The Comfort of Writing: An Email Correspondence with Andréa Picard
This is the second letter I’m writing you; I threw the first one away. It contained my frustrations with the art of writing about cinema. It circled around my unhappiness while reading contemporary texts about cinema. I think it’s too early in the year to go there yet again – plus, it’s too easy and it doesn’t lead anywhere. My first letter also described how much I’ve always liked your writing, especially your way of going beyond the single film you’re writing about in order to put it in the greater context of an auteur’s body of work or a historical period. This sentiment holds true the second time round, and I think it was my admiration for your work that lead me to another idea for this exchange – so, here’s what I would like to write about instead: I should warn you, it’s a bit unreasonable and downright stupid, but I actually love to fail, and I wonder if maybe writing (about cinema) might be thought of as an art of failing.
Let us imagine the perfect text about a film – a text that does justice to the film and the people who worked on it; to the person reading the text, whether prior to or after watching the film (and, why not, during the film). This hypothetical text does justice to the language it is written in, to the medium in which it’s been published and the idiosyncrasies and sensibility of its writer. It’s a text that knows more and at the same time less than the film it deals with; a text that maintains a critical distance and brings us closer to a work. It is in dialogue with the past and present of cinema, art, and culture in general, as well as all the relevant details from beyond the cultural domain – in relation to politics or geography or ornithology, for example; whatever is needed.
I know only two things about such a text: one, it doesn’t exist and, two, even if it did, nobody would read it. However, this shouldn’t stop us from imagining it. I would like to read how you imagine such a text. What would it give you as a writer, as a reader? I have just one rule for you, if you’ll permit me to issue it: Please refrain from using as your answer that the necessary shortcomings of such a text are part of its qualities. Even if that’s true, it’s just too easy a way out – and if I wanted easy ways out you’d be reading my first letter now instead.
I’ve procrastinated with this response as I often do with my own texts; delays, detours and diversions have always been part of my writing process, as if confronting the blank page first requires turning away from it. One could generously infer that this postponement is about reflection and research, and in part I suppose that it is, as it is often not until actually writing about a film – which includes finding the just words – that I make an assessment beyond my initial reaction. And it is indeed a time of maturation of thought, doubt, and, in some cases, a change of opinion – rarely in favour of consensus building, although I try to be open to a convincing argument as much as to gnawing, lingering hesitation. I cannot deny my contrarian impulses, however, and I do try to put them to good use, whatever that may mean. Perhaps a defence of mischievousness, which I am always happy to support in myself and in others.
I will also concede that this tacit avoidance is ultimately very much bound up in dread. The self-imposed worry of not doing a film justice, of not fully understanding the filmmaker’s intent, of making factual errors (not being a filmmaker myself) or facile observations, and of writing poorly – for lack of time or of focus, or a confluence of deadlines taking up space in my head, or any number of other reasons. I also have to confess that my enthusiasm for reading and writing film criticism has waned somewhat over the years – which is not to say there aren’t a great many writers whom I admire tremendously and look forward to reading, yourself included, or that I don’t still occasionally enjoyed the agony of confronting that white page and building sentences that hopefully amount to something meaningful for someone. But increasingly, it is difficult to feel adequately equipped to do so in this age of over-saturation, robbing us of our time and clarity.
In my early days of working at Cinematheque Ontario (now TIFF Cinematheque), I pinned a quote from Amos Vogel above my desk as a reminder of my obligations: “The individual brave enough to venture into this troublesome field must be no matter what the size of the audience, an organiser, promoter, publicist, and copyrighter, businessman, public speaker, and artist.” The inclusion of the word ‘artist’ always made me smile; it felt like a comforting endorsement of the chaos within me, but also the lifelong discipline and dedication (perhaps ‘compulsion’ is more apt) that the field inspires. This is a very long, roundabout way of saying that I am very much in my post-perfection phase, finding solace not so much in imperfect texts – I’m not attempting to elide your proposition by arguing for inevitable shortcomings, au contraire – but in writing that renews my love of cinema, of language itself and, frankly, of knowledge. In some ways you have already outlined what a perfect text could be. I would add and echo that it should be expansive, filled with insight and wit and ease of expression, and that it should forge a compelling argument, work to illuminate the past, and include other fields of thought or practice. Not being boring is also a tremendous and powerful quality.
Never has writing about cinema required such breadth in order to grapple with the complexities and contradictions of forces like rampant capitalism, globalism, and post-colonialism, as well as the fact of a culture notable for both its sophistication of thought and an aversion to, and denigration of, intellectualism. The dismantling of the vocation of the critic and the democratisation of the internet are contentious subjects, aren’t they? You’ve listed a great many attributes that I do seek out in texts about the cinema, ones that teach me something and introduce me to references that are new to me, that are a sheer pleasure to read in their rhythms, construction and wordplay, that passionately and courageously take a stand, offer observations that are just so smart, and that – and this is tall order – stand on their own, as works in their own right. I do not have a desire to read such a text during the film it discusses, however, nor would I want any other audience member to. Is that too old-fashioned? Before or after is fine, with a personal preference for post-screening. I have no shame in revealing spoilers in any text I write and trust in the reader’s own responsibility in that regard. Narrative details often elude me upon first viewing anyway, as I am easily seduced by a film’s form and visual pleasures, and believe in the politics of style – a concept in need of defending perhaps even more in these times of plenty.
I have a professed fondness for print media. The tangible nature of books, magazines, and journals is very important to me, their existence a sort of refusal to disappear into the bottomless miasma of the internet. When I get stuck, there are a great number of books I reach for that help to propel me forward – these could be thought to approach something like perfection. I admire those who can write quickly, succinctly, clearly, convincingly, and regularly. Sadly, I can do none of those things. The notion of finding solace in certain pieces of writing and identifying in them the continuation of a sort of international community that has and continues to champion the art of cinema may be perfection enough.
I wholeheartedly agree with your observations. I think there are two things, however, that we’ve either left out or only hinted at, and I’d like to know what you think of them. The first is related to the lack of desire for reading about cinema you mentioned. Like you, I find it more and more difficult to read texts about film and, in my own writing on the subject, I search for insights that go beyond the medium. For quite some time I’ve wondered whether this is a personal issue (growing out of cinephilia; developing other interests) or a general tendency. I have come to believe that this tiredness is not mine alone, but that it’s shared by many both inside and outside the production of such texts. You’ve pointed to the over-saturation that to a certain degree defines our time and that’s certainly an issue we have to face head-on as a community of people thinking critically about cinema. It’s too easy to just play along and complain. It’s also too easy to just leave and save yourself. We’re stuck like Odysseus’ crew on the Sirenum Scopuli, just as the songs of the sirens have turned into cheap pop. Something should be done about it. Writing super-fast about everything that comes one’s way, choosing to cover everything that seems important before even having seen it – these are methods of panic and degeneration.
However, I don’t think it’s just the volume of texts (and films) that’s killing the urgency and joy of cinema, it’s the way we can’t really avoid or at least ignore all the imbecilities written about it; the way we have somehow forgotten how to differentiate between urgency and promotion, knowledge and opinion, desire and callousness. I’m glad you mentioned the importance of print. I think it relates to that. I do think that a text, one that manages to transcend all of these pitfalls (it doesn’t have to be perfect) would need to have been composed outside of the structures most of us have to work within today. I very much like the image of the film writer as a pearl diver – but it gets complicated by the fact of the terrible working conditions that actual pearl divers face. I prefer the image of someone walking along the beach, looking for seashells. It’s in such a state of mind and with such a desire that a text on cinema might still touch me.
The other thing I’d like to address is the dominance of the English language in film writing. From my Central European perspective, I find it incredible how willingly film culture gives in to a way of looking at the world that has very little to do with my way of life or values. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all in favour of this international community, but it’s not really ‘international’ if only one language is used, and it’s not really a community if you need proficiency in that language to join in. If I stopped writing in English I would have to leave film writing. There just wouldn’t be enough income, even though I’m still relatively privileged, because German is spoken in three countries and these countries are rich. I am sure that great writers with drive and sensitivity from Bulgaria or Finland (sticking with European examples), writers that could confront our tiredness with exciting ideas, not only don’t get read, but also that they will give up soon. What I want to say is that I think the perfect text about a film is written in the language closest to the writer. Since this is not at all how the industry works, we wind up not only ignoring great writers, but we also get bombarded with a lot of average writing because many ideas (and I say this from experience) are just impossible to phrase if you lack the vocabulary. I don’t know if you agree, but if you do – do you think anything could be done about it?
PS Those reading during a film are lost anyway. I don’t think you are too old-fashioned there. If anything, I’ve been too polemical. I’d even go as far as to think that great film writing, for me, only works after having seen the film. Then it’s a dialogue with something alive. But we mustn’t underestimate the importance of imagining films we haven’t yet seen. Sometimes just one sentence about an image or an idea I’ve not yet encountered can change how I perceive the world. Imagining the films we haven’t seen is maybe a huge part of film culture, one that isn’t talked about enough. In this case, writing is maybe like a seed that can grow even without the light that brought it into existence in the first place – something we should keep watering at least, just in case the light comes back?
I must confess that every now and then I love a cheap pop song and so won’t be showing you my playlists anytime soon! But, joking aside, if done right, the meeting of high and low in a text can be very persuasive, amusing in some instances, and reflective of the myriad contradictions we navigate every day. More and more, I think high and low coexist in interesting ways, and that’s forced me to widen my own scope of reference and somehow be more generous in considering alternate points of view. To your point about wanting texts to go beyond cinema, I think that’s precisely what Amos Vogel was suggesting in his description of the ideal film programmer – an adjacent role. While film can certainly be abstract like painting, it often trades in the representation of life itself, arguably more than any other art form. As a result, the hope (ours, at least) is that the most astute, sharp-eyed texts on cinema will naturally go beyond cinema itself, and especially if the film is good. A great film teaches us so much about the world in which we live; I think a successful text will have to explore the ways in which it does so.
It’s certainly not easy to live up to the task when it requires some deep thinking about human psychology or any number of intimidating philosophical implications. It demands reasoning instead of tuning out to a trashy pop song, even though I think my thought process has sometimes benefitted from the latter. There’s a whole lot to be said about a relaxed state of mind, an increasingly endangered species in and of itself! In some ways, the daunted have to become the desirous and this does require a certain kind of psychic energy, the wellspring of which seems to have been drained during the pandemic. But that’s another topic altogether…
The word ‘urgency’ is also an interesting one to consider in this context. In the past decade or so, it’s become a sort of buzzword for political significance used by many of us to distinguish certain works from the ever-mounting pile. With so many films being made and considered, we must make time for the ‘urgent’ ones as implored by our senses of resistance; those seashells washed ashore that are in danger of being stepped on, buried or broken, and have already taken great risks on their own to make it this far. As you’ve inferred, their precarity within the (eco)system is far too often mirrored by that of the writer seeking to advocate for them, while the moneyed white elephants continue to dominate the field.
There’s much to be said for cinema’s industrial roots and its evolution, but the precarity of auteurist cinema as commercial endeavour (by that I mean theatrical release for a wider public) has reached a depressing level. Are all of our texts extremely niche and therefore only ever able to have little impact in the grander scheme of things? I refuse to believe this, even if there’s more than an ounce of delusion in that thought. We know how press junkets and award campaigns work, their capitalist mechanisms couldn’t be any more blatant. But, to be frank, none of that interests me and while it can be annoying to always need to drown out the noise, I’m encouraged by the fact that younger generations have access to great cinema via many streaming platforms, whether the Criterion Channel, MUBI, or those websites operating in a legal grey zone that allow for streaming or peer-to-peer downloading, especially important where the first two are not available. I think that’s contributing to a richer discourse and a greater appetite for what is now mostly non-commercial cinema, and that will, in many instances, drive people to the theatre. There will always be dumb takes, in print and on the internet (as there always have been in the past, in newsprint or otherwise), but I also see an increase in younger people wanting to participate in and contribute to a more considered, cinephilic conversation.
There’s no denying the hegemony of the English language (as in most fields) and I understand your resistance to recognising an international community of film writers when we cannot read their contributions or communicate with one another. I write in English and French, and read in a couple of other languages, which has granted me access to a whole lot and for which I’m very grateful. Especially with French, I can read texts from so many different countries – the result of nefarious colonial exploits. I agree that the ease of expression that we’ve demanded of something like a perfect text could likely only originate from one’s primary language but I have also found merit in and have been moved by texts that seem to have struggled to find the right words in a second language, intent stubbornly wending its way through haltered prose. But you’re right, that those who don’t speak English often lack the same visibility and are left out of a wider conversation. When I used the term ‘international’, it was more linked to an image of solitary writers all over the world, less lonely at the thought of others sharing their passion.
I felt like writing to you after stumbling across this paragraph by Virginia Woolf:
Now, lying recumbent, staring straight up, the sky is discovered to be something so different from this that really it is a little shocking. This then has been going on all the time without our knowing it!—this incessant making up of shapes and casting them down, this buffeting of clouds together, and drawing vast trains of ships and wagons from North to South, this incessant ringing up and down of curtains of light and shade, this interminable experiment with gold shafts and blue shadows, with veiling the sun and unveiling it, with making rock ramparts and wafting them away—this endless activity, with the waste of Heaven knows how many million horse power of energy, has been left to work its will year in year out. The fact seems to call for comment and indeed for censure. Ought not some one to write to The Times? Use should be made of it. One should not let this gigantic cinema play perpetually to an empty house.
It’s from her On Being Ill. I thought of you and our correspondence for three reasons:
1: Woolf’s gigantic cinema exceeds the scope of any screen. It relates to the act of seeing as such. For me, writing about cinema is also a way of relating to the world, or at least it used to be like that. I’ve always wanted to be part of the films I love and since dancing, kissing, smoking, shooting, driving, dressing, or indeed feeling as if I were living inside these intensified worlds seemed mostly impossible, writing was the only thing left that kind of worked. The same is true for the world and my relation to it. To be honest, I think watching and writing about films has lead me to this notion of a gigantic cinema in which I don’t have to stick to the unwritten rules of cinephilia or, worse, critical discourse, and can perceive beyond the frame. Today I prefer to write without cinema coming between me and the world. These frames – and I’m not talking about aspect ratio – make cinema appear too small, despite its immensity. Sometimes I feel this urge to look down on cinema but it’s precisely in assuming the recumbent position that Woolf describes, and the staring up (also demanded by Godard), that makes cinema gigantic. How is it for you – do you still feel like you’re staring up at the sky when watching a film?
2: The empty house she invokes is something we’re all afraid of, I think. It’s a literal emptiness in the sense you mentioned, that nobody reads about cinema anymore (and nobody goes to the movie theatres), but it’s also a spiritual emptiness inside of us. As much as Woolf is pointing to something that, tragically, we overlook every day – the spectacle of nature, something I find much more important than any film – it’s also true of cinema; that we don’t pay attention to good films. For me, this emptiness also relates to the words I have to use sometimes when faced with the need to advocate in some way for a film I don’t personally feel passionately about. I am very curious to know how this works for you since you’ve been working as a film curator for a long time. For me, each time I have to promote a film I don’t really like, each time I have to write about a film I’m not interested in or fudge the truth in order to be considered for a writing gig, this house gets a bit emptier. How do you deal with the different and sometimes conflicting demands that come with writing about (/programming/promoting) cinema?
3: Woolf’s description – the use she makes of what she sees, the way her words create the very sensation she describes, the relation between the writing and the thing itself – that’s where I find meaning, that’s where I begin to feel something. In order to describe the clouds above us, we can’t go back to any movie scene or read about a certain artistic movement or shade of colour on the internet. We have to observe and memorise. How much space is there for your own perception when writing about a film? Do you consult other writer’s texts? How important is description for you? I’m reminded of Whistler’s painting practice: he would survey a landscape, then go to his studio and paint it from memory. On the following day, he would go back to the same spot with the painting in order to see how effectively he had been able to capture it. I think writing about a film should look a bit like his famous images. But who would read such a text?
PS On second thought, I can’t completely rule out that the sirens may have actually been singing cheap pop songs all along. I even find it quite probable that such music is exactly what would have kept those sailors ashore. In mythology, at least in how I perceive it, there’s no differentiation between high and low at all. It’s only in cultural practices alienated from nature that these distinctions become important. I’m not sure if cinema is such a cultural practice, but I fear writing about it very often is.
Thank you for sharing this beautiful Virginia Woolf passage, so evocative in both its images and sensations – and a pleasure to read many times over. While I rarely escape to the countryside, I have recently moved into an apartment that overlooks a park, with a vast expanse of sky that never ceases to command my attention at nightfall. Regardless of what I’m doing, the view outside the window has the power to lure me into contemplation and inevitably serves as a reminder of how small and transitory our existence really is – that feeling so intensely is only such because our experience of it will not endure, especially in the face of the natural world. The sun will continue to set as we grow older. I’m aware of just how clichéd and terribly sentimental that sounds, but when I’m there like one of those countless figures at the window, I do genuinely look out with wonder and experience an assuaging sense of calm and amazement. (Quite embarrassingly, when I first moved in last summer, the drama of the sky led me to send a barrage of scenic phone photos to friends, each one seeming to me more beautiful than the next. I simply could not contain my excitement for this perpetual, perceptual newness until one of my friends finally texted, “enough with the Terrence Malick pics”, and that was the end of that – even though I would argue they were closer in style and spirit to Peter Hutton. Mais bon…)
Patrick, you’ve offered me the awesome, enveloping grandeur of nature as cinematic metaphor, and I’m ashamed to say that I’m reciprocating with death! Your evoking your desire to participate in a film’s world, to experience with reckless abandon all of those encounters and sensations that seem out of reach in our own lives, also inspires nostalgia in me, reminding me of a time when I was frequently held in a film’s thrall. It’s a sensation or memory that I inevitably associate with youth, or the past at least, and now I’m confronted with having to ask why that is. I feel this when I write about films – that I am less enraptured, less carried away. But what a nice feeling it is to want to give oneself over to a film or work of art or literature – or to nature. In part, I think that sense of excitement is tied to discovery and while I encounter many new films each year – some, great works that I love – nothing can compare to the early years of discovering large swaths of film history. When I first began attending the Cinematheque in Toronto, a whole world opened up before me. Cinema’s incredible qualities of space-time travel can do wonders for impressionable minds that have yet to venture very far in the ‘real’ world; when there are many foolish life lessons still to be had. Recently, with the deaths of Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Marie Straub and Michael Snow, three filmmakers who were such a crucial part of my early cinephilia, I can’t help but feel a sense of an ending.
Film, of course, is a great recorder of death. Reviving moments in time and people over and over again with cinema’s great gift of resuscitation – it is life and death; a haunting and haunted medium. Godard’s passing especially, with his late works so prophetic of our current times and his avowal of exhaustion, announced an end of an era – at least, it did for me. La fin du cinéma. But how many death knells have been sounded for this art form over the years? Cinema has a near-pathological relationship to its own death. Perhaps as film writers, we should feel invigorated by the freedom of renewal; that the ‘going beyond the frame’, as you put it, is essential to our own survival.
I’m not much of a professional writer and could never file regular reviews. I’ve been fortunate to work with editors who allowed my meandering diversions en route to some sort of argument. Much of my energy has been put into films that I want to champion or defend, that I want to understand and get closer to. In my curatorial work, while keeping the audience in mind, I have rarely been in a position to have to praise a film I don’t believe in. The flip side, of course, is that my pecialized tastes have no doubt limited my positions and reach. No regrets there, even when I feel misunderstood, frustrated by the fight and lack of opportunities, or alone in face of greater forces. I’m too stubborn to compromise.
I often think of art’s ability to keep us company, to comfort, as well as its capacity to aid us in confronting ugly truths and, crucially, to disturb us. I appreciate descriptive writing as it appears deceptively simple, and yet is fundamentally about ways of seeing and comprehending the world. Or at least, it should be. I came to film from art history, from studying individual images within a frame – which of course includes the consideration of what lies outside it. When I write about a film, I tend to look to the film itself rather than other texts. I note my observations, then rarely refer to them. Frankly, I can barely decipher my own handwriting, but the memory of my observations and impressions of the film are what form the basis of my writing; that ineffable residue imprinted on me as I watched. My texts may not be authoritative but they do somehow refute the death of the author. So, despite all my complaints and grievances, I still do look up at the sky when I watch a film, hoping for an intensity of feeling that I seem to have experienced much more in the past.
Someone very close to me recently said, “Our best years are the ones we are alive”. I think we owe ourselves, and the cinema that inspires us, the tenacity to tune out the noise in order to find, but also construct, meaning, to remain curious, to find joy. Otherwise, what’s the point?
Andréa-Tavie Picard is a curator and writer on film and art. Presently, she is Senior Film Curator at the Toronto International Film Festival and TIFF Cinematheque.
Patrick Holzapfel works as a writer, film critic and curator. His articles and stories are regularly published in numerous publications in German and English language. Currently he is working on his debut novel and a translation of stories told to him by a stone.