A Proximal Version of Us: Michael McIrvin on Maggie Jaffe’s Flic(k)s

Flic(k)s, Maggie Jaffe, Red Dragonfly Press

American women are famished, craving sensation, even if the sensation is of life’s red blood draining away. Women are nourished by horror, shudder and cling and cry out-and come back for more-because women are predestined to bear the race in bloody agony, their suffering a kind of horror. Blood a kind of horror. It’s a biological thing.
–From “Lugosi on Women”

Early in her critical career, Susan Sontag famously declared that movies should be experienced rather than interpreted, that “direct experience of the language of faces and gestures” amounts to a more immediate version of text, and therefore of our humanity, than print. She just as famously lived to regret the assertion-an anti-intellectual pronouncement by an intellectual at the least a kind of bleak joke-but the underlying premise, albeit dangerously naïve, makes sense at some basic level too.

In her last essay about film nearly 30 years later, Sontag’s thinking regarding film came full circle in her declaration of an “ignominious, irreversible decline” in cinematic productions as represented by the “astonishingly witless” films of the age, including, I assume, the hipster-irony of the 90s (the period that gave rise to her dismay) in the absence of moviegoers’ ability to recognize irony, and films by shock-meisters like Tarantino and Rodriguez in the absence of our ability to be shocked by much of anything. Herein is perhaps both the recognition of her greatest error in that first assertion and also the viable basis for it as well: the relationship of film to both individual reception and public consumption.

Movies, as opposed to, say, poems (which have an almost clichéd negative relationship to capital), are products of the larger market, and as such, are public dreams. That is, as products designed for large-scale consumption (even art-house films must make back the cash invested and so garner a larger audience in one showing than poetry books garner over a long shelf life), the collective latent content of movies is the compendium of our cultural fears and wish fulfillment operative within the historical moment. Movies are part of our collective identity, as it were, a psychological snapshot of our collective cultural being, and Sontag’s valid assumption is that movies are therefore more like lived experience at the moment it is being lifted to the level of trope, which she mistakenly believed cannot be critically unpacked by virtue of its immediate relationship to our current version of the world.

Hence, however, in the absence of critical interpretation, Cold War-era James Bond kept the West safe for capitalism as he fucked his way across the Balkans, destroying (and taming by seducing) the evil forces that would dominate the world and thereby subliminally protecting us from the dreaded domino-fall of nations to communism, and viewers felt safer and somehow satisfied after “experiencing” this character’s cinematic exploits. Hence, the current crop of horror flicks are a subliminal reiteration that the other is dangerous and genocidal mayhem the only remedy in Bush’s version of the world-unequivocal cultural and ethnic sameness a maniacal Christian version of post-rapture Nirvana.

This is the biggest problem with Sontag’s youthful assertion writ large, and its kernel of truth as well: “experience” relative to any text, regardless of how visceral, can be a stand-in for “passive consumption.” In short, the latent imagery in films may well be some proximal version of us at a given point in time, but that version of us is also easily manipulated in the absence of critical exegesis and, in a word, dangerous by virtue of the reach of cinematic productions.

Whereas films are public dreams, the best poems are personal dreams in the broadest sense: the ocean of human experience (the latent content) lurking beneath the surface of personal experience (the manifest content), which of course also includes the historical moment of the poem’s production. Good poems demand critical interpretation so that the reader can understand why she is affected by it, so she can understand that inchoate perception to which the poem gives rise (what we used to say happened at the level of the sub- or unconscious).

Consequently, a poem by a powerful poet is an excellent tool with which to interpret film, but it requires a complex double move: mining the latent content of the movie and interpreting it, but also incorporating that content into this second art form, the personal dream that, at its best, endeavors to transcend the personal to achieve the human. The poem as ekphrasis is not simply exegesis, in other words, but the public cultural, historical dream reenacted to one level or another within the personal, human dream of the poem.

Maggie Jaffe’s film poems cover a wide range of such reenactments, but the most basic exegetical act remains of paramount import at the level of meta-text precisely because movies tend to be passively consumed: bringing historical perspective to images that are nevertheless still resonant in the present (or else the film in question would not be of any interest to the poet). Movies are famously “unreal” in the popular conception, figments cast in light that stand in contradistinction to the “real” (“it is only a movie,” one hears frequently, which interestingly echoes another famous rejoinder: it is only a dream), and Jaffe provides a footnote that points out the notion is illusion about as poignantly as possible:

Berlin, 1940: Frau Stoffe visited me this afternoon. We see the American Disney film Snow White, a magnificent artistic achievement. A fairytale for grownups, thought out into the last detail and made with a great love of humanity and nature. An artistic delight! (quoted in The Secret Annexe: An Anthology of War Diarists, ed. by Irene and Alan Taylor, 2004)

These are Josef Goebbels’ words. Symbolically, the fascist and the “fairytale for grownups” are the poles of the popular conception of movies for Jaffe, her film poems offered as proof that movies are more like capitalist fairytales in the Brothers Grimm sense, the truth at its most enormous, and wearing its most terrifying shoes, jack boots, under its petticoats-images that can range from the banal to the extraordinary.

In fact, one of the poet’s primary claims in this book is that movies not only can’t dodge history but reverberate with the moment in which they were produced, which to varying degrees contains the total psychic product of history for the viewer. The poet tells us so overtly in poems like “Red Rum”: “The Shining [is] a critique of Indian genocide. Listen up. King uses horror as a metaphor for America’s moral bankruptcy [because] horror movies play out our fears as well as our transgressions.” However, the historical moment and our collective psychic selves intersect whether the author/auteur intends a critique or not, whether symbols enter the public dream as intended textual elements or by accident: “A cute mulatto waitress serves Ollie apple pie and Alice Bavarian crème. Dr. Judd has Roquefort cheese and a Winston: symbols proliferate like bunnies” (“Cat People”). The participants in the “fairytale for grownups” can’t escape history either as it continues to operate in defiance of all attempts at illusion, even of “happily ever after”:

The couple will meet again in Curse of the Cat People, the sequel, where they’ll marry. But happiness never lasts. The year is 1942. Tourneur is “gray-listed” as a “nigger lover.” Japanese-Americans are interred in relocation centers. In Auschwitz, crematoriums burn night and day.

Jaffe frequently intersperses these truths, movie images taking on historical significance much like the images in a dream can resonate with meaning that defies more logical correlations: your mother’s hat is somehow also your childhood pet, and a woman who looks like your wife is really someone else entirely, scaring you sufficiently that you wake. Likewise, in “Psycho,”

[Janet Leigh’s] D-cups are like twin
atomic silos, more terrifying than the Cuban Missile
Crisis and worldwide Communist domination.
By the time she changes into black lingerie,
we knew she was history.
They used chocolate syrup for her
O God, Mother, blood, blood!

She just sat there while I dumped it out!
Like most of us, she’d like to buck
the system. Thinking back to her shitty job
and the oilman who slaps down 40 grand
to buy off unhappiness, she knows what
she must do: steal the dough.

The historical references make the public dream of the film more contextually accurate, and thereby an entertainment is revealed to be a complex cultural artifact, but this poem also contains darker dreamlike images of blood and symbolic jism within the larger context of the American capitalist landscape, where men run things and money buys happiness and the only viable dream is to have what rich men have; and we mustn’t forget that female sexuality is dangerous, Leigh’s tits both deeply sensual and scary for precisely that reason. In other words, the poem not only reiterates the historical context for the film but also the psychological context of a woman poet writing more than forty years later.

Certainly Sontag’s concrete starting point when she suggested that films are best experienced was their power to affect us, and Jaffe reminds us that,

After Psycho, nothing was the same.
Not the comfort of showers,
nor mom’s down-home
apple pie. Prophetic.
Within three years America
will eat her young: the skull beneath her smirk
metastasizing into a diminutive
Southeast Asia.

Once again, however, history is never separate from the public dream captured on celluloid, and in this instance, Jaffe tells us that the film’s images were our collective consciousness at play, or rather, the contents thereof being worked out. This stanza is the truth of Sontag’s assertion about experiencing film rather than interpreting it and that statement’s utter contradiction at the same time. Psycho was deeply affecting and an unheeded warning from our shared psychic depths.

Movies as a proximal version of us that is also viscerally affective, powerful sometimes unto being overwhelming, means that watching a film is an act of communion with the other viewers. While watching Equus, for example, the poet is overcome by the central trope of the movie, the blinding of several horses:

Regrettably, pubs are closed at this hour. I head for the loo to compose myself and find a woman clutching the sink. Although we’re strangers, we hug each other, playing out an ancient human need. We’re sister citizens without that requisite second skin. Neither of us says anything, and to this day I don’t know if she could speak English or if she knew that I do…
I think of a meadow and the silent language of horses, the way they’ll stand for hours, barely touching, one facing west, one facing east. (“Two from the Loo”)

The deeper cultural implications as regards the relationship of religious fervor to madness remain implicit in this poem, the tropes neither unwound nor correlated with the poet’s life or our common present. This is a snapshot of the moment, of the image’s effect on these women’s shared human being, and a tacit nod to the power of those tropes beyond the terrible pictures of cruelty to animals. Sontag’s assertion can seem genius at such times.

In fact, in some poems Jaffe merely actively transliterates a film, as if the words were skittering across the page as the poet watches the movie in her mind one more time, but also as if the reiterated scene were a diary entry. The double move is still necessary, but it is the individual’s reception of the movie’s images that are central to the poem. Indeed, the movie images in concert with the speaker’s implied connection to these characters can speak volumes:

Bitches from Hell-that’s us-who’ve had it
up to our asses with unpaid bills, the blues,
with bending over 18-wheeler semis.
Louise turns sharply south, pitching
Thelma & me like we’re Raggedy-Ann dolls.
When the car soars over the Canyon,
we’re awake among the sleepwalkers
and without fear, that unwanted guest
who’s taken up residence in our guts.
Without fear for the first time in our lives.
(“Thelma, Louise, and Me”)

When I saw Thelma and Louise years ago, the ending seemed completely trite, a simplistic way out of the story like the ending to too many undergrad creative writing efforts; but the poem made me shudder precisely because the poet presents this seemingly nihilistic act as a complaint against her own place in the world-as-received. Thus, even in poems where the emphasis is personal, Jaffe is insisting that our consumption of movies must include an active element, that entertainment is never merely so. The viewer’s reaction to a movie may well be deeply experiential, but like these characters response to the facts of their lives and their historical moment, that experience remains utterly passive in the absence of interpretation. The poem is the first step, perhaps, in some larger act of transcendence.

In Fascinating Fascism, Sontag declares that Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will “represents an already achieved and radical transformation of reality: history become theater,” and indeed, Riefenstahl claimed the movie was not propaganda at all but cinema verité. Although it is unlikely that Riefenstahl could not recognize the difference between the truth and her complicity in the interests of the Third Reich, the assertion is nevertheless emblematic. Maggie Jaffe’s film poems remind us that all movies, whether overt propaganda or mass-market schlock or art, contain signs and symbols that we passively consume to our detriment. But the poet is obviously as much a cinephile as a cultural critic, and these poems offer far more than an implied reproach “for our historical amnesia” (“The Shining”), more than an accurate context. These poems are also testament to the power of the medium of film and powerful works of art in their own right, the truth about us, however dark, lovingly rendered.


Michael McIrvin is the author of five poetry collections, including Optimism Blues: Poems Selected and New, two novels including The Blue Man Dreams the End of Time, and an essay collection. He taught writing and literature for several years at the University of Wyoming and now makes his living as a writer and freelance editor. He lives with his wife, Sharon, on the high plains of Wyoming.


Comments are closed.