The Catered Affair (1956): A Review

An overlooked example of mid-20th-century social realism, The Catered Affair (dir. Richard Brooks, 1956) has quite the kitchen-sink pedigree. The film is adapted from a teleplay by Paddy Chayefsky and features Ernest Borgnine in a leading role, both of whom had just won Academy Awards for their work on the working class love story Marty (dir. Delbert Mann, 1955). On the more sensational end, director Richard Brooks had come to prominence for writing and directing Blackboard Jungle(1955), the seminal film about conflicts at an inner-city school.

The Catered Affair marries those two strains of realism, pairing family drama with energetic blocking and dialogue, and the result is a touching, if somewhat clumsy, depiction of life. At the movie’s center is Aggie Hurley (played by Bette Davis), a middle-aged housewife in The Bronx whose husband, Tom (Borgnine), is a cab driver who’s been saving money for years to purchase his own taxi medallion. Their daughter Jane (Debbie Reynolds) has just announced her marriage to her longtime boyfriend Ralph (Rod Taylor). The young couple would like to have a small, quick wedding so they can fit their honeymoon into Ralph’s teaching schedule, but Aggie would prefer that her daughter have the big fancy reception “with all the trimmings” that Aggie never got to have. Money is tight, though, and the process of planning the wedding brings on more conflict than anyone involved had bargained for.

In a brilliant bit of casting, the filmmakers decide to place glamour icon Bette Davis at the heart of action. There’s a productive irony in seeing Davis in the role of a woman who yearns both for the finery that’s beyond her social class and for the passionate love that her marriage to Tom denies her. Not only does the casting of Davis highlight the tragedy in Aggie’s character, but also it sells the audience on the hope that, just maybe, the Hurleys will be able to pull this affair off. If Bette Davis isn’t capable of giving her daughter a ritzy blowout, well, then who exactly is?

It’s Debbie Reynolds, however, who is the real revelation of the film. Primarily known for her roles in comedic films such as Singin’ in the Rain (dir. Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen, 1952)—or, if you’re my age, as the grandmother in the Halloweentown TV movies—Reynolds shows a startling amount of dramatic range throughout the film. She’s still got that light charm about her, especially when Jane and Aggie are out dress shopping. But her facial expressions during tense family moments help sell the scenes; like the audience, she is so often caught between concern for and exasperation with everyone else on screen. And the one time she let’s her temper flare, when she decides to just call the whole shebang off, is the single most cathartic moment in the film.

The film is strongest in its first act, which counterintuitively is also the least filmic portion of the movie. There’s a real sense of commotion when Jane announces her wedding plans, not because it’s earth-shattering news, but because life in a cramped, lower middle class apartment is naturally chaotic. Characters are constantly entering and exiting the scene like they’re walking on and off stage, which means that everyone has to keep restarting their conversations to catch the newcomers up. The use of static long takes is similarly more theatrical than filmic, but those shots serve to underscore just how little breathing room is to be found in the apartment.

Unfortunately, The Catered Affair suffers from some structural problems which blunt its emotional impact. Most notable among these issues is the role of Aggie’s brother Jack (Barry Fitzgerald). Uncle Jack primarily functions as a source of conflict for the rest of the family: he’s hurt about not being invited to Jane’s original wedding ceremonies, so he’s one of the motivations for having a big affair in the first place. But he also has a subplot involving his lady friend (Dorothy Stickney) that in theory should flesh out his character, but it’s so thin that it merely pads out the run time.

Further, the editing is less than inspired, and in some places actively detracts from the picture. Scenes will sometimes cut between two differently lit shots, briefly making it difficult to track the geography of the image. The use of transition effects is uniquely at odds with the staid realism of the rest of the picture; I suspect that fading to and from black, or even straight cuts, would have served the project better. There’s also a glaring continuity error during the dinner with Ralph’s parents, where Ralph teleports to the opposite side of the table. Normally, such a slip would be inconsequential, but the filmmakers repeatedly frame him and Jane tightly together while their respective families flaunt their wedding gift ideas. Their unified powerlessness to direct their own wedding is central to the scene, so to break that visual image is uncharacteristically sloppy.

Despite that, on the whole I’d say that The Catered Affair has a great eye for detail. I love, for example, how the light bulb hanging in the Hurley’s kitchen flickers when someone shuts the door to the ice box, or how a fellow tenant just happens to be carrying groceries upstairs when the Hurleys are about to start arguing. And I appreciate how, when the family is looking for a banquet hall to rent, the filmmakers decide to have someone sweeping up paper streamers from a previous engagement. The film’s world feels lived in, and if there’s one sense any kitchen sink drama must achieve, it’s that. For all the film’s faults, I’ve seen seen few classic Hollywood pictures that manage to capture daily life so effortlessly.

Recent Publication: Cumberland River Review

I’m happy to announce that one of my poems, “Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont.,” has just been published in Issue 8-1 of the Cumberland River Review, the literary magazine affiliated with Trevecca Nazarene University in Nashville, Tennessee.

This poem is part of loose series that I’ve been writing in response to the films of Edison Studios, or at least the ones that you can find on the Library of Congress’s YouTube channel. Overland Express Arriving at Helena, Mont. depicts exactly what its title suggests: a train pulling into a station in Big Sky Country. I was especially drawn to the film’s intense contrast in values, with the pure white sky looming over, and then giving way to, the dark commotion of the platform below.

You can read my poem about this film at the link above.

If you are curious about the other poems in this series, I have had a poem inspired by The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots published in Tar River Poetry (under the title “Edison Studios”) and have another one, based on Luis Martinetti, forthcoming in The McNeese Review.

Special thanks to Graham Hillard and the rest of the team at CRR for including my work in their magazine. I have another poem, unrelated to all these Edison Studios pieces, forthcoming in CRR later this year.

Seeing the Beating Heart: Adapting Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” for Film

As as adaptation of Edgar Allan Poe’s short story, The Tell-Tale Heart (dir. Jules Dassin, 1941) strays a fair bit from its source material’s plot, mostly in terms of resolving ambiguities. Notably, whereas Poe’s story (which you can read here) leaves both the narrator’s motive and his relationship to the old man ambiguous, Dassin’s short film casts the protagonist (played by Joseph Schildkraut) as a decades-long victim of abuse who is suddenly driven to kill his alleged caretaker (Roman Bohnen). And I will say up front that I believe that additional information ultimately weakens Dassin’s The Tell-Tale Heart as a work. The uncertainty that surrounds the narrator’s account of the crime, so central to the original story, is lost in the process and replaced with a fairly mundane tale of revenge.

However, while the short film is not the best translation of Poe’s plot, I think Dassin and his crew capture something far more important about the source material. They find ways to bring the narrator’s mental state to the screen.

Before we can talk about how the filmmakers accomplish that task, we need to talk about Poe’s story. The opening lines of “The Tell-Tale Heart” give the reader an immediate sense of how the narrator perceives the events he’s lived through. And when I say “perceive,” I mean that in a literal sense, for the narrator is keenly aware of his senses:

True! –nervous –very, very dreadfully nervous I had been and am; but why will you say that I am mad? The disease had sharpened my senses  –not destroyed –not dulled them. Above all was the sense of hearing acute. I heard all things in the heaven and in the earth. I heard many things in hell. How, then, am I mad?

For those of you who have read the story, you know why that fine sense of hearing is significant: the narrator would have gotten away with the old man’s murder if he hadn’t heard the sound of the old man’s beating heart beneath the floorboards. That heartbeat from beyond the grave is almost certainly a manifestation of the narrator’s guilty conscience, but what makes the narrator’s breakdown palpable is the possibility that what he’s hearing is real. And if there’s one type of sensation which language is best able to convey to the reader, it’s sound.

“The Tell-Tale Heart” is remarkably vague on the visual aspects of the story, with the old man’s eye (“the eye of a vulture –a pale blue eye, with a film over it”) being the one standout detail. The rest of the story’s world is sketchy, with some floorboards here, a bathtub there, but nothing too evocative. By contrast, the story’s soundscape is incredibly vivid. The beating heart is likened to “such a sound as a watch makes when enveloped in cotton” (incessant, but muffled), while the old man tries to pass off the creaking in his room as “the wind in the chimney,” “a mouse crossing the floor,” and “a cricket which has made a single chirp.” There’s nothing vague about this material; Poe’s imagery is detailed and specific.

Still, all the above devices work on the level of labeling, rather than evoking. Intellectually, I can understand what a muffled watch or a scurrying mouse sounds like, but the phrases used to describe them don’t necessarily make one feel those sounds. No, Poe achieves that feat through the rhythm of his prose and the repetition of words and phrases. Much of the story relies on short, staccato sentences and parallel syntax, which suggest the regular beat of the human heart. The block quote above provides some obvious examples: “very, very dreadfully,” “not destroyed…not dulled…,” “I heard…I heard…,” etc. But this dark music works in more subtle ways, too. Consider the start of the third paragraph. The short, even sentences are readily apparent, but note the driving meter as well: “Now this is the point. You fancy me madMadmen know nothing. But you should have seen me.” Read aloud, this stretch of two-beat sentences is, well, maddening. Imagine, then, what reciting the whole story must feel like.

That ceaseless rhythm is, I think, central to feeling the narrator’s mental state, and not merely to understanding it. Just as the narrator becomes fixated on the beating heart, on his guilty conscience, so the reader becomes fixated on the beating heart of the prose. More than the murderous act or the narrator’s madness, that is the true horror of “The Tell-Tale Heart.” So how do the filmmakers preserve that rhythm through the adaptation process?

Let’s get the obvious techniques out of the way. The sound mix emphasizes such auditory elements as the old man’s footsteps and the ticking clock, sounds which are short and regular. They of course prefigure the beating heart which will take prominence after the murder. Also, the film’s score tends to highlight the percussion instruments and uses short, repeating phrases to underline the tension during the police interrogation scene. These are approaches I expected to see (hear?) coming into the film, and they’re also the ones I’m least interested in.

No, film is a visual medium, and I wanted to see, actually see, the story’s rhythm rendered in visual terms, whether through acting, editing, set design, or what have you. I’m not going to say it’s easy, mind, but it’s what I was looking for.

From the film’s opening shot, I knew they’d nailed it.

TTH1941-Loom

We first see our protagonist working at a weaver’s loom, mechanically moving and adjusting the various parts, the shuttle and the batten, back and forth as the camera slowly zooms in on him. That particular prop on its own would be enough to start with, but the protagonist’s relationship to the device finishes the job. He’s focused on his task, almost emotionless, until the camera reaches that all-important instrument: his ear. In a single shot lasting about 25 seconds, the filmmakers key the viewer into the physical rhythms of the picture, telling them to “listen” for those patterns.

As the film progresses, we see similar visual rhythms, such the robotic process by which the protagonist oils the hinges on the old man’s bedroom door, or in a scene borrowed from the source material, the way he drags the chair back and forth over the floorboards concealing the old man’s corpse. It’s so pervasive a technique that when the filmmakers break from the pattern, the effect is unsettling. There’s a sequence in which the protagonist, while speaking to the police, hears that tell-tale beating sound. He looks around the room and finds that the clock’s pendulum is motionless and the faucet is no longer dripping. In that moment, he knows every mundane explanation for the sound—every proverbial mouse, cricket, and chimney gust—is untenable. We the audience see the instant where his conscience becomes too much to bear. That, right there, is solid film-craft.

So, if you’re looking to watch some Poe adaptations this Halloween, give this one a chance in between your Vincent Price and Bela Lugosi vehicles. Like the best adaptations of his work, while it plays loose with some plot elements, it captures the experience of reading the story exceptionally well.

Also, it’s only 20 minutes long. You have time to watch it this month, trust me.

*          *          *

Thank you for reading! If you’re in the mood for some more unsettling cinema, a while ago I dedicated a post on this blog to celebrating the “inspired unpleasantness” of Fritz Lang’s 1931 film M. Or, if you’d prefer something (marginally) lighter, here’s a short reflection on why I find murder mysteries relaxing. Happy Halloween!

The Inspired Unpleasantness of “M”

The notion that art can be aesthetically successful without giving the audience pleasure, as conventionally understood, is nothing new. We’ve been crowding into horror movies and tear-jerkers since the silent era of cinema. We’ve been grappling with the paradox of tragedy since Aristotle’s Poetics. I’ve even mentioned the problem on this blog before when discussing my love of murder mysteries. In most great artworks to which the paradox applies, though, one seems to derive something that resembles a traditional pleasure from them: excitement, emotional connection, even enlightenment. I don’t get any of that from (dir. Fritz Lang, 1931). What I get is pure, life-draining unpleasantness.

When I call M an unpleasant film, I’m not really talking its subject matter, though that too is disturbing. The film follows a German city’s attempts to capture a serial killer (played by Peter Lorre) who has been targeting young girls. The police, the citizenry, even the crime bosses: everyone has an interest in bringing the killer to justice, yet he has eluded their capture for months, and as the film starts there’s been no progress on the case. We enter the story to see a world already in a constant state of alert, a world where the killer’s presence is so pervasive that children sing counting-out rhymes based on his exploits.

When written out in like that, the premise of M reads more like a particularly bleak episode of Criminal Minds than like a probing work of psychological horror. Granted, most crime procedurals don’t boast the acting talents of Peter Lorre, who is capable of transitioning from controlled calculation to bulging-eyed mania so gradually it’s difficult to notice. (His near-meltdown trying to order a drink at a café is just as powerful as his total meltdown during his trial-by-angry-mob.) Nor do such shows capture an entire city’s paranoia so well as this film, in which the accusation “Kindermörder” (child murderer) is on the tip of everyone’s tongue, waiting for the slightest provocation to slip out.

But M is not remotely graphic in how it handles the killer’s violence. In fact, it doesn’t even depict his crimes, only the build-up and the aftermath. The filmmakers observe a certain level of bienséance here (or whatever the German-language equivalent is). There is little luridness beyond the premise; all such material is left to suggestion. We are not shown, for example, the actual murder of Elsie Beckmann at the start of the film, but only the evidence that she’s gone: her ball rolling in the fields, her balloon entangled in the power lines.

Of course, that bienséance ultimately makes the killer’s work more horrifying, not more palatable. We as viewers are denied full knowledge of the murders, and are thus forced to imagine how they were executed, or else force the thought of doing so from our minds. We may know the killer’s identity, but in terms of confronting the full truth of the murders, we’re hardly better off than the grieving parents and the police commissioner. Unnerved and unenlightened, what can we do but speculate about what happens in that mysterious world off-screen?

“Off-screen,” as it happens, is a very important location in M. Not only is that where most of the film’s violence occurs (either during the story proper or as part of the backstory), but also it’s where much of film’s dialogue is spoken. M was Fritz Lang’s first sound film, and with it Lang experimented with the synchronicity, or rather the lack of it, between sound and image. Famously, Mrs. Beckmann’s calls for Elsie when she doesn’t come home from school carry far beyond her body, out in to the vacant city streets—a common technique today, but a novel one for 1931. Conversations between characters in the “here” and “present” play out over imagery from “there” and “the past,” leaving the audience uncertain as to where we really are in time and space. Few things are so unpleasant as such disorientation.

Just as pioneering (and upsetting) as the mismatch of sound and image are the places where Fritz Lang omits sound entirely. Street scenes will play out with no audio track whatsoever: no dialogue, no ambient noises, no sound effects, no even a score. We see people walking about, cars rushing by, matter slamming into matter, and we expect some response from the universe. Instead, we hear nothing, and one wonders whether even the laws of physics have been corrupted in the city’s panicked state. To hear the killer’s trademark whistling of “In the Hall of the Mountain King” is almost a relief in these circumstances. It is reassurance, for a moment, that the world is not wholly broken. At least, it is until you remember what that whistling portends.

Finally, one cannot escape the context in which was produced. Politically: the Nazis were only a few years away from seizing power in Germany, and the film takes a rather dim view of the masses who would enable their rise. (To quote Roger Ebert’s appraisal: “In searching for words to describe the faces of the actors, I fall hopelessly upon ‘piglike’.”) Artistically: I learned from Ben Mankiewicz’s post-screening remarks on TCM that Lang was not always humane to his actors; for M he had Lorre thrown down a stairwell a dozen times for the sake of the getting the best take. Lorre never forgave Lang for that, and I’m skeptical that film history ought to forgive him, either.

There is nothing exciting about the horror of M, nothing like the sudden gasp of a haunted house jump-scare or the rough jostling of a roller coaster. It is film that deadens the audience, fills it with a dread that the members will carry with them beyond the theater. is a fantastic film. But if someone claims to have enjoyed watching it, I’ll be struck dumb.

*         *         *

Thanks for reading! I’d you’d like to read more of my thoughts on film, then you might enjoy the piece I wrote about how Stagecoach establishes its interpersonal conflicts.

Voice-Over Narration in Book-to-Film Adaptations

As a companion to PBS’s ongoing The Great American Read project, video essayist Lindsay Ellis will be presenting a series of short videos on literary topics for PBS Digital Studios. The first such piece, released on June 4, covers the evergreen topic of book-to-film adaptations:

If Ellis’s video has a central thesis, it’s that “adaptation isn’t just about changing a story. It is translating the story to a totally different language: the language of film.” Literary language and film language have different sets of advantages and disadvantages that make translating a narrative from the one language to the other difficult. For instance, a film can rely on an actor’s delivery to elevate the dialogue, while a book can set its story wherever it wants to without regard to cost.

One of the most difficult aspects of literary language to translate to film, according to Ellis, is interior monologue. In fact, I’d say interior monologue is an aspect of text that doesn’t translate to film at all, at least not directly. It may perhaps be rendered as dialogue, or better yet, its tone and meaning may be implied through the actor’s performance, the cinematography, the editing, etc. But whenever the interior monologue is simply recited through voice-over narration, I start groaning, and think less of the film for effectively cheating.

The Picture of Dorian Gray filmAn aversion to such narration has been a feature of film criticism for some time now. James Agee, for example, shares his frustrations with the use of voice-over narration in book-to-film treatments in his March 10, 1945 column for The Nation, wherein he reviews an adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (dir. Albert Lewin, 1945). Now, voice-over narration drove Agee up the wall regardless of context—see his writings on World War II propaganda films for more examples of that—but his remarks on Lewin’s film feel like the culmination of his bile towards this thoroughly uncinematic technique:

I wish somebody would take book lovers like Mr. Lewin aside and explain to them, once for all, that to read from the text of a novel—not to mention interior monologues—when people are performing on the screen, while it may elevate the literary tone of the production, which I doubt, certainly and inescapably plays hell with it as a movie…I can understand least of all why Mr. Lewin and his associates passed up the best movie chance of all: to let the portrait change before your eyes, rather than bringing it on, changed, at set intervals.

In Agee’s view, films like Lewin’s err in using film as a medium for delivering a novel’s text, when they should be using the text as inspiration for playing with and advancing the emerging art of cinema. Case in point: perhaps rendering the portrait’s transformation in a convincing fashion would have been difficult given the film techniques available in 1945, but that is the very challenge a filmmaker should embrace when adapting such a story.

(A brief aside: Agee also identified the slavish recital of a novel’s words with the moralist’s preference for movies that are good-for-you rather than good. In a later column—September 14, 1946—he imagined that such people would love nothing more than “a good faithful adaptation of Adam Beade in sepia, with the entire text read offscreen by Herbert Marshall.” This is, of course, of no relevance to the discussion currently at hand; I just find that quote amusing.)

My Sister's Keeper filmOn a personal level, I can think of no more infuriating an example of a film abusing voice-over narration than My Sister’s Keeper (dir. Nick Cassavetes, 2009), based on Jodi Picoult’s novel of the same name. Cassavetes’s film not only inserts narration where it is not welcome, getting in the way of the actors’ attempts to convey the family’s many crises, but also early on attempts to simulate the novel’s use of multiple perspectives by just throwing establishing text with a character’s name onto the screen, before abruptly giving up on the idea about a third of the way through. Blessedly, when I saw the film in theaters, the sound at our screening was inaudible for the first few minutes, so I at least was spared the verbatim recitation of the novel’s prologue. (My poor grandmother thought she had finally gone deaf.)

Near the end of the video, Ellis notes that when reading a book, “your brain is essentially acting as director, casting agent, cinematographer.” This fact, as Ellis says, explains why any adaptation tends to prove disappointing—the filmmaker’s vision almost certainly differs a great deal from yours—but I think it also explains why the use of voice-over narration bothers me so. Just as readers exercise a large amount of control over their mental image of a novel’s events, filmmakers adapting novels for the screen have a large amount of control over their final products. To include voice-over narration of a book’s internal monologue is an artistic choice, sure. But I think it also represents a relinquishing of power back to the original author, an admission of defeat and a throwing up of hands. It’s the distressingly safe move.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest filmGranted, I’m also the sort of person who doesn’t place much value on an adaptation’s strict fidelity to the source material. For example, Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my all-time favorite reads, and Chief Bromden’s scattered yet illuminating narration is at the heart of my enjoyment of it. The film version (dir. Miloš Forman, 1975), as it happens, is one of my all-time favorite watches, and it not only ditches Chief Bromden’s narration, but also greatly reduces his role in the story; he goes from the co-protagonist to at most a side character. Yet because of the film’s strong performances, cinematography, décor, and score, I don’t mind that change, or any of the other myriad alterations, one bit.

What do you all think? Do recitations of internal monologues enrage you or enliven you? Are there examples of films that use their source materials’ internal monologues in interesting or productive ways? Let me know in the comments.

The Power of Constraints: “In the Body of the Sturgeon” by Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley

Recently while at the Baltimore Museum of Art, I saw a new film by the artistic duo of Mary Reid Kelley and Patrick Kelley, called In the Body of the Sturgeon. Set on a doomed submarine stationed in the Pacific on the day President Harry S Truman announces the atomic bombing of Hiroshima, In the Body of the Sturgeon is by turns solemn and bizarre. Truman’s grave message and the ghosts of the sunken sailor share screen time with ecstatic odes to urination and pratfalls about drinking torpedo fuel. And yet it all fits together, thanks in no small part to the Kelleys’ visual aesthetic, which renders their human forms as disturbing, monochrome muppets.

But rather than talk about the filmmaking, I’d like to talk about the script. What drew my attention to the Kelleys’ film was not the lightbox pictures which served as previews, but rather the placard’s account of the writing process. The text of In the Body of the Sturgeon is draw entirely from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s 1855 poem The Song of Hiawatha. Every word in the script is either a word or a phrase repurposed from Longfellow’s work, and on top of that, the script maintains the original poem’s (in)famous use of trochaic tetrameter (i.e., eight syllables, alternating between stressed and unstressed syllables: By the | shores of | Gitche | Gumee).

Now, I don’t think I’d go so far as the placard does and call those rules “absurdly strict parameters.” The Song of Hiawatha is an epic poem, and as such it presents the found poet with an extensive lexicon to play with. And while trochaic tetrameter is an unnatural rhythm for English poetry, writing a poem in the same meter as the source material may be easier than expected. After all, Longfellow did a lot of the grunt work, finding words that fit the meter. Mining a good poem out of The Song of Hiawatha may still be a challenge, but it’s not an inconceivable one.

No, the real “absurdly strict parameter” is using Longfellow’s poem to write about this particular subject: a submarine crew during World War II. A lot of the vocabulary that one would think vital to such a story (“torpedo,” “bomb,” “submarine,” even “sailor”) is not present in the source material, and so cannot be used while still keeping with the form. That ninety-year gap between the Kelleys’ subject and their lexicon makes the whole script into a game of Taboo. So how do they work around those forbidden words?

Most obviously, the Kelleys have the advantage of working in film. Even if they do not permit themselves to say “tank of torpedo fuel,” for example, they can still depict the tank of torpedo fuel on-screen as itself. They just use a somewhat-related, metaphorical name in that phrase’s place, in this case, “kettle.” But that’s not quite satisfying to me as a writer; I want to see something beyond a one-to-one substitution.

Perhaps the Kelleys can simply write around the restricted vocabulary. Consider the following excerpt from Part I of the film:

Now he stirred that sluggish water,

And the food had been transfigured,

Changed into a weak, old whiteness,

Bitter so that none could drink it.

Take a moment, if you need to, to figure out what they’re describing in this excerpt.

If you guessed “powdered milk,” you’d be correct. That second line, “And the food had been transfigured,” is perhaps the most direct clue that the speaker is discussing instant food of some sort, and “that sluggish water” and “weak, old whiteness” would point towards milk in particular (“milk” being another word not found in The Song of Hiawatha). This is of course a long-winded means of describing a simple action, but that only enhances the grand sweep the Kelleys are going for here.

Yet my favorite moment of the Kelleys’ indirect description is perhaps the plainest. It comes during Truman’s speech following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima. Truman notes that many countries had “Chased the fearful, great achievement,” i.e., the production of nuclear weapons. That’s a wonderfully euphemistic way of framing an arms race: maybe acknowledging the dangers and the vices involved (“fearful”), but at the same time affirming the value and goodness of the mission (“great achievement”). Indeed, he later lists of the qualities of this “fearful, great achievement,” as though it were the hero in an Old English epic: “Smooth and polished, keen and costly.”

It’s no secret that I think constraints, especially self-imposed ones, are a boon for creativity. The past two semesters I’ve sent students a video series on the philosophy of creativity just to drive that point home. But what In the Body of the Sturgeon shows is that working within such constraints doesn’t require the flashiest metaphors, or the most virtuosic command of meter. Sometimes, restraints compel us toward understatement, toward plain language. And there is plenty of poetry to find therein.

If you’d like to see In the Body of the Sturgeon for yourself, you can do so at the Baltimore Museum of Art through August 19, 2018, alongside another of the Kelleys’ works, This Is Offal, as part of their exhibition We Are Ghosts. More information about the exhibition is available here.

A Poet of the People: François Villon in “If I Were King”

The original, 1855 edition of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass begins with a free-wheeling prose introduction, touching on poetry, philosophy, and the American experience. Among the many topics Whitman covers is the role of poetry and the poet in the world of politics and government. Given his background as a journalist, it is not surprising that Whitman sees the poet as having a role to play in public affairs. He writes:

If peace is the routine out of him speaks the spirit of peace, rich, large, thrifty, building vast and populous cities, encouraging agriculture and the arts and commerce —lighting the study of man, the soul, immortality —federal, state or municipal government, marriage, health, freetrade, intertravel by land and sea . . . nothing too close, nothing too far off . . . the stars not too far off. In war he is the most deadly force of the war. Who recruits him recruits horse and foot . . . he fetches parks of artillery the best that engineer ever knew. If the time becomes slothful and heavy he knows how to arouse it . . .

A lovely sentiment, though in a time when poetry is not so widely read, perhaps difficult to believe. Yet it is so ecstatic in its praise that one cannot help but get caught up in its call to arms.

I found myself thinking back to this passage after watching If I Were King (dir. Frank Lloyd, 1938). The film may be set in 15th-century France rather than the 19th-century United States, but it still recalls Whitman’s vision of the poet in the public sphere. Even more: I think the film offers us another way to understand Whitman’s words.

Adapted from the play and novel of the same name by Justin Huntly McCarthy, If I Were King tells a fictional story about a real-life poet, François Villon. A rogue as well as writer, this film’s version of Villon (played by Ronald Colman) is something of a Robin Hood figure, stealing from the royal storehouses to feed the hungry citizens of Paris. Times are tough in the French city, with a Burgundian siege slowly starving the populace. Meanwhile the king and his court, who have enough food to last them six months, seem oblivious to the conditions on the streets.

Villon finds this state of affairs intolerable, and he will say so to anyone within earshot. This includes, as it turns out, an undercover Louis XI (Basil Rathbone), who has come to Villon’s favorite tavern in search of a traitor, his Grand Constable (John Miljan). Not only does Louis get his man, he also gets an earful from Villon, who takes him for an ordinary tavern-goer. After proposing an ironic toast to Louis (“May the Burgundians take the city away from him—better still, may they take him away from the city”), Villon claims that, given the chance, he would be much better at running the country:

I don’t wish to appear boastful, Brother Long-Nose, but I should think a child of two could do better. Had I been born in a brocaded bed, I might have led armies and served France. As it is you see me here, consorting with cutthroats and wantons and wasting my time with a dull old buzzard like you.

The aristocratic structure of French government greatly limits Villon’s potential power. He cannot be Whitman’s “most deadly force of the war” because he is not of the nobility, from whose ranks the generals are drawn. He can have no soldiers at his command to inspire, no people in the streets to rally to war.

Louis, poking at the poet’s presumption, asks what Villon would do if he, in fact, were king. While Villon mentions enjoying the finest of foods and purging the court of its inept and crooked nobles, his most inspiring proposal concerns how he would connect to his subjects:

VILLON: I’d try to know my subjects. I’d try to earn their devotion and loyalty, instead of their loathing.

LOUIS: By abolishing taxes, I suppose?

VILLON: No! By abolishing despair and substituting hope! I’d learn the longings in their hearts, as a man of the people would, seeing them as they are and admitting that their vices are as deep-rooted as their virtues. I’d treat them as my children, instead of as my enemies. So, by knowing the worst in them, I bring out the best in them.

He would still, as it turns out, be “consorting with cutthroats and wantons,” because those are the people he would be governing. It is somewhat foolish to talk about a democratic spirit to monarchical rule, but Villon’s vision shares at least Whitman’s love of the common people.

Villon soon gets his chance to put that vision into practice. The Grand Constable comes to the tavern, intending to arrest Villon for raiding the storehouses. A skirmish ensues, and Villon kills the Grand Constable, putting Louis in an unusual position: he must punish Villon for killing one of his advisers, and also reward him for killing a traitor. His solution: make Villon the new Grand Constable, and show him that governance is not as easy as it looks.

Indeed, Villon has great difficulty in his new position—but only when he must play by the rules of the aristocracy. Notably, getting the lords to even consider an attack on the Burgundians proves impossible. They do seem overly cautious, given the desperate circumstances. But Villon’s penchant for verbal sparring wins him no friends in the war room. Earlier in film, Villon quipped that “poetry is its own worst enemy,” and here he proves his own point. The nobility aren’t going to stand around and let some poet insult them; they will simply render his words powerless.

No, the poet is far more effective in governance where the common people are concerned. Most obviously, Villon calls on the masses of Paris to counter a charge from the Burgundians, which is what ultimately saves the city from starvation. The people’s surprise success is literally the only thing that convinces the generals to fight. “Who recruits him recruits horse and foot,” indeed.

But even his rhetoric within the court appeals to democratic principles. Consider his message for the Burgundian envoy, who offers the king “an honorable surrender.” Villon’s ode to the people’s strength would hardly seem out of place in Whitman’s preface:

Kings are great in the eyes of their people, but the people are great in the eyes of God, and it is the people of France who are speaking to you now. We are armed and provisioned. We are warm and comfortable behind our strong walls. We laugh at your threats. But, if we who eat were starved, if we who drink were dry, if we who are warm were frozen, our answer would still be the same: ha! We laugh at you, we the people, and the king.

So strong is Villon’s message for the envoy, it seems to win over even Louis, who laughs the envoy out of his court. This victory is short-lived, however; the fateful meeting with the generals follows soon after this scene.

If I Were King may present a rather optimistic view of what poetry can do in the realm of politics. Still, it acknowledges its limits, and in doing so, it helps to refine the praise that Whitman offers in his preface. The power that poets wield is not intrinsic to them. It depends on their audience.