Late last month, I went with my mom to see the movie Words and Pictures, which opened in New York in May but hadn’t come to the Washington area until early in June. I don’t normally write about film on ROT—the closest I’ve come, not counting some film pieces I republished but didn’t write, were “Everybody Comes To Rick’s” (17 May 2009), an article about the play on which the movie Casablanca was based; “Der Illegale” (5 July 2009), a post about an old German TV miniseries that had been based on an actual espionage case; and “Cinderella: Impossible Things Are Happening (CBS-TV, 31 March 1957)” (25 April 2013), a reminiscence on the original telecast of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical—and I’m not going to critique this one or analyze it as a piece of movie art. I’ll say that it’s a perfectly all-right romance (some reviewers said “rom-com,” others, “rom-dram”) which many film journalists likened to Dead Poets Society because of some superficial similarities. But I caught what I see as an ironic twist which doesn’t appear in that other (or any) prep school-sited film and I’m not sure it’s intentional.
Directed by Fred Schepisi (Roxanne, Six Degrees of Separation, I.Q.) from a screenplay by Gerald Di Pego (Born Innocent, TV; Message in a Bottle), Words and Pictures recounts the story of Maine prep-school English teacher Jack Marcus (Clive Owen—Gosford Park, Closer, Sin City, Hemingway & Gellhorn) who laments his students’ lack of interest in the power of the written word. (I’m with him here: I’m a recovering writing teacher myself.) Once a celebrated poet, Marcus hasn’t published in years and has taken heavily to drink, putting his job in jeopardy. The editor of the Croyden Prep literary magazine, which had been a prize-winning journal in part because of his own contributions as well as the work of the students he published, he learns that the magazine may be dropped as an unproductive expense in this digital, on-line world.
When Marcus meets Dina Delsanto (Juliette Binoche—The Unbearable Lightness of Being, The Lovers on the Bridge, The English Patient, Chocolat), a painter and new teacher who was once celebrated for her canvases, he immediately finds her a challenge. Delsanto, who suffers from rheumatoid arthritis which is slowly but inexorably robbing her of her mobility and independence, hasn’t exhibited—or painted, for that matter—for a long time. The art teacher disparages words as a conveyor of meaning and import—almost as if she knows that this will set Marcus off. “A picture is worth a thousand words” becomes her mantra, and he responds with, “There is no frigate like a book” (Emily Dickenson, 1873/1894).
The two flirt and provoke each other with equal relish—à la Beatrice and Benedick of Much Ado About Nothing. (Most reviewers saw an attempt to reflect Hepburn-Tracy and a couple compared the pairing to Ryan-Hanks. But I instantly recognized Shakespeare’s witty middle-agers.) When Delsanto is introduced in the faculty lounge, the two teachers immediately start needling. Delsanto, a muffler artistically wrapped around her neck, tells Marcus she teaches honors art and Jack quips, “Hence the scarf,” and says he teaches honors English. Delsanto replies without missing a beat, “Hence the hence.” (That’s meeting cute at an elite prep school!) The clash isn’t just between Marcus’s words and Delsanto’s pictures, of course, or between the eccentric and contrarian English instructor and the stand-offish and demanding painter. It’s also between one teacher who treats the students as if they were his promising but slacker little brothers and sisters (or, perhaps, nephews and nieces), and whose students all call him “Mr. Mark” (except the class clown who calls him “Captain Jack” after Walt Whitman’s 1865 “O Captain! My Captain!”), and another who takes a sterner and colder tack, becoming known as “The Icicle,” “The Ice Queen,” or “Frigid Fresco. “ (Of course, this is a scriptual conceit: Owen’s Marcus is never really that cool—he wants to be liked, even loved, but his behavior and unrelenting iconoclasm make that difficult for colleagues, students, and family—and Binoche’s Delsanto—she wants to appear challenging and unaccommodating, “not the kind of teacher you’re going to come back and visit”—is more passionate, about her art, about her students, and about Marcus than she’s made out to be.)
Marcus conceives a plan to focus his students’ attention on their writing: he declares a contest between words and pictures and challenges Delsanto and her honors art class to prove which has “more worth.” Marcus teaches his English students that writers evoke original images that pictures can’t capture because they exist only in the mind; Delsanto counters by insisting that a painting can convey feelings words can’t express. Words are “lies” and “traps,” Delsanto warns her art students (some of whom are also in Marcus’s English class). “Words are your gods,” the English teacher counters when one student of both teachers reports Delsanto’s pronouncement. “And somebody has insulted your religion.” The best work of her art students and his writing students will be published in the next issue of the literary journal—which Marcus had insisted normally doesn’t run pictures—it’s all words. (Ultimately Marcus proposes that Delsanto paint a picture about a poem he’ll write and both works will be published.) Delsanto and her art students accept Marcus’s challenge, and the battle commences.
Of course, it’s a silly debate, like the one over whether actors are creative or interpretive artists or whether Shakespeare wrote his plays, but buy the premise . . . buy the bit. It’s a false dichotomy—who says we have to choose one medium over the other? (Just before the final presentation of the Words and the Pictures to the assembled school, I had a brief thought about artists who use both words and pictures—like William Blake, for instance, a writer and a painter who integrated text into his images, or Jenny Holzer, who uses words as pictures—or at least visual imagery. They didn’t choose. The Dada poets, conversely, used words not so much for their meanings as for the pictures they could make on the printed page. This idea never came up in the movie.) It doesn’t help the argument that, first, Delsanto is as articulate and verbal as Marcus, though we don’t know if she writes as well as she speaks, and second, that Marcus, despite Di Pego’s characterization that he’s “an English teacher who loves language, worships language,” is as much focused on vocabulary as text. He plays a game involving polysyllabic words that’s unrelated to their meaning or use (and at which Delsanto is the only faculty member who can keep up with him and even beat him) and he constantly specifies, no matter the circumstances, the etymology of words he or someone else uses. In that last scene, in which the two sides rehash their arguments from earlier in the movie but in muted, less strident terms, Marcus ultimately declares that writers are also artists, so there’s not really a conflict since both—all—kinds of artists “take us to another place.” (I can’t explain why it took anyone in the film this long to see that—except, of course, that there wouldn’t be a movie if the two artists had reconciled their pretended clash before the last scene. I guess I blame screenwriter Di Pego for this bit of contrivance. “I wanted to put them in a world that challenged me,” he acknowledged of his characters. “I wanted to be challenged with language.”)
There’s also a secondary irony than the one on which I picked up: when “words fail” Marcus, he communicates his feelings to Delsanto via music, which is neither words nor pictures! This idea isn’t developed, just suggested. What’s central to the story, of course, is that the man of words can’t write and the woman of pictures can’t paint. Delsanto fights back, devising mechanical contraptions to help her overcome the RA, while Marcus gives in to the blockage and takes refuge in the bottle, sinking so far into his debilitating morass that he, first, steals a poem from his son to pass off as his latest work (he comes clean before a public deception occurs) and, then, actually destroys Delsanto’s newly produced and best canvas in a drunken frenzy. (Okay, the main characters lean toward cliché—the drunken poet and the aloof, antisocial painter—but Owen’s and Binoche’s vital, honest, and uncompromising performances humanize and redeem them and the film in the final analysis. Sorry, but I couldn’t resist a little reviewing, especially of the acting.) But all that aside, the real twist in Words and Pictures for me lies in the question, In what medium is this story told? Cinema: a medium that depends on both words and pictures, pretty much simultaneously and equally.
Okay, yes, there are many films that are more visual than literary and others in which the language overshadows the images (not even counting the silents, which, despite occasional title frames, had no choice but to rely on pictures to communicate). But by and large, a movie needs both the script (or at least the dialogue, whatever its origin) and the cinematography to work. (Since I’m bringing up the visual aspects of cinema, I should credit Schepisi’s director of photography, Ian Baker, and his production designer, Patrizia Von Brandenstein. Their work was integral to the impact of Words and Pictures from the perspective I’m considering.) In the movie, Marcus’s scenes are mostly verbal as we focus on the words he devises and the ones he quotes, but Delsanto’s scenes are strongly visual because we watch her struggle to combat the body that’s betraying her and her dynamic, highly physical method of painting (augmented by her inventiveness in overcoming the impediments her RA throws up before her creativity). If Jackson Pollock was an action painter, Binoche’s Delsanto is a hyper-action painter. While we need to listen to Marcus, we have watch Delsanto to get all of what Binoche shows us. It’s telling, I think, that writer Di Pego, a former high school English teacher himself, rejoices that among the writers he chose for Marcus to quote were “some wonderful image-makers” and in the next breath recounts that he was awed by seeing On the Waterfront at 13. “That movie just shook me,” Di Pego says, “and made me want to be somebody that could tell stories.” (I guess it’s no surprise that this man became not just a writer, but a screenwriter—a man who composes in both words and pictures.)
(It’s a tangential sidelight to Words and Pictures that not only did Di Pego select the writers Marcus cites in the movie—the screenwriter names novelists Ian McEwan, John Updike, and Jeanette Winterson—but that he wrote the poem at the center of the story, which Marcus passes off as his own latest work but had really been composed by his son. Likewise, the paintings we see Delsanto create in the film were actually painted by actor Binoche herself—some before she made the movie and others expressly for the production. It’s not so much art imitating life or vice versa as life and art getting all tangled up together. Words and pictures.)
So, here’s a story ostensibly about the tension between words and pictures which is told in a medium that uses both, requires both. As I said earlier, I don’t think this was an intentional consideration of Schepisi’s movie since nothing’s made of it. I looked at a few reviews on line and no one mentions this and in the interviews of Di Pego and Schepisi that I saw, they don’t speak of it, either. It’s possible that the writer, director, and others had the same thought I have, but it doesn’t feel as if they meant the idea to be part of the interpretation of the story or the production. Nonetheless, it’s there. Well, at least it is for me; no one I mentioned it to saw its significance. Maybe it’s a little too “meta” for most moviegoers to contemplate.
I’m not even sure how it would fit into an interpretation of the movie, which is probably too slight a vehicle to carry the weight of such a reflection. Why, in the end, set up a conflict, however contrived and artificial, between words and pictures that’s played out in an art form, cinema, that inherently contradicts the notion that either language or imagery is primary in expressing ideas or feelings because it demonstrably works on both levels at once. In addition, as I observed, a movie specifically about the dichotomy, false though it is, of the verbal and the visual must take conspicuous advantage of movie’s capacity to tell stories in either words or pictures, as well as both words and pictures. So, by telling this story in a film, Di Pego and Schepisi, a film writer and a filmmaker, have, in a sense, sabotaged their own argumentative point.
[I said I wasn’t going to assess the artistic worth of Words and Pictures, and I won’t (aside from my brief comment on the acting). I will say that I rather enjoyed the movie, even if it's not a great film, but most reviews across the country were cool to blah. (The New York Post dispatched it in three short paragraphs!) Some praised the work of Owen and Binoche even as they dismissed Di Pego’s script and Schepisi’s directing; others found the actors’ work unimpressive in contrast to their past films. A few noted that for a summer movie, particularly in light of the competing films being released right now, it’s a passable diversion. I don’t even disagree with much of the criticism offered, though I didn’t find the movie’s faults as devastating as some reviewers clearly did, but on the whole, I found Words and Pictures pleasant, fun, and enjoyable. The two central performances are strong and sincere, often nicely nuanced (especially Binoche’s Delsanto) and the script is literate, if not profound. It doesn’t hurt the film that some of Binoche’s paintings are quite powerful.]