Small Sensations and Aromatic Sensibilities

When the new issue of Newsweek arrived at my friend's apartment yesterday, I noticed what looked like an interesting article by their film critic David Ansen, all about his personal cinephilia. Sadly, the interest quickly faded.

What drew me in was his introduction:

On January 26, 1958 (the date is written in pencil), I began keeping a list of all the movies I'd seen, using lined notebook paper that I further divided in half so that I could get upwards of 50 movies per page. I was 12 years old. (Compulsive? I was too young to know the concept.) I would list the title on the left, then add the last names of the stars, and then give each movie a rating: Poor, Fair, Good, Very Good, Excellent, Superior. My scoring system was taken from a long-defunct magazine called The Motion Picture Herald.

I started by retroactively listing all the movies I'd seen since 1950, my memory aided by annual hardback anthologies called Screen World, which were compiled by my favorite uncle, Daniel Blum. These were my sacred texts.

The first entry is "Cinderella" (Very Good). At the top of the page, displayed like pennants of college football teams, were my favorite movies of all (12 years') time: "Giant," "Stalag 17," "High Noon," "Picnic," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Carmen Jones." Two years later, in 1960 (on page seven, entry No. 308, "Sink the Bismarck!"), my cinematic sophistication having expanded, I began adding in parentheses the name of the director (Lewis Gilbert).

Excellent! This fascinated me for two reasons, one personal and one theoretical:

1) The personal: For the last 2 1/2 years, I've done this myself (he admits with trepidition-- although he was relieved to recently discover he wasn't alone). After years of being asked at family gatherings, "What films are good? What should I be watching? What have you seen lately?", I finally decided to keep a journal of the films I saw, on DVD, in theaters, and on TCM. My memory tends to be bad, and I'd always mention a few titles to an aunt or uncle at Thanksgiving, only to slap my head and say, "Frack! I should've thought of...!" This would give me a way to have a record, and also allow me to see patterns in my own cinephiliac desires-- like Nick Hornby's hero in High Fidelity, who writes his life through reorgs of his record collection, this would allow me to craft an autobiography while hardly having to pick up a pen.

2) The theoretical/formal: This seems like a cool spin on the usual magazine critic review, which is always subjective ("I like, I don't like..."), but also so often consumer-oriented (particularly in weeklies like Time and Newsweek, whose often-talented critics are constrained by limited space in a way that writers for The New Yorker or The Chicago Reader aren't) that it's difficult to get a real sense of a personality coming through. In foregrounding his own experience through the journal form, this seemed like a neat way to merge film history, critique and personal experience in the way theorists like Barthes or Gregory Ulmer call for: a dance of form, idea and memory.

There are some wonderfully evocative moments: Ansen's description of coming out of a matinee of Lawrence of Arabia and encountering hail for the first time; memories of watching Jerry Lewis in Greece, "where my brother Jim and I laughed at one thing while the Greek kids always laughed at another"; his lovely observation that in 1958, "my printing shifts from all caps to lowercase, and everything else seems to change, too, as adolescence sets in"; his invocation of more obscure titles (to me, anyway) like Blue Denim as being keys to his teenaged years.

I think the problem, for me, is telegraphed in the editor's blurb below the title: "When he was 12, Newsweek's [actually, as if channeling a pre-'58 Ansen, the magazine uses an all-caps typeface: "NEWSWEEK's"] David Ansen started a list of every film he'd seen. No. 1 was 'Cinderella.' The last is-- well, that's a long story. In fact, it's the story of his life, and of his generation."

It's the last line that nags, that shift from the personal to the communal, from the intimacy of the lowercase to the group weight of the uppercase. Midway through the article, it stops being so much about Ansen's life, and becomes more a record of the baby boomer's (or at least a narrow, generalizable slice of it) journey through the sixties and seventies. And there's nothing in it that one couldn't guess: a young teen is besotted by Cat on A Hot Tin Roof and other 50s Hollywood stabs at Freudian subtext; shifts his interests to the French New Wave and other international superstars like Fellini and Satyajit Ray just as the Beatles open up a world of rock and counter-culture to his college-aged self; sees The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde (and they really speak to him!) before dropping out and joining a commune; sticks his head out of the woods long enough to catch McCabe and Mrs. Miller, then soon drops back into society as a film critic just in time for Hollywood's supposed "Second Golden Age" in the early 70s, a period which ends when Star Wars comes along to make him feel old again. It's kind of like Peter Biskind filtered through My So-Called Life, not sure how to move between genuflecting at approved masterpieces, and occasionally offering terse glimpses of what happened to that bright young boy who earnestly marked in his journal.

Ansen's a talented writer, and he has good taste. I think the problem is not so much the conventionality of his experience as the conventionality of the histories he's dealing with, and the difficulty of escaping those approved forms, the approved routes through history. It's similar to the problem Julie Taymor faced with with Across The Universe: how do you make the past speak, especially when you're dealing with a period so deified (and jealously marked off by its generation's gatekeepers)? Taymor couldn't quite avoid the conventional narratives, either, but she at least reimagined well-worn songs in strikingly insane ways; Ansen seems less willing to cut loose, even noting at one point, "I'll spare you the psychedelic (and stereotypical) details of my personal transformation." Please don't! Those kinds of unique personal moments are a great way to re-map a space, to dodge the death-by-obligation that enervates so much film critique. Writing just as a young David Ansen is stumbling out of the theater and into the hail, Andrew Sarris struggled with this idea of how to name the unnameable:

In one sequence of La Regle du Jeu, Renoir gallops up the stairs, turns to his right with a lurching movement, stops in hoplike uncertainty when his name is called by a coquettish maid, and then, with marvelous postreflex continuity, resumes his bearishly shambling journey to the heroine’s boudoir. If I could describe the musical grace moment of that momentary suspension, and I can’t, I might be able to provide a more precise definition of the auteur theory. As it is, all I can do is point at the specific beauties of interior meaning on the screen and, later, catalogue this moments of recognition.

Those are the kinds of cinephiliac moments, those electric moments of recognition and identification, that critics have struggled with for years-- struggling because they're outside our more conventional narratives about film history and theory, and yet crucial for exactly the same reason. Perhaps we need a new auteur theory, not of directors, but of our own identities mapped onto the screen?


Greg said…
I'm with you on the communal baby boomer crap. Sorry, but I am sick of that generation tooting it's own horn. But also, I react to "journalism" like Time and Newsweek the way most people react to nails on a blackboard. Their "researched" cover stories are no more than one or two writers' opinion(s) with quotes added for padding. No offense but I just can't stand them.

And hey, that mention of the second golden age of the seventies would have been a great time to link to my article on the second golden age of the seventies. You know, the one right here:
Jonathan's Great Fantastic Piece on the Seventies
. Hmmm... what was that I was just saying about people tooting their own horn?
Brian Doan said…
Aha! How did I miss that one? (: Well, consider yourself the comments section! I actually like a lot of those 70s films, but also get tired of the "woe is me, Star Wars ruined everything" mythologies that grew around them. It's like Thomas Schatz said in his review of the Biskind Raging Bulls book-- everyone mentions Five Easy Pieces, The Godfather, etc., but no one adds that everyone was also going to see crap like Airport, The Towering Inferno, Love Story, etc.

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