Saturday 20 February 2016

Dylan Thomas and Maya Deren

Dylan Thomas was the only British poet apart from Auden to engage so professionally and productively with cinema - the lightly-edited edition of his film scripts runs to over 400 pages, including fourteen wartime propaganda films shot by Strand Films for the Ministry of Information.  I wrote about one of these for the TLS here.

Later on came telly programmes with John Betjeman and Tony Harrison (very different talents), and the occasional one -off (such as the wonderful screen version of Christopher Reid's log poem The Song of Lunch starring the late Alan Rickman, the performance of his I most admire). But lets get back to the Rimbaud of Cwmdonkin Drive.

On 28th October 1953, twelve days before he died, Thomas contributed to the Cinema 16 Symposium in New York. Sharing the stage were the playwright Arthur Miller and the influential avant-garde film maker Maya Deren, who at one point asserted somewhat cryptically that drama in film was horizontal, while poetry in film was vertical. At this point Thomas broke in:

‘Well I’m sure that all Maya Deren said was what I would have said, had I thought of it or understood it [laughter and slight applause]. I was asked, on the side, whether that meant that I thought that the audience didn’t understand what Miss Deren was saying. I’m sure they did, and I wish I was down there. But it sounds different from that side, you know. Now I’m all for (I’m in the wrong place tonight) . . .  I’m all for horizontal and vertical [laughter], and all for what we heard about in the avant-garde. [...] But I don’t know. I haven’t a theory to my back, as they say. But there are, all through the films that I’ve seen all my life . . . there have always been . . .  bits that have seemed to me . . .  Now, this is a bit of poetry.’

 (Dylan Thomas: the filmscripts edited by John Ackerman (London: J. M. Dent, 1995), p. 407.)

I admire Deren's work, but side with Thomas. Here's her celebrated short film Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), a fluid blend of the vertical and horizontal.

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