Monday, November 25, 2013

Why we put zombies in our movies

The absent-minded tightrope walker (Toyy Davis)
gets ready to walk the zombie bar in "Blind Cat Black."

Last night, Poetry Scores bestowed its 2nd Larry Weir Memorial Chair in Zombie Dramatics during a brief onstage ceremony following our first appearance in an international film festival, as Go South for Animal Index closed the 2013 St. Louis International Film Festival.

More, later, on the awarding of the Weir Chair, once we have a proper picture of the new chairholder, Bob Putnam, sitting on Larry's chair. For now, in response to a friend who attended the SLIFF screening and asked why we put zombies in our movies, I want to explain why we put zombies in our movies.

There are definite reasons I'll get to, but it wasn't a conscious, deliberate decision. It started quite by accident.

When Poetry Scores first decided to start making movies, I approached KDHX for help recruiting and training a movie unit. To work out those arrangements, I met for lunch with executive director Beverly Hacker and Aaron AuBuchon, who ran the KDHX video program at the time.

The first movie we wanted to make was Blind Cat Black, based on the poem by Ece Ayhan, translated from the Turkish by Murat Nemet-Nejat. Ece Ayhan's poem is intensely imagistic with Surrealist atmosphere and technique. I was small-talking with Beverly and Aaron about ways to adapt that Surrealist atmosphere and technique to our movie, when Aaron said, "There are all these zombies running around St. Louis. Why not put some zombies in your movie?"

Aaron meant what he said literally -- he is close with the Zombie Squad, an interesting group (I began to learn from Aaron) that mix a thing for dressing up like zombies with emergency survivalism preparation and community blood drives. And ZS is just one large, intelligent segment of a diverse (you might call it) zombie subculture in St. Louis.

I liked the idea right away. Blind Cat Black is chock full of undead imagery; indeed, the blind black cat of the poem's title carries "in its sack a child just dead." Our movie was going to follow the translator's suggested story skeleton for the confusing poem: the coming of age and disintegration of a boy (perhaps, transgendered) prostitute. I figured the zombies would be perfect characters for the underworld where the prostitute makes his/her living. Aaron put me in touch with some zombie wranglers, and Dale Ashauer cast a zombie subculture for our movie.

I noticed an instant change that immediately endeared zombies to me. Instantly, our movie was way more interesting to almost everybody. Before we added the zombie storyline, I was going around town telling people we were making a silent movie to a Turkish poem. People could not have shown me their rear end any sooner. People fled from me. But when I found myself telling people we were making a silent zombie movie, suddenly people were buying me drinks, telling their friends about our movie, helping me cast their friends. Zombies made making movies in St. Louis easier.

Adding the genre element instantly opened up our project to a wider range of interested (and interesting) people, which is part of the mission of Poetry Scores: to get poetry off the page and into people, all sorts of people. As the Salvadoran poet Roque Dalton said, in a motto we borrowed from our friends and mentors at Curbstone Press: "Poetry, like bread, is for everyone."

I made the brash decision that all of our movies would have zombies.

Poetry Scores takes long poems, puts them to music, then makes silent movies to that music. We turn a poem into a soundtrack, and then make a silent movie to that soundtrack. So we already know the movies we are going to make next, because we have been making the soundtracks for years before we started making movies. I thought about the movies on our agenda, and right away I could figure out a zombie storyline or cast element for every one of them:

Go South for Animal Index - We adapted Stefene Russell's poem about the making of the atomic bomb into a fable of Los Alamos. We made the uranium miners and millers the zombies. Stefene made that easy for us. Her uranium miner from Shinkolobwe asks, "Why a corpse as me should be afraid?"

Jack Ruby's America - David Clewell presents Ruby as a product of the Chicago Mob who is moved to Dallas as one kind of Mob operative, who later becomes another, very different, historic and notorious kind of Mob operative. The zombies in this picture will be the Mob muscle, the goons, the gunmen. This gives us the option of having Ruby grow gradually more zomboid as he gets sucked into the Mob conspiracy (according to Clewell's poem) to cover up the Mob conspiracy to kill Kennedy.

The Sydney Highrise Variations - We want to make Les Murray's poem about the rise of Sydney (and cities generally) into a tramp in the city movie. The tramps from the old town that is overbuilt by the new city will get almost all of the screen time, but be the only people in a large cast of mostly zombies. The zombies will be all the new urbanites who drove the tramps out and down.

Phantom of the Dreams' Origin - Andreas Embirikos' Greek Surrealist classic (translated by Nikos Stabakis) gets creepier things than zombies in its morning cereal. The challenge would be to make a movie to Barbara Harbach's score of this bizarre poem that does not have zombies.

Crossing America - Our first poetry score was to Leo Connellan's centennial hitchhiking epic, and we were supposed to have made the movie by now, but the beautiful young Virginia couple who were going to go hitchhiking with our movie unit went splitsville instead. The zombies in this picture will be tramp bums, once we find a new beautiful young couple.

I'd go so far as to say you could imagine a compelling zombie storyline or cast element in every work of literature ever written. In an age of marketing genre mashups, there may even be a cottage industry in producing zombie remakes of the classics. I do know that once we got into making movies with zombies, I began to see zombies everywhere. And really, that's one way I explain the enduring fascination and appeal of zombies: it's realistic cinema. Because in every office, in every bar, in every family, there is somebody who is less truly alive than the other people and perpetuates his or her voided life by sucking the brains, energy and soul out of the more alive people.

Not that our zombies suck brains out of skulls or obey any wide range of what I take to be zombie tropes. (I myself don't watch many zombie movies that we don't make ourselves.) In Blind Cat Black, our zombies are pretty zomboid and gored out and (spoiler!) they do stomp our hero/ine to death at the end. But for Go South for Animal Index, the poet didn't want literal zombies in the movie. Stefene wrote her poem for Nevada test site Downwinders who suffer wasting cancers, and she was uneasy with the similarity between the effects of her friends' physical suffering and zombie gore. So we went with method zombies for our uranium miners and millers. They dress in ordinary workclothes -- boots, jeans, white T-shirts -- and wear no makeup as they move lifelessly through their labors.

For the Mob muscle in Jack Ruby's America, who knows? We just started making that movie the morning of our festival screening and have a lot of difficult problems to solve. But, if we can, I would like to gore out our zombie Mobster muscle, the goons who flank the Capones, Marcellos and Trafficantes, keeping their mouth shut unless they're shoveling in pasta with red gravy, waiting for the order to kill.

Lydia McGhee, Joyce Pillow and Jocko Ferguson get their
method zombie on as Debased Cogs in "Go South for Animal Index."

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