Monday, September 6, 2010

Drawing a blank

"'People in the East pretend to be interested in how pictures are made,' Scott Fitzgerald observed in his notes on Hollywood. 'But if you actually tell them anything, you find … they never see the ventriloquist for the doll. Even the intellectuals, who ought to know better, like to hear about the pretensions, extravagances and vulgarities — tell them pictures have a private grammar, like politics or automobile production or society, and watch the blank look come into their faces.'

"Of course there is good reason for this blank look, for this almost queasy uneasiness with pictures. To recognize that the picture is but the by-product of the action is to make rather more arduous the task of maintaining one's self-image as ([Stanley] Kauffmann's own job definition) 'a critic of new works.' Making judgments on films is in many ways so peculiarly vaporous an occupation that the only question is why, beyond the obvious opportunities for a few lecture fees and a little careerism at a dispiritingly self-limiting level, anyone does it in the first place. A finished picture defies all attempts to analyze what makes it work or not work: the responsibility for its every frame is clouded not only in the accidents and compromises of production but in the clauses of its financing…

"Nor does calling film a 'collaborative medium' exactly describe the situation. To read David O. Selznick's instructions to his directors, writers, actors and department heads in Memo from David O. Selznick is to come very close to the spirit of actually making a picture, a spirit not of collaboration but of armed conflict in which one antagonist has a contract assuring him nuclear capability. Some reviewers make a point of trying to understand whose picture it is by 'looking at the script': to understand whose picture it is one needs to look not particularly at the script but at the deal memo.

"About the best a writer can hope to do, then, is to bring an engaging or interesting intelligence to bear upon the subject, a kind of petit-point-on-Kleenex effect which rarely stands much scrutiny. 'Motives' are inferred where none existed; allegations spun out of thin speculation. Perhaps the difficulty of knowing who made which choices in a picture makes this airiness so expedient that it eventually infects any writer who makes a career of reviewing; perhaps the initial error is in making a career of it. Reviewing motion pictures, like reviewing new cars, may or may not be a useful consumer service (since people respond to a lighted screen in a dark room in the same secret and powerfully irrational way they respond to most sensory stimuli, I tend to think much of it beside the point, but never mind that); the review of pictures has been, as well, a traditional diversion for writers whose actual work is somewhere else. Some 400 mornings spent at press screenings in the late Thirties were, for Graham Greene, an 'escape,' a way of life 'adopted quite voluntarily from a sense of fun.' Perhaps it is only when one inflates the sense of fun into (Kauffmann again) 'a continuing relation with an art' that one passes so headily beyond the reality principle."

— Joan Didion, "In Hollywood" from The White Album, 164-166