Sentences — December 5, 2008, 12:48 pm

Flailing at Williams

Unlike painting, sculpture, dance, drama and music criticism, literary criticism is produced in the same medium as the one to which it responds. This is a complicating advantage: “complicating” because it must compete with (which is to say keep rhetorical pace with) its object; “advantage” because one can most efficiently point to (quote from) said objects. A dance critic must try to particularize the poignant manner in which the dancer pointed a toe; the art critic must try to describe how a painter’s palette produces a quaver or a shudder. All of these depend upon the critic’s powers to translate one medium into another, from performance and paint into print. The literary critic, though, can quote, point, and pull things apart without any other intervening process. Not, of course, that one can’t disagree. “The poem’s ebullient tone is curiously at odds with its stumbling syntax” is the type of critical sentence Terry Eagleton has said is a hard sell to contemporary students of literature who “just find that kind of funny.” Funny; or unconvincing: one can always read a parse of a poem and say, of the critic’s sense thereof, “That isn’t what the poem says at all.”

Film criticism, it seems to me, is the hardest place to get any serious critical footing. Said another way, because film is a waterfall of particulars so very hard to get a handle on, film criticism most often throws up its hands and claps along instead of coming to grips and terms. It is no accident that one of our wittiest writers, Anthony Lane, is known for film criticism the chief virtue of which is not how probing and deep it manages to be but how dependably entertaining it is. If Lane’s business were not, typically, show business, he would not spend his column inches (however funnily) on Charlie’s Angels. One reads Lane on movies not so much for movies but, of course, for Lane. Whereas a classroom—equipped with projector and laser pointer—would seem the best environment in which to take apart a moving picture. One can watch; re-watch; isolate; conflate; pause to listen, intently and with closed eyes, to a moment in the score, and then open those eyes to see how what was heard underscores the seen.

This was all too apparent recently as I tried, not so much valiantly as in vain, to put into words what I thought of the movies of Tennessee Williams. There are a great many of them, and they are very unusual, or so it seemed to me. Trying, though, to explain that particularity proved disabling. Rather than write eight lines, I wanted to play eight seconds of a scene from Baby Doll, so I could point to the glint in Eli Wallach’s eyes, and say something wise like, “Wow, look at his eyes.” Alas, that was not a means at my disposal. Thus I began:

Film is a director’s medium: the adage has been repeated so often we hardly question it. Filmgoers have been trained to see directors as the masters and commanders that their industry nickname, helmers, implies. In various documentaries about the making of films (Hearts of Darkness, Burden of Dreams), we’ve watched these little warlords lead their armies, the names that march slowly skyward at the end of cinematic campaigns, processions so solemn one might mistake them for inventories of a production’s glorious dead. Of all these people who contribute to a film, only one is said to envision the whole. Thus the most notable directors–Fellini, Kurosawa, Godard, Herzog, Coppola, Kubrick–are termed “visionaries”.

And yet, the movies of Tennessee Williams (1911-83) suggest that film isn’t a director’s medium after all. The Pulitzer prizewinning American dramatist–who never directed a film–is credited as writer, co-writer, re-writer or adapted/translated writer of more than five dozen. To watch the best of them is to encounter a commandingly consistent vision. Although scores of people directed–including Elia Kazan, Richard Brooks, John Huston, George Roy Hill, Sydney Pollack and Sidney Lumet, talents of divergent temperament and taste–out of such unruly heterogeneity emerged Williams’s singular, overarching sensibility. More than anyone before or since, he made film a writer’s medium.

The continuation of my flailing at Williams can be read here, a self-abnegating edition of the Weekend Read.

Share
Single Page

More from Wyatt Mason:

Conversation October 2, 2015, 8:26 am

Permission to Speak Frankly

“By committing to the great emotional extremes demanded by Greek tragedy,” says Bryan Doerries, author of The Theater of War, “the actors are in effect saying to the audience: ‘If you want to match our emotional intensity, that would be fine.’”

From the October 2014 issue

You Are Not Alone Across Time

Using Sophocles to treat PTSD

From the February 2010 issue

The untamed

Joshua Ferris’s restless-novel syndrome

Get access to 165 years of
Harper’s for only $45.99

United States Canada

CATEGORIES

THE CURRENT ISSUE

October 2016

Psychedelic Trap

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Hamilton Cult

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Held Back

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Division Street

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Innocents

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

The Quiet Car

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

view Table Content

FEATURED ON HARPERS.ORG

Article
The Hamilton Cult·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The past is complicated, and explaining it is not just a trick, but a gamble."
Illustration by Jimmy Turrell
Article
Division Street·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"Perfectly sane people lose access to housing every day, though the resultant ordeal may undermine some of that sanity, as it might yours and mine."
Photograph © Robert Gumpert
Article
Held Back·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"'We don’t know where the money went!' a woman cried out. 'They looted it! They stole our money!'"
Artwork by Mischelle Moy
Article
The Quiet Car·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

Flor Arely Sánchez had been in bed with a fever and pains throughout her body for three days when a July thunderstorm broke over the mountainside. She got nervous when bolts of light flashed in the sky. Lightning strikes the San Julián region of western El Salvador several times a year, and her neighbors fear storms more than they fear the march of diseases — first dengue, then chikungunya, now Zika. Flor worried about a lot of things, since she was pregnant.

Late in the afternoon, when the pains had somewhat eased, Flor thought she might go to a dammed-up bit of the river near her house to bathe. She is thirty-five and has lived in the same place all her life, where wrinkled hills are planted with corn, beans, and fruit trees. She took a towel and soap and walked out into the rain. Halfway to the river, the pains returned and overcame her. The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion.

Photograph by Joshua Lutz
Article
Innocents·

= Subscribers only.
Sign in here.
Subscribe here.

"The next thing Flor remembers, she was in a room she didn’t recognize, unable to move. As she soon discovered, she was in a hospital, her ankle cuffed to the bed, and she was being investigated for abortion."
Photograph © Nadia Shira Cohen

Amount of laundry an average American family of four washes in a year (in tons):

1

A study of female Finnish twins found that relative preference for masculine faces is largely heritable.

It was reported that visits from Buddhist priests could be purchased through Amazon in Japan, and the London Philharmonic Orchestra began streaming performances through virtual-reality headsets.

Subscribe to the Weekly Review newsletter. Don’t worry, we won’t sell your email address!

HARPER’S FINEST

Mississippi Drift

By

Matt was happy enough to sustain himself on the detritus of a world he saw as careening toward self-destruction, and equally happy to scam a government he despised. 'I’m glad everyone’s so wasteful,' he told me. 'It supports my lifestyle.'

Subscribe Today