Stuart on synonyms and cinema
“You know what a euphemism is?” Stuart asked.
“Well, yes … Oh, wait, I know. You have a joke.”
“A euphemism is synonym and sugar. You know, that’s the first thing I ever wrote that got published, way back when I was in high school. I sent it in to the Reader’s Digest.”
“And that made you into a writer.”
“If you want to call what I do being a writer. But I think what made me what I am — and made you into the writer you became, too — is a sensitivity to words. It comes as easily as arithmetic to a math major.”
We were walking along the beach on one of those days that isn’t exactly sunny, but when the blue sky comes and goes behind a fast moving scud that occasionally drops a fine mist of drizzle. The clouds are dark, then bright bands of white and whisps of blue between. And with just enough wind to keep a low haze of sand flashing across the beach, only a few millimeters above our footprints. Stuart’s dog ran ahead of us, checking out the one other dog being walked by its owner. Stuart waved; they knew each other.
“I’ve been thinking about synonyms,” he said. “I don’t think they exist.”
“Why not? English is filled with them. More than any other language, probably.”
“Yes, but they aren’t really the same, are they. I mean you have “pig” and you have “pork” and the difference is whether it eats or is eaten.”
“English is such a promiscuous language. It says ‘Hi, sailor’ to so many loan words, that it has built a vocabulary of prodigal variety. We can sort them out to distinguish minor differences that other languages just don’t allow for. Things like pork and pig, but also hog and swine and boar and sow and shoat. Beef and steer and ox and cow and bull — and I could go on. It’s one of the things I love most about my mother tongue.”
“But they don’t really mean the same thing, do they? The Venn diagram of each word may overlap, but is not identical to its mate, like non-identical twins.
“Take lethal, mortal and fatal,” he continued. “You might say they mean the same thing, but we use lethal in its potential sense primarily — a lethal weapon, for instance. No one has yet been killed, yet the weapon could produce death. We use mortal for a different kind of potential, one that is inevitable. It was a mortal wound; he’s not dead yet, but there is no chance he’ll survive. As for fatal, we also use it in a kind of philosophical sense, a fatal mistake, where the mistake may either be the death of a person, but more likely the death of an idea.
“And so, they may all seem like they mean the same thing, but they have different resonance, and get used in different contexts.”
“And if you want to be a writer, you had better feel those differences.”
“Right,” he said.
“Like ‘mortal’ also feels like an antiquarian word,” I said. “We don’t really talk about ‘mortal wounds’ much anymore. It was a phrase used in the Civil War. It almost feels like ‘thee’ and ‘thou.’ We are more likely now to use the word ‘terminal.’ A terminal illness instead of a mortal wound. And it has a further resonance in that ‘mortal’ implies a certain humility: ‘I’m only mortal.’ Mortality is humbling.”
“And ‘fatal’ carries with it an atavistic belief in fate, something that has been willed by the gods. We don’t think of it that way anymore, but it’s still there underneath its conscious meaning. These things hang around our vocabulary like the spirit of the ancients.”
Language has deep roots, I thought. It’s why so many are fascinated by etymology, as if that explained what words “really” mean. But really, it’s all changing all the time and we constantly redefine the words we use. Nevertheless, when we are blithely unaware of the roots, of the emotional overtones of language, we wind up speaking like bureaucrats and academics.
“Lord save me from that,” Stuart said.
“Lord save us all.”
Stuart had just taken a job teaching at a two-year school. I say, “taken a job,” but it was a position as adjunct instructor, teaching a course in writing about movies. It wasn’t a “job,” in that it hardly paid anything. Stuart had never had a full-time job as a writer, but had freelanced often, whenever he felt like it or could find a gig. And writing about film is something he enjoyed. Now he was thinking about it again.
“I’m thinking particularly of motion pictures, or moving pictures, as they used to be called. We have different words for it, and they mean different things. Going to the movies is different from film. It’s the shades of meaning that get to me.
“I use the word, ‘movies,’ for the basic experience: watching a story unfold on the screen. The vast majority of movie audience pays little attention to anything except the narrative. A good movie tells a good story. It tells it efficiently and clearly, and usually without too much subtlety, whether in plot complexity or its inherent morality. There are white hats and there are black hats.”
“Like what Sam Fuller said,” I chimed in. “When asked what makes a good movie, he chewed his cigar a little and said, ‘a story,’ and then pressed for what makes a good story he said, ‘a story.’ There was a twinkle in his eye for being clever.”
“Well, yes,” Stuart said. “Whether its a revenge plot, or overcoming obstacles, or falling in love, the story is primary, and its unfolding is key. What keeps us involved is waiting to find out what happens next.
“But film is different,” he said. “Film is what is taught in film schools. When you attend a film, you notice the lighting, the editing, the acting, the pacing, the special effects, even the titles. Those who pay attention to such things have an infinitely richer experience of their artform.
“Alfred Hitchcock explained film by saying all it was was short bits of film spliced together to tell a story. Change the bits and change the story.
“We see a door; we see a hand knocking. Cut to a woman’s face inside the room and the fear on her face. We see the hand turning the doorknob. We cut to the woman reaching into a desk drawer for a gun. The door opens; she points the gun.
“Same bits of film: We see a woman reach into a desk drawer for a gun, we see a hand knock on the door and turn the knob. The door opens; she points the gun. Same pictures, different story.”
“There are filmmakers who love to play with this sort of stuff,” I said. “But it isn’t only the technique. These people also value an awareness of the history of the medium, so that their enjoyment of a film depends on getting the ‘in jokes’ and references.”
“God, yes. Way too many films are being made with film as its subject. If you expect your audience to be “in” on the technicalities — and the cliches — then you can manipulate them to keep your action moving forward. I think of all those self-conscious horror films that comment on themselves as they unspool. Quentin Tarantino makes film, not movies. He knows that you know that he knows, etc., that all those martial arts films, or those gangster films, or those drive-in movies, are the real subject of what he is making.
“We are drowning in genre film these days. All that CGI, all those superheroes, with their genre expectations, all that dazzling film school technique. We are way too knowledgeable about the gears and levers of filmmaking. It is what nerds talk about when they talk about Star Wars.”
“Yeah, and I blame George Lucas,” I said. “Back in 1977, when Star Wars was first released, he talked about such things as editing rhythmically, taking apart shots, frame by frame, to show how a ratio was used to time the tiny fragments of film that were pasted back to back. It really hit the fan when DVDs began to include bonus tracks with director commentaries. It let us in on the secrets of filmmaking.”
“This is my distinction: Most moviegoers only know Star Wars was exciting; filmgoers knew how it was done, and thenceforth knew to complain when it wasn’t done well. A badly crafted film makes for a flaccid affair, a boring experience that should have been better.
“It should be noted that movies and film are not mutually exclusive categories. A good movie should be made well, and a good film had better tell a good story. But you see the difference in emphasis.”
“It ain’t just in film,” I said. “Postmodernism is all about playing with the levers and gears and showing off how shiny those gears are.”
“I should point out there is a subculture that enjoys bad craft, looks for movies that ‘are so bad, they’re good.’ There is an unseemly level of self-congratulation in such appreciation.
“There are epicures of exploitation films, bad sci-fi, horrible martial arts dubbing; there are scholars of the slasher films of Mario Bava and those who can quote chapter and verse on the lesser excrescences of the various Arthur Rank studios from the 1950s. There is a kind of reverse snobbery in such scholarship. Although the movies are bad, the same insider knowledge of filmmaking is brought to bear: ‘Look at this bad edit,’ ‘Notice how the lighting in the B-roll doesn’t match.’ ”
“If you can name more than one cinematographer — or if you call him a ‘D.P.,’ then you are into film, not movies,” I said.
“Among the film aficionados, there can be an obsessive interest in the minutiae of film history. And an attendant argumentation on such points: Compare the comedy teams of Ole Olson and Chic Johnson that of Bert Wheeler and Robert Woolsey. Was Harold Lloyd really greater than Chaplin and Keaton — after all he did his stunts with a maimed right hand — and besides that, he pioneered stereo photography, and the pictures he took were celebrity photos for all that.”
“So, you get books suggesting the Ritz Brothers were better than the Marx Brothers (or maybe it is the Howard brothers best of all, if you are really perverse). And then come doctoral dissertations on the films of Earl Dwire, Rondo Hatton or Patsy Kelly.”
“All this scholarship, all these theories are fine. Patsy Kelly deserves a biography,” Stuart said. “But they are all about the externals of the film, the methods and the techniques, the bios and the politics, the genre expectations and history. They all far transcend the basic story that makes a movie. So, it is film.”
“But those aren’t the only terms,” I said. “Movies and film.” They used to be called ‘moving pictures’ …”
“Boy, that sounds antique — ‘twenty-three skidoo’ …”
“… and motion pictures, and flicks, and cinema.”
“Cinema is a horrible word,” Stuart said. “It is a word that should only come from the mouth of a John Simon, an Emanuel Levy or a Stanley Kauffmann. It reeks of pretention and condescension. No one ‘goes to the cinema.’ Cinema is something that is written about, not watched.”
“But we need something to define the use of strips of celluloid to explore the experience of being alive, something that isn’t about mere storytelling, and it isn’t about the mechanics of filmmaking; it is about using the medium to tell us true things about ourselves.”
“I guess we call them ‘art films.’ I don’t know a good term,” Stuart said.
“But even some art films are not about real life,” I said. “I don’t know what you would call a Jean-Luc Godard movie if it isn’t an art film. Yet he seems much more involved with the tricks of filmmaking than in the application of his ideas to real life. His films are always, in some manner, about film.”
“And the opposite,” Stuart said. “Some great cinema has little concern for such clever niceties. Roberto Rossellini, for instance, made many profound works of art with scant film technique; they could almost have been made by an amateur.
“Others make art with little story to follow. Can anyone actually say what happens in Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad? I didn’t think so.”
“So, it isn’t strictly ‘art film’ we are talking about. It is using the medium to explore, propose or illustrate some ideas about reality, about human nature, human tragedy, the complexity of moral questions, the unreliability of perception, the consequences of actions, thoughts and emotions.”
“Movies are about story; films is about how the story is told; This other thing is about what the story means.”
“These are not mutually exclusive categories. It is possible to have all three at once. Consider Citizen Kane, for instance, which Pauline Kael once called it “more fun than any other great movie.” It tells a great story, is hugely inventive in the way it tells it, and explores the depth and complexity of its characters, all at the same time.
“Or either of the first two parts of The Godfather. Ripping yarn, a doctoral thesis on filmmaking, and as profound a tragedy as anything by Euripedes. You can have it all.”
“These three overlapping categories describe not only the artform in question, but their audiences as well,” Stuart said. “Those who like movies are often put off by the seeming pretentiousness of art film, although if they don’t notice it slipped in among the action sequences, they may not mind it. Older audiences tend to fall into this category. I remember my father being upset by Mike Nichols’ Catch-22 because it was told in flashbacks. He wanted the story told straight through. ‘I don’t know why they can’t just tell the story,’ he said. ‘This is too confusing.’
“There are those who most enjoy being in the know as to what the filmmaker is doing and derive their pleasure from recognizing the cleverness. They loved Memento, Adaptation, Time Code or The Blair Witch Project. They can take apart a Hitchcock film frame by frame. They can spot the difference between early Dario Argento and late Argento.”
“But do they know what love is?” I said, thinking of Tom Hanks.
Stuart laughed. The dark clouds moved in and the blue sky disappeared. He called his dog back and we walked up over the dunes to the house.