Trails

 

Author: Wyn Mason
Format: Poetry-film
Duration: 24′ 51″
Published: May 2013


Research Statement

Questions
Trails falls into the category of aesthetic research (as defined by Dovey, 2009: 59), where film ‘work is driven by an experimental drive to find new ways to say new things’. The starting point was seeking to make a non-dramatic, minimalist film – where focus lies primarily on a character’s unseen, inner trajectory – consciously resisting the dramatic convention of externalising change through action. Rather than represent a character’s journey through plot, an attempt is made to delineate a character’s development predominately through the creative manipulation of film language, which places the film within the broad context of formalism.

The initial starting point came from attending Philip Glass’s musical interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s Book of Longing (Cohen, 2006), where the composer took specific poems from a published collection, and set them to music performed by various combinations of four singers. For me, Glass’s show evoked a sense of an inner character arc, despite the absence of dramatic action, and pointed towards poetry’s power to imply inner monologue. My aim was to achieve a similar effect using film: to make a semi-narrative, non-dialogue film that used poetry to suggest a character’s inner voice. This of course is familiar terrain within European art house cinema, for example Tarkovsky’s Mirror (1975), where his father’s poems were used as a way of pointing towards the main character’s childhood memories, thoughts and dreams. The aim with Trails was to explore a similar aesthetic, but with the specific objective of discovering a particular device, unique to the short film form, that would formally reflect the main character’s trajectory.

My intention was to produce a semi-autobiographic film, in line with Cohen’s poems, which focused on his period living in a Buddhist retreat. With this in mind I chose to base the film on my brother’s as yet unpublished poems, the poems of Paul Mason, many of which draw upon imagery from our shared upbringing on a farm in rural Ceredigion. Similar to other economic migrants from West Wales we both now live in Cardiff, and frequently journey from city to countryside. Using such an excursion as the framework for the film’s physical journey, which would be accompanied by the poems, made it possible to conceive of a semi-autobiographical, semi-documentary film that takes memory and identity as its central theme. The title, Trails, is taken from one of the lines that opens the film, ‘…invisible trails that tremble this side of existence’, and refers to trails of thought patterns and behaviour that exist within the character’s personal history, as well as what is inherited and handed down from generation to generation. The aim was to create a formal, invisible ‘trail’ within the fabric of the film that would reflect its content.

Context
Trails sits within the tradition of poetry-film, the aim of which, as defined by critic William C. Wees, is to create ‘a synthesis of poetry and film that generates associations, connotations and metaphors neither the verbal nor visual text would produce on its own’ (Wees, 1999:1). One of the earliest examples, and a classic of the sub-genre, would be the short film Manhatta (1921), directed by painter Charles Sheeler and photographer Paul Strand, where documentary footage of New York City is intercut with extracts of Walt Whitman’s poetry in the form of intertitles – the visual and verbal placed side by side to symbiotically create new meanings. One way of seeking to evolve the tradition is to also explore formal ways of creating a synthesis of poetry and film beyond mere juxtaposition, so that film form echoes poetry forms.

An influence on my thinking around this topic came from reading Tom Paulin’s The Secret Life of Poems (2008), where the intention was to jettison ‘all earnest explanation of the text and concentrate on sound, cadence, metre, rhyme, form’, i.e. unearthing a poem’s meaning not through its content but through studying its hidden form. We are familiar with visual rhymes being used within film (for example in Ozu’s work, as explored by Bordwell, 1988), but what other forms, borrowed from poetry, can films emulate?

Trails also grows out of an interest in database filmmaking, inspired by Manovich’s thoughts on the interface between database and narrative, where he cites Vertov’s work (Man With a Movie Camera, 1929) as being exemplary of a film that strikes a creative balance between both. ‘Thus, in the hands of Vertov, a database, this normally static and “objective” form, becomes dynamic and subjective’ (2001:24-25). With reference to a previously created schema (Mason, 2013), Trails would be placed on the database side of the spectrum, where a film’s narrative is constructed in post-production from a database of shots. This is born of a desire to construct narrative using images that retain their multiple meanings, their cinematic, poetic integrity (Kracauer, 1960), which seems appropriate for poetry-film.

Methods
Originally, the main film language methods deployed to delineate the character’s trajectory were:

>  Interplay of still and moving-image. The film strives to become a movie; images of characters evolve from still to moving, inspired by Marker’s La Jetée (1962), and building upon previous work (Mason & Wiblin, 2008).

>  Shooting the same location in different seasons. A particular visual system was developed based upon treating the seasons in relation to different times of the character’s life, i.e. the present tense occurring in the autumn, and the past tense represented by either winter or summer, with the latter representing a more positive re-writing of the past.

>  Colour grading. A journey from desaturated to saturated colours.

Whilst these elements contribute to the piece’s coherence they ultimately failed to provide sufficient articulation of the intended theme: the rewriting of past narratives.  A major creative leap occurred with the idea of structuring the film in two equal parts, with the first half’s soundtrack being repeated in its entirety in the second half. The images are different, as the character continues his journey, but are accompanied by the same sounds as the first half: poetry readings, music and sound effects.

  Image sequence A

 

  Image sequence C
  Soundtrack B

 

  Soundtrack B
  ACT ONE   ACT TWO

The idea arose partly from a consideration of theatre play texts, for example Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1952) where the structure of Act One is more or less repeated in Act Two. The most significant influence however came directly from poetry, from the Welsh language poetic discipline of cynghaneddCynghanedd (roughly translated as ‘harmony’) is an ancient method, but still used by contemporary poets, of creating harmony within a line of poetry, whereby the sounds of the first half (various patterns of stress, consonants and internal rhyme) is exactly mirrored in the second, divided by the line’s central pause, called the medial caesura. The idea of exploring what might be the filmic equivalent of cynghanedd, how it may be creatively utilised to generate meaning, has intrigued me for a while, but this is the first time I have consciously attempted to give it form.

This formal device is appropriate because it connects with the film’s content. The film’s narrative is of a middle-aged man who travels to the countryside with his young son to visit his aging parents, where he revisits his childhood haunts, and in the process, it is implied, thoughts and memories are reflected upon and possibly rearranged. He cannot change his childhood or previous actions but he can change his interpretation of past events. Similarly, Act One’s soundtrack is unchanged in Act Two, but the images that accompany it do change, offering new readings of previously visited soundscapes. In the second half of the film, as the main character increasingly reflects on his own past, the repeated soundtrack aims to evoke the viewers’ memory of what was already seen and heard, so that their trajectory throughout the film mirrors the character’s increasingly reflective and introverted journey.

The device presents an opportunity to deconstruct the screen’s diagetic space. Act One is predominately visually-driven; the soundtrack, mostly but not exclusively, follows the images.  It tends towards diagetic, present tense, sound. In Act Two this is reversed; here the sound edit pre-exists the picture edit. Consequently, Act Two tends towards non-diagetic sound, removed from the immediate here and now. In the second half the film becomes more aurally-driven as the soundtrack asserts its presence.

Trails is a short film, so it is relatively easy for viewers to recall, or at least partly recall, the images that originally accompanied the sound. The result is a peculiar mental layering of image upon image, the one currently viewed and the one remembered. For example, the main character gathering stones from the riverbed is accompanied by the sound of rain beating against a windowpane, which earlier accompanied interior shots of the character’s home. The anticipate effect is of somehow knowing what the character might be recalling. In this respect the device can be thought of as a form-based way of augmenting character identification.

This layering effect can also create visual rhymes, functioning as a way of inviting viewers to make connections via sound between seemingly unconnected scenes.  For example, the autumnal leaf floating down the river accompanies the sound and poetry lines that earlier played alongside withering lilies in the character’s kitchen; or the image of the rising moon connecting with the hand-drawn face on the train’s dirty window. The device offers a way of enhancing individual images so that they resonate with ones previously viewed, with other images in the database, creating an extra layer of ‘invisible trails’.

Outcome
The project presents an example of filmmaking methodology inspired by poetry form, in this case cynghanedd, with the hope that it might encourage further, similar explorations in the field. Poetry can communicate its meaning overtly, through its content, or covertly, through its form (Paulin, 2008); sometimes they concur and sometimes they do not, which adds to a text’s richness. Poetry-film is potentially well placed to venture down the path of formal explorations derived from poetry.

Impact
The film was self-financed (the work evolved through process, and it is almost impossible to create successful funding pitches for such projects), but it received in-kind support from the University of South Wales. It has only just been completed and will be entered into various film festivals in the near future, for example the Aesthetica Short Film Festival in York, England, and the Zebra Poetry Film Festival in Berlin, Germany (re-edited to be under 15-minutes).

References
Beckett, S. (1952) Waiting for Godot, London: Faber & Faber.
Bordwell, D. (1988) Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema, London: BFI.
Cohen, L. (2006) Book of Longing, Toronto: McClelland & Stewart.
Dovey, J. (2009) Making a Difference: Media Practice-as-Research, Creative Economies and Cultural Ecologies, in Allegue, L. et al. Practice-as-Research in Performance and Screen, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Glass, P. (2007) Book of Longing: A Song Cycle Based on the Poetry and Images of Leonard Cohen, New York: Orange Mountain Music [CD].
Kracauer, S. (1960) Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality, New York: Oxford University.
Marker, C. (1962) La Jetée/The Jetty, France: Argos Films [Film].
Mason, W. & Wiblin, I. (2008) Crossing, Wales [Film].
Mason, W. (2013) Mobilising Stillness: From Database to Story, via Still and Moving-image, Journal of Media Practice, 13:2, pp.143-162, Bristol: Intellect Press.
Sheeler, C. & Strand, P. (1921) Manhatta, USA [Film].
Paulin, T. (2008) The Secret Life of Poems: A Poetry Primer, Faber & Faber: London.
Tarkovsky, A. (1975) Zerkalo/Mirror, USSR: Mosfilm [Film].
Vertov, D. (1929) Chelovek s kinoapparatom/Man With a Movie Camera, USSR [Film]
Wees, W. C. (1999) Poetry-Films and Film Poems, Film Poems: Programme Notes, pp.1-2, London: BFI.


Peer Reviews

The following reviews refer to the original submission. Both the statement and the screenwork have since evolved significantly in response to the feedback.

Review 1: Invite re-submission with re-edit of statement
This work can be seen to fall into the category of aesthetic research in the taxonomy of evaluations for examining practice as research developed by Jon Dovey and the initial Screenworks debates and publications. (see:Dovey, J. (2009) ‘Making a difference: Media practice research, creative economies and cultural ecologies’ in Ludvine, A. et al (eds.) Practice-as-Research: In Performance and Screen. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.)

The work features the interweaving of beautifully shot stills and moving image with a subtly crafted and evocative soundtrack, combining with the poetry of Paul Mason in examining through film making, the themes at the heart of the poems, and an exploration of the film poem and wider engagements with narrative conventions in moving image work.

However with regards to the supporting statement and in proposing work for consideration and publication as practice based/as research, then far more depth, context and unpacking of the key research themes is needed. The statements as they currently stand are too vague and general and give little indication to the research specifics of this work – what specifically is informing the questions, criteria, working methods and outcomes?

What new knowledge does this work contribute, and to what contexts does the work contribute new knowledge to?

The supporting statements currently feel that they have been somewhat hastily put together, perhaps for the purposes of submission for a deadline. They would however, benefit from far more specific detail and relating to their specific contexts.

Re: Criteria – rather than trot out the research questions that may be informing this practice – please answer/address these questions from your own perspective as the film maker, or indicate how these concerns specifically should be informing the viewer and reader. Whilst explorations of purist and narrative vs. non-narrative cinemas are intimated – your specific take on these fields and your films specific contributions to these debates and diverse practices is not clarified.

Re: Context – some specifics are made mention of here – and the supporting material would really benefit from unpacking in more detail, particularly from the author’s Mobilising Stillness paper from the Journal of Media Practice, which he mentions.

Whilst relating the work to Vertov, Tarkovsky, Kracauer, modernist film making tradition and romanticism – all fairly aged and broad agendas – how does the author’s work interact, contribute, question or add new knowledge to these contexts?

I’m certain there is much that the author/film maker’s work contributes to the context of the film/poem, but again what he writes here is vague and would merit from far deeper analysis and contextualization.

Re: Methods – again more depth and specifics would be appreciated. The film maker’s imagery is beautiful – what was it shot on – what about edit strategies? Brief mention is made of Manovich and database cinema – in what way does process contribute to the methodologies and strategies of production undertaken here? How much of the films construction is exploration and experimentation with process as well as aesthetic concerns? What about the soundtrack? What about the use of Black and White imagery and introduction of colour? There is some really interesting work going on in choice and edit of the sound, music , still and moving imagery. I certainly would like to know much more about this – and think the considerations of the research contexts of the work and the contexts informing the practice will bolster the ‘researchness’ of this particular practice-as-research, and its potential contribution to these debates and critical contexts as part of the Screenworks project to open out these elements of moving image practices.

‘Poetry has evolved considerably since the heyday of Romanticism, but this does not mean (as discussed with poet Philip Gross after a recent viewing of the film) that Romantic sentiments have ceased to be relevant to contemporary life.’ – again more specifics and detail regarding this would be appreciated and be of interest to the audience of SceenWorks.

Re: Outcomes – I think if the above points and observations were addressed then the outcomes ( and what other practitioners might take from this work) will become much more explicit, than the two rather paltry and generalized bullet points provided.

Re: Impact – Dovey makes comment that this can be hard to quantify, and given that this work has had little exposure yet – then some more detailed indication of intended festival submissions might help – since in effect the work currently doesn’t have any impact in this particular context…

Review 2: Invite re-submission with re-edit of statement
It’s good to see an attempt at working with poetry and narrative film which, as the author has highlighted, is not necessarily a new approach, but one worth further exploration and development. As such this is a very worthy attempt and one that sits well within the remit of Screenworks.

The overall scholarship of the work strikes me as problematic. First, the linking of database narratives with the poetry film genre strikes me as incomplete and rather casual. On the one hand there is the reference to the random nature of database narratives, while on the other the narrative arc of the film and the construction of the poetry and its almost literal connection to the imagery, strike me as highly constructed. This relationship, and the consequent potential for a new and insightful development of the poetry film genre, has not been fully explored, nor does there seem evidence from the film itself of how this relationship has been realised.

Second, the poetry film has a long illustrious history dating back to at least Grierson’s Night Mail, and the use of still images to explore temporality and its relationship to narrative, of course, was pioneered by Chris Maker and others and its hard to see how the author has contextualised his work in these illustrious traditions and how he is trying to move either genre forward. This relates back to the research questions, which strike me as far too all encompassing and very generic – particularly the first two. What would have been useful would have been much more succinct research questions that highlighted very specifically which aspects of the genre the author finds need further investigation and more specifically what to look for in the work that would evidence a new understanding of the genre. In a sense, the research questions and the methodology concern themselves with so many things – database narratives, still images and their temporal relationship to the moving image, narrative space, montage, inner monologue and outer action, minimalism and more. Each of these could, singularly, form a sufficient research question. A couple of things stand out as having strong potential for focusing the project: the issue of multiple poems (though someone like Tarkovsky used this approach constantly, so the question would be what’s new or different about the approach being used here?); the dimension poetry can bring in relation to inner and outer perspectives on a story (perhaps the most successful aspect of the project); and the relationship between the ‘random’ imagery (suggested by database narratives) and poetic narrative structure. Most of the other issues raised have not been grounded rigorously enough in terms of scholarship and the questions related to them are not, in my opinion, sufficiently focused or original to provide new insights.

With the scholarly elements of the project in mind, the work itself – as a piece of research – consequently strikes me as lacking in originality and impact. The journey from the city to the mystical countryside is, for me, a very interesting theme and the idea of marrying the non-diegetic poetry with the visual narrative strikes me as having real potential, particularly as I do feel that the film has some success in suggesting two parallel – yet interlinked – journeys taking place simultaneously. The still images have not necessarily added much, in terms of originality, and the juxtaposition of poetic content and imagery seems very literal and linear. I also feel that the film would have had a greater impact if it were at least 10 minutes shorter.

In short, I am not convinced that the overall form of the film adds anything new to our engagement with, or understanding of, the genre of the poetry film, as it currently stands, though I am convinced that there is an important and genuine underlying theme that has been well worth while making a film about.

The author has identified two desired outcomes: one related to multi-poem film, the other related to contrasting still images and moving images.  Firstly, the description of these desired outcomes strike me as inadequate. Secondly, I am not convinced that the work itself has contributed new insights into the multi-poem film or has given us a new insight into the relationship between the still image and the moving image.


The above reviews refer to the original submission. Both the statement and the screenwork have since evolved significantly in response to the feedback.

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