Saturday, March 19, 2011

THE DISPOSABLE & THE DISCONTINUOUS: The Evening Class Interview With Jonathan Rosenbaum

In his essay "The 21st-Century Cinephile" for Filmkrant's dossier on "slow criticism", Girish Shambu proposed an acknowledged dialectic between long (i.e., slow) and short (i.e., fast) forms of criticism, in an admirable effort to locate value in their symbiotic relation. He writes: "Social media—historically beginning with blogs, then proceeding to Facebook and Twitter—break up criticism and discussion into a dizzying stream of ever-smaller bites pouring in ceaselessly from dozens of sources. Especially with Facebook and Twitter, ephemerality and transience are not just risks; they are built into the very software design."

The "risk" Girish is referencing underscores ephemerality's aesthetic compulsion. He characterizes social media's "dizzying stream" as placing all importance on the present while the past evaporates almost instantaneously. This is in marked distinction to how cultural critic Amalia Mesa-Bains has written about ephemerality in Chicano art, where the risk honors and evokes the past even as it is being lost. I asked Jonathan Rosenbaum if he could speak to this tension between long/slow (and here I might add archived) criticism and short/fast (and here I might add disposable) film criticism.

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Michael Guillén: Jonathan, you've written that "film criticism might be regarded as one of the most ephemeral of literary genres", which leads me to wonder at what point film criticism becomes "disposable", and whether or not there are certain advantages to some film criticism being exclusively disposable? Where's the balance between the wonderful bursts of information gleaned from a Facebook session and a critical archive as essential as your own?

Jonathan Rosenbaum: I like to think things that are valuable don't get forgotten or lost—that they get reconfigured elsewhere—because it seems to me that's one of the things that happens when somebody says something that matters to people. It doesn't necessarily get forgotten or superceded because of the fact that there's now greater access. What
is unfortunate—and it's something that's affected my website in a lot of ways—is that if things are not on-line, they almost don't exist for a lot of people. That's why I've had to spend a lot of time on my website re-typing pieces that are not digitally available, as a way of making them alive again. It's like pumping life into a corpse. People don't go to libraries anymore and libraries have been decimated probably everywhere but especially in this country. At one point I tried to give away a lot of books and DVDs to the library on my street in Chicago and discovered they no longer accept donations because they're so understaffed that they wouldn't even have a way of processing what was given to them. Even giving stuff away is not an easy process at all.

I don't know. It just seems to me that how people are making money is what dominates everything that everybody does and—to do something that's not connected to that—requires a concerted effort and interest. But I do think that there are these other activities that are underground and covert that include everything from piracy to the generosity of friends who share copies of rare hard-to-see films. It reminds me of when my Argentine friend Edgardo Cozarinsky said that—when friends make copies of films on video and DVD for their friends—it's like monks copying illuminated manuscripts in the Middle Ages. It's like keeping culture alive during the Dark Ages, if it is indeed the Dark Ages.

Guillén: Well, I don't think it's the Dark Ages, but it is an age where certain practices need to be cultivated to assimilate or process all that is being made available at the speed at which it's being made available. This is the wisdom of your website: you've created something of a respite, like a quiet library room, where a person can take a break from the "dizzying stream" to actually catch a fish. I frequently go to your site to research films and directors because I trust I'll get a clear answer to simple questions.

On the other hand, there's the very real danger of online sites going down with all their repositories of information. In fact, one related question I might ask is what you think of the hyperlink as a footnote citation? If your assertion that film criticism is ephemeral holds true, is there not an increased danger that even slow criticism will be disrupted by broken links?

Rosenbaum: That is an issue that pops up on my own website. I'll often find I've given links to sites that no longer work and I'm belated in discovering the links are broken. It is true that—even with a critical repository like my website—by the nature of its being online it is less permanent. But at the same time there are incredible retrieval systems like that mitigate against that lack of permanence.

Guillén: As well as qualifying the disposable. So let's turn to the next term that's of recent interest to me: the discontinuous, as in discontinuous viewing. "Discontinuous viewing" is not a new term by any means, but it has been given yet more mileage in reference to DVD and internet cinephilia.

Rosenbaum: Give me an example of what you're thinking of when you say "discontinuous viewing".

Guillén: More what I'm getting at is how it's being re-defined. What I'm seeing in some local Bay-area youth-driven cine-events is the reclamation and recontextualization of the term "discontinuous viewing" so that it's no longer equated with being a criticism of short attention spans but instead is being promoted as an aesthetic of being able to pay attention to many things at once. What interests this constituency more than a pure cinematic spectatorial event are intermedial events where cinema is combined with music, performance, social interactivity, and woven into a larger cultural art. So I guess I'm actually asking if you can speak to the positive aspects of discontinuous viewing?

Rosenbaum: I must say in fact, speaking for myself in terms of my working methods, my viewings are
quite discontinuous. I'm often working on several articles at once. I'll be watching part of a film and then I'll stop it. What I find it close to—and this is very important for me—is the way in which a film can become like a book. You can take it down from the shelf. If you have a favorite scene or a favorite passage, you can go to that passage. You can go back to something you just watched a minute ago if you missed a line of dialogue. And in the same way that you read a novel, you're not always reading it in one sitting. You're reading it in several sittings. The possibility of doing that with films, it seems to me, for me as a film writer has been a major advance.

Just to take one example among many. When I'm choosing illustrations for pieces I'm posting on my website, if I want to get a particular moment or a frame from a film, I can put the DVD in my computer and go looking for that one particular moment, and then take it out. It's not like I'm watching the whole film. It's more like browsing through the film to find a particular moment or a particular image that I want.

Guillén: So you're arguing you can be more articulate about your experience of the film?

And also illustrate things that I've already written much more precisely. In other words, as Godard used to think about criticism, "Show me the evidence." He thought that re-viewing the film was part of the critical act and that's, of course, what he was doing with Histoire(s) du cinéma in a way. That's very important because so much of criticism was hampered by the fact that you were depending on memories that were sometimes months or years old and could be inaccurate, which you couldn't go back and check. They were more like vague impressions. Obviously, it's different from that in re-viewing, but not always, people re-view things that they get on DVD and screeners and so on.

I have to say I probably go too far in the direction of almost preferring sometimes to watch things on screener, simply because of the greater access. Even if I see something on the big screen and it has a more visceral impact, as a critic I can't work with it the same way as when I
have it on DVD or screener. That involves, obviously, all kinds of discontinuous viewing. It might not be quite the same discontinuous viewing that you're talking about, but the whole idea of the excerpt and the extract is important in all of this too.

Of course, one thing that overtook criticism—unfortunately, I think, to a certain extent—was when the sequence became everything. The shower murder in
Psycho became Psycho in the same way that the Odessa Steps sequence was Battleship Potemkin. A film becomes reducible to a single sequence and the larger structure tends to go by the board. Of course, this "discontinuous viewing" probably encourages this sequence idea, but it doesn't necessarily have to.

One of the things that I found memorable when Walter Murch spoke about methods of editing film was when he noted that one of the disadvantages of editing digital film was that you could go right to what you were looking for and wanted to edit. As a result, he said that some of the best ideas he got as an editor was when he was looking for something else and came upon something he wasn't expecting to find. Those accidents could only happen in non-digital editing because you would have to go through a whole reel to find what you were looking for and in that process these "happy accidents", these accidental discoveries, would occur.

Guillén: One of the values I perceive in these reapplied processes of discontinuous viewing is that it turns cinema into a pliable medium that can be used in intermedial bricolage or collage to create new configurations. I think of it somewhat like what the introduction of classical music to score film might have meant in its own time. Was it a diminuation of classical music to apply it this way? Is it a diminuation of cinema to solicit its pliability for contemporary art projects?

Rosenbaum: Someone who is doing fascinating work with installations—and I wish I had more time to get to know it better—is Apichatpong Weerasethakul.
Uncle Boonmee is not one thing but several things, which use film in different respects. His film is a whole group of things. This is even true with The Forgotten Space (2010), a film by Noel Burch and Allan Sekula. Sekula is a still photographer and his book is actually the last stage of something involving a lot of exposition, of exhibitions and things of this kind. The Forgotten Space is not simply one work but it's a whole series of works that develop over time. That's more interesting than the whole idea of taking a detective novel and adapting it into a film so that there's just those two versions.

It seems to me that what becomes much more interesting is that Orson Welles—who didn't like to give up certain things—made at least two versions of
Macbeth that are both his edits that exist today that you can get on DVD. There are two, maybe even three versions, of his Othello. You can't even say that one is more of a director's cut than the other. To assume that it's one thing is problematic because, in fact, there are at least two director's cuts in these two cases.

This is something that has been followed much more systematically by Straub-Huillet. They would shoot several subtitled versions of their films and use different types in each version. That's true of many of their late features. Straub on his own is still doing that. Someone else who has done something in a related way is Pedro Costa. I just read about a new short film of his that's made up of outtakes from one of the Fontainhas films. So I think there's a lot of that that's going on and it goes against the whole idea of there being only one correct form or one appropriate form for a work of art and then everything else gets discarded.

Cross-published on Twitch.