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 The 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. 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.

Before you made this film, you repurposed some lines from Ashbery’s poem “At North Farm” in your 2017 film, Marjorie Prime. Can you tell me a little about your relationship to poetry and your first encounters with Ashbery’s work in particular?

I’m one of those questionable ghost poets Ben Lerner refers to in his The Hatred of Poetry—a person who says I wrote it in high school. I was serious enough to memorize things by a handful of poets from various centuries—and I took a poetry workshop with Charles Wright. (I remember Wright announcing, in his elegant deadpan drawl, that he considered Bob Dylan the best poet of his generation.) At that time, when I tried to crack Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, I wasn’t ready; the poems felt opaque. Many years later, in 1994, when David Lynch asked me to write a screenplay adapted from Fantomas, I read John’s terrific, wide-ranging introduction to the original pulp novel, which had been translated fairly recently into English. John’s Fantomas essay includes descriptions of Feuillade’s silent serials, and the notion that Fantomas is not just a character but “a place, an atmosphere, a state of mind.”  

Soon after, I found a copy of A Wave, in which “At North Farm” is the irresistible opening poem—and where “The Lonedale Operator” was hiding in plain sight. The front half of “At North Farm” was collaged into Marjorie Prime many years down the road. The character played by Tim Robbins reads from an old and surprisingly eloquent love letter to Marjorie, quoting Ashbery without attribution:

Somewhere someone is traveling furiously toward you,
At incredible speed, traveling day and night,
Through blizzards and desert heat, across torrents, through narrow passes.

The cover of A Wave also had an eventual impact on the film. We used a similar Vija Celmins drawing, a highly detailed description of waves, to ring a thematic bell—the movie, set in a seaside house, involves simulacrums, memory, time—but the image was also, in my mind, a tip of the hat to Ashbery.

Michael Almereyda’s copy of A Wave

Speaking of waves: my latest film, Tesla, includes a line lifted from Ashbery’s “The Painter” (1956). In an attempt to describe the inventor’s experiments with stationary waves of electricity, the narrator (Eve Hewson) tells us, “It was like getting the ocean to sit for a portrait.”    

In any case, back in 2006, I had written John a letter, trying to recruit him to contribute to a book I was editing, texts by and about Vladimir Mayakovsky. We exchanged a few letters—that’s how I had the temerity to talk to him in Red Hook. What was your first Ashbery encounter in print?

I was assigned the Norton anthology Postmodern American Poetry, edited by Paul Hoover, my first semester of college. I didn’t really like any of the poems we were asked to read that week, so I decided to just keep reading until I found something I did. “The Picture of Little JA in a Prospect of Flowers” kind of stopped me in my tracks: “I had a hard stare, accepting // Everything, taking nothing, / As though the rolled-up future might stink / As loud as stood the sick moment / The shutter clicked.” Looking back, many of the poems and poets in that anthology are incredibly important to me, so I think Ashbery’s poetry nudged open my limited ideas of what poetry could do. Before that, I thought of them as either perfect little machines or containers for raw feeling.

I loved listening to Ashbery describe film, and that’s obviously a facet of “The Lonedale Operator,” this flood of narrative description that yields to a surprising turn at the end. He was always recommending that I watch certain films that he loved or thought I might be interested in as a poet. One of those was Jacques Rivette’s Céline and Julie Go Boating (which you couldn’t see anywhere for years but I’m glad is now on the Criterion Channel). At John’s recommendation I went to see it at Film Forum and I remember his description of the opening scene (a long, surreal, and playful chase through Paris, involving the two titular characters—I forget who is chasing whom) was shockingly, almost disturbingly accurate, even though he hadn’t seen the film in many years. He also recommended I see the hilarious On Approval, starring Beatrice Lilly, Googie Withers, Clive Brook, and Roland Culver. Often when we were working on correspondence he would have me pull up films he had mentioned in drafts of emails on YouTube (one I remember specifically is the W. C. Fields movie It’s a Gift and the line “How about my kumquats?!”). So in this way working for him was building up this framework of cinematic references.

I’d say that, apart from direct movie references, Ashbery’s relationship to film comes through in his poems in the sense of movement and juxtaposition. He was a collagist, like Bruce Conner, but even more a poet of simultaneity. The filmmaker I equate him with most is Godard. There’s a deep yet casual awareness of form and history coexisting with a daring immediacy, a seemingly offhand ability to convey the sensation of looking through a window, stepping outside, and being hit by unexpected weather—dazzling sunlight, frantic wind, serene snow. 

Assuming our readers are likely to have a primary interest in film, it might be worthwhile to plug John’s Selected Prose, which contains his Fantomas essay as well as two superb film reviews, delving into Jacques Rivette’s Out 1: Spectre and Val Lewton’s The Seventh Victim. We could also steer them to a poem recited at last month’s Ashbery birthday tribute, “Laughing Gravy,” from his 1988 collection Wakefulness. Laughing Gravy, as you may recall, is the title of a 1931 Laurel and Hardy short, named after their dog. John delighted in the fact that the film opens with Laurel and Hardy in pajamas sharing the same bed.

I also want to point folks in the direction of this wonderful interview between Ashbery and the scholar David Spittle on film and surrealism, which is a trove of memories, concepts, and films.

As long as we’re recommending links, I’ve abruptly remembered another rich, relevant Ashbery resource: a ninetieth-birthday tribute at Literary Hub.

Running up to his ninetieth birthday, you and the poet Adam Fitzgerald invited ninety friends and admirers to choose favorite lines from an Ashbery poem and to follow up with a few sentences. The result was kaleidoscopic, exhilarating. I threw in a gloss of “The Lonedale Operator,” as I was finishing the film at the time. Emily, your entry brings tears to my eyes when I read it now. Among eighty-eight other contributions, readers here might be particularly impressed, as I was, by Jim Jarmusch’s admission of his debt to Ashbery.

Discussing your film, I’m reminded of the sad fact that it was shown for the first time at Ashbery’s memorial at the 92Y in December 2017. Like the reading at Pioneer Works, it was a celebration, only this time the tone was much more somber. Many friends and collaborators shared, read, and performed. The evening was also an homage to Ashbery’s deep and meaningful friendships and his involvement in other art forms such as music, collage, and film. The memorial ended with your film, and seeing his face, hearing his voice, felt so important in that moment. I was so grateful to you for it, as I was missing the blue of his eyes.

The memorial was a great testament to John’s friendships and his legacy. The music was wonderful.  And it was thrilling and, inevitably, sad to watch films in which young Ashbery was sauntering and lounging around, oblivious to the fact he’d be posthumously watched by a rapt crowd in decades to come. (Or was he oblivious? This might have been a theme in our unrealized longer film.)

I’m excited about the upcoming collection you’ve just edited, Parallel Movement of the Hands, a book of some of Ashbery’s unfinished long poems. Can you provide a preview?

Yes! The book, which will be published by Ecco/HarperCollins in the spring of 2021, is made up of five long poems (two of which approach manuscript-length), mostly written in the 1990s and early aughts. The last work in the collection, The Kane Richmond Project, is thirty-plus-page hybrid poem, a love letter to serial films, and it makes frequent reference to Spy Smasher (1942) and The Adventures of Rex and Rinty (1935), both serials starring Kane Richmond, as well as to many films of the 1920s, ’30s, and ’40s. This scene comes from the last five pages of the poem, and like in “The Lonedale Operator,” readers suddenly find themselves in the flickering dark of a movie theater:

Come right in and sit down. Can I offer you something? A glass of sparkling cider, perhaps? How it doesn’t sparkle! It’s a bit lonely here, which is mostly my fault. The windowpanes are tinted a faint violet, which causes a wistful light in the room that one isn’t wholly aware of. I should have them replaced but they are old and very valuable. A few have been broken and replaced, and the resulting mismatched brightness here and there is unsettling. I’m the first and no doubt the last to admit it. Don’t try talking to Doris and Dolores, there’d be no point. They’re in a photograph, window shopping in Oxford Street, circa 1937 or 1936. They seem very smartly turned out, don’t you agree—Dolores in her little leopard cape and matching toque; Doris in a dark pillbox hat in whose veil black pom poms are embedded. Soon they will enter a large movie palace near Leicester Square. The feature hasn’t begun yet but there’s a newsreel with Mussolini ranting about Ethiopia or something. Next is a serial starring the American actor Kane Richmond, a tall, dark, good-looking man who seems to prefer the company of horses and dogs to that of men as well as women. Maybe that’s why his shyness seems about right. Dolores is already groping in her purse for a handkerchief. The villains have Kane trapped in a barn and are starting to set fire to it. Then it’s all over, for this week at least. The feature is beginning and the music wells up very lively and somber; it’s a romance starring that lovely Greta Gynt. Pass me a mint, dear. I’m afraid my mascara is streaked. It must look awful in this rapid play of flashing lights and shadows. Heavens! It seems the projector is broken. We’ll have to wait in the dark. Only they’ve turned the lights up now. Somebody is going to make some kind of announcement.

—John Ashbery, from The Kane Richmond Project, 2002



Excerpt from 
The Kane Richmond Project © the Estate of John Ashbery. Used with permission.

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