James Franco/Photo © Doug Chamberlain/Getty
Like a vengeful god, James Franco spent much of 2011 deluging us with things he created or news of things he planned to create. And once the inevitable backlash set in the public grew weary and wary of the rapid-fire announcements about the latest awards show he was hosting, blockbuster he was headlining, auteur-driven prestige picture he was promoting, meta short film he’d shot, art installation he’d created, book he was planning to write or adapt into a film he planned to direct. So in an act of self-preservation and mercy to our readers, we instituted an unofficial James Franco blackout period: No more James Franco-driven posts until further notice.
Notice: A sufficient period of time has elapsed to stop the spread of widespread Franco burnout. This change in policy was set in motion by news of a pair of undeniably intriguing, challenging, and potentially groundbreaking feature films based on the work of two lions of contemporary narrative poetry — Stephen Dobyns and C. K. Williams — whose best work sits on our special shelf designated for books that most remind us of who we are, what we love, why we’re alive. Williams’ Flesh and Blood and Dobyns’ Body Traffic occupy that vaunted space in my library alongside the classics and sentimental favorites that also made the cut.
Franco has selected different collections — Williams’ Tar and Dobyns’ Black Dog, Red Dog – for his two feature adaptations and he’s already recruited a motley crew of recognizable actresses for each film. “Tar” will star Jessica Chastain and Mila Kunis while the likes of Whoopi Goldgerg, Chloe Sevigny, and Olivia Wilde have signed up for roles in “Black Dog, Red Dog.” However it’s nearly impossible to determine what shape these projects will take narratively or stylistically. Both Dobyns’ and Williams’ work might be described as spare, raw, emotionally-incisive portraiture of the disappointments and fleeting moments of unexpected delight animating our daily lives. Williams writes in long highly structured stanzas always ending with an explosively beautiful or painful last line. Dobyns’ work offers astringent, honest, and id-fueled insights into the comedy of our failures and tragedies of our successes.
It doesn’t really matter where either of these films lands on the success spectrum. This pair of projects is such an ambitious and audacious undertaking, the results will offer an interesting and informative point of reference for anyone interested in engaging with storytelling that grapples with life’s Big Questions. What’s particularly exciting here is that if either one of these flicks receives even the most modest acclaim, it could open the door to more poetry in motion pictures. For our money, this would be a very positive development indeed.
The relatively slim back catalogue of poetry-based feature films runs the gamut from “O Brother Where Art Thou” (Homer) to “Howl” (Allen Ginsberg) to “The Raven” (Poe). And while there has been no shortage of films about poets — “Sylvia,” “An Angel at My Table,” “Total Eclipse” among them — only the most determined and intrepid filmmakers have attempted to translate verse into a screenplay’s three-act structure.
If Franco achieves the breakthrough we’re hoping for in this arena, we’ve already worked up a wish list of poets whose work we’d most like to see on the big screen. Our most urgent request is a dark journey into the heart and soul of Anne Sexton‘s oeuvre. We’d also be thrilled to see what some enterprising filmmaker might do with the poems of Pablo Neruda, Robert Pinsky, Philip Levine, and Elizabeth Bishop. While we’re taking orders, why don’t you submit a few of the poets, living or not, whose work you feel is most camera ready.