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The Implication of “WOW”




By Gary McMahon.

“Films should be made with innocence,” someone said Orson Welles said, and someone else said Charles Laughton knew exactly what Welles meant if indeed he said it when Laughton directed his own first-time masterpiece.

Let’s not get hung up on whether and when Welles said it and who says he did and wherefore Laughton knew about it. It may well be Welles because it’s all over his work and his similar comments, in interviews such as BBC’s Arena documentary in 1982, amount to the same thing.

Do you see what we just did? We missed the point.

We got hung up on references and lost the plot. And now someone is hassling me to name the masterpiece that Charles Laughton directed, instead of intimating it like I forgot the title. And if I do that, convention obliges me to tell you the date of the masterpiece, too, preferably in parenthesis after the film title, as if to say it doesn’t really matter but it matters but it doesn’t really matter but it matters but it doesn’t really — when nine times out of ten it doesn’t matter (really: it simply doesn’t matter).

By that time we’ve left Welles’s alleged comment so far behind that it’s now beside the point: the point has become sourcing and verifying the information. Innocence has nothing to do with it.

Films should be made with innocence. The aspiration behind that comment, I feel, is to return to an experience and know it for the first time. That’s a paraphrase of another quotation, but for pity’s sake, Professor, let’s not get hung up on that now. Stay with me. Being pedantic is just a scholarly form of attention deficit disorder.

Films should be made with innocence, wide-eyed. The ideal aspires to encounter an image or character or situation with the immediacy of unmediated experience: an image conjured from a magic lantern to evoke the sense of wonder that we knew as children before we knew anything else. It leaves an imprint that can last the rest of our lives — and what text, what thesis of film scholarship, ever did that?

A scholar, writing about film, cannot afford to say “WOW.” The implication of “WOW” is that something has surprised the scholar. And the last thing a scholar wants to look like to the reader, and to academic peers, is naïve.

The Red Shoes

Film scholarship conveys the impression that the writer knew the film inside out before committing a word to paper. The tone says so: objective; pedantic; stockpiled with lethal information; with a refrigerated temperament and a regimental narrative predetermined by air-tight methodology. The ultimate proof of how objective scholarship seems to be is that it is indifferent to whether it is read or not. Doggedly turgid, aesthetically ascetic and anaemic with self-denial, it exists in an ivory void. Like a dead elephant with Honours. If a vacuum can be musty, which it can’t, then that’s the prescribed atmosphere of written scholarship, impossibly.

I read a book about The Red Shoes once, published by the British Film Institute. Every time I watch The Red Shoes I go “WOW.” But if I’d read the book first, I never would have wanted to see such a boring, unimaginative, uncinematic film.

To a scholar, a reel of film is knowledge in a can. Film is information; film is text. And so scholarship is anti-film, and eminently forgettable. All that remains are whitterings of theory, psychoanalytic diagnosis and traces of information (some of it in brackets).

I’d guess fifty percent of all film scholarship is hideously written, and spattered with unimaginative observations. A further forty-five percent or so has got banality written all over it. Nearly all film criticism is academic spam: it seems inconsequential to me, a lifelong film fan. Film fans compile personal archives of DVDs enthusiastically, but they rarely compile their own libraries of cinema scholarship. Why would they? It’s got nothing to do with the value of cinema.

Scholars compile libraries of film books, naturally. Now and again they take a book down from the shelf — to look up a reference.

Dead elephant (1885)

Film scholarship is mostly a waste of time. Read something else, something more inspiring and more honest. Some poor readers don’t have much of a choice: they have to read film scholarship because they are studying film for qualifications: they are aspirant scholars themselves, learning how to talk about film without saying “WOW.” They need references for their own assignments, to prove they too can breathe in a musty vacuum and write like dead elephants. The introverted voice of scholarship is incestuous, and so the conventions and tone are as recidivist as dogma.

When Welles makes a film innocently, that’s not to say he has no technique, you understand. He adapts his technique to what he sees, and so film-making is a process of discovery, and his style is his personal vision. Film scholars have no style, no writing techniques beyond a grammarian’s handbook, and apprentice scholars, working toward their PhD, are taught to suppress whatever budding style they may have until it couldn’t be resurrected by a séance. And then, wearing a cape and plumed hat that would never be worn by anyone but an apparition in a séance, they can collect their diplomas and talk about film with authority, impersonally, to no one in particular and to no consequence at all, for the rest of their — I nearly said “lives” — careers.

There are other ways of writing about film, but who wants to know?

Gary McMahon is the author of Camp in Literature(2006, McFarland) and Kurt Vonnegut and the Centrifugal Force of Fate(2009, McFarland).

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1 Comment for “The Implication of “WOW””

  1. to operate in a musty vacuum you need a to be a windbag.

    to dissect the poetic form in a process designed to suck all the air out of it, from fear of being perceived as airy-fairy, missing targets, and quoting dead people to garner implicit endorsement for something anathema to the author’s personality, art and intent, is a process of self-denial and delusion. such a person might read metaphor into a singing saw and Lawson staring down at the moon in a puddle, or is the moon staring at him? clarifying the moment beclouds moment.

    film-makers are poets to varying abilities. but even the great inspirational poet Tarkovsky, from a family of poets, making films about poetry, has been dissected to death in post-mortem, by pseudo scientific anal-ists that quote him for self-justified bubble-blowing, without even doffing their caps at the nature of the great master they wish to one-up. their objective, objectively, is to burst the bubble by blowing bigger bubbles without bursting them.

    Tarky said something of the essence of Welles – that film can record only an approximation of one moment of the life it observes. that isn’t a quote but i could find it if i wanted to hit the bullseye. the point of film is to miss the point, because missing the point in film is by far more acutely closer to a point than any deliberated attempt to hit it. Tarky knew this, as do all great film-makers. to mix a metaphor, which life is and which film critics are taught they should never do, anything proclaiming to be bull’s-eye can only be hot air.

    precisely what will sustain you in a musty vaccum. dead white elephant, in fact. if you love film, why pay windbags? windbags, windbags who love windbags, are the luckiest people in the world. critics should be made to attend a talent show with film-makers as judges, entitled ‘The WOW Factor.’

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