Next to her profiles, Gilliatt’s reviews are sketches, kernels for something bigger. And indeed, they offered her far less raw material to work with. Her reviews of Hitchcock’s films seem to grasp at the characterization offered by her profile; the write-up of Peter Davis’s Vietnam documentary Hearts and Minds is almost perfunctory, as if it lacked the necessary spark to bring Gilliatt to life (or maybe shake her out of a stupor). One notable exception is her review of Fellini’s Amacord, which reads rather like a novelist incorporating a screening into her work—perhaps even of an invented film. It’s description and reflection in no particular order, seemingly in search of a context. In the manifesto-like introduction of Three-Quarter Face, she explains that she treats her reviews as “essays about the works that most precisely reflect the creator’s intelligence.” In other words, traditional reviews barely scratch the surface of what matters about films—namely, the people behind them. “Analysis tends to be barren and overweening: it thinks itself the master of the thing criticized, not its servant,” Gilliatt wrote. “Such writing ties the English language into granny-knots. It forbids sentences that seek and anecdotes that expand.”
This somewhat unusual notion—that a critic ought to defer to greatness—is, in its own way, highly personal. It also, even more than the seductiveness of fiction, or the limits of her imagination, captures Gilliatt’s weakness as a writer and journalist. There’s something complacent about a film writer who only wants to engage that which she already knows and is comfortable with. Kael swung wildly at every new film down the pike, sometimes whiffing, sometimes connecting, but always stepping up to bat. Gilliatt was a woman of the canon. She was set in her ways and tastes, and one gets the sense that the crippling loneliness of her later years was part of this same pathology.
In a way, her criticism is a study in limits. Her sentences are fragmentary but polished; her reporting is alternately loose and specific. By its very nature, her journalistic framework—her unbroken focus on that which is concealed, maybe unknowable—prizes the educated guess over the verifiable fact. But to criticize Gilliatt for what she couldn’t do, or the poor example she sets if taken too literally, is to ignore what makes her worth rereading. She is a writer who sees fiction and profile as two sides of the same act, and she appeals directly to the “fugitive insights and heed” of fiction as perhaps the best way to tell an ultimately true story.
Gilliatt wasn’t the first person to make this turn; Tom Wolfe and much of the New Journalism tried to reverse these polarities. Gilliatt stands apart in her refusal to fall back on storytelling. She was concerned solely with evocation, with capturing moods and moments as clearly as possible. “It’s so interesting and thrilling to enter into the temperament of a fine picture,” she once said. “I strive for evocative criticism rather than judgmental criticism: to make one feel ‘Gosh, that’s the way it felt to be at that particular film on that particular day in that particular theater with that particular person.’ And I don’t mean whispering in the dark.” When fully realized, this method opens up the subject in a way that narrative simply never can. In many ways, it is more true to life, with its seemingly random movement and bits of information, than anything written by Wolfe and his cohort.
A form of journalism that captures the world unfolding, that tackles important subjects by means of obscure utterances, seems very much in line with the ways that Twitter or Tumblr can be used as a means of reporting, commentary, or, yes, profile writing. Thousands of opaque, self-serving fragments can be stitched into a resonant, evocative whole. Our finest vagaries can be a valid instrument for recording the truth.