Notes on Film Criticism (V)

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

As Tears Go By…

I’ve always been obsessed with likenesses amongst actresses. In 2015, Adrian Martin and I made an audiovisual essay on The Girl on a Motorcycle (Jack Cardiff, 1968)—a film whose over-the-topness is not very well regarded amongst cultivated cinephiles, but that we find interesting for a good number of reasons. In it, Marianne Faithfull plays a girl who gets married to a boring school teacher and, one night, dressed in a tight leather suit, escapes to see her lover (Alain Delon, no less) riding a Harley Davidson that was his own (again: no less) devilish wedding gift.

While we were making the audiovisual essay on that film, I became obsessed with a zoom-in on Faithfull where she reminded me a lot of Anna Karina in some early films by Jean-Luc Godard. What we first attempted to do in this new piece was a very slow-motion morphing: we wanted the shot of Faithfull (in The Girl on a Motorcycle) to transform into the shot of Karina (in Godard’s  Pierrot le fou [1965]). But, as we were playing with the fragments, some bits of dialogue from one film popped up on top of the other: the effect was uncanny. Suddenly, the words—charged with an ironic flair—seemed to refer not only (as would be expected) to the men inside the fictional narratives, but also to the men moving the strings of those narratives and to their relationships with women. Following that track, one thing led to the other quite naturally…

In this audiovisual essay, Anna Karina and Marianne Faithfull talk to themselves and to each other across six different films. Bitterly, blatantly, brutally: they muse—using words written by men and songs composed by men—on what it means (for all of us: there ain’t escape from the culture) to perform, inside and outside the fiction, as women invented by men.

Here are some facts that might have informed the shape of this piece:

—Marianne Faithfull has a small apparition in two films where Anna Karina plays the lead: in Godard’s Made in USA (1966), she is in the same cafe as Karina and, after being dumped by a guy, sings an a capella version of “As Tears Go By”; in Anna (a 1967 TV musical by Pierre Koralnik, with songs by Serge Gainsbourg), Faithfull has an spectacular entrance at a party, singing “Hier ou demain” while flirting with/dismissing the man with whom Karina is secretly in love (“Yesterday or tomorrow I would have said yes. Yesterday or tomorrow, but not today”).

—One level of Made in USA was inspired by the case of Georges Figon, a journalist (Time magazine unfussily called him “a French ex-convict and freelance barbouze [undercover agent]”) who claimed to have witnessed Mehdi Ben Barka, a Moroccan politician, being tortured (with the alleged aid of French police) and left to die by General Mohamed Oufikir, a former Moroccan Interior Minister, in late 1965. Once the story broke, Figon was, in turn, soon found dead in early 1966—having killed himself when cops arrived at his door, or so the official account ran. In the film, Figon becomes Richard Politzer (whom we never see), the ex-lover of reporter Paula (Karina). Intriguingly, when Godard recalled the film 12 years later for the lectures transcribed in the book Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television—even after at least partly re-viewing it with his Montreal seminar participants—he completely confused the character of Paula with Figon’s real-life daughter (whom Godard “used to know in Saint-Germain-des-Près”), resulting in this odd statement about the plot of Made in USA: “This is how I got the idea of the daughter who goes looking for him. It’s a classic story you see in ten billion American crime novels”.

—In the ‘80s, Godard’s films would several times dwell on the interchangeable ambiguity of “daughter” and “lover”, not least in Hail Mary (1985), and especially in a longstanding project titled Fathers and Daughters that was set to star Myriem Roussel from Hail Mary … and Godard himself as the Father! Given all that, one wonders: was Godard’s declaration about Made in USA a simple mix-up of characters, an innocent flaw of memory, a telling slip of the tongue, or a matter-of-fact pronouncement about the primal dynamics and images and fantasies presiding over the relationships between men and women?

—Daughters, of course, make for the best martyrs. I don’t mean daughters in the literal sense. I mean that women remain daughters insofar they are brought to life by the man’s desire—no matter how hard we are trying to live our lives. In Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)—the film that makes Anna Karina shed tears during Vivre sa vie (1962)Maria Falconetti’s face fills the screen, a tear runs down her cheek, and she boldly states (or, rather, the intertitles do): “Yes. I am God’s child”. God knows (pun intended) that Father is many things, but Daughter remains defined only in relation to Him who has brought her to life—whether awakening to erotic frenzy (as in The Girl on a Motorcycle) or to plain humanness (as in Alphaville [1965]). As daughter of man’s desire, the woman clings to Him for answers about her consciousness and her identity—and how could she not???

—The two songs performed by Faithfull (“As Tears Go By” and “Hier ou demain”) are both, in their own way, concerned with the paradoxes of time. And, perhaps because of that, they are especially sensitive to having their affect altered by the effects of time. While we were working on this piece, Adrian emailed me an interview with Faithfull where she said of  “As Tears Go By”: “40 is the age to sing it, not 17”. In 2018, she would record a new version of the song for her album “Negative Capability”. The song sounds different today, no matter what version you hear.

—The wisdom of age (the salt of tears) makes you look at the past with different eyes. It might be that you start seeing in movies the story that lies in the background. By the story that lies in the background, I mean: the fantasies that inform the fictions—especially when, as in Godard’s case, those fictions have repeatedly been called (not by me, but by a lot of critics): ‘filmic chronicles of the real relationship between director and actress’. With this, I don’t mean to criticise the films. I think the films—all six of them—are quite self-aware (albeit in their own confusing/charming/romantic/cruel way) that real relationships between men and women develop according to images, ideas, conceptions that pre-exist such relationships. However, I don’t think audiences today are in the business of dealing with such complexities, they are rather in the business of simplifying them: that is what happens when the discourse becomes poisoned by the genius/monster (aka hero culture/cancel culture) dichotomy.

—Let me put it like this: I understand that a large number of cinephiles are annoyed at the climate of hysteria and victimisation and its will to discredit, ban and cancel in the name of moral outrage. Often, I get annoyed at it as well. But, over the last few years (and I thank my depression for that: lots of tears), I’ve started to find equally annoying—and potentially more dangerous—the absolutely ingrained hero culture in which we live. Hysterics are easy to see everywhere and easily labelled as such; but the slimy adoration with which people identify with and project onto their chosen heroes has become almost too much for me to bear. Hero worship is common language and ready-made thought that runs amok everywhere (in critical texts, social media, and daily conversation) and, apparently, nobody seems much concerned with the harmful side of that. Do you think I’m exaggerating? The way I see it: cancel culture is the flipside of an over-inflated hero culture. Maybe give this some thought when you are bothered by the hysterics of the former.

—If you happen to be a woman, the pitfall of hero culture might be more easily available to your comprehension. As time goes by, you realise women rarely pop up amongst your friends’ heroes. As time goes by, you realise that—even if she is crucial to the mission, even if she provides (like Ariadne did for Theseus) the light and tools to succeed—the woman is never remembered for her role in the adventure, but only for her ties with the hero. (I understand that you don’t need to be a woman to grasp that fact; but it doesn’t mean the same for a man as for a woman to grasp it). In the—not unseen, but certainly infrequent—case that you happen to have a woman as hero(ine): I don’t think it really matters. Because the true problem with hero culture is that, according to its very own logic, everybody becomes some appendage: a curious object orbiting around the only star that matters, some obstacle or enemy or diligent servant—and not of the quest, but of the hero! This ain’t a great perspective to appreciate the complexity of films or of life. Not to mention: its infantilism is becoming a bit embarrassing.

—If you still don’t know what I’m talking about, try to tune into a couple of extracts from this 2016 interview with Anna Karina by filmmaker Caveh Zahedi:

Zahedi: Wow. So you’re mostly writing these days?

Karina: I’m writing, I’m singing, I’m doing, you know…

Zahedi: I’ve been trying to find the films you directed. I can’t find them anywhere.

Karina: I don’t know. That’s life. Maybe you have to die before, you know?

Zahedi: (laughing) Yes, you probably do.

Karina: [The first was] called “Living Together.” Vivre Ensemble. I produced it myself.

Zahedi: I hope I find it one day.

Karina: Me too.

Zahedi: Godard was the biggest influence on me. And the films that you guys made together are his best films. And so important. I’ve always wanted to make a film about your relationship with Godard. I know someone is making a film right now about Godard’s relationship with Anne Wiazemsky, right?

Zahedi: Do you guys talk still?

Karina: He [Godard] doesn’t talk to anybody.

Zahedi: Is that because he’s bitter or because he’s…

Karina: No, he doesn’t want to, I guess. I don’t know. What do I know? I’m not inside his head.

—While making this audiovisual essay, I read Marianne Faithfull’s (second!) autobiography. I’ll end witha passage where she recalls her time teaching at the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute:

At Naropa I taught songwriting. Lyric writing, actually. I just did what Gregory [Corso] did, I winged it! I tried to find what was in people and bring it out. Did I produce any notable students from that? I don’t know! It was hard, because they all connected me with – Mick Jagger! God! I’ve got over this now – I have, haven’t I? – but there was a time when I really didn’t want to be lumped in with the Stones and Mick Jagger. I’ve got over it, definitely, but what, you may ask, did Mick & Co. have to do with my teaching? Nothing. I wasn’t teaching the Rolling Stones Songbook of drugs, delinquency, and the lower depths. But that’s what they saw me as: the Stones’ rock’n’roll moll. That’s not what Allen [Ginsberg] saw and it’s not what William [Burroughs] saw and it’s not what Gregory [Corso] saw, but it’s what students saw – a rock wench who also wrote songs.

© Cristina Álvarez López, May 2022

Wetlands

Lately, it’s been raining a lot in my town. A couple of times, the morning after the storms, I went for a walk. I took a few videos of flooded streets and flooded parking lots. With them, I made a little film: Wetlands. It is unashamedly inspired by the inverted water reflections in Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973), a film that has been on my mind a lot lately. I even used a theme from the film’s soundtrack, amidst other soundtracks, and live sounds.

Once, in an interview, Brian De Palma said that making films was like catching lightning in a bottle: an image I have always liked. But, since I only make little films, I can content myself with weaving humble tapestries of water reflections. It is said that water is the element that has a closer relation with the unconscious. Make of that what you will…

This film is a reverie entirely composed (except for two twinkles of a shot) of images reflected in water. Images are not just the result of the film, they are its very raw material. My images were already images, even before I shot them. And they were already images overlaid in water, even before I overlaid them in my editing screen.

If you let water be your mirror (ask Narcissus), images dissassemble and reassemble themselves, make ripples, form waves, wriggle like serpentine tails, and are torn apart like digital glitches. This is my 18th little film and, if you ask me, it’s pretty hypnotic. In case this makes you curious about the rest of them, visit this showcase.

© Cristina Álvarez López, April 2022