I Guess It's Romantic, If You're a Dog:
Highlights from Issue 32: Hollywood Lost & Found
John Ashbery / Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY
Tuesday, October 09, 2007
I GUESS IT'S ROMANTIC, IF YOU'RE A DOG
Talking Hollywood with John Ashbery
By Greg Purcell + Fred Sasaki
The famed New York School of poetry was a network in the Fifties composed of friends, as they called one another, who didn’t know they were a part of any “school” at all. Frank O’Hara, James Schuyler, Kenneth Koch and John Ashbery — poets themselves — simply met new poets, as they were inclined to do, and introduced them around; thus the movement was born. It included dozens of practitioners. Each possessed different interests and strategies, but if any one thing defined them, it was a fondness for the playful forms of European modernism, along with an openness to American culture as it was experienced on the ground. Ashbery and O’Hara, in particular, were avid moviegoers, and the great sensory shift that comes from abandoning yourself to the darkness of a movie theater seems ingrained in the New York School aesthetic — it loses none of its joy in the translation from one medium to the other.
John Ashbery, perhaps the most revered American poet living today, has won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award in poetry, and has collected numerous other laurels. We asked him to talk a little about the movies he loves and has written about — both as a poet, less frequently as an essayist — over the years. He protests, “It’s odd that I’m suddenly being sought out as an authority on Hollywood, which I’m not, though of course I have been going to movies for many decades.”
Stop Smiling: Jean Arthur seems to have a reputation for being something of a simp — I’m thinking, for instance, of Only Angels Have Wings. Yet when I saw her recently in Easy Living, in which she was very funny, I thought she might have got a bad rap. What’s your take on Jean Arthur?
John Ashbery: I hadn’t been aware of Jean Arthur’s getting a bad rap and I don’t remember seeing Only Angels Have Wings, which doesn’t mean that I didn’t see it. Mainly I recall her as being cute and sexy in a kind of offbeat, “intellectual” way, not your standard Hollywood glamour puss. I mostly remember her in comedies such as The Talk of the Town and The More the Merrier.
SS: It seems as if James Agee had a beef with her. He once wrote: “Too often both ends of Jean Arthur are played against the middle.” Do you ever read Agee’s film writing?
JA: I’ve read some of Agee’s film criticism, but not recently and not systematically. I don’t recall him writing on Jean Arthur.
SS: I recently read an interview with Guy Maddin in which he claims that Rin Tin Tin died in Jean Harlow’s arms. I’ve heard the story before, too. If true, can you think of anything more romantic?
JA: I’ve heard the story about Rin Tin Tin dying in Jean Harlow’s arms. I guess it’s romantic, if you’re a dog.