“Where Williamson is highly critical of films that encourage us to consume lifestyles, Wolcott’s writing appears to be an appreciation of surfaces — in fact, his whole style can be read as an analysis of ’50s textures and design elements.”
Williamson’s work on advertising can be compared to that of Kevin Lynch, the great urban theorist, in the digesting of a visual landscape: she uses elaborate diagramming to explain how the connotations of one object are displaced to another though associations of colour and line. This kind of image dissection carries over into her film analysis. Williamson is constantly on the lookout for unusual patterns of arousal — The Secret of My Success (1987) is “like a series of ads with small plot links between them,” since the film’s energy tends to jump up and flatline between its presentations of corporate power. Films often remind Williamson of ads — but even when they don’t, they tend to be driven by strategies of pleasure which are just as difficult to pin down. Williamson dissects films and print ads not with assurance, but bewilderment.
The other major difference between the two critics is speed: the pace at which they suggest you read, and even watch films. Wolcott reveals that he’s often in a jumpy mood at the cinema, ready to bolt: “I get restless . . . Twenty minutes into the story, I’m already scanning to the finish, my eyes processing the film faster than the projectionist can feed it into the machine.”5 As a film and political writer, Wolcott encourages the image of himself as a quick processor of cultural trends — this is the man who issued an edict less than two months after 9/11, insisting that certain emotions were “over,” including nostalgia, narcissism, and ridiculous fashion hype. He has no tolerance for what he regards as earnest or sluggish discussion — see his systematic mocking of journalist Steven Brill, who “can’t even coin a catchphrase.”
By contrast, Williamson’s desire is to slow down the analysis of films, in order to digest their mysterious effect. Williamson draws attention to the length and duration of a thought process, sharing her ambivalence over complex or conflicting ideas. Though she may begin a review with a stark sentence (e.g., “Men are back in vogue”), this generally arrests attention without being a Wolcott-style flourish. Where Williamson retains an attitude of puzzlement towards films — wary of converting evidence into pure adjective — Wolcott has a great sureness of style. He likes to reference (and mirror) the precision of directors like De Palma and Michael Mann, and his favorite words appear to be “razory” and “razor-like.” There is never any sense of “gearing up” in the final, superbly assured product. With a few significant exceptions, his is an eye that covers rather than probes, taking sophisticated notes on the texture of the film image. What starts off as a searching argument is often cut short with a one-liner.
Yet the two critics share a concern with cultural memory, particularly a wonder over the process by which the present becomes a historical artifact. While Wolcott is fond of jumping into pronouncement, even the cultural critic who rides so smoothly over trends occasionally pauses to be mystified by what was. He is a little awed that even the most radical films of Fassbinder have been relegated to an “impulse buy” at Barnes & Noble, a spot of “cultural revisionism at the checkout line.”7 It’s rare to encounter Wolcott in a mood of confusion — yet his best work occurs when he is driven to unlock something he can’t quite process at first sight.
There seem to be two critics within Wolcott: the one who coasts smoothly on top of a film — quickly jotting impressions without a shift in style — and the one who releases on contact with an awesome object: Barbara Stanwyck, Vertigo (1958), or pre-Code Hollywood. For Wolcott, it is only the truly marvellous work — on the level of Vertigo — that invites a sustained gaze, and where he embarks on the patient work of decoding rather than riding riff after riff. Where some of his ’80s reviews for the Texas Monthly show an unabashed fan of Pauline Kael (using Kael’s trademark, splashy adjectives such as “loosey-goosey”), the Wolcott of today is a more reflective and poised writer. I find him most intriguing when he is slightly impersonal — when the language looks a little dry at first glance. Some of Wolcott’s sentences have an impressively elaborate, Pynchon-like construction, but don’t invite a second reading; I like it when he makes remarks that have the appearance of being objective and neutral. For a critic who often leaps to conclusion, the pulling-back creates an intrigue, as if he were carefully mapping the surface before inviting us to probe. There were moments of this thoughtfulness in the ’80s: Wolcott writes that Mrs Soffel (1984) builds on a “slow, tight accretion of detail”8 which is “suddenly released to the wind,” and he is attentive to the small beats in Altman (“Altman’s camera is stealthily on the move, probing, fondling, making small, telling comments . . . raptly inquisitive.”9) However, in the last decade, he has written several pieces energised by a spirit of curiosity throughout.
Wolcott’s article on pre-Code Hollywood is one of his best. He treats the early studio era as an excavated world — Wolcott has a habit of referring to past films as deeply submerged, oceanic finds. The essay begins with a discussion of wondrous archival objects: “a raised Atlantis alters the landscape, heaving forgotten monuments and hidden spires into view.”10 In the case of ’30s film, what we’re seeing is a “phantom metropolis,” which sends out meanings and reverberations towards the present. The rest of the article describes the ways of that city — whether our wish to live in it is viable, and the moral meanings that can be extrapolated from an earlier society, partially recognisable as our own. Wolcott identifies the pre-Code Warners film as the move of cinema into modernity: Warners pictures “have the thick smudge and shout of tabloid headlines; they’re brisk, slangy . . . socially conscious, culturally unpretentious, ethnically diverse,” compared with the more static features at MGM, which are like “being back in the Victorian parlor . . . bric-a-brac and coffin woodwork.”
Williamson is equally caught up in the strange reality of images: the trace we return to again and again. When she writes of a game show host who “holds his laugh like a ‘still,'”12 she is referring to the physical properties of scenes that enable them to linger and evoke timelessness. In order for images to hold — and provide material for a Williamson-style decoding — it is necessary that a film unfolds “while producing pleasure”13 (for Wolcott, this is probably a given, but for Williamson’s socialist colleagues, it may be more of a revelation.) Williamson seems to conceive of pleasure as something emitted uncannily whilst a narrative is being performed — almost a chemical catalyst or by-product of the film’s action. A film can do every kind of unaccountable thing as long as it produces pleasure, so that criticism becomes the track-back of our involved, immersed responses, rather than a too-conscious study of themes. When films produce theoretical ideas without pleasure, the results can be all too fathomable; according to Williamson, Peter Wollen’s films fail because the ideas are “easily separable from the action,” resulting in programmed meanings that give the critic no lingering feeling to decode.
With Williamson, whose aim was always “to engage with mainstream criticism” while writing about “oppositional practice,” “mainstream” is a key concept, in terms of products as well as publishing outlets. For her, it is often enough to decode what is in plain sight rather than searching for the underground or marginal. It can be the greatest challenge to decipher emotions that feel private, fugitive, and idiosyncratic, but which are unleashed by objects right in front of us, and which occupy a space of “unquestionable naturalness” in the visual sphere. Mainstream genre movies are of particular interest, since the odd strategies pursued by apparently straight-talking films become enduring enigmas — for instance, in Sudden Fear (1952), the playwright heroine appears to be scripting the film from within, so that this very effective thriller is actually a film with no “baseline” reality. The film’s uncanny doubling of female roles contributes to our pleasure, but also twists it, takes it off into bizarre directions.
Williamson says that complicated ideas about class and race, for instance, “can be found in the mass-market films of the eighties, more clearly than in any political analysis I have yet read.” Any popular film must be of interest, in that it successfully strikes “the right chord . . . touching on a nerve.” I think Williamson is interested any time a nerve is touched — if she feels a frisson as a result of the colours in an ad, or the lingering effect of certain film scenes. As she puts it, “what films picture” stays with us; even if a scene is subsequently discredited, you “cannot remove the imagery.” In the case of advertising, Williamson clearly “cannot remove” the images, to her dismay — but the inability to lose the image may also have a subversive potential. The tacked-on moral endings of ’30s gangster films, which purport to reject the criminal and the femme fatale, are defeated by the visual allure of sex and power. In Wall Street (1987), although the script claims that tycoon Gordon Gekko is a villain, he is the “heart of the film, visually and in terms of energy”; greed is supposedly bad, but the “camera really gets off on the share price figures gliding across the screens.” It is the contradictions between narrative and visual meaning that enrich a film and move it into strange psychic territory. Whenever a film seems to be performing contradictory functions (the way the 1986 Top Gun contrives to have the most meaningful eye contact between its male leads), it’s time to pay close attention to where the film’s force really is: whether it is conspiring towards a particular effect, despite the protestations of the script.
One of Williamson’s favourite words is “purport” — as in, the opinions a film “purports” to have while showing us scenes to the contrary. Her film studies is very much about what films are purporting to do: for instance, the way that the apparently anti-racist film Soul Man (1986) “functions partly through the very assumptions it purports to condemn.” For her, there seems to be a kind of emotional duplicity inherent in films, which often chatter at length about a token theme, even though their real interests like elsewhere. One of the ways a film may play us false is to distract us with scattershot dialogue whilst continuing to home in on its visual obsession. A film, if psychoanalysed, will not confess its preoccupations right off the bat — either because it’s lying or because it doesn’t know what it really wants. Finding out what a film desires means listening and looking for secret beats, rhythms, concerns.
Wolcott encodes ideas like these in his writing about actors, whom he refers to as “phosphorescent ghosts”14 — a mass of connotations subject to changes that have little to do with their physical reality. In 1981, Wolcott wrote a loving tribute to Garbo, in praise of her “ambiguously cosmopolitan” aura. Nevertheless, his image of her was already dissolving: Garbo was no more than a “crisp blur of movement,”15 something sensed at the edge of an impression. By 2000, Wolcott has done a turn-around: he now reckons that Garbo’s “mystique has blanked and hardened into the shell of a magnificent mannequin.”16 What kind of cultural shift has disturbed Garbo from her perch? It literally sounds as if embalming liquid has been released into the star image. More likely, it’s the fact that Wolcott has heard too much, read and seen too much of stars since the ’80s, so that even Dietrich now seems “like a series of exquisitely lit still photos intended for a cultural-studies textbook on androgyny.” The “cultural-studies” jibe is revealing; for Wolcott, the academic study of film has dried out a once vital obsession.
Wolcott’s notion of film characters as phantoms who can be resurrected to tell us the truth about their society might be his equivalent of Williamson’s attempts to pin a film down. However, he never loses sight of the actors’ two-dimensional quality. As an image, “Norma Shearer” is so wafer-thin that her profile was a “delicacy the entire nation could nibble on.” Stars have no peripheral reality; they are front-facing objects with a synthetic backing. So which star images are still accessible? Naturally, it’s the ones Wolcott hasn’t worn thin from over-watching: he names Jeanette MacDonald as an actress whose image is still limpid, not yet hardened into a ready-made. Stars are no more than available surfaces, marked or stiffened by time, and occasionally exposed to decaying or preserving elements. Therefore their images are subject to constant re-evaluation.
Wolcott occasionally settles for the conventional, static image of stars: he refers to Kristin Scott Thomas and Vanessa Redgrave as having “courtly presences”17 (presumably by virtue of being British and pedigreed — an effect Williamson would question). However, for the most part, he sees time as an active and mobile force, visualising posterity as a series of lines that harden or soften the image. His signature is the time-arrow sentence, which covers a subject’s reception over multiple periods in a single line. In a very touching essay on Rock Hudson, he asserts that the image that stays with us is not the hollowed AIDS victim but the complex romantic star with his “final days rewound” to a “smooth Technicolor youth.”18 Wolcott insists it’s so because he performs it — no one is more aware of the powers of temporal control than Wolcott, who zips between eras as part of his writerly display.
Like De Palma, Wolcott loves a certain style of classy glitz that might be regarded as pornographic: in Femme Fatale, it’s the “high-heeled click” of actresses’ heels, “treating the corridors of the cinema as converging catwalks,” but this is an appreciation of line as much as eye candy. As with Mann and De Palma, Wolcott admires Hitchcock most of all for his logical rigor, particularly as applied to space: “Everything is cleanly delineated, angled, emphasized and juxtaposed. Foreground and background . . . [are] pasted against each other to create a dynamic clash.” Hitchcock doesn’t pad the “screen with useless depth,” and his women have a “trim structural integrity.”20 “Trim” is a word Wolcott uses often, suggesting a film’s strict economy, but also the image of something freshly scissored. He seems addicted to precision and cutting, the language of compulsion. The Mann article begins with a needle sinking into a groove — is it a record or a trip that he’s starting up? Wolcott too can be addictive, because of his rich, decadent style disguised as minimalism through all that emphasis on paring, compressing, stylising. Wolcott loves Heat (1995) for its “razor-nicked scene inflections” and male performances “honed into a focused intensity” — the fact that De Niro’s character is “anal and aloof” and “tightly in check.”21 “Of Vice and Mann” is a piece that should be read tersely — it’s so hard-boiled in its “efficiency.” It uses the language of power sports to produce all the effects Wolcott loves: descriptions of propulsion, metallic sheen, tacky surfaces and sounds. I think Wolcott would like just about anything that was razor-like, to hone if not to slash: he uses the adjective for directors as disparate as Peckinpah and John Woo.
The other peculiar thing about Wolcott is that he often refers to actors as small mechanisms or motors, designed to drive a film. Heat feeds off the “dual powered” energy of De Niro and Pacino, while the tone of The Birds (1963) is set by the “clicky entrance”22 of Tippi Hedren. Another click: Kevin Spacey is nearly robotic, to the extent that his “smile is a small click-device.”23 Yet it’s a device we’re perversely compelled to press: this aggravating actor is watchable because of the anticipation of his signature moves. This kind of discussion would likely interest Williamson: the reasons why certain gestures hook. Why do we “enjoy” Kevin Spacey’s face, for its repeated activation of one impulse? Wolcott tends to see actors as devices we want to set off — like Ann Dvorak, who vibrates “like a struck tuning fork.”24
The two critics converge on the unlikely subject of Doris Day. Williamson’s argument is more topical: she wonders why our society has a “vested interest in ‘forgetting'” Day’s complexities,25 reducing her to a sunny blonde or iron virgin. While Williamson is interested in why such selective extractions take place, Wolcott is no less attentive to them. “Lovers Come Back” is Wolcott’s warmest piece, with the idea of “coming back” expressed as a longing to revive phantoms. As a monthly critic rather than a weekly reviewer like Williamson, Wolcott often writes from a perspective of looking back: re-seeing and examining distant objects for tone, judging how the image holds up. Wolcott asserts that Day and Hudson’s films have maintained their “crease and slant” — that they’ve literally kept their page of cultural history, with stylistic dimensions intact. He constructs a kind of flip-book for the two stars, noticing that as years pass, “they throw off more light, there’s more to read in their relationship.” He even resists glorifying Day’s “waxy shine” or status as “synthetic material.” This type of ironic ’50s metaphor should be Wolcott’s thing, but he holds off. Instead, he is interested in working past the dominant image, to the fact that Day played “creative professionals who work in high-intensity fields.” In an observation that Williamson would agree with, he notes that “white-collar occupations have practically disappeared from women’s roles . . . it’s difficult to imagine Gwyneth Paltrow or Julia Roberts doing anything so gauche as holding down a job.”
While very appreciative of the actresses he finds attractive, Wolcott is also an acute analyst of female sexuality. The fact that women “incarnated temptation in the censors’ minds”26 meant that Mae West and Jean Harlow were finished by the Hays Code, while Bogart continued to thrive. Wolcott’s critique of Woody Allen, in which he links the director with Mailer, Roth and Updike as artists weakened, or “curdled,” by anti-feminist rage, is one of the few lucid pieces on Allen’s frightening ’90s misogyny. Wolcott also regrets that all ethnic kinks have been ironed out of the modern chick flick, which is all “scrubbed surfaces,” a “Waspy, blondey, ski-sweatery, upscale subdivision.”27
A sum-up of Williamson’s concerns can be found in her review of Model (1980). In relation to fashion editorials, she wonders: “Why are these images required?” That’s the question Williamson asks of any ad or film: Why is this image here? What desire demands it? She is impatient with films that seem to believe in a “neutral image that needs no wielding,” and do not “use film’s own tonal range,” so that stuff happens in them without shaping or comment, as if naïve of political implications. (I would say that the recent Scorsese films The Aviator, 2004, and The Departed, 2006, fit this category: two bizarrely eventful yet banal films in which many things occur but seem to have no tonal/moral repercussions, resulting in a literalness, a strange feeling of closeness to the screen.)
If there was one writer who could reconcile Williamson and the two sides of Wolcott, it would be . . . Camille Paglia? Paglia combines a sober and rigorous eye (what she would call the “hieratic” perspective) with often delirious pronouncements about the glory of images; she is responsive to both the immediate plunge of advertising and the scene-by-scene analysis that reveals power relations within the frame. As with Williamson and Wolcott, she treats words as a currency (it may be a coincidence, but Paglia and Wolcott often seem to trade adjectives between them, like “peppery”), although she embraces new terms much more enthusiastically than Williamson (you can hardly imagine Williamson using the word “bodacious”). Like Paglia, Wolcott purports to despise “cultural studies” (though he performs his own very keen version of it); he slams the discipline for what he sees as an insistence on ideological subtext without regard for the aesthetic dimensions of the object.
Williamson would agree that the crucial thing about a text is the tone that is there to be read, rather than a focus on “content.” However, if she has urged us to be conscious of the properties of a medium — a film as it flows, the rustle of a book — then you can’t read Wolcott’s work in Vanity Fair without being conscious of how luxurious it is, the silky texture of the magazine. When Wolcott writes about financial plunges and the hard despair of Warners’ heroines, it is in the context of an elite, if highly circulated, publication.
- Judith Williamson. Deadline at Dawn (London: Marion Boyars, 1993) 174. [↩]
- Some things I long to see Williamson decode are:
* The last decade of fashion ads and editorials, which present themselves as too sophisticated for political correctness and are thus doubly insidious — e.g., shots of caged black models and jungle fever, or arch sterility as a desirable mood, without clear satirical purpose. Advertising has changed radically since the ’80s: most of the ads Williams shows have lost their power and become thin and wan-looking. It is hard to see the unfathomable attraction she describes — if anything, they’re too earnest and transparent in their motivators.
The series Mad Men professes a social critique of the ’60s, but takes so much pleasure in its stylish misogyny, its glamorously haunted housewife, and the relief at not needing to have any black characters. No matter what it says, where’s the show’s “visual energy”? This is a tricky program that, if interrogated, is unlikely to give up its real motives easily.
* Silk Cut cigarette adverts, which seem constructed according to the Williamson template for displacing desire through colour. What would she make of this extra layer of self-consciousness — the use of her study for malignant ends?
* Looking back, the Playboy covers of the ’70s are artifacts that have not lost their pull, and are still so effective in dramatizing an erotic power relation based on masochism. Check out the February 1972 cover for a “pure” blonde woman rendered ecstatic by the touch of a burly finger. A dissection, please! [↩]
- James Wolcott. “Forever Young,” Vanity Fair, 483 (2000) 42. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Lovers Come Back,” Vanity Fair, 476 (2000) 46. [↩]
- Wolcott. “The Small Picture,” The New Yorker, 68:42 (1992) 164. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Death and the Master,” Vanity Fair, 464 (1999) 47. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Cultural Revisionism at the Checkout Line,” Vanity Fair, 10 Apr 2006. Web. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Wilds of the Soul,” Texas Monthly, 13:2 (1985) 132. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Truth and Woolworth’s,” Texas Monthly, (1982) 196 [↩]
- Wolcott. “Original Sin,” Vanity Fair, 488 (2001) 52. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Daisy, Daisy, Give Me Your Answer, Do,” Vanity Fair, 21 Apr 2008. Web. [↩]
- Williamson. Decoding Advertisements, (London: Marion Boyars, 1978) 30. [↩]
- Williamson. Deadline at Dawn, 32. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Original Sin,” 66. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Greta Garbo,” Vogue, December 2001. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Original Sin,” 60. [↩]
- Wolcott. “De Palma and the Women,” Vanity Fair, 508 (2002) 100. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Lovers Come Back,” 56. [↩]
- Wolcott. “De Palma and the Women,” 100. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Death and the Master,” 46. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Of Vice and Mann,” Vanity Fair, 512 (2003) 81. Even Hitchcock and, occasionally, Mann, leave Wolcott’s honing gaze a little unsatisfied: Heat “lags here and there, takes on extra baggage” of subplots. There’s always more to cut off. However, he finds early episodes of CSI streamlined perfection: Mann without the sentiment. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Death and the Master,” 46. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Forever Young,” 50. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Original Sin,” 69. [↩]
- Williamson. Consuming Passions (London: Marion Boyars, 1986) 146. [↩]
- Wolcott. “Original Sin,” 62. [↩]
- Wolcott. “The Right Fluff,” Vanity Fair, 571 (2008) 408. [↩]
- Williamson. Deadline at Dawn, 67. [↩]