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Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Douglas Messerli | Reading Films

reading films
by Douglas Messerli

Zbigniew Kaminski's comments on what he described as my "astute" reading of his The Girls of Wilko, and his near-astonishment that I had noticed such details as the peacocks in the yard upon Wiktor's reentry to the Wilko house, suggested that perhaps my encounters with films were different, in some respects, from many other film commentators. Having no close friendships with film reviewers and critics, I can't be sure that my way of working with films is any different from theirs. And, accordingly, my comments below may seem painfully unoriginal. But I feel, nonetheless, that it is perhaps useful, if nothing else, to explain my approach to viewing and writing about the cinema.

      Obviously, the most important aspect of any film is its images. Film, unlike other fictions and narratives, is made up of visual images, a fact that some English department-based teachers seem to have forgotten in their teaching of the art. On the other hand, other such professors argue against any narrative discussion. As a graduate assistant, I taught film for a couple of semesters at the University of Maryland. The professor of that course, Joe Miller, a likeable enough fellow, seemed to me a bit like a recent convert to some new religion. Miller would speak only of the images in his lectures, insisting the students recognize every camera movement: "You see that rack-focus?" "Look how he uses the montage," "Watch this low shot," etc. etc.

     Certainly students should be made aware of the cinematographer's methods—Bresson's Notes on the Cinematographer, a book published by my Green Integer press, is perhaps one of the very best books in helping students perceive that fact. I was a good teacher, moreover, in the discussion sessions of Miller's course; I recall one class in which (today I still marvel at my youthful enthusiasm) I aptly described from memory every image and camera position of a long scene from Orson Welles's The Magnificent Ambersons. The best way to see those images is in a large theater with an excellent sound system and up-to-date equipment, such as those we have in Los Angeles—the nearest one to me being at the Grove Theatres on Fairfax Avenue.

      But we also cannot forget that most films, other than highly experimental ones, tell stories, and work as narratives much in the way that novels and other forms of fiction do. To ignore that entirely would be to miss the very purpose of the marvelous cinematographic decisions. The camera generally is trying to tell a story, not simply moving in an isolated space. Accordingly, I find it necessary not just to see movies, but to read them. If possible, I try to see them first at a regular theater, although the kinds of films in which I am most interested are generally not available in the larger houses, and many of them must viewed on the flat-screen of my television, DVD player. In that case, I demand complete immersion in the film; while I'm watching a movie I want to totally enter its time and space. I find it best to watch serious films alone.

      Moreover, if at all possible, I try to see any movie about which I intend to write numerous times. The more often I can see a film, the better. As I have suggested in the pages of My Year before, this can amount to 50 or more viewings of a particular film. I have seen Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo in theaters and at home more than 100 times! And I have not yet attempted to write about that motion picture.

     This kind of obsession with the images and story, rather than disinteresting me in the work, brings me closer to it, until finally I began to see all anew. What first may have seemed as a simple narrative grows more and more complex until I begin to rediscover the images and recreate what I originally thought of as a more obvious fiction. It is as if I suddenly have found a way to get behind the screen, as if I have found my way to the other side of the curtain of a play.

     If I cannot see the film several times before writing about it, I have no compunction in replaying certain sections of the tape, and writing down parts of the dialogue and images I might have missed on first viewing.

     In short, I both see a movie, let the images and story wash over me in a kind of passive appreciation, and study it, read it, going backward and forward in it the way one is able to do in the pleasurable process of reading a book.

     Obviously, there are times that simply do not permit this kind of close observation. Indeed, I saw Kaminski's film only twice before writing about it. And many movies I feature in the volumes of My Year I have seen only once in the theater. Yet by so carefully studying so many films, I find that I have become more attentive to all films, even the weakest of those I encounter. That, in turn, has helped to make my own experience with movies a far richer one.

      Given the obvious factual errors I encounter in so many newspaper movie reviews, I have the feeling that most critics have not been able to find the time to fully attend to the films on which they write.

Los Angeles, March 2, 2009

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