CINEMA: News Weekly
The riddle of literary creativity
, November 10, 2012
The Words (rated M), starring Bradley Cooper, Zoë Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, Jeremy Irons, and Ben Barnes, is reviewed by Symeon Thompson.
Weaving a web of wordsmith-worthy tropes into a wily whole, The Words is a sophisticated, but subtle, multi-level narrative that is both more, and less, than it seems. It has, however, drawn the ire of the critics, leading to a mess of critical hit-jobs.
Clay Hammond (Dennis Quaid) is a successful writer attending a book-reading where he is reciting from his latest masterpiece, The Words. The novel concerns a bright and promising young writer, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), who has just become the hottest literary property thanks to his breakthrough work, The Window Tears.
Bradley Cooper (left) and Jeremy Irons in The Words.
But Rory didn’t write The Window Tears — he discovered the manuscript, transcribed it and took it to the literary agent for whom he works. Rory is at the height of his celebrity when he’s confronted by an Old Man (Jeremy Irons), who is the original author and lost the manuscript decades ago.
This much is revealed by the trailers, and from this set-up one might be forgiven for thinking that the film is a multi-layered thriller about plagiarism, an Inception-style action/heist kind of film for bookworms — at least, that is what so many critics seem to think it’s about, and this is one of the reasons they savage it.
The Words is not so much about the effects of plagiarism, as it is about the demands made on life and others by those of a creative bent, and the effect that the results of their creativity have. It is about the modern myths that have been manifested around the artist — about their claimed self-begetting; their “romantic”, struggling lifestyles; about the all-engrossing and overpowering effect that being “creative” has on the whole of one’s life, and the sacrifices that come with it.
At its heart is the murky mystery of motivation for the three sets of creators, much like Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane, where the why of the protagonists is never quite pinned down.
Robert McKee, the story-guru of Hollywood, savages this approach. He argues that classical creativity needs to be entirely intelligible, and so he loathes Citizen Kane and There Will Be Blood; but, from the Romantics onwards, there has been a tendency to re-make creativity as mysterious and approaching divine inspiration, an approach echoed recently in Ruby Sparks (reviewed in News Weekly, October 13, 2012), and so defying intelligibility.
An acclaimed sound engineer once said he preferred flawed masterpieces for there was something human about them. This echoes, in a way, the claim of the French neo-scholastic Jacques Maritain that great works of art must be “wounded” in some way to show the incompleteness of life without the divine — much like the Amish deliberately weaving flaws into their quilts to give all the glory to God.
Perhaps there is an element of that in The Words, that it alludes to something of greater, cosmic significance than plagiarism, or the trials of relationships; but it’s not quite sure what, and so cannot quite articulate it.
It makes more sense to conceive of The Words as one of those small “literary” artistic movies that delight with their impressions and ideas and with the poetry of their writing. As if to reinforce such an idea, the music underscores the action in a way more akin to opera or ballet than a film score; and each frame is composed such that a beautiful telling image is the result.
The performers excel, from Cooper’s conflicted writer, to Zoë Saldana as his faithful wife, to Irons’ waspish Old Man — who is beautifully complemented by Ben Barnes’ flashback performance of him as a young man. Overlaying it all is Quaid as the troubled narrator, with Olivia Wilde playing his inquisitive audience — part ingenue, part femme-fatale.
Much of the dynamic comes through the telling of tales — from Clay narrating the story of Rory and the Old Man narrating how he wrote the original manuscript. Unlike Looper (reviewed in News Weekly, October 27, 2012), in which the purpose of the narration is obscure, and so hampers the film, in The Words, the words of the stories form an integral part of the narrative structure and drive forward the meaning.
It may be that this is one of the extra layers of meaning for the story in that The Window Tears, as read, doesn’t seem to be so worthy of its acclaim — another failing for the critics’ condescension; and so, this may be a latent critique of the lit-clique and their dominance over the publishing scene.
The Words ends on a surprisingly moral note, but one that has a ring of truth about it. Ultimately it is not a preachy film, and yet there is a message in it, somewhere.
Regardless of the decipherability of its cryptic levels of text, sub-text and meta-text, The Words is a stylish and enjoyable cinematic experience and one worthy of an attentive audience.