February 13, 2013

By Drew Messinger-Michaels, AM ’10

What does it mean for a film to be poetic, or for it to contain poetry? As part of the Film Studies Center’s Graduate Student Curatorial Program, PhD students Richard Davis and Stephanie Anderson have attempted to answer that question with their Moving Picture Alphabet Series—two films that explore the poet as a figure in narrative cinema, and four that represent direct collaborations between filmmakers and poets.
“One of the inspirations for this series was our frustration with how often the word ‘poetic’ is used in descriptions of film, and just how sort of vague and meaningless it can be,” says Davis, a PhD student in Cinema and Media Studies and East Asian Languages & Civilizations. “It can refer to a certain kind of mood, to landscape, the way time is handled, and so forth. We just wanted to look [into the] history of how poets and filmmakers have actually interacted.”

Julia Gibbs, Assistant Director of the Film Studies Center, says “What’s really interesting about Richard and Stephanie’s work is that their collaboration really does highlight the nature of interdisciplinary graduate work at UChicago.” She adds that many of the curatorial program grants have resulted in students collaborating with other people on or off campus, including other students or artists. 
In the case of Davis and Anderson, that collaborative spirit is reflected in the convergence of their respective fields of study, as well as in their desire to engage other artists and scholars in the series. Screenings in the series include introductions and Q&A sessions with a UChicago professor, filmmakers, and poets.
“Every single one of recipients has come up with something more ambitious than the initial grant allows,” Gibbs says. “The Film Studies Center started the Graduate Student Curatorial Program a few years ago to help students bring work that was integral to their studies to campus, and to give them chance to experience film programming and presentation. It also inevitably encourages them to learn how to develop language for grant proposals and to find funding for their ideas.” 
Poet as subject, poet as collaborator
Eschewing generalities and platitudes about the formal qualities that films and poems share—rhythm, temporality, density of language—Davis and Anderson have focused instead on concrete examples of films that are about, or that contain, poetry. “I think we wanted to maintain the integrity of each practice,” explains Anderson, a PhD student in the Department of English Language and Literature. “Terms like rhythm, [perhaps] extrapolated from a musical background, are used to refer to both poetry and cinema, and I think that’s very useful in describing how form functions. But I also think that the individual forms here were really things we wanted to examine as objects in themselves.”
“And not just poetic works, but poets in particular,” Davis adds. “For instance…we had three short films, each of which featured texts—voice-over narration, for the most part—[that] were written by a poet, sort of working collaboratively with the director.” 
Anderson clarifies that each of those three films contains “text that was written for the film, not a director’s interpretation of a pre-existing poetic text. We wanted to look at films that concretely used poetry,” she continues, “so the first two films we titled ‘Poet as Subject,’ and the last two sets of films are collaborations [between poets and filmmakers].”
The Moving Picture Alphabet Series will conclude Friday, February 15, with a screening of The Time We Killed, a collaboration between filmmaker Jennifer Reeves and poet Lisa Jarnot. In addition to contributing her text to the film, Jarnot “is also the star. She plays a character who is also a poet,” Davis says effusively, “and [she] wrote poetry for the film in the voice of that character.”
But as for where the poet-as-author ends and the poet-as-figure begins, Anderson insists that “we’ll just have to ask.” Reeves and Jarnot will be in attendance Friday to personally shed some light on their process, and for Anderson, that moment of earnest inquiry and spontaneous discovery will be key to the curatorial process. “We came to this as novices—me from the poetry side, [Richard] from the film side—and said, ‘What can we find out?’”
The Moving Picture Alphabet Series, a project of the Film Studies Center Graduate Student Curatorial Program, is co-sponsored by The Arts Council, The Film Studies Center, The Renaissance Society, Chicago Studies, Poetry & Poetics Workshop, Poem Present, the Mass Cultures Workshop, and the Center for East Asian Studies.


The Time We Killed (excerpt) by Jennifer Reeves