Shot Verse Shot: "Benediction" and Poetry in Cinema

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Films about art and artists face different obstacles in making the art itself cinematic. A movie about a painter, like Pollock (2000) or My Left Foot (1989)can simply observe them at work. Keiichi Hara’s animated film Miss Hokusai (2015), about the artist Hokusai and his daughter, can visually quote its subject’s ukiyo-e prints directly. On the same wavelength, Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman’s Loving Vincent (2017) tells of van Gogh’s final days with animation composed of oil painting cels imitating the artist’s own style. Writing is more difficult to depict. “Writer” is an incredibly easy job to give a character who will spend a film doing little or no writing (seen in everything from La piscine [1969] to Knight of Cups [2015]). Even biographical works tend to focus on the events that informed famous writers’ work rather than on those works themselves (see Capote [2005], Tolkien [2019], and the like). There is hence a divide in this genre. Cinema’s artistic language is able to evoke that of other visual arts, but how can it incorporate the written word in a similarly visceral manner, in a way that goes beyond merely having characters recite passages or quotes, or montages of pens against paper or characters hunched over typewriters? Many great films about poets and poetry accomplish this by imbibing the art not into their visuals, but into their editing. 

A great new example of this comes with Terence Davies’s new film Benediction, which studies the life of English war poet Siegfried Sassoon in a manner that evinces the mood of Sassoon’s own writings. Heavily affected by his experiences in the First World War, Sassoon’s war poetry is mournful and reflective. Davies presents his life non-chronologically like a memory play, hearkening back to his narrative experimentation in films like The Neon Bible (1995). There’s nothing in Benediction as overtly stylized as the steam train that chugs dreamlike through flashbacks of childhood in that film, but its free intermingling of Sassoon’s youth (where he’s played by Jack Lowden) and old age (Peter Capaldi) induce the same feeling of vividly reliving memory. The subjectivity becomes especially pronounced in sequences dealing with Sassoon’s late-in-life conversion to Catholicism; one figurative scene in which Sassoon prostrates himself on the floor of a church is especially breathtaking in the sense of intimacy it communicates with the divine.

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