A Letter from the Editor
The inner, what is it: if not intensified sky hurled through with birds and deep with the winds of homecoming.
—Rainer Maria Rilke
This book was meant to function as a catalogue. Instead, it has pieces about films we aren’t screening, is missing pieces about films we are, and is too long, colorful, and therefore expensive to print more than a few hundred copies of. There’s no schedule, no list of films, and almost half the pieces are completely unrelated short stories and poems.
I used to be a graduate student. I kept finding that when I wrote about books and movies, I was interested in how they were made and how they were read: in diaries and letters, and in PR campaigns, reviews, and reappraisals. This wasn’t in a politicized, canon wars way. First, it was fascination at how my tastes were labeled “politically incorrect.” I wanted to write my dissertation about a hugely popular, visionary writer that I adored, who had been dismissed in America (but not in his native France) as a despicable misogynist. It was my incapacity to like things people talked about at parties. New York Times Critics’ Picks, with their predictable roster of themes and characters, left me feeling suffocated by the apparently socially-consented-to end of art.
And in an obliquely related way, I loved how every artist I loved seemed almost incapable of functioning: how much Tarkovsky dwelled on petty slights, how much Flaubert fought with his mistress. Isolated among academics, I felt closest with these imaginary projections, and I revered them, but to use Delmore Schwartz’s language, they were simultaneously “the individual/ Who drinks tea, who catches cold.” And to think of artists as ordinary, clay-footed, at the mercy of bad reviews and angry friends and deplorable trends, gave me hope, for myself and for the future of art. My favorite biography of Alain Robbe-Grillet was a short, poorly typeset, single-edition French one, which barely touched on his novels or films; instead, it focused on his Nazi-collaborator parents, his sexual hang-ups, and the bad weather of his native Brittany.
It’s hard to find film writing that’s interesting at all. Most reviews are written for almost no money, in almost no time, for almost no one to read. Academic film studies is a young field, but seems to have abandoned close analysis in favor of politicized, movement-based critique that uses films as chess pieces in a virtuous political statement.
I was in a graduate department with an identity crisis; it had been the birthplace of “French theory,” but ever since Paul de Man had been discovered to have been a Nazi collaborator, it had heel-turned into historicism. And yet, I loved my graduate school adviser. I loved that he wasn’t afraid of beauty or of feeling, unlike most academics; I loved that he abandoned screenwriting to do a PhD in French after he found himself crying in an East Hollywood diner over Flaubert’s Sentimental Education. His books on the birth of literary realism combined formal criticism, subtle and coherent and vigorous, with a deep knowledge and feeling for the birth of modernity. He loved these books, and he loved the fact of the 19th century. He loved accounting for the unaccountable past. And that love was borne from his life, it seemed: from his failures in Hollywood, from his bachelordom, from his quiet politeness.
I wanted this catalogue to have surplus value. Most film catalogues are disposable: a synopsis, a few lines of polite praise, then run-time/language/format/etc. I liked publications with a voice. The charm of the two most eminent French film magazines—Positif and Cahiers du cinéma—was that, in their prime, they cared about something (aesthetics and politics, respectively). They had a project. They had a point of view.
What was my point of view? In part, it was to be personal. I liked publications that seemed to exist in the world, where artists and critics alike are trudging through the same minute-by-minute, often tedious, often unbearable world as we are. Like John Boorman’s annual Projections, each issue of which included one prominent filmmaker’s diary of the previous year.
“Film people,” even more than “literature people,” seem to like the actual art as only one slim fraction of a larger identity project; they also have to wear baseball caps, for example. They’re scarily status-conscious, terrified of looking ignorant or try-hard. It occurred to me, at some point, that even programming a film festival was deeply embarrassing.
I wanted, against this dysfunctional backdrop, for us to drop the pose of the neutral reviewer who happens to like the same things his friends like, and just be open about why we like or don’t like them. I didn’t want the writers to be aloof or hip: instead of being cool, I wanted them to think about coolness. About taste, about politics. And about themselves: as critics, as fans, and as haters. I wanted the writers to talk about shot scale and lighting and editing, etc., but to speak as individuals with their own attachments and aversions, formed in their own lonely corner of a sometimes inscrutable socius. Creative writing seemed integral because films aren’t just a stand-apart art object: we curate our lives with them, and we create ourselves through them. And not always for the “better.” And I didn’t want to shy away from that. I didn’t want to be afraid.
That’s the point of view, the project: freedom.
Many of the films in here are “bad.” While some repertory films, like those of Catherine Breillat and John Waters, were banned or labeled NC-17, some of the newer films were simply pressured out of festivals and into obscurity. Good art is always at odds with the strangulations of groupthink, politeness, and bourgeois conformism. Art should be allowed to make people uncomfortable. Art should be allowed to be controversial. Art should be allowed to show everything cruel and nasty and tragic in our reality, and without a condescending notice-of-immorality slapped on it. Instead, streamers stick to algorithmically predetermined content, proven by data harvesting to avoid controversy, and with the increasing corporatization of festivals, even “independent” curation serves no function beyond bringing people to local bars and keeping sponsors happy. There’s no need for a new film festival; but there is a need for a film festival that takes risks. For one that doesn’t have a reputation to lose. And we don’t need to list run-times—those are online—instead, we need to question the pressures that are suffocating art: Are you allowed to like watching bad people do bad things? Are you allowed to be bad? Are you allowed to admit it? And if not, is that maybe why even before COVID, fewer Americans went to the movies than they ever had in 92 years of talkies?
I wanted this catalogue to evoke why people care about films at all, what the point is of having a film festival (an almost ridiculously obsolete ritual), what the point is of writing about film. I wanted to have a unified editorial voice made up of everyone’s most individual, most shameful, most unorganizable voice.
I wanted to make an anti-catalogue.