September 16, 2012

Film and Poetry: Hitchcock, Lynch, Tarkovsky, and the Politics of Knives

by Jonathan Ball

My recent book, The Politics of Knives features nine long poems with interlinking elements. One common thread is the influence of film on my poetry, specifically the work of three filmmakers: Hitchcock, Lynch, and Tarkovsky.

Hitchcock’s film Psycho is the most obvious of these influences, given that one of the book’s nine poems is called “Psycho” and describes the film poetically, with a perverse focus on the story’s protagonist, Marion Crane. Unconventionally, Crane is murdered partway through Hitchcock’s film, which then has to seek a new protagonist (after her death, the camera seems lost, but it soon settles on Bates, the “psycho” of the title). 

Many of Hitchcock’s films attempt to trouble the act of the audience watching the film, by turning audience interest into the subject of the film itself. We watch Crane just as Norman watches her, through a hole in the wall that simulates the eye of the camera (in a shot where, unsettlingly, we share the killer’s point of view). Most strikingly, after she’s stabbed, Marion reaches up for help — reaching out towards us, as if she knows we’re watching. And enjoying the movie. We don’t help her.

Lynch’s mastery comes from dramatic shifts in tone, his ability to move in an instant from a banal to a nightmarish realm. He continually sacrifices sense for tone, and in the course of this shift he creates strange, poetic worlds that we move through emotionally but which make little logical sense, although there is a poetic logic that underlies and gives order to Lynch’s worlds. 

I try to use language in a similar manner throughout the book, which has a sort of grammatical slipperiness. A sentence will begin as if describing a scene (“The mist dissolved…”) but then switch the grammar to describe an event (“The mist dissolved what it did not need”) with an alien actor (here, the mist becomes a sort of living force). 

Tarkovsky’s poetic approach to filmmaking, and his occasional use of genre material (horror and science fiction plots) have inspired me, but especially influential are his occasional, striking long takes.  The book’s final poem, 
“That Most Terrible of Dogs,” is structured like a long film take — like a slow movement across a cultural wasteland, toward some inevitable terror.  

Jonathan Ball joins Lorna Crozier, Sue Goyette, Patrick Lane, and JonArno Lawson for THIN AIR 2012's Poetry Bash, Friday, September 28th, 8:00pm on the Mainstage, MTYP at the Forks. Tickets are $12/$10 students and seniors.

Ball also helps kicks off the festival on opening night as an advocate for Manitoba Reads. He's be promoting Automatic World by Stuan Sinclair in a celebration of the province's rich writing culture. Friday, September 21st, 8:00pm at CCFM/Centre culturel franco-manitobain. Tickets $5.
Visit him online at or @jonathanballcom.

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