The Devil Finds Work is some of the best writing on cinema available in print. In starting to read, one has to remember that these essays and articles come from a pen which early on got used to excluding all that couldn’t be stood-by and affirmed as truthful by its wielder. A back-to-the-wall, even brutal honesty informs, as elsewhere, all the pieces collected here. The noted tendency of their author to follow through a theme discerned from an unusual, even totally unexpected, viewpoint is as present here as in his other essay-collections; and it is welcome. Nobody would have thought of Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962), say, or The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973) in quite that way; which is precisely what is valuable and illuminating in this book.
The viewpoint, unlike that of some recent publications on the cinema, is firmly thematic and historical. It looks at the films that come under its scrutiny as their audiences would look at them: black audiences and white audiences, separately and distinctly. And it shows, very clearly, what is presumptive and ideologically-based in the choices informing such things as framing, close-ups, acting styles, etc., as well as the things a scenario excludes. Baldwin’s findings on some well known mass-market icons, properly understood, can shake our views of them forever. At least it will no longer be possible to look at them without a new self-consciousness; a new discomfort spoiling our complacency, even if its source isn’t clear to us as we view.
What, for example, occurs to us as we view the Billie Holliday biopic, Lady Sings The Blues (Sidney J. Furie, 1972), supposedly based upon her autobiography? The strategy in this section shows the book at its best. Baldwin describes some key moments of the film (Carnegie Hall cheering over sepia stills of Billie at the end, among others), tells us what the scenario has changed or left out, then suddenly hits us with a jaw-dropping fact ¾ some real background to supply the context for both film and source. In this case it is the detail that, in the late-1930s, “Billie received no royalties for the records she was making then: you will not learn [from the film] that the music industry is one of the areas of the national life in which the blacks have been most persistently, successfully, and brutally ripped off.” Baldwin then lets us know how the changes and omissions color those key moments detailed at the start; and the effect, in turn, these have on the meaning the viewer will consciously or unconsciously carry away. This implies, among other things, that no stylistic choices on a film-maker’s part are ever really innocent. In Lady‘s case, the conclusion is bluntly summarized by Baldwin on p.116:
The film leaves us with the impression, and this is a matter of choices coldly and deliberately made, that a gifted, but weak and self-indulgent woman, brought about the murder of her devoted Piano Man [a character largely the film's invention] because she was not equal, either to her gifts, or to the society which had made her a star, and, as the closing sequence [sepia stills, applause, etc.] proves, adored her.
The preamble to the section on Lady, while recognizing the necessity of the written word’s transformation in a different medium, nevertheless makes clear that:
The root motive of the choices made can be gauged by the effect of these choices: and the effect of these deliberate choices, deliberately made, must be considered as resulting in a willed and deliberate act ¾ that is, the film which we are seeing is the film we are intended to see. Why? What do the filmmakers wish us to learn? [p.111]
As the citation above shows, Baldwin doesn’t leave us hanging very long on the matter. As a personal observation of the present writer, those sepia stills and the cheering mixed into the ending, in addition to skewing Billie’s story, manage to transform the mood and sense of the song she is singing, almost to the point of unrecognizability. So does the ‘echo’-track meant to indicate Carnegie Hall. Imagine hearing “Strange Fruit” or “I Cover the Waterfront” that way! (From memory, in fact, it was one of those.) It is as if the only thing that linked Billie with the living by the end ¾ her art ¾ was being used against her, with its catch and sway easing us into a place that Billie scorned to step in. In any event, it will be impossible for anyone familiar with the film ever to resee it with the old complacency and anæsthesia.
This is something only the very best journalism can do. Much of The Devil Finds Work is journalism, written to occasion for magazines during the sixties and early seventies, and concerned with the films of that time: more-or-less the ‘liberal’ phase of Hollywood. It can be said at once that, as a reviewer, Baldwin is bunk-proof. This is one often-overlooked advantage of approaching movies as Baldwin approaches them. The section just exemplified on Lady Sings The Blues, pp.111 – 116, shows this approach at its best.
But there are also original essay-like pieces not written to occasion, on this most native of American media; and many additions to the original reviews, incorporated with great effectiveness into the texts, which add a biographical, really trans-biographical, dimension to the writing. Those to the reviews on Lady Sings The Blues and The Exorcist are of particular importance. So too is the essay with which the book opens, and which was written for it: an autobiographical reminiscence of Baldwin’s boyhood discovery of the movies, their initial meanings and first puzzlements about how they fitted into his actual life. It is a highly readable introduction to themes to be picked up later.
Original too is the account of what can happen to a script when it passes through Hollywood’s ‘liberal’ hands at even the present day: how it can be shaped and altered to fit a predetermined mold. It is taken from Baldwin’s own experiences with his script for the screen version of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Not at all bitter in tone, it manages to be sharp, amusing, and above all, clear: its greatest virtue. It does tell us something about the weird processes and conivances of Tinseltown that we didn’t know.
This book also tells us something about the power of the screen and where it comes from: the juice with which it convinces, and can, occasionally, transport. It has, in other words, a lot to say about an area many film so-called theoreticians would give their right arms to be able to reveal (and directors, both to control). Which, to a cinephile, is by no means the least of its many virtues. There is grub here for the imagination to go to town on.
While a good deal of The Devil is concerned with the cinematic misportrayal of (American) black experience and the silent burial of a certain (for whites, inadmissible) symbiotic history, Baldwin’s is not an exclusively negative criticism. All through the book he will swoop on a scene, a shot, a wordless look, even a walk that eludes what the most carefully preplanned design would have us see. The inestimable value of such moments is that they put us in direct touch with a pure and irreducible element of this most impure of media: a thing, often involving persons and transcending the words that have been put into their mouths, that plans cannot prepare for, and for which no weapon exists. This is the truth of a person (not a ‘character’) or a moment (not a ‘scene’), sensorially received; and it depends on the cinema’s inborn capacity to reveal.
Knowingly or otherwise, the falsest ‘liberal’ scenario, the most hysterical and banal genre-film, will somewhere contain such an inadvertent moment or two; against them, it is defenceless. For such moments work within the design, as an enclave bordered by the medium’s own internal properties. They infringe no rules; they subvert ¾ and play by the book. And it applies to ‘white’ persons and scenarios as much as ‘black’ ones. Baldwin has potted them throughout the book, sometimes amid remarkably bad films: a montage sequence, a close-up, a quality of light, a gait, a tone of voice. The point, of course, is not to try to redeem the turkies hosting them (mission impossible), but in what they tell us about that ‘ribbon of dreams’ we think we know so well. And, yes, its wastage. So The Devil‘s task is subtler, and its achievement harder, than might appear at first sight: not to score against easy targets, but to find something of value in a place where nobody would think it could exist.
Having said all that, it must nevertheless be acknowledged that this is still criticism. Those plodding cinephiles who like their reading to be ‘politically correct’ will not feel compelled to turn away in disgust. Neither will most other superficial and hurried readers; there is plenty here that would fall within an interested browser’s capacity.
Although most of the films in the pieces that originated as reviews are ’60s vintage, readers should be familiar with many of them, either from TV, video-cassettes, or their own memories. All are among the better-known releases of the period. The book certainly doesn’t confine itself to these: it expands to take in some well-known ‘classics’ of the classroom and the VC market. Its actual span includes The Birth of a Nation (D. W. Griffith, 1915) and The Exorcist at the polarities (though not necessarily in chronological sequence), taking in the late-’30s of Baldwin’s boyhood and the 1950s along the way.
The Devil Finds Work is not a very young book; it has been around for at least two decades now. But as the pattern of a powerful critical approach, and for the other reasons noticed above (what those momentary swoops of Baldwin reveal about the medium), it remains useful and probably unsuperseded in the popular culture category. Besides, the perenniality of a book remains a matter of how it is read. The Devil is not dependent on fashion. At 125 paperback pages, it is a dense, fascinating, and revealing, but not a thick book. Easily obtainable new or secondhand, it is the best film-reading buy going. And probably the most unusual.
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