I was nominated by Andrew Grimes Griffin – One movie a day for 10 days. The no explanation bit is annoying people so: The Concordia Conservatoire ran a retrospective of Buñuel films in the early/mid 1980s. I remember packing a thermos and sandwiches because I wanted to see them all and one never knew then when one would get another chance. This experience taught me the value of seeng a director´s films in chronological order, one begins to notice styles that change and develop, one begins to recognise groupings of actors that seem to inhabit and characterise a particular director´s work, themes and approaches, in Buñuel the black corrosive humour, the attitudes to religion, the Surrealism not only of particular scenes but as an approach that envelops all his work. One begins to love even the weaker films, and seeing each becomes inhabiting the world of that particular narrative but also the world of Buñuel, a world within a world.. I could have chosen any of his films really. This one´s stayed with me because of the dummy and the leg, so wittily deployed later by Almodóvar in the opening scenes of Live Flesh.
A wide-ranging conversation with Kieron Corless, Deputy Editor of Sight and Sound on the magazine itself and issues that arise from it: What is film criticism? What is good criticism? What is the changing function of criticism? How has the digital turn affected not only what cinema is and how we see it but also what film criticism is and how it is now done? How has the eco system or matrix in which audio-visual work is produced, distributed and exhibited changed over the years, with galleries and museums displaying moving image work on one end; and perhaps Netflix on the other.
We talk about cinephilia and film culture at home and abroad; and further discuss the importance of advocacy, particularly in relation to international films that often get seen only in small film festivals. We agree that the online environment has immeasurably improved criticism and helped create a different way of appreciating and writing about cinema, pushing film criticism in new directions, not least the increasing importance of the video essay. It’s an exciting time.
Because I was so gobby in the podcast, I’v also added some excerpts from a workshop Kieron led at Warwick. The short one below is on Sight and Sound itself.
The longer one below is on writing film criticism in general and writing for Sight and Sound in particular. Kieron’s talk ranges from how to pitch, the writing of a draft, right up to the submission and editing stages. Top tips from Kieron, rather choppily edited by myself. But bound to be useful and certainly interesting.
‘The aim of Alternate Takes is to provide analysis of cinema that is informed by academic debates, but also walks a line between the journalistic review and the critical essay. It publishes long-form essays that embody this ethos, but the most obvious way the site has achieved this compromise position between reviewing and scholarly criticism is by writing about new films twice. First there is a short, evaluative piece that ‘spoils’ as little as possible about a film, but still grants a sense of the sorts of experience it offers; the idea is that this is a review to read before you see a film. Then, after you’ve watched it, you can read our Alternate Take – a longer, more in-depth critical piece, which usually digs more deeply into a particular critical issue that the movie raises. While over the years this dual-review format has become less rigidly enforced, the overall approach it fostered has remained the same, and the site has continued to publish film criticism that is in-depth, critical, mindful of social and artistic contexts, but also accessible and enjoyable.’
The impetus for this conversation with Josh Schulze was merely to find out if there was a new direction he, along with co-editors Matt Denny, Patrick Pilkington and Leanne Weston, wanted for the now celebrated digital platform and what that might be.
In the podcast Josh and I discuss Pauline Kael, cinephilia, the pressures of writing quickly and its effects on film reviewing, the nuances of film criticism and how Alternate Takes is devoted at looking at films and television in depth. We also discuss our admiration for the video essays of Adrian Martin, Catherine Grant and Kogonada, and how contributing to Alternate Takes is a great way for early career people and students to explore their ideas and take new approaches to film.
There are broadly two large cinephiliac discourses on cinema currently, each with a multitude of sub-divisions: a global, festival-based one, with internationally shared points of reference, largely inaccessible in the UK outside London. And the other, a more populist but also more insular one, also with many sub-divisions, which surrounds Hollywood, commercial British cinema, and the odd Indie or foreign film that gets nationwide distribution in the UK. In this very interesting podcast the discussion focusses on how MUBI might help bridge that divide.
João Moreira Salles in The Intense Now calls this the best film of the events of May 1968 in Paris. Certainly it’s the most beautiful: all those Super 8 images of handsome young men in love with cinema, horsing around, pretending to be nuns, looking for sex with pretty young women they promise to include in their films, poking fun at the earnestness of those selling L’Humanité on Sunday, being screamed at by the neighbours. The Super 8 images these kids shot for fun are enlarged and end up looking slightly grainy, or slightly our of focus, slightly spectral. The results of the processing of the film stock is soft, all slightly blurred edges, beautiful – a tonic from all the high definition sharpness of current cinema; as are the composition of the images themselves, which are very deliberate, often geometric. This is someone who’s been around cinema and in love with it from a very young age.
If the film begins with young men in love with cinema, it also charts their engagement with social change: on a trip to Spain as teenagers, they refuse to eat so that the Fascist tourist industry there won’t get any of their money. They return skinny, handsome, ready for adventures in radicalism. Soon, they get involved in the politics of their high school and of the communist party; they become student activists and ready to play a role in the events of 68 which will soon unfold. If cinema and social change are two of the film’s major interests what overhangs all is death.
The film is dedicated to, amongst others, Anne Sylvie, and the voice-over at the very beginning, that famous beginning cited at such length in In the Intense Now tells us:
‘Anne Sylvie, to die at thirty, the film is a little bit her story. She was tall, pretty, brunette, student, activist; she handled the high schools. I met her early on, in ‘66; she was in charge of our theoretical and practical training. I was secretly in love with her, and I can’t imagine I was the only one. She was tall, pretty, brunette. She is dead now. She committed suicide.
Dominic: To Die at 30/ ‘Half a Life’ . This film is a little bit his story. I had become an activist and he was the first student I recruited at Condorçet hight school. We became inseparable. We prepared all our actions together. One day, on the way back from a congress, he died in an accident.
Pierre Louis: Later I was working in film. I noticed Pierre-Louis did the rounds as a courier. He was a former militant. I did everything I could to get him a gig. We succeeded, he became an assistant editor. Then one night he killed himself.
March 23, 1978, Michel Recanati. Michel’s parent told me Michel had disappeared leaving his ID and cash behind. I shuddered. Michel is my entire political history, my only friend, the one most by my side. Years and years of projects, dreams, illusions. Hundreds of meetings, scores of protests. We were thick as thieves. Which is why I explained to his family that he must have taken off in search of another adventure. I deeply understood his desire to vanish. Since I , too that 23rd of March wanted to be gone. A few days before I had met Francine, a magnificent young lady, blonde and everything. I immediately loved her like mad so stayed. It’s when I heard about his death in 81 that I wanted to tell his story, our story.’
That beginning is an incantation that casts a spell. The film is composed of images and and a language that vividly evokes an era. The film is a great autobiographical video essay on the intersection of; cinephilia, social justice, biography, social history, the student movement in France, the events of 68 and their aftermath; structured as a quest to investigate the suicide of a friend that is also a metaphor for a generation of people who lived so intensely they committed suicide: by thirty, a half life, they’d lived so intensely they couldn’t figure out how to deal with the aftermath. Everyone looks young and beautiful in these dreamlike Super 8 black and white images. It’s extraordinary to see what they did so young. The film is textured through with a nostalgia that is slightly disconcerting in those so young. Images, sounds, voice-over all paint a romance of what it was like to live in the ‘Intense Now’ that led up to May 68 and the let-down of its aftermath.
I Love Dick, the TV series is doing such great things on television – great female filmmakers – Jill Soloway, Andrea Arnold, Kimberly Pierce, — exploring ideas that concern women: the show is about women, female desire, the female gaze, women on film. I’m finding it like a great art film of the sixties. You might not have a great time watching each episode but you’re dying to talk about everything in it with your friends. However, since none of my friends are watching it, I was driven to read the Chris Kraus novel on which it’s based. Reading it, one becomes conscious of a certain cinephilia.
Susan Sontag described cinephelia in her classic New York Times article, ‘The Decay of Cinema,’ as the love of a specific kind of cinema – modernist, complex art cinema – attached to a ritual of viewing, on a big screen in the dark. ‘The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space’, she wrote, ‘are radically disrespectful of film’. I prefer the more expansive and inclusive description offered by Girish Shambu of a ‘new cinephilia’ in his great eponymous book on the subject: ‘it includes the ‘art cinema’ that was primarily (Sontag’s) taste, and it includes the traditional theatrical viewing experience of the era she mourned but also has many other kinds of viewing situations. Further, it is an internationalistcinephilia, not just in terms of the films but, equally important, in terms of the cinephiles themselves.(Loc 20 of 832, Kindle)’ Furthermore, and importantly, it also involves ‘an active interest in the discourses surrounding films’.
In the novel of I Love Dick Chris Kraus uses sentences like ‘Back at Dick’s, the night unfolds like the boozy Christmas Eve in Eric Rhomer’s film My Night at Maud’s’ (p.4). She includes speculations like : “Who’s independent?” Isabelle Huppert’s pimp demanded, spanking her in the backseat of a car in Sauve Qui Peut (stet). ‘The maid? The bureaucrat? The banker? No!” Yeah. Chris Kraus assumes that everyone has seen those films; that her readers are cine-literate and cinephiliac. Guy Bolton’s excellent murder mystery, The Pictures, draws on knowledge of Hollywood in 1939, The Wizard of Oz, Louis B. Mayer. Other novels’ borrowings are more structural and include filmic aspects of point-of-view and narration.
Film cultures are an essential reference point to 21st century culture in general and cinephilia is one of the ways of engaging with it. The TV series of I Love Dick takes it even further than the book because it’s not only referencing the films but deploying Shambu’s more expansive notions and taking on the discourses around the films. Thus we see how the second episode is inspired by Chantal Ackerman’s Je, Tu Il, Elle and uses clips from the film to structure the show. In the first episode we get a whole dramatization of aspects of Laura Mulvey’s ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative’ cinema and other feminist writings on ‘the female gaze’ and a dramatic exposition of discourses around Women in Film citing once again Ackerman but also Sally Potter and Jane Campion and doing a montage of their films.
Cinephilia seems to have become central to long form television. I was reminded of this when watching the Season Opener of Aziz Ansari’s Master of None, ‘The Thief’. Dev (Aziz Ansari) has now moved to Italy, speaks basic Italian, learned how to make pasta and made a group of friends in Modena. The show begins with the camera panning from a pile of Marcella Hazan’s classic Italian cookbooks on one bedside table to a pile of DVD’s — including Bicycle Thieves, La Notte, La Dolce Vita, 81/2, Amarcord, L’Avventura – on the other. Italy is conveyed through food and a series of films from a very particular period, those largely taught in film studies courses.
Dev’s dilemma is taken directly from Bicycle Thieves, it borrows not only the look (b&w), the central premise (but in this case a mobile phone rather than a bicycle) and even classic shots (see below). Of course, this is a comedy: the tone is different. Here the theft doesn’t result in tragedy but merely in Dev losing a date. But part of the pleasure is in recognising the classic Italian art cinema dimension of the episode. And the pleasures of ‘The Thief’ are enhanced not only by recognising the references but by being familiar with the discourses around them. Its comedy relies very considerably on a very particular set of knowledges which it assumes as shared but is only common to an audience with a particular education or a self-acquired cinephilia.
 Girish Shambu, The New Cinephilia, Montreal: Caboose Books, 2014.
I had a fantastic cinephiliac moment at the Cinemateca Portuguesa – Museo do Cinema in Lisbon. As I was walking into the cafeteria with a friend, I noticed that as part of the permanent exhibition and hidden behind an old projector there was a poster for Johnny Guitar (Nicholas Ray, USA, 1954), but rather different than the one originally designed to advertise the movie upon first release in America.
There, as we can see above, what was advertised was Joan Crawford, billed above the title and in lettering that seems even larger than that of the title itself. The tagline at the top trumpets ‘Joan’s greatest triumph’. The image of Joan Crawford occupies almost all of the left hand side of the poster. She’s wearing trousers but the light emphasises her bust. Joan is imaged as a ‘pistol-packin’ mama’, but a glamorously made-up one, and with romance evident beneath and between her legs, against a backdrop of a canyon cliff rising towards her crotch.
Joan Crawford was not only instrumental in selling the film but the driving force behind it being made at all. In Nicholas Ray: The Glorious Failure of an American Director, Patrick McGilligan delineates how ‘Crawford was considered the picture’s de facto producer’ (p.244), how she not only owned the rights to the novel but had bought them before publication and may ‘indeed have commissioned it’(p.246) with Roy Chanslor first writing the novel as a lengthy treatment in the film.
In the bottom quarter of the poster we see a lot of other things the film promises: Sterling Hayden with a gun, a posse with Mercedes McCambridge, small but dead-centre in the lower section of the poster’s composition. We also see fire and explosions. Below the title are the other famous people in the film in order of importance and in relatively small print, amongst them Hayden and McCambridge but also Scott Brady. That the film is in ‘Trucolor’ is also advertised; as is the fact that the film is a Republic Picture, in yellow and on the bottom right. This might have been unwise as Republic was known as the cheapo studio even though this was one of its priciest products, ostensibly budgeted at $2 million. That Nicholas Ray directed is shown in half the size of the co-stars billed under the title and a mere fraction of the size of Joan Crawford’s own billing. This is significant because it is so unlike the poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa.
If the original poster promised a ‘kiss-kiss, bang-bang’ western with Joan controlling the kissing and the banging, the later poster offered something else: a ‘Nicholas Ray Film’. As you can see in the poster above, Nicholas Ray is billed first, in lettering that seems the same size as the title but in a font that makes it seem less; the title of the film seems twice as large as the name of the director. Thus the poster conveys a particular message, which could be relayed as: the director, the film, the image; the dialogue or one of the most exchanges of dialogue in a superb scene from one of the most famous films by one of the greatest directors. The scene is of course, the famous ‘Lie to me’ scene; a gorgeous composition with Joan Crawford as Vienna, carefully framed and looking onto Hayden, occupies much of the centre of the poster. The image gives more importance to the stars than the billing in the poster does, in which Crawford is billed below the title and on the right, thus after Haydn: she might be rolling over in her grave now at the very thought.
Underneath is the dialogue (which I’ve taken from the film itself), some of the most famous in the history of cinema:
Johnny: ‘Lie to me. Tell me all these years you’ve waited. Tell me.
Vienna: ‘All these years I’ve waited’
Johnny: Tell me you’d have died if I hadn’t returned
Vienna: I would had died if you hadn’t come back’.
Jonny: Tell me you still love me like I love you
Vienna: I still love you as you love me
Johnny: Thanks. Thanks a lot.
One could say that comparing the two posters indicate a shift in the appreciation of the importance of the director versus that of the stars. However, as we know from the tortuous billing of The Towering Inferno in the 1970s right down to the discussions of how much money James Toback can raise on the names of Alec Baldwin and Neve Campbell in 2013’s Seduced and Abandoned (only 4-5 milion) stars remain central to the whole commercial cinematic apparatus. It would perhaps be more true to say that the posters for Johnny Guitar are addressing two different types of audience, one commercial, contemporaneous with the film and seeking to highlight what might attract it; the other, a later cinephile audience seeking art and film history. Does this shift over time and in terms of audience address not carry within it a soupçon of sexism? It’s almost like Joan Crawford and all she once meant has to be buried so that ‘Nicholas Ray’ can acquire its own set of meanings; auteurism, so founded on particular sets of specialised knowledges, as a kind of unwitting and socially unaware sexist erasure.
What incurred that moment of Cinephilia at the Cinemateca Portuguesa was not just the reference to the film, although that is potent in itself: I admire what David Thomson called its ‘bold incursion into camp’ and even remembered Truffaut’s assessment: ‘a string of preciosity, truer than truth…The bold, violent color (by TruColor) contributes to the sense of strangeness; the hues are vivid, sometimes very beautiful, always unexpected.’ However, at the Cinemateca there were also posters for so many other films that had meant as much to me just next to it (see the lovely one for the Astaire and Rogers Top Hat below).
What thrilled me at the Cinemateca was the memory of how Almodóvar had deployed the exact dialogue displayed in the poster in one of the most famous scenes in Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. Pepa (Carmen Maura) is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Her lover has just left her. She’s got something important to tell him and he won’t let himself be found. They’re both actors who dub films. She’s at the studio dubbing Joan Crawford’s part in Johnny Guitar, her absent lover has already over-dubbed Sterling Hayden’s voice with his own.
As you can see above, Almodóvar starts with the mechanics of the film projector, cuts to an over-head shot that places the light thrown by the projector in the very middle of the frame, amidst the darkness of dimming lights, and creates a dream-like tone of feeling, of sadness and longing, that Pepa ads her voice to, that she voices but that also speaks her (and by turn Almodóvar and many of us).
In a stimulating round table on Cinephilia and the work of Jacques Rancière, Erika Balsom cites Serge Daney’s notion that ‘Cinephilia is not only a love for cinema. It’s a relation to the world through cinema’. That’s what we see in Almodóvars integration of the ‘Lie to me’ scene into the very narrative of Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown. As her absent lover whispers in her earphones what Johnny (Hayden) is telling Vienna (Crawford), ‘Lie to me. Tell me something nice’, the camera resting on Carmen Maura’s face, lined, lived-in, so much more human than the architectonic iconicity Crawford’s conveys. But we do not see Crawford. Indeed, as you can see in the clip, we do not see Johnny Guitar in this moment of the film. It’s only the dialogue, the dialogue from the Johnny Guitar poster at the Cinemateca Portuguesa, overdubbed so that it’s what Pepa and her lover, who cannot say this to each other in ‘life’, may do so through film. Johnny Guitar speaks Pepa’s relation to the world through cinema, and indeed, I would argue, as we can see through so many of his films, Almodóvar’s.
Later in the Rancière round-table, Balsom cites Raymond Bellour’s notion that the film body is a body that flees from us and we’re always left trying to recapture it through different kinds of practices. Not just a love of cinema but a set of practices that happen after and that try to recapture this lost experience. Perhaps that is what Almodóvar is doing in Women on the Verge. For me, the sight of the poster ignited a concatenation of old memories and new questions: What did the poster advertise? Who was it made for? Did Almodóvar see it? Were those bits of dialogue generally famous with a cinephile audience? Were they also part of a shared queer culture of the moment? My cinephile moment was not just an attempt to recapture the feeling of seeing this moment in Johnny Guitar, or in Women on the Verge, or in the relation between the two, though it was all of that; it was also a spark to action: to realise there’s more to discover and to know; a moment of trying to recapture something lost that simultaneously leads to the accretion — perhaps creation — of something new.