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Monday, February 19, 2018

The Poetry of Il Postino - Then and Now

Movies are personal, intimate expressions of those who make them and those who identify with them. When you are really moved by a film, you will always remember that time in your life associated with it.

Michael Radford’s Il Postino arrived in America during the summer of 1995. I had been living in New York City, Brooklyn to be exact, sharing a studio apartment with a bunch of actors I met on a short film. Chasing a dream to be a screenwriter, I held a day job in public relations for a museum and took film jobs on the side. One of them was a “Parking PA” on Woody Allen’s Mighty Aphrodite. The shift was 6pm – 6am. It was the entry level position of entry level positions.

Hearing and feeling the West Coast calling my name, I went back to my hometown in Upstate New York for the summer before heading to San Francisco with a one way bus ticket. That’s when Michael Radford’s film came to town. I just remember sitting there after the credits rolled, in tears with that ending knowing that Massimo Troisi passed away shortly after filming. The cinematography, the story of friendship, that amazing soundtrack made for an emotional couple hours and stayed with me long after leaving the theater. After heading out west, I settled in an apartment in Pacific Heights with another bunch of 20-somethings. Switching to the news business, I worked as a video editor at CNN in San Francisco. So my days started later than the rest. I would cook pasta for lunch and listen to that soundtrack. I would spend the mornings and early afternoons with the likes of Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe, Andy Garcia, Madonna and Julia Roberts as they read the versus of Pablo Neruda's timeless poems. With the Pacific sun shining through the windows of my upper floor apartment, my glass of California wine in hand while pursuing my childhood dream of living in California.. it was truly a beautiful time in my life. That soundtrack reached beyond the film and became the soundtrack to my life. It made me curious about the Italian culture, and was the driving force in asking for a transfer to the Rome bureau, which I was granted the following year.

To this day, when I hear that theme from Il Postino as I did on the Red Carpet at the 2016 Rome Film Festival, I savor the moment and remember the innocence of 1995 when everything was new and curiosity was endless. During my years of covering Italian cinema, I’ve written about many aspects of Il Postino, including the lead actress Maria Grazia Cucinotta and the beloved late actor Massimo Troisi. However, one thing I haven’t written about is the poetry element.

Today to mark what would have been Massimo Troisi’s 65th birthday, I want to write about poetry because it was relevant in the mid-90s when Il Postino was released and it was such a strong force in the film and soundtrack. During those years in San Francisco, there were quite a number of poets and young writers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights bookstore was thriving and North Beach cafés were full of us hopeful writers with our notebooks and cappuccinos. I left all that behind after moving back to NYC in '98, but every now and then, I’ll search for poets online to see if there are still open mics and if anything new and exciting is happening.

Last year, I was doing just that when I stumbled upon an interesting channel on YouTube. Stephen Blackehart is the creator of Words with Stevie, a collection of videos, which feature poems read by him, a Shakespearean-trained actor. Among the collection are works by Edgar Allen Poe, Robert Frost and William Shakespeare. I contacted Stephen Blackehart on social media to ask him about the videos and his thoughts on contemporary poetry in general. What I found was an accomplished actor and gifted writer. At the time, I didn’t know exactly where I would use our interview, seeing that I write about Italian cinema. Even so, he was generous with his answers to my questions. His new movie, James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2 was just about to premiere. It had literally been years since I went to the movies to see an American film, so I credit him with my return to American cinema, which I’ve continued since seeing Guardians of the Galaxy Volume 2, a film I enjoyed so much.

Stephen Blackehart in a scene from The Belko Experiment

Gunn and Blackehart have collaborated many times over the years. They met during a casting call when Blackehart auditioned for the role of "Benny Que" in Lloyd Kaufmans’s 1996 Tromeo and Juliet, a B-movie take on Shakespeare’s classic. The film has since become a cult favorite and was shown at the Museum of Modern Art in 2016 as part of the its series Breaking Bard: Shakespeare on Film. Gunn co-wrote the script with Kaufman. In the years that followed, Gunn went on to write the screenplays for the Scooby-Doo films, Dawn of the Dead, The Belko Experiment and both volumes of Guardians of the Galaxy, with a third one on the way. Over the years, the professional collaboration between Gunn and Blackehart turned into a deep friendship. If you browse through their photos on social media, you can see how close they are, and in these days of Hollywood scandals, it is nice to see an authentic friendship between a couple of guys who have maintained some kind of normalcy in their lives in the midst of making Hollywood blockbusters.

Although Blackehart is not an Italian filmmaker, he certainly has been influenced by the great directors of Italian and Italian-American cinema. “The Italian and Italian-American culture were both huge influences on me as a teen and throughout my growth as an actor. I definitely came of age being enraptured by the films of Francis Ford Coppola, Scorsese, Brian DePalma, Cimino, Bertolucci, Fellini, Franco Zefirelli, Sergio Leone, and later on with Sergio Corbucci, Dario Argento, Rosellini, De Sica, Antonioni, Tarantino, and of course my favorite actors were DeNiro and Pacino and John Cazale and Anna Magnani... and popular actors like John Travolta and Sly Stallone. Those, and others like them, were the directors and actors that inspired me to work in this business. I wanted to be a part of the kinds of films that to me were more than just entertainment... they were fine art. I desperately wanted to be like them, to light up audiences the way I'd been lit up by them. They seemed to understand reality, and even absurdity, on a level that no one else was seeing. I loved it, and still do to this day. I would say that Italian and Italian-American culture had a bigger role in shaping and forming me, artistically, into who I am than anyone or anything else.”

I asked Blackehart about his thoughts on Il Postino and he kindly shared a special memory with me, which further validates my belief that most of my fellow 20-somethings were living freely in the wonderful 90s. “I remember at the time it came out, I was working as a waiter in a Sicilian restaurant in Manhattan and had become obsessed with the culture there. I took a girl to the movie that I'd just met, and we both became so enamored of the film's mood and beauty that we started an intensely passionate fling together that lasted for some time afterward. So yeah, that film stands out in my memory pretty strongly.”

Apart from Il Postino, I also asked him about his thoughts on poetry- then and now, and how it goes beyond the realm of just poems to influence other works of art. His responses were so fascinating and so articulate, it made me hopeful that we’ll see more from him in terms of writing in the future.

Do you write poetry or do you just prefer to read?
Poetry didn't really exist for me as a young man, other than the usual syrupy greeting cards I'd dig through at the store near holidays and birthdays. It just wasn't anything kids or adults around me were interested in, so I wasn't really exposed to much of it outside of a few perfunctory mentions in English class. By the time I was a teen, the only poet I'd read much of was Edgar Allen Poe. His beautiful, darkly romantic works really got inside my adolescent head and made themselves at home. Annabelle Lee would waft through my brain for days on end. It wasn't until I was studying classical theatre in London many years later that it came back onto my radar. The English drama schools take their verse reading quite seriously, and I fell in love with it all over again. Shakespeare first and foremost, but also Jon Donne, Edith Sitwell, Swinburne, Shelley, Frost, Dylan Thomas, Plath and many great ones that my mind was reeling. I loved the rigor that was shown there and how the right reading could unlock the otherwise hidden beauty in great poetry. It re-ignited my love of the language. Not long after moving back to New York to further my dramatic studies, I was cast in "Tromeo and Juliet", a raucous, punk retelling of Shakespeare's classic. I had been working in a classical repertory theater company at the time, and the chance to do something on film was intriguing to me. I played Benny Que (the Benvolio role) in the film and as such got to do some of the versed storytelling, and even performed Sonnet 91 ("Some Glory in Their Birth...") during a love scene. It was challenging, goofy, awkward, and a lot of fun to do. It was also something of a non sequitur in the film and didn't make the final cut, but it's still on the DVD bonus features and maybe on the web somewhere.
The writing I've done over the last few years has mostly been prose.  Naturally, being in Hollywood, I've written a number of screenplays and so on. I even self-published a trio of novellas in 2014 called "A Stranger to the Darklands". Silly campfire stories, really. Nothing to be taken seriously, though I really enjoyed doing them. And writing material of my own has given me a deeper appreciation and understanding of poetry, to be sure!

Tell me about Tromeo and Juliet..
I went into playing in it with great trepidation. I was a Shakespearean actor in a classical repertory company in New York at the time, and was thrilled to be able to do something on film, but was very uneasy about most of the Punk or "Trash Cinema" elements that they were doing with it. I had to be talked into taking the role by James Gunn at the time. And although the film became popular and enjoys a certain status today (when we debuted it in Cannes, the French considered it to be American Avant Garde), the big thing that I got from my experience was the friendships that I made while working on it. James became my best friend, and people like Lloyd Kaufman, Valentine Miele, Jane Jensen, Tiffany Shepis, and Frank Reynolds are good friends of mine to this day. I remember Kenneth Branagh, who was in Cannes at the time promoting his Hamlet, was asked about Tromeo. I don't think he actually saw the film, but did agree that it looked to be close in spirit to what audiences in Shakespeare's time would have expected.

Watch the Tromeo and Juliet intro. Blackehart’s character Benny Que is shown in the opening credits.

Tell me about the poetry videos on your YouTube channel.
I became so caught up in chasing an acting career around (as well as working an endless variety of odd jobs to keep the rent paid between gigs) that I didn't have time to enjoy verse very often. Occasionally, my roommates and I would throw on theatrical clothes and powdered wigs and challenge each other to bark out Rudyard Kipling's "Charge of the Light Brigade" or some other Victorian classic to each other, but only in fits of silliness. It wasn't until the last few years, when my career slowed down for a while, that I started again to pick up those great books of poetry and find myself lost in them. Last year, on a whim, I picked up a cheap microphone at Radio Shack and started reading some verses into my phone's recorder. That's when I decided to pick a few of my favorites and try to put something together. I spent some time looking for some visuals to go along with them, and decided to use mostly pre-modern paintings that I felt captured the feel of the pieces. I found a $2 slideshow app (that's made to make short videos out of wedding pictures and so on) to edit it all together, but the goal with each of them was to only use unbroken takes. In other words, it might take me 50 or 60 or 100 attempts over several days to get it right all the way through, but I never edit inside of a read. It's a lot of work and it's exhausting, but I wanted to use the experience to get better at it. That's how those dozen poems found their way online. Just a little project for myself, a way to pass the time and practice something I enjoy. The original intent was to do one per week for a year, but that was interrupted when the acting work picked up again. I still want to make some more, and hopefully will again soon.

How do you choose the poems?
I choose most of the poetry for the videos by chance. I'll flip through a collection by a particular poet that I like, and sometimes one will just reach out and grab me. Or sometimes I'll find myself making coffee or something and find lines from a poem I've previously read bouncing around in my noggin. 

Do you feel that there is an awareness of poets today?
I don't think there's a lot of awareness of pure poets today, but then again I don't know if there ever really has been. I mean, sure, in certain literary circles or in earlier centuries when the printed word was the most popular medium. But I think most people would rather have a root canal than go to hear a poetry reading. To my mind, there are a lot of reasons for it. Firstly, there's no money in it. It takes a lot of time and effort to make, and virtually no way that a poet can sustain him- or herself with it, so few people go into it. Second, the demand is light because it's often not well presented. On those few occasions when it's written well and presented well, you can see it absolutely light people up. But even a great poem, if badly read, can seem unintelligible to the listener. That's where it gets intellectually intimidating to many people. They will hear something they're told is a great poem, read by an untrained enthusiast, and they won't get what the fuss is about. They'll just think to themselves "Hm. I guess I don't like poetry."  Some people even look on it as a realm belonging to only the very smartest. They'll fear that if they don't understand it or don't genuinely appreciate it, they might not be all that smart. So they avoid seeing or hearing or thinking about it because they don't want to be made to feel dumb.

Do you look for poetry in the music you listen to? Those old Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald songs are poetic to me because many of them tell stories of struggle and heartache in such a creative, poetic way.
I think there's real poetry in some music. Certainly, as you've said, in the songs of the Gershwins or Cole Porter (my favorites) and definitely Dylan's early stuff, but also in the lyrics of some of the better rappers. True rap music is driven by the words, rather than the tune. So I think you see a lot of young people, musical outsiders, sitting down with a pen and paper and really grappling with the creation of verse in that genre. I think that's pretty cool. Don't get me wrong, I don't think most forms of music lyrics rise to the level of even bad poetry (it's mostly greeting card-level stuff), but you definitely can find it here and there, buried amid the pop.

I’ll finish that thought with one of my favorite poems from the Il Postino soundtrack…Poetry read by Miranda Richardson. Also check out the promo I found on YouTube, which features actors reading the poems from the soundtrack. For more information on Stephen Blackehart, follow him on social media- Twitter and Instagram.


And it was at that age ... Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don't know, I don't know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don't know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
and open,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
likeness, image of
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,

my heart broke loose on the wind.

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