Monday, January 09, 2006

Writing About Film, Part 2: Process

And now: nuts and bolts. Or, some aspects of the blog post life-cycle from watching a film to hitting “publish”.

For years, I’ve been hooked on the Paris Review Writers At Work series. These extensive and intimate interviews are without parallel in the world of literature, and their appearance on the web is cause for celebration. I’ve always found the process-related minutiae of a writer’s life and habits fascinating.

Today I thought I’d apply that idea to the blogger’s life and habits. In that spirit, I thought I'd share a few personal process details, hoping you’d like to perhaps do the same. So, here we go with some quotidiana:

  • First off, the single biggest influence on my writing over the last year has been...tendonitis. It’s forced me to write more concisely because, frankly, being long-winded hurts. Buying my first iBook three months ago was, at the risk of sounding hyperbolic, life-changing. Because my fingers are shot, and will probably stay that away, I can’t use a regular keyboard at all, and the iBook low-impact keyboard is a godsend. Using bullet points rather than writing long-form essays hurts less too.

  • Little yellow pads: I can’t live without them, and they’re scattered all over the house. I outline a lot (probably a holdover from the dissertation days), and almost never just sit down and bang out a post extemporaneously on the keyboard. I know it probably contravenes the spontaneous spirit of blogging, but there it is.

  • I never take notes in the theater during a movie if I’m seeing it for the first time. I know lots of people who successfully do, but it interrupts and wrenches me out of the flow of the moment. It’s different on DVD; I can pause the movie, jot down thoughts, and back up the movie a bit before resuming. If I lived in a large metropolis, I'd see many more films on the big screen, but right now, film festivals excepted, I watch most films on DVD, sprawled in bed with bad posture, big golden retriever curled up at my feet moaning in vain for exercise.

  • It’s odd. When I’m at a film festival for a week, watching three or four films a day, I don't take copious notes. The movies don’t all blend together like you'd think they might, and even weeks later I still have a reasonable memory of them. Not so when I’m home. I saw The Ice Harvest over the weekend, and if I hadn’t scribbled a few notes about it afterwards, it would seem a bit distant right now. Maybe it has to do with a certain fantasy-world vividness that seems to exist in the vortex of the film festival experience: every last daily worldly care evaporates, leaving only the movies in bright view.

  • Sometimes the films you love best are the hardest to write about. I still haven't mustered the courage to blog about my single favorite filmmaker, Robert Bresson; perhaps this year I will. Also, it’s impossible to predict in advance whether a movie will be easy or hard to write about. It all comes down to the “angle of attack”. If one doesn’t present itself, even the best-loved movies sit on the blog shelf of your mind, gathering dust.

  • Gone are the days when I ploughed through several films a week. Now, if I watch two a week, I'm happy; three is prolific. And I find it difficult to see a film and then turn around and immediately write about it. It helps to let it incubate for a few days (occasionally even a few weeks). At some point it feels ready to hatch, and tumble into the blog.

Your watching and writing habits? Share if you like.


Blogger John said...

I'm a film journalist and critic working for an irish newspaper. I get to watch a movie on a big screen nearly every day (today's was Get Rich or Die Tryin', so it's not all roses...) but I try to jot down a few notes on a pad as I'm watching the film, moods usually or just descriptive nouns I'll use later in the review. If it's a comedy, I put a little tick on the page every time I laugh out loud or find something funny. It helps later. After a couple of years at this, I don't need to look at the page as I scribble something down, so my concentration isn't broken. Makes it hard to decipher what I've written later though...

January 09, 2006 12:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ane perhaps we could continue our epic Showgirls chatter in the comment section of the previous post, so it would all be collected in one place.

January 09, 2006 1:11 PM  
Anonymous Michael said...

Girish, I tend to watch films in a somewhat similar way. On average, I only watch about one film a week, partly because time won't allow for much more, but also because I've always believed it's important to "live" with a film for a while before watching another one. This is especially true of films that are real works of art, as opposed to ones that are pure entertainment. I like to be able to think about the film, review it in my head, re-read my notes. On occasion, I will watch 2-3 films in a week, but not too often.

Like you, I rarely (if ever) take notes in a theater, but with DVDs it's different. A two-hour film can end up being much longer because of all the pausing I do to jot down ideas. This upsets the flow of the film, but I always try to watch the film again without interruption. Now, when it comes to writing, I have a really bad habit: I never outline anything before hand (and sometimes it shows, as I've written fairly meandering, repetitive things before). I can't quite explain my aversion to outlining; I had to do it when writing my dissertation, but even then it was a barebones thing. But I do a lot of revision, which makes up for that (perhaps!) -- and even with blog posts. Only a small percentage of my posts are written spontaneously.

Finally, one last word about writing about films you really love. I've never found the appropriate words for Hiroshima mon amour, which is my favorite film. I wrote a piece on it once, and it was terrible. I desperately want to write about it again, but will only do so when I can find a way to express my experience of the film that truly does the film the kind of justice it deserves.

January 09, 2006 1:34 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

I like to sit awhile and try to imagine how the writing path might go, but usually I get a bit redundant and so have to edit a few drafts.

If it's a topic I'm new to I'll take more notes/plan more; if it's one I've known for longer (or have been thinking about a long time) I'll just start writing and know when it's done when I'm out of pressing things to say.

About watching movies: I take notes on some of them, but I tend to forget to do it if the movie very good. It's a bad, bad movie if I have a few pages of notes in the notebook. (I have a lot of choice phrases scribbled on Waterboy, which my family insisted I had to see--and a fair amount about Shark Tales too.)

I love to watch several movies one after another; I don't have much trouble keeping them separate (except when I watched Casino right after Goodfellas, which left me thoroughly irritated with both Casino and Scorsese). Often thematic relationships will suggest themselves, such as when I watched Oldboy right after Irreversible (revenge and its consequences) or Robots right after Shark Tales (the urge to "be somebody" and whether it can be achieved and is worth the bother). It leaves me going around remembering the films at odd times, but I don't mind; my life feels richer for it. And I think art is not just a one-way path, so if the film-makers mind, that's their tough luck. :o)

January 09, 2006 2:15 PM  
Anonymous Pacze Moj said...

I don't take notes during screenings. The most effective way for me to organize my thoughts is through conversation. When I can't do that, I let my mind mull the film over for about a week. Eventually, I'm left with several interesting "takes" on a film and a handful of strong opinions; the rest seems to melt away. This is neat, because if a film is rich, multiple viewings offer multiple batches of different thoughts.

When I sit down to actually type something out, I don't have any written record to work with, but I have a strong sense of what I want to write. The most time-consuming task is opening up the dictionary and picking the words that translate what my head knows into something that someone else can understand -- English.

When I'm done, I don't usually have a unified, focused criticism of a film. Instead, I have brief discussions about certain, maybe slightly random, aspects of that film. I terms of eating a sandwich, I don't take one, big bite; I take four or five small bites all from different sides.

January 09, 2006 3:43 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice dish, fellas. Thank you.
Michael--More and more I'm also appreciating "living" with a good film, and not letting some other movie abut its space, cloud its aura, so to speak.
"I desperately want to write about it again, but will only do so when I can find a way to express my experience of the film that truly does the film the kind of justice it deserves."
I feel this way about a few movies, but not sure how to effect the breakthrough that will allow me to do that. Reading other people (and not just about the film or director in question) often catalyzes ideas for me, helps me see a way in.
Tuwa--I've occasionally done DVD double bills for myself based on connections, some obvious (e.g. Robert Altman/Alan Rudolph) and some less so (e.g. Lubitsch/von Sternberg, both "continental" Paramount guys) but I haven't done that in a while. It can be fun.
Still too squeamish to see Irreversible.
Pacze--I like the "sandwich" idea. Come to think of it, that's exactly what I've been doing with the bullet point format without realizing it...

January 09, 2006 5:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

John--I just paid your blog a visit, and enjoyed reading your detailed reviews.

January 09, 2006 8:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

When Listmeister Ben didn't post his year-end movie list, I was stunned. But I needn't have worried.

January 09, 2006 8:45 PM  
Anonymous Matt said...

Well, I don't really consider myself a film blogger in the vein of Girish or Filmbrain, who write these great reviews that put my efforts in that mode to shame. I use to write a run an informal series of posts, 'Cinema Notes', on my old Blogger blog--something I should perhaps take up again--but these were literally notes, not reviews, aphoristic paragraphs transcribed from pages of a notepad or something (or copied and pasted from a comment left on someone else's blog), scribbled during class or on the bus. This is the mode I functioned in for much of last year's film festival: scribbling notes in between films and at lunch time and typing them out at a twenty-four hour deli with Internet access every night or morning. I'm much better with essays and articles, I think--they're much mor my forte (and if not my forte, which is arguable, I at least enjoy writing them more than reviews).

Meanwhile, the urge to write is completely and utterly unpredictable with me--it can strike at any moment, for any reason; my response to British Sounds was triggered by Zach's, for example; I didn't want him to get all the attention!--though unlike some of you guys I tend to find it pretty easy, not to mention enjoyable, to write about my favourite films. I think a reason for this, however, is that I've done so in an academic setting and haven't had to deal so directly with, well, my emotional response to the films. I'm sure if you asked me to write about how Vertigo makes me feel I'd be paralysed.

Would you guys be interested in seeing some more review-like posts on my blog? Or at least a reintroduction of the 'Cinema Notes'? I'll do it if there's interest.

January 09, 2006 8:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

By the way, peoples: Matt's been blogging for a few years now, and you all know how old he is, right?
Yeah, that's right.
Matt--You can blog about anything you damn well please. I'll gladly read it.
Thanks for telling us about the "Cinema Notes". I think I'd like to go dig in your archives for those.

January 09, 2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger Brian said...

Interesting post and interesting thoughts everyone. Since I began my blog last February I've found writing about a film, even if just a paragraph, has become instrumental in my understanding of the film; otherwise I'm too inclined to just put it away in memory and not think about it anymore, but by tackling it with words, I'll dig up aspects of the film that didn't occur to me when viewing, as when you discuss a film afterward with someone. But I do try to focus upon one thing that I find most interesting in the film, which is why it can be the most difficult to write about a film you love-- to many things to say!!

Regarding the number of films I watch, I'm still barreling through at around 4 or 5 a week, mainly because the cinebug really bit me about a year and half to two years ago (thanks to the dvd) and I'm still a curious george that's eager to find out about all the directors I'm not yet familiar with. Once I get through all the masters, in about year or so, my viewing might taper down and mostly focus upon new films, but right now I'm doing the catchup thing.

January 10, 2006 8:29 AM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

This just arrived in my e-mail, and may have some relevance to the subject: Void Magazine

January 10, 2006 8:53 AM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

Hey Girish,
That was a fascinating read. Pauline Kael watches a movie only once and god, her reviews are so incisive,insightful and so damn enjoyable (How the hell does she do it?).

PS: I miss your "Conversations with Mom" series.

January 10, 2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Not sure when, but Conversations will return. I could devote an entire blog to my mom's daily, off-the-cuff riffing.

January 10, 2006 9:18 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

So many movies, so little time.

I thought you may be interested in this article comparing blogging with punk rock. Maybe?

January 10, 2006 10:17 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, that's rich. And some of those commenters. Jeez.
And Doug's back. He's at the Palm Springs filmfest.

January 10, 2006 10:51 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

I take copious notes during screenings, otherwise I would forget everything. Problem is, I usually can't decipher what I've written in the dark.

Though I have an "office" at home, I find it harder and harder to write there. Too many distractions, and the motivation just isn't there. Fortunately, there are dozens of cafes where I live, which usually solves the problem. However, lately I've been doing most of my writing at work, which will no doubt get me fired should they ever find out. (I'm working as a consultant, being paid by the hour.)

On the topic of Showgirls, I actually stayed up till 2:30AM last night watching it after I returned home from a screening of The Proposition. I'd not seen it since its release, and I have to say (perhaps fueled by the Slant piece) I didn't find nearly as awful as I had remembered. Sure, there are some god-awful lines, but given the film's subject, setting, etc. it kind of works. I still marvel at how incredibly un-erotic a film it is.

January 10, 2006 11:13 AM  
Anonymous Filmbrain said...

Ugh...Girish, sorry. Didn't catch the note about putting the Showgirls comments in the previous post until now. I'll paste over there, but don't seem to be able to edit the comment here. Feel free to delete.

January 10, 2006 11:59 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

I tend to operate on two note-taking modes on the site, relaxed and festival, and each one has a different process. Relaxed mode are films that I've seen at least once before, so I don't really take notes on the recent viewing, maybe some specific plot points or images that I see fitting into the theme already in my head. On festival mode, I scribble notes between screenings (though not during), and they're usually angles of attack that I want to explore in the write-up rather than plot points or details. In this case, I have no preconception of theme, so I'm more interested in making sure I've captured it for later re-evaluation.

First thing that I do when I start to write is open up my previous entry write-up because I find a blank page incredibly intimidating. I usually keep the old text there until I've written 3-4 sentences, then erase.

I also tend to re-read and re-edit over and over again because I'm always checking for sentence flow and I tend to be persnickety about the preciseness of language (that's probably a combination of being an engineer and writing in an adopted tongue).

Another quirk is that I have to readjust my internal clock somewhat because I tend to be "clearer" to write after midnight, when everything is dead quiet and I can have a stretch of uninterrupted time (lights off, Powerbook on :)).

I can't seem to write in an "an hour here, an hour there" mode; I spend most of that hour trying to get into the midset of what the heck I was thinking when I wrote that sentence. :)

January 10, 2006 12:31 PM  
Anonymous Adam said...

If I'm set to take notes during a film, I have this process of scibbling in a hard indention after I've jotted something down so I don't have to take my head off the screen to find where I last wrote. (This causes me to end up w/ an ink smudge in my left thumb from feeling for that indention.) I also try to be cautious of the notebook I have, choosing one w/ a large binder ring so as not to russle up a annoying noise when I turn pages. But I much prefer watching the film first w/o taking notes, so, as you noted Girish, I too have found festivals allow for that more than single viewings. It does seem paradoxical.

One thing about how I construct a piece. I have quotes that I'm saving that I think are so choice for certain topics that are just waiting for the right review. I was so happy I could work in SKATEBOARDING, SPACE AND THE CITY: ARCHITECTURE AND THE BODY into my review of Jeong Jae-eun's THE AGGRESSIVS because I love that book and it helps me read the film in an interesting way. But I've been wanting to bring some other writers/books into my reviews but I haven't found the right place for them. Until I do, it would just be forcing it. I definitely am of the Rosenbaum school of schooling yourself before/after watching films on certain topics w/ outside reading. It just adds to the cinema experience in my mind.

January 10, 2006 1:52 PM  
Anonymous Darren said...

Blogging, to me, is all about indulging my curiosity. When I sit down to watch a film for the first time, I never do so expecting to write about it later. It's only afterwards, when I find myself intrigued or surprised or frustrated by some particular aspect of the film, that I decide to give it another viewing, this time with a notebook in hand. My recent response to The Prisoner of Azkaban is a good example. I never intended to write about a Harry Potter movie on my site -- and I certainly never intended to devote, like, ten hours of my weekend to re-viewing and writing -- but I was curious to learn more about Cuaron's approach to the material.

January 10, 2006 2:02 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey this is a good deal.
Dash off a post, sit back, let the visitors do all the heavy lifting. :-)
But seriously, I'm having a blast reading your varied approaches, and in the detail you've generously supplied. Thank you.

Filmbrain: "Fortunately, there are dozens of cafes where I live...".
I don't actually write much in cafes but I do read and outline there everyday. I find that I need to write in absolute silence, which is best done at home.
I'm glad that Showgirlsimproved somewhat for you this time around.
And please don't worry about posting Showgirls comments here; it's perfectly fine.

Acquarello: "...a combination of being an engineer and writing in an adopted tongue."
Same here on both counts.
Though I'm a lapsed engineer, some of the emphasis on persnickety "attention to detail" I picked up in engineering school is now as good as hard-wired. I did find the complete lack of interest in the arts of many/most of my fellow students there pretty maddening, though. :-)
Like you, my head gets clearer the later it gets. Especially if I haven't had a big pasta dinner with cabernet, in which case it's dopeyville and goodbye to all useful synaptic firings for the evening.

Adam--I agree. I'm a rabid believer in the unity of the arts, and the infinite correspondences that exist across artforms. And I get a bit antsy if I've done exclusively film-related reading on any given day.

Darren--I like your point about curiosity.
It's extremely rare for a work to provoke in me no curiosity at all, especially if it's something I have elected to see after hearing/reading others. I find a staggering number of films I see (whether my response to them is positive or negative) to be theoretically bloggable. Practically, it comes down to time and finding the "right way in", two huge barriers. Which means that I end up blogging about just a miniscule proportion of the films I see.

January 10, 2006 3:53 PM  
Blogger girish said...

You shouldn't be reading this blog.
You should be writing about Nomi Malone.

January 10, 2006 6:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great '05 discoveries list from Ben.
And I really should be writing about Nomi Malone.

January 10, 2006 6:55 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

For some of us, by which I mean me, Showgirls is all about Cristal Connors.

January 10, 2006 7:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Sorry, Peter.
Nomi is the consciousness of the film.
Cristal just chews up the scenery.

January 10, 2006 8:07 PM  
Blogger girish said...

The skirmishes have begun 12 hours before zero hour. :-)

January 10, 2006 8:14 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

The suspense is killing me...

I may have to take in a Robert Davi double feature with a "Catwoman" chaser...I just can't handle the waiting!!

January 10, 2006 8:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Flickhead, are you gloating?
Are you all done, man?
I'm just startin' to get my arms around this thing.

January 10, 2006 8:46 PM  
Blogger Flickhead said...

Gloat? Moi?

January 10, 2006 8:57 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Done with Showgirls.
If I were really enterprising, I'd pull out my sketchbook and draw a nude to post.
But it's late and I'm tired.
[reaching for Jaime Hernandez collection].

January 11, 2006 1:49 AM  
Anonymous Peet said...

Girish: I disovered your previous post and its stimulating comments section just a little too late, so this follow-up post is my chance to catch up. Thank you all for a terrific read so far.

I'm certainly not as prolific as most of you here--I'm an essay-kinda guy. Like michael and you, I think that taking the time to "live" with a film is a good thing. I realize not every reviewer has this luxury, but it often leads to more thoughtful writing. A film like Jonathan Glazer's BIRTH, for example, doesn't really make sense unless you give it a while to let its themes and questions sink in. This might explain why it was underappreciated by so many critics during its theatrical release. They just hadn't figured it out yet.

I have a strong urge to write in a dramatic fashion. That means that I don't spell everything out in advance, as most academics would in a regular thesis, but instead invite the reader to discover my intentions along the way. To make that work, I'm constantly teasing and seducing the viewer, adding suspense and making sure the piece as a whole achieves plenty forward-momentum. It also allows me to use metaphors and humor to associate more freely.

To give a specific example: I wrote an essay about the style-over-substance issue, in which I forced my argument (ideally speaking: style is the shape of substance, the very expression of content) into a narrative of its own. As such, a courtroom satire about the fictional trial of Style vs. Substance with Brian De Palma as the defendant and the late Stanley Kubrick as a surprise witness, became the "form" to illustrate the "substance" of my thesis, much like "visual style" is supposed to express "content" in narrative cinema.

Some people got it, others didn't.

January 11, 2006 8:44 AM  
Anonymous rakesh said...

Wow acquarello, I didn't realise English was your adopted language. I thought you were born and brought up in America(now I know two things abt u..1.English is not your first language 2. You have long

I am an admirer of both acquarello and Girish and this is how I feel abt their writing.

I find acquarello's reviews very neat and methodical. Sometimes, it verges on objectivity. But however hard he may try, his political leanings always come through. And I guess that's cool.

Abt Girish, he is more of a instinctual writer. I find his reviews(and articles) personal and warm.When I read his articles, I feel like I have known this person forever (Yuck!I don't wanna sound sappy but that's how I feel).

January 11, 2006 10:14 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I like your bullet-point format, Girish. I think I'm going to use it to defeat the writer's block.

I'm impressed by the depth of Matthew's writing too. I didn't watch his kind of films when I was 20...

A good skeptic conversation helps me to put my ideas on a film together, or else, reading a lot of opinions hints at how the film work/don't work on people. That's why I prefer the forum dialogue for the collective mindstorming of a confrontation of various interpretations.

Is there a difference between this blog and a forum? ;)

January 12, 2006 5:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

"Is there a difference between this blog and a forum? ;)"

Harry--Well, how to put this?...This is my personal blog, not a forum. :-)
But I'm glad that people come by and feel comfortable enough to respectfully exchange ideas with others.
Frankly, I didn't design it primarily for that purpose (I didn't even turn on comments for the first year or so!), but I'm glad that it serves that purpose.

Peet--I just checked out your site, and really enjoyed it.

January 12, 2006 8:28 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

It was a compliment again. The 100+ comments of the last entry shows the popularity of having serious discussions with you, on your personal blog.
But that's because it's your blog that it is intimidating to digress instead of commenting your post. Personaly I like it but I know it's not the original purpose of your blog.
It's motivating to meet so many great people in the same place though.

January 12, 2006 12:01 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry--If you notice, I post links to all sorts of other, non-post related items. Digression is my favored mode. So, there is no need to feel intimidated about digressing. (Though I realize it's natural because theoretically, it's my space and the others are guests here.)
As long as you are not offended if people don't always pick up on your digressions and respond to them, it's perfectly fine. :-)

January 12, 2006 12:16 PM  
Anonymous Peet said...

Thanks for checking my site, girish. (Which happens to have an actual forum, by the way ;-) You're all very welcome, as long as you keep dropping girish a note.) I'm glad you enjoyed it!

And wow, it's good to see my fellow-Dutchman Verhoeven getting so much attention! I think he's almost finished shooting ZWARTBOEK here, with the lovely Carice van Houten. Thanks to this blog orgy of yours, Dennis Cozzalio has openly asked me for my opinion of SHOWGIRLS. I guess I'd better visit his blog and think of a decent comment...

January 12, 2006 4:35 PM  

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