Reading a book, whether it be prose or poetry, is an intimate, abstract, nearly hallowed experience, with any attempt at lending it some form of visual representation seemingly destined to fail. And yet, we all know those singular, rare moments when film is able to entice and enrapture the spirit just as great poetry can. How does this magic come about? How does a film deliver a poetic or literary experience?
The encounter between film and literature can take on a variety of forms. The first, and perhaps most obvious one is the film adaptation of literary works. Israeli film, throughout its history, has seen more than its share of such adaptations, and this collection brings you selected scenes from some of the finest to date. The common thread shared by them all is having successfully tackled the artistic challenge of adapting the inner core of a literary work to a “foreign” film language, whilst creatively conquering the inevitable constraints that are part and parcel of the transition from a verbal language to a visual one.
Oftentimes, breaking boundaries is essential if one is to achieve a truly sublime film adaptation. Take Three Days and a Child for instance, Uri Zohar’s 1967 big screen adaptation of a short story by A.B. Yehoshua, and one of the most important films in Israeli film history. Whilst the author did go on the record to say that he did not approve of the script’s interpretation of his story, he did nonetheless acknowledge the inherent change that must take place in the transition from literature to film, “I believe that a good director must write their own script, seeing as how the film’s artist is the director. This was an Uri Zohar work ‘based on’ my story, just as there are musical variations ‘based on’ the work of one composer. Increasingly, it emerges that literature and film are in fact two very separate disciplines. […] When the film is overly ‘literary,’ that constitutes a fault.”
Zohar created an avantgarde, free-flowing, autonomous piece articulating both his artistic influences and aspirations. And though it may have drawn inspiration from the literary source text on which it is based, it ultimately has its own artistic truth. Perhaps that is what ultimately enshrined the work’s canonical status in Israeli film as the highly influential harbinger of an emergent style and as the most important, successful, and utterly exquisite local adaptation ever produced.
Another facet of the encounter between film and literature lies in the former’s artistic language, form, and style. This collection brings you an assortment of scenes that capture poetic beauty at its finest. Films that have stopped me in my tracks, prompting me to recite a pagan ode to the gods of poetry. But what do we even mean by film poetics? What forms does it take? And what characterises it?
One of the most fascinating observations in this regard was made by Italian film and literature giant, Pier Paolo Pasolini, in an essay he had published in 1964 bearing the title, The Cinema of Poetry. Pasolini’s milestone cinematic manifesto was written against the backdrop of then-institutionalised film’s gradual drift towards commercialised middle-class content that became embedded in the capitalist assembly line, enticing audiences to flock to cinemas whilst highlighting the medium’s entertaining values via the same “good old narratives,” that are in fact the furthest thing from good.
Pasolini identified the existence of two artistic languages in film, “cinema’s language of poetry” and “cinema’s language of prose narrative,” and made a passionate plea for a return to the former, from a belief in its ability to rouse the language of film from its slumber. The cinema of prose narrative refers to classical, narrative film in which the camera’s presence is hardly felt, and which was made according to traditional artistic conventions. Whereas in the cinema of poetry, the true protagonist is style which the creator breathes life into using the arsenal of film tools at their disposal: directing method, cinematography style, pace of editing, acting method, mis-en-scène, and soundtrack. It’s not that there is no narrative, just that for the most part it plays out nonlinearly, “unfolding in ellipses, whilst using flashes of imagination, fantasy, and innuendos.”
Therefore in the cinema of poetry, for instance, one can hardly miss the camera’s presence and its frequent closeups of all types of objects in an attempt to magnify and maximise them; the blinding shots facing away from the light; erratic and borderline neurotic camera movements, and chaotic and intentional editing “mistakes.” All of the above are not just there in service of the narrative but are also acting on behalf of one’s personal style which draws directly on the creator’s own poetic wells of inspiration. No doubt the uningratiating, avantgarde, experimental nature of these works may well breed some strokes of utter genius as the creator passionately endeavours to rewrite and reimagine the values of film form; however, in the process – like in the art of poetry – they are also running the risk of creating something that is ultimately inaccessible, pretentious, and amorphous (or to call a spade a spade, up its own arse.)
That same unique poetic quality also rears its head in film through the medium’s protagonists. In this collection, you will find scenes from the films Intimate Grammar, Aviya’s Summer, Three Days and a Child, The Kindergarten Teacher, and Saint Clara – all films with a particularly dominant child or teen-centric point of view. In the course of compiling and curating this collection, it was difficult to overlook the fact that many of these lyrical films had opted to make a young boy or girl their protagonist, which is no coincidence. The poet does as the child does (and vice versa). Both make and mould their world out of their imagination, whilst also independently developing their arsenal of expressive tools.
Aaron from Intimate Grammar, Clara from Saint Clara, Aviya from Aviya’s Summer, and Yoav from The Kindergarten Teacher are all quirky, unique, and extraordinary child characters. Their language is alien, alternative, and enigmatic. Their inner world is a winding, twisty labyrinth of meaning. Their angelic spirit hovers over the threshold between inner and outside world, and between imagination and reality, whilst their unusual point of view of reality makes them the quintessential outsiders with the soul of an artist.
Making a child the protagonist of a film is a particularly potent dramatic move. Childhood, in and of itself, is a major protracted inciting incident, underscored by constant seismic shifts. Every sight and sound has the potential to upend one’s world, shape their personality, spawn an identity or drive a stake through it. Therefore, it is enough to delve into a child’s inner world to produce feelings of suspense, intimacy, and empathy.
The collection also features films that explore childhood’s encore – old age (Slow Down, Floch, Eagles). Like childhood, old age too – that forward, fateful, hyperconscious march towards oblivion packs quite the fatalist punch which further bolsters the work’s dramatic potential.
And finally there is the tangible, human meeting of the two creative branches – the filmmakers and literary folk. Israeli film has known more than its share of such rendezvous and as such, this collection does also feature scenes from films that were either made by a literary author or featured appearances by them. Beyond the delicious treat that is watching some of Israel’s most beloved poetry grandees step in front of the camera as charisma-oozing film protagonists (don’t miss poet Avraham Halfi in Hanoch Levin and Dan Wolman’s Floch), these are mostly films whose lyrical quality is deeply woven into them, both narratively and visually, before even taking into account the fact that they feature living, breathing actual lyric poets.
This collection is an opportunity to experience and celebrate the glorious meeting of film and literature which, at first glance, one might think was not such a given. Influenced by New Wave-era Italian and French avantgarde cinema, several films in this collection were made with the intention of defying then-prevalent filmmaking norms that dominated the Israeli landscape; that is, until their release. Whereas the other films did stick with traditional film language, somehow along the way and rather inexplicably, they also managed to make poetry. When it comes to film adaptations of literary works, their poetic nature is in no small part the product of the sheer quality, style, and inspiration the script had drawn from the literary source text, however much it may have departed from it dramatically.
One is inclined to conclude with this iconic quote from celebrated Israeli poet and author Leah Goldberg who once described (in a distant pre-PC world) the act of literary translation as “resembling a woman. If she is handsome, then faithful she is not; and if she is faithful, then handsome she is not.” Her words seem to ring especially true when it comes to the meeting between literature and film. In this instance too, we are treated to but “a kiss through the veil” of the source language (As Bialik so brilliantly put it.) The act of adaptation is film language’s way of flirting, as it were, with the language of literature, or courting it if you will. However, this passion can never be consummated as there will always be this gap – whether as wide as a chasm or thin as a veil – that will come between them just as lips are about to lock. Whatever the outcome, satisfaction is guaranteed.