Thursday, 13 January 2011

Eliot and Cinema

The following letter published in a recent issue of Acumen was a response to an article by William Oxley. It seems to me and others that "The Waste Land" uses ArtHouse cinematic techniques - cross-cutting, panning, juxtaposition, etc - yet Eliot saw little else but newsreels, Cowboy films and Slapstick. I suppose nowadays "The Simpsons", "24", "Flashforward", "The Office" and in particular pop videos provide a similar education.

In Acumen 65 William Oxley wondered about Eliot and the development of cinema. I can see several connections. During the early 1900s silent movies were already using cross-cutting, rapid point-of-view changes, and flashes of symbolism. Talkies gave directors an easy option - to tell rather than show. On the show-tell spectrum films range from Koyaanisqatsi through Distant Voices, Still Lives to The Shawshank Redemption's voice-over, but most films are well towards the "tell" end of the spectrum. Eisenstein's montage became Art-House, a distraction from the plot. Mainstream movies lost their visual roots, growing up only by leaving home.

Meanwhile, poetry experienced no corresponding technological revolution. If anything, it fed cross-culturally on the cinematic techniques that Talkies left behind - Imagist cross-cuts, etc. David Trotter concludes that Eliot's "understanding of film technique was thoroughly up-to-date, and a good deal more sophisticated than that shown by cinephile writers such as Franz Kafka" but he seemed worried about the mass-media aspects of the medium - "The essay in memory of Marie Lloyd published as the last of the Dial London Letters in December 1922 [was] unremittingly hostile to cinema".

Eliot alluded to cinema in a Waste Land manuscript and (like many contemporaries) adopted some of its techniques, supplemented by Tiresiasian voice-overs, low-life content (borrowed or stolen from French poetry, but also perhaps from newsreel footage) and literary learning, trying to shore things up as the moving image began to take over from the word. Eliot led admirers to the compromised land where they'd come and go amongst the paratactic ruins, making follies of them. Few followed the singular Eliot towards belief though. Instead, a confessional, self-doubting, psychotherapist generation turned back, dumping the 'Show not Tell' mantra in favour of 'Find Your Voice'. But poetry shouldn't be reduced to Pictionary, nor is it an Encounter Group where writers can find themselves and grow up at the expense of poetry. Too often nowadays, poems try to please all the tutors by not only showing and telling, but confessing too - annotated slide-shows where an anecdote concludes with a telling, self-revealing couplet.

The Waste Land appeared in 1922. In the decades before, Cubism had already distorted representation then Dada and Abstract art had finished the job off ("Writing is fifty years behind painting", wrote Brion Gysin). One can also find precursors of Eliot's decentred style further back - "The governing principle of much Persian poetry is circular rather than linear; rather than a logically sequential progression, a poem is seen as a collection of stanzas interlinked by symbol and image - the links being patterns of likeness and unlikeness, of repetition and variation - which 'hover', as it were, around an unspoken centre" (Glyn Pursglove, Acumen 25).

I don't think Eliot can be blamed for Jori Graham let alone lang-po or Flarf. Other forces were more committed to the dethronement of language and logic (absurdist theatre, minimalist and abstract art, etc). The factors that influenced Eliot affected many other poets too, even those who disliked Eliot's particular blend. If he's responsible at all, it's only because writers reacted against his conservatism and that of mainstream, commercialised cinema. His later work (like Einstein's) seems rather a cul-de-sac to me as many of his now forgotten imitators discovered.

"T. S. Eliot and Cinema", David Trotter ("Modernism/modernity" 13.2 (2006) 237-265)

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