Formative Film Writing
The new issue of Sight & Sound magazine contains a large feature in which film critics choose works of criticism that had an inspirational or formative impact on them. It's a captivating read, and I'd like to use it as a springboard to offer a brief response and also ask you for your examples and stories.
I have a somewhat unusual tale to recount here. The first piece of cinema writing that grabbed me by the lapels was a book I discovered in my engineering college library when I was seventeen: James Monaco's The New Wave: Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol, Rohmer, Rivette (1976). At the time--well before India threw its doors open to full-blown free enterprise via its 'economic liberalization' program in 1991--imports of goods were severely restricted.
The New Wave was the first film book I ever read cover to cover, and I thought about it often over the next few years. The only problem was: because of lack of availability, I hadn't seen a single film in the book! Over the course of several years, I built up elaborate fantasies of these films from Monaco's plot descriptions and analyses, not aided much by the sparse collection of B&W stills, all of which I nevertheless memorized right down to the last gesture, glance and sartorial detail.
Years later, after I moved to the States, I finally caught up with most of the films on videotape. But to this day a tension remains, never completely resolved, between the films as the edifices I constructed in my mind sight unseen and the way they really, actually, turned out to be.
The book was formative for me in some very deep, fundamental ways. For example, Monaco wrote about New Wave filmmakers as having a certain unique shared attitude: they valorized the importance of ideas in cinema.
Having held apprenticeships as critics, all of them see film essentially as a phenomenon of intelligence. This is not to suggest that their films are devoid of feeling; on the contrary, they are often invested with profound emotional significance. But always we are led back to a basic structure of ideas. There is an underlying logic, no matter how passionately it is developed. Film is, for them, a fascinating way to discover the world and to develop an understanding of its politics, its psychology, its structure, its language.
Monaco's book is also driven by a view of cinema (and of art in general) as being essentially dialectical. This was a revelation to me at the time. He holds dear Godard's summarizing phrase "method and sentiment." (The word "sentiment" in French, Monaco points out, has a broader meaning: it "encompasses the English senses of affection and feeling, but it also has connotations of perception, sense, consciousness, and sensibility".)
I remember the following simple passage burning itself into my head:
When one image is juxtaposed with another, one sound with another, an image with a sound, it is almost impossible not to think dialectically. It is not always the artist who works this way; sometimes it is only the observer.
Even today it seems to me a wise, succinct lesson on both filmmaking practice and viewing practice.
And now, I'm very eager to know: what were some of your early, formative encounters with cinema writing--reviews, essays, books, magazines, etc?
What strikes me as amazing about the current financial crisis is this: there's not a great deal of talk about the underlying causes of the crisis and how to uproot them. The proposed bailout plan will do zilch to address the reasons why we got into this mess. In the long view, it's an emergency band-aid, no more. Also striking: the plan is brazenly free of oversight and arrogantly skimpy on details (a three-pager demanding $700 billion).
The key elements of this horror story--subprime mortgages, the derivative financial instruments known as credit default swaps, the AAA credit ratings awarded to these instruments, the mostly young sales-force that aggressively sold these worthless 'assets'--exist thanks mainly to outrageous deregulation. But there's been little discussion so far of the kinds of structural changes the American economic model will desperately need moving forward. Paulson is right about exactly one thing: "Raw capitalism is dead." To dream for a second: What the presidential candidates should be doing is calling up some of the best economic minds in the country and having them suggest detailed, realistic plans for systematic, across-the-board de-deregulation. There are fundamental conceptual changes that our model of capitalism needs, and the 'good thing' about this crisis, its potential, is that it might perhaps lead to widespread public conversation--and education--about what these changes might or should look like. No?
-- Naomi Klein at Democracy Now!: “Now Is the Time to Resist Wall Street’s Shock Doctrine.”
-- At Film of the Month Club, Chris Cagle kicks off discussion of Claire Denis' The Intruder with a fascinating post on the film's narrational strategies.
-- Inspired choice: The new issue of Reverse Shot focuses on Hou Hsiao-hsien.
-- My favorite Vinyl is Heavy invention: a conjunction of quotations, the latest edition.
-- How I wish I knew Spanish: Adrian Martin has a lengthy essay in the language on Hitchcock's Notorious at Miradas de Cine.
-- Rob Davis at Daily Plastic has a valuable post that compares and contrasts "Apple TV and Netflix Player: Internet Video for Your TV".
-- Richard Prouty at One-Way Street has two posts on critic James Wood's book, How Fiction Works.
-- JD Copp at My Gleanings: Jean-Pierre Gorin on being present at Manny Farber's side when he died.
-- Andrew Osmond in The Guardian on Tezuka's X-rated manga.
-- Barbara Ehrenreich's op-ed in the NYT on the 'optimism' that fueled our current crisis: "Americans did not start out as deluded optimists. The original ethos, at least of white Protestant settlers and their descendants, was a grim Calvinism that offered wealth only through hard work and savings, and even then made no promises at all. You might work hard and still fail; you certainly wouldn’t get anywhere by adjusting your attitude or dreamily “visualizing” success. Calvinists thought “negatively,” as we would say today, carrying a weight of guilt and foreboding that sometimes broke their spirits. It was in response to this harsh attitude that positive thinking arose — among mystics, lay healers and transcendentalists — in the 19th century, with its crowd-pleasing message that God, or the universe, is really on your side, that you can actually have whatever you want, if the wanting is focused enough."