Thursday, August 19, 2010

Watching Films, Keeping Notes

Ignatiy and I were chatting recently on my Facebook page about "writing process"; I thought I'd open up this conversation to all, and ask for your take on this topic.

As a "cinema person," I wear two hats. First, I'm a cinephile. I watch films -- usually several each week -- and these films range widely in period, country, genre, etc. The vast majority of these films are non-contemporary and most of my viewing is done on DVD. I keep a small "Moleskine" book, and try to spend at least 10 minutes taking a couple of pages of notes after each film. (I rationalize this discipline by telling myself: "If you can spend 2 hours watching a film, you can spend a tenth of the time scribbling some notes about it.") Rather than summarize plot or character, my notes, which are in bullet-point form, tend to record moments and details (like the "small striking moments" we talked about here a few weeks ago) and any ideas that they may spark. When I revisit these cryptic notes a few weeks, months or years later, I'm always startled by how much of importance and interest I forget about a film. More than anything, these notes serve to refresh my memory of the film and the ideas generated by my encounter with it.

And then there's the public, "critic" side of me that works on various writing projects -- blog posts, essays for magazines, journals or books, conference presentations, etc. For these, I create collage-like notes, some of them extensive, and then mine them during the writing process. After a piece is done, I trash the sheaf of notes (although perhaps I should be filing them away somewhere).

Finally, I keep another little notebook, a sort of "reading/writing journal," in which I record, each day, in fragmentary form, ideas, quotations, personal reminders to investigate certain films, books, etc., and all manner of bric-a-brac that I may want to use or develop, or avenues that I may want to chase down someday. I also have a section in it devoted to possible seeds for future pieces.

Ignatiy, in his blog post "68 Sentences," illustrates an alternative approach. The post is a montage of sentences, all originally hand-written in his notebooks. Rather than creating two distinct sets of writings (one comprised of private notes, the other crafted explicitly for public view), his writing process seems to bridge the gap between the two. He said on my Facebook page:

I'm not really an essay or even a paragraph writer -- I think I work in a weird sort of film production mode, where a topic is an excuse to produce dozens of sentences that I then assemble in a sort of editing [...] A lot of things I'll finish will include sentences or maybe whole paragraphs that were cut from previous things (and followers of the blog who also read my stuff for Mubi will notice posts, re-worked, appearing months later in completely different contexts). Further: there are many essays that were never finished that I have been cannibalizing for ideas / sentences for a long time...

I'd like to ask cinephiles and critics: Do you take notes upon seeing each film? If so, what form do they take? And what function/purpose might they serve for you? I think it might be illuminating and fun to compare our individual -- and sometimes unusual -- approaches to this ordinary, everyday (but nevertheless valuable) task.

* * *

Recent reading:

-- James Quandt's tribute to Eric Rohmer at Artforum.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum's essay-post "Listomania."

-- Chris Fujiwara on the notion of "contemporary cinema" at n+1.

-- Matt Zoller Seitz on "3-D's radical, revolutionary potential" at Salon.

-- Mark Rappaport on the "Sirk-Hudson connection" at the Criterion website.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I find the way I work on films (in critic mode and academic) somewhat conflicting. I can't help but jot down extensive short hand. My cinephile side suggests to me that this is reductive of the film experience and not doing the text justice, even if my 'short term memory' or 'pernickety' side retorts that the essay or review I will write resides in the absolute detail and not what you think you witnessed.
No matter how often I tell myself, ‘I'm still looking at the screen whilst I scribble’ (mostly), it's just an itch that can't be scratched. My partner bought me night-light ambulance pens at the start of my career which light up at the tips; I take solace in the fact that I, at least, don't use those in the cinema!

August 19, 2010 6:45 PM  
Blogger Q said...

I have a habit of scribbling down notes and doodles in my black sketchbook, additionally letting some ideas circulate in my head for a week or so. The notes and sketches are inexplicable in meaning to anyone reading them - oftentimes stylized, blurbs, quotations, cartoons, transient thoughts personified - but it works for me especially in the moment.

I used to take notes while watching the movie, but the gross amounts of notes I'd write (without looking down at the paper either less I miss something) became on the verge of ridiculous, and by the time I looked them over most of the thoughts were too scrambled, repetitive or useless to substantiate a full thought of the film overall. These days, whenever I start writing about a film, it's more or less digital: I go into text edit and write main ideas and outlines for my thoughts, and eventually flesh them out.

August 19, 2010 8:03 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I write copious notes while watching a film that I'm going to review, especially if there are not production notes available, and I'm uncertain that I'll be able to rely on other sources for character names and the like. I really try to limit my note taking, and only write down specifics like a shot I might want to describe in my review or a line I might want to quote. If there's something thematic that interests me, I generally assume that I'll remember it. I often end up writing my review without referring back to the notes, but I still feel the need to take them.

August 19, 2010 8:09 PM  
Blogger weepingsam said...

Whatever I do, I haven't been doing enough of it lately - I haven't been writing nearly enough... But in general - when I watch films at home, I usually take notes while I'm watching - details, shots, plot points, sketches of shots, etc. I find it much harder to remember films I see on video - when I see films in theaters, I can concentrate enough to "memorize" them - not so much at home... Afterwards - I keep a database of films I've seen, when and where - with basic information, plus notes - usually a plot summary paragraph, and another on - aesthetics, themes, quotes, etc.

When I write anything longer (blog posts or papers or what have you) I tend to start by typing up everything I can think of, and work from there. Generate as much text as I can, and then work it down. This works a lot better now than it used to - getting it all on the computer makes it workable. I spent some time last week going through old papers - I've been moving stuff into storage and was deciding what to keep on hand... Looking through all those papers, back before I started using computers, I marvel that I ever got anything done - and don't marvel that I didn't get a lot of things done I wanted to. On paper, I would keep restarting the piece (whatever it is - story, paper for class, just essays on things) - over and over, an impenetrable mass of overlapping words. I remember when I had to finish something, I would end up spreading paper out all over the room, and start from the beginning and try to write the thing all the way through. All longhand - only at the end would I type it up...

Not that things are that much better now. I still fill up untold notebooks - little 6x4's I carry around with me, full size spiral bound notebooks I keep around the house... I don't do a very good job of getting material from those notebooks into the computer, where it can be useful - which sometimes gets to be a problem. I can't thrown anything out, though, so sometimes old notebooks will provide a germ of a new essay, though not as much as I'd like...

August 19, 2010 8:41 PM  
Blogger Just Another Film Buff said...

Aha, I had never thought in the lines of your notes-for-every-movie approach. I usually take notes only for the films that I write on. Most of what I think about movies which I don't plan to write on, just after I've watched them, just slips off my mind. Will try to do that then.

As for the ones I do write on, I take random notes - words, phrases, diagrams even - during the film and then, before starting to write, arrange the notes properly and then expand them into paragraphs. I think this must the conventional approach.

But that's when I watch films on DVD. If it's in the theatre, where taking notes is a bit painful and impractical, I just return home to jot down whatever remains of the experience.

But, I ALWAYS find that I know more about a film after I've written about it than before. Writing, for me, seems to be a process of getting to learn about the film rather than merely expressing what I thought of it. It's like the essay taking control of me rather than otherwise! I don't know why it's this way. Perhaps writing gives me a distance from the material and puts things into a better perspective. That's why I wish I could write on every movie I watch!

And I second' Q's second paragraph.


August 19, 2010 10:33 PM  
Anonymous Jabberwock said...

Girish: thanks for this post - always good to know how others go about these things (it doesn't get talked about that much), and I could relate to a lot of it: the ideas sparked by small striking moments, revisiting notes and being startled by how much you'd forgotten, even the Moleskines!

I don't work full-time (or even "most-time") as a film writer and so I don't keep different notebooksfor different purposes, but increasingly I find myself creating a new word-file on my computer whenever I have the seed of an idea for a future column - quickly typing out a few stray sentences that I can elaborate on in the future, or putting down the titles of two or more films that I felt had something in common. This can get a bit haphazard at times though.

Incidentally I sometimes find myself pausing a DVD to quickly jot a couple of things down, though somehow I don't feel too comfortable about doing this (when I do, I typically rewind the film by at least a minute rather than resume exactly where I'd paused). Have also smuggled a notebook and a pen into a movie hall a few times, not always an easy thing to do in Delhi's multiplexes!

August 19, 2010 11:58 PM  
Anonymous Trevor said...

I tend not to take written notes very often. But what I have started experimenting with recently is extensive screencapping. It began as just a casual thing, mostly because I had just figured out how to do it. But I started to notice that it made me pay more attention to what I was watching and to look for different things that I was less aware of previously. It's somewhat of an interactive experience that keeps me asking myself questions about what I'm watching, and so it adds a different, more active component to watching a movie.

I started to really find it an enjoyable way to "take notes" on a film. Looking back over the screencaps, I pick up on things that I'm not able to retain in my memory, and viewing them in succession allows me to sort of "replay" the film in a matter of seconds, which jogs my memory and gives me ideas of what I might want to write about. I found this such a valuable experience that I started a blog where I can keep a log of the films I watch with one image from each. Each entry functions as a way for me to capture notes and thoughts I have about what I watch.

With the technology that exists today, there's more opportunities than ever before to supplement writing with images, and though I think it's perfectly valid to write about a film without including any images, I think our possibilities have greatly increased in exciting ways. Plus, an image can be so enticing, although I do still have some issues with the limits of isolating individual images from films (because motion is almost completely absent).

August 20, 2010 2:17 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

A curious loop in my life: 1978, a film society screening of Preminger's ANGEL FACE, I am 18 years old. As the only way I can get to see this film - fleetingly - is on the big screen, I take a lot of notes. Blindly, never looking at the page, scribbling unreadable nonsense at fast pace, annoying all around me. Before the film starts, a well-known ex-editor of SCREEN enters the auditorium: he practices Barthes' theory of pleasure, and comes to the movies to lay back and have a good time. When he sees me he exclaims at top volume: "You're ... TAKING NOTES??" And then cackles for two full minutes.

Then came VHS and DVD. I stop tapes and discs to take notes - when moved to, or when I have to. But in my job as a film reviewer, I never take notes anymore during press screenings - I learn to trust my impressionistic sense and memory of a film, my grasp of its gestalt. If I misquote a line of dialogue, the misquotation usually works in one way or another ! Only one very devoted colleague in this trade ever takes copious notes during press screenings - and he's decidedly 'old school', meaning the school of MOVIE ! (Critics in the '60s, including Ray Durgnat, regularly scribbled, drew and annotated furiously during screenings.)

2010: De Palma's SISTERS on a repertory big screen. I have seen it dozens of times on VHS and DVD. But now - when I finally get a chance to re-see it on a big screen - is when I finally get a new pad and start taking notes during the projection !! Somehow recapturing the virgin state, the pure film. I am sure to find something new! My friend and postgrad Conall, sitting next to me, looks over and comments: "You're ... taking notes?"

August 20, 2010 7:01 AM  
Blogger YUSEF SAYED said...

It is rare for me to take notes while watching a film. Because of the brilliant combination of audio and visual in the films that pin me down so hard, I don't think I could manage to grab a pen and paper and write. I am in the hands of the film. Thoughts collect, in time. I am particularly interested in the films that stick with me for weeks, without me knowing why - such as Robert Mulligan's Man in the Moon. That is when the work begins

Perhaps I could equate it with paintings - whereby I wouldn't write about every painting I saw, whether for its historical, biographical, or aesthetic interest. Something will just make the lightbulb go off when I see certain works. The effect of a the work can be so overwhelming that the pleasure arises out of the challenge of how to capture it in words.

There are plenty of times that I write about films that hold an interest for me because of their kinship with other culture. For instance, there may be a synergy between a particular record and a film. Jazz seems to come up often in film criticism but Minimalism and contemporary experimental music is often related to film. Which brings me to the fact that I often make music in response to a film - not as a soundtrack or expression of my feelings about the film, but to see if certain mechanics and formal qualities underlying certain films canbe brought ot bear in a musical context. This is not rare at all.

And screenshots too. I recently tried to do this with Abel Ferrara's The Blackout. Craig Keller recently published an interesting piece The Pialat Code in the R2 A Nos Amours release.

Yes, there are many ways in which I respond to films. Sometimes I feel I am lazy and undisciplined, but then again I never set out to be a film critic, music critic or anything. It is great to hear all of your stories and varying approaches and sure I will tackle things from all sorts of angles in the future

August 20, 2010 8:30 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Yusef ! Now is at last my chance to tell you: your blog "Audiovisual Salvage" is great !! Please tell us more about yourself, and welcome to the cinephile gang ! Here is a link, for all Girishians:

August 20, 2010 8:53 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for taking the time to share these details of your practice! It makes for fascinating reading.

Yusef, let me second Adrian's request. (Here is a clickable link to Yusef's blog.)

August 20, 2010 11:06 AM  
Blogger YUSEF SAYED said...

Adrian, Girish, thank you for your kind words. I do not want to detract too much from the ongoing discussion here, save to say that I have followed Girish's blog with much interest this year. Adrian, I am a huge admirer of your writings and thank you for translating Nicole Brenez's book on Ferrara. I kick myself that my French is not good enough to be able to read more of her work.

I'm in my mid-twenties and am resident in the UK. I only began writing about film in the past year, as my usual interest in film seemed to mutate into a fervent cinephilia. The Movie Mutations book is as inspirational to me as certain films and records. I think Girish's blog,amongst many, reflect the culture which that book signalled. One of my default settings is 'cross-referencing maniac', so i follow recommendations, links, overlaps across varying mediums. I guess this is another aspect of how I write about films - simply collecting lists and recommendations. My introduction to film culture came via the writings of Alan Licht who is a brilliant music writer and performer. He would often quote Rosenbaum in his texts about music culture and from him I learned how certain minimalist works by Michael Snow, amongst others had influenced contemporary experimental music. One of the important things for me is to remember that it all cross-pollinates.

I am struck by the civility of the online cinema culture and had never previously engaged with any online communitites. It is a pleasure to read the comments on this site, and I have found many fantastic blogs this way.

August 20, 2010 1:27 PM  
Blogger Bob Cumbow said...

For many years (1969-89), I kepe a film journal, writing anything from a sentence to several pages on every film I saw, whether I was going to write on it or not. This has proved to be a valuable resource, and I'm sorry I got out of the habit of doing it. My actual use of these notes in writing approximates what weepingsam said above: I would type out (this was back in the pre-computer days) everything I could think of, lay out the paper, and often would physically cut and paste, to get the various points into an order that made sense for whatever I was going to write about the film.

The one risk of keeping notes about a film is that the farther you become removed in time from actually seeing the film, and the more you review your notes on it, the more the notes begin to REPLACE the film, rather than merely serving as a reminder. Eventually, you may "remember" things that aren't actually part of that film at all, but were merely part of your experience of it or your post-viewing reflections on it.

This blog is a great resource--thanks.

August 20, 2010 1:51 PM  
Anonymous Marina said...

A wonderful (and very practical) post, Girish!

I'd like to extend on what Bob and JAFB said - I've found that when I start writing down the impressions or ideas that a film has incited, the text starts diverting, developing on its own way. I may start with a frame, a speech or a gesture and may end up summing up the aesthetics of French cinema! Which I realise is ungrounded but seems quite logical at the time. So, there's an element of whimsicality - the idea evolves in its own peculiar manners.

Girish, I've been trying to jot down ideas about every film I see since first reading about your practice in this blog. The success of these endeavours is doubtful, however - I feel guilty when nothing coherent comes to mind and I tell myself I have to write something down and just as guilty when eventually I give up and decide not to dig too much in the impressions. But all in all I do write more now - paragraphs, sentences, but never just bullets - I need to shape the idea(s) so that on revisiting they are more truthful. Just as Trevor, I've also been more and more using the 'capture' function - it's a good way of visual jottings. But it's also quite addictive and could lead to excesses. :-)

August 20, 2010 3:23 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

" ... it's also quite addictive and could lead to excesses ..."

Hehe, that sounds like a GREAT formula to me, Marina !! In all things !!!

August 20, 2010 5:29 PM  
Anonymous James MacDowell said...

It's very strange that this post should appear now... I learned that you'd put it up because I had just sent a friend/colleague a text which floated the idea of a sort of game, whereby after we watch a new film we should text each other the answer to the question "If I HAD to write on this movie, what angle would I take on it?" It actually makes me realise that something like this is a fairly common way for me to focus my thoughts post-film - a text or an email to a friend, which might then start a discussion. It means that the thoughts aren't just my own, but become a dialogue, which helps ideas develop further.

Anyway, thanks for a great post!

August 20, 2010 5:52 PM  
Blogger Max said...

Thanks indeed -- note-taking is such a private habit, so of course I’m curious. This might be obvious, but I find that the kind of notes I take (or, more to the point, the quantity) has a lot to do with the kind of film I’m watching. With a dense genre film (like NEAR DARK, which I watched the other night), I’m going crazy, filling up notebook pages describing the gears; with a film tilting more towards abstraction or landscape, that same mental exertion is directed towards rumination. In any case, these contrasting experiences make me suspicious that my note-taking in the genre films is pushing me towards the more literary mechanisms of meaning at the expense of rhythm and flow -- whereas I often feel myself more properly “swept up” by the experimental film, sometimes at the expense of pinpointing specific manifestations of meaning.

I feel especially silly trying to take notes during something already jammed with language, e.g. Godard, Rohmer, Linklater, etc.

And for what it’s worth, I’ve noticed my notes are more properly “organized” after essay-films -- perhaps another means of classifying the centaur?

August 20, 2010 8:43 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

As I mentioned to Girish in the above-cited Facebook post, I'm not very good at taking notes during movies (and more or less incapable of doing if the films are projected). And oftentimes it'll be a while after seeing a film that some kind of observation (usually triggered by a different film -- one bringing out what the other lacked or had) will formulate itself.

But I find the time before a movie starts to very productive. During Doc Films' 2008 summer season, I would always get down to Hyde Park an hour or two early and sit at a diner that's a few blocks away, writing pages quickly while half-watching the Beijing Olympics, which were going on at the time. That period produced a lot of very good and length notes I've been drawing on (or refuting) ever since.

August 21, 2010 1:34 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

"to be very productive," etc. Sorry, it's a little late. Looks like I'm dropping words left and right.

August 21, 2010 1:35 AM  
Anonymous Marina said...

Yes, Adrian! Though the greatness is disputable at times..

Ignatiy, you make a good point. The time, surrounding a cinema/home projection is filled with many emotions and transfusing states. But I've notices that the notes I take before a film are more factual while the ones after the film - more impressionistic. I recently saw Resnais' "Les Herbes folles" and was struck how perfectly the post-cinematic effect was described: 'Exiting the cinema nothing surprises you.' That's why I find it easier and much more enjoyable to write after a film - because then I feel like the world is cracked open, possible in every way, genuinely new each second. It's like that waking-up state when you desperately try to scribble down the details and logic of an absurd dream. And something always eludes you. It's a very pleasurable and yet painful process.

August 21, 2010 6:33 AM  
Anonymous Corey Creekmur said...

I'm coming in a bit late to this fascinating discussion: I have always found all of the details surrounding film viewing fascinating, from the careful selection of the preferred place to sit (how many films are harmed by a poor location in the cinema?), to what one must drink or eat (or not), to people's "rules" about watching credits (anyone who knows me knows I will sit through all of the credits, with or without them remaining by my side!). Note-taking (or making) is another part of this process, though of course an odd one for some people: it implies a chance (whether realized or not) that a viewer will extend their relation to the viewing experience by writing about the film -- whether for personal use or with an audience in mind.

I have shifted in my own practices over time, in part, I'll admit, due to for a long time now doing most writing on a keyboard and not by hand. (And we must be close to regularly seeing laptops used in screenings, I fear. I'm actually more annoyed by small glowing screens in dark cinemas than by the clicking of keys ...) I used to keep lists with very basic ratings of films I had seen, but no longer do so (and somewhat miss the discipline of that). Now I take notes for more specific purposes, and that leads to two things I'll add that I don't believe have been mentioned so far (sorry if I missed something):

A lot of my note-taking on films, for better or worse, is in relation to teaching. I make notes that are to be the source of class lectures and discussions, and this means I'm often making notes not so much on the film as a whole, but only on certain aspects. If I'm going to discuss sound in a film, I make notes on the soundtrack, for instance. That is, such notes are less impressionistic and personal than instrumental and practical: I make notes on the editing if that's what I'm going to use the film to illustrate. In some cases I want to approach a film in its richness and make notes that are less focused, but often the teaching goal guides the notes I prepare. (I do keep these, but more often than not on my computer rather than as sheets of paper, although those accumulate as well..)

I also don't think anyone has emphasized the difference between notes scrawled as the film is running, in the dark (the older practice people have so far emphasized, from the "heroic" era of film viewing ...), and the very different practice of making notes with the lights on in one's home (or office) with a "film" that can be easily stopped and started, reviewed, etc. The latter were once the kinds of precise notes only a few people could make, with access to prints and a Steenbeck or similar device (think of Bellour's early shot-by-shot analyses, for instance, which required considerable effort and equipment). The enormous shift in consumption and reception that came with home video has been a much-discussed topic, of course, but has anyone really considered how different it made note-taking (and the demand for accuracy)? The errors of detail in a lot of older film criticism are often due to the critic trying to recall a single viewing: now if a writer gets a detail wrong, this seems a failure of careful research and fact-checking, not something we allow as part of the process. (Here I recall Victor Burgin's little-noted book from a few years ago on memory and cinema.)

August 21, 2010 10:29 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Sorry for being late in this discussion.

I like the "If you can spend 2 hours watching a film, you can spend a tenth of the time scribbling some notes about it" approach. The last time I took notes while watching a movie was in college, when was the only person doing it, and somebody told me to just enjoy the movie.

If I can own or rent the movie, I'll play it in the background while writing my post on it. Otherwise, I like my posts short because 'that's where the money is at' and I wanna cater to the readers' short attention span as well as my short attention span. Although I do write twice as much on a movie as I prefer.

August 22, 2010 12:23 PM  
Blogger Josiah Hincks said...

- I never take notes whilst watching a film--I find it too distracting from the film to write.

- For me: being able to SAY what I find special comes before being able to write it. If I wrote first the logic of critical thinking tends to come too much to the fore. Its easy for me to write--that is why I don't do it until I'm filled up with clarity. In other words, I never write to get clear about a film. I will only write AFTER I am clear; after I have watched closely; and after I can SAY what I want to. Writing for me is the END of the process; the result; its never near the beginning.

- If the film is _special_ then I watch it again; sometimes multiple times. What I'm aiming for is to let the language of expressing what I find important emerge from viewing the film. If I can't SAY what this is simply then I won't write it.

- For me many great films only "open" fully on repeated viewing. For instance: "Days of Heaven" by Terrence Malick I watched five times before I could begin to say anything coherent about it. The first time I saw it I knew it was extraordinary but it still took YEARS to fully understand why its so special. Writing too early is a mistake for me. Some films I have to keep sniffing at before I can write at all.

- I sometimes use my DVD player to bookmark specific scenes. These I go back to and study. For example: The way that Hsien Hou films scenes with people sitting at a table I find very powerful but I needed to rewatch these many time to understand why they work so well.

Ok. Enough

August 22, 2010 12:24 PM  
Anonymous Jason Haggstrom (haggie) said...

I find my process to be similar to what Ignatiy described in his FB post to you. I don't write notes about every film I watch (and never in the theater, only at home), but if I'm struck with even the tiniest amount of inspiration (usually in the form of a complete idea/sentence), I'll either go grab a notebook or pop open my laptop and write it down. Often times the inspiration will just take over and I'll find that I just cranked out two or three stream-of-consciousness paragraphs. I also carry a digital voice recorder in my car because I often have a sentence or idea suddenly pop into my head and I need to get it down somewhere. Now, this is different than what I do when I go into watching a film with the intention of taking notes. In those cases, I usually write brief, bullet style statements to mine at a later date when I actually start writing.

Like Ignatiy, I often find that those sentences and paragraphs I wrote end up being used verbatim in my final writing. I don't know if this is a better or worse approach to writing because it is extremely non-linear. Along the way, a lot of those ideas get tossed or re-written completely. I also find that over time, I've come up with the same idea multiple times and written several different sentences or paragraphs about the same thing. My process ends up feeling highly inefficient, but I wonder how much of that has to do with the fact that I'm not a professional writer and that my writing is few and far between. Is my process flawed or is this a typical struggle?

August 22, 2010 1:18 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

I've been a hard-core note taker most of my life. My feeling has always been that we start revising and remaking the film in our minds as soon as it's over, and that the concrete details (both of the film and of our reactions) are in danger of being conceptualized away without notes. I like to write down the moments at which I felt the most, regardless of whether I know why; also any analytic ideas I might have on the spot.

Lately I've eased up a bit, and have often written about films in the absence of notes in the last ten or so years. In an ideal world, though, I'd want notes on everything.

An issue relevant to this discussion: do you see yourself as writing about "the" movie or "a" movie? In other words, do you labor after a canonical rendering of the film as an object outside yourself, with an obligation to describe its most important aspects? (Impossible, but that doesn't disqualify it as a goal.) Or do you strive to find a distinctive angle on a film that is a form of self-expression, and does not exclude other, different angles? If the former, notes seem more important; if the latter, then the process of re-dreaming the film afterwards is not necessarily the enemy. For better or worse, I've always been in the former camp: I want to say the definitive thing about any movie I write about, even though I know that mission is somewhat absurd.

August 22, 2010 1:39 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Josiah wrote: "Writing too early is a mistake for me ..."

This is something I profoundly agree with. For example, I have been holding off on writing about LOVE STREAMS since ... my first viewing in 1985 !!! Hope I feel up to having a go at it before I die !!!

Josiah, where can we read your own work ? I am keen to see what you finally did write about DAYS OF HEAVEN, for instance ...

August 22, 2010 5:05 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

A question for Dan:

I know you're an ardent moviegoer, so I assume you've done a lot of note-taking in that time. But you've also directed two features, so I was wondering: do you feel that the note-taking (whether the process, or the notes themselves) had any influence on how you directed the films?

August 22, 2010 6:29 PM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...

And, having asked Dan a question, let me answer Dan's question: even when taking "an angle" (and I inevitably do, sometimes to the point of ignoring certain aspects of the film so that others who might end up seeing the film will discover them themselves), I am trying to get to what I feel is the truth, the core of the film. To plunge in, in a way, and find my footing within the film itself. If not the definitive thing, then a definitive thing about the movie.

August 22, 2010 6:33 PM  
Blogger Dan Sallitt said...

That's a large question, Ignatiy. A possibly pretentious answer: film watching and filmmaking both have an analytic component and a receptive/intuitive component. And so the analytic skills from one activity can carry over to the other easily. Note taking may or may not influence the filmmaking, but it at least resembles some aspects of the filmmaking process. Does that make any sense whatsoever?

August 23, 2010 12:23 AM  
Anonymous Omar said...

Hi guys, I just wanted to add my own comments on this debate regarding note taking. If what I am about to say sounds like an anti climax then please forgive me. I have always kept a notebook and tend to write down key bullet points on any film I have watched but sometimes I don't know why if I am making notes on a film then I might stop the DVD to find out more about the director or context to get a better understanding of what I am watching.

I watch a lot of films each week, some related to the courses I teach, and so it becomes imperative to keep notes on each film. The notes become sort of like a checklist if I choose to blog on a certain film and it lets me easily narrow down what exactly I want to focus on. However, initial notes are very much a reflection of initial reactions to a film and maintaining a record I guess of personal spectator reaction is quite fascinating – returning to the notes of a film after a while can also be limiting as well because it becomes a record of permanency.

I don’t like giving a rating to a film either because that immediately makes me discriminate and canonize, therefore complicating the question of whether or not the film is worth blogging.

August 23, 2010 5:26 AM  
Blogger Matthew said...

After a couple of decades writing about movies and TV for a living, I cannot enjoy myself while watching anything unless I have a pen and paper handy. It has become an indispensable part of the process for me. It bothers/amuses some of my friends and relatives, who say things like, "Can't you just relax and enjoy the movie?" But this IS how I relax and enjoy a movie!

I have taught myself to take somewhat legible text notes in near-darkness, and I tilt the paper about 45 degrees to compensate for the natural downward slope of my handwriting when I'm not looking at ruled horizontal lines on the page.

I also drawn very crude storyboards in the dark, to remember shots that I want to write about (or talk about) later. These are nothing to look at -- mostly circles and lines that roughly map out the positions of heads and bodies in the frame, elements in foreground or background, etc.

The greatest number of storyboards I made during a single screening was while watching the 2001 re-release of "2001: A Space Odyssey." I think I had ten or eleven pages of notes, almost all of them consisting of annotated sketches. I was really glad I'd developed this habit, because when I sat down to write the review afterward, I was able to describe how Kubrick sustained certain poetically/philosophically important ideas via visual motifs that appeared throughout the movie's running time.

On those rare occasions when I take few notes, I always regret it later. My general policy is, any image or line or bit of information that lingers in the mind for longer than a few seconds should be written down or sketched, because it made an impression and will prove to be of use later.

August 23, 2010 11:15 AM  
Blogger Ignatiy Vishnevetsky said...


It does indeed make sense. I can understand how the general activity can become an idea in and of itself, and how it can feed into other practices.

To take this in a slightly different direction, a question to all: where did you acquire your note-taking habits (or lack thereof)? Was it something intuited, or a habit acquired through imitation? I assume for many people here it came from education, from lecture note-taking, etc....

August 24, 2010 9:56 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, all, for sharing these private cinephilic details with the world!

Dan said: "Do you labor after a canonical rendering of the film as an object outside yourself, with an obligation to describe its most important aspects? (Impossible, but that doesn't disqualify it as a goal.) Or do you strive to find a distinctive angle on a film that is a form of self-expression, and does not exclude other, different angles?"

I'd have to say that I don't aim for a comprehensive or definitive rendering of a film in writing. I'm intimidated by the impossibility of such a reading.

I love reading film criticism, and do so widely, almost daily. So there's a part of me that's acutely aware of how much has been already said or written about a certain film or filmmaker. Rather than risk redundancy and repeat it, I tend to try to locate a particular angle on a film that is (as Dan says) likely a form of self-expression.

But I'm also interested in the constant interplay between "film criticism" and "film theory". Whether we know it or not, admit it or not, we are always carrying around in our heads certain ideas and conceptions ("theories") about how cinema works. Every film we visit or revisit is implicitly used to test our ideas about cinema, and either confirm or reformulate them, in ways both big and tiny.

Often, it's not the totality of a particular film that might be involved in this exercise, only certain aspects of it, so my note-taking might often emphasize those aspects of a film that I might find particularly interesting in this regard. (My strategy here seems similar to Corey's--taking selective notes--although for a very different reason!)

Of course, it is impossible to know at the outset what is going to be most interesting, most fruitful for me about a film. So, I invariably find that after I've seen a film and a "distinctive angle" has presented itself to me, I'm immediately seized with the impulse to watch the film again to take detailed notes via this particular angle--to locate all the evidence in the film that either confirms, qualifies or refutes this angle.

August 25, 2010 5:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

(Ignatiy, I shall return soon with answers to your very interesting questions!)

August 25, 2010 5:23 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Ignatiy, I think the first notebooks I ever kept were when I was a child trying to learn the English language. The vocabulary of English seemed so vast and utterly intractable to me that I made sure to write a few words down from the dictionary each day (with full meanings recorded next to the words). I would read through my notebook a couple of times each week to affix the words in my memory.

My film notebooks, oddly enough, serve a similar purpose. They take something sizable (individual films; an oeuvre; a book that I'm reading) and set out to record and remember a few key things about them that know I will forget soon.

Here's a question that has to do with writing: Do you find that your writing regimen and reading regimen are connected or mutually symbiotic in any way? Do you like to read when you know you'll be writing soon?

I often find that I'll read (or, more frequently, re-read) favorite cinema writers or pieces when I know I have a writing jag coming on. Often, what I read will not have anything to do directly with what I'll be writing on. But doing this lets me 'swim around' in good cinema writing (both in terms of content and style) and soak in it for a while, often leading to an easier time when I have to put words down on paper. (Idiosyncratic, I know...!)

August 28, 2010 8:17 PM  
Blogger Stephen said...

I make mental notes and only write something down when I am sure I won't be able to remember it. I need to keep my mind on the film itself and try not to abstract myself too much towards judgement and analysis before it has finished.

August 31, 2010 10:38 AM  
Anonymous Conall said...

"I don't write while I'm watching the film. That would be too weird." - Gilles Deleuze

September 04, 2010 10:30 AM  
Anonymous Bobby Wise said...

I rarely take notes while watching a movie in a theater. Too dark, too hard and too distracting. Only if I'm seeing an incredibly rare film that I know I may not ever see again. Watching films at home I often take notes because its so easy to start and stop. In any case, the only reason I take notes for any movie is in connection with academic/journalistic work. Otherwise, I'd rather watch and enjoy and let whatever chooses to seep into my head for later recollection do just that.

To answer Girish's last question, I love to read when I know I am going to write. I have a litany of favorite quotations I keep in my memory and like to use them as starting points or thematic links to something I'm writing. This practice is almost always re-reading. I also like to "swim" in familiar waters to get ready for my own laps. Reading something unknown before the moment of truth would take too much time and attention away from the task at hand.

September 07, 2010 7:08 PM  

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