If you're reading this, chances are you don't read poetry too regularly (just a guess). You may even feel slight revulsion towards it, that mysterious, elusive presence in the literary spectrum, that stuff that sometimes rhymes, but most of the time just makes you scratch your head. That's okay! Be revulsed! Be confused! Any reaction is a good reaction.
If someone, like, say, me, or rather I, told you a poem could be filmed, you'd say, "No way!" And in part you might be right. The idea of a filmed poem conjures up a host of images, none of them pleasant: ever seen those placemats with scripture printed on them? Pastoral scenes? Clouds? Windswept plains? Pairs of footprints in the sand? Picture that as a film, with a voice-over by some out-of-work baritone. You get the idea. The concept of filming something without structure or narrative is a quicksand, just waiting for someone to step into it.
But fear not: various filmmakers, animators, and other pasty-faced, tired-looking souls have been hard at work for years, disproving this hypothesis, and the results of their experiments have been fine, indeed.
One of the first products I'll show you is a fairly safe bet: it's an animation of a poem by Charles Bukowski, and a much-beloved animation, at that.
Many people go through a Charles Bukowski phase: usually it's in your college years, when all you see is the openness, the directness, the humanity, and the humor of his poems; because his chronic alcoholism and self-destructive isolationism, along with his rampant misogyny and sexual degradation, seem romantic to you, you're not really able to analyze the quality of the work. He could say anything, literally anything, and you might think it was wonderful.
So you buy all of his books, and you drink a lot, because he did, and you keep reading him, and you keep talking about him, and you keep swapping favorite poem/favorite line stories with your friends, and then, eventually, you read something else. And then? In a year's time, maybe two, if you read enough, Bukowski becomes an "oh, yeah, him, whatever" author. The problem here is not his work, really, which was wildly inconsistent. It's also not the fact that you can cast him aside so easily. It's that the drunken bravado of a lot of his poems ultimately outshadowed what he was really good at, which was telling stories. That, and the fact that he was imprisoned by his style–but that's another blog post altogether. His numerous fictional works (Ham on Rye and Notes of a Dirty Old Man being notable examples) attest to the fact that his narrative impulse always competed with his poetic impulse; when the storyteller took the mike from the poet in his poems, the positive result was always noticeable.
"The Man with the Beautiful Eyes," cast remarkably here in bold, confidently drawn blacks and blues and reds and whites and grays by artist Jonny Hannah and animator Jonathan Hodgson, is a testament to Bukowski's elegant, perfect, utterly personal narrative ability. It's a gorgeous little movie, full of the fear and the wildness and the pure silliness and awfulness of reality that comprise childhood, presented in a rough-cut, aggressive, startling manner that suits Bukowski's work, and all in just over five minutes. It's not exactly new, having been first released in 2000, but if you haven't seen it, it will be a real discovery… Watch it, and see.
3 thoughts on “Sure, You Can Film a Poem: Charles Bukowski’s “The Man with the Beautiful Eyes””
Hey Max, how can I get you my animated short film "Breakfast With Bukowski" with music by Tom Waits?
I also love "Bluebird" by California is a Place: https://vimeo.com/35839533
Thank you so much for this thoughtful introduction to poetry on film, to Bukowski, and the link to the lovely Bukoski video interpretation. It's wonderfully well done, the annimation and the tone of the narration. How good that the film-maker chose one of the tender Bukowski poems, one infused with such pathos. That's nearly always his best work, not the poems about fighting and hookers and drinking — all that bravado — the poems the kids love. Those poems became repetitious, but every now and then he could hit a note… Every now and then he could sound like no other poet. I wrote the Los Angeles Times Book Revew memorial piece for Bukowski, and I spoke at the Bukowski tribute in the huge Guadalajara Book fair a couple years ago, so I have a point of view on the guy. I look forward to other video poems from Max Winter.