Slightly revised from a post on my old blog back in 2007.
Both Ingmar Bergman and Michelangelo Antonioni died yesterday: the former in the morning, the latter at night. This coincidence of passings brought to mind the same-day deaths of Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. On July Fourth, no less!
Thinking of the filmmakers, I hark back to the 1990s and how I spent my free time outside of the life in the L’Arche Seattle community. I read fiction and poetry and criticism in coffeeshops and at University of Washington and Seattle University libraries and, in summer, at parks. I read about and listened to classical music on CDs and live, mostly the Seattle Symphony but also at UW and other venues. I watched world cinema at one or another of the Seven Gables theaters in Capitol Hill and the U District. Thanks to various people that accompanied me, I went to a bunch of opera and ballet and theater stuff. But one could be alone when reading or watching movies. Whatwith Seattle’s coffeeshops and movie houses, there were numerous opportunities for such activities. Of Antonioni, I remember watching Blow-Up, Red Desert, and L’Avventura.
Antonioni’s name will be forever associated to the black-and-white L’Avventura. But as exemplified by Zabriskie Point, his color films are stunning in visual even if they might not be impressive in content. Blow-Up, however, is brilliant. This film played a role in shaping my perception of modern and post-modern society.
The significance of Blow-Up was conveyed most impressively to me by an essay by Charles Thomas Samuels in a posthumous collection of essays. Samuels was a discerning critic and a champion of Antonioni’s artistry. (I remember reading in another book that he named L’Avventura his all-time favorite film.) In this particular essay – the last in the posthumous collection – he points out a number of easy-to-miss details in Blow-Up to illustrate that Antonioni’s foremost concern was the decay of modernity. One recurring motif, for instance, is the desire of the photographer/anti-hero to flee Swingin’ London. Another is the destructiveness of youths, exemplified most clearly by the rock band that turned on its own equipments at the end of their performance.
Of Bergman’s flicks, there were more than three that I saw. But the most memorable was a new print of Persona. By that time, I must have seen it on video at least twice. It was another notch to watch it on the large screen, and I vividly remember the early scene when the nurse stands in front of her supervisor, schoolgirl-like with an erect body and arms behind her. Pretty quickly, though, that persona drops to reveal another then, expectedly, the second persona changes not long after to reveal a third. It’s like opening up one layer of a white onion to find a layer of a red onion to find another layer…
Persona isn’t an easy film to grasp, but it is very rewarding for those who persist. It is one of those modernist masterpieces that illuminate so subtly and so brilliantly human relationships in the West that it would take many a page or blog to say. John Simon gives a long analysis in his book on Bergman. It has garnered many studies; I recall having once seen an academic essay about the film in the context of the shifting landscape of women and politics in Sweden. For a formalist analysis, though, Simon’s is strong and even better than an earlier New Yorker essay by Susan Sontag that had done much to introduce the significance of Persona to Americans.
Yet it isn’t the films by Bergman and Antonioni that most occupy my mind today. Rather, possibly because I look toward the month that starts tomorrow, it is a poem that I first read in Seattle, “since feeling is first” by E. E. Cummings, that I was thinking earlier. It is the only poem by Cummings that I remember well, although I can recall the delight of reading his hilarious “may i feel said he” for the first time.
It was in an essay on theater by John Simon that I first read about “since feeling is first,” and I later looked it up and read it and liked it instantly. Only a small-time reader of poetry then (and a non-reader now), I’ve been fond of it enough to put it among my most favorite love poems, along with one or two poems by Auden.
Here are two recitations of the poem: the first without showing the words and the second showing them.
A composer has used the words as lyrics for a piece of mixed voices and piano.
I find it apt that a young person recites the poem in the first video because certain works of art carry the kind of lyricism best appreciated when one first encounters them at a young age. Jules and Jim, for example, is a young person’s film. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is a type of a young person’s novel. “Here, There and Everywhere” is a young person’s pop song. And so on. Since feeling is first fits this mold rather too well.
I am rather surprised at popular culture for not having taken after any of the poem’s delectable phrases. The Syntax of Things… My Blood Approves… A Better Fate than Wisdom… I Swear by All Flowers… Gesture of My Brain… Life’s Not a Paragraph… Death Is No Parenthesis. Any of these phrases could easily be an excellent title for a novel, a song, a film, a streaming series. There are so many brilliant phrases in a short poem, but we don’t see them outside of the poem.
Perhaps it is best that way. Let phrases from better-known poems be used for titles of movies, music, fiction, etc. Philip Roth and Cormac McCarthy, for examples, have lifted phrases from Yeats’ “Sailing to Byzantine” to name two of their novels. Let this gem of E. E. Cummings be just that: a small poem that conveys small yet essential delights for many of us. Actually, the delights is sizable because falling or being in love is hardly a small experience.