Living with a poet, I am exposed to a great many books of poetry. With so many of them lying around the house, and with my habit of picking up and reading anything I find near at hand, I can say that I've read a great deal of poetry, though I rarely ever set out to do anything of the kind. Now, let me be the first to say that I'm not drawn to poetry. Most of it leaves me wondering what I've just read, or worse, it leaves me with the faint impression that the poet has just insulted me or at the very least judged me and found me lacking. That's a bit of an old joke with my dear wife, who has often showed me a new poem of hers, which after reading I'll say: "Well, that's obviously about me, and you're mad at me." She usually insists that I'm wrong, though I have a feeling that's not always true.
If you have read any of my posts you'll know that I'm a big movie buff. Sure, I enjoy modern movies, but nowhere near as much as older movies. So you can imagine how intrigued I was to find a copy of Kim Bridgeford's latest book, Hitchcock's Coffin on our living room coffee table. Hitchcock anything will catch my eye. The subtitle, sonnets about classic films, transformed the intrigue into a full-blown plot line. Like a character in a Jules Dassin Noir, I surreptitiously slipped the book behind my back and tried to make my way out of the room without attracting attention. (Cue the Dmitri Tiomkin mood music.) I failed. My wife asked, "Are going to read that?" There was a pause; I'd been caught attempting to take a book of poetry. "Well, yes. It seems this is all about old movies, and Alfred Hitchcock, and Billy Wilder," I mumbled. "You'll love it," she said. The only thing left unsaid was the fact that I was actually going to read a book of poetry. I tugged at the collar of my trenchcoat, glanced furtively along the street, and disappeared into an alley, still clutching the book in my sweaty palms.
All drama aside, I did in fact sit down to read the book. And while I'm no professor of poetry, American literature, or even a professor of Gilligan's Island, I would like to take this opportunity to say a few things about Ms. Bridgford's book.
As the lights went down, the curtain came up, and the titles flashed across the screen, I was immediately taken in by the first sonnet in the book. Simply titled Hollywood, it let me know right away that Bridgford is a true fan of film. Like me, she too sits "alone, outlined with dark," and that together--
...we believe: in large imagination,
The swell of orchestra, the railway station,
With lovers kissing in the hissing steam;
A moment's sadness is recast as dream.
That was all I needed to know I'd like the rest of the book.
There are three sections to the book. The first focuses on Hitchcock, the second on Billy Wilder, and the third takes a look at close to twenty of the American Film Institute’s 100 Best Films; a journey that takes the reader from suspense and terror to love and comedy and finally ending with greatness.
In one of the strongest poems in the first section, Hitchcock and Poe prods us to recognize that this book is not just about movies--it is also about artists who were just as creative and important as the literary giants of the past. The author makes this clear when she says, "They want to reach inside, to seize the heart/They want the pounding restlessness of art." There are wonderful commentaries here on Hitch's most popular films: Psycho, The Birds, and Vertigo. Among the other choices she pleasantly surprised me by choosing The Wrong Man, a movie I'd recently seen. Don't look for her to highlight the more sensational details of Hitchcock's work. Instead, most of her focus is on the man behind the camera. Something we might have thought a magician like Hitchcock wouldn't have liked, since he was always trying to keep the audience from paying attention to the man behind the curtain with all of his smoke and mirrors. His cameos, Bridgford notes, indicate this is not entirely true. As she states in her sonnet Hidden, "He hid himself in order to be found."
The next section, on Billy Wilder, continues to look at the artist more than his art. A friend once remarked that it always seemed as if Wilder's films wandered off course towards the latter parts and he never got the ending right. Bridgford's view throughout this section can be summed up in the opening lines of her sonnet The Fortune Cookie:
This movie is both smart and cynical,
And it's the latter thing that gives us pause,
For while we know he's right, it doesn't sell.
We feel too bad. We wince from Lemmon's lies.
Perhaps some of his cynicism has worn off on the poet as she asserts in Billy Wilder's Grave that the throngs at his funeral did not just come to see the witty epitaph on his marker. Rather, "Marilyn's the one the bereft/Come to see: extravagant and late,/Her skirt a lavish orchid gone adrift." Wilder could not have shot that scene any better.
The last section touches on so many great films (To Kill a Mockingbird, A Streetcar Named Desire, Citizen Kane, to name just a few) that I won't try to comment on most of these satisfying sonnets. There were a few that I was not expecting a female poet to take a shot at. But she did. And I'm glad she did.
The Third Man is a favorite of mine. It stars one of my favorite actors, Joseph Cotton, and it is one of the most iconic film noirs you'll ever see. Bridgford beautifully captures its dark intrigue and bleak ending.
In Lawrence of Arabia, she again displays the power that film has over those of us sitting in the dark:
It is about the way we want a film
To take us by the eyes and overwhelm,
To take our little lives and stretch them thus,
So that each moment is miraculous.
For those who'll never ride in vivid color;
For those for whom the moments are far duller.
I can still remember such a feeling as a seven-year-old sitting in the dark as that first, awe-inspiring Star Destroyer flew over our heads in the opening scene of a little sci-fi movie that once had the simple title Star Wars. Grand movies like David Lean's Lawrence of Arabia certainly do overwhelm. Bridgford's commentary on Lawrence's tragic end manages to do the same: "And even he, our hero, in the end,/Is not so beautiful, and starts to blend."
The biggest surprise in the book was the sonnet written about one of my favorite westerns of all time: Unforgiven. As if saving the best for last, the second to the last sonnet in this book really puts a bullet through your heart.
Clint Eastwood in a role of hesitation
Confuses us. We want to watch some justice;
We want some blood, the carnage that released us
As a nation. We want our liberation.
She deftly reveals not only the subtleties of this anti-western, but she turns the camera around and points it at all of us watching; all of us who yearn for Eastwood to throw off his cloak of guilt and newfound religion, all of us who want Dirty Harry to just get on with the killing, all of us who weren't ready to follow Clint down into this ambush of our personal desires of vengeance that had been forged in the Hollywood of old. But she joins us in the end, sitting there in the dark, the camera on her as well as the rest of us.
We're meant to think about the Western's cost.
Yet we'd prefer to revel in what's lost.
I've had to give the book back to my wife now, since it is, after all, her copy. But like any classic movie, I'm sure I'll enjoy catching it again late at night when I can't sleep. I hope that Ms. Bridgford realizes that there are still over eighty titles left on the AFI's list of 100 Best Films about which she could write. If she did, I would look forward to the chance to sit yet again in the dark and watch more moving pictures with her.