Monday, November 23, 2009

Poem 8

Emlen Etting was an artist and experimental filmmaker who explored film as a medium for moving art, rather than narrative structure. Born into Philadelphia's high society, he grew up between the United States and Europe, and as a young man studied in Paris under the painter André Lhote. According to a biography written by my professor, With The Rich And Mighty by Dr. Kenneth Kaleta, Etting's education and social circle allowed him access to a variety of artists in Philadelphia and elsewhere; this background strongly influenced his films, particularly his earliest film, Poem 8.

As its title suggests, Poem 8 is an attempt to visually render the language of poetry. It accomplishes this partly by emphasizing motion. The film opens with a young woman dancing in a field, who represents poetic grace and rhythm. It then travels via train tracks to the bustling city. This is the first of several times that a method of transportation comes into play; other sequences feature travel by ship or by foot.

Once the camera leaves the woman in the field, it becomes another character with hands and feet visible inside the frame. The man through whose eyes the audience looks encounters women who are more cultured than the dancer, and whose routines more closely resemble those of the women in Etting's social class. They are not ungraceful, but the lack the fluid motion of the dancer in the field. In a more abstract sequence, Etting's hands are seen crushing a globe; I took this as representing the destruction of the world at the hands of those who have financial power but not artistic vision.

At the end of the film, we return to the woman in the field. She is dancing again, but this time she appears naked under a thin sheet that clings to her as she moves. This is the part of the film that I found most interesting, because it is reminiscent of the "wet drapery" effect seen in classical Greek and Roman sculpture. The sheet billowing around the dancer as she moves cinematically captures the fluidity of poetry, while at the same time the allusion to classical art brings to mind Etting's education as an artist. The use of four different mediums (film, dance, poetry, sculpture) in one image is very telling of Etting's long and dynamic career.

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