Cinematic Theme: Poetry in Films

Interstellar (2014) Directed by Christopher Nolan

Like many art forms, films pull into their repertoire a series of cultural references ranging from fine and contemporary art to architecture and literature. Some notable art references films pull from would be poetry that is inserted into dialogues, plot devices, and more. Some have even gone as far as calling films “poetry in motion” as a medium, although such comparisons are rather dicey as defining a poem is rather challenging in itself, much less assuredly so than defining a film as moving pictures projected onto a screen to be experienced through our human senses.

It is also important to remember how awfully young the hundred so year old film industry is, compared to poetry whose earliest form—Epic of Gilgamesh—was created in 2100BC.  Its craft predates the creation of the written text, and its forms and meanings are carried over into the modern-day due to its intense invoking of the human emotions and senses. It is no wonder that being so ancient and primordial, filmmakers of this young, budding art medium known as ‘film’ have been inspired by poetry to willfully enhance their intended messages to the audience.

Some filmmakers do not utilize existing poems created by another artist, choosing instead to be inspired by the medium and try to create a film that much resembles poetry. Impressionist filmmakers and the French New Wave broke away from the traditional filmmaking conventions in order to tell tales that directly challenge the viewers’ perception of the world. They create films that resemble poems, like Alain Resnais’ Hiroshima Mon Amour that bends our perception of time and memory, creating a mirror image of shared trauma between occupied wartime France and the nuclear-devastated Hiroshima under the eyes of two people whose current soul and heart’s anguish was directly or indirectly caused by the war.

But some filmmakers do directly use poetry in their films, believing that the poems they utilize are allegories to the film’s event or the character’s human condition. Here are four films that use poems to enhance their film’s emotions and message:

  1. Love (2015) directed by Gaspar Noé with Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Netflix (Regions may vary)

Love (2015) Directed by Gaspar Noé

Whose woods these are I think I know.   

His house is in the village though;   

He will not see me stopping here   

To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   

To stop without a farmhouse near   

Between the woods and frozen lake   

The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   

To ask if there is some mistake.   

The only other sound’s the sweep   

Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,   

But I have promises to keep,   

And miles to go before I sleep,   

And miles to go before I sleep.

Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.

Gaspar Noe, an auteur of films including “Enter the Void” and “Irreversible” is a diehard provocateur, but with “Love” he succeeds in slowing down his tempo and his usual whirlwind of dizzying camera movement down just enough to get critic Barbara Scharres to write “that there is hardly anything more boring than watching other people have sex for more than two hours.”

Shot in 3D and premiering in the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, “Love” is definitely not everyone’s cup of tea. The sexually charged film follows Paris-based American film student Murphy (Karl Glusman) in a regretful reverie after losing Electra (Aomi Muyock), whom he proclaims to be the love of his life. Recalling Noe’s own “Irreversible” where incidents are recalled in reverse order and slowly revealing how from the very beginning — the day the couple first met—there have always already been signs of the tragic fate that would eventually befall them. It is at this first meeting scene where we see main protagonist Murphy recite Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening seemingly alluding to his character’s present doomed fate of having to keep his promises and continue with his life without being trapped in his depression from losing Electra.

  1. Kill Your Darlings (2013) directed by John Krokidas with a rewrite of Allen Ginsberg’s Hymn to the Virgin

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play

Kill Your Darlings (2013) Directed by John Krokidas

Thou who art afraid to have me, lest thou lose me;

Great anodyne, thyself compound of pain;

Thou comforter discomfited;

Thou strength so fraught with feebleness,

And mind unsure, unmade;

So prudent and unwise;

Thou at once ravished and virgin-bride;

Thou happiness sans happiness;

Thou God, so mortal coiled,

Thou terror, so afraid;

Lover, asleep: celibate untouchable, awake;

Oh contradiction contradicts!

Unwrite thy tight braced treasure,

Thy rigid regular relax,

Thy self-pent, hoarded soul release;

Give, share, lose; know entire co-mingledness

Lest we both die, isolate and unbloomed.

a rewrite of Allen Ginsberg’s Hymn to the Virgin

Despite writer-director Krokidas romanticizing everything that they do, Kill your Darlings is indeed a much needed light introduction to the 60s literary movement, Beat Generation, and their self-destructive instincts. Casting Daniel Radcliffe as Allen Ginsberg in his freshman years and Dane DeHaan as Lucien Carr, the film dives into the hype without providing much insight into the ethos and the practice of the Beat Generation. Focusing instead on the masculine bravado of the bunch and the polishedly stylish tone of the set and costume design. 

However, any fan of the Beat Generation has to admit that it is quite refreshing to see the authors portrayed on-screen—reciting their beloved poetry as balms for their poor nostalgic souls. The plot even culminates with a seminal murder scene that eventually finds the lead protagonists on a boat, ready to dump the body in the Hudson River. Exactly after doing so, the two lead protagonists recite Krokidas and co-writer Austin Bunn’s rewriting of Allen Ginsberg’s Hymn to the Virgin was read— creating arguably one of the best scenes in the film. 

Though the rewrite found them changing only slightly the last two lines of the poem, it tremendously opened the Beat Generation up to a whole new generation of viewers, bringing to the ground all those “thous, lests, and thyselves” of the 60s for a contemporary audience to immerse themselves into the emotionally charged, reckless, and rebellious nature of the Beat Generation in its best way possible.

  1. Interstellar (2014) directed by Christopher Nolan with Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Where to watch: Amazon Prime, Netflix (Regions may vary), Apple TV

Interstellar (2014) Directed by Christopher Nolan

Do not go gentle into that good night,

Old age should burn and rave at close of day;

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,

Because their words had forked no lightning they

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright

Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,

And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight

Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,

Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.

Do not go gentle into that good night.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

If you haven’t caught one of Christopher Nolan’s highest-grossing feature films, Interstellar, then now might just be the time. The film follows a dying planet Earth where Professor Brand (Michael Caine), a brilliant NASA physicist, is working on plans to save mankind by transporting the human population to a new home through a wormhole. To achieve this he must first send former NASA pilot Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) and a team of researchers through the same wormhole across the galaxy to find out which planet of the wormhole’s destination planet could be mankind’s new home.

Woven poetically into its narrative of a fight against the death of the human race is Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night. Recited by multiple characters at multiple points of the plot, the poem reflects upon their differing rationales for saving humanity. Reflecting upon how even though there were issues of relativity and time elapsing, and conflict between supporters of different survival plans, in the end, everyone was still trying their hardest to fight for the human race in the way they thought best. Thus, the use of Thomas’s poem in Interstellar to showcase the universal human survival instinct was impeccable.

  1. Blade Runner 2049 (2017) directed by Denis Villeneuve with Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire.  

Where to watch: Netflix (regions may vary), Itunes.

Blade Runner 2049 (2017) Directed by Denis Villeneuve

A blood-black nothingness began to spin

A system of cells interlinked within 

Cells interlinked within cells interlinked

Within one stem. And dreadfully distinct 

Against the dark, a tall white fountain played.

Vladimir Nabokov’s Pale Fire

In Blade Runner 2049, these lines from Vladimir Nabokov’s 999-line poem Pale Fire were used in the baseline test of replicants to determine their sentience, that is, if they have become self-aware enough to become deviants who have the capacity to rebel against the humans. Delivered in a strikingly cold tone of voice from an unknown interviewer, the replicant being tested must show no sympathy, empathy, and any sort of emotional remembrance from the questions. The full baseline test, which you can see here, requires the replicant to not only show no visible reaction to the personal questions being asked, they must also repeat certain words that echo what the interviewer has said in order to examine whether they are unwavering in their delivery, or if they are subtly swayed to answer truthfully.

Interviewer: What is it like to hold the hand of someone you love? 

Officer K: Interlinked. 

Interviewer: Do they teach you how to feel finger to finger?

Officer K: Interlinked. 

Interviewer: Do you long to have your heart interlinked?

Officer K: Interlinked. 

The baseline test that we see in the film differs from the original script, which was closer to the 1982 film’s Voight-Kampf test and was transformed into a claustrophobic, objectifying experience for replicants, as told by director Denis Villeneuve in an interview. Ryan Gosling then came up with the idea of using the technique of Shakespearean actors where they would repeat a word, and then someone else asks something related to that word in order to induce specific memories related to that word, creating a cycle of forced remembrance. The main goal of the test was to treat these replicants like animals, soldier livestocks that are to be used in the most dehumanizing ways possible and any form of hesitation will show that they have reservations against the status quo. 

The lines from Pale Fire used in the baseline test somewhat mirrors the existence and the ‘human’ condition of the replicants. It all began from “blood-black nothingness” before humans decided they want to play God and create life out of nothing. In a sense, all the replicants are “interlinked” in their origin, lab rats designed and manufactured by an insidious company and used by a society that does not grant them rights. 

From one of the interlinked cells, a “dreadfully distinct” prophesied hero that will liberate replicants from tyranny is believed to exists, and this is who Officer K (Ryan Gosling) believes himself to be after seeing glimpses of childhood memories that he believed were not simply implanted into his brains like what they do with other replicants. “A tall white fountain” under a backdrop of darkness represents this liberation of his kind, or perhaps a hint of their ability to be sentient. Throughout the film, Officer K slowly comes into terms with his existential crisis and he starts to earnestly believe there is something else out there than his life as a slave, something more meaningful. Blade Runner 2049 beautifully explores philosophical topics regarding sentience and a sentient being’s propensity to seek their life purpose, even when in the end their resolute belief may blindside them in the end. 

This article was co-written by Bondan Syamsu

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