27 January 2003
I am a bad person, and I deserve to be punished.
So what's new, you ask, what's special, why the auto-da-fé? Because there I was at a perfectly peaceable dinner party, having a perfectly nice time; and I trailed my coat, I was deliberately provocative while being uncertain of the temper of my opponent, and that is a social crime in my book. Happily it all turned out okay, but I couldn't have been sure of that beforehand. Tut.
Actually it wasn't a dinner party, it was a Super Bowl party (and my thanks to R. L Trask for telling me that it is the Super Bowl; I would probably have said Superbowl otherwise, despite long years of acquaintance. Double-tut), and we were having dinner before the game. Just the five of us, and I knew none of 'em besides my host, but we were getting along just fine, good food and interesting conversation. One of the other guests was a film buff of the first water, so a lot of the talk was of movies; and eventually I did it, I said, 'Books matter, films don't.' In just so many words.
There was a brief pause - Philip in fact demanded one, while he refilled glasses and fetched things from the kitchen, not wanting to miss a moment of what followed - and then battle commenced, and we had an hour's ding-dong before the game. Which was, at least for me, more fun than the game (which was lop-sided, and towards the wrong side - no magic, and no partisan pleasure either. You need one or the other). Everyone else may have been bored rigid, of course (another social crime, mea culpa), but if so they hid it well.
The interesting thing, though, is that you set up these contests and engage in them, and afterwards, just sometimes, you find that you really did mean it. I guess it's a good way of finding out where you stand; and I find that I am absolutely serious about this, I really do believe that books have a greater artistic and cultural weight than films do. I don't mean just personally, that they are more important to me; obviously this is a personal opinion, but I think it's universal, I think it's a truth.
Pinning down why is a lot harder than simply asserting it to be so, and I'm not going to reproduce here an hour's hard talking and a degree of esprit de l'escalier rethinking afterwards. It's something to do with text being the most direct of media, the least filtered; the author sits at one end of a log, the reader sits at the other and there's precious little space between. Doesn't matter how much credence you give to auteur theories, film is still the product of many voices, and they're seldom all singing from the same hymn-sheet. But I don't want to dismiss all collaborative art; I think theatre matters, in a way that I think cinema does not. So what else? Well, there's that word 'product' - the majority of films are thought of that way by the majority of people who work on them, where the majority of books are not, books don't become product until they leave the writer and move into the publishing house. There's the process, the experience: with a book you choose where you read it and how much time you give it, where for a film you need machinery and you go at the pace it comes, that seems to be a factor in my head. And a book is a book is a book, where a film these days can be a cinema release or a video version or a director's cut - how can you take seriously an art form where you buy the title on DVD and are presented with three different versions, and you have to choose which to watch? Consumer choice may be a political desideratum at the moment, but it is nothing to do with art.
And so on, and (I fear) on and on. Many arguments, and some I agree are tenuous, some may be fatiscent or even fatuous, but the cumulative effect on me is this, that I do believe that books have a tap-root into the human psyche which movies simply lack. They may have more cultural impact at the moment, but that's simply a criticism of current society; they and we are concerned largely with the surface of things, and that's where they operate: lights moving on a blank wall, which when the movie is over will still be blank.
© Chaz Brenchley 2003
Reproduced here by permission of Chaz Brenchley, who asserts his moral right to be identified as the author of this work.