The Color of Time, a multi-writer, multi-director goulash of a movie inspired by a series of C. K. Williams poems, deserves commendation for its experimentalism if for little else. How many films about living poets are there? Do any of the others star—an incomplete list—James Franco, Zach Braff, Jessica Chastain, and Bruce Campbell? In the poem from which the movie gets its title, Williams writes, “Although it’s quiet now, not a sound, it’s hard—the boy doesn’t know why—not to cry out.” The poem is about domestic restraint, and the terror of close observation—this, it suggests, is a source of poetic impulse. The Color of Time, by contrast, is the bad chapbook poetry of movies: uncontrolled, gratuitously moody, missing its own point. Yet it’s encouraging, in the way that even awful verse flatters the art, and it brings weird glitz to work that’s usually deprived of glamorous attention. One cannot truly know the poet’s mind, but it is fair to speculate that Williams, in his many years of careful craft, never once thought that he’d be played on-screen by a broad-shouldered Hollywood hunk kissing Mila Kunis.
“But it wasn’t until my own children were learning to talk that I really understood . . . / and understood, too, the edge of anxiety in it, the wanting to bring you along out of the silence / the compulsion to lift you again from those blank caverns of namelessness we encase,” Williams writes in “My Mother’s Lips,” one of the other poems interpreted in the film. It’s a precise observation twining parenthood and language. The extended, conversation-length lines Williams wrote for much of his career have been called Whitmanesque, yet Whitman lacked the eye for fine-grained motivations, and Williams uses his skill to follow the root system of the poet’s craft. “My Mother’s Lips” is about maternal intimacy and control (“She knew everything else—when I was tired, or lying; she’d know I was ill before I did”), the way we’re guided into language by our parents and then use language to flee that nest.
The movie lacks such insight. Rather than moving “her lips as I was speaking,” Williams’s mother (Chastain) starts repeating everything he says out loud, like a crazed person. The subject of the poem—the transmission of language—is nowhere evident, and neither is the poem’s supple specificity. Whichever of the film’s many writers and directors was responsible for “My Mother’s Lips” gives us, instead, lots of banalities: a mother and child in a field, a mother and child in a wartime kitchen, a mother and child in what appears to be a bathhouse. Many of these scenes are either under-lit or shimmering with lens flares; a lot are wholly out of focus. Problems of that kind are everywhere. The Color of Time is less a transmutation of Williams’s poems than the illustration of a vague and naïve idea about what Poetry means—dreamy, moody people murmuring tender lines out of their hearts as treacly music plays. The effect is of a Vermeer reproduced with crayon: It’s all there (kind of), and yet everything that makes Williams’s work surprising and distinctive has been blurred, effaced, and smeared over in Goldenrod.
Mila Kunis, mercifully, has not been. As the young wife to Franco’s Williams, she allows herself some moments of humanity in an otherwise zombie-like cast. Chastain is figured mostly as a Madonna-like nonentity. Braff is a prune-faced friend afflicted with some unnamed illness. Franco just looks tired, tired, tired. The film’s fresh blood, Henry Hopper, plays a youngish Williams, and in this capacity he is made to do things such as pleasure himself in the shadow of a shed and then run off into a field. As with most things in the movie, it is never really clear why. The Color of Time has an attraction to garden-variety Rimbaudism: Williams’s alienated account of a grim party in the sixties becomes, in the film, his avid participation in a clichéd, drug-fueled rave. These episodes, faithful neither to Williams’s biography nor to his work, are intercut and awkwardly assembled in a way that defies plot and offers little arc of growth. It’s as if the filmmakers expect the poems to speak for themselves. Why not, then, let them do that?
Williams is now seventy-eight. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is considered, fairly, one of the deftest living American poets, a chronicler of the interiority of middle-class postwar experience. If he deserves a movie from his work, then he surely deserves a more attentive one than this. Many people say that poetry today gets too little attention. They are right. And yet the way to honor poetry seems not to dumb it down or dress it up. The strength of the art is its powerful exactitude of language and perception. The finest tribute to work like Williams’s—sadly, one the makers of The Color of Time missed—is just to let the poem be itself.
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