Film Review: “Red Poet”

by Peter Wong on October 14, 2010

Matthew Furey’s documentary portrait “Red Poet” offers a jazzy portrait of a legendary San Francisco poet who employed verse as a tool of social awareness. Furey’s short film recently had its San Francisco premiere as part of Litquake’s “Lit Flicks” program, the local writing festival’s first Literary Film Festival. The Furey biography was one of four films by or about San Francisco Bay Area-based creators.

The titular and unabashed Communist poet of Furey’s short documentary is San Francisco-based political poet Jack Hirschman. Given that even as a child Hirschman wanted to grow up and be a poet, one can easily guess that the conventional career paths of 20th-century America would have been spiritual death to Hirschman. The closest Hirschman came to conventional respectability, a UCLA professorship, was lost thanks to professional politics. Specifically, UCLA administration considered Hirschman’s anti-Vietnam War activism “activities against the state.”

Furey does describe how Hirschman’s dedication to his art came at such personal costs as divorce and homelessness. A particularly painful anecdote concerns Hirschman having to sell a treasured original letter from Ernest Hemingway encouraging the poet’s talent. But the filmmaker shows how the man ultimately prevailed. Materially, the poet presently shares a cramped if modest 10’ x 10’ x 15’ apartment. Career-wise, though, this is a man who wrote over 50 books of poetry over several decades and was appointed San Francisco’s Poet Laureate in 2006.

Former Supervisor Matt Gonzalez provides gravelly narration leading viewers through these various points of the poet’s life. It is footage of Hirschman hanging out at Caffe Trieste or relaxing shirtless and in suspenders at home, though, which gives a sense of the poet as a man whose artistic talent has not been wedded to an ogre-like personality. A story of Hirschman’s desire to read a recently written poem right now to Italian hosts exhausted by a long day speaks less to the poet’s apparent insensitivity and more to his love of his craft.

Reinforcing that sense of Hirschman’s balance of talent and affability are the film’s interviews with friends, admirers, and lovers. Among the personages seen in the film are artist/publisher George Herms and actors Dean Stockwell and Amber Tamblyn.

The film may not provide an inventive solution to cinematically rendering the largely internal process of creative writing. On the other hand, Furey offers several sequences of Hirschman’s reading his work. This allows viewers unfamiliar with Hirschman’s poetry to get a taste of his work. Footage of the poet reading his work at City Lights Bookstore does allow viewers to hear the emotions Hirschman wanted to convey in his poems.

Indeed, the poet’s voice provides the perfect medium for breathing life into his poems. For Hirschman possesses what might be called a weathered voice. One can hear the rainfall of past sorrows and hardships in one moment. Then in another moment, the sunshine and heat of his political passions blazes through.

The film offers excerpts from several of the man’s poems, such as “N.Y., N.Y.” But one show-stopping moment comes with the anti-homelessness poem “Home.” It blazes with anger against the public indifference that sees homeless people as subhumans or worse, and calls that indifference out for its criminal nature. That Hirschman puts into words emotions that one suspects less articulate homeless people feel makes that poem all the more powerful.

Bay Area jazz musician Liam Furey provides the catchy score for the film. It provides an effective aural counterpoint to the cadences of Hirschman’s words. In some ways, the energetic score compensates for the film’s fairly conventional visual style of talking heads and stock footage from around San Francisco.

Will “Red Poet” inspire viewers to check out The Arcanes or one of Hirschman’s other poetry collections? It’s likely. The samples of Hirschman’s poetry heard onscreen display a well-honed balance between political passion and poetic lyricism. The beautiful cadences of poetry are balanced by the ugly emotions inspired by a particular societal wrong. In an era where public political passion is defined by who can scream the loudest and most offensively, Hirschman expresses his Communism-influenced passions with inherent attention-grabbing artfulness. May this film create more readers and listeners willing to pay attention to him.

“Red Poet” is currently touring the film festival circuit. For more information about the film, go to http://www.redpoetmovie.com. Donations to give “Red Poet” a life beyond the film festival circuit can be made to either Friends of the Poet LLC or fiscal sponsor San Francisco Film Society. For further information, go to http://www.redpoetmovie.com/support.html. For those interested in seeing further videos of Jack Hirschman reading his poetry, YouTube has several videos of his readings. The visual and sound quality of these videos vary, though.

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