Polis Is This: Charles Olson and the Persistence of Place

Movie Information

Black Mountain College Museum + Arts Center, the Captain's Bookshelf and Western Carolina University present Polis Is This for one show only Thursday, April 17, at 7 p.m. at the Fine Arts Theatre.
Genre: Documentary
Director: Henry Ferrini (Lowell Blues: The Words of Jack Kerouac)
Starring: Charles Olson, Robin Blaser, John Malkovich, Peter Anastas, Pete Seeger
Rated: NR

A sometimes beautiful, always fascinating documentary on Charles Olson, poet and leader of Black Mountain College in its final years. A literally huge (6 feet 8 inches tall) and figuratively huge figure of the literary world, Olson’s work and vision influenced such writers as Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Looking at his work through the idea of a polis (the ancient Greek city-state), which Olson thought he found in Gloucester, Mass., the film paints an intriguing portrait of the man and his ideas on the connection of a person to a place and from that to all places.

Don’t expect a dry recitation of facts about Olson’s life (though they are there), and don’t expect the usual talking heads giving their impressions of the man and his work (though these, too, are there). What sets the film apart from the standard approach is filmmaker Henry Ferrini’s ability to illuminate Olson’s writing and thoughts through images that are often the cinematic equivalent of Impressionism. Now, this doesn’t mean that Ferrini has set out to illustate the writings. Rather, his approach is to create a visual feeling of the works. It’s an approach I’ve only seen used with poetry once before in film—in Ken Russell’s 1978 TV films on Wordsworth and Coleridge, Clouds of Glory—and it’s a shame it isn’t attempted more often. When used as it is here, it brings the author’s words to life in striking, frequently surprising ways that seem to convey both the filmmaker’s own response to those words and his best guess as to the sort of images that might have inspired and informed them. At its best, this is an extraordinary film thanks to this unusual approach.

About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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