There is a category of writing that is valuable to film culture but is unfortunately ephemeral: I’m speaking of program notes, written to accompany screenings and retrospectives.
The early, formative days of my cinephilia were fueled in no small part by the essays and capsule reviews penned by James Quandt at the Cinematheque in Toronto. The program calendars had strong production values, with creative graphic design that put blocks of text into conversation with large, powerfully evocative images. I wish these program books were archived and available online today.
Quandt's versatility is well known. He is an ace curator, he has written essays both short- and long-form, and he has edited several terrific collections. And his work in the mode of program-note writing exemplifies the form at its best. His aim is to simultaneously stir cinephiles while sparking the interest of the uninitiated. His writing is always aware of its crucial role as teaching, while being in possession of a style that is personal and elegant. And all of his program notes radiate an erudite, cinephilic excitement that is intensely appealing.
But there specifically two qualities of Quandt’s program notes that I find particularly striking. First, he has a centrifugal impulse that is forever moving outward from the filmmaker or films at hand, seeking to make unexpected or unlikely links with art, history or thought that is not immediately proximate. For example, in the essay to accompany his large 2002 Godard retrospective, he speculates on the director’s Swiss forebears:
Godard’s most important Swiss antecedent, though, is Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the eighteenth-century philosopher whose Émile is the basis for Godard’s watershed film Le Gai Savoir. A Swiss Protestant (like Godard) who converted to Catholicism (with which Godard is fascinated), Rousseau called himself “Citizen of Geneva.” There are many parallels between his life and thought and Godard’s: the authoritarian moralism of his condemnation of theatre as a corrupting force, for example, bears comparison with the puritanism of Godard’s Dziga Vertov period, and their interest in knowledge and education is similar. Brilliant and combative, both men often estranged their supporters as well as the authorities they attacked. Rousseau’s Social Contract was as reviled by the church as was Godard’s Hail Mary, both works considered products of the anti-Christ by the faithful. Rousseau and Godard both moved from Paris and ended up in a kind of Swiss exile, the former on the isolated island of St. Pierre, the latter in the village of Rolle where, he jokes, even Federal Express does not deliver. Solitude offers solace, and for both, nature is a refuge from and requital for the horrors of humanity.
Second, in addition to making such productive links, he is frequently driven to form networks, often tracking a surprising or seemingly minor element through a number of works, as here:
Late Godard is full of whispering, stuttering, stammering, and silence: Isabelle Huppert’s speech impediment in Passion, the irregular responses of the children in France/Tour/Detour/Deux/Enfants, the stretches of speechlessness in Six Fois Deux, the actress caught on one word in For Ever Mozart, even the delay between the typing and the production of the words in Histoire(s) du Cinéma. Godard, seemingly resigned to the incapability of language to express anything concrete and real, says in Mozart: “Knowledge of the possibility of representation consoles us for being enslaved to life. Knowledge of life consoles for the fact that representation is but shadow,” which recalls Roger’s assertion in Two or Three Things I Know About Her, “Ce n’est pas le réel que nous pensions. C’est un fantôme du réel.” (It is tempting to suggest that Godard displaced language to Miéville; her films bristle with aphorisms and elaborate speech.)
And here he is, on the influence of classical painting on the films of Alexander Sokurov:
…especially the nineteenth-century Russian tradition of Tropinin, Vrubel, and the Perevedvizhniks. Better known than these, but not by much, is Hubert Robert, the eighteenth-century painter of classical ruins. The fog, smoke and vapour that drift across Sokurov’s images can be related to the “visual legacy of sfumato” as Lauren Sedofsky recently pointed out, and his compositions quote Holbein, Rembrandt, Wyeth, Russian icons and Byzantine miniatures, Goya in The Second Circle, Piranesi in Whispering Pages, and the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich in Mother and Son (whose white ship and sails at the end recall the maritime abstractions of Turner).
Nicole Brenez has written about cinephilia being the ability to dream an entire film — from a single still image. Leafing through old program notes can be an exercise that invokes memory and triggers fantasy. Recently, I saw a still from Mireille Dansereau’s La Vie Revée (1972), Quebec’s first feature directed by a woman. (It screened as part of a program called “Made in Quebec: The Influence of JLG” in 2002.) Even upon reading the plot description, I wasn’t sure if I had seen this film or was imagining certain scenes from it. I had to go check my box of ticket stubs to confirm that I had indeed seen it. Which parts of the film in my head were ‘real’ and which were imagined? I’ll probably have no way of knowing, especially with such a rare and obscure film. Still, I’m thankful to old program notes and their role as aide-memoires.
I’d love to hear from you: Do you save program notes and material — and do you have any that you particularly cherish? Is any such material available online as a film-cultural resource (as, for example, in the case of Harvard Film Archive’s program notes dating back to 1999)? And finally: can we think of examples of valuable but long-vanished film writing for program notes that deserve to be resurrected and re-published today?
Some recent reading:
-- Biggest news of the past fortnight: David Hudson is now at Keyframe Daily. Here is the page that collects the archives of the Daily; and here is his new Daily page on Twitter.
-- Translator Ted Fendt now has a blog, Howling Wretches, with recently posted pieces on Jacques Rivette and Eric Rohmer.
-- Two Olivier Assayas books from the Austrian FilmMuseum: a collection of essays edited by Kent Jones; and Assayas' memoir, A Post-May Adolescence, co-translated and with an introduction by Adrian Martin.
-- In Chicago last week, I enjoyed chatting about jazz with Jonathan Rosenbaum. He has just posted his essay "Improvisations and Interactions in Altmanville" (from his collection Essential Cinema). Also: Jonathan told me he's been posting a review/essay every single day on his site. A lot of work for him -- but great for us.
-- The third Film Preservation Blogathon focuses on Hitchcock: Check out the many blog entries at Marilyn Ferdinand's place. And via the Siren, I discovered the site Dial M for Movies, that collects the final frame of every surviving Hitchcock film.
-- The French feminist group La Barbe has attacked the Cannes film festival for featuring an all-male competition line-up: "Women, mind your spools of thread! and Men, as the Lumière Brothers did before you, mind your film reels! And Let the Cannes Film Festival Competition Forever be a Man's World!"
-- Film scholar Paul Willemen has died. Here is an interview with him at Screening the Past titled “The Double Access, Film Culture and the Ossification of Film Studies”.
-- Via David Hudson: an interesting interview with Kiyoshi Kurosawa at the site EG; and the Tumblr site, "Celluloid on Canvas," with paintings of filmmakers.
-- Günther Kaufmann, of Fassbinder fame, has died. Here is a clip, on YouTube, of the finale of The American Soldier (1970), with Kaufman crooning, Jim Morrison-like, the song "So Much Tenderness".
-- Ashish Rajadhyaksha writes in Outlook India: "The portrayal of Ray as Indian cinema's greatest iconic genius has its problems."
-- Lorraine Gamman on "gangster suits and silhouettes" at Moving Image Source, an essay that first appeared in a "fashion in film" catalog a few years ago.
-- Ed Howard on the six documentaries made by Maurice Pialat on his 1964 trip to Turkey.
-- Via Matt Zoller Seitz: "23 Shockingly Sexist Vintage Ads".
-- I recently discovered this piece by Nick Cave, "I wept and wept, from start to finish," written after he saw Sokurov's Mother and Son.
-- MoMA has just kicked off its Werner Schroeter retrospective. There is an essay on his films by Ulrike Sieglohr in the new issue of Film Comment. I'm hoping this series passes through or close to my neighborhood.
pic: poster art for Olivier Assayas' upcoming film.