In a Word: When Life Imitates Art

A Film Commentary on “Words and Pictures” 
Fred Schepisi, Director
Comedy – Drama – Romance • 111 min • Rated PG-13
By Mountain Shadow Director, John Bennison


Note & Synopsis: This film was Mountain Shadow’s selection for October, 2014. An English teacher and art instructor at a boarding school wage a war of words over the importance of language and what the visual arts can convey.

Decades ago when I was in boarding school, there was an English teacher who had been there since the dawn of time. His name was Mr. Wonnberger, but all of the student’s called him “The Wonnbat” behind his back, because he was nearly blind and couldn't see more than a few feet in front of him. He’d sit crumpled behind his desk at the front of the class, and peer out through thick glasses into blurry oblivion; calling us one by one to stand and recite from memory some Byron, Keats, Shelley, or a few lines from Shakespeare.

Each week would bring a new writing assignment, as we ourselves tried our pen at different literary genres: a sonnet, a short essay, long essay, a short story, etc.  We would write, piling words upon words, until the required number on a page had been reached. More often than not, Wonbat would counter our feeble attempts, shouting, “Nothing! You say nothing!” 

Saying nothing in many words seems to be a craft well-suited for today’s world of instant communication, text messaging, mass media news feeds, e-publishing on anything one could imagine, and even twittering with the limitation of 140 characters. It can still indeed be a vacuous exercise.

In contrast, the old half-blind English master compelled his students to see the power of descriptive language. The world around us was there for the observing. Our lives were universal stories to be told, and retold in our own particular circumstance. We would learn that we live by the narratives of myths and metaphors. “Look around you”, he would say, staring off into space, “and try to describe what you see and can’t see.” 

Those mentors found to be most articulate, however, would have been the first to acknowledge the limitation of human language. When words fail, and we stand there with mouths agape, even mere eloquence and erudition can be found insufficient to fill the void. Recall how when Henry Higgins’ protégé, Eliza Doolittle, stomped off in a bluster, shouting “Words, words, words, I’m so sick of words!” the forlorn professor was left alone with the stark realization he’d grown “accustomed to (seeing) her face.”

Nearly every film attempts to say something in words and pictures. Good films use the combined mediums of script and cinematography well. Great films engage us and transport us; expressing for us those things we've never quite found the right words to say ourselves, giving us a fresh new way of seeing some things; or other things we've never seen before.   Director Fred Schepisi’s film, "Words and Pictures," simply makes explicit what is implied in almost every filmmaking attempt.

 [Spoiler alert: the remainder of these comments contain a few references to the film itself.]

In “Words and Pictures,” any reviewer might quickly summarize it’s a standard Rom-Com-meets-“Dead Poet’s Society” a la Tracy and Hepburn.  Flirtatious sparring with opposites that attract is a pretty routine formula. But the two principal characters played by two capable actors –Clive Owen and Juliette Binoche -- do it with more sophistication and aplomb than normal fare. His passion for words is incessant; explaining etymological roots or playing multi-syllabic word games. While she is resolute in her demanding distinction between good art, art that is good enough, and fine art. “Words are lies,” she volleys. Pretty pictures, he retorts, are just, well, pretty pictures. 

Lest we think it’s all fluff, thank goodness for a brutally honest depiction of their less attractive sides; portraying human beings who've trudged through life long enough to bear the scars and walk with a limp.   Hers is a physically debilitating affliction that leaves a chip on her shoulder like a suit of armor. His is a physical addiction with which he abuses himself and nearly destroys his relationships with everyone that matters to him. Through the uneven sequences of the storyline where one might question the credibility of the characters and a few clichéd lines, real life dramas are otherwise authentically and literally depicted in (you guessed it) words and pictures.

If the credibility of the characters seems questionable at times, consider the fact Ms. Binoche applied her own artistic talents to paint all the pictures portrayed in the film. Life imitating art, and vice versa, would appear to be our indubitable reality