Wednesday, May 02, 2012

Yet another pedantic post on subject and treatment

I recently read an essay by one of my favourite film writers, V F Perkins, author of the outstanding book Film as Film. The essay is “The Cinema of Nicholas Ray”, and though it’s best appreciated by readers who are familiar with Ray’s work, this bit should be of value to anyone who wants to write professionally about movies (or literature, for that matter):
All our critics distinguish, more or less explicitly, between commercial and personal cinema. The distinction is occasionally valid, often silly, and always dangerous ... [It] has become a weapon for use against films which do not impress by the obvious seriousness of their stories and dialogue [...] It is nonsense to say that in Party Girl Ray’s talent is “squandered on a perfect idiocy” (Louis Marcorelles in, of all places, “Cahiers du Cinema”). The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject.

Ray has himself criticised the literary preoccupations of some screenwriters. “ ‘It was all in the script’ a disillusioned writer will tell you. But it was never all in the script. If it were, why make the movie?” The disillusioned writer and the insensitive critic are alike in discounting the very things for which one goes to the cinema: the extraordinary resonances which a director can provoke by his use of actors, decor, movement, colour, shape, of all that can be seen and heard.
Read this sentence again – “The treatment may or may not have been successful: there is no such thing as an unsuccessful subject.” It’s one of the keys not just to assessing a film but also to assessing a piece of writing - and a good riposte to anyone who reads a plot summary and says “That can’t be a good movie.” (It’s always more reasonable to say “That isn’t something I’d be interested in watching just now”, but even pre-judgement of this sort can be misplaced – it can keep you from making serendipitous discoveries about cinema and yourself.)

As a writer, the motif of the supposedly unworthy subject matter strikes a chord on another level too. Reading feedback on (well-written) magazine or newspaper articles, it’s common to find people saying things like “Why have you wasted so many pages on [so-and-so topic]?” - one often gets the impression that they haven't bothered to read the piece at all. (Here’s a recent example of a good article on a subject not many people deem analysis-worthy.) But the idea that certain things shouldn’t be written about in depth because they don't “deserve” it is most puzzling. Fact: ANY subject under the sun is worth engaging with, no matter how lowbrow it might seem. What matters is the quality of that engagement.

[For anyone interested, the full Perkins essay is here. And some related thoughts on story and treatment are here]


  1. In theory, yes, ANY subject is worth writing/making a film about, but the 'fact' that you've stated needs to come with a corollary-not ALL subjects are sale-able, and hence while a book about an obscure thing/issue might be a good one (in terms of its writing quality and subject treatment), the fact that another one will outdo the sales is inevitable. As writers, especially the ones who want to keep a roof above the head, and avoid missing the rent more than thrice a year, I'd say choose and write about topics that are marketable and that publishers are willing to pay you for.

    Any indie film maker who is cash strapped will agree with me.

  2. Anon: the point here isn't saleability - it's the tendency of a certain type of critic/reader/viewer to dismiss a work as being unworthy based purely on its subject.

    What you say about commercial viability is of course a different matter, and subject to a different debate. In any case, most of the best writers I know write about something because it's a personal imperative for them - not because they are expecting to make a good livelihood by "choosing" a subject and writing a book about it.

  3. "ANY subject under the sun is worth engaging with, no matter how lowbrow it might seem. What matters is the quality of that engagement."

    Very true. You only have to look at the work of John McPhee to see what a skillful writer can achieve even with the driest subject.

  4. Rohinton Mistry's 'Tales From Firozsha Baag' is a good example of how the most mundane subjects can make for beautiful prose.

  5. Pertinent point.
    By the way why are you apologetic about this being a "pedantic post on subject and treatment". There's nothing pedantic about it.

    We live in an age of inverse snobbery! Where every intelligent reference to an idea that originates in a book is frowned at as being "pedantic" or "pretentious". Sounding "cool" is more important than speaking out one's mind.