by Peter Todd
‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.’
(William Blake. Auguries of Innocence.)
‘Then sing your song without me: I shall sing
Alone. But if by accident you hear,
Listen. – In every song of loss or Spring
Are overtones for the familiar ear.’
(Margaret Tait. One is One.)
Take Margaret Tait’s description of one of her films ‘A poem started in words is continued in images’ which itself was called Colour Poems and is twelve minutes in length, what should you consider when thinking of showing it? The same could be asked of Aerial which is four minutes and she described ‘Touches on elemental images: air, water (and snow), earth, fire (and smoke), all come in to it. The track consists of a drawn out musical sound, single piano notes and some neutral sounds.’
In 1990 I made what Margret Tait would call a self-made film, Out which is eight minutes long. With the support of sympathetic programmers it was screened on a number of occasions as a short before features in cinema programmes. Later I would do a programme with a number of short works and a feature. As I continued to develop more self-made work, the thought persisted, how to show these as a more specific experience of what I thought they offered? What emerged was a programme called Film Poems at the National Film Theatre London in 1998. I decided to try and tour it, so more people could see it. So the first Film Poems touring programme developed (with a slight change, Manhatta from 1921 by Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand replaced Jazz of Lights from 1954 by Ian Hugo). It would be followed by three more programmes which would develop one after the other, with thoughts and the experience of one, informing the next. It’s in the doing that things happen.
All the films that were included are individual works, which exist uniquely, and can be shown in other contexts. They are not necessarily film poems, but they can also be film poems. So the title of the programmes became a kind of prism, through which to see the films, to see the programmes. In the main the films came from the collections of the BFI and LUX, also from individual film makers, whose films or they themselves I had come across. There were other screenings I was involved with including City Poems in 2003 at the Arnolfini Bristol (in which I included In The Street from 1948 by Helen Levitt, Janice Loeb, and James Agee) and later follow ups included one presented by Sarah Neely in Edinburgh at the Scottish Poetry Library in 2012 in which I included Renate Sami’s Ein Jahr/ A Year from 2011 which she described as ‘constructed like a poem’. This year an all 16mm film print Film Poems screening at Close-up cinema London marked twenty years since the first touring programme gave the opportunity to screen Margaret Tait’s film The Leaden Echo and The Golden Echo in which she edits her images to her reading of the poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins which became available after the Film Poems series. As a part of the dialogue with Margaret, she sent me a 16mm print of her film Garden Pieces (1998) as a present, with the hope I could find a sympathetic place, or programme for it. It would be her last film, but also be the start of what became another programme called Garden Pieces (2001) which again like Film Poems evolved into another series called Garden Pieces 1-3 (2001-2009), and the first one in 2001 would therefore overlap with the Film Poems series. And then I was also working on the Margaret Tait retrospective for the Edinburgh Film Festival in 2004 and the LUX touring programme of her work. There were other programmes as well, and in the Place of Work screenings at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2013, I was happy to able to include one of Storm De Hirsch’s films.
Putting the programmes together was a bit like editing a film, and programmes would often have one of my films in it. So film making and film showing. Folding thoughts over, and then over again, like pages of a book. How do images or works work together or against each other and to what degree? What is happening with the sound or no sound, with the colour? How do the gaps between the films feel? Is the projector in the space with those experiencing them, or is there a separate projection box. If one of the works is on a different format, how does this affect the elements in play? This is in addition to the various film makers many of whom I had corresponded with or met and their histories, and the films histories. Another aspect was, as so little literature existed on the films I would show, I had often to ask film makers for a few words. So the programme notes for each programme developed.
‘The Film Poems programme came from a desire to see films which explore the nature of film and poetry. As a film maker seeing films is as important as them being shown. ‘Film Poems’ is a part of that interest. By this work being screened, hopefully an interest in the films themselves, in programming in this and new ways, will continue’ I wrote in 1999 for in a piece for the first Film Poems programme notes. (1)
By 2009 thinking on the Garden Pieces series of programmes I would write ‘I hope these films work as programmes, together, although all the works have other places, and contexts, not just these’. And Robert Beavers whose Pitcher of Colored Light (2007) featured in that series wrote, ‘dear Peter, you can imagine that I find the question of how a film programme works beyond the individual film (and maker) extends in many directions.’ (2)
Recently I worked with Guy Sherwin on a joint programme of recent work for Close-up in London. Guy’s work was digital and mine was 16mm film. We decided to move the curtains manually at the side of the screen between the 16mm film and the digital, the academy film ratio and the wider digital ratio, so each ratio acknowledged but the image and framing the best possible to each. This happened several times as we changed formats and alternated between our work. So we rose from our seats and each looked after one side of the screen, and then seated, the films continued. These actions became an added and unique experience to the evening.
Combined, there were perhaps around fifty screenings of the Film Poems programmes. To have had the possibility of the dialogue with these films and film makers, of seeing these films often multiple times and these programmes in these various spaces and places and with these programmers and audiences has been a special experience which has become a part of me.
Where to start on a new programme? Choose a poem. What do the opening quotes suggest, or the last? Or just look at shadows moving on a wall. Or remember a film you want to see again, have written in a notebook, and maybe want to share. The title in the notebook is joined by another film, and then another, like a shopping list, and the order changes and then again, then one is taken away. And then maybe it is time to think of it being a programme ready to screen.
Consideration for each film and maker, and for each programme and context.
‘All things counter, original, spare, strange.’
Gerard Manley Hopkins. Pied Beauty.
Peter Todd. May. 2019.
1. Films Like Poems, Films Like Music, Films Like Films. In Film Poems programme notes. April 1999.
2. On Showing a Film: Some Thoughts and Voices in Vertigo, Vol 4, No 2, Winter – Spring 2009.
Film Poems 1-4: screenings curated by Peter Todd.
Manhatta (1921) Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand, Bells of Alantis (1952) Ian Hugo, Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid, Hugh MaDiarmid A Portrait (1964) Margaret Tait, Aerial (1974) Margaret Tait, Mile End Purgatorio (1991) Guy Sherwin and Martin Doyle, Darwish (1993) Shafeeq Vellani, Out (1990) Peter Todd, Blue Scars (1994) Ian Cottage.
Moments/Histories/Feelings Film Poems 2.
Window Water Baby Moving (1959) Stan Brakhage, At Land (1944) Maya Deren, Words for Battle (1941) Humphrey Jennings, Lady Lazarus (1991) Sandra Lahire, Glass (1998) Leighton Pierce, First Hymn to the Night Novalis (1994) Stan Brakhage, Diary (1998) Peter Todd, I Am Romeo (1996) Anton Hecht.
Film Poems 3.
Un Chien Andalou (1928) Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali, L’ Etoile de Mer (1928) Man Ray, A Short Film About Time (1999) Paromita Vohra, For You (2000) Peter Todd, A Colour Box (1935) Len Lye, Colour Poems (1974) Margaret Tait, Yantra (1950-57) James Whitney, One Potato Two Potato (1957) Leslie Daiken, The Back Steps (2001) Leighton Pierce.
Film Poems 4 Messages.
Eriskay A Poem of Remote Lives (1935) Werner Kissling, Messages (1981-83) Guy Sherwin, Anemic Cinema (1926) Marcel Duchamp, Colour Poems (1974) Margaret Tait, An Office Worker Thinks of Their Love, and Home (2003) Peter Todd, First Hymn to the Night Novalis (1994) Stan Brakhage, Film Letter from New Zealand (1988) Gordon Brouncker, Kokoro is For Heart (1999) Philip Hoffman.