In the running commentary for the DVD edition of The Godfather trilogy, Francis Ford Coppola states his predilection for some scenes that are, in his view, particularly memorable. In part two of the series, the "Murder of Fanucci" scene is a case in point. The loosening of a light bulb and a towel-wrapped gun that bursts into flames after the shooting draw the following remarks:
We are always trying to figure out how to make these violent scenes memorable or interesting or just . . . you know, if you give it a detail that is just a little different, that it somehow makes what it's really about, which is somebody murdering somebody, just a little more . . . poetic, I guess, memorable in some way.
The use of the adjective "poetic" to describe a scene in a movie is nothing new. Actually, entire films are routinely dubbed "poetic" or "lyric" in an attempt to recognize certain moments in their narrative that could be equivalent to what Francis Ford Coppola identifies in his film. Especially noteworthy in Coppola's commentary, however, is the word "poetic" in connection with such a scene. Notwithstanding its violent nature or its clearly narrative-oriented editing, poetry can still be invoked as the concept that truly characterizes this sequence of images. Underlying Coppola's notion of what would make a scene poetic one may distinguish: a) an appeal to the category of the memorable, hence a tacit invocation of memory as an enhancing poetic factor [End Page 159] in the realm of the visual; b) an explicit acknowledgement of the special value of details in such a medium; and c) the presupposition that, whatever poetry is, it will make the abstract concrete. For some, these would hardly constitute definite traits of the lyric genre. In Coppola's view, they account for the poetic element in a cinematic murder. In filmmakers' reflections on their craft, scholarly articles, journalistic film criticism and reviewing, and publicity campaigns, the assumptions on which the different uses of the label poetic film may rest are manifold, yet one might say that they activate the same set of expectations. To state that a film is lyric or poetic seems to promise a cinematic experience that will somehow differ from our ordinary experience of movies as storytelling. Such a statement also seems to assume that poetry creates a stir in the film's flow, that it hints at the road not taken for cinema as artistic production, that—if only for a fleeting moment—the medium of the moving picture is exonerated from being simply entertainment, just plot-oriented fiction or the mere photographic projection of reality. To state that a film is poetic ultimately suggests that we may in fact know what both the lyric and cinema really are. It is, after all, a matter of essences.
Through a deeper yet more self-questioning engagement with the "essence" of both the lyric and film, this essay poses the set of questions that naturally follows from that continuous, casual pairing up of literary genre and audiovisual medium. What does it really mean to say that a film is lyric or poetic? What types of images should one expect to see that could make the film diverge from normal cinematic experience? And, even more telling, what conception—or preconception or misconception—of poetry warrants that label? These pages will provide, if not answers, a further degree of self-awareness in the perception of lyricism in the art of the moving picture.
While I begin by citing a number of casual, to some extent uncritical, assertions on the relations between poetry and film, it is not my intention here to dismiss them as theoretically naïve. Their ubiquity is in itself eloquent. One can dismiss their recurrence as trivial usages of an overrated adjective or, quite the contrary, one...