In which I remove the U.S. English keyboard from my computer…
(1) Journal entries August 6-19, 2020:
"I was brought up to think that if I didn’t write for the New Yorker or Time magazine, I was a failure. I’ve come to feel that although I now have a much smaller audience than I did when I was writing for the Chicago Reader, I actually think I’m succeeding more as a writer now than I did then, because it’s a much more relevant, focused audience."
— Jonathan Rosenbaum, World Socialist Web Site, 2020
Eyes Wide Shut
Maps to the Stars
General Taos chicken
Shrimp pork dumpling
and two orders of poutine
Abel Gance, etc: The opening shots of Gance’s J’accuse (1919) and La Roue (1923) are of the filmmaker in close-up, looking directly into the camera. In Napoleon (1927) and his first sound film The End of the World (1931), Gance himself plays a revolutionary and a dying revolutionary poet whose words offer humanity its final salvation before a meteor hits Earth. The latter, even in its bowdlerized state, presents the most explicit version of Gance’s idea that the artist is the true sun around which history (science, politics) orbits, and that the death of the artist—which appears again in Beethoven’s Great Love (1936), and more abstractly in J’accuse—is a tragedy for the entire world. The best examples of Gance’s editing are succinct, elegant, sensual, and demonstrate the height of curiosity-driven filmmaking: a medium shot that fades into a close-up, a woman’s hair superimposed onto a cloud of smoke, quick cuts, a sudden opening and closing of the iris. A personal favourite: to convey the slowness of a particular train in La Roue, Gance superimposes a large snail onto the tracks.
These should not eclipse the fact that Gance is a master of structure. Grandiose in scale yet filled with minute tensions and upheavals, his films manage to distill a very precise feeling of smallness in a vast and meaningless universe. Even his recut features contain a surprising emotional and intellectual density—with or without sound, at 2 hours or 7 hours. La Roue, at least the version I’ve seen, extends the perverse sexuality of Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly across four and a half hours. Secondary characters in Napoleon are introduced over multiple acts, sometimes only appearing in the corner of a frame until their presence becomes crucial to the central narrative. Too much to say and so much more to see…
The Immortal Story (Orson Welles, 1968): Orson Welles reinterprets the lavender, teals, and yellows of silent cinema. A golden light coats the bleach blond, sea salted hair of a young sailor like honey. The sky is ashen blue, a moldy magenta lines the walls. With this palette Welles returns us to the always exciting question of why movies are made, how they’re made. The joke being that the rich merchant Mr. Clay (Welles), out of his selfish and twisted desire to stage a real event with real people that could then be passed on forever, has unwittingly become a director. My favourite film by Welles, one I associate with the exhilaration of making art at night and being met with the silence of dawn.
Sebastiane (Derek Jarman, 1976): Derek Jarman’s first feature Sebastiane invokes the homoeroticism of Battleship Potemkin (1925) in colour and in Latin, with a score by Brian Eno. In Sebastiane, repression has a hard and bloodied edge. Therefore the connections Jarman makes between homosexuality, spirituality, and violence are much more striking than a certain Claire Denis film of a thinner consistency.
I reread Giovanni’s Room on a flight from San Francisco to Toronto. In Winnipeg I read Tales of Nevèrÿon. The moon appeared low and red, like one of the two suns on Tatooine. In New York I went to the MoMA for the first time. What I remember most clearly are two black-and-white photographs by Alfred Stieglitz and Brassaï. It is obvious and beautiful to see paintings in person, photographs in a less obvious way. In New York all of my dreams were about New York. In Toronto I read Life of Galileo, and last night I dreamt that I had some thoughts on Abel Gance that I wanted to share, which brings me here…