Before the Whatsit, The Gist
Eleven years before “The Great Whatsit” made its apocalyptic debut in Kiss Me Deadly, the more science-factual, tiny and (seemingly) less deadly glow of Marie Curie’s luminous “stain at the bottom of the retort” in Mervyn LeRoy’s Madame Curie inspired Williams’ quest for the “radiant gist” in Book IV of Paterson. This 1943 movie comes from a more innocent time, when radiation was not accompanied by extreme atomic-age anxiety, and when a new type of romantic couple could be imagined under the pretext of scientific collaboration. . . . Or rather, we should say that romance is pretext for science, but without any sense of perversion or ill-faith. The film has all the sentimental pleasures of a 1940s “woman's film,” while conveying a disdain for sentimentality towards past knowledge, conventional attitudes, and romantic love. I guess this is the signature mix for these films . . . proto-feminism vying with the dictate to be a homemaker and nurturer. (Marie is told by her father-in-law that “women without babies are parasites;” coming from Henry Travers, who we know as the failed angel of It’s a Wonderful Life, it seems a little harsh.) Regardless, Marie and Pierre are one of the great nerd-couples of film.
It seems there are a lot of things about their relation that may have appealed to Williams’ sexual, as well as poetic, imagination. When Pierre proposes to Marie, he compares their bond to NaCl: “so if we marry on this basis, our marriage would always be the same, the temperature would be the same, the composition would be the same.” There are other numerous, more obvious ways that Williams probably saw his desires mirrored in the film. For example, the first scene he details in Paterson IV is a description of the film’s epilogue when this “frail stubborn eager woman who carried on her great work for a quarter of a century” walks onto the stage at the Sorbonne to receive her honors. The movie, after all, is about hard work. . . . really hard, unappreciated, but ultimately revolutionary work. When he writes this bit in Book IV, he’s already plowed through the geological cross section passage, can’t really see the end (which may be his own), and maybe suddenly remembers this movie that he must have seen in some dinky Paterson moviehouse during the war, on a rainy day before even Paterson I was completed . . . I initially thought that Williams went to the premiere with Greer Garson, which I think would have been great PR for both camps. Now that I look for the reference, that image was just a wishful misreading. When Paul Mariani says Williams saw Madame Curie with Greer Garson he must have just meant she was in the movie, not in his entourage (or he hers). No, it was probably just a Saturday matinee with Floss.
Some facts about radium: it takes 400 tons of Colorado ore to isolate 1 gram of radium. You can learn this in the DVD’s extra feature “Romance of Radium” directed by Jacques Tourneur and narrated by a guy who sounds like nothing more than an OTB cashier. Tourneur’s reportage is probably more in line with Williams’ poetics—it is stripped of melodramatic cues and distinguished acting. While every character’s performance in the feature reeks prettily of historical gravitas—that is, except for the cameo by Van Johnson, who seems to have unwittingly stumbled into history—Tourneur leaves the Curies flat and distant like half-tones from the C volume of the encyclopedia. Yet Tourneur still maintains a wonderment towards the subject, by moving into the more macabre and outré episodes in the history of radium. What the Mervyn LeRoy feature uniquely offers . . . and need I say that Williams missed an opportunity to reference LeRoy’s Golddiggers of 1933 rather than the social credit pamphlets in this section? . . . is a palpable sense of the extremities endured by the Curies, as they reduced tons of pitchblende by hand in a miserable shed, and without any sense of what they were looking for. So this film is for Williams not a merely a haphazard collaged reference, but a complete statement of his poetics from beginning to end. It is yet another clue that, for him, the “materiality of signifier” was not mere brute tonnage, more than just thing. The slow drama of working through tons of material is placed in the service of the discovery of a new form of matter, one that is not dead, but “alive, dynamic,” yet exceedingly rare. That this matter forms only a 1000th of a percent of actual matter—mistaken by the Curies as “extraneous” impurities because it did not fit the expected Mendeleev schema—is only more invitation to perceive material more clearly, without despair.