Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Wittgenstein (Jarman, 1993)

With overt theatricality, Derek Jarman paints a rough but thoughtful picture of the early 20th century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein, according to Jarman’s film, was a surly, passionate genius that found it immensely difficult to live in a world with rough edges. Faced with human inconsistencies and ignorance, he used logic in a quixotic attempt to polish those edges away. The primary focus of Wittgenstein’s insight into the nature of humanity is the way that language with its imperfections causes virtually any philosophical problem we can imagine. As a tool for expressing that which lies within our minds, it is clumsy and inaccurate at best – harmfully misleading at worst.

Stripping his film of a realistic setting, Jarman thoughtfully places his actors within the frame of his camera with only key props and set pieces and, in a mere 75 minutes, strives to gain an understanding of a man that most found absurdly difficult to understand during his lifetime. When we consider that Wittgenstein claimed that his book (with the decidedly non-commercial title of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus) effectively solved all of life’s mysteries, we begin to get a grasp of the daunting task Jarman has laid out for himself. Still, Jarman – with a big-time assist from Karl Johnson in the lead role – creates a film that is mostly successful in distilling Wittgenstein’s arguments to manageable pieces. Even if viewers feel as disoriented as the poor, young students that are berated in Wittgenstein’s classes, there is still the underlying theme of philosophy’s ultimate worth that is conveyed in simple, but provocative themes – particularly in a beautiful bit of dialogue late in the film that sums up Wittgenstein’s life in decidedly unflattering terms.

It will come as no surprise that due attention is given to Wittgenstein’s homosexuality. After all, identifying and analyzing iconic gay figures is a primary part of Jarman’s raison d’etre. However, unlike his other films, Jarman’s eroticism is muted, opting for an experience that is pitched more at the mind than the senses. I admire Jarman for the risks he takes, particularly in whole-heartedly embracing anachronism, but there is at least one major misfire here with a Martian character outfitted in a green costume that wouldn’t pass muster at a grade school costume party. Clearly, Jarman is making an attempt to playfully comment on how difficult it is for humans to see outside of themselves. However, I wish he had used a method that was not quite so aggressively displeasing to the eye. Though Wittgenstein falls short of the masterful Edward II, with its satisfying blend of stylized drama and contemporary politics, it is still a worthwhile challenge to the mind for those willing to take the journey.



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