The Aesthetic Question

As I have indicated elsewhere in this blog, when my book The Screenplay as Literature was first published, it was not well-received by critics in the United States.  For the most part, I felt that the early critics of my book had not actually read it; thus they could not fully grasp its purpose and central tenets.  However, one rather scathing review at the time did indicate that the reviewer had indeed read the book and did grasp the arguments that I put forth—although, he was quick to dismiss them.

This review, which appeared in The Journal of Modern Literature, begins by stating that “Indeed, the book [The Screenplay as Literature] would not even be worthy of reviewing were it not so symptomatic of the pabulum put forth by most studies which compare film with literature, the former almost inevitably bleached by the latter.”  And he wastes no time in getting to one of the core tenets of the book, quoting me as follows:

 Lastly, our study must be more aesthetic than technical: the quality and validity of a particular writer’s or filmmaker’s thoughts and ideas must take precedence over his particular mode of expression.  Although  the dictum  “The variations of a theme are more important than the theme itself” may be acceptable for music, it could never be acceptable in film, which as we shall see, must deal with reality and not abstraction.

Very much related, this reviewer also quotes another central tenet of my book:

“it must always be borne in mind that a film can be no better than the idea from which it has sprung. . . .”

The reviewer, an ardent adherent of the so-called AuteurTheory, takes me to task for purportedly dismissing cinematic techniques for “ideas,” something that the above quotes from my book may suggest, but not entirely accurately.  For him (the late William F. Van Wert, by the way), along with many of the critics of today, aesthetic questions should have little or no place in modern cinema.  He even extols American“Auteur” directors (e.g. von Sternberg and Hitchcock) who deliberately chose badly written scripts and transformed them into good films—if such a thing is actually possible. Why are these central tenets?  For the same reason we would make them the central tenets in any discussion of great novels.  Would anyone include a novel with a trite story or developed from a faulty idea in any canon of great Literature, even though the author demonstrates superior writing skills?  I think not. Nor should they in any canon of great films.

What then is the aesthetic question?  Well, if a film has a Lajos Egri-stlye premise, we might ask if the filmmaker did indeed prove or demonstrate his proposition.  But for most films the question is far more subtle; yet in almost every instance we have to ask:  “What exactly did the writer or filmmaker intend to do, and did he succeed in doing it”?  In this regard the films of Federico Fellini are highly illustrative.

Federico Fellini was one of the pre-eminent filmmakers of his day (mid-1950’s until his death in 1993).  Many of his films were. and are still , considered masterpieces (e.g. La Strada and 8 ½, 1954 and 1963, respectively).  Fellini, who usually collaborated on the writing of his screenplays, was one of the very first filmmakers to completely master his medium.  Such mastery was often discernible in his extensive use of the moving camera, music, color and the precision in his casting.  Nothing in a Fellini film was arbitrary; every element was meant to dazzle the viewer.  And the fact that you were watching a Fellini film was unmistakable.  Yet many of his films were neither critical nor financial successes.  A case in point would be his Juliette of the Spirits (1965).

Derisively called, by some critics, a female companion piece to his previous hugely successful    8 ½, Juliette of the Spirits is the story of the wife of an unfaithful middle-aged public relations director who seeks to find her own individuality.  This is made all the more difficult as she struggles to be freed from the oppressive influence of her husband, family, “friends,” and, very central to the story, terrifying hallucinations.  However, the film, despite its cinematic pyrotechnics, didn’t work.  In my The Screenplay as Literature I pointed out that the there was little credibility in the miraculous transformation of the heroine of Juliette of the Spirits at the end of the film  “for a character that for all her life has passively let herself be acted upon and dominated by others.”  Where did Fellini go wrong?   Frankly, I don’t think that I know the answer.  Perhaps it was in his avowed purpose “to restore to woman her true independence, her indisputable and inalienable dignity,” even though he openly admitted that “to undertake to speak calmly and clearly about a woman is almost impossible for a man.”  Or perhaps it was Fellini’s over- use and over- simplification of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalytic techniques that worked so well for him in 8 ½.   What is important, though, is that in this instance Fellini failed:  the questionable validity of his concept could not be masked by his brilliant mode of expression.

Today in America, and other countries as well, we have several filmmakers, who, like Fellini before them, also have mastered their medium.  When you see one of their films, even if you are not totally overwhelmed by its cinematic pyrotechnics, you certainly won’t be bored.  But often after seeing one these films you may come away with the feeling that you have just partaken of a sumptuous meal yet are still hungry.  This begs “the aesthetic question.”  Critics need to address it instead of just effusing praise for the filmmaker’s enormous talents– because when audiences  leave the theater, they most assuredly will.