I’ve always been shocked that, with so many publications on cinema running on a planetary scale, so few of them pay attention to what writing and reading about film entails. I know some magazines have a book review section but, let’s be frank: in most cases, these reviews amount to little more than plot synopsis with a few general comments about the writer’s style. It is rare to find anything that pays some attention, in a concrete and detailed way, to the intricacies of writing/reading about film.
That is to say that I was quite overjoyed when the online magazine Sabzian invited me to participate in their new section PASSAGE, where they ask contributors to comment on a text/fragment on cinema that left a lasting impression. Firstly, because it’s been ages since a magazine has asked me to contribute to anything; secondly, because I believe this is a great initiative for a film publication; and, last but not least, because this has been one of my favourite assignments ever. It turns out that I like to elaborate on how and why I read certain texts, and about how and why I enjoy them…
It didn’t take me long to make my choice. I picked one of my first loves: Chris Marker’s “A Free Replay (Notes on Vertigo)”. In case you don’t know this wonderful essay, here you can access it in full. And here you can read what I wrote about it.
If I were teaching how to write about film, this is probably an exercise I would do for my students, and one I would ask them to do. It is an excellent way to understand what writing and reading are all about. I’m always a bit bewildered that students have such poor notions of writing. I’m not talking about writing film criticism per se—since students in a course of film criticism are there to learn, precisely, that. I’m talking about basic writing skills necessary to compose quite prosaic things: such as an email, a small paper, or just a presentation of their projects. As someone who quit her studies at 17, it hurts my soul that children (I’ve started calling anybody under my age children) in their twenties or thirties, and with at least one university degree in humanities, write so awfully badly. There are always exceptions, of course. But when you have a class of twenty students where eighteen of them lack elementary insights about how to structure and develop their thoughts, or how to give life and substance to their language, or how to build an idea instead of just repeating the same point in each paragraph (and I want to stress here that I really mean repeating the same point: without a twist, without any deepening, without a sense of surprise, or shock, or revelation)… well, then I have to wonder: what the fuck were they taught at university? Certainly, not how to write…
Then, of course, there’s another issue: while being inspired by good literature seems to take some time and effort (not to mention: some reading), being infected with bad journalism, the flashy slogan-like language of Twitter, and the rhetoric of fucking capitalism at large, is almost inevitable (unless you are very, very alert). All these things are surreptitiously turning every piece of writing into mere advertising. By which I mean: the problem is larger than the inexperience of students, and even larger than the failure of the educational system.
Today, on social media, I’ve read a little paragraph by Oliver Assayas (who, let’s remember: before being a filmmaker, was a critic at the most prestigious—joke in advance—film magazine in the whole world). The film distributor Criterion often invites filmmakers to choose their favourite films amongst those in their collection and to write a few lines about their picks. One of the films chosen by Assayas was David Cronenberg’s Videodrome: in barely six lines, he strings a series of utterly superfluous terms (such as “masterpiece”, “visionary”, “genius” or “great modern artist”) that, to use Ingeborg Bachmann’s expression, “get stuck in my throat”.
Seeing all these words in the same, single paragraph—words that, today, mean nothing, distinguish nothing, and are boring, senseless, and criminally overused—makes me want to cry and disappear. You might think that I am exaggerating. I can even hear you: “Why are you so over-sensitive? After all, this isn’t even a critical text; it’s a small paragraph for the Criterion picks, for God’s sake!” Well, I DON’T CARE!!! Things are already bad enough to keep blurbing films with those uninspiring commonplaces all the time—even if it is in the name of your heroes, your favourite films, the future of cinema, or the soul of our present. In fact, it is even worse to use them, precisely, in the name of such things.
In essence, this is no different than when my students (and so many paid reviewers) refer to “renowned” and “prestigious” directors, to “acclaimed” or “award-winning” films, to “brand new” releases, while using adjectives like “pretentious” and “intellectual” to dismiss what they don’t comprehend, and seeing “inventions” or “reinventions” in every work they fancy. Let me be clear: it’s not that I’ve put a strict ban on those words. I can take them, occasionally, if necessary, as a not very ingenious aid in—let’s say—a three-page text. But in one paragraph or a short review? I emphatically protest! In this context, these words are unforgivable because they don’t say anything worthy or distinctive, because they are so worn out and tired that they equalise anything falling under their rubric. And, because once you’ve disposed of them, all that is left is a big, big void. I know this, you know this—and do those who don’t deserve anything at all?
Just for the record: I have (almost) nothing against Assayas, or Cronenberg, or Criterion, or the fucking Cannes Film Festival for that matter. The truth is that I could have picked thousands of other (and probably much worse) examples to make my point: it just happens that this is what popped up repeatedly in my timeline as I was writing this. I might know nothing about the crimes of the future (I’m no “visionary” like Cronenberg), but I know a fair bit about the crimes of the present: 110 likes for that paragraph. C’mon: give me a fucking break!
Anyway, ending my rant and returning to my choice… There was a time when Marker’s essay was the latent theory behind everything I wrote. This obsession helped me understand that Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo is more than a film—it’s an emblem, a fountain, an inexhaustible source that particular films and directors, cinematic tendencies and narrative structures, even critical practices, draw from. I don’t think Vertigo would mean for me what it means today if it weren’t for Marker’s essay. To my knowledge, I’ve properly quoted “A Free Replay” only once before; but its sentences return to me again and again, claiming their place in my heart and mind—sometimes in the form of ideas, images, or literal expressions that inscribe themselves quite naturally in my writings. These disguised quotes become signposts conjuring a world full of meaning, but mysterious and elusive.
There was a time in which this text haunted me: it felt like a prophecy that I had to interpret, but that I was only able to circle around and dream about extending. I always had the inkling (to use Marker’s expression) that, at the core of his essay, there stood something essential about cinema or—at least—about my relationship to cinema. I even believed that writing on film was my second chance, my free replay so to speak (does this sound cryptic? Well, I plan to expand on it soon if you are so keen… ). Over the past few years, to keep writing on cinema with the ease I used to has proved very difficult (when not impossible). So, I’ve turned my despair into images: I’ve worked on audiovisual essays, I’ve started taking many photographs (mostly of myself: I’m not going to lie), I’ve made little films with videos recorded in my phone, and I’ve become fascinated with the overlaying of images. During this time, I’ve felt I was doing—by other means—what the hero does by refilming in Adolfo Bioy Casares’ The Invention of Morel. (This novel, despite wearing the mask of a chronicle of adventures and inexplicable fantastic events, happens to be my favourite book of film theory).
As I was writing my text for Sabzian, I stumbled upon an interview with Chris Marker (published also by Criterion: you see? I can be fair). In this interview, he was asked: “How would you present your life’s work, the sum of your cobbling, to a young person who didn’t know Chris Marker?”. To which he replied: “I’d tell them to read The Invention of Morel.”
All those signs must be there for a reason…
© Cristina Álvarez López, June 2022