Quills: Voyeur as the Voice of Reason

Manipulation in film, not only of the objects within the frame but of the audience as well, has been the practice of film makers for decades. In Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000), a biopic loosely based on the last years of life for the18th century author, the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush), the audience becomes not just an observer but an active participant in particular sexual acts through overtly suggested voyeurism. For what purpose does Kaufman so conspicuously manipulate the audience into committing these acts? In an ambitious argument for uncensored art, even when pitted against the utmost controversial fiction of the Marquis de Sade (a man who RollingStone.com calls “one sick twist” (Travers)) Kaufman wants his audience to actively lust for things they cannot have. For this reason, I examine the transition from the experience of fictional freedom in the first scene involving Mademoiselle Renard (Diana Morrison) with the oppression of that freedom within the rest of the film. By beginning the story here, Kaufman demonstrates that in order to understand what can be lost through censorship, one must understand, first hand, what exists prior to that loss.

Before the censorship debate plays out, there are subtle signs that reveal the director’s bias toward a lack of censorship intended to influence our opinion from the start. Within the first ten seconds, we are presented with the idea that fiction is the protagonist through white, beautifully calligraphic title credits which glow in stark contrast to a jet black screen. The gentle curves of the text represent something natural, not contrived, like human nature and the use of narrative to make meaning. The color and font also work as a metaphor for the greater good of those who bring fiction to light. With the title credits comes the sound of soft, quivering breath. It permeates the darkness and gains strength while accompanied by a lone clarinet holding a single, suspenseful note. It is unclear whether the soft breathing belongs to a man or woman, or whether it is derived from pleasure or fear. Immediately we question. We want to know more. In that wanting, we are seduced into lusting after the fiction unfolding before us. This ten seconds of manipulation is skillfully designed to guide us though a difficult debate as the argument for free speech is not one without complication.

Within the same opening minute, the Marquis de Sade is introduced to us through the sound of his voice which, like the white text, penetrates the darkness; or does it emanate from it? Either could be true. He addresses his “dear reader” introducing his “naughty little tale,” “plucked from the pages of history, tarted up, true, but guaranteed to stimulate the senses” (Kauffman). We are presented with the controversy that stems from the Marquis’ writing. While the film is a “tarted up” version of the real Marquis’s life, rather than embracing his historic penchant for committing horrific sexual crimes, it focuses on the writing that reflects the spirit in which these acts have been committed. If, in life, the Marquis’ actions are defined as criminal, could it be said that his fictionalized depictions of such acts should be considered criminal too? Or, is fiction the place to safely act out such libertine desires? In these few spoken words, we are presented with the dilemma which will plague and play with us throughout the film, whether we immediately realize it or not.

With no time to ponder, we are thrust into the tale of Mademoiselle Renard, a beautiful aristocrat “whose sexual proclivities [run] the gamut from winsome to bestial” (Kaufman). As the Marquis begins this line, the black screen fades up to an even, cobalt blue and classical music begins. We learn that the camera lens is pointed at a cloudless sky allowing us to gaze upward as if lying on our backs. The frame of blue is only contextualized by wisps of wavy, brunette hair which are carried into view on the wind while Mademoiselle’s rather innocent face, with half closed eyes and softly parted lips, enters and fills our entire overhead view. Her hair is upswept at the sides revealing the bare neck outstretched before us while loose tendrils of unruly curls carried on a strong breeze caress her face. That this sweet face belongs to a woman with such a wide range of sexual desire creates a great deal of intrigue and excitement for the viewer. With curiosity piqued, we linger in the space of this moment eagerly awaiting the Marquis’ next line.

At this point, the Marquis asks, “Who doesn’t dream of indulging every spasm of lust, feeding each depraved hunger” (Kaufman)? Mademoiselle slowly closes her eyes, gently leans her head back to the left and her breathing, growing stronger, is heard once again. Because the camera lens is understood to be the viewer’s eye, the positioning and proximity of that lens to this young woman has the intended effect of making the audience experiencing emotions they would generally entertain only behind closed doors. Having been inserted into this intimate space, we realize that the Marquis’ question is directed at the viewer as much as Mademoiselle. Mademoiselle Renard appears to be in a state of heightened pleasure and the viewer, for this brief moment, is unmistakably positioned to look up at her as if we are her lover.

Why begin with this image, particularly since Mademoiselle Renard is never to be referenced again after this scene? Cinematographer John Alton says of framing in Painting with Light:

The screen offers the advantage of an ability to photograph the story from the position from which the director thinks the audience would like to see it. The success of any particular film depends a great deal upon the ability of the director to anticipate the desires of the audience in this respect. (qtd. in Barsam, 141)

Following this philosophy, one can deduce that Kaufman acts on the supposition that the audience wants a film to awaken certain passions and offer an avenue to safely experience them. Since film has always been a voyeuristic experience, Kaufman raises the stakes by making the viewer painfully aware of the desire for indulgence through film. As Linda Mulvey says in her article “The Visual Pleasure of Narrative:”

The magic of the Hollywood style at its best (and of all the cinema which fell within its sphere of influence) arose, not exclusively, but in one important aspect, from its skilled and satisfying manipulation of visual pleasure. Unchallenged, mainstream film coded the erotic into the language of the dominant patriarchal order. In the highly developed Hollywood cinema it was only through these codes that the alienated subject, torn in his imaginary memory by a sense of loss, by the terror of potential lack in phantasy, came near to finding a glimpse of satisfaction: through its formal beauty and its play on his own formative obsessions. (Mulvey)

Not only do we become aware of our own desires, thanks to Kaufman, we are granted the utmost freedom to experience it under an open sky rather than behind closed doors before we experience the loss that Mulvey describes.

With one quick twist, we learn that this window of opportunity is short lived. The Marquis goes on to say:

Owing to her noble birth, Mademoiselle Renard was granted full immunity to do just that, inflicting pain and pleasure with equal zest, until one day Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own. (Kaufman)

This man (Stephen Marcus), whose filthy hands glide over Mademoiselle’s head and neck from behind, intrudes upon our own experience. As his black, leather executioners’ hood enters the frame, we learn from Sade that “Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man whose skill in the Art of Pain exceeded her own.” The executioner has slated Mademoiselle for his next kill and our precious lover is being taken from us. He slides his meaty fingers over her exposed collar bones and into the shoulders of her dress. The corners of her mouth spasm, although her expression is difficult to read. Does she enjoy this? The executioner rips the dress, revealing her shoulders, and she shrieks in terror “Please, no!” Only now are we sure of her distress. Leather straps bind her hands behind her back rendering her helpless, as are we in the throes of this horror. History, during this French Reign of Terror, is more appalling than fiction because it rings true.

It is important to note here the finesse of Mademoiselle Renard’s casting and acting. As screenplay writer Geoffrey Wright says in the DVD special features:

Philip Kaufman wanted a classically beautiful woman, a woman who didn’t look contemporary, a woman who had a gorgeous antique quality and he looked at more actresses for this small role than any other in the film.

The attention paid to these details is a testament to the importance of the general viewer’s relationship with her. It is helpful that Diana Morrison, the actress who plays Mademoiselle Renard, does not have a great deal of star recognition so that presuppositions based on previous roles cannot be assigned. Also, Morrison’s facial expression during her extreme close-up remains skillfully blank. As is said about editing in Looking at Movies: An Introduction, the “tendency of viewers to interpret shots in relation to surrounding shots is the most fundamental assumption behind all film editing” (Barsam, 239). This holds true with any combination of cinematic elements. With no mis-en-scene yet to contextualize our film, all that is left to make meaning is the Marquis’ narrative. What we learn very quickly is that this narrative is powerful enough to reorder our entire sense of “reality,” which has been upended in a matter of seconds.

So, who is the Marquis de Sade and from where does such powerful fiction flow? Watching from behind bars in a prison tower perched high above the guillotine, the master of this story looks on with his own blank stare. The pleading eyes of Mademoiselle make contact with his own as the executioner slowly moves her hair and inhales the scent of her delicate neck. The Marquis’ steady voice continues, “How easily, dear reader, one changes from predator to prey! And how swiftly pleasure is taken from some and given to others” (Kaufman)! He is not just speaking of Mademoiselle but of himself, once the predator and now the caught and caged prey. A packed audience cheers and jeers with smiling faces once the shirtless executioner slowly and seductively bends her over placing her head gently in the guillotine. A body in a green dress separated from one of the many heads in a cart is passed over the crowd. Another cart of people to be executed, one looking like a disheveled version of the Marquis, are visibly distraught and sickened. In sharp contrast, the Marquis is composed and unmoved. His lack of outward emotion toward this long line of executions suggests a numbing madness.

Regardless of the Marquis’ lack of emotion, he and Mademoiselle are inextricably connected as demonstrated by the film’s editing. An extreme close-up of Mademoiselle’s face captures a drop of bright, red blood that falls to her cheek from the guillotine blade. We cut to an extreme close-up of the Marquis looking out with one eye, the other obscured by a black window bar. His face is more gray than black, perhaps suggesting a clouded version of good with a definite black and evil streak. As he turns away, we enter with him into his space. We circle around a jar of fanned black quills interspersed with two of muted white, suggesting that, contrary to the man, his writing is more vile than good. He continues to write on a sheet more than half filled using a white quill while chains bind his hands. An aerial view of the execution mob is seen from Sade’s vantage point but only by us as he writes. Humming Claire de Lune along with the children in the street, the Marquis’ quill releases a single drop of blood-red ink just as the guillotine blade begins to fall. Our view enters the flesh and blood sliced by the blade, a view that the Marquis does not get from his desk. What this editing works to say is that the Marquis’ internalized experience of this French Reign of Terror is released through writing and the tragedy of Mademoiselle Renard is, in this case, his muse, and we are active participants as his audience.

This connection between the three of us becomes a significant source of the film’s realism. As Laura Mulvey explains:

To begin with (as an ending), the voyeuristic-scopophilic look that is a crucial part of traditional filmic pleasure can itself be broken down. There are three different looks associated with the cinema: that of the camera as it records the pro-filmic event, that of the audience as it watches the final product, and that of the characters at each other within the screen illusion. The conventions of narrative film deny the first two and subordinate them to the third, the conscious aim being always to eliminate intrusive camera presence and prevent a distancing awareness in the audience. Without these two absences (the material existence of the recording process, the critical reading of the spectator), fictional drama cannot achieve reality, obviousness and truth. (Mulvey)

No longer shall we follow Mademoiselle’s story for hers has come to an end. Instead, we follow the Marquis to Charenton Asylum for the Insane years later. It is the blood, red color of the execution scene follows us as well, unifying our connection and coating the inside of a cell as if to say that the internal workings of the Marquis’ mind are blanketed with the culmination of all the deaths he has witnessed. The close-ups of eyes that first connected Mademoiselle and Sade now connect Sade and Charenton’s laundress, Madeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet). She slides the viewing panel on the heavy metal door open and calls for linens. Her eyes are centered in the open panel looking straight at us, but she cannot see the red that covers the inner walls. This is the Marquis cell and because Maddie is looking in at us, the audience members have just become lunatics.

This is the beginning of our time both as the asylum’s watched and the watchers. We begin by seeing limited parts of Sade, whether his eye through a circular hole in the door or his hands reaching through the laundry shoot. By the time the title of the film appears, our transformation is complete. From here on out we witness portions of the film one step removed and yet our experience becomes increasingly intimate. One example of this is when Bouchon, the executioner gone mad, is seen in his cell masturbating to his view of Madeleine through a hole in the wall. While he enjoys a peep at a girl, we are subject to deriving shock or pleasure from watching him watch her through our own hole in the wall. Regardless of our personal reaction, we have been made guilty of voyeurism and have a stake in the argument of whether or not we require censorship to protect us from ourselves.

It is now, in the unfolding of the film’s events that we are ready to assess censorship from a well-rounded standpoint. If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it as the asylum’s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. On the other side of the coin, because the power of the Marquis’ story results in the death of Medeleine, incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum, and frees the residents to copulate in the pouring rain, Plato’s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. Even the The Bible, as a text, is portrayed as a dangerous narrative means, God being accused of stringing his son up “like a side of beef” making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.

By partaking in such fiction, what does the debate surrounding censorship mean for and about the viewer? Kaufman says on the Cinema Review website:

I have always been fascinated by extreme literature because it expands on our concept of what is human. And Sade more than anyone seems to demonstrate how extreme behavior can bring out hypocrisy in those who claim to be moralists. (“Production Notes: The Origins of Quills”)

We, the viewers are not left to our own idealistic assessments of what should and should not be. Kaufman is sure to make us get our hands dirty, tarnishing our own perceived halos. Forcing his audience to commit conscious acts of voyeurism, Kaufman does his best to remove that moralizing impulse we often feel in response to anything that appears to be dangerous, even fiction.

If this film proves anything, it’s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the blaming of video game violence for children acting like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice. Fiction offers that outlet. In the viewer’s ability to experience natural emotions as well as exercise restraint is where Kaufman’s condemnation of censorship is revealed and thus gains its power. The audience is given the opportunity to strongly sense their own personal desire to act upon certain wants coupled with an understanding that such wants are best satisfied through fiction rather than experienced in real life. In that rare event that some person acts out the fiction, as is the case of the murderous executioner, Bouchon, there is already a predisposition to violence that exists before the influence of fiction. One is likely to conclude after seeing this film, censorship be damned and damn the author too.

Works Cited

Barsam, Richard. Looking At Movies: an Introduction to Film. 2nd ed. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2007.

Mulvey, Linda. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Sonoma State University. Aug. 1975. Sonoma State University. 23 Apr. 2008 .

“Production Notes: the Origins of Quills.” Cinema Review. 23 Apr. 2008 .

Quills. Dir. Philip Kaufman. Perf. Geoffrey Rush, Kate Winslet, Joaquin Phoenix, Michael Caine. DVD. Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation, 2000.

Travers, Peter. “Quills (2000).” Film.Com. Rolling Stone. 23 Apr. 2008 .

Wright, Doug. “Quills Script.” Screenplay.Com. 20 Dec. 2000. 15 Apr. 2008 .

Will the Real Harvey Pekar Please Step Up?

From the beginning of Berman and Pulcini’s American Splendor (2003), we are presented with many versions of Harvey Pekar:

A comic strip frames Harvey Pekar (Daniel Tay), an uncostumed kid on Halloween in 1950. When asked what he’s dressed as, we learn that this kid is no super hero. He cranks off, “I’m Harvey Pekar. I’m just a kid from the neighborhood” and storms off with the voices of kids mocking his name in fading echos.

If memory serves correctly, we hold that same external comic frame and fade the content to actor Paul Giamatti walking that same street playing the film’s character “all grown up.”

• A voiceover of the real Pekar tells us Harvey Pekar is also a real guy and we eventually meet that guy in a sound studio being interviewed, documentary style, by Shari Springer Berman.
• Interspersed are comic renditions of the character talking to us in bubbles, telling us about who he is.
• Giamatti thinks in bubble text at the supermarket where the idea for American Splendor was born.
• We meet “the comic renditions” of Pekar again at the the train station when Joyce Brabner (Hope Davis) arrives for the first time.
• Later, we get clips of the real Pekar on “Late Night with David Letterman.”
• Giamatti also stages Pekar’s volatile GE/NBC blast on the same show.
• Last but not least, we see one more permutation when Giamatti acts repulsed while watching a play about Pekar played by Donal Logue when the voiceover adds that he, the real Pekar, wonders how he?ll feel seeing Giamatti play him in this movie.

The genius mix of reality and fiction is enough to make my head spin…

On one hand, Harvey Pekar is very real. He documents his every day life events and those of his work acquaintances in American Splendor comics. He has appeared on “Late Night with David Letterman” as your average guy from the Cleveland rust belt (although he doesn’t seem very average to me). He has always kept his job as a VA hospital file clerk. Now he’s produced enough work and acquired enough fame to appear in this movie but divulges the fact that he’s doing it for the money. Throughout every rendition of American Splendor, Pekar’s reality bleeds from life to art and back again.

On the other hand, Pekar, like any artist, hand selects moments that portray his reality in a particular way. The comic story is first selected and shaped by Pekar. As one of the film’s screenwriters, he has some sway over what makes the film. Although he does little to openly display his controlled artistic bent, we get a small clue when, by his own admission, he says he has not always portrayed his wife accurately. Pekar also relinquishes much of his control?when rendered visually by a wide range of artists. That control is once again wrested from him with the inclusion of other screenwriters. At one point, he fears what the film’s outcome will be with so much room for interpretation by others. In these small spaces, we can see that the real Harvey Pekar is not so easy to pin down. Perhaps this is why, after seeing other HP’s in the phone book, Pekar ponders both who they are and who he is.

This fictionalized reality becomes interesting in that, although Pekar rebels against commoditization of corporate entertainment, particularly as he and self-proclaimed “nerd” Toby Radcliff (Judah Friedlander) are commandeered on “Letterman” and MTV, Pekar has ironically been in the business of commodifying himself from the beginning. The Pekar doll made by Joyce, now his wife, is the perfect metaphor for Pekar’s construction process. The clothing is something Pekar has truly worn, the fabric of his reality, so to speak, and something everybody can relate to. But it is his face, ultimately his identity, that is the creation of an artist. By making himself a comic book character, the visual product patterned by and after Pekar himself is what has been for sale at every stage of the game.

My Intellectual Cosmos

Taking stock, a reflective exercise often assigned at the end of a class, is also a graduation requirement. This is my first draft. Tweaking to follow… although references to “navel gazing” and “mental masturbation” are definitely keepers.

The Collegiate Experience and My Intellectual Cosmos

This reflective essay has been assigned to help connect my Senior Seminar experience, with its focus on pre-romantic poetry, to the greater Saint Rose experience and thus my intellectual cosmos. To be honest, I find this task rather difficult. My trouble stems from the Senior Seminar portion of this ponderance. Let me first say that I have thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual, in-depth conversation every class has offered and that I find significant value in the exploration of early literary theory and the ability to measure today’s ideas by comparison. Still, I struggle to kindle some sort of greater passion for the subject matter in a present-day application that brings new awareness to light.

In my ideal world, Senior Seminar should be more than an entertaining intellectual exercise. I had hoped for a topic that would engage my passion, inspire me to action in righting some contemporary wrong and raise my own awareness as well as the awareness of those who read what new discoveries my research has to offer. Instead, I am reminded time and again, as we jest about the many ways in which poets have continually pondered their navels, that the struggle of the human experience merely shifts at a snail’s pace. Looking to history offers little more than greater historical knowledge of humanity’s slowly morphing circumstances, faulty attempts at understanding through overly general categorization, and constant repetition of these mistakes. While history is a fantastic place to begin, traveling back in time is not necessarily the best place to finish, at least in the opinion of this Saint Rose senior.

While the official capstone of pre-romantics study has been a wonderful venue in which to exercise analytical skills developed in other classes, I would say that the study of theory and postmodernism have been my personal and intellectual capstones. Through these two classes I have become significantly aware of and even horrified by the assault of stereotypes upon my own thoughts. I have since used that awareness to both examine and challenge knee-jerk reactions as well as my long standing perceptions of this crazy world we live in. Theory has provided new ways of understanding beyond those with which I was familiar. By studying an array of alternative ideas, I found freedom in choice and relieved the constraint on my personal identity. Of course, one could argue that social constructs not only bind identity, but that there can be no identity without such definition. It is in the understanding that boundaries are arbitrary and differ from culture to culture that freedom to make new and different choices exists. Liberated in my ability to move beyond the limited scope of what little I was told I could be, I have also learned to see this postmodern world for what it is and have situated myself within as a global citizen. Armed with my new perspective, I dare to dream bigger dreams and choose to live a life in which I am more aware of the impact I have on others as well as myself.

An example of how Postmodernism changed my life stems from examining a postmodern text through a theoretical lens. Choosing Linda Hutcheon’s definition of historiographic metafiction, I have explored the film and filming process of The Last King of Scotland. This movie focuses on former dictator Idi Amin’s reign in Uganda as experienced by the fictional Dr. Garrigan. Many uneducated Ugandan citizens who watched this film in underground viewing huts believed the fictionalized version to be historical, calling the film “real.” While this might appear to suggest the realism that film technology has the ability to create, the project reveals a far more disturbing picture. Intimidated extras believed that Forest Whitaker was truly Idi Amin and that they were being paid to support his political agenda. A twisted version of the death of Uganda’s beloved Kay, Amin’s wife, corrupts her image through one more Western violation of a black woman for the sake of appealing to a Western audience. Also, in a culture where modesty is imperative, filmmakers in a bind to find willing extras coerced Amin’s impoverished former poet to run naked through a party scene, essentially blackmailing him so he could make enough money to return to his family when he merely wanted to read. Throughout my paper, which I still intend to polish and publish, unethical Western film making philosophy becomes as exposed as that poor poet. By the end of the fifteenth page, there is no question that ethical behavior is required in this failed form of historiographic metafiction, one influenced by money and the reinforcement of stereotypes rather than empowerment of all of humanity . Revealing the horrors of Hollywood-style colonization and commoditization of an entire third world nation, this, by far, is my most meaningful academic work to date. My latest paper on the poetics of Anne Finch could never be as powerful.

On a personal level, what I have learned in Postmodernism has inspired me to action. I have begun to thoroughly and independently research my own possible impact as a Westerner when volunteering in Africa this summer. I will continue to diligently study how best to immerse myself within the Ghanaian culture while recording the lives of dying HIV/AIDS patients for their soon to be orphaned children. Preservation of cultural and familial information is my main goal and I wish to leave as little impact upon these people as possible. For this reason, I have chosen a non-governmental organization serving the needs and projects developed by the local villagers rather than joining forces with one imposing Western ideological ideas and solutions. This is not to say that Western philosophy is entirely corrupt, but there is no denying that, in inextricable conjunction with capitalism, it consumes other cultures at an extraordinary pace. While the study of literature has been invaluable in gaining better understanding, literature without action is nothing more than mental masturbation.

I have, in a previous reflection paper, likened my personal growth through the study of literature to a spiritual awakening; the best possible outcome college can have on an individual without the involvement of religion. I can honestly say that the study of theory and the global impact of the postmodern have changed, for the better, who I am as a person. Saint Rose initially rejected my application and, upon appeal, accepted me with condition, so it is with great pleasure that I have proven worthy of that chance by earning a 4.0. While earning that grade is certainly a crowning achievement, it means nothing but for the fact that I am walking away with a new world view as well as an eye toward making a difference. That, to me, is an end result well worth the hard work I have invested in myself these past two years.

Looking at Quills

Having selected Philip Kaufman’s Quills (2000) as my “Writers in Motion” film of choice, I watched it twice, first to take in the entire story and again to take notes. For further insight, I watched the DVD extras on screenplay writer Doug Wright’s commentary, costuming, setting and casting, searched for the text of the screenplay to read for sheer literary value, and hit JSTOR for some scholarly direction. I also found accounts of the Marquis de Sade’s real life on the Time Warner True Crime site and discovered another devoted to PVC fetish wear designed in the Marquis’ name. Before I knew it, I had shoved so much material into my feeble little brain that my ability to create a single thesis ground to a screeching halt. I screamed, “TOO MUCH INFORMATION!” and took a break. This is how I roll.

Reading Barsam’s last chapter of Looking at Movies offers the perfect springboard for this paper I have yet to begin. With graduation looming just 15 days away, that’s what I call salvation in print. One method Barsam suggests is a tracing of dualisms or binary oppositions. In Quills, that could include things such as:

• nature/culture
• good/evil
• freedom of speech/censorship

By outlining some of these issues, and this is by no means an exhaustive list, I find that the film pits these oppositions against one another in order to explore the gray areas in terms of what writing can and must accomplish.

What this film seems to want to say is that writing fiction or creating narrative is not only inherent in one’s nature, but that human nature is at odds with culture. More specifically, culture is the tool to reign in our human nature, particularly since the libertine nature of an individual is rarely good for a greater societal state of being. This is precisely where the purpose of fiction enters in and Barsam’s section on “Memesis or Catharsis” (321) comes into play..

If fiction is a safe place to play out situations of vice, purging it – if you will – as the asylum’s Abbe de Culmier (Joaquin Phoenix) instructs the Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) to do, then the position of this film begins by leaning toward the Greek philosophy that art is cathartic. Departing from reality for the sake of the story, the creators want to say that the more those in power try to suppress public access to what is essentially 18th century pornography (inherent human nature?), the more persistent and even violent the fiction becomes. The idea of “story” takes on a life of its own and will fight through the quill of its author or any other means to survive.

Alternately, while the Marquis says his theatrics are “just a play,” his words are undeniably influential and carry a great deal of power. Because the power of the Marquis’ story results in the death of a laundry maid, Medeleine LeClerc (Kate Winslet), as well as incites the chaotic destruction of the asylum’s own society, Plato’s belief that art is dangerous also comes to fruition. The Bible too is portrayed as a narrative of dangerous means, God being accused of stringing his son up “like a side of beef” making the Marquis fearful of what God might do to him if he succumbs to the word. The inclusion of this platonic argument asks the audience to truly examine all sides.

If this film proves anything, it’s that this argument is still going on today, whether through the resurrection an ancient criminal or the recent blame of video game violence when children act like vengeful lunatics. Telling are the last lines of the film which echo an earlier sentiment: that to know virtue one must also know vice and that fiction offers that outlet. According to the filmaker’s, censorship be damned but so too is the fiction writer.

While I haven’t the skill for it, I’d love to address a Freudian analysis of this film’s creators. What kind of person venerates a man who, in real life (and this is merely one of many counts against him), locks up six young girls for 6 weeks of torture and sexual abuse, releasing them to separate convents with instructions not to talk about their traumas all to make a case for free speech? I suppose I can understand that you’d want to use the worst case scenario for the ultimate effect, but what irked me most about this film is that I was coerced into finding the Marquis rather witty, sometimes charming, seductive and even logical if not completely self absorbed. How dare they make me cheer for such a perverse asshole. Maybe I should psychoanalyze myself (another approach Barsam mentions). Then again, I might get locked up too.

I’d go further but then I’d be writing my paper right here and now. That would ruin the surprise for even me (or something like that). This was an awesome place for some serious brain drain in order to sort some threads I’ve been considering (and to prove I read the chapter), so thanks for reading. Any feedback is welcome.

Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle

In Brian Gilbert’s Wilde (1997), we discover the early nature of Oscar Wilde’s fame (played by Stephen Fry) from a conversation between the characters of Ada Leverson (Zoe Wanamaker) and Lady Mount-Temple (Judy Parfitt):

Lady Mount-Temple: I know your friend is famous, Ada.
Ada Leverson: Notorious, at least.
Lady Mount-Temple: But I don’t understand for what.
Ada Leverson: For being himself, Lady Mount-Temple.

In Alan Randolph’s Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle (1994), this type of fame is said to be true of Dorothy Parker (Jennifer Jason Leigh) as well. The repetition of this notion (in these and other films) suggests that writers have a larger-than-life personality and high social profile in addition to the work they produce. While we know this to be untrue, particularly since writers lead much of their lives behind a desk writing about subjects other than themselves, only those eccentric, dramatic and often tragic figures lead lives worthy of having films made about them. Unless we look beyond the film portrayals, what an audience is left with is the notion that all authors must experience adventurous escapades to craft good work.

What Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle does differently is poke fun at the stereotypical valorization of the writer’s life at the same time that it partakes in the act. By creating a story about those literary figures that began at Vanity Fair and who eventually created The New Yorker, they are obviously held in high historical regard, certainly notorious enough to spend?many thousands of dollars on production costs. While the film reinforces valorization in this way, the script itself is where the mockery of this process exists.

What does fame mean as compared with the value of the writing? Robert Benchley (Campbell Scott), Parker’s co-hort in the Vicious Circle, says in jest:

It took me fifteen years to discover that I had no talent for writing, but I couldn’t give it up because by that time I was too famous.

This suggests, at least according to this writer’s character, that when fame supersedes the work, the work can no longer fail. In fact, the work must continue in order to sustain the fame, but the work’s value mustn’t necessarily be of equal import. Interestingly, this character’s quote stems from Benchley’s real life and is incorporated into the film. Benchley truly pokes fun of his work in this way.

Parker’s character also pokes fun at the perceived writing life. While the character is described within the film as a “trainwreck” who “knows how to suffer,” she is called out by MacArthur for writing “fluff.” The description of Parker’s life is the polar opposite of what she writes. At a social gathering, Parker is asked to recite one of her “little things,” a trifle of a poem to entertain. In response, Parker demonstrates that although she may write ”little things,” these little things are no real reflection of the life she leads. Here she pulls out “Resume”, a poem prompted by her suicide attempt in which living wins out but only because the process of killing oneself is a nuisance:

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Later she tells her psychologist that she only writes “doodads” because New York is “a doodad kind of town,” illustrating that perceptions are simply that. Her life is not light fluff. This same psychologist tells Parker that her writer’s block comes from the booze. Trashing the stereotype of booze as muse, he says that she is absent from living life and without seeing it, she can’t write about it.

Overall, Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle is more a character study than dramatic device. Living “out loud” does not mean living an eventful life according to this depiction. Depression might be Parker’s muse but the events that depress her offer no real turning point in the plot. She just sinks deeper and deeper, the end. While this may read as a detraction from the film’s success, I find the departure from the traditional equation of life and work, glorification of alternate mental states and expected narrative form a refreshing twist from most other films about writers.

Silence Speaks Louder

In response to Richard Barsam’s Looking at Movies seventh chapter on sound:

I find the idea of silence equally as important and perhaps even more so than sound. We have been conditioned to accept that the transitions and contrasts of sound certainly create a sense of drama, and so much is said too in the space of silence. While I realize this has more to do with music than film, listening to Ani DiFranco in my 20s is what first alerted me to the importance of both sound and silence. I never much thought about it prior.

On her 1990 album, Not So Soft, the tune “Every Angle” incorporates sound in a way that moves beyond the music itself and into the audience’s imagination via the story.

i’m imagining your laugh again
the one you save for your family
and your very
close
friends
i’m imagining the way you say my name
i don’t know when
i’m going to hear it again
my friends can’t tell
my laughter from my cries
someone tell this photograph of you
to let go of my eyes

If this were a film, we’d see a tortured soul, heart broken, perhaps laughing/crying indistinguishably in the style of Charlie during the opening scenes of Barton Fink. In the background we’d hear another layer, a voice over of laughter perhaps muted at a distance like something nearly as intangible as memory. The main character’s name is softly spoken with that same echo of distance. In those few seconds of a single shot, we’d probably infer what is offered by Ms. DiFranco in descriptive lyric form.

Of course, the interpretation can’t end there. On the flip side, the 1995 song “Asking too Much” off Not a Pretty Girl emphasizes many of the understood meanings of silence to which descriptive language cannot easily be assigned:

If you hear me talking
Listen to what I’m not saying
If you hear me playing guitar
Listen to what I’m not playing
And don’t ask me to put words
To all the silences I wrote
Don’t ask me to put words
To all the spaces between notes

I read this passage to mean that there is always more to be said in the space of silence than in speaking. Language is limiting, as is the implied language of edited sound. This reminds us that, along with examining what is happening, we must remember to equally examine what isn’t. Sound alerts us to action, but silence often alerts to a lack thereof or a suspenseful lead up to a particular climax. It is in these silent moments where we must examine why the choice is made to include it and what it speaks of.