LEARNING TO SEE

A shot from the opening scene of Samurai Rebellion.

A shot from the opening scene of Samurai Rebellion.

Well. I’ve finally gotten to the point where I’m ready to query agents for my Beowulf novel. It’s been some time since the first word of the (totally different) ur-draft of this thing, and there have been other things that have happened in between then and now. But it has recently struck me that it took me so long to find my fiction-writing stride because I was trying to write into received form.

By which I simply mean: tab over for the first line of a paragraph.

I started breaking out of this when I started dabbling in short fiction last year. Instead of an initial tab, I started each paragraph at the left-hand margin. I wrote blocks of text with section breaks. (I like to write in sections, so this suited my personal narrative style.)

Meanwhile, I was struggling with an earlier draft of my Beowulf novel. I had the characters, the plot, but I couldn’t get the language right. This frustrated me to no end. I’m a poet. I can do language. So, what was going on? Why were paragraphs so difficult for me?

Then I read Max Porter’s Grief Is This Thing With Feathers and the proverbial light went on. (Seriously, if you have not read his book, check it out.) Suffice it to say, Porter finds a way to marry form and story in his short tale of a recently widowed Ted Hughes scholar and his two sons, who are all mourning the loss of their wife and mother.

I started a new draft of my Beowulf novel and started writing with hanging indents so that the language scrolled across the page, and this made me feel more connected with my subject matter (which, after all, is an Anglo-Saxon epic poem) and more able to plug into rhythm.

Fast forward to yesterday. Yesterday, I watched this short film, Skateboard Confessional from Mitch Mitchell, and loved it because it is funny, and tender, and sweet, but I also noted the way the cinematography interacts with everything else that is happening here. And I was reminded that film, like poetry, tells a story (or gets its point across, if you don’t want to think of a poem as a story) in more than one way. There’s what people do and say. There’s the plot of a film, or what happens in a poem, but there’s also always the form of the telling.

(For years I didn’t realize that this could be true in fiction as well, to my detriment. But reading authors like Han Kang and Ali Smith has cured me of that.)

What strikes me about Skateboard Confessional is the (I think) almost self-mocking art film quality of it all (black-and-white, some edgy music, the camera angles) coupled and contrasted with the incredible personable-ness of the actor making the confessions and the weird, yet familiar quality of these mundane, but pressing, admissions. (Whether these confessions are real or imagined hardly matters in my mind.) The effect is again, incredibly sweet and feels funny and awfully honest.

And then, after thinking about all of this, I sort of had to sit around and mourn for a few moments that I haven’t spent nearly enough time watching good film recently, and that good film, in which the cinematography plays a vital role in telling story, can be just as inspiring to me as poetry, where everything from space on the page, to line breaks, to syntax helps explain to me just what is going on.

And then this all takes me back to my college film class and the stern talk the professor, whose first name was Art, gave us—many of us were English majors—about how a film wasn’t exactly like a book and we had to learn to see differently, to look at color, angle, space, and shot in order to understand the story being told. In other words, a film is more than people talking to each other.

And then (a lot of and then here, I know) I thought about the opening shots in Samurai Rebellion, my favorite film of all time. Directed by Masaki Kobayashi, the film stars Toshiro Mifune as an aging samurai who defies his feudal lord out of love for his eldest son and daughter-in-law. The story takes place in 1725 and because of historical reality, there’s not going to be a happy end. And I think we know this from the minute the film starts, when we get a series of (in my mind somewhat claustrophobic) shots of rock wall and rooftops as the opening credits roll. The effect is very foreboding. The accompanying music and the fact that the rooftop is shown in a series of shots that increase in close-up, and delve further and further into details, and blot out the surrounding sky definitely add to this. But then I felt myself lulled somewhat away from the sense of the foreboding by the domesticity of the story. I found myself rooting for the son and his wife, a former mistress of the daimyo, who were married at the daimyo’s orders, and have fallen in love, and don’t want to separate when the daimyo demands that his former mistress return to the palace. And Toshiro Mifune gives a wonderful, understated performance—well, understated in comparison to his turns in some Kurosawa films I’ve seen—as a man who has been loyal for his entire life, but who is inspired by love to fight against injustice. But then, you know, the end comes. And I remember those rooftops and the music from the opening. Almost as if those rooftops were telling me: You thought you could get away from reality, but you couldn’t. There is no escape. And so those rooftops are telling one of the stories of the film. (You can watch the opening credits on YouTube here.)

I think this is all rather poetic.

That is all for now. Thanks for reading.