The Poetry of Cinema – Naropa and the University of Colorado Present MOVING IMAGES

The Poetry of Cinema
CU and Naropa explore the links between film and the written word
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly, 6-23-2011

Though an obscure class or two on film studies or screenwriting sometimes appears on the course list at Naropa University, the Buddhist-inspired Boulder school has no film studies major. However, since 1999, Naropa has enjoyed the presence of the novelist, singer-songwriter and screenwriter Junior Burke, who is on the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics faculty and was formerly its chair. Burke has also taught film studies at the University of Colorado Boulder for the past half-dozen years, and he was an integral part of bringing this weekend’s Moving Images poetry and film conference to Naropa’s Summer Writing Program (SWP) in conjunction with CU’s film studies and creative writing programs.

Billed as “the first symposium of its kind, bringing scholars, filmmakers and poets together to explore the intersection of film and poetry,” Moving Images is the product of Burke’s introduction to University of Chicago heavyweight Tom Gunning (director of the school’s Department of Cinema and Media Studies) two years ago.

“Tom was coming out here and doing some teaching at CU, and I met him through [former CU film studies chair] Dan Boord,” Burke tells Boulder Weekly. “He had just received a Mellon grant and was going to be able to put on several events around the country, so we decided to put on a film/poetics event at Naropa, and it’s been two years of planning.

“It came about through the history between CU film studies and the Kerouac School, in terms of strengthening the relationship between film and poetics,” Burke says. “In some ways it’s an interesting fit because of Stan Brakhage [who taught at CU until his death in 2003] being the founding spirit of the film studies department over at CU and his experimental mode and his stature in that little alternative film world. In many ways that is a good fit in terms of the Kerouac School being an ‘outrider’ lineage and experimental for its time.”

The late Stan Brakhage

Over three days at Naropa and CU, approximately 20 speakers — including academics, writers and filmmakers — will use Moving Images’ platform to explore the relationship between poetry and moving pictures since the era of silent film. According to Lisa Birman, director of Naropa’s Summer Writing program, the fact that Moving Pictures coincides with the second week of SWP wasn’t planned at all.

“Funnily enough, we already had a film/poetics theme for week two of the Summer Writing Program before we knew this was gonna happen. So when Junior came and said, ‘What do you think about this idea?’ the timing was actually just phenomenal,” Birman says.

CU film studies Professor Phil Solomon, who considers himself a “poetic filmmaker” and whose own filmmaking strives for “poetic overtones,” is also participating in Moving Images and calls it “a perfect storm.”

“I am interested in promoting a stronger relationship between [CU] film studies and Naropa,” he says. “I’m not particularly interested in the literal juxtaposition of poetry and film. In point of fact, I have rarely seen it done successfully — that is, images accompanying a poem being read on the soundtrack. For me, poetry lives in blessed silence on the written page. More often than not, I prefer to read it than hear it read aloud — so what interests me are what I would call ‘poetic films’ and what I would call ‘cinematic poetry,’ poems which evoke a cinematic sense or evoke a cinematic sense of place or atmosphere and create uncanny juxtapositions — like film editing or dissolves — as you scan over the words.”

During Moving Images, Solomon will be analyzing Brakhage’s notable 1980 film, Murder Psalm, as it relates to “the crucial differences between image metaphor and language metaphor.” Solomon stresses that he was “thrilled” at the news that Gunning, whom he calls “the premiere film scholar in the U.S.,” is coming to Boulder to talk about the relationship between film and poetry. Unfortunately, Gunning turned down Boulder Weekly’s interview request because of three dissertation defenses due in the past week, but perhaps his involvement in this weekend’s conference will speak for itself.

“I know his fine critical writing,” Kerouac School founder and internationally renowned poet Anne Waldman says of Gunning, “and it will be a great honor and pleasure to encounter him live and addressing the creative community in Boulder. We welcome this unprecedented collaboration.”

Naropa’s faculty has included such legendary film-interested literary icons as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg and the wild-eyed archivist Harry Smith. Still, perhaps no one in Naropa’s colorful history of revered underground icons has been so involved with the juxtaposition of film and poetry as Waldman, whose interest in film began in her youth and who has been collaborating with her husband, the filmmaker Ed Bowes, for the past decade.

“I grew up in Manhattan and saw a lot of experimental films as a young per son, which opened and illuminated the dark cave of my brain,” Waldman tells Boulder Weekly. “Montage and jumpcuts and syncretic layering have always been important in my own writing. Manatee/Humanity [Penguin, 2009] has a section mimicking a film narrative. I’ve worked with filmmakers over the years, and appeared in an early Adolphus Mekas film [and] also in an early film by Robert Kramer.”

Anne Waldman with Ginsberg at Naropa in the '70s

Waldman, who just finished working with Bowes on a short film tribute to Akilah Oliver (the beloved poet and Naropa teacher who tragically passed away in February), says she often finds “extraordinary rhythm in the movement of film, in its quick transitions, in its gestures in time and space, much like the unexpected moves of poetry and like our own metabolism.”

Moving Images will be a welcome celebration of ideas, passions and connections between CU and Naropa, but also a rare high point in the recent history of the Kerouac School, which was rumored to be on the chopping block amid the ongoing “reorganization” of Naropa, which confirmed in May that it is contemplating a move out of Boulder.

According to Burke, the elimination of the graduate and undergraduate writing programs at Naropa in favor of keeping just the 37-year-old Summer Writing Program (probably the most well-known and well-respected part of Naropa outside of Boulder) “was never going to happen, and we weren’t going to let it happen.”

As for the recent anger over Naropa President Stuart Lord’s controversial declaration a few weeks ago that he intends to relocate the school’s historic Allen Ginsberg Library to the basement of Naropa’s administration building, Burke said simply, “I feel that the Allen Ginsberg library is a tangible manifestation of everything that’s been built here, in terms of the Kerouac School, and I feel it has to be preserved.”

When asked about Naropa’s future, and the future of the Kerouac School in particular, Burke was a bit more cryptic.

“There’s been a lot of changes, but I feel pretty positive about the present. I don’t know about the bigger picture, but I know the level of commitment of the people I work with here, and I think that we’re gonna be able to continue doing what we’ve been doing.”

With Moving Images descending on Boulder this weekend, the Kerouac School’s present looks bright.

UPDATE (June 25): I’d like to report a necessary correction to my article. Apparently it was an error to say that Dr. Lord “intends” to move the Allen Ginsberg library, as sources have reported there was an unsuccessful plan in place to move the library by July and, while he has been aware of talks about moving the library, Dr. Lord was not aware of the plan to take action so fast. There will be more open discussion at Naropa about the library’s “expansion” in the fall.

IFS Turns 70: A Chat with Pablo Kjolseth

Emphasis on “Film”
Boulder’s International Film Series Turns 70
by Adam Perry for Boulder Weekly

Drunk on the seemingly rocket-propelled success of the Boulder International Film Festival, many Boulder journalists have recently filled BIFF-related articles with complaints like “There’s nothing like this happening around here” and “There’s nowhere to see International films in Boulder.” Sitting in my living room recently with my toddler pulling at his shoes, International Film Series director Pablo Kjolseth represented living proof that those complaints are erroneous.

The affordable ($6; $5 for students) International Film Series is a celluloid-focused Boulder institution attached to the Film Studies Program at the University of Colorado, and it’s been going strong since 1941, when IFS began showing eclectic black-and-white 16mm titles. With C.U.’s Muenzinger Auditorium as its chief venue, IFS now fills nearly every night in Boulder—skipping only summers—with exciting documentaries, unique features from around the globe, and mint-condition reels of inimitable oldies.

IFS celebrates its 70th anniversary this weekend with a Saturday matinee showing of a private collector’s print of the legendary ’80s Tom Waits’ concert film Big Time (still not on DVD), an evening screening of Straight to Hell Returns (the new retooled edition of the punk classic) and a raucous concert at the Absinthe House featuring Veronica and Nuns of Brixton (yes, a Clash cover band that dresses up as nuns).

Beginning with a technical lesson packed with rarified language such as “sprockets” and “platter houses,” Kjolseth, a C.U. graduate who grew up in Boulder and has been programming IFS for 14 years, schooled me on the rapidly changing world of film screening. Enjoy a few snippets as we help celebrate IFS’ 70th birthday.

Boulder Weekly: What’s the difference between IFS and the mainstream movie-going experience?

Pablo Kjolseth: We’re dedicated to the experience of the cinema, and then conversation afterwards. We’re not trying to make money off of candy and soda pop. And if you go to Cinemark, for example, they’re phasing out all their film. I find the evolution from film to digital stultifying, because people are getting a little too computer happy, which makes for a lot of sloppy bullshit. We’re very much dedicated to celluloid, though we show some digital.

BW: Why are you so passionate about film?

PK: I consider film to be one of the most important art forms of our time. To me, being visually literate is so important, now more than ever. We’re being bombarded with more visual images today than in any other point in human history, and we take it for granted. We don’t even acknowledge how we’re being manipulated. Sometimes it’s so obvious—you watch Fox News and you see the propaganda and the drumbeats. But other times it’s just branding and people trying to make an impact, distracting you in different ways. And it chips away at us, especially if you’re not visually literate. So to me it’s an incredibly important way of looking at the world, and it’s an ongoing education because visual arts and mediums are constantly changing, and the way we interact with them is changing. It’s a constantly evolving process, and the art form constantly evolves along with it.

BW: How did you originally get interested in movies?

PK: My parents used to regulate how much TV I could watch—an hour a day. I would save up that half hour so that I could watch the “Creature Feature” double features on the weekend. That got me going, and when I was about six I really wanted to see Jaws more than anything in the world, and my parents said I could only see it if I read the book. I was six! But I read it, and luckily Jaws was in the theater forever. Actually, [that was] at the United Artists Regency on Walnut [now the Absinthe House], where we’re having the 70th anniversary concert. You know, Boulder used to have a really good International art-house film scene. I saw Star Wars at the Flatirons Theater, which is now a medical marijuana dispensary. And I was watching movies at the International Film Series as well.

BW: What’s your take on the state of filmmaking in Boulder today?

PK: I actually think we have a film scene that’s percolating. It’s bubbling. A lot of people are coming here who already have backgrounds working with studios and companies—real studio connections and also some money. But there are always people here doing their own thing, and I think that combination is making the background noise get louder and louder every year. As far as whether they have a platform right now…my platform is international celluloid. I still hold a torch for celluloid, but I have had local filmmakers, and the amount of submissions I get is crazy. At some point I sense that, because of that background noise, there will be a reason to do a weekly or monthly dedication to local filmmakers.

BW: After all these years, what’s your favorite film?

PK: I have so many favorite films that the easiest way I can answer that question without feeling like I’m slighting all these other films is…if you could rephrase that to ask what film I’ve watched the most times. The two that pop up are Brazil—I’ve watched that over 20 times—and, after that, I would say Evil Dead 2. I just love that film. If I’m ever really depressed, it’s the movie I go to watch. No matter how bad your day is going, at least you haven’t had to chainsaw your girlfriend in half, fight zombies, cut off your hand and get sucked into the past-vortex. I come out feeling pretty good, going “my life’s not so bad.”

BW: What can you tell us about the people who started the IFS 70 years ago and how you’re not only influenced and inspired by their legacy but also striving to maintain it?

PK: James Sandoe, who also helped launch the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, started the IFS as a labor of love, and that baton has been passed on thanks to people like Forrest Williams, Virgil Grillo, and many others whose contributions I have tried to keep track of on the timeline that I’ve put up on our website. One of the interesting things about the IFS is that it was a series initiated by academic cinephiles who really cared about film as art, and they were very well read and up-to-speed on the wealth of both international and independent cinema that existed beyond Hollywood and overseas – the kind of films that normally only screened in big metropolitan hubs. They brought those films to Boulder at a time when the population here was still hovering around 15,000 people or so, and they slowly cultivated an audience for directors like Jean Cocteau, Godard, Antonioni, Cassavetes, etc. – and slowly, other theaters took notice of the crowds that were coming out for these films and also started booking similar fare. During the ’60s and ’70s Boulder even enjoyed a nice boom in various specialty and arthouse cinemas. Back then it was very profitable! The IFS being a nonprofit associated with the university it reinvested the funds to buy 16mm films for the university. These were then used by many faculty members, including my father, in classes, and pretty soon a natural progression occurred where there were many classes devoted to certain types of films, which when coupled with the visionary ideas of key faculty members, like Virgil Grillo and others, helped give rise to the C.U. film studies program. What the C.U. Film Studies Program now offers is an amazing roster of learned faculty, authors, filmmakers, and artists that keeps growing stronger with each passing year. My own experiences there were nothing less than revelatory. As a long-time Boulderite who started watching films at the IFS as a very young child, and on up through my time as a Film Studies major at C.U., I’m very much indebted to both and I try to honor its roots by staying abreast of rising new talents that are out there, while simultaneously paying respects to cinemas rich past.