a former student and a budding poet, headed for an MFA in poetry program this fall – recently told me that the more he works his craft, the more he finds he wants to compress, the more he wants to replace an initial phrase with a single word or to replace a set of phrases with just one brief phrase. The idea is to create a work full of just a few potent words - words that contain multitudes, so to speak - instead of a work full of many less resonant ones.

What he wants to offer the reader, I think, is something like a seed, a latent, fertile thing that, when planted in the reader’s mind, germinates and expands. And his poetry, as I read each new poem he sends me, is increasing in these kinds of compression-fueled expansions. His work is, more and more, made up of compact sets of lines that feed a reader’s delight: they puzzle at first in their bold brevity – but then, as I sit with a particular poem, letting my tongue savor the sounds and my mind mull the possibilities, a meaning will open as with a sudden blooming, and then there's another, and another meaning, until the poem fills all my thoughts and feelings – and I find I have been a participant in that deeply personal discovery that readers of poetry often feel, a discovery dependent upon that unique, intimate interaction between poem and reader.

Poets like my friend understand that poetry is not really poetry if it has no reader; to even exist, it, in some sense, needs a reader, a reader willing to grasp, plant, and water those word-seeds. The poet depends on readers for the poems to live. And the reader, likewise, understands that there is very little joy in reading if the poet does not trust the reader enough to allow the reader to do the nurturing, to offer care and feeding to those seeds.

A poem, then, might be considered not as a thing on a page but as an interaction, a relationship. And the greater the trust and investment on both sides, the greater the love, the greater the joy. As Jeanette Winterson writes in her essay, “Imagination and Reality,” “Love is reciprocity, and so is art.”

But if the use of Dylan Thomas’s “Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night,” in Interstellar is any indication, I do not think Nolan understands that about poetry: that latent fertility of a poet’s words, that need for trust between poet and reader.

And perhaps he doesn’t even understand how much the visual, sensory building blocks that make up the cinematic experience can be like those potent word-seeds we find in poetry, visual and sensory things that truly bloom only when allowed to be planted in the mind and heart of the viewer.

For Nolan does not trust that Thomas’s words contain a potency that needs no explaining, no repetition.

Nor does he trust that his own visuals will tell the story he wants to tell.

Instead, he lectures through the mouths of his characters, telling us what to think. He harangues with a deafening, ever-present score, telling us what to feel.

Virginia Woolf in her brilliant and provocative essay, “How Should One Read a Book,” writes, “The impact of poetry is so hard and direct that for the moment there is no other sensation except that of the poem itself. What profound depths we visit then – how sudden and complete is our immersion! . . . Our being for the moment is centred and constricted, as in any violent shock of personal emotion. Afterwards, . . . the sensation begins to spread in wider rings through our minds; remoter senses are reached; these begin to sound and to comment and we are aware of echoes and reflections.

But Nolan will not let that “hard,” “direct” “sensation” of Dylan’s brilliant words or of his own visuals reach the “profound depths” they have the capacity to do. Instead of being “centred and constricted,” instead of having the joy of “sensation” “spread[ing] in wider rings through our minds,” we have only a strident bombast, and in leaving the theater, we leave with very little that is ours. No relationship has been established, no seeds have been planted in the mind and heart and allowed to grow and delight us with their secret and expansive growth.

And it’s not that every piece of writing needs to be a poem to offer satisfaction. And not every film needs to offer the subtle delight of densely resonant visuals that tell their own story, sans explicit explanation. The non-fiction essay and the pulp novel offer their own delights as does a simple genre film - a rom-com or an action flick.

But the disappointment here is that Nolan seems to believe that any move towards complexity, away from a simple genre film, necessitates lengthy, direct explanation. We do need those lengthy explanations sometimes –say, in scientific essays and political editorials. But a fiction film is neither an essay nor an editorial - and should not complexity be broached differently, so as to make full use of the unique medium of film, so as to invite the viewer into joys of the cinematic relationship?

I try to imagine what 2001: A Space Odyssey would have been had Kubrick put explanations of the monolith into the characters' mouths. Would not the thing lose its potency? As it is, that monolith sits like a provocative weight in the mind, growing in density and meaning throughout the film and in the aftermath of the film, as I sit at home or in my car and ponder. It grows in meaning and significance exactly because it's given wholly to the viewer, and the viewer must interact with it, decide what it is, what it means. And so the monolith becomes personal. It's no longer exterior to me, but it sends ever "wider rings" of resonance through my mind - and it has, indeed, taken on such resonance in so many minds since 1968, that it appears again and again in the film world and elsewhere - and is now a part of our cultural cache, a thing, as Yeats might put it, of the Spiritus Mundi , containing multitudes, containing both Kubrick and his ideas and ourselves. Nolan ought to know all that, for his use of the monolith in figures of TARS and CASE gives him no excuse not to know it. The monolith needed no explanation to be powerful – in fact, it is powerful still because it lacks direct explanation.

Total ambiguity in the realm of art is, of course, frustrating – a slosh of vague symbols with no clues as to their meaning(s) and contributing to no discernible pattern can make a reader or a viewer feel betrayed.

There is the other problem, too, that the perhaps the artist is not actually offering a complex or satisfying set of meanings and ideas, and mulling over a work from from such an artist leaves us essentially empty handed.

My friend’s poems work because they do not remain, ultimately, ambiguous, and the ideas and meanings they contain, once discerned, satisfy the intellect and heart. It’s worth it to invest myself in the poetry he sends me because I know, as a reader, I will be rewarded for my trust, for my belief that the poem is worth investing myself and my time in.

Nolan’s film avoids ambiguity (perhaps) as it layers exposition upon exposition, assuming, apparently, that the complexity of the film is too much for the viewer, but in the end, ironically, the film’s central idea seems trite and unsatisfying, very little more than a shallow sentiment about love transcending time and space.

Nolan has the skill, I think, to offer something visually, viscerally arresting and resonant. But as of yet, particularly in recent years, I am less and less rewarded as a viewer – in large part because, even if the ideas are shallow, Nolan will not give the trust to the viewer that the viewer has given to the films. There is no deeply significant interaction between filmmaker and viewer.

Winterson writes of the interaction between artist and viewer, “The exchange that art offers is an exchange in kind; energy for energy, intensity for intensity, vision for vision. This is seductive and threatening.” And then she asks, “Can we make the return? Do we want to? Our increasingly passive diversions do no equip us, mentally, emotionally, for the demands that art makes.” Winterson, here, puts the pressure on us, as art-consumers, to offer ourselves to the art, to be consumed as much as we consume – if we want to be fully rewarded by the art.

Does Nolan’s work and his level of investment in me as a viewer merit my own return? I am increasingly uncertain that the answer is, “yes.”

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