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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Beautiful and the damned: a spellbinding oral history of Hollywood

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein follows a specific tribe of people: the beautiful.

One day in LA, the showbiz tycoon David Geffen drove by the house that had belonged to Jack Warner, the co-founder of Warner Brothers. The gates were open, so he went in. “It was so grand and so Hollywood . . . It was an homage to an idea about the way people lived in Hollywood. I got caught up in the whole gestalt and I bought it.” Geffen then marvels that he paid $47m for the homage, while Jack had sold his whole studio for just $38m in 1956. You have to have a sense of irony.

From around 1920 there was a tribe in southern California, sometimes known as “the beautiful people”. In many cases, they were technical beauties (they appeared in dreamlets known as movies or had their photographs in magazines made of heavy, perfumed pages). Yet the true beauty talked about was a spiritual aspiration – a quest for romantic nobility, fragile elegance, or serene madness – that might offset the inner derangement, selfishness and comic vulgarity that so threatened their longing for godless class, or inscrutability. They lived within the frantic church known as Hollywood, a fierce cult or early form of terrorism (it hired intimidators, all of them called Oscar) that cherished the hopeless grail of beauty and sacrificed many lives in its pursuit.

Jean Stein is one of them; she admits as much in West of Eden, which seems to me the best book ever done on the terrifying social dysfunction of the beautiful people. Ms Stein is now 81. She is the daughter of Dr Jules Stein (1896-1981), the son of Lithuanian Jews, who became a celebrity ophthalmologist yet so loved music and show business that he founded the MCA agency – Music Corporation of America.

The marriage of medicine and ten-percenting is important to this book, and Jean Stein – who is clear-eyed, and knows where the bodies are buried – has the innate touch and scalpel smile of an expert autopsist. She does not quite write, but she composes absorbing, novelistic oral histories. In 1982 she did one on Edie Sedgwick, the Sixties model, junkie, sexpot and icon, a ghost long before her death. Now Stein delivers a calm Götterdämmerung that can be read as the fearsome annals of a haunted Hollywood, as well as an adroit response to John Steinbeck’s East of Eden (1952), earlier proof of California’s soft spot for fallen angels.

West of Eden is selective and yet, by the end of its 334 pages, you feel that the light and the shadow have fallen on nearly every­one. There are just five subjects. First: Edward L Doheny, the oil tycoon who established the architecture of Los Angeles, and helped inspire There Will Be Blood. Then there are the Warners, but chiefly Jack, the youngest of four who outlived and betrayed his brothers, and who abandoned a nice Jewish wife for an adventuress and ended up being painted by Salvador Dalí and dreaded as “a character”. There is also Jane Garland, a schizophrenic child of great wealth who drifted around with various unofficial nurses and uncertain friends. Next is the teeming casebook called Jennifer Jones; and then the Steins themselves, which means Jules and Jean, and her two daughters by William vanden Heuvel, one of whom now publishes the weekly magazine the Nation.

In shaping these five windows, Stein has interviewed numerous tribe members, many of whom have memories, wounds and nightmares for which they are in therapy (or script development – the two forms are very alike). Her tone and manner are matter-of-fact, but she knows how wary those close to Eden are about trusting stories. Life is a competing set of fantasies, and given that lies have always been allowed in LA, falsehood itself, as a moral handicap, has come to mean little. Though all “true”, this book reads like a dream.

A short review cannot cover all five windows in detail, so let me fix on the one I know best: the glass or screen in which Jennifer Jones existed like a butterfly. Born in 1919 (Gore Vidal once told me she was three years older; gossip devours fact), she was the daughter of an Oklahoma showman who thought she would act – on screen, of course, but also always and everywhere. She married a young actor, Robert Walker, and they had two sons. Then in 1941 she was seen by the mogul David Selznick: he was moved by her and she was drawn upwards by her chance of stardom. Each abandoned a spouse and two sons. They became archetypes of misjudgement, though her mediocre acting never matched the skill or glow of other Selznick employees (such as Ingrid Bergman). They had a daughter, Mary Jennifer, who lived in rivalry with her mother and loathed her, and finally killed herself.

Jennifer, as Lauren Bacall reports, could be a little nutty. She and Selznick gave lavish Sunday parties: “Jennifer was busy doing her make-up and combing her hair and changing her outfit. She was kind of playing her part. She was always trying to be noticed, to have people really care about her and be there for her.”

This is not pretty stuff; maybe that is why these people were so desperate to be beautiful. Indulgence and neglect formed a damaging mixture that left bodies lining the roadside west of Eden. Lawyers and doctors catered to the stricken beauties. Shrinks played an especially devious role, though “shrink” was the wrong word; those hired to soothe mania in fact inflated their clients’ egos and dramatised their self-pity, the movie in which we all take part.

Hard to credit, often hard to stomach, this is a spellbinding record of that ancien régime. Whatever happened to the tribe? The members may be thinner on the ground now in southern California, but their ignoble nobility is everywhere.

David Thomson’s books include “Showman: the Life of David O Selznick” (André Deutsch) and “How to Watch a Movie” (Profile Books)

West of Eden: An American Place by Jean Stein is published by Jonathan Cape (334pp, £20)

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war