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April 7, 2014

Book Notes - Gregory Robinson "All Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film"

All Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film

In the Book Notes series, authors create and discuss a music playlist that relates in some way to their recently published book.

Previous contributors include Bret Easton Ellis, Kate Christensen, Kevin Brockmeier, George Pelecanos, Dana Spiotta, Amy Bloom, Aimee Bender, Myla Goldberg, Heidi Julavits, Hari Kunzru, and many others.

Gregory Robinson's poetry collection All Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film is inventive and informative as it finds inspiration in silent film stills.

Simone Muench wrote of the book:

"All Movies Love the Moon, with its titular salute to Georges Méliès, is somewhat like the visionary himself: mischievous, innovative, enigmatic, witty, and captivating. Robinson's book is a beautiful hybridization of film history and poetic journey."

Stream a playlist of these songs at Spotify.

In his own words, here is Gregory Robinson's Book Notes music playlist for his poetry collection, All Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film:

Thank you so much for the chance to score this project. Silent movies fans are usually quick to point out that silent movies were never really silent – there was always at least one person accompanying the movie with a piano or an organ. For more elaborate pictures, there were multiple musicians, or an entire orchestra. There is also a long tradition of speakers that were hired to narrate movies, often imitating the voices of the characters. This was particularly popular in Japan, where the narrators, called Benshi, often became famous for their ability to vocally accompany movies.

So to really get the full effect of this theater-in-a-book, you need a wide range of music in the background. Let's begin with:

"Say Arabella (What's a Fella to Do)" (1925) by George Olsen & His Orchestra

Even the best copies of this song sound like it got recorded using a tin can tied to a string, which does not really take you back in time, but makes it seem like a parody of someone trying to make this happen. Somewhere in the confusion, you will see all the signposts of the jazz era: flappers, speakeasies, bathtub gin, and people saying "old sport." I love this time, and by "love" I mean that I do not really love it at all – I mean, overt racism was still rampant and air conditioning was still a new thing – I love what I imagine it to be, a weird mix of then and now. The book begins with a brief history of silent movies, but also introduces the book's guiding question: what if you looked at old movies as if they were not old at all? What if you could unglue them from history?

"First in Flight" – Blackalicious (2002)

The first poem in the book is about a movie that was created in 1900, where a car crashes into the camera, making it seem as if it is crashing into the audience. At the moment of the crash, the screen turns black, and the words "Oh! Mother will be pleased" are scrawled on the screen in crazy jagged letters. Then the movie ends. Ta-da. What the hell "Oh! Mother will be pleased" means is anyone's guess. But the effect is a powerful one. It is strange and unnerving, and the idea of the crash is essential to the book. It is something from one world crashing into ours. The song "First in Flight" considers the courage it takes to be at the very beginning, but also notes that nothing is really new. The song ends with an almost Nietzschean sense of eternal return: "Everything you learn you are only remembering."

"The Charleston" by James Johnson (1923)

The poems progress chronologically, picking through some of the earliest films in the 20th century. Most early movies are bizarre in a number of ways, but only because the conventions that guide movie production were not in place. Nearly anything was possible. I suppose the Charleston is a bit of a 20s cliché, but if you have not YouTubed it lately, it is worth revisiting. Arms and legs come unhinged. It was as much improvisation and feel as it was a scripted dance. Of all the movies in history, I love the earliest ones the best. They are just as unhinged.

"6 Underground" – The Sneaker Pimps (1990)

Oh, the 90s. It was when music really started to mean something to me. I still love music, but at some point, the thrill of the new fell behind the lure of the old. This turning point is part of the narrative in the poem "College Chums (1907)." The movie itself had nothing to do with this idea, but even the word "chums" seems to suggest something eternally elsewhere. People do not have chums anymore, they had them, or their grandparents had them. The song "6 Underground" relies on a 6-second sample from the James Bond movie Goldeneye. The song has nothing to do with the movie, and yet without the movie, there is no song.

"Mediate" - Inxs (1987)

Yes, the tune is catchy, but I am actually interested in the video, where the lead singer holds words on white cards and flips them in rapid succession, paying homage to Bob Dylan's "Subterranean Homesick Blues." As you read the book, you will notice that each poem is accompanied by a reconstructed title card. In silent movies, title cards were an essential convention – they introduced characters, showed the progression of time, and helped to hold the movies together. Without the words, it was just a bunch of images, and few filmmakers were good enough to tell an entire story visually. I am fascinated by the idea that silent movies ask their viewers to read, and that these small pieces of text could actually shape the narrative. There are several stories of editors that would take failed movies, rewrite the title cards, and re-release them as successful films without changing any of the action in the movie itself.

"Strawberry Wine" – My Bloody Valentine (1987)

Before My Bloody Valentine hit it big with Loveless in 1991, they released this non-album single. It is everything you want from MBV – noisy, reminiscent, and dreamy. It was also a sign that the band had found its sound. Everything after that was unmistakably My Bloody Valentine. This is how I see the second section of the book, which uses movies from 1915-1926 as its inspiration. Movies had found their legs. They were teenagers that actually looked like their future selves. They were bound to have phases and do things that in retrospect could have been better planned (e.g. the 1915 Birth of a Nation). But I used eye makeup, painted my nails black, and wore Cure t-shirts everyday for a while, so I try to cut movies some slack.

"All Mine" Portishead – (1997)

Fact! A 2001 article in Rolling Stone explains that Portishead had considered several names in their deliberations, but kept returning to two images: the head of a porpoise and a portable shed. Unable to escape these recurring associations they named themselves Portishead. Look it up. Of course that is not how it happened at all, but if you are like me, a creative and confident explanation is way better than truth. There are facts in these poems, interwoven with things that sounded better than facts. It's a collision, like the car in the first poem, or the self-titled Portishead album, which combines modern trip-hop and old-timey record hiss. There is something really lovely about how all the crashes come together.

"Feeling Alright" – Warpaint (2014)

The third section of the book features poems inspired by movies written between 1927 and 1931. Even though "talkies" began in 1927, the industry was still determining how to best use synchronized sound, and silent movies had reached their visual peak. They are as smooth and flowing as Clara Bow's nightgown. In a way, the movies had grown up, and this confidence is event. The poems in this section are less invested in the form (the grain and the flicker) and more interested in the content (the broader ideas each movie suggests). The song "Feeling Alright" by Warpaint has a cool kind of mellowness to it, a kind of confident swagger. It is not particularly bubbly, but there is a definite sense that everything is okay, even though the end is coming.

"Into Dust" Mazzy Star – (1993)

I used to put this song on endless repeat and imagine people walking over my grave. It was a gothy teenager thing to do, even though I was not a teenager. Reports vary, but some film historians say that nearly 80% of all silent movies are lost forever. You can look that up too if you want. Movies were melted for silver or simply forgotten until they disintegrated. The amount of time and money it takes to preserve silent movies makes it impossible to save them all, so it is really just a matter of time until even more fade away. I am not terribly nostalgic about such things, but this fragility makes silent movies mean more than their digital counterparts. Ironically, words remain. Want to know what happened in the 1920 version of Molly and I? The film is gone, but detailed descriptions of the movie remain, making the last functional theater the one in your mind.

"Sing Sing Sing" by Benny Goodman (1935)

Yes, "Sing Sing Sing" was written well after silent movies had been replaced by talkies, but nothing will do better to make you get a wiggle on, which is 1920s talk for make you dance. The drums! Benny going bonkers on the clarinet! It is all just so good. More importantly, it is celebratory of whatever you want to honor when it comes on. Ultimately, that is what this book is: a celebration - of movies and ghosts, death and memory.

Gregory Robinson and All Movies Love the Moon: Prose Poems on Silent Film links:

the author's website
video trailer for the book

Curbside Splendor review
The Small Press Book Review review

TNBBC's The Next Best Book Blog essay by the author

also at Largehearted Boy:

Book Notes (2012 - ) (authors create music playlists for their book)
Book Notes (2005 - 2011) (authors create music playlists for their book)
my 11 favorite Book Notes playlist essays

100 Online Sources for Free and Legal Music Downloads
Antiheroines (interviews with up and coming female comics artists)
Atomic Books Comics Preview (weekly comics highlights)
Daily Downloads (free and legal daily mp3 downloads)
guest book reviews
Largehearted Word (weekly new book highlights)
musician/author interviews
Note Books (musicians discuss literature)
Short Cuts (writers pair a song with their short story or essay)
Shorties (daily music, literature, and pop culture links)
Soundtracked (composers and directors discuss their film's soundtracks)
weekly music release lists

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