Gilbey on Film: from bard to verse

What happens when movies take on poetry?

There's blood on the escritoires over at the Poetry Society. It has been in turmoil for some weeks following multiple resignations, and now there is the suspension of public funds by the Arts Council to contend with -- all in the wake of what the Independent described as a "power struggle" between its former director and the editor of Poetry Review.

What, you may ask, has all this got to do with cinema? Well, I was thinking that we might at last have the germ of a decent film about poetry here -- a back-stabbing Social Network-type affair (Hang 'Em Haiku? Stanza and Deliver?) that could make up for decades of incompatibility between these two art forms, poetry and cinema.

It's common for a film to earn the compliment of being called poetic, but when it comes to engaging with poetry itself, the two art forms feel uniquely out of sync with one another. Whenever cinema and poetry meet, the liaison is invariably punctuated by yawning silences where neither party knows exactly what to say or how to say it. The most visionary directors -- such as Jane Campion in Bright Star -- have caught the essence of verse, but committing the medium itself to film is as simple as nailing two eggs together. Dead Poets Society, Tom & Viv, Poetic Justice and significant parts of the recent Howl -- all have failed to render the passion of poetry without lapsing into the prosaic. At least the version of Walt Whitman's "I Sing the Body Electric" set to music in the 1980 film Fame had youthful sincerity on its side.

Lee Chang-Dong's new film Poetry is an exception: it shows that poetry (and, by extension, art) can form part of a person's very survival. Mija (Yoon Jeong-Hee), a woman in her sixties recently diagnosed with Alzheimer's, enrols in a poetry class as a way of holding on to the language that has begun cruelly to desert her. So far, so Hollywood -- sign up Sally Field for the remake.

But where Poetry differs from that formula is in denying the audience an emotional spectacle or catharsis; at the very moment when you might expect poetry as a force to inspire the film's characters to climb upon their desks proclaiming "O Captain! My Captain!", it is reined in, the better to underline Mija's private transformation. Writing poetry changes her (and I will leave viewers of the film to see exactly what form that change takes), but the picture shows how the most momentous internal revolutions often register as no more than a ripple on the surface.

Michael Radford's 1995 Il Postino is not in the same league at all but it does at least argue for the importance of poetry in everyday life. It shows how poetry can be woven into us, and into our lives, whether or not we choose to recognise it; a rose by any other name, and all that jazz. Perhaps that's one of the keys to making a good, unself-conscious film about poetry: to give the words their proper context, to show the life unfolding around them. That's undoubtedly where Bright Star excels. Campion handles John Keats's poems with special informality. The first excerpt to reach our ears -- the opening stanza of Endymion ("A thing of beauty is a joy for ever") -- is delivered in a child's halting, sing-song voice, before her older sister snatches the book from her hands and silently completes the reading herself.

As Keats, Ben Whishaw is endearingly nervy, free of the reassuring hindsight with which so much period drama is played. A.O Scott in the New York Times wrote that viewers should "stay until the very last bit of the end credits, not necessarily to read the name of each gaffer and grip, but rather to savour every syllable of Mr. Whishaw's recitation of 'Ode to a Nightingale.'" High praise.

Poetry opens on Friday.

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

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Pete Burns: too abrasive to be a national treasure, his talent made him immortal

The musician's vulnerability and acute individualism made him hard to pigeonhole but ensured endless media fascination.

When Dead Or Alive's “You Spin Me Round” was number one in 1985, the singer Pete Burns found himself trapped in a limousine by screaming schoolgirls. It's a common enough occurrence — overnight success, autograph hunters, fans wanting a piece of you — but in this case Burns was in his hometown of Liverpool and the schoolgirls were screaming “We’re going to kill you, you fat poof!” From the moment Burns hit the public eye, his untethered wit and unapologetic appearance had the ability to inspire, inflame, and get under society's skin.

In 1985, freshly famous, Burns was already a familiar face about town. Liverpool's centre is compact, and he traversed it every day in the early Eighties to work in Probe Records, the city's equivalent to Rough Trade. Behind the counter, working alongside possibly the most caustic shop assistants in the country, Burns was the most approachable. His demeanour was something quite different, though – hair teased up into a dark lion's mane, a cloak dragging behind him decorated with bells that jangled ominously whenever he moved (he could be audible streets away), and black contact lenses for added horror. 

He looked like a star in waiting, but was in the shadow of Liverpool's Crucial Three: Ian McCulloch, Julian Cope and Pete Wylie. The relentless electro pulse of “You Spin Me Round” was light years away from the first Dead Or Alive single in 1981, an extraordinary slice of neo-psychedelia called “Flowers”, on which Burns' booming, vibrato-loaded voice seemed to be urging us to travel on a gothic time-travelling galleon back to San Francisco: “What's wrong with this world?” he roared, over shrill organ and sheets of echoed guitar. Liverpool's brief but iridescent pop revival at the turn of the Eighties – a dark strain of melodicism that linked Echo & the Bunnymen, the Teardrop Explodes, Wah! Heat and early Dead Or Alive — would later be succinctly demystified by Burns: everybody took acid, they all pretended they were living on the West Coast in 1967 rather than Toxteth in 1980, and they all listened to the Doors.

By the time “You Spin Me Round” hit number one in March '85, Burns' acid tongue and working class glamour were a necessary corrective to a year which would make stars of such catastrophically dull acts as the pop duo Go West. He was just what the media wanted after Boy George acquired a destructive heroin habit and fell from grace.

Neither was ever likely to happen to Pete Burns. He felt uncomfortable around anyone out of control on booze or drugs as it reminded him of his upbringing. His mother had escaped Nazi Germany, married a Scottish soldier, and settled in Liverpool. She became a depressive alcoholic after discovering what had happened to her Jewish family during the Holocaust in Germany. Burns made several suicide attempts, he said, to keep her focused and alive.

This vulnerability was combined in childhood with an acute individualism. He wore an American Indian headdress to primary school one day and refused to take it off. He fought compromise and conformity at every turn, and didn't care a hoot if schoolgirls called him a “fat poof”. He was never off, not even for a tea break; he was Pete Burns, full time. A friend of mine recalls being in the queue for a Liverpool club called the System in 1982 — Burns passed him, pulling full-on dance moves when he was only halfway down the steps, which led directly onto the dancefloor — he hadn't even paused to say hello to anyone.

As a pop star, Burns clearly couldn't give a shit, and wouldn't play ball with radio, record companies or the press. Fame didn't tighten his tongue, though it did allow him to be outrageous on a heightened level. After Haircut 100's Nick Heyward gave Dead Or Alive a pasting in a Melody Maker, the group burst into a toilet cubicle and sprayed Heyward with five fire extinguishers. On tour in America, Burns called his press officer's house at 3am in the morning, screaming “I need a plug! A rubber plug! For this fucking bath!” The upshot of the conversation was that Burns had never seen a bath plug operated by a plunger rod.

Pop stardom in Britain, then, was brief. The PWL team that gave him “You Spin Me Round” (their first number one, and unarguably their best) quickly cooled on him, following it with lukewarm soundalikes – only the luxuriant “In Too Deep” came close to matching its fire. Dead Or Alive's next truly great record wouldn't be until 1988 with “Turn Around And Count 2 Ten”, another poppers-at-the-ready electro-blitz which only reached number 70 in the UK but made him a superstar in Japan.

Burns' vulnerability later resurfaced in endless, much documented plastic surgery – he said that the only part of his body that hadn't had work were the soles of his feet. He was always too abrasive to become a national treasure, but he must have known that “You Spin Me Round” had effectively made him immortal — uncoverable, perfect, a saturated record on which it is impossible to add anything. It's so euphoric, so very full of life.


Reflections on Pete Burns:

Gary Kemp, musician and actor

"Pete was one of a triumvirate of cross-dressed boy stars, brought up on a diet of glam rock, who stormed the barricades of macho rock in the Eighties. He also created one of the best white dance records of all time."


Julian Cope, musician and author

"In a sense I’m relieved for him, he was in such pain and was never happy with how he looked… there was something so inevitable about his death, but it’s important that he’s remembered as a truly significant cross-cultural figure

I think the gender fluidity that exists today is really fucking useful — if Pete had become famous now he would have been fine… he was a pioneer. I think he had hero qualities.

He knew so much about music, especially underground stuff, but when other people were around he would revert to his thick babe persona. He wanted to appear superficial, but he was no more superficial than [Andy] Warhol. He was a deep mother fucker.

Pete was forced in a novelty direction by the time he lived in. He demanded that the rest of the world look at, not away from, people who were different.

Pete tried to live in freedom and at least where’s gone to he will find peace."


Bob Stanley is a writer and a member of the pop group Saint Etienne. His book, Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop is published by Faber & Faber.