Five Filmpoems: Curated by Susannah Ramsay

A still from Colour Poems by Margaret Tait, 1974.


Susannah Ramsay is a filmmaker and researcher based in Stirling, Scotland. She is currently working on a PhD at the University of Stirling on the subject of ‘Experiencing the Film-Poem; Touching the Landscape, Tasting the Film: A Phenomenological Analysis of the Film-Poem through Practice and Exhibition.’ We at All These New Relations are big fans of her work (be sure to check out her meditative and lyrical West of Dalabrog). Here, she shares five of her favourite filmpoems. Together, they constitute a fine introduction to this most neglected of genres, and a remarkable showcase of poetic beauty as realised on the screen.

Some of these comments are taken from my research on the phenomenology of filmpoetry (2014-2016). To contextualise briefly, the filmpoem’s long and complex existence has manifested itself from the European avant-garde film movement of the early Twentieth Century through to the development of experimental cinema of the 1940’s, segueing into the contemporary context of artists’ moving image. As the filmpoem genre becomes increasingly prevalent we are not only seeing more sophisticated interpretations of this unique medium, but also more creative ways to screen these films, for example through site-specific exhibitions. My top five filmpoems are as follows.

L’étoile de mer (Man Ray, 1928)

L’étoile de mer (1928) by Man Ray is an early example of the symbiosis of film and poetry using visual metaphor to interpret a poem by Robert Desnos. In the tradition of both surrealism and experimental cinema the abstract images in L’étoile de mer allow the viewer time to reflect philosophically on what is being perceived. The majority of the film was shot through molded glass creating a haptic quality to the visual experience. The blurred images of two people, which are seen behind textured glass becomes a mediator of truth and provokes the viewer into imagining what is being hidden from them. This film exemplifies haptic visuality, a film theory introduced by Laura U. Marks in her book The Skin of The Film (2000). In terms of contemporary artists’ moving image, I think Man Ray’s film continues to translate the key elements that define filmpoetry.

Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid, 1943)

When I discuss filmpoerty, it is difficult not to mention Maya Deren’s classic offering. Originally shot without sound, this film embodies the philosophical devices we can now attribute to the filmpoem. By the mid to late 1930s the European avant-garde movement was in decline, and the Second World War prompted a shift in interest to American artist filmmakers. The American avant-garde of the 1940s onwards became increasingly retrospective regarding many of the early Twentieth Century European traditions of fusing poetry with images. In Meshes of the Afternoon, Deren herself channels philosophical concepts through visual metaphor and film form. Reversing the film, repetition of images and changing camera angles are visual tropes Deren employs to create a poetical montage and unconventional narrative. The tonal qualities of the black and white film add to the mysteriousness of this conceptual masterpiece.

Colour Poems (Margaret Tait, 1974)

Margaret Tait was known as a filmpoet and experimental filmmaker. Her approach to filmmaking was remarkably similar to the ethos of the avant-garde, generally self-funded, non-conformist, uncompromising, non-commercial, with distribution and exhibition being select. I think Colour Poems (1974) depicts some of the more thought provoking images within her oeuvre. There is a wonderful poetical moment, which begins with the poppy fields where Tait questions the true essence of the image through juxtaposing shots of the Scottish oil industry and related capitalist iconography and a sequence of images relating to a return to the earth. Nature is brought into being through spoken word. The narrator willing the viewer to look beyond what can be seen, to ‘look into all that is illuminated by the light’ […] ‘the own person’s own self perceiving the light and making the music’ suggesting that we are the beholders of (our) true vision.

Mile End Purgatorio (Guy Sherwin & Martin Doyle, 1991)

This is probably one of the best examples of both poetry-film (words on-screen) and filmpoerty (spoken words and images that create connotation). Sherwin is an exceptional experimental filmmaker, who continues to create meditative compositions, which the viewer is prompted to reflect on. His series of films entitled Messages (1981-4) exemplify this. Mile End Purgatorio has a great sense of humor, and reminds me very much of John Smith’s The Girl Chewing Gum (1976). Short in length, this film delivers both content and concept beautifully.

Poem and Stone (Maryam Tafakory, 2015) Trailer

Iranian film artist Maryam Tafakory displays a more direct approach in terms of filmpoetry through her profoundly personal and evocative films. I first saw this filmpoem at the Alchemy Film and Moving Image Festival in 2016 and was completely intrigued by her work. Poem and Stone is beautifully shot, as are all of her films, and incorporates both the personal and poetical qualities one would expect to see from a filmpoem. Themes relating to tradition, culture, and human experience come into being as Tafakory’s film reveals what it is to remember. Tafakory’s work displays familiar filmpoetry tropes, for example combining on-screen text, spoken word and images. Her powerful visuals juxtaposed with uncompromising text is a timely reminder of why the filmpoem genre is still relevant and can create a platform for subjective thought, monologues and discussion.

Sources: MARKS, L. U., 2000. The Skin of the Film. Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. Durham and London: Duke University Press. NEELY, S., 2008. Stalking the Image: Margaret Tait and intimate filmmaking practices. Screen, vol. 49, no. 2, Summer, pp.216-221. RAMSAY, S., 2014. Articulating the Avant-garde. Exploring the Reliability of Memory through the Filmpoem Genre. MLitt dissertation. RAMSAY, S., 2016. PhD, Literature Review. Films DEREN, M & HAMMID, A., 1943. Meshes of the Afternoon. DOYLE, M & SHERWIN, G., 1991. Mile End Purgatorio. MAN RAY., 1928. L’étoile de mer. SMITH, J., 1976. The Girl Chewing Gum. TAFAKORY, M., 2015. Poem and Stone. TAIT, M., 1974. Colour Poems.

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