Monthly Archives: May 2012

Poetic Film


I recently saw two movies that got me thinking about what makes a film “poetic.”  The first of these “The Tree of Life” I borrowed from a local library; the other film “Wings of Desire” just happened to be on the TCM cable movie channel a few days later. “The Tree of Life” (2011) was directed by American filmmaker, Terrence Malick and “Wings of Desire” (1987) was directed by Wim Wenders, a German filmmaker .

The story in the “The Tree of Life” is told in a non-linear narrative with the movie beginning in voice over that presents a kind of philosophical viewpoint, perhaps even moralistic.  Much of the film’s first half hour is also intensely visual with minutes of spectacular photographic footage that I believe is meant to perhaps reflect strong human emotion.  Finally, after this long introductory sequence, the story is told from a more structured vantage point: a family in Texas in the 1950s comprised of three boys is run by an authoritative father and an understanding mother.  One of the sons is also depicted in alternate sequences as an adult in current time who is now struggling with his lingering animosity towards his father as well as the nostalgia and warmth he feels for his brothers and his mother.

Much of the filmmaker’s visual representation of this story is what I would call “poetic.”  It isn’t to everyone’s taste’s to watch and contemplate the images presented.  Also the separation of time and distance that occurs in a free form way motivates the viewer to remain alert to shifts in the story as the film moves along.

Describing the movie “The Tree of Life” to people who possibly haven’t seen it is hard.  It is a movie that makes you think and puzzle over what is occurring.  Does this make it poetic?

In the movie “Wings of Desire” there are two angels who watch over the citizens of the divided city of Berlin, Germany in the mid 1980s.  These angels cannot be seen by anyone else other than additional angels and some children.  The angels can read the thoughts of all the humans that they come into contact with.  One of the angels admits to wondering what it would be like to be human.  Eventually this same angel encounters an attractive woman circus performer with whom he falls in love and his yearning to become human grows more intense.  What he decides to do forms the final scenes of the film.

Now this film is perhaps more overtly “poetic.”  The angel characters are said to be similar to those described in the poet Rainier Maria Rilke’s poetry “Duino Elegies” where the angel is a symbol of a unity of consciousness that transcends human limitation.  Rilke’s angel is not related to Christianity, but represents a transcendent reality.  Also in “Wings of Desire” there is a recurring element of a poem (written by the movie’s co-writer, Peter Handke) that begins “When the child was a child.”  The thread of this poem, interwoven throughout the film, asks and requires the viewer to recognize it as being the verses of a poem.

Maybe because filmmaker Wim Wenders believed at the beginning of making “Wings of Desire” that his film was indescribable he worked to make it more reachable.  I am not sure of Terrence Malick’s motivation with his film “The Tree of Life” other than some of its extra-ordinary photographic footage he actually created years before the film was made in 2010/2011.  In both movies the viewer is asked to reach beyond a traditional movie watching experience and absorb and think slowly about what is being presented on the screen.  Depending on a person’s sensibilities this type of film experience either would be welcomed or disdained.

Another “On the Road” blog post….

      A contemporary French writer/philosopher named Henri-Bernard Levy wrote a piece “Kerouac at the Cinema” that can be found on the Huffington Post.  Here is the link to this:

Monsieur Levy is a learned person and offers some insight in his post about the writer, Jack Kerouac and Kerouac’s novel “On the Road.”  Levy hasn’t seen the Walter Salles film of this novel yet, and his “we shall see” speaks to both apprehension and wonderment concerning the film’s ability to capture the spirit and essence of the book.

P.S.  In the “Comments” section of my recent blog post about “On the Road” being made into a film, I also provided this same information (with the same link to Levy’s piece).

Road Movies and a Book (that is, a beloved road book is now a movie)

I’ve always liked road movies.  Hollywood has created some good ones starting way back with well-worn worn classics such as “It Happened One Night” (for me, a surprisingly very funny film) and “Sullivan’s Travels.”  From the 1950s, “The Long Long Trailer,” starring comedienne Lucille Ball, is another memorably humorous road movie.  Jump to the 1960s and 70s there is “Easy Rider;” “Harry and Tonto;” and “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” among others.  In the 1980s and 90s it was “Rain Man,” “Wild at Heart,” “Thelma & Louise,” and “True Romance.”   During the past 10 years we’ve had “Sideways,” “Little Miss Sunshine,” and “Borat.”   Also in the past ten years, for people who like road stories based on a real person’s experiences, there was “The Motorcycle Diaries” adapted from the youthful travel journals of South American doctor and activist, Che Guevara.

If reading is a favorite pastime, there are any number of novels that can fit the criteria of a road book.  One of the most well-known is On the Road written and published in the late 1950s by beloved Beat generation writer, Jack Kerouac.   This book depicts, for the most part, the maniacal travels across the U.S. and into Mexico of Sal Paradise and his friend, Dean Moriarty.  Featured are a contingency of several other friends/cohorts who either accompany them or are visited along the way.   The book is believed to be loosely autobiographical and based on the author, Kerouac, himself and his friends.

Now finally someone has taken on the task of turning On the Road into a movie.  What is interesting is that the director who is tackling this is Walter Salles, the director of the 2004 road film “The Motorcycle Diaries” (based, as I mentioned earlier in this blog, on the journey chronicled by Argentinian activist/doctor Che Guevara when he and his buddy travelled up the continent of South America from Argentina to Venezuela in the late 1950s).  “The Motorcycle Diaries” received some critical acclaim and perhaps gave filmmaker Walter Salles the courage to make a film of the Kerouac classic.  I both admire Salles as well as feeling afraid for him. It is my hope that this film “On the Road” proves to be a worthy depiction of a book that captured the hearts and minds of late 20th century American readers and vagabonds.

Currently this new film “On the Road” is among the movies being shown, I believe,  at the annual Cannes Film Festival in southern France this month (May 16 – May 27).  I haven’t heard anything yet, good or bad, about how the movie has turned out.  I’m going to try and see at a local multiplex as soon as it is released in the U.S.

More about Books….author Marilynne Robinson

I have a favorite book.  Before I read this book nearly twenty years ago now, I didn’t have one.  It is the novel Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson.  There is something ethereal and haunting about the story and it is written, according to someone who described it at some point, as if “it was one long poem.“  Until I read that description of Housekeeping I didn’t know what about it captivated me so much.  Perhaps the way it was written is a big part of it.

It is one of the only books I’ve read that when I finished it I gave it to a friend and said it such a good book he ought to read it.  Funny that years later this friend does not recall my giving him the book, and he didn’t read it evidently.  I don’t begrudge him as he has a lot of books and this book was just one more in his apartment.  I can only surmise that I must not have dwelled upon my fondness of Housekeeping at the time I gave it to him otherwise he would’ve possibly remembered it.

During the past really 20 years since I read Housekeeping I did wonder about the author, Marilynne Robinson.  It turns out she published another novel Gilead in 2004 and followed that with the novel Home in 2008.   I did hear about Gilead around the time it was initially published, and I put it in my mind to read this novel.  Home I didn’t actually know about until recently.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson             

Just this week I finished reading the novel Gilead.  It took several weeks and it wasn’t until mid-way through this novel that the pieces of it began to fit together for me.  It is the story of an older man, a preacher in the small Iowa town of Gilead who is slowly failing in health.  Approximately 10 years earlier this man married a younger woman and together they have now a 7 year old son.  Gilead is comprised of this older preacher writing to his young son about his life, their heritage (the older preacher’s father and grandfather were also preachers) and trying to give his son some guidance that later the son can possibly benefit from.

Very different from the novel Housekeeping that I so was enamored with.  Still there are passages within Gilead that seemed to me almost astounding and at that point I usually had a hard time comprehending what I was reading.  Recently I read that when entertainer and reader Oprah Winfrey told author,Toni Morrison that she often has to reread parts of Morrison’s novels to understand them, the author replied, “That, my dear, is reading.”

I am including here two separate sections from the novel Gilead by author, Marilynne Robinson, that stopped me in my tracks (there are actually more of these segments that similarly affected me).  Sometimes I would read the sections aloud as I was re-reading them.

        “Our dream of life will end as dreams do end, abruptly and completely, when the sun rises, when the light comes.  And we will think, All that fear and all that grief were about nothing.  But that cannot be true.  I can’t believe we will forget our sorrows altogether.  That would mean forgetting that we had lived, humanly speaking.  Sorrow seems to me to be a great substance of human life.”

And another…

        “As I have told you, I myself was the good son, so to speak, the one who never left his father’s house—even when his father did, a fact which surely puts my credentials beyond all reproach.  I am one of those righteous for whom the rejoicing in heaven will be comparatively restrained.  And that’s all right.  There is no justice in love, no proportion in it, and there need not be, because in any specific instance it is only a glimpse or parable of an embracing, incomprehensible reality.  It makes no sense at all because it is the eternal breaking in on the temporal.  So how could it subordinate itself to cause or consequence? 

        It is worth living long enough to outlast whatever sense of grievance you may acquire.  Another reason you must take care of your health.”

This novel Gilead won several awards, I believe.   I have learned this week that Robinson’s subsequent novel after Gilead entitled Home is a companion to  Gilead and an elaboration of the Broughton family who are featured in the former novel.  Some people have said that reading Home helps to create a better understanding of Gilead.  I’m not ready to try reading Home just yet as I’m really still absorbing Gilead.

Further Confessions of a Guilty Book Reader

      Books I started to read and didn’t finish….Part II

A few weeks ago I posted a blog confession regarding books I started to read and for some reason wasn’t able to complete.  Last week I stumbled upon an article published online in late January this year.  The article appears on both the online Atlantic Monthly Magazine and on and its about a 2007 book entitled The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books.

As I looked at the two book lists that were compiled from the voting of choices made by 125 famous authors, I wondered how these greatest books compared with the books that I started to read and stopped.  Here are the two top 10 book lists (organized by the past two centuries) with my guilty or not guilty (meaning yes, I read the entire book) notations included:

Top Ten Books of the 20th century

1.  Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov

2. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald   (YES, completed)

3.  In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

4.  Ulysses* by James Joyce

5.  Dubliners* by James Joyce  (Oops, this one isn’t on my original list–I forgot I started it and stopped — GUILTY)

6.  One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez   (GUILTY)

7.  The Sound and the Fury by William Faulkner

8.  To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf   (GUILTY twice)

9.  The complete stories of Flannery O’Connor

10. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov

**I must include here that I did read at least (and finish) Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

Top Ten Books of the 19th Century

1.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

2.  Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

3.  War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

4.  The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain  (GUILTY)

5.  The stories of Anton Chekhov

6.  Middlemarch by George Eliot

7.  Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

8.  Great Expectations by Charles Dickens   (YES, completed)

9.  Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

10. Emma by Jane Austen

The articles also include two additional lists related to authors whose books were most frequently included in the voting process.  If you are interested in reading further here is a link to the online piece written by Maria Popova on her website


Here also is a link to the work The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books on


I don’t know if I’ll use these lists to fill in the gaps in my reading.  I guess I’m wondering about Nabokov as he’s on the 20th century list twice (for Lolita and Pale Fire) and I’ve never read him.   It will probably be Pale Fire if I decide to.


Be like the bird, that halting in her flight

Awhile on boughs too slight,

Feels them give way beneath her, and yet


Knowing that she hath wings.

–Victor Hugo (French Romantic poet, novelist & dramatist, 1802-1885)



WingsBe like th…

The Haiku

The month of May in the U.S. celebrates the heritage of Asian-Pacific Americans.  It made me think of the haiku, the poetic form believed to be from Japan.  This poem is usually divided into three groups/lines of syllables, the first and last with five syllables, the second with seven.  Its brevity and unique structure make it, to some extent, a beloved poetic form.

Historically there are only about four Japanese poets who are credited with writing the haiku.  In particular among these four poets is Matsuo Basho (1644-1694), who is credited with raising the stature of the haiku with the simplicity and depth of meaning he brought to this form.

From Basho:  Three Haiku


Ancient silent pond

Then a frog jumped right in!

Watersound: kerplunk

(translation: John S. Major)


The temple bell stops—

but the sound keeps coming

out of the flowers.

(translation: Robert Bly)



sings all day,

and day not long enough.

(translation: Lucien Stryk and Takashi Ikemoto)


Years back a classmate friend in high school composed this haiku for an event. I kept a copy of it.


Love, here calm gardens

Silver streams and crystal rain

Waken to our dream.

            by Kathy Maltese


To read more haiku, see this wordpress blogger: