Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Program Notes

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.



Anonymous Corey said...

A wonderful topic, and a mostly unheralded art form! I'm old enough to remember the mimeographed sheets that accompanied what at seemed once-in-a-lifetime film screenings. Among other things, the history of avant-garde film in the U.S. (and elsewhere, perhaps) could be told in large part through program notes -- some of which have been collected in various volumes by Scott MacDonald. The program notes that Bruce Baillie prepared for early Canyon Cinema screenings, for example, were simultaneously manifestos and works of collage. Though I know I saw program notes before earlier, my first strong memory of their value was when Robert Ray prepared program notes for a class he was teaching on Godard in the late 70s at the University of Florida. I wasn't in the class (alas) but the screenings - all 16mm of course -- were open to the public, and those notes were a great way to get a handle on those films for the first time. Another favorite memory was attending a screening at the National Film Theatre in London over a decade ago: the film was John Ford's THE IRON HORSE, a key American film I had never been able to see in the United States. A tall gentleman at the door handed the small audience on a weekday afternoon the notes, which were written, unsurprisingly, by the esteemed historian Kevin Brownlow. A few minutes later, the fellow welcomed us all to the screening, and only then did I realize that this was Brownlow himself! This topic has me awash in memories of trying to carefully fold pieces of paper to preserve in a pocket for re-reading after the screening ...

May 15, 2012 3:08 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Wow: those are some wonderful stories, Corey!

May 15, 2012 3:12 PM  
Anonymous Yusef Sayed said...


a wonderful subject of discussion as usual. You may recall Trevor L pointing us in the direction of the Cinefiles website not too long ago. I use this a lot for research and would like to recommend it again, in case any readers of your blog have yet to benefit from it.

The archive has countless digital scans of such program notes. In fact, I found the text about Godard and Rousseau, by Quandt, that you quoted from here and it appears to be home to a lot of documents that might be of interest to Corey, based on the examples he gave:


May 15, 2012 6:28 PM  
Blogger Michael Guillen said...

Girish, evocative post. And for me, important for its political ramifications. Nowhere more than in the program capsule is the tension between art and commerce most evident, ranging between well-thought-out introductions (I agree with you 100% regarding James Quandt) and pieces that have been whipped into shape by domineering publicists, and which then traffic as the definitive program note. In some ways I consider program notes a co-opted art form, even as I dream it to be an art form, much like cinema itself I guess.

Corey, I love how you mention the creative work done around the advance of the avant-garde movement. When the University of Berkeley and attendant cultural institutions recently launched the Radical Light program, the exhibit mounted at UC Berkeley was amazing exactly for what you're talking about. The program notes were works of art in and of themselves. And, again, as Yusef has posed: UC Berkeley's Cinefiles repository is frequently exciting to explore and always informative.

In fact, I guess it could be argued that UC Berkeley and its cinematheque the Pacific Film Archive is intimately tied to Toronto's not only in terms of personnel but philosophy as well. And among their ranks, I must recommend Jason Sanders whose program notes contextualize films within history, other arts, and other films. I have saved all my PFA program notes just to have a written record of Jason's work.

I've only written a few program capsules myself and have found it to be one of the most difficult writing practices, partly for its brevity, and partly for its necessary relationship with the promotional.

Looking forward to hearing what others have to say and most appreciative for what you have offered, Girish.

May 16, 2012 10:09 AM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Closely related to screening and retrospective notes (I guess we are mainly talking film club/Cinematheque--type occasions?) are Film Festival catalogue entries. Certainly, here we have, often, the exact sort of tension/struggle Michael well describes: promotional needs do battle over cinephilic appreciation (and guess what usually wins?!). But I have fond recall of many things in Festival catalogues, down the years, that I have never seen elsewhere, and could bear reprinting: was it a San Francisco Film Fest catalogue (93? 94?) that carried, for instance, Jonathan Rosenbaum of Jon Jost's Tom Blair Trilogy, and a short but lively note on a Boris Barnet film by Jean-Pierre Gorin?
On the flip side, a personal tale: in 1980, one of my first professional gigs was to write the program notes for a Hitchcock retrospective at the National Film Theatre of Australia (long defunct). I tried to make them 'functional', but also to reflect then-current theoretical thinking about Hitch. On opening night, I spotted ex-SCREEN editor Sam Rodhie with his nose in these pages. I bolted up to him, quietly fishing for a compliment. He barked: "When the discourse of film theory ends up in program notes like these, it's time to change the discourse". Thanks, buddy !!

May 16, 2012 3:50 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

PS One could swear that Olivier Assays has hired you, Girish, to design the poster for his new movie !! It looks exactly like one of our characteristic sketches.

May 16, 2012 3:54 PM  
Anonymous Corey said...

Extending the genre (as it were) along Adrian's lines, there's a long history of carefully crafted statements about films for DOC Films flyers and posters at the University of Chicago -- I wrote a few of these, as did many others (like Dave Kehr, I'm sure). While just a few lines in most cases, I know we sweated over these, and did what research one could in those pre-internet days. I recall writing summaries -- meant to be enticing -- for a Lubitsch series about 2 silent films I had not seen, and felt half a fraud for doing so, even after doing my homework on them. Before I had ever heard the term "spoiler" there was always the pressure to capture the film without giving away surprises in just a paragraph. As the play date approached, one dreaded whether the accuracy of one's summary would be supported by the film itself ...

May 16, 2012 5:11 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Yusef, Michael, Adrian, and Corey!

Adrian, the poster art probably caught my eye because it looked like something I wish I'd done!

May 16, 2012 6:16 PM  
Blogger Peter Labuza said...

A recent one that was quite an epic undertaking it looks like was the one Film Society did for their 28 film Turkish retrospective. It was an entire color booklet that will surely be a great resource for anyone studying Turkish film, as well as a guide for those trying to figure out where to start. They did post a PDF of it online as well: http://lincolncen.3cdn.net/53ad90a429864f79ad_aqm6vsu6r.pdf

May 16, 2012 11:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Nice! I hadn't seen that one, Peter.

May 17, 2012 5:57 AM  
Blogger girish said...

J. Hoberman, spurred by a viewing of Werner Schroeter's 1969 debut film EIKA KATAPPA:

"The colors in 16mm movies are denser and more concentrated while black and white 16mm seems more ethereal (yet at the same time, rawer and more material). There’s a sense in which 16mm, which is naturally more impressionistic or even pointillist than 35mm, photographs atmosphere. The pronounced film grain makes the image softer and more forgiving—not only of faces but mistakes which, as retakes are limited, cannot but be accepted. (Mismatched shots are practically a given.) Even the most impoverished 16mm production cost a self-financing filmmaker a frightening amount of money. Kenneth Anger once compared himself to a goldsmith fashioning art out precious metals—and, with their supersaturated Kodachrome II colors, his 16mm movies looked like jewels. Had amateur video existed in 1965, it’s likely that Andy Warhol’s greatest cinematic works would have been taped rather than shot. If so, the profligacy of his method would have been meaningless; the screen tests and early talkies would have lacked the presence and gravitas conferred by 16mm."

May 18, 2012 2:44 PM  
Blogger David Davidson said...

I like Rosenbaum's program notes for the Viennale in the nice white-hardcover "The Unquiet American: Transgressive Comedies from the U.S." (2009), which includes a long introduction (where he explains his selection criteria), eleven re-published essays, and capsules for fifty-five films from Owen Land’s On the Marriage Broker Joke as Cited by Sigmmund Freud in Wit and its relation to the Unconscious, or Can the Avant-Garde Artist be Whole (1979) to John Waters’ Hairspray (1988). I think that it is a pretty rare book, I had to order it from like Germany's Amazon website.

May 19, 2012 9:39 PM  
Blogger girish said...

David, I like Jonathan's THE UNQUIET AMERICAN a lot and even asked my college library to acquire a copy.

May 20, 2012 4:55 PM  
Anonymous Jim Flannery said...

Just a note in passing that thanks to the Prelinger Archive, a healthy selection of San Francisco Cinematheque program notes are preserved, by year, on archive.org ... see here for a start (they don't all come up on one search, browse the links in the righthand sidebar for strays).

May 21, 2012 4:37 AM  

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