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Poetry in Motion

Poetry in Motion, the unfortunate title of Ron Mann's 1982 documentary/performance film, is interesting in showing the genesis of a poetic form that would come to mean, well, a whole lotta crap later: Spoken Word. Not that it had that much resonance in the first place. Something like, "I am..." uttered in a too-loud, too-articulated, too-quickly droned speaking manner, followed by a jumble of poetic nonsense that describes sexual proclivities, political agendas, or problems with The Man. Poetry slams are what the "motion" of poetry would become, a performance arena where people who couldn't live through the actual pressure of stand-up comedy, who can't really sing or play an instrument, and who would have a hard time impressing someone with a written poem (T.S. Eliot these folks are not) get up and either goof or prognosticate. Where's Chuck Barris and the gong? Though it'd certainly been around within general oral tradition — the '50s Beats, rap music (where the form often is coalesced in a much more creative, genuine manner) — Poetry in Motion shows how the supposed "hep" combination of street smarts, musicality, and words came together to form a scene. Not that all the poets featured here would hang. It's doubtful Charles Bukowski, who refuses to perform but talks a lot about how "weak" poets are, would clink glasses with one of the film's poetry readers, Michael Ondaatje, the author of The English Patient. Mann, who made Twist, Grass and Comic Book Confidential (trailers of which are included on this DVD), delivers less of a documentary and more of concert film — we don't get much documentation, just pure performances. Most impressive are Amiri Baraka, who's jazz-infused poem, complete with saxophone and drummer, is actually groovy; William S. Burroughs, who reads a story in his creepy, twisted-old-man voice, a combination of clipped and rolling perversion; Tom Waits, who (bless him) just sings a goddam song and plays guitar; and Jim Carroll, whose thick Brooklyn accent and personal, casual manner manages to not reek of pretension. But these are talented people, dynamic individuals who have some reason to be talking. Most others here are either terribly pretentious, silly, or as boring as a long sit in a doctor's waiting room. Every woman bears some resemblance to Illeana Douglas' character in Ghost World. And Allen Ginsberg should not sing. Mann isn't a bad filmmaker, but you'll really have to like this stuff in order to enjoy this movie. Home Vision Entertainment's DVD release of Poetry in Motion presents a clean full-frame transfer (1.33:1) with Dolby Digital 1.0. For those who'll like this picture, the included Poetry in Motion II offers an hour of additional poems and performers (Spalding Grey is the best). Also here is a tedious interview with Ron Mann and the aforementioned trailers. Or you could just save yourself time and buy a really good Bob Dylan record. Keep-case.
—Kim Morgan

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