Sunday, December 18, 2005

Cinephile Business: Key Texts

(Be forewarned: I had some weird formatting issues with this entry, maybe because I saved it as a draft several times, so there may be strange text colors or line breaks that I can't figure out how to fix.)

Inspired by conversation at Esoteric Rabbit, I wanted to put down an annotated list of really important cinephilic documents for me. That is, I want to mention the works that have had a major effect on me which are about--explicitly or heavily implicitly--the practice of cinephilia itself, and the related fields of film scholarship & criticism. This could be a really interminable blog entry, but I'll genuinely try not to make it too long.

The first thing to understand is the presence of critical figures whose entire bodies of work have made them exemplars in some way or another. This means that I can mention a few "big" or personally meaningful articles but really must point to their entire "aura," and more than single articles or books or essays, I'm going to discuss people, writers. Reading a lot of their work, cutting a swath across their publications, is probably the best way to get a sense of where I'm coming from. (Sorry, Girish, that this can't be more concise and accessible! I did try to make it a list of single texts with commentary, but just kept getting carried away, in draft after draft.)

So: Jonathan Rosenbaum was a huge formative one around the time of my cinephilia's birth (as opposed to my broader enthusiasm for film or movies--'98-'99 as opposed to '95). That means: the reviews (Dead Man, Small Soldiers/Saving Private Ryan, Eyes Wide Shut, and Taste of Cherry especially) and the polemical essays which accompanied his treasure trove lists (especially the '96-'99 lists and perhaps most especially his Alternate 100 Best American Films).

After this, there were other figures connected to Movie Mutations (perhaps the central text on cinephilia, and I mean its general importance for me, not necessarily the degree of its alignment with my own feelings on the subject). Adrian Martin and Nicole Brenez are the two whose work I have latched onto the most (though let me stress that Alex Horwath & Kent Jones are hardly unimportant to me!).

Overall what I respond to is the passion and commitment with which they energetically tackle areas that mainstream movie culture would have us believe are high-and-mighty, esoteric and arcane, and barred so that non-specialists cannot enter. Witness the freedom in Adrian's first letter, when he says the early 1980s (when he would be roughly my age as I write this now!) brought him treasures from Marker, Wenders, Godard, Ruiz, et al.:

Suddenly here were the films playing right outside the maps of 70s' theory: free, lyrical, tender, poetic films, but also tough, savage, cruel, perverse, sometimes violent films; films that were open diagrams, unashamed to link up raw fragments of human (or humanist) experience with the most severe or expansive kinds of experiments with form. These discoveries got drawn into a rich historical loop, too: suddenly I and my friends were seeing afresh the films of Jean Vigo, Humphrey Jennings, and especially that unique pre-nouvelle vague figure, Jean Rouch.

Or Brenez's anecdotes about the Daney student whose tears she had to erase (over lemonades) after Daney said that the cinema would die; or the itinerary about her young cinephile-friends ("They get up in the morning (around noon), watch films over breakfast (on video) ..."). I don't have the same cinema-all-day life as these latter cinephile youths, but I want to share in that same intensity of focus, that same deep profession of love for film (and video).

Perhaps even more, from Brenez's letter, is her articulations of her own practice (I'll return to this in a subsequent post), such as when she writes about her work on Lon Chaney, and asserts, "[H]ow can one explain that the tools of psychoanalysis, such as castration and incorporation, do not encompass the inventions of Lon Chaney, but rather that Chaney opens a new field in matters of understanding the body?" Or the glee and sense of community she projects when (in her letter in the second Movie Mutations relay) she talks about the rebirth and proliferation of Epsteinian avant-garde cinema in France.

The past two years especially have seen some remarkable developments, I think--or maybe I've just been paying attention to them, finally. For one thing, there has been the rise to some prominence in English-language cinephile culture the work of Olaf Möller, who has been a blessed gadfly and indeed also a sort of singular (and contradictory?) combination of bulimic-skeptic with a self-appointed missionary role. (See Matt's Esoteric Rabbit entry linked above if this doesn't make sense!) A lot of the heroes of the Movie Mutations-crowd, like Hou, Kiarostami, and Denis, have become ensconced in contemporary canons of many critics and cinephiles, quite the opposite of the uphill battle Rosenbaum and others had to fight in the 1990s. I like the fact that Möller, in his Olaf's World columns for Film Comment, in his Books Around column for Cinema-Scope, in his Senses of Cinema top ten lists, and in a recent mother-of-an-essay he wrote for a Serbian magazine, is doing everything he can to keep cinephilia from being complacent, from growing ossified--it's a sign, and a truly exemplary one for me, to never let us wax lazy and sluggish in our own practices. Ultimately, what this essential-for-me triumvirate of Möller, Martin, and Brenez emphasize is that cinephilia is alive above all things, active and reactive to the world around it--socially, politically, ethically, historically, aesthetically, everything.

When Quintín writes his Anorexic's Case Against Uchida Tomo, and sets himself against a lot of practices I support, but this is one of the key recent texts on cinephilia because it draws some lines in the sand, delineating the emphases certain camps hold, without really devolving into an us-them battle mentality. As a friend suggested, it's a sign of Quintín's intelligence (and integrity, I'd add) that he acknowledges at his article's end that he may well be wrong.

Also recently, as I've already written about here, Andrew Grossman's very long essays and articles have been indispensible. The first part of his essay on Tsui Hark, which deals little with Tsui Hark, is amazing. And his long essay, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Ho Meng-hua," is superb and, like his other Bright Lights essays, productively questions a lot of accepted critical, academic, and cinephilic practices.

OK, I'm getting way too long-winded here, so let me just unceremoniously wrap this up with a few more names and texts: Nicole Brenez's "Ultimate Journey" essay and her "Vogel Call," and Tag Gallagher on auteurism, Adrian's report on the 2002 Rotterdam Film Festival, and Robert B. Ray's book How a Film Theory Got Lost (which I must admit I don't own). These are some of the most meaningful texts to me on (or at least tangentially about) cinephilia itself. I'd be happy to elaborate or add more choices in the comments ...


Anonymous said...

It's amazing how similar our sensibilities are, Zach, at least when it comes to criticism and cinephilia. Not only are we both bullemic-sceptic Brenez and Martin fans, but we both consider How a Film Theory Got Lost to be a key text for us as well. Now it seems I've got to start reading some more Olaf Möller...

By the way, I read the Möller article and e-mailed Adrian to see if he ever formally responded to it. I haven't heard back from him yet, though it'll be interesting to see.

I'd also included Daney's Cinema In Transit (hopefully more of Daney's work will be coming available in English the not too distant future), which is at the very least implicitly about cinephilia and film viewing in this age of disembodied substances and multiple technological mediums.

ZC said...

Yeah, the Daney text is pretty important to me, as well. I'm still trying to track down one film he writes about, Lâm-Lê's Dust of Empire (1983). According to a user comment on IMDB, it's practically 'vanished into thin air.'

girish said...

Fantastic post, Zach.
And please don't apologize: the post is clear and accesssible, and I'm glad it's not too concise, because the detail just gives me greater insight.
So, thank you!

girish said...

Zach, I just linked to your post and Matt's response on my blog.
Within the last year, I picked up Movie Mutations and the Robert Ray avant-garde/Andy Hardy book but haven't had a chance to read them.
Recently, I picked up a brand new academic book called Cinephilia and History: Wind In The Trees by Christian Keathley (it sprung out of doctoral dissertation supervised by Dudley Andrew). I've just started it.
I barely know the writing of Brenez and Martin; I think I've glanced at it in Senses but not really sat down with it--I can tell they've been a paradigm-shifting force for you and Matt and so, I'm thankful you've taken the time to write an overview-primer about it for the world-at-large. (You may not realize it but you both have performed a valuable missionary service without perhaps even meaning to!) :-)

I've been thinking:
I think the role I personally inhabit (or aspire to inhabit) might be that of a missionary-skeptic.
Skeptic because as a teacher I preciously value daily, steady learning and the quest for understanding, not just in cinema but in the other arts too;
And missionary because it's fun to recast one's understanding in a form that is accessible to others.
I think some of the hardest and potentially very valuable pieces/books to write are those that, with both lucidity and integrity, provide, with an explicitly "teaching" intention, an introduction or overview or initiation to a field. They have the capacity to move large numbers of people and draw them closer toward the field. A noble and (in however small and humble a fashion), world-changing aim, I believe.
So, in other words, thanks for writing this overview piece!

ZC said...

Girish, I'm all for missionary maneuvers in the field!

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