Portrait of the Poet as a Cinephile: Michael Almereyda Remembers John Ashbery

Portrait of the Poet as a Cinephile: Michael Almereyda Remembers John Ashbery

“Movies show us ourselves as we had not yet learned to recognize us—something in the nature of daily being or happening that quickly gets folded over into ancient history like yesterday’s newspaper, but in so doing a new face has been revealed, a surface on which a new phrase may be written before it rejoins history . . . But only focus on the past through the clear movie-theater dark and you are a changed person, and can begin to live again. That is why we, snatched from sudden freedom, are able to communicate only through this celluloid vehicle that has immortalized and given a definitive shape to our formless gestures; we can live as though we had caught up with time and avoid the sickness of the present, a shapeless blur as meaningless as a carelessly exposed roll of film.”

John Ashbery, from “The System” (Three Poems, 1972)

The recipient of nearly every major American award in poetry and the author of over twenty collections, John Ashbery (1927–2017) came to be known as one of the most prominent and influential poets of the twentieth century. He was an artist for whom cinema played a central role in writing and life. In her biography of his early life, The Songs We Know Best (2017), Karin Roffman chronicles how films experienced in early childhood and adolescence had a tremendous effect on Ashbery’s artistic development. His first poem, “The Battle,” was inspired by his viewing of Max Reinhard’s 1935 film adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and his first play, The Compromise (1960), was written after a screening of the Rin Tin Tin feature Where The North Begins (1923) at the Theodore Huff Memorial Film Society, which he attended in the mid-1950s and is described in Roffman’s book as “chic” and “obscure.” During his decade living in Paris, Ashbery’s frequent visits to the cinematheque influenced his highly experimental 1962 collection The Tennis Court Oath.

In The Glamorous Country, an in-progress collection of essays on Ashbery and film, poet and art critic John Yau writes, “John’s taste in movies runs the gamut, from the high to the very bottom, and from obscure to popular. The terms ‘tasteful’ and ‘tasteless’ don’t seem to apply, even as he watches forgotten films of the 1920s and ’30s and forgettable films of the ’50s and ’60s.” Indeed, references to film of all kinds—silent, serials, animated, surrealist, comedy, drama—are a constant thread in the work. In 2009, the Harvard Film Archive curated a special two-program series, John Ashbery at the Movies, where films influenced by his poetry (including work by his friend and collaborator Guy Maddin) were screened alongside some of his favorite movies.

Much has been written about Ashbery’s connections to film, his cinematic compositional techniques, and the way his encyclopedic knowledge and wide-ranging taste created a network of allusions within his writing, but what always strikes me is the way his poems capture the rush of “happening” that films induce in us, a reinvestment in temporality and movement through their dislocation. In one of Ashbery’s favorite films, Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus (1950), the protagonist is a poet who receives fragments of language over a radio transmission emitted from the underworld, and there is a similar presence of the overheard, the half-remembered fragment in an Ashbery poem. In his work, we can begin to see cinema and poetry not merely as complementary forms but as processes of relaying experience that are intimately linked. 

It is this ever-present environment of cinema—and its attachment to memory, image, and language—in the poetry and life of John Ashbery that Michael Almereyda brilliantly captures in his 2017 The Lonedale Operator, now playing on the Criterion Channel. Its highly collaged and dazzling annotations of Ashbery’s recollections serve as a bittersweet final portrait of the artist. Almereyda and I shared an exchange over email about the great poet and the making of this short, intimate film.

In December 2015, John Ashbery gave a reading at the sprawling factory turned arts and performance space Pioneer Works, in Red Hook, Brooklyn. The event was one of his last major in-person readings, and it was certainly (for me) the most memorable in my seven years as his assistant. The program was an Ashbery appreciation fest, and though he was dealing with some “mobility issues” (a phrase he loved to use ironically in emails to friends) he read splendidly. The venue was packed, and if my memory serves correctly, it was the night when you two met and began talking about collaborating on a film. How did this get started?

It was a wonderful reading, a celebratory night. A friend decided, at about the last possible moment, that she’d like John to sign her copy of his latest book, and I took courage and introduced myself as he was heading to a waiting car. He beamed his owl-like eyes at me, graciously signed the book, then said my version of Hamlet was one of his favorite movies and added three magic words: “We should collaborate.” I didn’t need to be asked twice. I came up with a suitably overambitious idea for a collage-like extravaganza culminating with the filming of a patch from his play The Compromise.  Peter Sarsgaard agreed to take on the role of “John Ashbery,” the bumbling playwright who apologetically steps in to explain he can’t figure out how to end the play, before curling up on the floor and falling asleep. The idea was to also film the real Ashbery sitting in a theater, watching Sarsgaard projected on a movie screen while other audience members nodded off, as if succumbing to a shared sleep potion. I imagined the whole thing ending—as T he Lonedale Operator ends—with an extended close-up featuring John’s eyes. 

But his health, as you know and I soon learned, was unsteady. John and David Kermani (his husband) gave their assent, but the scope of the project kept shrinking.

Ashbery’s collage table in Hudson, New York. Photo credit: Timothy O’Connor.

As I recall, you visited Ashbery’s home in Hudson, New York, which many, including Kermani, have referred to as a kind of “living collage” in the way that the rooms have these different temperatures and moods and the highly arranged surfaces hold various collections and special objects. You were initially going to use the house as a setting for this original film idea. I also noticed that your film employs collage techniques, and Ashbery was, in addition to being a poet (as well as a translator and a critic), a wonderful collage artist. Can you talk about your experience of the house, and how the shoot for the film finally came to pass?

The main surprise the house offered—apart from the quality, volume, and variety of the paintings in every room—was the huge dining room table that had become a workstation for John to make collages. I was impressed by the heaps of old magazine pages, the tiny scissors, the organized mess. I didn’t realize this was such an active, ongoing project. 

My first visit was in late October of 2016. In February of 2017 I brought “the crew”: Sean Williams, the cinematographer, and the producer Craig Butta, who drove us in his car and eventually handled the sound recording. David gave us the tour, we took plenty of photographs, and we soberly realized we’d have to bring lights to illuminate the place properly, if we were going to use those great cluttered rooms as sets. Then we visited John in the local hospital, where he’d been installed for a spell, doing physical therapy. We talked though a kind of dry run for a simplified plan, a casual interview capped with John reading a couple poems. He was sharp and funny in the hospital, just as he was outside the hospital, but he didn’t want to be filmed there. He was nearly ninety, but he still carried—or had reclaimed—the manner of a precocious kid, hyper-alert, overcoming shyness with a big gap-toothed grin.

Ashbery’s “The Lonedale Operator” is a standout narrative prose poem. In an introduction to a book of some of Ashbery’s unfinished poems I am editing, I characterize it thusly: “The progression of film-related memories puts us simultaneously in the seats of the audience and in the space of memory, linking the inherently cinematic experiences of remembering with the particular sensations, shocks, terrors, and revelations that occur when we watch movies.” How did the poem become a centerpiece for your film?

David reminded me of the poem’s existence—and then, thanks to YouTube, I watched the remarkable 1911 D. W. Griffith film John describes in the poem. The sustained shots of Blanche Sweet seemed an ideal way to embody the shocks and terrors John was writing about, the circuit of feelings that flow between creatures in movies and our uncontrollable inner lives.

D. W. Griffith’s The Lonedale Operator

And it was particularly poignant to discover (in the extensive, booklength interview John Ashbery in Conversation with Mark Ford, published in 2003, before the invaluable Roffman biography filled in the gaps) that Ashbery’s precocious first poem emerged directly from seeing Max Reinhardt’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. And it’s doubly poignant now to watch John, in our film, savoring the fact that Olivia de Havilland “is still with us.” No one is “with us” for long—we are not with ourselves for long—an unavoidable, ever-startling fact.

Once John was feeling better and back at home—on May 17, to be precise—we returned. Sean, shouldering his 16 mm Aaton camera, was determined to capture the blue of John’s eyes, shooting with natural light. We positioned John close to a window, forcing ourselves to crowd into an open closet, and he did a fine job appearing not to notice how ridiculous we must have looked. The actual shoot didn’t last much longer than an hour, if I remember right. 

I may be sentimental to point this out, but Sean and I considered it important to shoot this film on film, to get the warmth of the color, the jittery grain, and Mat Killip, the editor, and I agreed to include flash frames when the film rolled out. This was another attempt to distill a dual quality Ashbery delivers in his work—a respect for tradition working alongside an almost giddy looseness, a defiance of conventional decorum. 

The film clips we stitched together in the piece are all from movies named in Ashbery’s poem or favorites he mentioned in conversation. There’s also a tribute to the great collagist and filmmaker Bruce Conner sewn into the lining of the film. When we intercut images from Fantomas, we laid in the opening of Sibelius’s Valse triste, which Conner used in his 1977 film of the same title.

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