Notes on Film Criticism (II): A Small Plot of Land

Once upon a time, I used to approach film magazines with the vague hope that they might be willing to publish some text by me. I rarely got an answer. But, when I did, it often came back with this question: “What are your areas of interest?” I may be a rare specimen because I’ve always found this question mindboggling. I, it seems, have no “areas of interest”. But I experience, very strongly, how desire forces me to write. Occasionally, it happens that I’m deeply moved by a film. Sometimes, I’m moved by moments, ideas, arrangements that do something to me. This has absolutely nothing to do with “areas of interest”, I assure you. It has to do with the aesthetic power of cinema, with its violence, with its unpredictability. And it is on account of this experience that I write.

Of course, I can lie, and compile a fake list of “areas of interest”: themes, authors, genres, movements, periods, national cinemas … Nothing bores me more, but I can do it – and I have, at times, done it. The thing is: I don’t see what good it does to anybody. Writers become, often complicitly, typecast; publications turn into a hospital’s consulting room with every film treated by the appointed specialist; and editors are excused from getting acquainted, for themselves, with the writer and his writing. One can learn more about a writer by reading him carefully than by asking him to compile fake lists. But the current drive for massive content creation has very little to do with reading and writing. So, yes, I can lie. But what is the point?

I try to avoid writing about big subjects, general topics and pressing issues. There are directors I like very much, and I believe auteurism is a useful approach to many (if not, by any means, to all) kinds of cinema. But I’m more drawn to particular texts than to authors. When I work on one film, instead of writing a bit about everything (that is: about nothing much at all), I try to concentrate on a single thread or a few threads. If I look back at the work I’ve been doing, I realise there’s been a tendency to go smaller. Lately, I’ve been writing a lot on short films. I’ve been writing on passages, moments, individual scenes, a few shots, sometimes just a cut. I could write pages on a cut: on what happens in the transition between one shot and the next; on the moves, transformations, reconfigurations that this brings forth; on the effects produced by the formation and dissolution of singular elements and precious combinations … But, despite the fact that the Internet allows (or so they say) a greater diversity of approaches, you try pitching that to a publication and see what happens.

Tracing the circumstances, events and encounters that have driven me to this path toward smallness would require more than one single post, and too much autobiography. But this I can say: sometimes, I treat these scenes (or passages, or moments) as fragments – fragments that may perhaps mirror the entire film; that can, at least, enter into relation with other parts or with a whole. But, more often, I treat these scenes autonomously, with little or no reference to the totality that encompasses them. Here, I think, I’m closer to the miniature worlds described by Gaston Bachelard in his Poetics of Space (1957): scenes are “refuges of greatness” in which “values become condensed and enriched”. A scene is a universe in itself, a universe with which I can become one.

There are film critics who like to move across wide extensions. They are cartographers; they map territories. Their writing is not earthbound, but enlivened by everything aerial: winds, leaps, flights. I sometimes enjoy reading these writers, provided their pirouettes are beautiful and their landscapes are imaginative. I enjoy reading them if the lines they trace and the connections they make trigger enough vibrations and resonances. But this is not how I write. I’m happier on a small plot of land. Like the one at the end of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Solaris (1972): a garden of childhood. Except it’s not the same garden of your childhood. Neither phantasy, nor recollection, this is desire’s own creation: a little island in the ocean of a foreign, inhabitable planet – a miniature.

A small plot of land always has something to do with conquering anew. It is a universe at my measure, where I feel at home, where I make my home. A universe that can be sensed intimately, that can be explored up close (in every corner, every detail, every breath and pulsation), that can be truly inhabited at last. “All small things require slowness”, writes Bachelard. The scene, this small plot of land, is something I can really work, relentlessly and patiently: watching its seeds grow into fruits; watching its fruits changing shape, texture and colour; learning – through them, with them – about time, seasons, temperatures, climates. No, I don’t have “areas of interest”, but I still can marvel at the greatness of a small plot of land.

© Cristina Álvarez López, June 2019

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