You can’t appreciate Gilliatt without understanding the way she worked. For one thing, she thought a writer had to be almost unhealthily obsessed with her subject in order for the profile to be any good. “Impossible to write adequately of anyone who doesn’t haunt the writer’s thought,” she wrote. “It is a joyful affair to report accurately on the inner vernacular of someone whose work and character one cherishes.” And that “inner vernacular” couldn’t always be captured by traditional journalistic means: though Gilliatt would spend great spans of time reporting her stories, she felt strongly that note-taking had limited value and admitted that she took liberties with her subjects’ quotes.
In the introduction to Three-Quarter Face, she describes profiling and reviewing as a “fictional process,” an unfortunate choice of words given her later professional difficulties. Nevertheless, it’s a valuable insight into why good reporting alone doesn’t always make for a compelling story. A reporter’s notebook can be filled with facts and figures; but unless some effort is made to squeeze meaning out of those details, and the author is willing to take an interpretive risk, no amount of research will make the story land. This doesn’t mean interpreting wildly for the sake of effect, or forcing connections where they don’t necessarily exist, but rather taking note of gestures, phrases, and other stray details that, in themselves, say something larger about the subject. The fiction writer creates characters entirely, and this level of control allows the author the fine-grained detail that the journalist can’t always muster.
The collection’s first piece, a 1977 profile of Buñuel, shows Gilliatt’s philosophy at work. It begins abruptly, as if the reader were interrupting a private conversation between the director and Gilliatt. He wants her opinion on aging, but the subject is dropped almost immediately. We then learn that the two of them are in Seville, on set. Buñuel is shooting in his home country for the first time since 1969. He reminisces about history. Gilliatt muses on Buñuel’s archetypal characters. She tells him he looks like he’s dreaming, then tells a funny story about Buñuel and a taxi cab. The piece is sometimes hurried, sometimes extravagantly slow. Later:
He gets up and walks off, and comes back with an orange for me, picked from a tree. “You weren’t lonely?” he says.
“I was thinking.”
“Film is the complement of conversation. As a cat is. I keep a cat in the half-open drawer of my workroom in Mexico. Many a tale we have spun together. Insects are one thing, cats another.”
We go on talking, and then he abruptly gets up and asks me to forgive him if he has a siesta. As he says this, straight-backed, leaning forward from the hips, he looks like a sail in the wind.
Yes, Buñuel is on display, but Gilliatt is, too. Or, to put it another way, Gilliatt isn’t there to translate or provide order. She is part of the creative ferment even as she tries to articulate it for an audience. This technique—this sense of journalist and subject working in tandem—can certainly be abused; one might argue that Gilliatt’s work occasionally strays too far in this direction. But it also gives her best pieces a real sense of presence, whether she’s profiling a director or reviewing a film.