I work, I write – and for Whom? Some thoughts on a Workshop Dedicated to Film Criticism
Victor Morozov took part in the pilot edition of a workshop on essay writing organized by the Vienna Film Festival in October 2023. In the lines below, you will find a florilege of thoughts that were occasioned by this event.
„I work, I write – and for whom?” – Pier Paolo Pasolini
I had last attended a “Young Critics Workshop”, as is the practice at several festivals in Europe, in Rotterdam, a month before the 2020 pandemic broke out. Back then, in “yesterday’s world”, I was practicing my craft slowly, with steadfast conviction, at the pace of two four-paragraph texts a month. I know how to strictly distinguish between a good image (cinema) and a bad image (everything else). A film means a film from the cinema, and a review – a methodical, on-the-spot account of the film’s qualities and flaws. In my eyes, art seemed to be advancing along a steady, controlled path, just as I was advancing within the profession, only looking ahead. But that was yesterday’s world…
What happened in the meantime? A particular context (Covid-19) allowed me to take a closer look at a particular author (Serge Daney). Daney’s company – in the form of a few tomes collecting his journalistic articles – turned those horrible prison days of April-June 2020 into an intense, almost sickening intellectual communion. This reading, this contact with a type of openness towards impure forms (from reportages to video clips, from televised sports to retransmissions of the great masterpieces of old) was needed to understand that one can no longer write in the same way about cinema, and it’s simply pointless to write about films while only thinking about films, it’s a waste that adds to the generalized waste in which we are living, and cinema is so much more than what can be seen on a screen and had always been so, from the very beginning, so, from whence does this readjustment, this way to close onto itself, come from? Ever since then, a belief has taken root within me: given the fact that I love cinema, I must exit from it, to search for it elsewhere, especially, particularly where nobody is ever looking for it.
The first time I heard about the pilot project of the workshop at the Viennale was the day that I took my bicycle up the Transfăgărășan road, up to Bâlea Lake. I had made friends with Patrick Holzapfel, the organizer of the critics’ circle, around two years ago. I’d written to him to congratulate him for his answer on a MUBI poll about the best films of the year, where he’d opted to mention, instead of some predictable title, the striking moment during the Tour de France when, after a series of mudslides had blocked the road, the race was stopped, and the directors of the live transmission were forced to improvise, offering spectators the grandiose and strange spectacle of aerial landscapes, shot from a helicopter, featuring mountains, foggy forests and skies for minutes on end, in a moment that is rarely to be seen, because television does all that is within its power to avoid voids, absences, spontaneous events. Thus, a dialogue was established between the two of us, one that was never – to this very day, except for our workshop sessions – based on cinema, but rather, on cycling, from an almost desperate voluptuousness of having finally found a partner for whom sports (names, facts, numbers) matter just as much as the philosophy of sports (gestures, thoughts, extrapolations that are more or less imaginative).
There were going to be four participants in the workshop: Ariadna Solera Centeno from Spain, Luise Mörke from Germany, Laura Staab from the UK, and myself. Patrick designed the structure so that, before the actual festival was set to happen, we would have several meetings to discuss various aspects of essayistic writing about film, starting from a supporting text (among them: conversations about digressions, adjectives, silence, based on writings by Harun Farocki, Virginia Woolf, Chris Fujiwara…).
From the very beginning, it became clear to me that, within this quintet, I would be playing the role of the objector. In this case, I am the one who defends writing that is quick, operating at high frequencies – between this very sexy tendency of slow criticism. I don’t really see the point of first-look reviews – even in a more extended format – as long as it’s not sustained by a certain rhythm.
Obviously enough, Radu Jude comes to mind, who said the following in an interview for Libération: „I’m not aiming for a million spectators, but rather, to occupy the field.”
The same thing goes for reviewing: it’s not about writing a masterpiece per year, but being as present as possible during the service, in the hope that one of your hits will contain the right answer. It’s a metaphor, but not really: to be a reviewer has something to do with challenges in sports, which ask for discipline and reactive speed.
The same Radu Jude, somewhere in the Romanian press: “A painting that was made in five minutes looks different from one that was made in five days.” The idea is that speed, and acceleration are not exclusively negative concepts, but that they do, in fact, serve a higher purpose.
Before the festival, we have to write three texts related to this year’s selection: two short (500 words), and one longer (3000). I get to write about Retratos Fantasticos by Kleber Mendonça Filho (which is superb) and Eureka by Lisandro Alonso (which doesn’t impress me). I decided to play the book to the end and write two laid-back, formulaic pieces of criticism that Patrick says are the closest samples of conventional film criticism in our entire booklet (most of the others use films as a pretext). I’m proud of this news, and I almost see it as an achievement of sorts. I have always been interested in the canonical format, and I find the idea of a text written after a journalistic template – maybe edged on by my nostalgic feelings towards my heroes, Radu Cosașu and Serge Daney – is absolutely admirable.
Just as I cannot help but see this abundance of confessional tones in contemporary cultural journalism, as nothing but a facile way to distract, to divert attention. But, because I’m running out of time and I cannot avoid this fact, I decide to use the first person in the longer piece, dedicated to my friendship with Nicolas Klotz and Elisabeth Perceval, a filmmaker couple that is enjoying a pretty generous retrospective this year at the Viennale. I try to open up a larger discussion about the film critic’s posture as an accompanying presence, beyond all vain pretensions towards objectivity. Rather, it’s much more about the dialogue that can be born between a critic and a cineaste, about the changes that this dialogue may produce within these separate reflections that are mutually influential. It’s about the criticism that directly participates in the process of creation.
I remember how, while at a bar in Paris, Nicolas once told me that the reason why Daney was one of the greats was because he was writing his pieces for filmmakers, rather than the audience.
I wonder, when did I become so dissatisfied with everything that is going on in the world of cinema? What was the moment in which I realized that, despite some momentary bouts of enthusiasm, my initial idea had become obscured by fog along the way?
I had a tête-à-tête meeting with Patrick one afternoon and we discussed while seated on a park bench. We were amazed that the same question was haunting the both of us: how do we get out? It was especially interesting that both Patrick – who is a little older than me and has a few more years of experience than me – and I had both become conscious, at one point, that things can no longer continue down the same tracks, in the same, unchanged rhythm. First and foremost, the hypothesis of the fact that we have worn away our sensibilities by writing over and over again, and film no longer holds the same luster for us – as an object, as a medium – that it had when we had just started, captivated by the mystique of the image. At one point, he tells me about a moment in Nuri Bilge Ceylan’s About Dry Grasses which he finds beautiful, a Tarkovsky-like beauty coupled with an awe-inspiring mastery of the craft. And he tells me that this moment, despite its objective beauty, did not touch him at all now, even though he is firmly convinced that, a few years back, it would have utterly ravaged him.
I don’t know whether the same thing happened to me. Rather, what I feel is a refusal, a struggle against the risk of being swallowed whole by the PR-istic climate that hangs around in the atmosphere, in which everyone knows everyone and everything is a continuous self-celebration, a party that screens out reality. Hence the impression that all this infrastructure of countless festivals, of texts, always written out of obligation, with promotional purposes, of these “clan-like” events that just run in a loop and prevent us from actually living in line with our own truth.
There is also the hypothesis that cinema simply no longer is what it once was. But how does one avoid nostalgia?
Without planning it, we all find ourselves at the screening of Jean Renoir’s The Woman on the Beach (1946), in a 35mm copy at the Metro Kinokulturhaus. We are spread throughout this old hall, with loggias, upholstered armchairs, and imposing decorations, under the warm light of the chandelier. I have a balcony ticket and I have the feeling that I’m miles away from the screen. But what better film to experience this perspective than an intensely efficient sample of classical Hollywoodian art? It’s not 75 minutes, a trio of characters, and a film that has more ideas than everything else that I had seen up to that point. The first two minutes, featuring the prologue – with a shipwreck that hovers between dream and document, between super-imposition and immersion – is a royale of intuitions and solutions to practical problems that renders all the wasteful fury of contemporary cinema pointless. Everything is here, in its right place, without any sort of emphasis. How do you avoid nostalgia, when all you’re doing is merely stating a fact?
Laura left during the middle of the Jessica Hausner movie, which was screening at the same time, thinking that it was odious, to see the Renoir. The workshop is paying off.
– You should start speaking to films in the same way that you speak to a human being.
– The problem is that, nowadays, most of the films try to impress, to show off, to prove how smart they are – and so there is not much left to discuss with them.
– The same thing is also available for humans.
Hanging out with Ariadna, who is the most knowledgeable one amongst us on the topic of classical cinema. She seems willing to passionately discuss the glories of old: we have fun while giving a lesson on Chaplin to a couple of young Hungarian actors, heading onto Jerry Lewis and ending with the “unparalleled genius” of Jacques Tati. Then we go on amongst the two of us when the two actors excuse themselves to go to the bathroom: Nanni Moretti and João César Monteiro. I enter into the game – and, after all, why not? All that we can discuss – our sole common terrain, lest we get angry at each other because she is very volcanic, and I’m vain – is classical cinema, where we agree. Long walks in which we tell over-told stories, from Griffith onwards. I willingly enter this fray of names, which she seems to treat in the most serious way possible. We cannot stop ourselves from exclaiming, in a mutually complicit snobbishness: “Haven’t you already seen all of Lubitsch’s work? Oh, what a shame..!”, “You still haven’t caught up with Tourneur’s Anne of the Indies? It’s pointless to talk…”, “Do you really have no options about Fritz Lang’s American period? That’s bad…”, “Back when I was watching Nicolas Ray’s In a Lonely Place…”, “To me, Raoul Walsh is the greatest, maybe even greater than Ford…”. It’s a game, an endless ping-pong that obviously leads to nowhere, or maybe, at most, to the years of my youth, when all this aplomb meant a sort of permit to enter the lands of the heart, a community that one may belong to. I’m having fun while reproducing all of these childish remarks: I feel like I’m in a summer camp.
Our schedule contains four meetings with cinema professionals: Erika Balsom, whom I first met in Rotterdam when I caught her eye by bumbling something about Serge Daney, and whom I find even more impressive nowadays, but I don’t know what to say to her anymore; Miguel Marías, the brother of novelist Javier Marías, an incredibly congenial and wise old man; Rebecca de Pas, a festival programmer; and Pedro Costa.
The director is the one to spend the most time with us, almost three hours. He leaves almost by force when he is called to attend an interview led by a team of Georgian journalists. Ariadna confesses to him that she is grateful for the fact that, at the school she studied in Barcelona, she had to go through the entire history of cinema, starting with silent film, because otherwise, she wouldn’t have been able to pass the year. Costa says that she is right: he gives the example of mathematics and wonders if mathematicians would do the same thing as people in film studies departments do, who only study the most recent films out there. How would it be if they, too, would claim that all antique knowledge is optional, “classical”, and is to be studied only by whoever desires to do so? I also enter the conversation and say that, what is more important (at first) than to simply accumulate references is the method that one intuits, the path that one establishes towards them; otherwise, one runs the risk of accumulating references to one’s detriment. Costa thinks about this for a while, then tells us about an encounter that he had with Godard and his wife, Anne-Marie Miéville. Godard kept on speaking all sorts of things about the most recent films at the time, until, at one point, he had to go to the restroom. Then, Miéville i-a told Costa: „Don’t think that he actually sees all of these films. He doesn’t watch them, but he doesn’t need to, either.” The idea that one mustn’t see a film to know that it’s bad (even with the risk of being wrong). But it’s obligatory to see it to understand that it’s good.
Miguel Marías asks us why we write. He is also the one to give us an answer: „One writes for oneself.” Then he speaks about his addiction to reviews: he always promised himself that he would quit, but the longest he ever lasted on break was for three months. I feel the same: the need to embed oneself within the midst of today, to take part in the debate. An addiction to intervention, the danger of overdosing.
Pedro Costa, once again, about the need to operate a shift. A perfectly suited word: not inasmuch a colossal rupture – I don’t know if I would be capable of such –, but, a change.
Pierre Creton, Un prince, extraordinary. How he makes vegetals, sexuality, and landscapes communicate – how everything references everything – is simply staggering. This is how the cinema of tomorrow might look like: as if it were within the greenhouse of formal and political hypotheses belonging to this isolated gardener from Normandy (a few steps away from the home of the Klotz family), who transformed his home into a studio in which he films alongside his close ones. A cinema that has a true echo to it, which allows itself to (literally) recycle images from a previous film, attaching new meanings to them. The shot of the farmer on a bicycle, advancing through the rain, set to the music of Jozef van Vissem, is simply ravishing.
I somehow managed to stubbornly crawl to the Kunsthistorisches Museum to see the Bruegel collection. It’s the day before the national holiday. To get there, I pass through a pedestrian area that is flanked by all sorts of types of military equipment, such as tanks, buggies, and trucks. Gigantic QR codes that are displayed on various placards send to a website that encourages one to enroll. People take pictures on top of the machines, holding rifles. A tow truck carries a commercial for a simulator: NEXT LEVEL REALITY. The Austrian army advertises itself by using wholly modern means: it has understood that everything starts from the image.
I arrive in front of the paintings: a total revelation, the feeling of being hit over the head with a hammer. Hanging on the walls of the museum, these absolutely incredible collective scenes created during the dawn of the Renaissance, are scenes that are so much more alive than any reproduction may dare to suggest. I stare at the famous painting of the hunters in wintertime, feeling nostalgic about the increasingly rare occurrence of snow. Soon, we will look at this painting as a document about an inaccessible reality. Fights, killings, open-air celebrations, joy, pain, death: cinema is already here, together with all of its language, from framing to perspective.
There is more cinema outside the cinema today, which is both a problem and a sort of deliverance. I discussed about this over breakfast with Elisabeth and Nicolas on the last day. Personal certainties evolve and shift once more. At the Viennale, I had time to think and occasions to speak. Maybe this way – creating these improbable spaces where you allow yourself to be encompassed by the gaze of the other – one can lay the groundwork for an alternative way of thinking. A way of thinking that will certainly not change the face of the world, but that, at the very least, could allow us to be more at peace with our own choices.