~ Gus Van Sant ~

The Art of Poetry Film with Cheryl Gross: “Ballad of The Skeletons”

This historic collaboration between Allen Ginsberg (1926-2007), Philip Glass and Paul McCartney was a low budget venture. Gus Van Sant who had ties to the Beat Generation directed it. I happen to love Van Sant’s work, which includes Drugstore Cowboy, Good Will Hunting and Milk. It aired on MTV making Ginsberg one of the oldest artists on the network at the time. This in and of itself is an accomplishment since MTV is primarily youth-oriented. It’s also a good way to acquaint an audience not necessarily familiar with a very important part of our culture.

Glass and McCartney carry the music and Ginsberg the poetry. The recording was produced by Lenny Kaye (Patti Smith group) along with an array of musicians.

The poem was first published in 1995, two years before Ginsberg’s death. The footage of Ginsberg reminds me of the time I saw him at the old Chelsea Hotel picking up his mail. We nodded to each other. I could see he was in pretty bad shape. To approach him would have been an intrusion. As far as I was concerned the acknowledgement was as good as an autograph. This was a special moment for me, and probably an everyday occurrence for him. Such is the price one has to pay for being a celebrity. I’ve also had the pleasure to see him read. Needless to say I’m a big fan.

I love and admire all three artists, but their collaboration created a bomb. To begin with, I adore the use of old footage but the interlooping of Ginsberg’s image in my opinion doesn’t work. I know it’s Ginsberg’s poem, I know, I know. So use Ginsberg as a weave. His image feels too disconnected. It’s as if Van Sant threw him in from time to time just to remind us this is Allen Ginsberg and how important he is. Even if it was low-budget, I think he could have done a better job. The vintage material Van Sant used is pretty powerful on its own. I would have liked to see it used as a backdrop with just Ginsberg’s voice. Another thing I would like to point out is the fact that in the so-called Vietnam Era we had the first war that was televised on a daily basis, thereby desensitizing us as a generation along with generations to come. Perhaps seeing this on a larger screen would have more of an effect, but for the small screen it’s almost dismissible.

The point of the poem as I understand it references the Mexican Day Of The Dead and refers to our figureheads and society as no more than skeletons that are posed, thus leading us to think they are doing something that will improve our lives. I would have liked to see more skeleton and Dead references used. It comes in only at the beginning and if you haven’t noticed by now, I’m a stickler for continuity. This is a very significant piece. If it were revisited today, perhaps it would have more of an impact on me personally. It hits me intellectually but not emotionally. Again, I love Ginsberg with his fuck-you attitude. Although dated I would have liked to be punched in the gut, where it really hurts, making me puke, rather than leaving me feeling detached.

There are two versions. The second is Ginsberg reading and McCartney playing guitar, filmed by one of McCartney’s daughters (which one I don’t know). This poetry video is a performance. I think I like it better than Van Sant’s attempt, which seems to have everything thrown in including the kitchen sink. This to their credit is pure and unpretentious.

Special thanks to Open Culture.

Martina Pfeiler on poetry film

Martina Pfeiler is a German scholar of literature and American studies specializing in, among other things, the history of poetry and technology. She’s the author of the book Poetry Goes Intermedia: US-amerikanische Lyrik des 20. und 21. Jahrhunderts aus kultur- und medienwissenschaftlicher Perspektive. We spoke in the garden of the Pfefferbett Hostel in Berlin on October 19, 2014, during the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival.

Reference is made to the following films:

The conversation was wide-ranging (and I’ve edited out more than half of it—please excuse all the jump cuts), covering such topics as how poetry film fits into the larger context of poets’ use of technology, how poetry films may be used in the classroom to introduce students to poetry as a whole, and how the ZEBRA Poetry Film Festival has changed (or not changed) over the years. My favorite thing that Dr. Pfeiler said was this:

I could see myself going to something like an international poetry museum, where you have different rooms where you can explore a poetry film, or poetry films, either theme-based or throughout the last century, and interact with it again—just me and the film. So that experience: like an installation, where you take time, you sit in your little installation box, it’s all black, maybe some other, four or five people are sitting on the floor but you don’t necessarily know where they sit.

Yes! I love watching videos in art museums. Someone needs to do this. Surely there’s a billionaire out there looking to put his or her name on a new, unique museum?