I love to play movies in my head.
Just little scenes that come out of nowhere and go back to the chaos of nightmare and dream. Maybe I’ll have Billy the Kid talking to Pat Garrett. The Kid is in jail waiting to be hanged and Garrett is sitting at his desk playing two handed poker and the Kid says, who are you dealing cards to? The chair on the other side of your desk is empty. And, Garrett takes the roll your own out of his mouth, balances it on the edge of the desk where there are burn marks from other cigarets that had been previously parked there and says, I’m playing against death. And, the Kid says, that’s a game you can never win. And, Garrett replies, I know but that doesn’t stop me from trying. And, the Kid is thinking, I’m playing, too, and I’m gonna win. I love scenes like that where the odds are impossible. Harrison Ford jumping off the falls in THE FUGITIVE. Paul Newman and Robert Redford jumping off the cliff into the river in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. I love it when somebody fucks with death. I live in those moments. The electricity is eating me alive.
I love to play scenes from the classics in my head. Like where Alfonso Bedoya is telling Bogart, we don’t need no stinking badges. And every time I play that part I always change it just a little. Maybe I’ll have Bedoya saying badges so hard that spit will shoot out of his mouth in all directions. Or, maybe I’ll have one of his eyes start to turn toward the dark place where his eye socket and nose bridge meet like it’s trying to turn toward the darkest region inside his skull.
In THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, I really wanted to know more about Liberty Valance and not nearly so much about Jimmy Stewart because Stewart was so noble that he was boring. Maybe that’s why John Ford made the movie in black and white because there was so much black and white in the characters and hardly any in between. Hardly any neutral darkness that could lead to real evil. I really wanted to know how low down killer badass John Wayne could be because it took a John Wayne to kill Lee Marvin’s Liberty Valance. But, it was Lee Marvin I was really interested in. Marvin had something that was hair trigger and unpredictably archetypal that I loved. I knew kids like him back in the old hotel days. Kids who played with guns and kids who liked to burn people’s houses down.
The interesting thing to suppose is that John Wayne wasn’t lurking in the shadows when Stewart met Marvin on that dark deserted old west street. Wayne was off somewhere getting nastily drunk and Stewart had decided to let Marvin shoot him but to somehow keep walking, somehow hold onto that little pistol and Marvin being Marvin kept putting slug after slug into Stewart. The right arm, the left arm. The hip. But Stewart steadfastly holds onto that pistol and Marvin makes the mistake of letting Stewart get close because he figures he can finish Stewart any time he wants to. And, when Stewart does get close he somehow brings that wounded arm up. Camera closeup of Marvin’s face is laughter mixed with colossal surprise. Then Stewart fires and the bullet hole shows up very black in Marvin’s forehead. And, Marvin opens his mouth to say something and we get to see all that darkness inside.
REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE. The chickie run. James Dean and Buzz are getting all ready to climb into their cars for the race to the edge to see who will jump first before the car goes over. And there is a short silence between them. Then Buzz takes the switchblade out of his pocket and slides it into James Dean’s hand and says, you won’t mind holding onto this for me, will you? Dean gives him that quirky Dean look, winks and says, see you at the edge. Because Dean is more in love with the edge than Buzz could ever be. Dean has been racing toward the edge all of his life.
CHINATOWN. Right near the end when Faye Dunaway has been shot dead behind the wheel of her car and she has gone head down on the steering wheel triggering the horn and Jack Nicholson is standing there while Joe Mantell who plays Lawrence Walsh, one of the associates in his detective agency tries to calm him down. What he says is, forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown. I love that scene and have reshot it from who knows how many angles in my head. And, when I’ve exhausted them I have to go back and watch the movie all over again. Because movies like that have become national myths, places where we can go to live, places of immense psychic residence. I know I often go to those shadow houses again in my dreams.
Can you think of any poems written during the last fifty years that have the same kind of impact as LIBERTY VALANCE, REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE, CHINATOWN? Or, lets go more recent. How about Clint Eastwood’s UNFORGIVEN where Eastwood says, we all have it coming. How about the way that Sean Penn gets completely unhinged and takes on that haunted look in MYSTIC RIVER? Or consider the end of MYSTIC RIVER where Kevin Bacon points his gunfinger at Penn and Penn just shrugs? Or, how about that crazy flashpoint second when Javier Bardem says, call it friendo, in NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN? And, I’m just using scenes from movies I picked at random. How many lines from poems written in the last fifty years have had the same effect on you? Have driven you out of and back into your blood. How many lines from poems have you tried on like fantastic old clothes, they jump you, they bushwhack the living shit right out of you. How many. Come on, how many?
Lets just cut to the chase and ask the question, if I am so goddam all knowing, why haven’t I been making movies instead of writing poems for the last forty years? Because those little movies I run in my head are the origins of poems. Among them, DILLINGER, WORKING ON MY DUENDE. Because I am compelled to write poetry the way that Dillinger was compelled to rob banks. Because I cannot deny the line or the breath or the blood of the poem. It is the angel that fights me And, I think the question is still valid. Are there any poems that haunt you the way that movies do? Personally, I am haunted by Plath’s ARIEL and I am haunted by Ted Hughes’ CROW. I am haunted by William Carlos Williams’ To Elsie and I am haunted by Allen Ginsberg’s HOWL and I am haunted by Charles Bukowski’s BURNING IN WATER, DROWNING IN FLAME and I am haunted by Lorca and I am haunted by Neruda and I am haunted by the very intense best of Vladimir Mayakovsky. And, this is the tip of the tip of the iceberg.
The big difference between great movies and great poems is that movies are instantaneous. Wham. All we have to do is shove a DVD into the machine, hit play, and settle back. Or else, just go to the movies, kick back in stadium seating with that big drink in the rich rich dark where everything is waiting and let the movie dream you. With a poem you have to work for it. And even though you make yourself comfortable, you still have to read it, you have to give yourself up to the very first line, you have to immerse yourself in the words, drown in them, go so far down in them that for a second you might think you are not coming back up, you have to push yourself into the dance, the murder, and the play. Someone once said, writing poetry busts guts. Well, reading poetry requires almost as much effort. The way I read poetry is I pretend it’s a movie. It’s dark inside and I’m in there all alone and I have the best seat in the house and anything can happen and I want it to I want it to so much that it hurts.
What happens with me is that somehow I have learned to bring the movies into the way that I read. Think of it this way. The only way to read is to read dangerously. To read so that you veins are exposed to the words. I can be reading THE WASTE LAND one more time and also thinking about that ear getting cut off in RESERVOIR DOGS. I can be reading LETTERS TO AN IMAGINARY FRIEND and thinking about Warren Beatty getting all shot up at the end of BONNIE AND CLYDE. I can be reading Jim Thompson’s THE KILLER INSIDE ME and also getting lines for a new section of DILLINGER where Dillinger says every bullet in his Thompson is dreaming. The thing that I’ve discovered is that scenes of certain movies invade me at the oddest of moments, especially when I’m writing, and sometimes a line from a poem will go through my head while I am watching a movie. And, then the line and the movie get all mixed together. I can’t help it, this is the way I have been wired, it’s the way that I am. Going to a movie is the psychic equivalent to getting a blood transfusion. The blood of the movie, where the rolling credits turn into a poem.
I need movies in the eyes, I need poems in the dreams. Reading is watching, watching is reading. I read movies the way I watch poems. I float in a movie river of darkness and dreams.