Book of Judith

by Srikanth Srinivasan

One of my most memorable experiences during lockdown was reading Deadline at Dawn, British critic Judith Williamson’s sparkling collection of essays from the eighties. What’s most amazing about the volume is the clear-eyed manner in which Williamson discerns so many of the aesthetic and film-political problems we are grappling with today. For texts that are almost forty years old, the articles all feel incredibly alive and current. I don’t know if there’s any popular critic writing quite like this now. “One aspect of putting ideas forward is that you can no longer be the invisible arbiter but have to declare your position”, writes Williamson, who repeatedly emphasizes the importance of a critic letting their reader know on what grounds a certain judgment as been arrived at. Her own Marxist-feminist approach is enriched by a close attention to film form and a broader historical perspective of Western culture. The resultant prose is gripping, with every essay containing inferences and insights that make you jump. Here are twelve of many. 

“But both the ideologies underlying film criticism and the realpolitik of critical practice (‘if you plug our film, then we’ll place an ad in your paper’) are hidden by the single, sweeping assumption that criticism is about individuals interacting with a particular ‘artistic work’ and then pronouncing on its merit. […] The problem with almost all criticism today is that it does not reveal its premises, it projects a certain kind of view while giving readers and viewers no critical access to what that view is. Film writing could be a way of producing and distributing that knowledge—to borrow terms from filmmaking itself—but it tends at present to obscure knowledge, to refuse access to ideas which people could use for themselves.

On Joyce Chopra’s Smooth Talk and Robert M. Young’s Extremities: “Women’s function as a register of terror in movies is nothing new. Being frightening means, almost by definition, frightening a woman.”

On Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Sacrifice: “It is typical of our society that the film can make so many well-fed people wax so lyrical about our lack of spiritual values at the same time as allowing them to feel that the system which feeds them is spiritually superior because people like Tarkovsky can make films in it. […] The values of The Sacrifice give a meaning to suffering; and if you can make people believe that suffering has a meaning, you have less reason to do anything about it.”

On Jaime Humberto Hermosillo’s Dona Herlinda and Her Son: “We are so steeped in the modes of conventional narrative that we expect a film not only to tell a story, but to tell us how to respond to it. It becomes literally hard to imagine love outside of a romantic mode or sex outside of a ‘sexy’ mode. And it is precisely cinematic conventions which coincide with and reinforce the social conventions that translate the raw materials of physical and emotional life into ways of thinking about them. We are accustomed to films providing us with some ground on which to make moral judgments, and Hermosillo refuses to offer it. What is subversive about his films isn’t the fact that you see, for example in Dona Herlinda, men undressing and making love (as they meant it, for once); it’s that the audience are stripped, left without the comfortable clothing of cinematic codes which, like their social counterparts, provide structures of meaning which keep a vision of the world secure.” 

On David Leland’s Wish You Were Here: “The film’s central confusion is that what the narrative presents as [Linda’s] ‘liberation’, the imagery and mise en scène present as humiliation.”

On Chantal Akerman’s Golden Eighties: “If a temporal dichotomy between narrative and emotion is the structure of all musicals, there can be no more fitting material for it than the relation between work and love. […] Without the slightest realism in its style, the film articulates something very real indeed: the tension between the wish to break from, and the need to conform to, the patterns of material existence…”

On Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita: “The richness of this brilliant film is that it reproduces the thrill of urban existence precisely while mourning its lack of substance.”

 On Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray: “Maddening as Delphine is, Rohmer’s indulgence is not so much for her as a character, but for that space in which she floats, where dreams, fears and lack of self-knowledge lap together, where directions are not always known. […] This is, perhaps, Rohmer’s lightness: for all their ‘everyday’ quality, these films offer spaces rarely found in everyday life.”

On Jean-Luc Godard’s King Lear and Rohmer’s Four Adventures of Reinette and Mirabelle: “Godard seems to be going through that disaffection with language that hits particularly hard those who are most adept at using it. […] It is as if, fed up with both society and language, Godard is straining towards some more direct, primal relationship between image and feeling. […] Godard goes on going on about what he does, Rohmer goes on doing what he does, until you feel that his constant refining of his particular style is itself a kind of resistance.”

On pre-code Hollywood films: “Seeing pre-code films en masse leaves one most strongly with the sense, not of risqué subjects or underwear scenes, but of general exuberance, physical freedom, a kind of toughness. […] The point about the Hays code was not that it tried to ‘clean up’ everything, but that it made everything seem dirty.”

On Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver: “Despite his Calvinist scriptwriter (Paul Schrader), Scorsese’s religious mode isn’t the puritan ideal; it’s the Confessional: dig deep for it, churn it out, tell it in sinful and erotic detail. Instead of judging what comes out, his films focus on the energy itself; and, moving out of the realm of right and wrong, they show how that energy can either celebrate or destroy.”  

On Nicholas Ray’s The Lusty Men: “All that being a man means in Westerns is thrown against the material harshness of life, in this film, and cracked like a head against a brick wall.”

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic from Bangalore, India.

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