Three Short Film Adaptations

"Parabolic Tale, with Invocation," The Excursion," and "Scherzando"

Jimmy Butts, Wake Forest University

Introduction

I have become increasingly interested in the process of adapting literature to the screen. Short stories represent a particular kind of medium that I find attractive in the age of new media, because they’re quickly taken in, but also manageable in the space of an hour long class discussion. Even so, Kenneth Burke’s short stories still remain largely unread—even by Burke scholars—and so I wanted to give them a broader audience by shifting them into another medium.

Adapting short stories in particular, has become quite a lucrative business, after all, with the recreation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” or Christopher Nolan’s reworking of his brother Jonathan’s short story “Memento Mori,” A.I. as Kubrick and Spielberg’s retelling of Brian Aldiss’s wonderful “Super Toys Last All Summer Long,” or the long list of Philp K. Dick stories adapted for the big screen. Total Recall, based on Dick’s “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale,” is now being adapted for the second time. These are just a handful of short stories that I’ve liked and that come to mind without even thinking about it much.

But this is not an overview of the growing field of adaptation studies. For that, you should talk to a Shakespearean rather than a Burkean. Still, making multimedia as a way of responding to Burke in particular offers us some interesting insights into his literary work. Collections like Dave Blakesley’s The Terministic Screen testifies to this relationship to Burke studies.

A couple of years ago, I started having some of my English classes adapt short literary works into little videos with some success. What I began to understand is that adaptation is interpretation. And cinematic adaptations, for my students and myself and for Hollywood as well, have become a very interesting and entertaining way of conducting close readings upon some of our favorite texts.

Adaptation as close reading, then, becomes a way of seeing, as Burke would say—but then also a way of not seeing. When I was sharing with Julie Whitaker, the wife of Kenneth Burke’s son, Michael, that I had made the films, her first response was a kind of wonder. How could Burke’s highly stylized writings be transferred onto the screen? The language itself was almost visual, but sometimes more cerebral. Furthermore, Burke’s writing isn’t primarily plot driven. In some ways, making Burke’s writing visual takes us away from the language that he so adeptly employs, but there is also something that calls us to visualize the symbolic imagery he invokes. After she’d seen the films, however, Julie seemed to really appreciate the watching of Burke’s work. She came up and gave me a hug.

The result was that these films offered another way of breaking down Burke’s fiction, and I have kept his exact wording from the stories as voiceovers. This tactic is one that I as a lover of writerly language haven’t been able to shake in my work with literary adaptation. Keeping Burke’s beautiful language was important to me.

The three stories, “Parabolic Tale, with Invocation,” “The Excursion,” and “Scherzando” are now in the public domain and have been collected elsewhere in The Complete White Oxen and Here and Elsewhere, with a wonderful introduction by Denis Donahue. Each movie has its own soundtrack that I created using computer software and looping. Each short piece considers God in some way by happenstance. I merely chose the three shortest fictions that I could find to adapt for the screen. I first showed them at the Triennial Kenneth Burke Society Conference in 2011, and now they are available here.

I made each of the movies in this little trilogy in chronological order. “Parabolic Tale, with Invocation” was written in 1917, and functions like a strange parable. The first movie, the blue one as I began to think of it, seemed to work best with shadow puppets. As a parable, the narrative needed some kind of distancing that would allow us to read the text symbolically. Parables do this by using representative characters—animals oftentimes. Here I place the camera vertical, and placed a pane of glass above it. This allowed me to move paper shadow puppets using wires for the different shots. The blue hue of the video makes for a calming and serene experience in the vein of wisdom literature. The prayer at the end is meditative as well and shifts visually to show its addition in the same way that Burke adds the invocation on at the end of his short parable.

Read “Parabolic Tale, with Invocation" by Kenneth Burke here.

The Excursion,” written in 1920, is an angry piece. It is the most seemingly plot-driven piece, but in the end moves toward philosophical and poetic thought. The red movie works from an ironic perspective. Because the main character of “The Excursion” is not an admirable fellow, I thought of the way that Burke notes irony as a humble trope in The Grammar of Motives. He suggests, “True irony, humble irony, is based upon a sense of fundamental kinship with the enemy, as one needs him, is indebted to him, is not merely outside him as an observer but contains him within, being consubstantial with him” (514). So, I played the role of the unlovable speaker in “The Excursion.” It was not easy to watch myself like that. I also learned a lot about killing ants. Although, as a disclaimer, I should note that no ants were harmed in the making of the film.

Read "The Excursion" by Kenneth Burke here.

The final video, “Scherzando,” whose accompanying written piece was first published in 1922, was the most difficult to make and is the most difficult to pronounce. Scherzando is a musical term—and Burke knew his musical terms—meaning “in a light, playful manner;” it literally means “joking” in Italian. The music for the final movie is the most playful, and the cuts are certainly the most playful in this collection. Because the written work was a pastiche, a joke of sorts, I decided to make the entire film a pastiche of other films. The yellow figured in for the anxiety that the piece elicited. One might think that pastiche is a simpler form of mere borrowing, but I went back and borrowed from many old films now in the public domain. Trying to find the right shots was difficult, and making them layer well was also difficult. I shot some of my own footage and added it to the mix. The final work is a blend of alienating visions that end apocalyptically.

Read "Scherzando" by Kenneth Burke here.

I hope that these three little projects offer a new way of spying on Burke. Maybe I’ll continue this project and show another adaptation at a future Burke Conference, but I also want other Burkeans to explore these kinds of thoughtful responses to Burke’s writing. However, my main goal has simply been a broader audience for Burke that cinematics can facilitate. It in some ways prompts all of us as Burke scholars to make our own responses to Burke in various media. I want to see projects like the Burke videos help us address, apply, extend, and repurpose Burke as the new mission statement of the KB Journal asks of us.

I had the happy opportunity to study with director Volker Schlöndorff in Switzerland this past summer. His work has focused largely on adapting literary classics like Death of a Salesman, The Handmaid’s Tale, Coup de Grâce,and the Palme d’Or winner at Cannes Die Blechtrommel. Schlöndorff values the power of story as a way for us to interpret our lives. I believe Burke valued fiction for similar reasons.

I’d like to close with my deepest thanks to the Burke family and the Burke Literary Trust for their encouragement and endorsement of this project. It’s been quite an experience.

* Jimmy Butts likes to explore strange rhetorical tactics, in places like sentences and in digital media.   He has worked with students in Charleston, at Winthrop, Clemson, and most recently at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina to get them composing in brave, new ways.  He received his PhD from the transdisciplinary program called Rhetorics, Communication, and Information Design at Clemson.  His research interests include structural and poststructural composition strategies, new media, rhetorical criticism, defamiliarization, and writing pedagogy.  He has published multimodal work elsewhere with Pre-Text, in the CyberText Yearbook, for Pearson Education, and as a proud instructor in The Journal for Undergraduate Multimedia Projects.  You can find him online at theyellowrobot.com.

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Parabolic Tale, with Invocation

Kenneth Burke

And the old man, being an old man, and therefore a senex, and entitled to give counsel, asked the young man:

"Young man, what do you know?"

And the young man, who had felled trees, had girded mountains and swum rivers, done many things, and who never took counsel, immediately answered:

"I know everything, father."

And the old man rather smiled and said:

"I know nothing."

And the old man, being old, then gave the young man counsel, which the young man tossed aside with anger. And the young man continued to do many things, while the venerable senex meditated in silence and was mildly discomforted by the young man's stubbornness. And the old man's mind became quiet, and magnificent, and awesome, like a deserted Cathedral full of vanished echoes. And his soul became tall, and calm, and Gothic, like the Cathedral.  But he was still vexed at the sacred stubbornness of the young man, and still gave counsel.

Until finally the young man hearkened a little, and found that what the ancient senex said was wise. And the more he obeyed, the less often he swam a stream too swift.

And  the old man wrote his counsel, that other young men might read of it, and died.  And  the young man became old, and counseled the young.  And these young men hearkened to him, at first not at all, then more, and more, until they, too, were senexes, fit to give counsel.  And having spoken, they died.

And as time went on the young men were led more and more by the accumulated wisdom of the old men, and their mistakes became fewer and fewer.

They are trying to guide me; 0 God, be merciful, and spare me, who should beyoung yet, from the wisdom of death.

* "Parabolic Tale, with Invocation" originally appeared in The Sansculotte 1 (January 1917): 8. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).

Scherzando

Kenneth Burke

As I entered the room, he was reading one of his poems to a very moth-eaten person. “Catalogus Mulierum,” he grunted at me, and went on with the poem. From which I assumed that the title of the thing he was reading was “Catalogus Mulierum,” or “A Catalogue of Women.”

“Yes, I know the old ones who have had their day.
I have observed them.
Those old wrecked houses;
Those dead craters.”

The next I do not remember. Or rather, I do not want to remember it. It was detestable. And the stanza following. . . . The moth-eaten person clucked after each, and murmured something. When he had read another stanza, I left, while the moth-eaten person clucked—whether at the poem, or at me, I do not know.

“Then there are the little girls,
Recently able to become mothers;
Packages wrapped securely
In the admonitions of their parents.”

Why must men be hog-minded like that, I say. Great heavens! Have we exhausted the play of fresh morning on a lake? Have all the possible documents been written of a star near the horizon? I have seen him sitting monstrously in his chair and leering at me as though I were a whole world to leer at. I remember him in the distillation of my memory as a carcass, so many pounds of throbbing flesh with the requisite organs stuffed in, growling over the raw meat of his ideas.

Is there some gigantic cancer for us to sap with wells, and where we can descend on ladders? Could we spend our holidays here, on the edge of the decaying flesh, with our wives and children? I used to grind my teeth at the mere thought of him, until I had diseased my liver, and I ached from escaping juices. Ossia: There has been Christ, and the saints, and whole libraries of sanctity, and yet there was no law to exterminate this man! What darkness of darknesses have we been plunged into, when pestilence is invited among us, suffered to sit at our table and fester our tongues? But the critics are coming, and the satirists. Soon a wide plague of caterpillars will cover all the green leaves. There will be nothing behind them but naked trees and the scum of intestines. Prepare for a lean season, made meager with excessive insects.

I have sat opposed to him, and remembered the sunlight with a bursting gratitude. I remembered a little town sleeping in the foothills, with a bright clay road working across the countryside, and a green pool with the shadows of trout. I remembered the long, drooping fingers of the chestnuts—for the chestnuts blossom late, and there was a scattered frost of them even though the beards on the corn were already scorched. I remembered all this, while there spread about me the cool, dank mold from the cellar of his brain.

Coda

Let us construct a vast hippopotamus to the glorification of our century. Other ages could have constructed hippopotami of equal vastness, but ours will be superior in this: That it is exact within as well as without. A steam heart will beat against the brazen ribs of the brute, and the ooze of the kidneys will have been studied accurately. On the bolsters of his folded hide we shall have blotches and sores proper to the hippopotamus. And when we have finished, we shall have constructed a vast hippopotamus, which will cast its shadows
across the plain, and disfigure the sky to the glorification of our century.

* "Scherzando " originally appeared in Manuscripts 1 (February 1922): 74. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).

The Excursion

Kenneth Burke

Having nothing to do, and having searched in vain among the notes of a piano for something to think on, I started off on a walk, trusting that I might scent a scandal on the breeze, or see God’s toe peep through the sky. I passed a barbershop, a grocery store, a little Italian girl, a chicken coop, a roadhouse, an abandoned quarry, a field of nervous wheat. All this distance I had walked under God’s blue sky, and still without a thought. But at last, after trudging on for hours, I came upon a thought. Miles upon miles I had walked for a thought, and at last I came upon an anthill.

Idly curious, I stopped to look at the ants. They would go from one place to another and return to that first place again, and for no reason that I could see. Little ants with big burdens, big ants with bigger burdens, and ants with no burdens, the most frightened and panicky of them all. As I watched them they seemed so human to me that
my heart went out to them. “Poor little devils,” I said.

But I grew tired of watching the swarming mass of them. “I shall watch just one of them,” I said to myself after much deliberation. And I picked out one frightened little ant to watch. He went running about unaware of my presence, not knowing that a great god was looking down on him, just as I did not know but that a great god might be
looking down on me. And with the toe of my shoe I marked out a rut in his path, so that he had to climb over it. And then I began dropping little bits of sand on him, and turning him over with a blade of grass. “I am his destiny,” I whispered; the conception thrilled me.

As the poor little fellow rushed about in terror, I realized how massive his belief in life must be at this moment, how all-consuming his tragedy; my pity went out to him. But my blade of grass was too limber; I picked up a little stone to push him with. I drew a circle. “May God strike me dead, little ant, if you get out of that circle.” I took that oath, and the battle was on. It was long and uncertain, with victory now on his side, and now on mine.

The little ant, in a last despairing burst, made for the edge of the circle, and crossed it. I was aroused. “I’ll kill the ant,” I shouted, and brought the stone down on his body, his passions, his dreams. Destiny had spoken. For an instant I was ashamed, for I had been unfair. He had beaten me under the terms I had made for myself. I should have let him go free.

I began watching other ants. They irritated me—they were so earnest, so faithful. Two ants came up and touched. I wondered what that could mean. Do ants talk? Then I watched one of the ants which had touched the other to see if it touched still other ants. For it might be a herald of some sort; perhaps ants do talk.

One little ant was tugging and pulling at a dead bug. Slowly, carefully, I took my stone and drew it over two of his legs, so that he was wounded grievously, and began writhing in agony. My face was distorted with compassion; how my heart bled for him!

I ran the stone across his other legs, and the motion was like a thrust into my own flesh. I was almost sick with pity for the poor little ant, and to end his suffering I killed him. Wide regret came on me, “Perhaps,” I thought, “perhaps, he was a poet. Perhaps I have killed a genius.”

And I began stepping on the other ants, digging up the anthill, scattering destruction broadcast about me. When my work was finished, and only a few mangled ants remained alive, my sorrow for the poor little ants had grown until it weighed on me, and crushed the vitality out of me. “The poor little ants,” I kept murmuring, “the poor, miserable little ants.” And I was bitter with the thought of how cruel the universe is, and how needlessly things must suffer. I stood gazing at the death and slaughter about me, stupefied with calm horror at what I had done. I prayed to God.

“O Great God,” I prayed, throwing back my head towards Heaven and stretching out my hands like Christ on the Cross, “O Great God”—but I didn’t really throw back my head, for I still kept looking at the ants, and I did not address God, for at times I even wonder if there be no God. I didn’t do these things, I say, since I was too intently watching the ants. “O Almighty God,” I thundered out in mighty prayer, throwing back my head towards Heaven and stretching out my hands like Christ on the Crucifix, “Thou who art Ruler of us all. Now I know why we suffer, and ache, and I pity Thee, God.”

* "The Excursion" originally appeared in The Dial 69 (July 1920): 27-28. [Also in The White Oxen and Other Stories and Here & Elsewhere: The Collected Fiction of Kenneth Burke by Kenneth Burke (Black Sparrow Books, 2005)]

This story has been adapted to video by Jimmy Butts in KB Journal 9.1 (Fall 2013).