Most film titles are generic, with little hint of what’s to expect. Moonlight and Lion, two films that are nominated for Best Picture this year, are deliberately vague. When a title is descriptive, it’s usually for a genre film (e.g. The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Guys Reading Poems is more than a descriptive, accurate title: it is also a warning. In fact, Guys Reading Poems is the rare film that is worse than it sounds.
For its borderline intolerable length, director Hunter Lee Hughes films handsome, young men as they recite poetry. There is some semblance of a plot, except Hughes abstracts it until there is no reason to care about anyone. A mother (Patricia Velasquez) locks her young son (Luke Judy) in a small box, and uses it as an art instillation. The film implies that the poetry happens in the boy’s mind, with the young men providing solace from his imprisonment.
Hughes does not actually care about poetry. He likes the way it sounds, and the suggestion he cares about it. The film includes dozens of poems, from The Bible onward through Wordsworth and Yeats, and none of the actors are convincing interpreters. There is so much poetry, none of it cited until the end credits, so the cumulative effect is more like percussion than spoken literature—we gloss over it alongside the listless actors. Poetry is meant to be pored over, dissected, and intimately felt. Hughes uses it like a parlor trick.
The synopsis for Guys Reading Poems suggests there are elements of noir. That is a just a fancy way of saying that Hughes films in black and white, since his film contains none of the formal or thematic qualities that define the subgenre. Admittedly, there are some elegant compositions, coupled with inventive uses of light and shadow. All that style and elegance is in service of little, however, since all attempts at symbolism are too obtuse to have any resonance.
Someone in Guys Reading Poems announces, “We happen to think that real men read poetry.” This assertion is more misleading than pretentious. Men who like poetry do more than just read it. They understand it, too.
Screens Saturday, Feb. 18 at 4:15 p.m. at the Naval Heritage Center.