Saturday, April 5, 2014

William Hazlitt as Filmmaker

A question that's always fun to consider is who the greatest pre-cinema filmmakers are. That is to say, if certain people are endowed with a particular cinematic sense, then that sense must have been present before the birth of film, as well. Because cinema did not exist, artists simply had to express it in different ways, such as through painting, music writing, or architecture. Legendary editor Walter Murch even went so far as to call Beethoven, Flaubert, and Edison the three fathers of film in his State of Cinema address a few years back. One figure who I recently discovered who fits in with this idea is William Hazlitt, a Romantic-era writer and painter most known for his controversial essays.

To call the Romantic period a rich and innovative time for poets would be an understatement. Really, it was a groundbreaking time for writers in general. Such a fact is seen clearly in Hazlitt's essays, who S.T. Coleridge called more than any man he knew “his own in a way of his own—and often times when the synovial juice has come out and spread over his joints he will gallop for half an hour together with real eloquence." Hazlitt made a career of breaking taboos and changing the ways in which one could write for a public audience. He chose subject matters that were controversial and often presented them in ways that were so visceral it was if the words became reality. These essays, because they share a common link of originality and bold vision, have a great way of feeding off of each other. In his more doctrinaire 1817 piece “On Gusto,” Hazlitt describes his central topic as “power or passion defining any object," and then goes on to illustrate pieces of art that both come short of and fulfill this definition. In his 1822 essay “The Fight,” Hazlitt’s method is far different, as instead of prescribing he is describing. Yet his vivid report of a bare-knuckle boxing fight is such a visceral and powerful read that one cannot help but see it as a fulfillment of his idea of gusto. Because bare-knuckle boxing was at the time “not only illegal, but vulgar," Hazlitt’s virtuoso report comes across as all the more innovative. Yet perhaps its real brilliance comes in the way that it serves as a personal answer to his theory on gusto. By offering a definition of this idea followed by concrete examples, and then cementing it with his own report on bare-knuckle boxing, Hazlitt truly fulfills his notion of gusto. The idea of gusto almost anticipates the miracle of cinema, while his essay "The Fight" is arguably a movie in a different medium.

After defining gusto, Hazlitt goes on to offer a myriad of examples of what it is and is not. The principle behind it, besides the aforementioned definition, is that a work of art with gusto does not require imagination. It should possess so much power and realism that one feels that the art is actually real. He offers the paintings of Titian as an example, arguing that his use of flesh “seems sensitive and alive all over—not merely to have the look and texture of flesh, but the feeling in itself." Rather than requiring the viewer to imagine that the flesh is real, it possesses the energy and exactness of the thing itself. And an important aspect of art with gusto requires is that it very little of the beholder because they do not have strain their mind to consider how the art might be a representation of reality. Rather, it creates the illusion that it is reality. Contrary to paintings with gusto are works of art produced “without passion, with indifference" such as that of Van Dyck, or those that are too artificial, like Rubens, who “makes his flesh color like flowers." Hazlitt is in not trying to demean these works that lack gusto, but merely trying to present them to more clearly define and differentiate the works that do possess this grand quality. His lack of prejudice comes through when he calls Claude’s landscapes “perfect,” yet lacking gusto because, for example, his trees are “perfectly beautiful, but quite immovable—they have a look of enchantment." A final point, or rather an extension, on the theory of gusto is that being capturing reality, the art becomes tangible. Hazlitt cites Rembrandt as an example of this: “If he puts a diamond in the ear of a burgomaster’s wife, it is of the first water—and his furs and stuffs are proof a Russian winter." By defining his terms and offering plenty of examples to prove his point, Hazlitt has followed a fairly traditional method of proving a very bold and original idea.
While On Gusto utilized chiefly art and sculpture as illustrations, Hazlitt’s essay The Fight demonstrates the way this idea can be found in writing. It is certainly a greater challenge to produce gusto through the written word seeing as it is not a visual art, and yet through his vivid descriptions, as well as the structuring of the essay, Hazlitt manages to do just that. While the chief point of the essay is to report on the boxing match between Tom ‘The Gas-Man’ Hickman and Bill Neate, Hazlitt ends up spending more time cataloguing the surrounding events and the different people he comes in contact with. While his visceral description of the bloody fight is the greatest example of gusto in the essay, it is the detailed reporting of other events and people he encounters that give the piece its realism and innovative quality. While a normal report might simply describe the fight, Hazlitt wants to give the reader a complete experience of what it is like to attend a bare-knuckle boxing match. Hence, rather than feeling like a distant observer, Hazlitt’s obsessive attention to detail makes the reader feel as if they are in his shoes.
The first section of Hazlitt’s essay concerns his attempt to actually make it to the scene of the fight (because they were illegal, they were often held many miles outside of town). After missing the coach, Hazlitt is dejected, lamenting that if he “had not stayed to pour out that last cup of tea” (784), he would have caught his transportation. Then, by luck, another coach coasts up behind him, and after concluding that “even a Brentford stage was better than my own thoughts” (784) he hops aboard the top of it. Though he has a lousy seat, and there was a “Scotch mist drizzling through the air,” Hazlitt describes himself as feeling “warm and comfortable” when normally in such a situation he would be irritated and restless. These details might seem a bit extraneous, yet they’re vital to the effect of the essay. Not only do they offer details normally one would never get in a magazine report, but they give the essay a sense of psychological realism. Because he is able to anticipate the fight (which he previously revealed as his first fight, what would typically be a terrible experience aboard a coach suddenly becomes a good one. In turn, this heightens the reader’s own eagerness to encounter the fight. It is gusto in that one can feel what Hazlitt is feeling: the bumpy ride, the mist, and the fever.   
Despite occasionally offering random, unrelated anecdotes or personal opinions (“I cannot deny that one learns more of what is in this desultory mode of practical study, than from reading the same book twice over,” 785), Hazlitt structures the essay in such a way that he never veers too far away from the subject of the fight. This comes not just in the event itself, but in instances as when he describes the training regimens of the fighters or the importance of modesty and how it “should accompany the Fancy as its shadow” (789). Why does Hazlitt structure the essay this way? Perhaps it is because it mirrors his own experience of the event: “We talked of this and that, roving and sipping of many subjects, but still invariably we returned to the fight." A dull report will focus merely on one thing, but a report with gusto captures the experience as it is lived by the spectator. This includes random events, people, and tangents that will inevitably surround the object of focus.
The real visceral impact of the essay comes though on the day of the fight, when Hazlitt puts his theory of gusto to vivid use. He first of all brings the scene to life by describing the crowd: Open carriages were coming up, with streamers flying and music playing, and the country-people were pouring in over hedge and ditch in all directions, to see their hero be beat or be beaten." He describes the bets, and how because of his egoism few wished for the Gas-Man to win but for those who had put money on him; he describes the physical atmosphere, how most of the grass was dead, but that the boxing ring had a fresh layer “that shone with dazzling brightness in the midday sun” and he describes the sickening, nervous feeling of the spectator enduring that final hour before the fight commences. The effect of this detailed reporting seems to be the same as that of the paintings of Rembrandt or Titian. Though we are merely reading words, just as with the artwork we are merely looking at paint on canvas, there is enough power and passion in the presentation as to make it seem physically present to us. This comes to complete fruition in Hazlitt’s spectacular description of the fight itself. Sentences like “all one side of his face was perfect scarlet, and his right eye was closed in dingy blackness, as he advanced to the fight, less confident, but still determined” and “to see two men smashed to the ground, smeared with gore, stunned, senseless, the breath beaten out of their bodies; and then to see them rise up with new strength and courage, and rush upon each other ‘like two clouds over the Caspian’—this is the most astonishing thing of all” truly take the reader into the scene of the battle. The energy is not just read, but felt.

Gusto is not a terribly complex or philosophical idea, and in its emphasis on feeling and passion it is almost the antithesis of intellectual thought. And yet the importance of the idea is that it lies in a very distinct type of art that requires a very special craft in order to succeed. That particular craft existed long before Hazlitt’s time, yet his innovation comes in defining the term and, more importantly, incorporating it into his own work. It is all the more impressive considering the strict nature magazine reporting during the 19th century. Hazlitt’s work today still comes across with a visceral impact, but to read it in his day would be to experience a writer who was almost unhinged compared to the norms of the time. He is not just ambitious, but fearless.

Now consider how Hazlitt's idea of gusto and his electric essay on fighting might indicate a born filmmaker. I recommend reading "The Fight" in full to really get a good sense of how it's particularly cinematic, yet hopefully I've given at least a glimpse of how it fulfills this notion. I believe had Hazlitt been born in the 20th century, he would have made some amazing motion pictures.

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