Shot Verse Shot: "Benediction" and Poetry in Cinema

Terence Davies's new film about Siegfried Sassoon shows how filmmakers can conjure poetry through lyrical editing.
Dan Schindel

You've heard me, scornful, harsh, and discontented,
Mocking and loathing War: you've asked me why
Of my old, silly sweetness I've repented—
My ecstasies changed to an ugly cry.
You are aware that once I sought the Grail,
Riding in armour bright, serene and strong;
And it was told that through my infant wail
There rose immortal semblances of song.
But now I've said good-bye to Galahad,
And am no more the knight of dreams and show:
For lust and senseless hatred make me glad,
And my killed friends are with me where I go.
Wound for red wound I burn to smite their wrongs;
And there is absolution in my songs.

—Siegfried Sassoon, “The Poet as Hero”

Films about art and artists face different obstacles in making the art itself cinematic. A movie about a painter, like Pollock (2000) or My Left Foot (1989), can simply observe them at work. Keiichi Hara’s animated film Miss Hokusai (2015), about the artist Hokusai and his daughter, can visually quote its subject’s ukiyo-e prints directly. On the same wavelength, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent (2017) tells of van Gogh’s final days with animation composed of oil painting cels imitating the artist’s own style. Writing is more difficult to depict. “Writer” is an incredibly easy job to give a character who will spend a film doing little or no writing (seen in everything from La piscine [1969] to Knight of Cups [2015]). Even biographical works tend to focus on the events that informed famous writers’ work rather than on those works themselves (see Capote [2005], Tolkien [2019], and the like). There is hence a divide in this genre. Cinema’s artistic language is able to evoke that of other visual arts, but how can it incorporate the written word in a similarly visceral manner, in a way that goes beyond merely having characters recite passages or quotes, or montages of pens against paper or characters hunched over typewriters? Many great films about poets and poetry accomplish this by imbibing the art not into their visuals, but into their editing. 

A great new example of this comes with Terence Davies’s new film Benediction, which studies the life of English war poet Siegfried Sassoon in a manner that evinces the mood of Sassoon’s own writings. Heavily affected by his experiences in the First World War, Sassoon’s war poetry is mournful and reflective. Davies presents his life non-chronologically like a memory play, hearkening back to his narrative experimentation in films like The Neon Bible (1995). There’s nothing in Benediction as overtly stylized as the steam train that chugs dreamlike through flashbacks of childhood in that film, but its free intermingling of Sassoon’s youth (where he’s played by Jack Lowden) and old age (Peter Capaldi) induce the same feeling of vividly reliving memory. The subjectivity becomes especially pronounced in sequences dealing with Sassoon’s late-in-life conversion to Catholicism; one figurative scene in which Sassoon prostrates himself on the floor of a church is especially breathtaking in the sense of intimacy it communicates with the divine.

There is plenty of traditional recitation of poetry in Benediction, but it is in how Davies weaves such scenes into the rest of Sassoon’s life that makes the words truly impactful. The story can be roughly divided into three main parts. The first, set at the psychiatric hospital the previously decorated soldier was committed to after coming out against the war, is exactingly gentle in everything from its unhurried pacing to its soft sound design, to better model Sassoon’s numbing “neurasthenia”—what we would later come to understand as post-traumatic stress disorder. It is from this context that many of Sassoon’s most famous poems come. 

It's easy to see the connection from Sassoon’s grief and existential malaise in the hospital scenes to his search for deeper spiritual meaning in the ’60s. The middle section of the film, in which Sassoon finds professional success and hangs with the trendiest crowds, reads on its surface as more lighthearted, with his cohort frequently trading bitchy barbs and gossip. But the same thread is in fact tightly wound through these scenes as well, evident from things as overt as the collapses of Sassoon’s various relationships to each private moment when Lowden’s jaw draws tight. Alex Mackie’s cutting reinforces this, maintaining a steady languid pace which causes even the funniest remarks to dissipate into long pauses. It suggests a lifelong continuum of pain through to the third section, set during Sassoon’s old age. His whole life he’s trying—never quite to his satisfaction—to make sense of his experiences. ​​

 A Quiet Passion (2016).

I reckon — When I count at all —
First — Poets — Then the Sun —
Then Summer — Then the Heaven of God —
And then — the List is done —
But, looking back — the First so seems
To Comprehend the Whole —
The Others look a needless Show —
So I write — Poets — All —
Their Summer — lasts a solid Year —
They can afford a Sun
The East — would deem extravagant —
And if the Further Heaven —
Be Beautiful as they prepare
For Those who worship Them —
It is too difficult a Grace —
To justify the Dream —

—Emily Dickinson

Davies previously explored the life of a poet in A Quiet Passion (2016), and seems to find a kindred spirit in the famous lifelong isolation of Emily Dickinson (Cynthia Nixon). This film, too, is measured in its pace, and though linear in narrative, it’s also heavy with the weight of memory. (One sequence transitions from Dickinson’s youth to her adulthood with one of the most brutal dissolve effects ever put on film.) Forming an interesting counterpoint is Madeline Olnek’s Wild Nights with Emily (2018), released two years later, which takes an actively revisionist, corrective tack to Dickinson’s life. Working from long-buried historical evidence on Dickinson, played here by Molly Shannon, Olnek defies her cultural image as a lovelorn shut-in, focusing on her romance with her sister-in-law (Susan Ziegler) and her active attempts to get published in her lifetime. The movie is willfully playful rather than somber; one scene breaks the fourth wall to have various characters show off how one can sing Dickinson’s poems to the tune of “The Yellow Rose of Texas.”

Though diametrically opposed in sentiment, A Quiet Passion and Wild Nights with Emily end up rather complementary instead of being at odds, foregrounding different aspects of Dickinson’s work and personality. They also demonstrate the interpretive flexibility of the poetry. Pia Di Ciaula’s stately editing for A Quiet Passion supports Davies’s elegiac approach, while Tony Clemente Jr. and Lee Eaton’s brisk cutting on Wild Nights matches Olnek’s livelier version of Dickinson. It turns out that “Because I could not stop for Death” can be quite the upbeat piece!

Bright Star (2009).

Bright star! would I were stedfast as thou art—
    Not in lone splendour hung aloft the night,
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
    Like Nature's patient sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
    Of pure ablution round earth's human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft fallen mask
    Of snow upon the mountains and the moors—
No—yet still stedfast, still unchangeable,
    Pillow'd upon my fair love's ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
    Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever—or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

Jane Campion does something similar with Bright Star (2009), her chronicle of the romance between John Keats (Ben Whishaw) and his muse Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish). It deploys Keats’s writing strategically, leaning less on the words themselves and more on conjuring the Romantic spirit in which he worked. A close observer of interpersonal gestures, Campion allows the tragedy of Keats and Brawne’s doomed love to build as it becomes evident that he won’t live much longer. While most of the film adheres to a realist lens, the ending—in which Brawne dresses in black to mourn her lover and walks the woods at dusk speaking aloud the film’s namesake poem, which Keats wrote to her—seems more figurative. She could be reciting to herself, or to Keats, or to the audience. “Bright star, would I were stedfast as thou art” is heard in fragments until that point, but when recited in full here, Cornish’s prolonged delivery creates a potent punctuation mark on the narrative.

The Color of Pomegranates (1969).

Speak but one word, to say thou art Sayat-Nova’s love,
And then what matters aught to me, in earth or heaven above?
Thy rays have filled the world; thou art a shield that fronts the sun.
Thou dost exhale the perfume sweet of clove and cinnamon,
Of violet, rose, and marjoram; to me, with love grown pale,
Thou art a red flower of the field, a lily of the vale!

—    Sayat-Nova, translated by Alice Stone Blackwell, “Love Song”

In his masterpiece The Color of Pomegranates (1969)—about the celebrated 18th-century Armenian itinerant poet Sayat-Nova—Sergei Parajanov also closely emulates a well-known poet’s style to tell their story. Refusing most tropes of biographical films, Parajanov’s formally rigorous vignette-based approach; figurative, enigmatic imagery; and emphasis on tableau staging embody the poet’s spirit much more than the rote details of his life. The film also more broadly considers issues of Armenian history and identity, using Sayat-Nova as a lens through which these themes are refracted. Every gesture by the performers feels minutely considered, so deliberate and slowly paced that the suspense of watching each moment is nearly rapturous. Parajanov puts forward close-ups of faces or of objects like a knife or, of course, pomegranates in the same cadence that Sayat-Nova enumerates the aspects of the world in his “Love Song.”

24 Frames (2017).

In my life

the role of accident

has been more prominent

than that of decision;

the role of punishment 

more than that of encouragement; 

the role played by the enemy

more than the role of friends.

—Abbas Kiarostami, translated by Karim Emami and Michael Beard, from the collection A Wolf Lying in Wait 

There is of course a whole genre of films made as poems as well, practiced by the likes of Man Ray, James Broughton, and many more. Kiarostami is an easy touchstone here. He was a poet in addition to a filmmaker, and his poetic sensibility is on full display in much of his work. The Wind Will Carry Us (1999) is even named after a Forough Farrokhzad poem and references the Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám as well. This quality comes to the fore in his experimental vignette-based works like Five Dedicated to Ozu (2003) and especially 24 Frames (2017). The formal strictness of the latter film—24 shots, each one a black-and-white still lasting precisely four and a half minutes—further underlines its feeling of a long poem delivered in uniform stanzas. The specificity of the rhythm that emerges adds to the film’s hypnotic atmosphere, opening the viewer’s mind to Kiarostami’s deeper explorations of the nature of images.

Surveying great films about poets and poetry, noteworthy editing choices continue to emerge as the essence of their success. Rhythm and spacing are a tremendous consideration when writing poetry, and so it makes sense that the poetic vibe would manifest onscreen in this way, treating shots as words and editing as their meter. The grammar of both art forms is complementary; dealing directly with written poetry can more strikingly highlight the workings of visual poetry. Terence Davies is already attuned to such aesthetic concerns in his work, which is perhaps what’s drawn him to look at poets more than once with his films. Wrangling verse on film can bring out ingenious solutions from filmmakers with the right sensitivity to the words on the page.

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Terence DaviesMadeline OlnekJane CampionSergei ParajanovAbbas Kiarostami
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