Director: Mark Anthony Thomas, Shane McFarland & Jordon Rooney
Writer: Mark Anthony Thomas
Running time: 25mins
A continued debate around criticism of any kind is whether or not a critic has to be good at something to have a valid opinion about it. In my particular case, the jury is out as to whether I am any good at writing for films – IFL’s Tony Moore once told me “don’t give up the day job” after watching a film I worked on as a script editor – but I don’t think that makes my opinion null-and-void.
Film, like most art, is a form of mass communication, through which the author looks to transmit an idea, feeling or moment to an audience to engage with – usually without said author present to elaborate on the experience. If that’s going to count for anything, it can’t be a one-way street – the receivers of art must be given a chance to say how it spoke to them, what it said, and whether it did so in a way that they could relate to – so you don’t need to be Steven Spielberg in order to have a valid take on why a film is good or bad.
This is important, because I am even less of a poet than I am a filmmaker; but I am about to have to explain why I didn’t enjoy Folded Whispers – a short documentary which focuses entirely on the poetry of Mark Anthony Thomas. The film seems unsure of what exactly it wants to deliver. Is it, as the director’s statement suggests, “a love letter to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater”, where it takes place? Is it a platform through which Thomas hopes to exhibit his work to a broader audience? I am not sure it works on either level.
The performance which makes up almost the entire film sees Thomas take to the podium at the Kelly Straythorn, “nearly 15 years after his last featured performance”. It is unclear whether this means his very successful career as an economic development official in Baltimore has prevented him from performing at all in the intervening period, but his nerves suggest that may be the case. I don’t think I’d be as cut-throat as to apply Tony’s advice here – but it does seem like Thomas needs more practice before he shifts focus away from that day job. Many of his deliveries are garbled, words melding together, making it possible he is saying any number of things that change the mood of each sentence.
This is exemplified in the film’s opening sequence, when Thomas tells the room:
“You have my permission to wander [or ‘to wonder’] in a midnight silence while and why it took me decades to prelude a lack of focus. But for tonight I just need the city and the canopy [or ‘I cannot be’] seduced by my own orchestrated spontaneity.”
Of course, being invited to wonder or to wander are two very different things – but either at least makes some sort of sense. However, the second sentence devolves into nonsense, depending on which reading you adopt. While I suspect Thomas meant to say “I cannot be”, he does not adopt any particular rhythm or method of enunciation that can make me feel 100% certain of that. Depending on the subtitles (which are not marked as auto-generated on YouTube, so I assume were input by one of the three directors), meanwhile devolves the sentence into incomprehensible word-salad.
This is symptomatic of the broader film – making it hard to sit through almost 25 minutes of continuous poetry. As much as people might deride the dreaded poet voice, it serves a very clear purpose of helping carry audiences along with the rhythm of what is being said, while ensuring every word comes across to be understood easily. Its absence is felt here – especially in lieu of hands-on-editing willing to help break things up better. As the barrage of words flows endlessly, it quickly becomes overwhelming. Due to this, every wonder/wander-style debate inevitably sends the mind wandering, away from what is being said – and whenever you find your way back to it, the context has moved on, and you find yourself lost. It does not help that the performances are accompanied by imagery drier than the cream cracker challenge.
Thomas spends all his readings welded to a podium in front of a beige wall. Occasionally the camera breaks away to show a shot of audience members nodding, pensively stroking their chins.
If this is indeed a “love letter to the Kelly Strayhorn Theater”, it is not much of one. We only venture beyond this particular, drab arena at the beginning of the film. As the audience mill about before the performance, we all-too-briefly glimpse the grandeur of the theatre’s facade, its ornate tower, and some of the other facilities it offers to “Black and queer artists”.
It would have been far more visually interesting to have seen more of this historic facility, and how it provides those other artists with a “home” – I only understand the role it plays, and to whom, due to the directors’ statement – to show why Thomas feels it is deserving of love letters, and perhaps to sweep us up in the emotion of that. As it is, it feels like Elan Mizrahi and Quinn Glabicki’s photography is tragically lacking in ambition befitting of such an apparently great venue. Alongside the tragedy of failing to demonstrate the beauty of the building or its social importance, this also contributes to our meandering thoughts – wandering further away from Thomas’ words.
This may be the reason why the only other time the camera leaves the auditorium is for a flat shot of Thomas giving a very literal explanation of what the poem was about – possibly in anticipation of us not paying attention. But this is as uninteresting as it is patronising. When you are able to catch all the words, his poems are largely about subjects general audiences should have no trouble interpreting for themselves – love, loss, leaving jobs and ending relationships. Thomas immediately appearing to inform us how to correctly interpret his work suggests either a lack of faith in our cognitive abilities. To paraphrase David Lynch’s famous refusal to explain his work, the poem should be the talking. It needs to be able to stand alone, and make the points the artist was hoping for on its own terms, and if it can’t then it’s not ready for public consumption.
IFL has received quite a few film-poems over the years. The abiding rule seems to be, the less the poet has to do with framing the work, the better. In Rotterdam, verlaat ons niet, director Guido FG Jeurissen listened to the words of laureates Dean Bowen and Vienne Haagoort, before pairing them with visuals that helped us both maintain interest in them and interpret them. Similarly, in Poem Reply to Sofía, Sofía del Pedregal sought out stark imagery that could enhance and underline the work of Catherine Niu – while also inserting breaks in the words, giving us a space to really think about what we just heard. From what I can see here, co-directors Shane McFarland and Jordon Rooney should have been afforded greater editorial initiative, to help Mark Anthony Thomas’ poems come to life.