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About this book

We are so used to images of words that it is easy to ignore the different ways in which they work in films. This book explores both the letters that come in the post and the many other kinds that are offered to us on screen.

Table of Contents

Frontmatter

1. Introduction: Letter from an Unknown Woman

Abstract
Most of this book consists of close readings of four films, and I begin by outlining my approach to them. The object that the first word of my title brings to mind may well be the package that comes in the mail or, in grander contexts, the missive, the epistle. I look at how such letters are treated in the films, but I shall be engaging with other meanings of the word as well. ‘Letters’ of course also means the characters of the alphabet, and the use of the word extends to refer to anything written or printed in letters, any text, sign or inscription. I approach the films via the meanings I derive from the treatment of words we see in the course of their narratives, those written by hand or printed or incised. I also look at particular moments in which words are dramatised: they are being read out, or we watch them being written or both of these things happen in succession.
Edward Gallafent

2. Inscription and Erasure in All This, and Heaven Too

Abstract
We can now move on from the exceptional work that is Letter from an Unknown Woman, to a film that I have chosen as representative of a rich area of Hollywood melodrama, one which is not canonical and has had relatively little critical attention.2 I offer it as a case of how letters and literacy can be sufficiently present and important in the workings of a film as to provide a framework for understanding it, without being signalled in such a way as to become the pre-eminent subject of the narrative. I will analyse how these activities, both in their presence and sometimes as crucially in their absence, enable this film to address issues of power, identity, expressiveness, frustration and love.
Edward Gallafent

3. Of Lessons and of Love: The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

Abstract
In his biography of the political thinker and traveller Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, E. M. Forster paraphrases Dickinson’s reactions to his tour of America in 1909, which we might say is approximately the moment of the present day in Ford’s film. Dickinson comments, not on the absence of culture, but the lack of intimacy: ‘Culture can wait, but how can any civilization grow out of people who can’t or daren’t be intimate with one another? There just isn’t the soil.’1 We might think of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance as a meditation on these matters: the challenge posed by intimacy and what does, and does not, grow in such ground.
Edward Gallafent

4. Into the Wild: The New Unreadable America

Abstract
My approach in this chapter is to begin by looking briefly at the preoccupations that connect the two previous films written and directed by Sean Penn, The Indian Runner (1991) and The Crossing Guard (1995).1 Having established readings of elements of those films, I will move to an account of Into the Wild, one that will consider it as a work in which some of Penn’s recurrent interests reappear in related or transformed ways, leaving aside for the moment most matters to do with writing. Once I have laid out its structure in those terms, I will review the film through the perspective of writing and reading, and discuss the ways in which this informs its meanings.
Edward Gallafent

5. The Reader: Embracing Reading, Denying Writing

Abstract
The Reader deals extensively with both writing and reading, and has one major character whose illiteracy is pivotal to its plot. The degree to which reading is at its centre is reflected in the fact that the words of the title could be used to describe any of the three major roles in the film, a young man who reads, an older man who returns to reading, a woman who learns to read. The film is based on a well-received novel by Bernhard Schlink, written in German and published in 1995,1 which deals with some of the significant subjects of post-war German literature: the relations between the war-time and the post-war generations, and the nature and presence of the memory of the Holocaust. An English translation of the novel appeared in 1997.2 Stephen Daldry’s film, produced by Mirage Enterprises and the Weinstein Company in 2008, while it reproduces the central plot of the novel, also departs from its source in many respects, adding or reimagining some characters and diminishing the attention paid to others.3 It also has substantially different interests, as I shall go on to argue. It is not part of my project specifically to look at the film as an adaptation, so I shall generally be referring to changes only when they seem to throw light on its procedures.
Edward Gallafent

6. Conclusion: The Intimacy of Writing

Abstract
We have seen that issues of the public and the private are always in play when words — of whatever kind — have a role on screen. The role of the personal letter, not just the love letter but also the missive written by one person and with a single addressee, is usually private. It can express the nature of the connection between sender and recipient, either to confirm its density or to point to its emptiness. Those moments when the letter fails to perform its function, when letters go unread, or are lost or absent, are also eloquent. So letters can be used to assess a film’s world in terms of intimacy; the difficulty of achieving it, or the fear of it, or the desire for it. This is not exclusively a matter of sexual intimacy; it can include friendship as well as passionate love.
Edward Gallafent

Backmatter

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