How do you prefer to watch movies? Do you think the way in which you watch a film contributes to your reaction to it?
The film critic Pauline Kael wrote: “When one considers the different rates at which people read, it’s miraculous that films can ever solve the problem of a pace at which audiences can ‘read’ a film together.’” It’s funny, a lot of people react to that line in LACONIA—where I write about watching movies alone. It’s like blasphemy when it comes to cinema. But it’s true. I do prefer to watch movies alone, for a lot of different reasons. I think they come in a different way when you watch them alone. When you do anything alone. I also started watching movies that way as a kid, and the way you start is maybe the way you always stay. I am really selective about who I watch movies with, so I had like movie friendships. Friendships that were based on watching movies together and talking about them. But I’ve moved away from that more and more, and DVDs and streamed movies only exacerbate my tendency. And since I’m also someone who writes about movies, I have particular tics and ways of watching them that would irritate someone who’s just trying to watch a movie for (uninterrupted) “pleasure,” because I’m constantly interrupting the cinematic fold, so to speak. Or maybe I’m never even in it in the way that a traditional viewer is supposed to be, which doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy it intensely. Where you don’t talk while a movie is playing. You don’t stop and start a movie. Go back, go forwards. Re-watch. Watch a movie too late or over a period of 2 days. But for me it’s less about watching and more about working through a film: what it’s doing, what it’s trying to do, what it’s showing, what it’s not showing. What it does to me. What it does to the world it’s in as well the world that’s in a film. The world it makes and that makes a film possible.
There are two quotes about cinema from Steve Erickson‘s novel Zeroville that I always think about. The first is: “Last night, the movie became mine and no one else’s.” Which is the idea that there is a kind of alchemy between a film (the true or secret film that is underneath the false film, as Erickson says repeatedly, which is the one everyone watches together—the “official film—at the same time. The film you’re meant to read in a certain way) and a viewer, so that cinema is also about who’s watching it—the chemistry between a particular film and a particular viewer, at a particular time, and that, like a book, has an ideal reader that contributes to the meaning and existence of that book, and the writer who writes it—a film needs the right pair of eyes to really see it.
The second quote from Zeroville that applies to what we’re talking about is: “The thing is, that movie last night is a completely different movie when you watch it by yourself. Why is that? Movies are supposed to be watched with other people, aren’t they? Isn’t that part of the point of movies—you know, one of those social ritual things, with everyone watching? It never occurred to me that a movie might be different when you don’t watch it with anyone else.” Having said this, it’s important to distinguish the critical, discerning, and radical intimacy between a viewer and a film from a kind of purely fetishistic and possessive relationship to images that is dangerous and titillating and alienating, and which Michael Haneke so brilliantly conjures in Benny’s Video, for example. And with Pablo Larraín’s Tony Manero. Where images are used to feel less, not more. Where images are used to cut us off from knowing what things really even feel like in the real world—off the screen. To engage with the real world less, or only via the screen. So that Benny thinks killing a pig, or watching a pig get killed, is the same thing as killing a girl in real life, in his house.
What I’m interested in now is an evolution of what I’ve always been interested in when it comes to film: The cinematic subjunctive. That is, the relationship between what’s possible in the cinema (how the cinema influences and/or hijacks our idea of possibility and potentiality) and what’s possible or not possible in real life—the gap(s) in between and what those gaps do to and mean for us—for our hopes, desires, and dreams; whether they limit and expand them, whether they hold them hostage in cinematic space, and how one—offscreen vs. onscreen—affects, shapes, and confuses the other. How they overlap and blur. Rub up against each other and clash. Sometimes even cancel each other out. Which is, in many ways, what I’ve been looking at all along—in LACONIA, Beauty Talk & Monsters, and Life As We Show It. For me, the real question is always: What do images want and what do we want from images? But not just from images when we look at them, but what wants of ours are stored in and reflected back to us (often unconsciously) by/through images—films? And can we access and live those wants and desires unless they are mediated and contained by images? How do images mediate and contain us? And more, how do we live because of movies? For as Geoffrey O’Brien writes in his book about movies, Phantom Empire: “If only it had been possible to live like this.” This is what every movie is always engaging with and putting us in touch with—if only it were possible to have this, to want this, to be this. Because as O’Brien also points out: “It wasn’t narrative that drew them but the spaces that the narratives permitted to exist.”
What is your favorite period in film history?
It varies culturally, of course. Whether it’s European cinema or Third World Cinema or avant-garde cinema. But in American cinema, it’s the 1930s and 1970s. With the 1930s, you have this athletic, dexterous, and energetic attention to language. To the elliptical way people talk and feel. Their rigorous back and forth—a sign of tenacity—of not being able to let something or someone go. I think one of the great things about the screwball comedies of yesteryear (and there are many) is their velocity, because that speed and energy and attention have to do with the quantity and quality and intensity of feeling and interaction and desire. In the 1930s, as Geoffrey O’Brien writes, “a movie was a completed destiny,” which has so much to do with the motif of time and memory; the way the characters live in and through and for time. So there’s this wonderful cadence and rhythm to everything. To the way things are felt and said and done. And in the 70s, you had the recognition of social reality and what it does to people’s lives. You had incredible doubt and skepticism and suspicion of dominant power structures, so that for a moment there was a sense that things could change politically and socially.
What’s your biggest critique of the industry?
Exactly that—industry. The way everything gets turned into industry these days, including people. I think Beauty Talk & Monsters really answers that question though. Continue reading