Monday, June 9, 2014
Words and Pictures 
ChicagoTribune (B. Scharkey) review
RE.com (O. Henderson) review
AVClub (J. Hassanger) review
Words and Pictures  (directed by Fred Schepisi, screenplay by Gerald Di Pago) is a film that perhaps was doomed from the start. After all, what's a film but an interplay of "words" and "pictures." So from the get-go, the makers of this film were inviting every artist, writer, film-lover and critic to their show, all of whom arriving with fairly "high expectations."
On the plus side, the film-makers got the right setting: a random upscale prep-school somewhere in Maine (evoking cultural shared memories of the Robin Williams classic Dead Poets Society ). IMHO, the film-makers also assembled the right cast, from the leads Clive Owen (as the once and still trying to be passionate/engaging but becoming increasingly bored/troubled/lonely "honors lit" teacher Jack Marcus who's finding himself leaning-more-and-more on his vodka ...) and Juliette Binoche (as the perhaps always somewhat aloof, more introverted/brooding artist / "honors art teacher" Dina Delsanto but becoming more so as her body slowly fails her as a result of rheumatoid arthritis), to some of the actors playing a number of the key student roles including Valerie Tian playing a quite talented student in both art and lit named Emily but honestly not knowing what to do with an increasingly annoying classmate/suitor named Swint (played also quite well as a teen locked in a seeming "death spiral" toward significant-consequence-resulting a-holehood by Adam DiMarco).
The above description of some of the key characters and setting would indicate that there was a clear dynamism present in the story's setup allowing for "many things" to happen in the story as it progressed. So why then did the film ultimately fail for so many viewers (read the other critics view above) in "meeting expectations?" Tragically, IMHO on account of both its "words" and "pictures."
To be sure, the dialogue does have its moments. For instance, there's a scene where Marcus quite convincingly argues to his class (and to viewers of the film) that Words CAN inspire in a way that no other form of expression can: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all [human beings] are created equal, and endowed with their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them including, Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness..." And there's another one where after having his class express by manner of grunt/gesture, attraction, hunger, anger, drowsiness, etc, Marcus asks his class to express: "Okay, let's meet after dinner to discuss tomorrow's hunt." (At some point language -- words -- had to be invented to convey even such relatively "simple" complex messages). However, there are other times in film that the dialogue falls tragically flat. Perhaps a co-writer could have been invited to improve some of the more "mundane" sections of the film.
Similarly, the art in the film _ended-up_ being disappointingly flat:
Now much of the work shown in the film was actually made by Juliette Binoche made both before the film (when not acting, Binoche does apparently enjoy making quite serious works of contemporary art) and then during / for the film. And truth be told, I found _some_ her work quite evocative/good. BUT then _the key painting_ that she then submits for school's battle between Art and Literature (that Marcus organizes in part to inspire the students, and in part to keep his job / not sink completely into boredom/despair) seemed UTTERLY RANDOM to me.
Other works of Binoche's (all generally "abstract expressionist" in style) seemed for more evocative. Yet the students / audience are asked by the film to be somehow "impressed" in this all but random painting at the end. Why? When a _random painting_ with random color / markings is presented to us WITHOUT EXPLANATION or serious context. Again, some of the other works at least appeared to use more evocative colors and the lines, 'splotches" (for lack of a better word), etc seemed more evocative of emotion.
Further, there was a self-portrait being made by the student, Emily, that Delsanto keeps pushing her to improve that frankly remains "hanging" (We're _not_ told what happens to the picture). And that's a shame because in the last (still "unfinished") version that we do see, it seems already to be quite evocative of SOMETHING: unsuredness (which would have been _perfect_ for the character). However, one's left to guess that "something must have happened to that painting" that the film-makers decided to not make _it_ the center of the film's climax at the end.
So the film comes across to me as a GREAT IDEA ... and one that, even now, certainly could provide plenty of fodder for discussion after the film. But the film's execution came across to me as flat. And that's a shame. The film could have become more -- a classic -- than IMHO it did.
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