On September 28, 2021, the Seattle film community (and many other communities) lost a mainstay in Tom Keogh, and I lost my closest friend. Tom wore different hats in his life, but his interest in movies and his passion for writing about them was a constant.
I am sure I will write and talk about Tom many times in the future, but I thought it would be good to let him speak in his own voice. Thus we are re-printing a piece Tom wrote for The Informer, the monthly newsletter of the Seattle Film Society, in November 1984. This in itself was a kind of memorial: Truffaut had just died, and I wanted to do a tribute in The Informer. So I published a program note I’d written about Jules and Jim, and Tom wrote this piece on The Wild Child, which the SFS has just screened on a bill with Truffaut’s short, Les mistons.
I thought the piece, which begins with an adolescent memory, marked a turning point in Tom’s writing. I believe Tom did too. Some of his obsessions are here, and his communion with cinema, and his strong feeling for childhood. This piece is insightful on a particular film, but it also shows you a writer – which is what good film writing does. I hope it helps you appreciate our friend. (Thanks to Marni Wiebe-Keogh and Kevin Keogh for their blessing and the photo of Tom.) – Robert Horton
The Wild Child
by Tom Keogh
In the relations between artist and critic, everything takes place in terms of power, and curiously, the critic never loses sight of the fact that in the power relationship he is the weaker even if he tries to hide the fact with an aggressive tone; while the artist constantly loses sight of his metaphysical supremacy. The artist’s lack of perspective can be attributed to emotionalism, sensitivity (or sentimentality), and certainly to the more or less powerful dose of paranoia that seems to be his lot.
When I was a critic, I thought that a successful film had simultaneously to express an idea of the world and an idea of cinema; La règle du jeu and Citizen Kane corresponded to this definition perfectly. Today, I demand that a film express with the joy of making cinema or the agony of making cinema. I am not interested in those films that do not pulse.
–Francois Truffaut, “What Do Critics Dream About?“
Seventeen years ago, I was a fat, morbid Catholic schoolkid in dreamland, sitting politely in a rented movie theater in Honolulu with a thousand other Catholic schoolkids who were, largely, running amok and having a better time than me for it. Why I was missing my freshman English that day and even (shudder) mixing with girls for this, I didn’t know. Then a local priest, popular with kids for his gentleness and slightly maverick reputation, walked slowly in front of the screen and quieted everyone.
“This is an experiment,” he said. “I asked your schools to let you be here for something new. I want you to really look at this movie today. Look for symbols, especially Christ symbols. See if you can understand why the hero is a Christ symbol. Then go back to your schools and talk about it.”
I looked. It was the first time I really looked at a movie at all: On the Waterfront. Afterward, I sensed there was more to talk about than how many times Marlon Brando fell and rose again, unaided, Christ-like, before wobbling all the way to the dock and redeeming the lifeless workers, but it didn’t matter. “Christ symbols” gave me a strange way to read a movie, but I got the idea I could do better. There was something living in the film, and now, between coming out of the closet about loving rock and roll (the anti-Christ in grade school; a valuable teaching tool in high school) and a desire to see more films, I had something to do with myself. Enter Francois Truffaut.
Over the next few years, I’d see every first-run title, cramming in three or four a day on sunny Waikiki weekends. Weeknights would be spent in total heaviosity with Bergman and struggling with Godard. I kept hearing about Truffaut. I was reading synopses of his stories and reviews of his work all the time, it seemed, and was frustrated because the films were never around. When The Wild Child was released, I read Time‘s review, and I had to see that one. A feral kid in society. Strangely riveting. And Truffaut was in it, his sweet but troubled face in a still photo from the film.
But there was that book….
The compelling black cover with his name and Hitchcock’s name mirroring each other. Inside, the whole picture on Truffaut as a man who made it his business to look and write about movies as well as create them. Critic and artist: the combination deeply impressed me, and ever since, in addition to his critical thinking becoming a cornerstone of my own, I used Truffaut as a yardstick for human possibility (no matter what I thought of any one of his films) and evolution.
A critic communicates, clarifies, provides a context, pulls things together. Above all, he says what he thinks. The disciplined artist goes out on the limb alone, time after time, and tries to generate enough heat so his collaborators and audience are attuned to what feels and looks exactly right to him. It follows that a critic who deeply feels what he thinks, who provides brilliant, expansive contexts for understanding personal expression (and why it is often imperative), and who has resolve, guts, and a need to review his life, would turn to the risky arena of self-made art. Being active, fully engaged in an inspired environment that begins in the artist is one way of being as alive as you can be, and the only place to go with a certain ambition. Truffaut wrote about this, and he knew firsthand the agony of being compelled to do it when it is especially difficult, or when the filmmaker is unsure of how ready or right he is.
Several of his movies are about the necessity of making a leap into expression. The obvious one: Day for Night. Take the scene where the film director, played by Truffaut, has a conversation with Jacqueline Bisset, who plays an actress in the director’s new project. When their real-life exchange is over, he turns around immediately and transcribes it as dialogue for the next scene. She’s annoyed, but he, fittingly, turns a solid moment from his experience into a think-on-your-feet, improvised process of guiding a created moment into realization – taking her with him, appropriately. In The Green Room, a man (again, Truffaut) obsessively tries to devise a memorial, a space big enough to store his composite memories and reflections in the form of pictures.
Then there’s The Wild Child. Something funny happened in the years between my first viewing and my second, a week ago. I prettied the movie up. Remembered it strictly as a pellucid, Romantic explosion, and Truffaut – playing Itard, who takes in the captured feral boy and tries to make a social being out of him – as a beaming, kindly presence. Straight out of Close Encounters. Oddly enough, a friend told me he remembered it as “stark.” But it is neither of these things, and I can’t recall another film that memory has obscured with two entirely different results. In fact, the film contains some of both of our recollections, and that might have something to do with why The Wild Child generally isn’t at the top of Truffaut fans’ lists of favorites. It doesn’t seem completely to be one kind of film or another, and the rather straightforward, flatly documented events and intentionally dry performances don’t exactly weave the kind of bittersweet spell many of his movies do. But I find that The Wild Child keeps building in mystery for me, and the mystery has something to do with Truffaut.
A few bearings:
The story, based on a true incident, takes place in 1798. That puts it toward the beginning of the Romantic period: Goethe, Novalis, Blake, and Wordsworth are all writing. In Itard’s land, Beaudelaire will be*, de Vigny will be confessing his fear of nature, and Flaubert will evoke a style of naturalism thick with environmental detail. The Wild Child visually draws upon its time, upon permutations in the general movement to acknowledge consciousness in nature. Those permutations are important because they help define the tensions between Itard’s experience, Victor’s (the feral boy’s), and Truffaut’s as storyteller.
The scenario certainly invites poetic visions of dark forests beckoning us to learn their secrets. But for the most part, this film is shot (by Nestor Almendros) in natural light and natural settings. There is “wild” sound constantly on the soundtrack; i.e., whatever the scene, all possible environmental noise is prominent. Interior shots – room particulars, tables set for meals, Itard’s classroom and study and objects therein – begin standing out in this black and white film for their very ordinariness. There is a rigorous, blanket normalcy over everything, and there is not much chance the camera can discover something that will surprise a viewer. One has to look within, see the story within the story, just as the frame often telescopes into a small iris hole in which we “find” Victor again and again, and see him for who he is. Performances, Truffaut’s above all, have a least-amount-of-fuss, unemotional flatness. Again, the viewer has to leap on those scenes that suggest the life rumbling under surfaces, just as the natural-looking exteriors suggest there’s intelligence in the very leaves of Victor’s forest. An intelligence which can only be appreciated when seen as part of the fullest, natural order of things.
There are moments of glory: Early on, before he’s caught, Victor climbs a tall tree and sits, there, rocking. The camera zooms out, out, and the boy is absorbed in the trees and sky. Home. A similar movement occurs later when he runs from a barn and down a road after attempting to find food. Our view climbs up, up on a crane, then back, taking in everything before, behind, and above him.
But there is an exception to the general look of things. A glow. It’s what I remembered best and why I remembered the film the way I did. There is an omnipresent glow, a radiant energy from the sky, and we’re almost never without it. It pours through Itard’s windows and is everywhere Victor is. It reminds me of the ubiquitous golden ball from fairy tales: an image of wholeness, connection with the universe, that young children naturally have and generally lose, only to want it back later. Whether they know it or not. Francois Truffaut knew all about it. Itard wants it, and thinks he can get it by changing Victor to fit his own cosmology.
There are a few important things to know about Itard. First, just about everything we see Victor doing we see because Itard is either writing about it, reading or talking about it, discovering it, or directing Victor at doing it. So there is an early and sustained connection between Itard’s vision of things and the movie itself, under Truffaut’s eye. An implication of this is that Itard knows what he is fooling with by trying to change Victor. Under his blank affect there is a deep reserve of respect for and connection with what Victor is. There are moments that bear out his disturbance: an image, repeated several times, finds Itard walking in the dark halls of his home at night, one lit candle in hand. A couple of times, he is found sitting on the edge of his bed, staring into the flame. In the film’s closing moments, after Victor has returned from a lengthy disappearance, the two exchange dubious looks. Reading the muted anger and confusion in Itard’s eyes, he seems to be thinking, Why did you return? What have I done to you, and myself?
Itard’s mission is to correct Victor’s “disinterested awareness of moral order” (italics mine). The killing joke is that Itard wants to give Victor the sensitivity and intellectual equipment to find the thing he, Victor, already has. Victor doesn’t need the glow. He lives it. He was reared by the natural order; his habits and sensory adaptations belong to it (interestingly, his smell and hearing are of more use to him than sight). That glow is for Itard, for us and Truffaut. Truffaut selected this story to tell; it has mythic urgency and power for anyone not fully conversant with his/her wildness. An artist seeking his essential nature will likely plant those kinds of images along the way to help get there, to embolden.
But I think it’s significant that Francois Truffaut, of all people, put himself in the position – through yet another alter ego, Itard – of compromising and crushing a child. There is a devastating moment in The Wild Child when Victor is at Itard’s chalkboard, drawing an ever-enlarging spiral from a center point – a primitive, intuitive expression of the same knowledge Rilke struggled a lifetime to attain so he could say, “I live my life in growing orbits.” Before the spiral fills the board, Itard rushes over and orders Victor to draw straight lines, up and down.
I don’t know what it means that Truffaut wanted to tell this story and play that part in it. Maybe it has something to do with the occasional price of being an artist, a filmmaker out there on that limb. Maybe this is a film about a loss of perspective, as he talked about in the quotes beginning this piece, or the fear or consequences of such a loss. In any case, it’s a haunting page from his career. And it keeps him alive that much more in my imagination, conscience, and private sense of moral order. Alive and glowing.
*In the pages of The Informer, this is how the phrase read: “Beaudelaire will be.” Did we leave out a word or two in the typesetting? It seems like it, and yet “Beaudelaire will be” gives a nicely suggestive sense of the poet’s large presence in the European imagination. – RH