Word up

Two new films, 'Slamnation' and 'Slam,' celebrate -- and exaggerate -- the power of spoken word"


Hank Hyena
October 23, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)

Recent cinema has extolled the power of poetry with varying degrees of subtlety : An impassioned postman uses Pablo Neruda's lyrical aid to court a village sweetheart in "Il Postino"; in "Bulworth," an insomniac senator raps out his radical agenda. In both cases, poetry succeeds because it exists in realms (love and revolution) the viewer can accept.

But in its depiction of an incarcerated African-American street poet, Marc Levin's "Slam" is less restrained. The screenplay (written by Levin, producer Richard Stratton and actors Saul Williams, Sonja Sohn and Bonz Malone) overemploys and glorifies verse to the detriment of the plot's credibility.

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When protagonist Raymond Joshua (Williams) gets released on bail, he visits the prison's former creative writing teacher, Lauren Bell (Sohn). After a sexy all-nighter together, they explode in a tremendous quarrel over how he should plead his case. But instead of babbling irrationally like distraught humans we could identify with, they take turns hurling metaphor-heavy stanzas at each other. Sparring poems might look fun on paper, but they're annoyingly false in film dialogue.

"Slam" is strongest, ironically, when it grants us reprieves from its adoration of poetry. Visual elements, and occasionally the acting, often elevate this film about words far above the disappointing text. Particularly riveting are the prison scenes, filmed at Riker's Island: Cacophonous noise, lack of privacy and the lurking threat of violence unfurl here with documentary precision. The vivid depiction of life behind bars ends up grounding the film in a clarity that the artificial language lacks.

The majority of the characters in the jail scenes are real-life inmates, and they often upstage the actors. Williams has the gentle face and ascetic physique of a street poet, but he has a narrow emotional range: He vaults from spaced-out confusion to wild gesticulations of wrath and wisdom, with nary a nuance in between. His formal enunciation also sounds alien next to the patois of his ghetto and jail constituency. Particularly compelling is prison-gang leader Hopha (Malone) who squints, slurs, snarls and struts across the celluloid with singular attitude. Sohn, who plays the creative writing teacher with a sordid, mysterious past, also reaches a depth in her jail scenes that she never attains on the "outside." In her farewell speech to her poetry students, she conveys a complex stew of grief, love, hope, rage and generosity.

Still, the action is so absurdly wishful here, it belongs in a fairy tale. In a crucial scene, Raymond finds himself cornered by a dozen bruising inmates. His only defense is to rant mystical verses at his persecutors, and while one expects the tough cons to pummel the sissy-poet even harder after this exhortation, miraculously they back away, instantly converted to nonviolence by his poetry. Soon after, they declare a citywide cease-fire between opposing gangs -- another testament to the power of the Word. It's a nice thought, but if victims could "word" their way out of trouble, Federico Garcma Lorca would not have been shot, nor Euripides exiled, and the disarmingly articulate Joan of Arc might have eluded her public barbecuing at the stake.

"Slam" was awarded the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and the Camera d'Or at Cannes, plaudits it must have been handed for the social critique that shines out from beneath the scripted gobbledygook. One remains shocked, for example, at the severity of Raymond's sentence: two years for possession of four ounces of marijuana. What a life-destroying, tax dollar waste.

The film concludes with Raymond, Lauren and other poets competing at a Poetry Slam (bouts where judges picked from the audience give verse warriors scores from 1-10 in their three-minute efforts). Once again, "Slam" awards everything sanctified by the Muse -- anything uttered into the microphone gets a 10.7, or an 11, or a 10-to-the-infinite-power. As viewers, we're bludgeoned with the supposed excellence of what we hear, even if we think it only deserves a 4.

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Paul Devlin's "SlamNation," a 90-minute documentary that chronicles New York City's Slam Team at the 1996 National Poetry Slam Finals in Portland, Oreg., presents a panorama of the true slam community, in all its dissenting glory. Several cast members of "Slam" reappear here, this time playing themselves: Saul Williams anchors NYC's four-person team, with brash teenager Beau Sia (who plays a histrionic inmate in "Slam"). Their teammates are the effervescent Jessica Care Moore and the hulking but sensitive mugs the Schemer.

Interviews of the contesting poets reveal the event's awkward union of competition and art; although purist Williams intones that "it's about the poetry," most contestants suggest otherwise. The charming "villain" of the film is a beefy WASP named Taylor Mali, who blithely admits that winning and money are his primary motivations, and that he's obsessed with "strategies" that exploit the other teams' weaknesses. Other poets, like Vancouver's Alexandra (a Winona Ryder look-alike), Danny Ferry (author of the bitterly funny "I Am a Bald Man") and Marc Smith, the Chicagoan founder of the event, weigh in with their own conflicting visions of what the proper poetic attitude should be.

Edited between the interviews are the slam poems themselves, passionately crafted odes delivered to authentically eager audiences. Williams performs two poems he delivers in "Slam," but they're livelier here, infused with the enthusiasm of the author's true character. His teammates are equally entertaining: mugs the Schemer delivers a poignant "Cockroach," Moore gets instructively raunchy with her "Teaching You How to Make Love" and Beau Sia -- "SlamNation's" enfant terrible -- is electrifying in "Asian Men Are Hung Like Horses" and "When I Get the Money."

New York City eventually grabs third place, out of 36 teams. The winner, cruelly enough, is the Providence, R.I., quartet led by the nefarious Mali, who was scolded that very morning for "trying to find the gray zones in the rule book." Mali proves, however, that bad guys can perform good slam poems: He easily outshines his opponents with well-crafted and surprisingly moralistic poetry.

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Although "SlamNation" offers more slam gossip, history, intrigue and strategy than any nonslammer would care to know about, it does successfully document the excitement of the event, as well as the passion of the poets and poems for whom it was created.


Hank Hyena

Hank Hyena is a former columnist for SF Gate, and a frequent contributor to Salon.

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