Jeffery Oliver

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On Watching “Annie Hall” by Woody Allen Analytically Because I Want to Make a Film

Last night I watched “Annie Hall.” Ms Lynn is out of town and I like Woody Allen so I watched “Annie Hall” and drank a Belgian farmhouse ale because Ms Lynn isn’t into Woody Allen.

I’m exploring the possibility of making a film based on the narrative in this poem–and terrified about facing that potential–and so I’m reading a lot about visual storytelling and trying to watch some films that people who make films I like found inspirational or influential to their development as filmmakers. I’m trying to build a vocabulary of the possible.

Right now I feel like Annie in the scene in “Annie Hall” where Alvy notices her photos. Annie defers the praise and makes the statement that she’s had no formal training in photography. I have no formal training in film. Alvy recommends taking a class in photography–“as it’s a new art form”–so she can better understand the aesthetics of the medium. His argument (Alvy’s at this point in the film) is that to contribute to art one must understand the lineage of the medium. Very likey true. She replies using almost the exact same language as Frank O’Hara used in “Personism: A Manifesto,” with, “I just go with my gut.” She just enjoys making pictures.

I have no formal training in filmmaking or photography. I did ok in a visual art class in high school but I’m a poet–creatively and formally. And even there, I don’t have a ton of formal training with literature–I studied writing in graduate school and music as an undergrad. My approach to writing poetry is intuitive and my approach to editing is an intellectual process. These are distinct processes and I believe we need to encourage both in art education. It’s too easy to focus on analysis because we can more easily test students on their ability to believe in a particular way of thinking about something.

I had a dream last night that I visited a creative writing poetry workshop at Boise State and no one in the class respected my approach to poem making because I don’t talk about poems analytically when the discussion is about writing poems. Writing is a creative process. Editing is an analytical process. Both are necessary.

Like Annie Hall and Frank O’Hara, creativity is about going with your gut. But then I switch to the other part of my brain to analyze what’s been written. What are the patterns? What is the narrative motion? Writing and editing are two aspects of poem making and very distinct in my mind. It seems to me that over-analysis-as-part-of-the-creative-process results in stifled and rhetorical art. It’s why there exists today what’s called the MFA poem. It’s how I approached music composition as an undergrad. It literally took me years of playing music to undo the idea that composers don’t write music the way we study it by taking it apart and then putting it back together. Creativity in art making is only about putting something together. Editing is about shaping the art that’s already together.

In order to shape art we have to engage with art creatively and analytically. We have to experience the many, many modes of expression the form offers. Which is why I’m writing about my experience trying to conceive and make a film.

So I agree with Annie and I also agree with Alvy Singer that we need to understand the aesthetics and history of our art, but and this is only if you consider your work to be a contribution to the art form itself. Annie Hall made pictures because she liked to make pictures. If you want to write poems that are country songs because this is what you love–do that. If you want to contribute to the imagined and shifting contemporary thinking about an artform–that’s a different process entirely. I can’t imagine taking on an artform though I tried for years. I love poems and film and love making poems and films so that’s what I do. I wonder if this isn’t one of the arguments Woody Allen isn’t trying to work out for himself in “Annie Hall.”

As a creative artist, it seems that making poems is similar to film in that in both mediums we use craft against the materials of the artform to shape and create an image in the mind’s eye. I’m still working on this idea but metaphor is this in poems and I don’t know the analog in film (because of lack of formal study…). In one medium we use words to inspire an image and another art form we use moving images to present an image. Thanks for your patience here, I’m just trying to work this out (find that aesthetic Alvy was speaking of?).

So as a storyteller watching this film critically this time, here are some of the things I enjoyed about how Allen used the craft and materiality of film to shape images toward a particular narrative:

  • use of meta story: It’s maybe over used now and I’ll never forget the experience of (SPOILER ALERT) watching Jodorowski’s “The Holy Mountain.” Allen used it as part of his inner dialog–and I think because of literature. See, literature is really good at allowing us to see inside the mind and emotions of a character–it’s more difficult to show, literally, what someone is contemplating in film. I really dig how Allen used the meta story-docu-drama to show us inside Allen’s head.
  • subtitles as translation of interior thoughts: Again, Allen seems to be looking for a way to show us interiority in film similarly to literature. There’s a great scene where Singer and Hall are on the roof and getting to know one another and we see the characters on screen and hear what they’re saying but Hall uses subtitles, as if translating from one language to another, to show us what the characters are actually thinking regardless of what we’re hearing them say. There’s something very interesting to me about this and I’ve only seen this technique used a few times.
  • I also enjoy how he portrays the narrative of relationships from possible interest to new love to committed love to either long-term commitment or abandonment of the relationship.

I’m trying to understand what it is I enjoy in film as a way to build a vocabulary of the possible. Once we’ve seen something done, it’s just a matter of time before we can do it ourselves (I’m paraphrasing Tony Hawk here). I’m going to make a film.

One More Phone Call

…then why do we thirst for water?

“One More Phone Call” is a mediation poem on our complicity of want and need and over production in the West. It’s presented here as a videopoem.

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I am Not the Only One

For my niece Molly

Sometimes, numbers just don’t add up.
For example, when people look at me,
I think they think they’re seeing “one:”

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This World I’m Living In

For my niece Molly

Our neighbor Mr. Pomerantz has dogs.
He wears tweed hats with spotted quail feathers,
Mr. P, as we call him, not his dogs.
His dogs wear knit sweaters with red birds on them.
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Press Play Poem – a history and theory of video poems

“Press Play Poem” is a paper presented at the Pacific Rim Conference for Literature and Multimodality March 2012. You can watch this video, listen to the audio-only version or download and read the paper (PDF).

We Wish You a Happy Solstice

Happy Solstice (2009) from Jeff and Jennifer.

Video Poems and Stories Class Advertisement

This is an advertisement for a video poetry class I taught at the University of Alaska Anchorage in Fall 2011. The students produced some really cool videopoems.

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