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Literary Cinephilia: A Survey

 


I confess, the headline irked me, catching my eye as I flicked through the pages of a major Spanish newspaper: “Cinema is literature, too”. What’s this, I wondered, the same old, snobbish attempt to raise the cultural status of film by comparing it favourably to great books? In recent years, this campaign has tended to move across to so-called quality TV. How often have we read lately, mainly in the literary sections of newspapers and magazines, that such-and-such a series deserves to be praised as (gasp) “novelistic”?

 

On closer inspection, this double-page spread turned out to be an innocent bit of journalistic malarkey about those unforgettable, ever-quotable lines of dialogue from the likes of The Godfather (1972), Gone with the Wind (1939) or À bout de souffle (1960). But the moment was enough to make me recall the angry sarcasm of Jean-Louis Comolli in 1963 – “Read the beautiful phrases about cinema that only writers know how to fashion!” – before another, far more serious publication came my way.

 

The cover of a special issue of the Australian literary journal Contrappasso (April 2015) declares – over the inevitable photo of popcorn – “Writers at the Movies”. Inside, however, its editors (one of whom, Matthew Asprey Gear, is author of the excellent At the End of the Street in the Shadow: Orson Welles and the City from Wallflower) announce a more particular focus, which they dub literary cinephilia.

 

There have always been “writers at the movies”. A string of anthologies has duly gathered the canonical tales, poems and reminiscences of famous writers in relation to cinema and cinema-going experiences: Philip Oakes’ The Film Addict’s Archive (1966) and Jim Shepard’s Writers at the Movies (2000) are among the best collections. Some writers spin fictions within the milieu of movie making and the various industries attached to it; these range in tone from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s whimsically satirical The Pat Hobby Stories of the early 1940s, to the tougher tales of Theodore Roszak’s Flicker (1991) or Rudolph Wurlitzer’s 1984 Slow Fade (inspired by the author’s thorny experience working for Sam Peckinpah on Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid). Other writers investigate the life of spectators: Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer (1961) – which has so far eluded screen adaptation, even though Jim McBride and Terrence Malick were attached to this tantalising project at different times – tells its story from the melancholic perspective of the movie fan.

 

Even some film critics have had a go at the “movie novel” game. A former reviewer for Melbourne’s newspaper The Age, Neil Jillett – best-known today for inventing the statement “Australia is the ideal place to film the end of the world” that he stealthily attributed to Ava Gardner when she refused him an interview on the set of Stanley Kramer’s On the Beach (1959) – turned his hand to crime fiction in the 1980s. His Copycat (1989) is set in the world of film production, and boasts the following synopsis: “Jack Maclean, Hollywood actor, is in Australia making a film with his director wife, Karin. His part: Joshua Harris, the murderous preacher. But as Jack acts out his role for the cameras, so does a murderer – for real – in the dark streets of Melbourne ….”

 

However, the literary cinephilia that the Contrappasso issue evokes is something rather more complicated than any of these examples so far cited. Far removed from either the reflex cultural snobbery of a John Irving, hammering in My Movie Business (1999) his pet theme that films are usually so less rich than novels, or the perfunctory use of film production as a plot backdrop, literary cinephilia stages a more equal exchange between the two media of literature and cinema. The chosen starting point is not those film theorists or critics who have styled various shades of what has been labelled ficto-criticism, from Jean Epstein (The Intelligence of a Machine, 1946) and Guillermo Cabrera Infante (A Twentieth Century Job, 1963) to Lesley Stern (The Smoking Book, 1999). The aim is to discover, instead, what special insight and eloquence writers not normally associated with cinema might bring to this realm of human experience.

 

Inspired by figures as diverse as Italo Calvino, Manila-born Jessica Hagedorn (Dream Jungle, 2003), Juan Goytisolo and Iain Sinclair – not forgetting the BFI Classics books by Salman Rushdie (The Wizard of Oz) or Alberto Manguel (Bride of Frankenstein) – the erudite introduction to the Contrappasso issue suggests several key characteristics of this largely unheralded genre. There is an attention to the processes of personal memory intertwined with a larger sense of “the movie theatre as social space”, a ritual refracted differently according to each national culture. And there is a lively history of movies providing their viewers, in diverse ways, with “an education outside school”, often on matters forbidden or unspoken in their specific cultural or political context.

 

Departing now from Contrappasso’s generous canon, let’s begin a survey of recent trends in this contemporary field by noting the rise of what Yann Tobin in Positif magazine has called “a new literary genre: the biographical novel”. His remark was prompted by Ozu (2015) by Marc Pautrel, whose other works of this type have been devoted to philosopher Blaise Pascal and painter Jean-Baptise-Siméon Chardin. Mixing background research with pure imagination, Pautrel weaves a tale centred on the “sublimated love story between the director and his favourite actress, Setsuko Hara”. Even if Ozu’s real-life desire does appear, in truth, to have been rather queerer!

 

In a related vein, Philippe Azoury successively pursues, across À Werner Schroeter, qui n’avait pas peur de la mort (2010), Philippe Garrel en substance (2013) and now Jim Jarmusch, une autre allure (all published by Capricci), a peculiarly neo-Romantic portrait of the international, cinematic underground. This author does not hesitate to evoke, to the point of floridness, the solitary moments, personal crises and innermost drives of his subjects – or to include the itinerary of his own discovery of these artists, and how they have influenced his life.

 

Cine-autobiography also gets a boost from this publishing trend, especially in France. Tell-all memoirs of those whose lives have been affected by the world of film and its artists are often spruced up with a strong literary flavour. Evane Hanska’s Mes années Eustache (2001) is a real scorcher, while Anne Wiazemsky has crafted a trilogy out of her memories of teenagehood, passing in swift succession from Robert Bresson and Balthazar (in Jeune fille) over to Jean-Luc Godard and La Chinoise (in Une année studieuse) and finally smack into the middle of May ’68 (Un an après) – that crowning volume providing the basis for Michel Hanazavicius’ comedy Redoubtable (aka Godard Mon Amour, 2017). (Sadly, the fact that Wiazemsky makes herself, as literary narrator, the detached, dispassionate, quietly ever-reflecting observer of her own unfolding life means that she becomes an almost completely irrelevant, passive blank in its movie version!) More soberly, but not stinting on the inside gossip, Luc Beraud has given us his reminiscences as a sometimes beleaguered assistant director in Au travail avec Eustache.

 

Not all the action in this field is French. The editor of one of the anthologies cited above, Jim Shepard, was ahead of the trend when his 1998 book Nosferatu – known variously as Nosferatu in Love and Nosferatu: A Novel – took F.W. Murnau as the subject of a fictional biography. David Thomson was also prescient in Warren Beatty and Desert Eyes: A Life and a Story (1987) – an alternation of fact and fiction, chapter by chapter, which is more experimental than Thomson’s later, straighter celebrity biographies.

 

But, at present, the stand-out work in this area is Nathalie Léger’s Supplément à la vie de Barbara Loden (2012), available in an English translation by Natasha Lehrer and Cécile Manon as Suite for Barbara Loden (Dorothy). Léger’s previous books in this mode have been about the Countess de Castiglione (also translated) and Samuel Beckett. The subject here is Wanda (1970), the extraordinary and sole feature film directed by actor Loden, who died of cancer at 48. Wanda has especially caught the fancy of some writers admired by Contrappasso: Don DeLillo wrote an essay on it, and Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers (2013) works it into the novelistic fabric. Loden’s masterpiece has also prompted some of the finest pieces of film criticism, from Bérénice Reynaud and Belgium’s Dirk Lauwaert, and even an audiovisual essay.

 

Léger goes further still. Starting with the modest intention to craft, for an encyclopedia, a “miniature model of modernity” from the elements of the film, the patch of working-class America it depicts, and Loden’s troubled life, Léger finds herself drawn into an enigma: why do strong, creative women stay with men who (in various senses) abuse them? Wanda as a character would seem to be no kind of feminist role-model heroine, but there is still a fragile thread of resistance to the prescribed female script in her strange, passive, implosive behaviour. The implications of the author’s research spread out in an ever-widening circle, taking in her mother, herself … and this mere “supplement” to Loden’s life becomes an extension, a re-living, a veritable re-creation. The contagion doesn’t even end with the book: a 2013 theatre piece by Marie Rémond, inspired by Léger, is titled Vers Wanda (“toward Wanda”).

 

There is another context in which the phenomenon of literary cinephilia can be located, dating back to at least the 1950s. It is then that a bunch of writers associated with the French movement of the Nouveau Roman or New Novel, including Alain Robbe-Grillet, Nathalie Sarraute, Jean Cayrol, Claude Ollier and Michel Butor, turned to cinema as the generative inspiration for a different kind of prose: descriptive, elliptical, perhaps even objective like a camera lens. Alain Resnais was sufficiently plugged into the movement to tap several of these authors as his collaborative screenwriters, as well as another somewhat displaced from it: Marguerite Duras.

 

When Duras and Robbe-Grillet published their screenplays for Resnais, they did so in a hybrid form, the ciné-roman or cine-novel, mixing text that was equal parts filmic and literary in orientation with film stills and other visual material. Chris Marker was drawn to this form, producing a book version of his classic La Jetée (1962), already a motion picture “interrupted”, as it were, by still photography. The Belgian writer Ivo Michiels took the process to another level altogether: after scripting Woman in a Twilight Garden with André Delvaux in 1979, Michiels composed a novel from it in the form of a “series of images”, and also recycled his experience in a volume of his “raw journal” series, titled (after the Romy Schneider hit) Sissi.

 

Robbe-Grillet, himself a director from 1963, embraced the ciné-roman format and developed it right to the end of the 1970s; Duras disliked the term, preferring to cryptically subtitle the published version of her masterpiece India Song  as “text theatre film”. The larger stake of all such experiments was grasped by Marie-Claire Ropars-Wuilleumier, a foremost theorist of the modernist exchange between literature and cinema. In 1960, when Ropars-Wuilleumier was only 23, she suggested:

 

To show thought in motion rather than the event in action, to seek the spatial and temporal depth of a universe in which man feels that the very possibilities of existence have been put in question, to translate via a verbal flux the ambiguity of duration: is this not, essentially, the journey through appearances that had already tempted novelists like Faulkner, Woolf and Proust? Very curiously, it seems that an entire slice of contemporary cinema takes this baton from the novel while, on the contrary, the novel is borrowing its techniques from cinema.

 

As later cultural historians including Jacques Rancière (in Aisthesis, 2011) have shown, cinema’s prime influence on literary styles goes back a long way. From an early modernist tract such as Luigi Pirandello’s Shoot! (1915), to Cinematógrafo (1936) by the Spanish anarchist Andrés Carranque de Ríos, film not only provided new subject matter, but also suggested new ways of writing. By the time we reach our present moment, the realms of the cinematic and the literary have wound around each other so tightly it is sometimes hard to prise them apart.

 

In 2016, some reviewers struggled to get their head around the premise – or the conceit – of Gabriel Blackwell’s Madeleine E. (Outpost19), in which a narrator is obsessed with rewatching and investigating Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo, and then finds his own life reproducing the pathways of its story. But Blackwell’s meta-fictional mode was not exactly new. The Spanish writer Enrique Vila-Matas has been building such fanciful, digressive structures in his books for over 40 years.

 

In a recent interview in Cahiers du cinéma, Vila-Matas recounts his literary origins as a teenage film critic – inventing reviews of movies he had not actually seen (“but I wasn’t wrong about them”). He reminds us that, in his 1970s French sojourn (as recreated in his 2003 book Never Any End to Paris [English edition New Directions, 2011]), he not only lived in a room rented to him by Marguerite Duras, but also fleetingly appeared in several films by Adolfo Arrieta (whose most recent and possibly final work is Sleeping Beauty [2016]).

 

Vila-Matas’ cinephilic tastes are impeccable, from Jacques Tourneur (“I adopted Manny Farber’s ideas: I prefer B films”) and Roberto Rossellini to Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson (2016), on which he has enthusiastically written for the Spanish newspaper El País. More profoundly, Vila-Matas felt his way into an endearing merger of fictional and essayistic modes through the experience of certain films, such as André Delvaux’s Belgian masterpiece Rendez-vous at Bray (1971), adapted from a Julien Gracq novel:  “Someone travels and thinks while they’re travelling … and then ends up not finding the person he’s meant to meet”.

 

In France, Jean-Jacques Schuhl is another master of the mélange of genres seemingly inherent to contemporary gestures of literary cinephilia. Author of two experimental novels in the 1970s (Rose poussière [translated as Dusty Pink in 2018] and Télex no. 1), he tardively resurfaced in 2000 with Ingrid Caven (English edition from City Lights, 2004), an evocative biography of his actor/singer partner who was once married to Rainer Werner Fassbinder. This extraordinary book mixes salacious gossip, philosophic odes to nihilism, and dramatic moments from 20th century history, with yet another sensational appearance from Jean Eustache – perhaps only Bertrand Bonello would be up to the task of adapting it for the screen. A subsequent novel by Schuhl, Entrée des fantômes (2010), weaves Raúl Ruiz himself into its fantastique plot.

 

Wiliam Van Wert, referring to the “variable-work-of-art” constituted by the example of the ciné-roman, once suggested that such hybrid texts should be considered “simultaneously a novel, a play, a film. We might add: a poem, a libretto-opera, a sculpture”. Whether it’s David Thomson’s Suspects (1985), an ingenious, playful knitting-together of various classic movie fictions from It’s a Wonderful Life  (1946) to Chinatown (1974), Geoff Dyer’s Zona: A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room (2012) on Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979), or Adam Mars-Jones’ Noriko Smiling on Ozu’s Late Spring (1949), it’s true that, as Contrappasso asserts, literary cinephilia is an “infinitely absorptive category”.

 

© Adrian Martin February 2017


Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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