Sunday, June 08, 2003

Films &c

Last night was the wrap party for Missing Tom, the film Daniel Keene (my husband) wrote for Alkinos Tsilimidos. The party was a blast: it was held at a pub in Port Melbourne (with a very loud Greek band) and it was great to be among a bunch of people, talking to friends I haven't seen for ages, and not sitting on front of the computer wondering what was going to happen next to Maerad... So I finally got to meet Colin Friels, who plays Tom and is therefore the only actor who was vouchsafed the entire script, as he was in every scene. Alkinos was very strict about his process: he had so little time to film he had no margin for things to go wrong, and so the whole shoot, 365 setups, was meticulously planned, and done at a ridiculous pace. They shot the whole lot in four weeks. Each member of the cast was only allowed to read the part of the script which they were actually performing. Clearly this generated enormous curiosity, human beings being what they are: but anyone who sneaked a look would have been sacked. So even Syd Brisbane, who had two lines, only knew what was happening in the two lines, and the film he was making was otherwise a complete mystery. The actors didn't even know who else was cast. The point of all this secrecy was that no one could perform in any context except the context in which they found themselves; they couldn't imagine their part into the larger story of the narrative. The idea was to invoke a performance which was immediate and specific, as it would be the case if those events were really happening; an extension I guess on the documentary feel of Silent Partner. The other technique Alkinos used was what he called "acts of god"; interruptions which the cast was not expecting and which were not rehearsed, thrown in so they could not settle into a performance. For example, in a scene in which somebody was taking money out of an autobank, a car screams up and the actors are pelted with eggs by some strangers... or a madman unexpectedly appearing in another scene and launching into a poetic monologue about god. There was a general feeling of exhilaration at the party, a sense that something really amazing had been achieved, and against all odds, though it's going to be months before any of us get to see what it actually is. (Film is very strange that way, and not only that way...) But I can't wait.

It makes me think, though, about a parallel discussion about technique/craft which is happening on the British Poets mailing list. I'll paste my post, a reply to cris cheek, rather than rewriting it:

At 1:31 PM +0100 7/6/03, cris cheek wrote:
so the point is what is the craft?

Hi cris

Well, it was a throw-away comment, and deliberately calling on poetries which might be construed as conservative. And I was conscious as I was writing it that to speak of a concept like "craft" as separate from other aspects of poetry is to raise the whole style/content dichotomy, which hovers around waiting to pounce. I had a half conversation with Christopher Walker about technique on another list where I was forced to step back and acknowledge that I was calling on that false division, and that technique is as much of the intellectual and (if you like) emotional genesis and construction of the poem as in the shaping of words, by which it is commonly understood. There is a kind of rule of thumb workshop idea of craft, which I don't especially find helpful: this is where rules come in and stamp over the actual expressiveness of the poem. You work language to do what it is you want it to, or are used by language to do what it wants you to do, or perhaps more accurately something in the middle; the language leads the writer (the footfalls of words for pages ahead, as Flaubert said) as much as the writer leads the words.

I know that our poetics are widely divergent, but I also see quite a lot of commonality in a sense of a text as as unstable thing, probably because of both of our different involvements in performance. And also that consciousness that what might be called a poetics is in continuous evolution. However, when you talk of rewriting, and your desire for precision, you are operating what might be called a craft (sailing into the unknown and not sinking); so is Cage in his variations on Ulysses, say, because his workings were never entirely chance-led, and his own sense of appropriateness fed into the work, which is why a work by Cage is always unmistakeably by Cage. And I guess I mean by "craft" not the kind of macrame application, but the careful attention to the language, the being accurate and precise in the service of whatever it is you want the writing to do. In that sense, I do think it's something that ought to be taken for granted, and it's a problem if it can't be. If I could find it, Stein had some interesting stuff about that idea, which is really about infinite patience.

Daniel has often said that writing film bores him: firstly because the film is actually made by the director, not by the writer; and secondly because it is more than anything else a question of technique, which is to him a pretty banal process (the director gets to do everything interesting). Many of his derogatory comments about film have to be taken with a grain of salt; but it remains true, nevertheless, that a film is principally authored by the director, and that making a film is a hugely technical exercise. Quite apart from the practical problems of getting the financial backing in the first place, which is a whole other topic, once you have the money you need to organise and co-ordinate literally dozens of people to do dozens of things to make a single shot possible. Alkinos' aim seemed to be to make all the organisational tasks as efficient as possible, by employing, for example, a highly competent crew and then planning every single shot in as much detail as possible, and rehearsing actors and crew, so everyone knew technically exactly what was expected of them. Once he didn't have to think about that, he could concentrate on actually making the film: on the performances in particular, so that actors were not merely "warm props" nor the script merely an excuse for a lot of expensive fuss, but so the emotional realities of the film could be expressed and exposed. And you can transfer that to writerly ideas of "craft", even given the problems with the whole notion outlined above; it is that aspect of writing which should be prepared and supple, so you don't have to think about it, and which then permits the actual business of a poem to occur. That "actual business" is much harder to define, although I always return to Pound's quote about poetry: "what remains is feeling".

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