Sunday, April 2, 2017

On Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work

I liked some of my teachers, but I did not like my high-school English classes. I don't think it was always my teachers' fault. There were requirements for the curriculum that, in retrospect, doomed the classes to failure and left students unprepared for their freshman-year college classes.

We were asked to read GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE, which is good. High-school students should be asked to read GREAT WORKS OF LITERATURE, but we only read great novels, great plays, and great poetry. We did not read great literary criticism, except for A Room of One's Own, and so we had no models for literary analysis. In my history classes, by contrast, we read excellent works of history, and when we were asked to write our own research papers during our senior year, we were prepared.

This is all a run-up to describing the course I'm teaching this quarter, "Writing About Film." I am assigning the students film criticism that I like, from academic writers, popular critics, and novelists. During the first week, they read Ursula K. Le Guin and Jonathan Rosenbaum's take on Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977). This week they are reading James Baldwin's The Devil Finds Work and watching the film he discusses in the final pages of his book, The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973). Then there will be Pauline Kael's famous review of Bonnie and Clyde (Arthur Penn, 1967) and Vivian Sobchack's meditation on the aesthetics of violence in New Hollywood that she wrote seven years after its release; Rear Window (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954), Vertigo (Hitchcock, 1958), and what we in academia call "the Mulvey;" Taxi Driver (Martin Scorsese, 1976) and Amy Taubin's wonderful BFI analysis; Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964) and James Naremore's piece about Kubrick and the grotesque.

I won't ask the students to write about any of these films, nor to directly respond to Le Guin, Rosenbaum, Baldwin, Kael, Sobchack, Mulvey, Taubin, or Naremore. Instead, we will discuss the pieces in detail in class, closely study their methods and strategies, much like students in creative-writing classes read short stories, and from there they will write their own film criticism. They will write an essay about two films of their own choosing. In one, they will write about a movie they don't like, and they will explain why they don't like that movie in terms that go beyond "it's boring" or "it's stupid." In another, they will talk about a movie they like, but will be asked to locate a problem in the movie, perhaps a moral, political, or aesthetic problem. They will have less freedom in the final paper. I will have them write about a movie I happen to love, Silence (Scorsese, 2016).

In the interest of preparation and reflection, I plan to blog occassionally about this class, while respecting the classroom space, which I believe should be semi-private if not safe.

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The Devil Finds Work, a book-length memoir about James Baldwin's life as a film spectator, rests on a specific idea of cinephilia. The spectator experiences the visceral sensation of the movie. The images and sounds wash over and through him or her. And then the spectator tries to explain that visceral experience, first connecting his sensation to the text of the film itself. Afterwards, he connects these new ideas, combining the intellectual and the emotional -- not that there's ever much of a difference for Baldwin -- to other spheres of his personal experience or of society at large.

Here are the opening lines of the book.
Joan Crawford's straight, narrow, and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.
I have a joke I like to tell my students when I teach them about the auteur theory. "When you were five years old, and Lord of the Rings came out, I don't think you ran up to your parents and said, 'Mom!' 'Dad!' We have to see the new Peter Jackson movie!" These opening lines reflect exactly how children experience the images of film, before they fully grasp the intricacies of spoken language, before they fully remember names. I know many backs which are "straight" and "narrow," but "lonely" is an interesting word. Is it the image of the "back" alone on the screen, made to stand out from everything else? Is it a naked, unclothed back. I'm guessing it is not, but I have no idea what dress Crawford is wearing. How exactly is she exuding loneliness, and does Baldwin really mean "aloneness"? Who cares about whether or not he is looking at the actual Clark Gable. The memory of Clark Gable, or something/one like Clark Gable is powerful enough.

The cinephile operates with a prelinguistic consciousness.
I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath water.
By page 2, Baldwin is connecting this Crawford, as she appears in Dance, Fools, Dance (Harry Beaumont, 1931) to a beautiful black woman he knew in his neighborhood, his idea of Joan Crawford.
She was so incredibly beautiful -- she was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful -- she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile -- that when she paid the man and started out of hte store, I started out behind her.
Take note: this is a subjective experience for the filmgoer, one that Baldwin and only Baldwin can own. He owns it because he is a black, gay man, born poor, brought up in the church, haunted by his early years as a "strange" and, he is told, ugly child. Within these unique circumstances he redefines Crawford's back, as well as the rest of her, for himself. He owns it because he is a child, defining beauty, the real and unreal, as much as he can, on his own terms.

Baldwin will go further in the book, offering flights of fantasy, indulging ridiculous tangents, most of which work, everything rooted in a struggle. The images on the screen are manufactured by an industry that is overwhelmingly white and the interspersed images of black life rarely if ever comport with his lived experience. There is material he could touch if he wanted to, but which he largely ignores. He writes about the relationship between black people and Jews in other essays, but he seems uninterested in thinking through Hollywood as an industry highly identified with if not as dominated as many would believe by Jews. He touches on questions of homoeroticism in several films, and is particularly provocative when he imagines a final unsexed, homosocial, interacial kiss between Sidney Poitier's Mr. Tibbs and Rod Steiger's Gillespie in In the Heat of the Night (Norman Jewison, 1967), but, despite the opening lines about Joan Crawford, he doesn't explore the history of camp in 1930s Hollywood, nor the landmark The Boys in the Band (Friedkin, 1970). Despite his years in France, he doesn't offer what could have been amazing analyses of the French New Wave, which came about after he left Paris. I would love to know if he had any thoughts on Bazin.

Baldwin is better than Ta-Nehisi Coates, and almost all the personal interpretations on race, sexuality (and gender and religion and everything else) that you read on The Root, Jezebel, Medium, Salon (Jesus, Salon, Jesus), and Slate, because he is liberated from words that have become too firm and too staid. Throughout The Devil Finds Work, he is talking about what we now all call "privilege," "representation," "microaggressions," and "hegemony," but he has access to all the other words in the American language, the language used by the black church and Henry James. Baldwin understands that there are things he won't be able to know about his experience, let alone explain, a lesson that so many of our Internet writers would do well to accept. He makes a case for the universal in his experiences, but he allows room for the reader to accept that there is a border between the reader and the author, a border that may be more porous if the reader shares a cultural identity with the author, but, as much as he tries, can never be fully eroded. No two cinephiles are exactly alike.

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