Poet: Walt Whitman

Whitman on Film | a video essay at the poet’s bicentennial

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I just shared H. Paul Moon‘s adaptation of “America” and mentioned the trilogy of Walt Whitman poetry films of which it is a part. But that’s not all that Paul’s been getting up to. This wonderfully comprehensive and personal video essay takes a chronological look at the use of Whitman’s poetry in film, embracing a multitude of movies and TV shows good and bad, high-brow and low. It’s the centerpiece at Paul’s site whitmanonfilm.com, and will be part of the May 31st Whitman bicentennial screening in Washington, D.C.

This video essay is an analysis of Walt Whitman’s every appearance in cinema and television, leading up to his 200th birthday on May 31, 2019. […] As explained at the end title, this video essay was created for non-commercial educational access, in the spirit of fair use for analysis, with gratitude to these filmmakers who have honored Walt Whitman.

Go to Vimeo for the clickable timecode list of cited films, but really, you should just watch the whole thing straight through. I’ll paste the list in below.

I should mention for the benefit of any newcomers to the film poetry genre that the 1921 film Manhatta by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand was not only the first real Whitman poetry film, but also arguably the first American avant-garde film and the first proper film poem. (Watch it in full here.) For this reason alone, fans of poetry film and videopoetry need to pour one out for old Walt on May 31. Long may his poetry live and continue to shape art and literature around the world.

02:30 Intolerance (1916): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
02:49 Manhatta (1921): A Broadway Pageant; Mannahatta; Crossing Brooklyn Ferry
03:39 Street Scene (1931): Passage to India
04:25 Now Voyager (1942): The Untold Want
05:18 Goodbye, My Fancy (1951): Good-bye My Fancy!
05:54 The Twilight Zone, Season 3 Episode 35 (1962): I Sing the Body Electric
06:46 Fame (1980): I Sing the Body Electric
07:16 Sophie’s Choice (1982)
08:12 Down By Law (1986): The Singer in Prison
08:59 Bull Durham (1988): I Sing the Body Electric
11:17 Dead Poets Society (1989): O Captain! My Captain!; O Me! O Life!; Song of Myself
15:17 Northern Exposure, Season 1 Episode 2 (1990): When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d
17:12 Quiz Show (1994): I Hear America Singing
17:33 Doc Hollywood (1991): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
18:14 With Honors (1994): Song of Myself; One Hour to Madness and Joy; Song of Myself
19:49 Little Women (1994): Give me the Splendid, Silent Sun
20:24 Beautiful Dreamers (1992)/Song of Myself (1976)
21:19 Dr. Quinn Medicine Woman, Season 5 Ep. 21 (1997): Song of the Open Road; I Hear America Singing
25:31 Love and Death on Long lsland (1997): The Untold Want
26:15 L.I.E. (2001): Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking
27:25 The Notebook (2004): Spontaneous Me; Continuities
29:19 Leaves of Grass (2009): To You
31:10 Breaking Bad (2011-2013): When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer
32:57 Whitman Trilogy by H. Paul Moon (2016-2019): America; The Wound Dresser; Civil War poems
33:21 Short Film by Sara Wolfley (2019): Poets to Come

America by Walt Whitman

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A recording of Whitman’s own reading of “America” is juxtaposed with shots of demonstrators in Washington, D.C., minutes after the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, to great and moving effect. This is part of a trilogy of Whitman poetry films by H. Paul Moon, “a filmmaker whose body of work includes short and feature-length documentaries, dance films, and experimental cinema, featured and awarded at over a hundred film festivals worldwide.” Paul tells me that he’s currently shooting the last part, a setting of Civil War poems, in the Richmond, Virginia area right now, and based on what he did with “America”, I’m guessing that that film may not shy away from contemporary political references. But we’ll have to wait until May 31 to find out. That’s when the whole trilogy will be posted to whitmanonfilm.com, to mark Whitman’s 200th birthday. They’ll also be screened the same evening in Washington, D.C. as part of a week-long Whitman bicentennial celebration. If you’re in the DC area, check it out.

Moon’s description at Vimeo is worth quoting in full:

The confirmation of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh was politically divisive, but Walt Whitman’s 19th century wisdom is timeless. In 1892, the poet wrote in prose:

“I have sometimes thought, indeed, that the sole avenue and means of a reconstructed sociology depended, primarily, on a new birth, elevation, expansion, invigoration of woman.”

Towards the end of his life in 1888, he added “America” to his collection “Leaves of Grass,” and then recited four lines from the poem, onto a wax cylinder recording, before he died (it is the only record of his voice in existence):

“Centre of equal daughters, equal sons,
All, all alike endear’d, grown, ungrown, young or old,
Strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich,
Perennial with the Earth, with Freedom, Law and Love”

And the written poem proceeds to say:

“A grand, sane, towering, seated Mother,
Chair’d in the adamant of Time.”

This poetry film combines my documentation of the minutes after Kavanaugh’s confirmation, with Whitman’s own voice, and original music by composer James S. Adams. I used the new Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 4K at 120 frames per second, and color graded using the FilmConvert emulsion/grain simulation of Fuji 8563 RL film stock.

It has been presented at the 2018 Rabbit Heart Film Festival, the 2019 Beeston Film Festival, and the Walt Whitman 200 Festival.

Filmed and edited by H. Paul Moon | Zen Violence Films | zenviolence.com
Music composed and performed by BLK w/ BEAR | James S. Adams | courtesy of LCR Records | littlecrackdrabbit.co.uk/lcr001.html

A Noiseless Patient Spider by Walt Whitman

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This is one of the best student poetry films I’ve seen. Ayesha Raees is from Lahore, Pakistan, a literature student at Bennington College in Vermont who is writing her thesis on videopoetry. She told me she’s been working on this piece for the past eight months, and it shows. The spot-on music is by Sarah Rasines.

Raees’ decision to use just the second stanza of Whitman’s poem gives the text, I think, that quality of incompleteness that Tom Konyves maintains is intrinsic to each element in a true videopoem. (Read the complete poem at the Poetry Foundation website.) Another filmmaker’s take on the poem was recently deleted from Vimeo, so I’m pleased that such a fine new interpretation has appeared to take its place in the Moving Poems archive.

Allen Crawford’s Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself

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A gorgeous filmpoem by David Scott Kessler, made as a trailer for what looks like a gorgeous book. Here’s the description from the publisher, Tin House Books:

Walt Whitman’s iconic collection of poems, Leaves of Grass, has earned a reputation as a sacred American text. Whitman himself made such comparisons, going so far as to use biblical verse as a model for his own. So it’s only appropriate that artist and illustrator Allen Crawford has chosen to illuminate—like medieval monks with their own holy scriptures—Whitman’s masterpiece and the core of his poetic vision, “Song of Myself.” Crawford has turned the original sixty-page poem from Whitman’s 1855 edition into a sprawling 234-page work of art. The handwritten text and illustrations intermingle in a way that’s both surprising and wholly in tune with the spirit of the poem—they’re exuberant, rough, and wild. Whitman Illuminated: Song of Myself is a sensational reading experience, an artifact in its own right, and a masterful tribute to the Good Gray Poet.

Here’s Allen Crawford’s website. The score for the film, “I Contain Multitudes,” is the work of Ben Warfield, and both Warfield and Kessler are good friends of Crawford, according to his blog post about the trailer. I like what he says about book trailers:

David really did a wonderful job: viewers at first will wonder where the book is, only to realize that they had been seeing it all along. Book trailers are still a relatively new thing, but I think David has set a nice precedent by going with a slower pace and lyrical treatment: there’s no reason why a book trailer should look like a film trailer, after all.

[…]

My good friend Bill was kind enough to serve as our “Whitman” (How odd and fortuitous that one of my dearest friends should be a dead ringer for Whitman…)

(Hat-tip: Poets & Writers’ Clip of the Day)

Manahatta by Walt Whitman

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A dramatic reading by George Wallace, writer-in-residence at the Walt Whitman birthplace on Long Island, forms the soundtrack for this neon animation by Jack Feldstein. According to Feldstein’s Wikipedia page,

His trademark style is the “neonizing” of a combination of live action video recording and public domain material, particularly cartoons. “Neonizing” is a complex computer technique that renders the lines of an image to be like a neon sign. […]

Feldstein was a scriptwriter for many years before, as he puts it, he woke up one morning and began making neon films. In the 1990s he was instrumental in developing series for Australian television. He then went on to be Head Writer for Brilliant Digital Entertainment where he was involved in creating 3D computer animated multipath webisode series which included Xena-Warrior Princess, Superman and Ace Ventura.

He describes neon animation, (neonism)…as a deconstructionist, post-modern animation filmmaking style that utilises appropriation and pop art techniques in a ”Warhol meets Vegas” look. It is a stream-of-consciousness narrative with a cartoon aesthetic. Neonism takes modernist stream-of-consciousness filmmaking into a post-modern and humorous form.

Metempsychotic (reincarnated) modernism is another description of Feldstein’s neon animation aesthetic.

Neon animation has also been described as re-animation.

America by Walt Whitman

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http://www.vimeo.com/15575046

Alexander Pulido calls this film American Disillusion:

The now-famous (thank you Levi’s) wax cylinder recording of Walt Whitman reading the first verse of his famous poem ‘America’, juxtaposed against imagery of America in reality.

Philip Binder is credited with the cinematography. (For the Levi’s ad using the same wax recording, see here.)

America and Pioneers! O Pioneers! by Walt Whitman, brought to you by Levi’s

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Multiple uploads of this ad may be found on YouTube, but this one gives the complete credits. Most significant of course is the fact that they used what is believed to be the poet’s own voice, from an 1888 wax recording. The iconic American composer Charles Ives was also sampled in the soundtrack. The Portland, Oregon-based firm Wieden + Kennedy created the ad, with Cary Fukunaga as the director.

The second Whitman ad in Levi’s “Go Forth” campaign, also from W+K, was directed by M Blash.

These ads, especially the first, have received probably more critical attention than any other videopoems to date. Indeed, for some of the commenters — and no doubt for the vast majority of television viewers — these seem to have been their first exposure to the genre. “I’d always wondered what it would look like if stylish music videos were set to classic poetry,” wrote Seth Stevenson in Slate. He found “America” worthy of critical analysis as a film:

That scratchy Whitman recording also sets a mood of vague disquiet. Paired with the music behind it and the startling crack of sudden fireworks, that raspy, distant voice sounds rather ominous. Where the “Live Unbuttoned” ads were about carefree self-expression, this “Go Forth” spot is about squalor and anxiety.

Director Cary Fukunaga (who made the Sundance favorite Sin Nombre and is slated to direct an adaptation of Jane Eyre) filmed much of the ad in Katrina-ravaged sections of New Orleans. The people wearing Levi’s in the spot do not sport sparkling, coordinated outfits as their counterparts did in the previous campaign. They are often barefoot, shirtless, and sweaty, and their jeans look dirty and lived-in.

[…]

In terms of its sounds and images, this is without doubt the most arresting ad I’ve seen all year. It is expertly crafted and beautifully shot. The sound editing is superb, punctuating Whitman’s chant with those tense fireworks explosions. As a whole, it is so jarring and unexpected that I sit up and watch when it comes on—even after several viewings.

Stevenson acknowledged the discomfort many of us might feel at Whitman being pressed into service as a spokesman for a brand, but he felt overall it was a pretty good fit:

Levi’s is the rare American brand that was actually around when Whitman was alive. And there’s logic to this match between a quintessentially American poet and a quintessentially American product.

In Entertainment Weekly, Thom Geir expressed somewhat stronger discomfort with the ad campaign’s use of Whitman. “I can’t help finding the whole concept a little creepy and unsettling,” he wrote. “But I suspect that as a gay, urban-dwelling sensualist, he might have been pleased to associate himself with a stylishly shot film featuring lithe models in tight clothing.”

Grant McCracken, an anthropologist specializing in American consumer culture, had nothing but praise for the campaign, and went so far as to suggest that advertising has pretty much replaced poetry at the center of our culture anyway — a point I’ve been known to make myself on occasion.

But there is another deeper reason why Whitman ought to appear in an American ad. Advertising has taken up what Whitman thought was the poet’s job. All those grim protests from Mad Men notwithstanding, W+K and other agencies are now active inventors of American culture in a way very few poets can claim to be. As Whitman said in the preface to the 1855 edition of Leaves of Grass: “The proof of a poet is that his country absorbs him as affectionately as he has absorbed it.”

Haunted by the fashionable cant of the Frankfurt school, we are uncomfortable that Levi’s should make use of Whitman. But this is wrong. I think it is thrilling to see these meanings circulating in our culture, passing from the poem through the advertising to the jeans, both resonating with and for the American experiment. It is especially thrilling to hear Whitman’s voice return to us from the 19th century, the muse himself made legion. Whatever else it is, W+K’s work is successful homage. And America is usually too much a creation of Walt Whitman to pause and give him his due.

By contrast, Stephen C. Webster at True/Slant called the “America” spot “The Most Offensive Commercial Ever Produced.”

In 2004, Levi Strauss & Co. shut down its last factories in America. This strong, ample, fair, enduring, capable, rich nation was no longer suited to the production of denim wear. No, instead, what was once an American institution and indeed a symbol of our culture was split asunder and divided among 50 other nations, each thrilled to have the pleasure of producing blue jeans.

After 150 years, the last gasp of Levi Strauss & Co. in the United States was the shuttering of two production facilities in San Antonio, Texas, leaving over 800 of those capable and rich American workers with nothing.

[…]

Walt Whitman stood adamant in his opposition to slavery. He was even a delegate to the Free Soil Party, a short-lived American political movement that sought to enforce the idea that anyone living on free soil, American soil, would be free indeed.

And here, today, his timeless voice is used to sell denim produced by the impoverished people of wherever, toiling as they may in shops known for their sweat.

In 2002, the U.S. Fair Labor Association found that Levi’s, along with Nike, Reebok and others, were in violation of fair labor practices at factories they contract through.

In just one example, the labor association found that a factory in Mexico (PDF link) which manufactures Levi’s jeans had neglected to explain to its employees that overtime work is voluntary. Some employees told the association’s inspectors that they were under the impression that overtime was mandatory. The factory was further found to be in violation of Mexican labor laws for neglecting overtime wage calculation.

Currently, in a Google Video search of “Walt Whitman,” the top result is the PBS biography, part of its American Experience series. And despite Grant McCracken’s bizarre cheerleading for corporatism, I suspect nothing but another unbranded film or videopoem will ever displace it, because those most likely to link to and share a Walt Whitman poem are unlikely to be more than momentarily diverted by a carny’s protestations of authenticity.