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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.

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August 2021

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