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:
• 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.