Book Review: Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett

Samuel Beckett Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Samuel Beckett
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Coincidences are no more than that, though I am very well aware of the research on them. (Freud once stated that  there were no such things as accidents, but I believe coincidences to be a lesser, less conscious form of accident. In the latter, the subconscious is directing you towards what might seem to be a accident but is actually rooted in one’s memory, suppressed or on the surface. Coincidence, on the other hand, is simply the awareness of a multiplication of events, of which one wasn’t completely cognizant or prepared for beforehand.)

So anyway, I attended an intense two-week workshop on education-on assessments and feedback and good old Bloom’s taxonomy. However, much of it was rooted in the teachings of Augustine–and much of the feedback I received  referenced Dante.

Before the workshop, however, I had bought a book, Echo’s Bones by Samuel Beckett. I knew it was something I would need to concentrate on–a 52 page short-story, accompanied by 58 pages of annotations, and complete with an introduction,  copies of the original typescript, letters from Beckett’s publishers, and a bibliography. This was not simply reading a short story, but sort an academic adventure. The type of diversion I hadn’t had in a while.

Cover of Samuel Beckett's Echo's Bones

Cover of Samuel Beckett’s Echo’s Bones

And so I waited until my Augustinian-laced workshop was over.

And then I began reading.  After I got  through the introduction and  into the story I began to smile. It was Augustine all over again with a large dollop of Dante.  In the first three pages alone there are five allusions to Augustine and four allusions to the Divine Comedy. And the main character, Belacqua, is given the nickname, Adeodatus–the name of Augustine’s illegitimate son.

So why all this hubbub about a short story that was written more than eighty years ago?  Well, Beckett had written a collection of interrelated short stories entitled More Pricks than Kicks.  Right before publication, however,  his publisher asked if Beckett would add a final story to the collection, to fatten it up, so to speak.

Beckett agreed, except there was one problem.  All the characters in the collection were now dead.  And so Beckett wrote “Echo’s Bones,”  which told the story of the dead Belacqua’s return to life in his short interim between death and eternity.  The publisher rejected the story, stating that it was too dark, too odd, and that it would make readers shudder.  And so More Pricks than Kicks was published as it was originally intended, and “Echo’s Bones” was assigned to the crypt of oblivion.  Until now.

The title refers to the mythological figure Echo, who tragically fell in love with Narcissus. (He was never a good catch for any woman. Too much competition with himself alone!)  Anyway, when she died, all that was left were her bones and her voice. Thus, we have “Echo’s Bones.”  If the editors had only known how perfectly the story’s title would foretell the nature of Beckett’s future work: a work of spotlighted voices–often disembodied (Krapp’s Last Tape), often body-less (HappyDays), and often flowing in a rushing stream (Ponzo’s soliloquy in Godot).

The plot is secondary to the wordplay, the erudition, the humor, and Beckett’s world view. Quickly: the dead Belacqua suddenly finds himself on a fence in a empty Beckettian landscape. A woman arrives and brings him to Lord Gall, a giant of a man with a paradisaical estate which he will lose because he is sterile and lacks a male heir. He convinces Belacqua  to bed his wife, in hope of an heir, but–in a twist of telescoped time–the woman gives birth to a daughter.  The story concludes with Belacqua conversing with his own grave digger (from an earlier story) and searching his own coffin for his body. The story ends with a familiar phrase in Beckett’s work and letters: “So it goes in the world.”  These are the last words of “Echo’s Bones,” but they are also the last words of “Draff,” the final story in the version of More Pricks than Kicks that was ultimately published.  A phrase that Beckett had picked up from the Brothers Grimm story “How the Cat and the Mouse Set up House,” it is a phrase that encapsulates Beckett’s life view and one that he used often even in his personal correspondence.

While I respect and love Beckett’s drama, I particularly enjoy his early fiction. Still under the influence of Joyce, Beckett, at this time, was  full of his verbal powers, delighting in the wordplay, and confident in his free association. It is always, for me, a treat to read.

 

 

John, Paul, and Christian, and the Theory of Chaos

John and Paul/Paul and John illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

John and Paul/Paul and John
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Last week, at a “workshop/institute/conference” I am attending for a few weeks this summer, Christian Talbot spoke to us about “chaos theory” and the creative need for tension in any collaboration. The theory goes, simply, that any collaboration must begin with chaos. Butting against each other is a conflict of ideas–and often a conflict of personalities.  As the collaborative project goes forward, this tangle of conflicts begins to stretch out into a diametric pattern of varying depths with one single thrust being countered by another until ultimately the collaborators move directly towards the goal. Talbot insisted that the initial conflict is essential, even positing that if there is no conflict the final outcome can not be as robust as it possibly could have been.

Chaos theory illustrated illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Chaos theory illustrated
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The man next to me, Emanuel DelPizzo–an excellent musician and leader of a twelve piece R&B band–cited the Beatles as evidence of this tension.  He cited the arguing and fighting and one-up-manship that often went on during a Beatles’ recording session and the perfection of the result.  We both talked about the tensions that can arise within bands and the trust that one ultimately has to place in one’s fellow players.

AtlanticAnd then, this coincidence ensued.  The following day, as we were moving from one task to the next, I walked over to a quiet part of the room where there were a pile of recent magazines.  On the top was a copy of the July/August issue of The Atlantic. A picture of Lennon and McCartney on the cover caught my eye.  It is The Atlantic’s “IDEA issue.” (Though I would think it would want all its issues to be “idea issues”!)  Anyway, the essay was touted on the front cover as–“John vs. Paul: The Power of Creative Tension.”  This is exactly what Christian was talking about yesterday and was the very example that Manny had offered.

The essay by Joshua Wolf Shenk is entitled “The Power of Two” and immediately attempts to diffuse the prevalent idea, that Lennon wrote his songs and McCartney wrote his.  Debunking the idea of the solitary genius–so prevalent in popular lore and imagination–Shenk states that the two very different friends bounced off and into each other in order to create what they did.

And the two were in fact very different.  Shenk quotes Lennon’s first wife, Cynthia, who said, “John needed Paul’s attention to detail and persistence, and Paul needed John’s anarchic, lateral thinking” (p. 79).  And this symbiosis continued to fuel their creativity. (One could seriously argue that nothing they wrote separately afterwards attains the same level as their “collaborative” effort.) I was surprised to hear that McCartney, more sure of himself, was the one likely to take criticism badly, while Lennon was more open to others’ opinions and more amenable to change.  Shenk attributes this to McCartney’s perfectionism.

Shenk cites Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album as an example of the collaborative conflict that the two would cycle through–both jockeying for dominance, both vacillating between the alpha male and the diplomat.  Sgt. Pepper’s  showed the two working closely together. For example, they volleyed Lewis Carroll-like phrases back and forth to each other to write “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and they simply fused two separate songs together to create the masterpiece “A Day in the Life.”  Lennon called the White Album, “the tension album,” but as Shenk writes:

“Despite the tension–because of the tension–the work was magnificent. Though the White Album recording sessions
were often tense and unpleasant ([EMI engineer Geoff] Emerick disliked them so much that he flat-out quit),
they yielded an album that is among the best in music history.” (p. 85)

And when they did write separately they egged each other on. Lennon scoffed at MccCartney’s original opening of “I Saw Her Standing There”  and fixed it.  McCartney softened the raw pain of John’s original version of “Help,” adding a counter-melody and harmony. And even when they were apart, they were bouncing off each other.  John wrote “Strawberry Fields” –about a nostalgic spot of his boyhood Liverpool–in late 1966 and the band recorded it on December 22 of that year.  Seven days later McCartney arrived with a song he had written about another iconic Liverpool spot, Penny Lane. Shenk quotes McCartney saying that John and he often played this answer and call type of thing–sort of the middle ground of that chaos theory illustration.

Any one who knows the story of The Beatles, knows roughly the story of their falling out and “disbanding.”  And yet, Shenk returns to the final concert–the rooftop performance on top of Apple Studios–and sees the old collaboration–both the conflict and the trust–still evident.  Standing in the positions that they had taken in the early days, the two rely on and trust each other, even through some miscues and misstakes, to present a concert that was both memorable and historic.

While it is fun, to travel through the Lennon and McCartney’s creative process–and through their times in the studio–this is not really the focus of Shenk’s article.  He is attempting to show the workings of creative pairs.  He lists creative pairs from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Ralph Abernathy to Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. Shenk enumerates McCartney and Lennon’s differences and their tensions as well as their friendship and trust as being the forge in which their art was struck.  As Shenk states:

John and Paul were so obviously more creative as a pair than as individuals,
even if at times they appeared to work in opposition to each other. …The essence
of their achievements, it turns out , was relational. (p.79)

And that achievement is timeless.

Shenk, Joshua Wolf. “The Power of Two” The Atlantic. (July/August 2014, pp. 76-86)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wallace Stevens’ “The Man with the Blue Guitar”

Blue Guitar illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Blue Guitar
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

The Book Review of the Sunday New York Times this week (July 20, 2014) focused on contemporary poetry. It reviewed five books of contemporary poetry and featured an essay by David Orr entitled “On Poetry.”  The front cover was a whimsical drawing with archaic poetic terms such as “forsooth,”  “twas,”  “alas-alack”  and “thither” graffitied onto walls, suit jackets and boots. And on page 4, where the Book Review often introduces the matter of chief focus in that particular issue, there is a brief recap of New York Times’ poetry criticism through the years.

The four paragraph piece remembers the 1937 review of Wallace Steven’s  The Man with the Blue Guitar,  a review of John Berryman’s 77 Dream Songs in 1964, a 1975 piece on John Ashbery’s Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, and a 1981 review of Sylvia Plath’s Collected Poems (18 years after her death). And it was the review of the Steven’s piece that caught my eye.  The reviewer–Eda Lou Walton–stated that “the skill of these plucked and strummed-out improvisations proves him again the master of the most subtle rhythmical effects.”

And so of course, I had to pull from my shelf my copy of Wallace Stevens’ Collected Poems and looked to “The Man with the Blue Guitar.”  Actually the title refers to both a particular poem and the book in which it was contained.  The individual poem is the piece that attracted the world’s attention. It is a long piece, thirty-three sections of between four and sixteen couplets.  Stevens claimed that he was inspired by Picasso’s painting Old Man with a Guitar. (Later David Hockney would paint a series of works inspired both by Picasso’s painting and Steven’s poem.)

Picasso's Old Man Playing Guitar

Picasso’s Old Man Playing Guitar

What is surprising is that the poem is so much more a “shattered” portrait than Picasso’s piece. Picasso’s Man with a Blue Guitar belongs (not surprisingly) to his Blue Period, but more importantly comes  several years before he is influenced by African art and–with Georges Braque–invents Cubism.  It is the cubism–and his art that follows–that is “shattered,” that most resembles the large schisms and small fractures running through society and which most resembles the world of Stevens’ guitar.  In fact, despite his referencing Picasso in the poem itself, it seems as if Stevens’ poem is more in tune with Hockney’s painting (impossible since it was painted in 1982, forty-five years after Stevens’ poem.)

David Hockney's Blue Hockney

David Hockney’s Blue Hockney

I

The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

And so, we have the “man with the blue guitar” refusing to tell things as they are–or perhaps unable to. Or is he implying that even the imagination, the creative faculty, is unable to depict “things as they are”?  Or is this phrase “things as they are” simply a coded phrase for the physical world–and guitar and the player are able to sing of what is behind that physical world. And yet his audience seems somewhat philistine–they are slow to understand. For them, “Day is desire and night is sleep” and “the earth for us is flat and bare/there are no shadows anywhere.”  And yet, we–and the player of the blue guitar–know that if nothing else, the 20th century has taught us that shadows are everywhere.

The poem has often been depicted as a tension between the guitarist and his audience, between the imaginative truth and the surface perceptions.  I believe it shows the failure of the audience to see deeper, a failure of the audience’s imagination.  Modern life–and this is surely not original with Stevens–is deadening and routine, and we need the players of the blue guitars to break us out, to center our focus on the more important things than mere survival.

Because of copyright issues, the entire poem is not available on line. (Though I am sure some clever computer user has found it somewhere.) But it is worth finding. It is a Whitman-esque explosion of images and thoughts and debate and sound.

I had forgotten about it–and about where and who I was when I first read it–and so am grateful for last Sunday’s paper which mentioned it a tiny corner of a large section. Sunday’s paper was the blue guitar that sent me re-reading and re-thinking.

Here are the first six sections of the poem:

I
The man bent over his guitar,
A shearsman of sorts. The day was green

They said, “You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.”

The man replied, “Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.”

And they said then, “But play you must,
A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar
Of things exactly as they are.”

II
I cannot bring a world quite round,
Although I patch it as I can.

I sing a hero’s head, large eye
And bearded bronze, but not a man,

Although I patch him as I can
And reach through him almost to man.

If to serenade almost to man
Is to miss, by that, things as they are,

Say that it is the serenade
Of a man that plays a blue guitar.

III
Ah, but to play man number one,
To drive the dagger in his heart,

To lay his brain upon the board
And pick the acrid colors out,

To nail his thought across the door,
Its wings spread wide to rain and snow,

To strike his living hi and ho,
To tick it, tock it, turn it true,

To bang it from a savage blue,
Jangling the metal of the strings…..

IV
So that’s life, then: things as they are?
It picks its way on the blue guitar.

A million people on one string?
And all their manner in the thing.

And all their manner, right and wrong,
And all their manner, weak and strong?

The feelings crazily, craftily call,
Like a buzzing of flies in autumn air,

And that’s life, then: things as they are,
This buzzing of the blue guitar.

V
Do not speak to us of the greatness of poetry,
Of the torches wisping in the underground,

Of the structure of vaults upon a point of light.
There are no shadows in our sun,

Day is desire and night is sleep.
There are no shadows anywhere.

The earth, for us, is flat and bare.
There are no shadows. Poetry

Exceeding music must take the place
of empty heaven and its hymns,

Ourselves in poetry must take their place,
Even in the chattering of your guitar.

VI
A tune beyond us as we are,
Yet nothing changed by the blue guitar;

Ourselves in the tune as if in space,
Yet nothing changed, except the place

Of things as they are and only the place
As you play them, on the blue guitar,

Placed, so, beyond the compass of change,
Perceived in a final atmosphere;

For a moment final, in the way
The thinking of art seems final when

The thinking of god is smoky dew
The tune is space. The blue guitar

Becomes the place of things as they are,
A composing of senses of the guitar.

(27 more sections yet to come)

Book Review: Love is a Mixed Tape by Rob Sheffield

"Love is a Mixed Tape" illustration 2014 by jpbohannon (based on book cover)

“Love is a Mixed Tape”
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon
(based on book cover)

 

On two separate occasions, my friend Jim has stopped the car on the way to dropping me off at the train station to finish listening to Neil Young’s “Country Girl.”  For him, he remembers a particular girlfriend who broke up with him oddly and for whom this song is a reminder. For me, I remember hitchhiking across Canada, sitting on the floor of a Winnipeg record store (Winnipeg was where Neil was born) and copying down the chords from a fake book. For both of us, the song is a lot more than just music and lyrics.

Jim and I often do this. The “where” and “when” of a song, the lives we were leading, the dreams we were having, the people we were hanging with, are as much a part of a song than any of its recordable parts. And for each of us, those elements are different and recall a thousand different memories.

This is the basis of Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape. Sheffield–a writer for Rolling Stone–writes about his late wife and himself through the skeleton of different mixed tapes. The sub-title of the book is Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, and this is exactly it: the life of a man and the life of the woman he loved told through the soundtrack of their lives. And, for some of us, it is our lives as well.

Sheffield starts off going through his dead wife Renee’s belongings and discovering several of her mixed tapes, spending a sad night listening to the first one–The Smiths, Pavement, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Morrissey, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boy George among them–commenting on her choices and their lives together when she made them. He talks about the various types of mixed tapes: the Party Tape, the “I Want You” tape, the “We’re Doing It” tape, the Road Tape, the “You Broke My Heart and Made Me Cry” tape, the Walking Tape, the Washing the Dishes tape. etc. From here he sets up his frame work–the tapes of our lives are the record of of our lives.

And so he begins. He starts by dissecting his own tapes, chronologically starting from a mixed tape he made as a thirteen-year old for an 8th-grade dance through his first romance and subsequent break up to his meeting Renee, their courtship and marriage, her sudden death and his struggles to continue on afterwards.  It is poignant and wise writing about  love and loss and survival.

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Many of the bands I had never heard of–both he and his wife were music writers–but the pure affection and excitement that these two shared for new and old music was infectious. He was an Irish-Catholic boy from Boston who grew up on Led Zeppelin, the J. Giles Band, and Aerosmith; she, an Appalachian girl from West Virginia as familiar with George Jones and Hank Williams as she was with the punk bands she adored. Together they made a likeable pair. And their knowledge and love for music is wide and inclusive.

Sheffield met his wife in 1989 and she died in 1997. Their relationship lasted most of the 1990s and this is where Sheffield the music critic is at his best. His analysis of that decade, where the music was going and what it was doing is trenchant: he understands the phenomenon of Kurt Cobain, the importance of female empowerment in 90s’ music, the resurgence of guitar bands. (His discussion of Cobain’s late music/performances as the plights and pleas of a pained husband is unique and insightful and bittersweet.)

The naturally shy Sheffield–understandably–reverts into himself after his wife’s death. He is more and more asocial, awkward and uncomfortable. He writes eloquently about the pain of loss, of the condition of “widow-hood,” of unexpected kindness, and of the haunting of the past. Sadly, music–which once was his  buoy in life–is pulling him down, especially the music that he and Renee had shared.  In the end, however, it is music that pulls him together as well. He moves out of the south and to New York City, he reconnects with friends, makes new friends, and–of course–starts seeing and listening to new bands.

photo 3(1)

This is the tape–the last in the book–that Sheffield made when moving into a new apartment in Brooklyn, December 2002.

Love is a Mixed Tape was recommended to me by a friend, Brendan McLaughlin. Brendan was born in the mid-80’s, not long before Sheffield and his wife first met.  He is connected much more closely to the music than I am, and I am sure that he recognized a lot more of the bands and songs cited than I did.  But that is the great thing about Sheffield’s memoir: you don’t have to be completely tuned into what he is listening to, just to what he is saying.

And what he says is true.

Book Review: Submergence by J. M. Ledgard

image

“submergence” illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

 

There are some novels that do more than just examine a life, dissect a relationship, recount an adventure. They tell you things you do not know, often things you could not know. J. M. Ledgard’s Submergence is such a novel.

James More is a secret operative for the Secret Inteligence Service , dropped into Somalia under the guise of a water engineer and captured by al-Qaeda jihadists. Tortured–physically, mentally, and psychologically–he survives by remembering his past and observing keenly his present.  A very big part of his past is a recent love affair that he had the previous year in France with Danielle (Danny) Flinders, a bio-mathematician and a renowned expert in life at the bottom of the ocean. While More is submersed in chaotic Somalia, Flinders is on a dangerous diving expedition off Greenland where she will take the submersible, Nautilie,  into an oceanic fault to get samples of the microbiotic, chemosynthetic life that exists there.

More–an ancestor of Sir Thomas More, his father was Thomas More XVI–is an Englishman who is very fond of his native home. His memories of the stone walls and green fields, the beautiful churches and the glorious music are often set against the stark, impoverished sites that his captives periodically move him to.  Flinders, part French, part Australian, is more of a free spirit, a rootless and rogue scientist, whom this affair with More has seemingly tamed. Her thoughts are perhaps larger, going beyond the current events of Muslim Africa and modern conflicts, and contemplating human origins–and extinction, the primeval soup that is the ocean, and the mythic and cosmic implications of the studies she runs.

The actual love affair itself is quick and remembered periodically by James and Danny, as he is subjected to the harsh world of jihadists on the run and she on the prehistoric world of the ocean deeps.  But although it is quick–a week or so at Christmas–it creates a lasting–and perhaps permanent–bond for the both of them.

cover of the hardback edition of Submergence

cover of the hardback edition of Submergence

But then James is taken.

In the novel–informed so greatly by current events- we learn much about jihadists–about their training camps, their dreams, their aspirations, their hatreds, their violence. We see the extreme depredations that allows young boys to decide that the promise of Paradise to martyrs is much more attractive than the life they actually live.  We see primitive societies and their primitive justice. And we see the harsh landscape of Somalia.  We see the jihadists’ voiced hatred of things Western, yet their fascination with it at the same time. (Once very popular, Rambo fighting alongside the Afghans against the Soviets has been replaced by Disney animation. The leader of James’ captors sees Bambi as an allegory of the “Crusader” in the Muslim world.)

We learn about Islam, about the djinn and the promises of Paradise.  More’s education allows him to intelligently compare Islam with Christianity, for both good and bad, to discuss literature and his ancestor’s Utopia, and to give insight into the covert maneuvers of both sides in the “war on terror.”

And we learn much about violence.

We also learn a great deal about the ocean’s floor and the creatures that live there and the (few) people who explore it.

None of this is pedantic, however.  In fact, it is fascinating. It is couched in James More’s adventure story: his struggle to survive day in and day out propels the story forward. His memories and thoughts are what tie it together. Her memories and knowledge add to the banquet.

In all it is a wonderful read.

J. M. Ledgard

J. M. Ledgard

J.M Ledgard is a journalist who has been the political and war correspondent for the Economist. He now lives in Africa, where he consults developing countries on technology and risk.  His first novel Giraffe (2006) was inspired by the slaughter of 49 giraffes at a zoo in Czechoslovakia in 1975, which Ledgard uncovered in 2001 when he was working there as a correspondent.  Submergence is his 2nd novel.

words and pictures (part 2) …and the power of MUSIC

Music...Art...Literature Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Music…Art…Literature
Illustration 2014 by jpbohannon

Yesterday, I wrote a post about the film Words and Music, a sweet romance about a battle between an Art teacher and an English teacher. The film had interesting examples about the power of words and magnificent examples of the power of “pictures.”  But what I forgot about was the part that held it together and in a way redeemed it:

The Power of Music

In the film. after the male protagonist has made a bollocks of things and the female protagonist has had enough of his destructive behavior, it is music that is the most evocative, most informative, most powerful…and most healing.

Scene after scene the male (Jack Marcus) tries to contact the female (Dina Delsanto) to apologize for the drunken mess he made of her art. Scene after scene we see her aggressively stop his attempts or stoically ignore them. Until the moment, when she opens an e-mail and there is an audio attachment.  The piece–written for the film by Paul Grabowsky—is a chamber piece for piano, cello and clarinet entitled “I am a Small Poem.”  (This is also the name of the poem that Markus steals from his son.)  It is rich and resonant and connects with Delsanto more than any words or pictures could.

It is what saves their seemingly destroyed relationship.

I wish I could embed the music that was played when Delsanto opened her e-mail. but I can’t.  It isn’t available yet.  So instead, I will give you this: an extraordiary piece by Fauvre. It is what I often listen to when I am writing:

A while back, a music teacher (Manny DelPizzo), an art teacher (Jackie White) and I got together to make plans for a large project. (The educators call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”)  I was going to get my Creative Writing Students to submit their best work and the art teacher and music teacher would each have their students interpret it and we would have a performance.  Our ambitions were high–this seemed like the best outlet for student creativity– but the realities of schedules and time and curricula put many roadblocks in our way and we let it fizzle out.

The “performance” that the fictional students in Words and Pictures was much like what we were hoping for, minus the music. Our music component would have made it better.

A new school term is starting in a couple of weeks. I am newly energized (though not as drunken as Jack Marcus) and am excited about trying this for real. It doesn’t have to be a battle–as it was in the film–but a really cool examination of the power of words, of art, and of music–a real exercise in Creativity

Movie Review: Words and Pictures dir. by Fred Schepisi

Poster for Words and Pictures

Poster for Words and Pictures

It wasn’t what I was expecting, so I should not hold that against it, but I found Words and Pictures just a tad disappointing. It is a very nice movie, not a great movie, but nice, and its heart is in the right place.

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen as Jack Marcus in Words and Pictures

The film deals with an English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen) who teaches at a very privileged prep school in Maine. Marcus–who once had a promising start as a writer– is brilliant, witty, energetic, and charming. The students love him; his colleagues tolerate him; his bosses are beginning to tire of him.  We immediately see him chastised for being late–an occurrence that is more and more frequent because at night he is drinking more and more. (I found this part a bit unbelievable because after his nightly excesses there is no way he could perform so elegantly in the classroom each day.  Add to that the thermos full of vodka he drinks with his lunch each day and his engaging classroom demeanor seems unreal.)

Because of cuts at another school, the school is able to hire a new art teacher, Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche). A successful gallery artist, Delsanto has left New York City due to crippling rheumatoid arthritis which forces her to walk with a cane, strap brushes to her wrists, and suffer intense pain, and she has come to rural Maine where she gets the necessary help from her sister.

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto

Juliette Binoche as Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

She immediately clashes with Marcus, but not without hidden a smile of pleasure.

And this is where I got it wrong. As Hollywood usually goes, the film begins as a typical romantic comedy. Two strong-willed, feisty characters are thrown together–ala Tracy and Hepburn– battle and show their disdain for each other, and finally fall in love.  Yet, Words and Pictures takes another tack.

In her first class of Honors Art, Delsanto tells her class that “Words are lies, traps.” Since Marcus teaches the same students, her comments get back to him, and he initiates a war.  Words vs picture:  What is more powerful?  What is more true?  What is more dangerous?

And while the battle began between the two adults, the students get very much involved, and actually experience a truly great learning experience. (Educators now call this kind of thing “Project Based Learning.”) The “words” that the students use and the artwork they create as different sides in this battle of philosophies are impressive at the least.

As the battle goes on, Marcus learns that the school board is considering his dismissal, his relationship with his son is becoming more and more estranged, and his muse has completely dried up. And, he begins drinking even more heavily.

Delsanto’s condition worsens–she cannot undress herself or hold a brush without help–but her artistic output is becoming more and more robust.

Ultimately, these two flawed adults get together, but their lovely day together is sabotaged by Marcus’ destructive, drunken night.

It takes the final school assembly, where the contest between “words and pictures” is judged to bring some resolution to the film.  Here, Marcus gives a speech stating that there is no greater approach–that together words and pictures are often more powerful than apart. (I’m not sure I agree.)  Afterwards, we are left hanging–does Delsanto merely forgive Marcus or does she let him back into her life.

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche as Jack MArcus and Dina Delsanto in Words and Pictures

Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche in Words and Pictures

To see a romantic film about two adults, seriously flawed in their own ways, is a rarity in film these days (at least in American movies). And to have this romance played out by the like of such actors as Juliette Binoche and Clive Owen is special. And this is where Words and Pictures promised a delight.

But somewhere along the line, the relationship between Marcus and Delsanto gets hijacked.  The philosophical arguments of “words vs. pictures” take center stage, and–by the very nature of film– can only be superficial at best, and ultimately unfulfilling.  And we are further distracted by the subplots of Marcus and his son’s disintegrating relationship and an annoying story of a predatory student who continually harasses a shy student in his class. (Granted both of these subplots can be tied into the overall argument of “words vs. pictures,” but again, it is weak.) And so, the “romance”–even the relationship–between Marcus and Delsanto too often gets pushed aside and loses its cinematic momentum,

In the end, I enjoyed Words and Pictures, but I wanted to like the film more than I did.  It had the makings of  a  sweet romance, but the un-fleshed-out philosophical argument got in the way.

What I found most interesting was that all of Dina Delsanto’s artwork was painted by Binoche herself.  That bit of info, coming late in the credits, is amazing, for the paintings are powerful expressionist and abstract works that to my untutored eye were dazzling. Binoche has always been one of my favorite actresses…now even more so.