How many films have you watched? Ten? A hundred? I imagine the figure is likely to be in the thousands. All those Sunday afternoon matinees, those trips to the cinema, the Shakespeare remakes shown in class, the teatime classics, the 10pm premieres, and the hours spent on Netflix binges certainly add up.
I bet you could easily reel off the typical horror movie plot, or list some of the common themes found in a classic Western, or at least give a run down of what is meant by ‘private eye’ or ‘femme fatale’? In my upcoming online course at the Poetry School, we’ll tap into our movie knowledge, alongside personal experience, to inspire and write new poems that have a cinematic edge, that utilise film structure, and explore the metaphoric opportunities film genres can offer.
Often horror films can be viewed as imaginary palimpsests to convey political or societal fears. Below the surface of the earth demonic gods are kept at bay by the offerings of teenage sacrifices in The Cabin in the Woods (2012). In The Midnight Meat Train (2008) a wannabe photographer rides the subway at night to document the city’s underbelly. However, he gradually discovers a conspiracy to feed hundreds of monsters that live below the city, which act as a metaphor for the city’s corruption.
Horror films can offer us both atmospheric inspiration, but also force us to imagine what’s really lurking in the shadows. Seamus Heaney’s grim description of a bog body in ‘The Grauballe Man’ is both horrific (‘he lies / on a pillow of turf / and seems to weep / the black river of himself’), yet political, as he compares photographs of these brutalized, preserved bodies to photographs of atrocities: ‘each hooded victim, / slashed and dumped’. In this section of the course we’ll look at ways to apply these narratives of horror to personal or impersonal events from our lives.
The typical Western features many themes, including masculinity, us versus them, the role of the outsider, and the conquest of the wilderness. Many Western’s depict society in its lawless infancy, within a territory as dangerous as its outlaws. Although the Western conjures a raft of association, the core themes feature in films as varied as cop siege thriller Assault on Precinct 13 (2005), and in hybrids like Back to the Future Part III (1990) and Django Unchained (2012). We’ll take a look at the Western legacy in modern cinema alongside classics like The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966), and The Magnificent Seven (1960).
The poems we write in this section of course won’t limit themselves to cactuses and shootouts, although parody is encouraged, (like in Margret Atwood’s satirical ‘Backdrop Addresses a Cowboy’ where ‘Your righteous eyes, your laconic / trigger-fingers / people the streets with villains’), but also seek to explore the themes indirectly, like in ‘The West’ by Michael Longley, a poem about exile and the longing for home, which emerges in the desert when the speaker sees himself ‘through a sandy lens / Materialising out of the heat-shimmers’.
I’m often surprised how poetically romantic comedies are structured. Reece Witherspoon’s Sweet Home Alabama (2002) begins with a dream of lightning striking twice on the beach as a metaphor for love. Later, when she returns home to face her husband for a divorce so she can re-marry, she falls back in love with him after she learns that he has created a successful glassware business, which sells the sculptures created when lightning hits the sand. The film ends with lightning striking twice, reaffirming their love.
What structural tricks can we steal from romantic comedies to write poems about our own romances? In the poem ‘My Life as a B Movie’, Kona McPhee steals the lot: the shades of slapstick, the gawky best friend, and the ‘heavily foreshadowed, third-act fallings out’ that always feature just as we think the leads are going to get together.
Films noir are often driven by anxious, pessimistic and obsessive individuals operating within a dark and mysterious world. Not all of them are about crime, and are, more often than not, about characters who are facing an identity crisis or crossing a border into an unknown or repressed state of being.
Most commonly they are about the descent, a descent into the past, into a present hell, or into the unconscious. Taking cue from classic films noir such as Kiss Me, Deadly (1955), and Out of the Past (1947), alongside neo-noirs like Se7en (1995) and Memento (2000), in this section of the course we’ll look at poems that follow noir tradition to spark the writing of our own poems noir, like Robin Robertson’s ‘The Wood of Lost Things’ that features a man descending into the woods to re-discover his past: ‘those who have stepped through my own shadow / a life’s worth of women in the forest corridor’.
The Disaster Movie
The disaster genre perfectly balances a mix of the universal with the personal. Typically, everything happens simultaneously; personal stories interweave with perspectives from across the globe. The scientist stumbles on the geological evidence that foretells catastrophe. Meanwhile the dishevelled protagonist takes his kids on a camping trip to Yellowstone where the disaster will begin. This is the start of 2012 (2009), and our caring for the end of the world is made more emotional because we care about the protagonist, unknowingly walking into danger with his children. Take the classic Bruce Willis flick, Armageddon (1998). What’s the biggest tearjerker? The annihilation of the Earth? Or Bruce’s heart warming broadcast to his daughter before he sacrifices himself to save humanity?
Where will you be at the end, and what will you be doing? David Harsent gives his own take in ‘Fire: a party at the world’s end’, imagining the stirrings of the end of society as a final party at the coast:
Scorched earth, the final notes or else the first,
bells and drums at the sea’s edge where they’ve built
bonfires against the last and worst
of the day, deep dusk overlapping
the shoreline, treeline, rockfall, hills as they melt
in secret bowls of blue, the wavetops folding
fire on fire… and just where music and sea are lost
to one another, where nothing can be seen and nothing felt,
they dance like broken things, unstrung and calling.
In my own work I often borrow cinematic devices, such as flashbacks, or scene changes, to drive action forwards. By imbuing a poem with the atmospheric or narrative detail of a film genre, then you can allow yourself to tap into a ready-made image register that comes with its own symbolic structure. This opens an arena in which one can play with a reader’s expectations, but also gives the poet an opportunity to make the familiar extraordinary, and exploit the metaphors a genre can offer. In this course we’ll borrow the ways in which movies excite, thrill and terrify, and write poems that view our lives from new, and cinematic perspectives.
Re-imagine your life and poems through the lens of genre film in John’s online course, YOU, The Movie – Horror, Western, Romance, Noir and Disaster Poetry. Book online or ring 0207 582 1679.