Though produced as a documentary, The Plow That Broke the Plains may also be seen as an epic filmpoem. Consider: first-time filmmaker Pare Lorentz didn’t write the script until almost everything else was done — all the shooting, even Virgil Thomson’s magnificent score. Composer and filmmaker worked together to fit the film to the score, sometimes cutting one, sometimes the other, and Lorentz thought the music should be allowed to suggest separate and complementary story lines. And the script, when he finally wrote it, took the form of free verse — see for yourself. When the text of his second documentary, River, was published in book form, it was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
Which is not to say that (in my opinion at least) the script of The Plow That Broke the Plains qualifies as great poetry on its own. Rather, the successful marriage of all three elements — text, soundtrack and film — creates a poetic whole greater than the sum of its parts, a filmpoem. The fascinating story behind the making of the film is adeptly recounted on this webpage from the University of Virginia’s American Studies program.
Because it was produced by the federal government, The Plow That Broke the Plains is in the public domain, and high-resolution versions may be downloaded from the Internet Archive for reuse and remix. It might be interesting to see what a contemporary videopoet could make with this material, whether by swapping in new text or cutting and splicing Lorentz’s. (If anyone does this, be sure to send me the link.)
A compelling animation of a visual poem, one of John Cages’s mesostics, by Federica Cristiani. She writes:
In this video I try to create a perfect balance between music and video. The letters appear following the beat of the music. My purpose is to create a perfect synesthesia within sound and typography.
This particular text was also included in a musical composition for solo voice, Sixty-Two Mesostics Re Merce Cunningham.
Directed by Chloe Stites; shot and edited by Travis Stewart. According to the credits, this was made for “a special presentation by Denise Stewart at Bay Arts” — I’m guessing July’s show “The Dress Says It All“: “Women artists give tribute to ‘the dress’ in works of art that come alive through words of their own.”
A gently surreal, subversive and affecting film by Jim Haverkamp, with narration adapted and lightly condensed from a prose poem by M.C. Biegner. Here’s how Haverkamp describes it on the front page of his website:
Not your typical History Channel biography, When Walt Whitman Was a Little Girl tells the startling, unuttered truth about America’s good gray poet. Starting out as an ordinary nine year old girl, Walt is soon catapulted into the world with her senses ablaze.
Based on a prose poem by M.C. Biegner, the film mixes drama, dance, puppetry, and oddball humor to portray the world through the eyes of a ‘sensitive kid.’ Walt awakens to the mysteries and wonder of nature, leaves her home to seek fame and adventure, is plunged into the horror of war, and finally begins to understand the unspoken poetry of childhood.
In addition to winning a raft of film festival awards, it was featured in the Summer/Fall 2013 issue of TriQuarterly.