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The Torch: In the crux – poetry in a movie

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A good film is like a swift vessel, with no leaks and a clear sense of direction. It takes you on board from a known point of embarkation, and though the exact route may be shifty, you will be adventure-bound. Whatever port you finally enter, even if arrival was to occur back where you set out on your journey, you would have made explorations along the way. And it turns out these have been your true destination.

The TorchWhen it comes to giving an emotion handwriting to your film (and any director’s challenge lies with exactly how best to control its characteristic inclination), whether it be lavish or reduced or something in between – you better have your instruments finely tuned. No harmony can otherwise be attained and intentional discord will be arbitrary, meaningless all the same, if your choices were to be just random. As an image always lends itself to more than just one reading, the streaming forward in a motion picture needs to be a guided one, a juxtaposing infused with the power to define and to bind together. Thus, any narrative substance needs to form into the footage’s spinal cord, with some nervous system centre above it all to lead the way and give order(s). That way a movie comes to life a soulful being, with just the right amount of tension fibrillating within its every shot, down to each single frame.

In order to avoid arbitrariness on the part of the viewer, all sorts of signposts can be inserted to mark out a favoured path to serve as your audience’s magisterial way through the film. Where action by itself may not always do the job (plain eyesight at times being insufficient in its capacity to tell what’s going on), dialogue will steer a safer course, and visual leitmotifs can be good buoys if applied with great care and sound reason. Too often though, a short cut is sought by offhand voice-over comment, a cheap enough tool, but a tricky patch to save the day when nothing else will do: as it doesn’t pertain to the film essence proper, this mostly backfires and will not win over an audience that wants to see a visual unfolding to engage the senses.

Therefore: Spare us, please, of the embarrassment of bad poetry in ambitious independent art house films – that is my prime request. I speak especially of some dashing young directors whom at times seem to be stretching their talents too far, trying to glaze over their pictures with a “poetic” line here and there. Bear in mind that all poetry has to be borne of necessity, an inner urge that forces it into being, while at the same time resists being willed into existence merely for the sake of it. This paradox is the very nature of its art: it has to manifest itself, and may or may not materialise in any one medium by our own doing. Probably the best way to arrive at a truly lyrical expression that isn’t fabricated is in letting it happen, instead of pushing for the calculated effect and taking aim mostly indirectly – if at all.

Whenever you encounter a line that has real meaning and a poignant voice (and it doesn’t even have to be your own, nor in words precisely), start by following the call and saving it from falling back into oblivion by molding it into an adequate visual translation. It is this kind of life experiences that we should learn to trust, for they are genuine and representative of something larger than ourselves.

So be careful in applying the charms of poetry to your film and try to make good use of it, and sparsely so. There are too many bad examples already out there which you do not want to contribute to. Find it in nature, sample it in your everyday encounters: in landscapes or a fleeting gesture; in a human face, but rarely in your dialogue, where more often than not, it comes out pathetic and pretentious and will only be counterproductive in its overall effect. Any poetic expression has to be the climax to a carefully arranged lead-up – after all, it is the most concentrated form of telling, a maximum in itself, which cannot be dealt out to viewers in handfuls. In doing so you unnecessarily risk to lose all interest, as intensity needs to be wisely measured and distributed with care and reason; such excess is lethal – figuratively so.

Your handy coffee mug quote may be okay for a film school assignment, but will not be tolerated by people you expect to pay to see your film, so it had better be original. A visual metaphor is never easily won, it has to be scrupulously crafted and will be nothing but window-dressing if it isn’t suitably connected at both ends to what it is you’re actually narrating. Its sole purpose is to further the story design in any given way, pompous self-indulgence is for beginners only (or something only a Kitano Takeshi could get away with).

But just as there can be no argument without the opposite being equally true (and admittedly, even if it wasn’t, my own hermeneutic reasoning wouldn’t allow for anything else) I add the following: he who either has the sheer ingenuity to do so, or is able to meticulously exercise control over their imagination’s offspring may in fact very well act to the contrary and profess an artful, canny playfulness on their theme’s tensibility. Meta – that’s where Kelvin Tong’s “Love Story” failed and where “One Last Dance” engineered at least some entertaining punch. I know that most everybody making films, giving classes or writing reviews tells you otherwise, but I can see no evil in having images or even scenes included in a film that are no part of the story proper. To have a truly poetic element added to the visual unfolding, not just a hollow appeal thereof, there needs to be a good measure of that incorporated which transcends the inner drama complex: film poetics is made of calculated breaches to the well-kept fences that hedge our commonplace reason.

However it is risky – for if indeed you intend to refer to that which lies beyond the image square, it is pivotal not to be elusive in your statement. To be convincing, it’s got to be genuinely expressive. Here, vagueness will earn you nothing, certainly no credibility with the viewer. It is a defining quality in every good film that it means the opening up of a chapter, not their closing. No human interest will ever be exhausted and all light travels without end – but don’t mistake film poetics to mean obscurity, they are not equivalent.

There is no dogma that cannot be refuted, no rule that isn’t worth breaking in whatever you do. It is always authenticity that comes as the ultimate watershed between quality and artsy crap, no matter how poetic. Once again, less is more in many a thing, and film is no exception. At the end of the day, believe me, there is nothing wrong with prose.

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