The Savage Eye, the marquee announces. Winner of Roy Thomson award at Edinburgh Film Festival. Raw. Gripping. Nakedly honest. (Blurbs from London reviews). I go in, doubtful.
Planes, terminals. A big-city airport. Passengers and well-wishers. Motion, confusion. Awkward, unlovely, sweating people—not the carefully selected, typical-American-man-of-the crowd extra. They stumble down the disembarking ramp, stare, search, smile, run to embrace. The camera follows, its angles and shots dictated by the erratic movements of ordinary people. A close-up—one woman, young, not beautiful but attractive, poised, conscious, as evident among these people as the professional in any sphere.
“Alone, stranger?” a male voice asks.
Her words I can accept, as necessary projection of her thought (“I hate the touch of flesh!”), but this slushy hollow-voiced “Oh-god-I’m-speaking-poetry” interrogator is a pretentious intrusion. His attempts at explanation (“I am your angel, double, vile dreamer, conscience, creator, God, ghost,” he breathes to the woman) explain nothing, but identify him as an obvious device to insert “deeper” levels of meaning. The poet’s (so he is identified at the film’s end) mouthings become patently-constructed flows of textbook imagery mixed with cryptic, pseudo-philosophic statements; he is annoying as commentator and unnecessary as interrogator, for we can enter the woman’s mind without him. But the film’s authors thought not.
Their purpose: to plot one woman’s emotional and psychologic pilgrimage through despair and attempted negation to salvation and universal love, and at the same time to capture, with documentary faithfulness, the nightmare world of “lost, lonely, unloved” people through which this woman moves. Their technique: a “camera eye”, the woman’s, through which we see and understand her world, and a stream of consciousness dialogue between the poet, the questioner, and the woman, Judith, the divorcee.
This is no ordinary American film, but a unique experiment, an attempt to fuse documentary realism and fictional narrative into an artistic unity. The Savage Eye fails to achieve this. The tension between the force of its documentary presentation and the triteness of its psychologic narrative destroys whatever unity it might have possessed. But its failure is illuminating and sadly representative. In its dishonesty; its omissions, its fictional trivia, and the ostrich-like evasion of its final thesis (acceptance and love), it defines the limitations of its writers and all Americans who perceive the symptoms of our spiritual sickness but cannot dissect and analyse to isolate the cause.