Sunday, 12 June 2011

Film Review: Wittgenstein

"As the scriptwriter for Wittgenstein, I have an interest in ideas but little visual imagination. The director, Derek Jarman, is just the opposite. The two of us together, then, might be thought to add up to a reasonably competent person, and when the film is really buzzing, this is what happens. But because film has to present ideas in terms of characters, there’s always the danger of reducing them to it – of catering to the prurient English interest in biography, and so reinforcing a very English anti-intellectualism. Jarman, for all his admirable radicalism, has a very English middle-class sensibility, which is light years removed from the austerity and intellectual passion of his subject. The film, then, is not uniformly brilliant. Hunky young men for whom Spinoza is probably a kind of pasta shamble around ineptly disguised as philosophers. A camp Martian crops up for no particular reason, uttering wads of embarrassing whimsy. (None of this, I swear, in the original script.) But Karl Johnson, a veritable Ludwig lookalike, is splendidly intense and intelligent, and much of the movie scintillates with Jarman's bizarrely creative imagination. Does it manage to photograph ideas? I doubt it. Nobody will emerge with a grasp of the finer points of the Tractatus. If you’re filming the story of a philosopher, you need a director with some respect for the mind. But Wittgenstein gives you a reasonable general idea of what Ludwig was on about, along with some memorable images of the life."

Terry Eagleton, Ludwig Wittgenstein - A Suitable Case for Treatment, collected in Figures Of Dissent: Reviewing Fish, Spivak, Zizek and Others.
Fagburn watched this curio for the first time yesterday - and was looking for some way of summing up its many failings.
The talented Mr Eagleton wrote the original screenplay for Wittgenstein, which Derek Jarman then proceeded to muck around to buggery.
But I suppose any collaboration between the Marxist critic Eagleton and the arch snob Jarman was bound to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.


  1. Fagburn has been one of my daily reading stops because I love the wit & insight. But now that you've labeled Derek Jarman an "arch snob" I'm not sure I can ever feel the same about you, up there in the mansion. Eagleton's original script is a dogmatic drag, and Jarman writes about his travails filming the project and fixing the mess of a script--on no budget--in some detail in his final published memoir, "Smiling in Slow Motion." Please at least give the late director's own commentary about the film a chance. He certainly fought the good fight for you & your rights.

  2. Hi Eric,

    Jarman certainly did fight the good fight on gay rights.
    But see for example Modern Nature and various remarks he makes about "subhuman" working class people.
    I was intrigued enough by the film to think about buying the Wittgenstein book that has both TE's and DJ's scripts to compare and contrast, but it costs a FORTUNE!



  3. I have to say, that letter was not one of Eagleton's finest moments. Rather snobbish and sulky in tone, and objecting to the exploration of gay themes that Jarman added (understandably, given his own artistic interests). Also, as Wittgenstein's biographer Ray Monk pointed out in a response to this letter, the Martian and some of his dialogue comes directly from On Certainty and is a very literal example of photographed philosophy.

    I guess though that basically I just liked the film much more than you did. Even though, and I don't know whether this is Jarman's fault or Eagleton's, the film's big closing speech (which I nonetheless love!) gets things the wrong way round by suggesting Wittgenstein's philosophy yearns for the comfort of logical clarity while recognising that the truth is much more untidy: I'd say rather that Wittgenstein is compelled towards logical clarity despite recognising that this was a chimera and despite yearning for the comfort of being immersed in practical activity.

  4. Looking forward to that.
    Even if its got Miss Parris on...