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.
-- 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.