Old Possum still carries weight: T.S. Eliot's 'objective correlative' and the narrative economy of 'Spotlight'

The "Spotlight" principals in a rare moment of inaction.
I'm not a movie critic, and I try not to play one on this blog, to paraphrase a commercial cliche. But I found "Spotlight," the current movie focusing on the Boston Globe's exposure of widespread sexual abuse of minors by Catholic priests, worth a brief note.

In addition to its riveting story, crisp dialogue, focused acting, and — of course — realistic scrutiny of the perils and rewards of newspaper work, where I spent my career, "Spotlight" is remarkable to me for never having a wasted scene. There's no fluff or filler material. Even the shortest scenes unfailingly contribute something vital to the whole.

Two of them in particular seem to me to exemplify on the big screen an old lit-crit notion first put forward by T.S. Eliot nearly a century ago in an essay on "Hamlet": what he called the "objective correlative," which the young poet-critic claimed was "the only way of expressing emotion in the form of art."  He defined it as "a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion."

T.S. Eliot about the time he came up with "objective correlative."
There is a marvelous objective correlative in two separate scenes of "Spotlight," both involving the Globe investigative team's one female member, Sacha Pfeiffer (played by Rachel McAdams).

In the first, her stress in pursuing the difficult story, interviewing victims who either turned her away or broke down in mid-interview, finds an objective correlative in her awkward attempt to shove a dishwasher rack into the machine. We've all done this slambangingly while thinking of something else. In "Spotlight," the frustrated gesture is enough to stand for the emotional toll that working on the investigation takes on handling everyday domestic chores, even the simplest ones. As with the other members of the Spotlight team, Sacha's personal life gets shelved or battered in all sorts of ways as work on the supremely difficult story goes forward.

The other objective correlative occurs when Sacha, a lapsed Catholic who only attends Mass when her devout grandmother asks her to, is sitting down with Nana as she reads, crestfallen, the initial published story. The Globe is laid out before her; she scrutinizes the text slowly, with a pained expression. Suddenly she looks up and asks: "Sacha, will you get me a glass of water?"

Water, which represents so much that's germane to this story, from the first Catholic rite of infant baptism through the biblical thirst for righteousness, is crucial.  The request is the formula for expressing the emotion so many faithful Catholics felt at the revelations; it sums up the wrenching effects of the sex-abuse scandal on the stability of faith.

Eliot's "casually introduced" term (the description is M.H. Abrams') continues to have relevance, especially when artists find ways of making words and acts perfectly overlay an emotion that it would be wasteful to lavish too much attention upon. This economy is part of what makes "Spotlight" a must-see film.


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