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Poets' Favorite Movies

Patty Seyburn

There was the list that I wanted my list to be, and the real list: movies I feel would reflect well upon me were I obsessed with them, and the movies I am truly obsessed with. All films by Frances Ford Coppola and Martin Scorcese, as well as Bergman and Fellini are on the former list, along with John Ford and Charlie Chaplin and a host of the critic's darlings. The films below comprise the latter list. I fear that publishing the real list will make the Association of Deep People revoke my membership. Poets are usually lifetime members. As I tried to conjure up this list, I noticed how many of these movies I first saw as a child, a teenager or in college. Only two or three of the following are “adult” choices. Whatever, here they are, in no particular order.

The Apartment, 1960: Directed by Billy Wilder, who deserves to be all over this list, this film showcases the talents of Jack Lemmon and Shirley MacLaine, before she became a little kooky. I love them both. I love their sweetness and the relentless vision of Wilder who knows just how the world conspires against an individual.

Choose Me, 1980: Alan Rudolph directed a slew of movies in the 80s with sort of a repertory cast, and this is the best. It's very sexy, somewhat affected, altogether charming and ends with the happy couple (Lesley Ann Warren and Keith Carradine) on a bus with “Is that all there is” expressions on their faces. On her face, anyway. It's about a bunch of lost souls and a nightclub (I can still picture the bar) and a radio relationship counselor (cool Genevieve Bujold) and the mood is entirely magnetic. And Teddy Pendergrass sings the theme-song.

Cape Fear, 1962: I think it's Robert Mitchum that gets me. I saw the new one first and that sent me to the old one. It's so damn creepy without being a horror film. It really his a horror film, but the horror doesn't come from some supernatural source, for which I have no interest or tolerance. I see dead people. Please.

Stop Making Sense, 1984: Jonathan Demme's finest hour, if you ask me. And a damn fine one it was. I saw this with my friend Rob, who is a screenwriter. (Hi, Bobby O.) We were in downtown Chicago, at the Biograph, I think. I miss those theatres. We were so enraptured by this movie that we sat through it twice in a row. And it spawned the great SNL take-off: “Why such a big suit.”

To Live and Die in LA, 1985: Again, a “before” film: before William Petersen became the DWI guy—I mean, the CSI guy. Not trying to imply anything. I’m just bad with initials. Willem Dafoe is amazing in this film: sexy and weird and terrifying. It’s remarkably paced, and not a frame is wasted. Directed by Michael Mann, so characteristically stylish.

Cinderella, 1965: All right, it was made for TV. But the fact that I have not seen this film in 15 years (though we do own it) and I can still sing: “In my own little corner, in my own little chair” should tell you something. I do love musicals, and who can argue with Rodgers & Hammerstein? Don’t think Disney. Think archetypal story with themes of abandonment, poverty, hope and redemption. And Lesley Ann Warren, again!

Cabaret, 1972: A slightly different musical. I love the book this movie/stage musical came from, Christopher Isherwood’s Berlin Stories. Go back and read the origin of Sally Bowles, if you’ve got a minute. And watching Joel Grey do his androgynous thing can’t be beat. By the way, it’s directed by Bob Fosse, so the choreography is wonderful.

Love and Death, 1975: I was an odd child, I fear. I loved this movie as a child. I thought it was hysterical. I don’t know how I understood a word of it, but I loved it. For that matter, I loved “The Autobiography of Malcom X” as a 10-year-old. Again, I was an old child. But whenever I think of Woody Allen holding that little piece of land, I start to crack up. See it every two years. It makes me want to listen to Prokofiev.

Das Boot, 1981: I'm not so good at war films, but this one’s worth it. I took a very nice Baptist boy on a date to see this movie when I was in college. That probably turned him off from Jewish girls, for good. His mother should have sent me a thank-you note. Of course, it was the hip film to see, but beyond that, it was remarkable. Of course, that was the year I would sit through Bergman double features.

All About Eve, 1950: No one could disrespect me for loving this film. That Eve. Never trust an ingénue. That Bette Davis as Margo Channing manages to land on her feet—at least she gets the guy—restored my faith in humanity, though I certainly felt more world-weary after seeing this movie. The corruption of the human soul by ambition just can’t be denied. We poets know something about the soul, but are given all too few opportunities to be corrupted. The cast is laden with young luminaries: Anne Baxter (hiss), Celeste Holm, and a nice bit of Marilyn Monroe. Directed by that genius, Joseph L. Mankiewicz.

Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000: I am a huge fan of the Coen brothers. There's nothing they write/produce/direct that I don't admire. That doesn't mean I love everything, but who cares. It was hard to pick a favorite, actually. I carry around Holly Hunter saying, “My FI-ance done left me” from "Raising Arizona." But I'm nuts about the Odyssey—poets have a thing for Homer—which translates into: road stories, journeys, etc., and this cast —which is always the case—is a pleasure to watch. George Clooney is a hottie even in prison garb.

Wings of Desire, 1987: I saw this Wim Wenders film with my friend Mark (Hi, Mark) at some groovy theatre in New York City, where I lived then, in my 40th illegal sublet. I’m sorry, but casting Peter Falk as an angel is genius. I mean, Columbo was a very helpful guy. It’s a gorgeous film. Are you impressed that at least I know the word “cinematography?”

The Candidate, 1972: Another film that I saw as a child and loved, and now see every couple of years. Again, I have no idea how I understood a word of it, because the watchword of this film is “nuance.” I mean, isn’t he having an affair with that woman in the back of the room who we only see once? Robert Redford acting and acting well. Being 11-years-old at the time of Watergate, you would not think I needed a political education, but this movie taught me how even a good politician can go bad. Say it ain’t so, Joe. And the director is Michael Ritchie. I think I like people’s early films. I hate people like that.

The Jerk, 1979: Nothing compares with Steve Martin singing, “I’m picking out a thermos, for you.” That’s love, mister. Carl Reiner directed, and he should be represented in this list. To me, this is Steve at his finest: physical and funny, great writing, unselfconscious. I can’t stand this spate of self-conscious movies, lately: as though writers are actually interesting people. Please.

The Court Jester, 1955: This was one of my mother-in-law’s favorite films, and she had very good taste. Watch it for Danny Kaye’s bit about “the chalice from the palace.” The wordplay is poetry, and I'm a poet, so I should know. And the physical humor (see above) can't be beat. Again, a tale told often, as it should be. Royalty sucks.

Body Heat, 1981: A second/third/fourth generation film noir. Kathleen Turner at her sexiest and most conniving. In the end, of course, we find out that she was “vulnerable”—sort of. William Hurt at his sexiest and most besotted. And desperate. And please don’t forget Mickey Rourke at his coolest and wisest. And Ted Danson as a dancing lawyer? Fabulous. I remember the dancing. Take a bucket of ice to cool yourself down.

Thief, 1981: If you have never liked James Caan, something is wrong with you. This is a solo, virtuosic performance, and the script backs him up, rather than him having to transcend the writing. A gorgeous, dark film on every level. Weirdly, it’s Michael Mann again.

Suddenly, Last Summer, 1959: I will never forget that pack of boys descending on Sebastian, and the beauty of Elizabeth Taylor and, I think. Katherine Hepburn in an elevator. And Liz in an asylum. In other words, lots of resonant cinematic images. Another movie I saw as a child and somehow understood just enough of. I think I was deeper as a kid. And it’s Joseph L. Mankiewicz, again! My God, I actually have a film aesthetic.

M*A*S*H, 1970: I have a sad memory of seeing this in the upstairs den in the house I grew up in, in Detroit. We had old gray carpet. I have had a crush on every Trapper John, both movie and television version. I think that the screenplay is by Ring Lardner, Jr. It shows.

Mikey and Nicky, 1976: This film’s written by Elaine May, and it's one depressing flick. It's a mob movie, and for the most part, I hate mob movies. I'm not interested in the romanticization of violence, which makes me hopelessly estranged from popular culture. But Peter Falk (yes, him again) and John Cassavetes are amazing. It's an amoral buddy flick. God knows where my head was.

Lost in America, 1985: Albert Brooks and Julie Hagerty as Yuppies in a Winnebago. It’s a great premise. I don't remember chapter and verse, but at some point he makes this speech about a “nest egg” that was damn, damn funny.

The Pope of Greenwich Village, 1984: Mickey Rourke (yes, him again—what happened to him?) and Eric Roberts (and him?) in another mob buddy film. I think they chop off Eric's thumb. I don't know, but I loved this movie. I moved to New York about a year after this movie, in spite of the thumb. It doesn't exactly pay homage to the city the way a Woody movie does, but the Village looked pretty appealing, nonetheless.

Patty Seyburn has published two books of poems: Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998) which won the  American Library Association’s Notable Book Award for 2000. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including The Paris Review, New England Review, Field, Slate, Crazyhorse, Quarterly West, Bellingham Review, Cimarron Review, Third Coast and Western Humanities Review. Seyburn grew up in Detroit, earned BS and MS degress in Journalism from Northwestern University, an MFA in Poetry from University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Poetry and Literature from the University of Houston. She is an Assistant Professor at California State University, Long Beach and  co-editor of POOL: A Journal of Poetry, based in Los Angeles.


Speechless Spring 2007
Copyright © 2007 Published by
Tebot Bach