Reposted in order to include the cover of Iranian edition (at the beginning), published today (on October 17, 2015), and Adrian’s latest books (at the end). — J.R.
May 19, 2014
I guess it must seem excessive, starting off a book composed largely of letters with yet another letter –- and rounding off a neat dozen of them with an unlucky thirteenth in the bargain. Skeptics who might find the following correspondence too chummy and cozy for comfort are apt to be equally or even more irritated by this Preface, but I can’t see any way out of this dilemma. And the same problem has applied to subsequent translations of these letters, originally written in four separate languages, into five others—Croatian, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, and now Persian—and often accompanied or followed by new letters by younger (or older) cinephiles with different tastes and orientations.
Considering that the first and last of the dozen letters by nine individuals that follow, written respectively in April 1997 and March 2002, are already mine, what could I hope to add in an introduction to make them more user-friendly to the world outside our artificially constructed little circle? To which someone -– meaning any reader –- might reply, “Well, for starters, you might try addressing the reader outside this circle.” And of course I could –- but only at the cost of diluting the spirit of friendship and intimacy now bridging eight languages and over a dozen countries, a kind of togetherness that this exercise was intended to foster.
Let me see if I can clarify this last point. As a child of the John Dewey system of education supported by U.S. liberals in the mid-20th century, I believe in learning by doing, which also entails teaching by example rather than by explanation. And the key point in this endeavor was articulated in the third sentence of Quintín’s letter: “it’s good for critics not to feel alone.” Of course, feeling alone was partly what brought me and many others to cinema in the first place: not just attending movies (which came more naturally to me than to many others because of my grandfather being a theater exhibitor in Alabama) but thinking and talking and writing about them, the social activity that took root in order to justify and contextualize a more solitary and even solipsistic mental activity. After all, most hardcore cinephiles that I know are basically lonely people—although this has already become less so due to the growth of both the Internet and the availability of films in digital formats around the globe, most of which happened after our first round of letters in 1997. Significantly, our initial project began via old-fashioned snail mail and concluded as a book, five years later, via email, and over the next dozen years, the possibility of carrying on global conversations via social networks and blogs has obviously escalated.
In any case, it was as an instinctive response to my own solitude — my relative isolation as a Chicago-based critic whose friends mainly reside in other cities and countries — that I first thought of investigating the shared sensibility of four disparate and far-flung younger critics in other parts of the world. What started out as a taped dialogue with you in a suburb of Melbourne on October 20, 1996 eventually took shape about a year and a half later as a series of letters written (and, in three cases, translated) for the French magazine Trafic. Some time later this became reconfigured as a book of international exchanges about some of the directions in which world cinema was heading — initially to be co-edited by Kent Jones, the only other American in the group. Then, roughly a year after a contract was signed with the British Film Institute — once it became clear that Kent’s new duties as a programmer and his continuing work as a writer made his involvement in the project more difficult — you agreed, with Kent’s blessing, to step in as his replacement. Finally, at the Vancouver International Film Festival, came Quintín’s proposal to launch a second set of letters, specifically for publication by the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film in 2002, though you and I quickly decided that the same series should conclude our own book as well, subsequently published the following year.
So it’s been a road with various curves and detours, not a straight, linear march towards a predetermined goal. Yet virtually from the start, a few underlying convictions and sentiments have been present — the most conspicuous of which has been that all the participants have certain underlying convictions and sentiments in common, and a growing desire to extend our common ground to others. Thus, over six and a half years of gestation, an overall development from theory to practice, from relative isolation to social activism -– a path taken in all our separate careers as well as collectively, through this project and others like it. Some of these convictions and sentiments involve synchronicity (explored in detail by Alex in his letter), the influence of driving and music on notions of cinema (first broached by Kent), functions of pedagogy (discussed in particular by you and Nicole), notions about civilization (introduced by Raymond and extended by Quintín), and extending forums to other critics (as Mark has been doing). The list continues, of course, and that’s part of our point; we’re trying to spread a certain gospel more than preach it —- a gospel that is still being discovered, propounded, and extended by others.
I’m a strong believer in the principle that the quality and intensity of one’s audience is much more important than the quantity (meaning the actual number of readers), so I’m not too bothered about the modest sales of the book so far in its original English edition. (I suspect that the sales might be better in the Spanish edition — published in 2010, with a lengthy Preface by the great Catalan filmmaker Pere Portabella — but it’s hard to be sure of this, because the Spanish publisher, as you know, perversely refused to send either of us a single copy.) After all, if we consider that the groups of friends or acquaintances who produced Italian Neorealism and the subsequent New Waves of France and Iran, not to mention New German Cinema, were all quite small and intimate, I think film history tends to be written and rewritten much more by compact and intense gatherings than by large masses of people. I think we could even argue, immodestly, that my own web site (jonathanrosenbaum.net) and the online journals that you’ve helped to launch, rouge.com.au and lolajournal.com, and their growing international readerships, have already helped to prove this point, along with many other sites.
Finally, I can speak of another, much more specific reason why Iran seems to me an ideal place for relaunching Movie Mutations in book form in Farsi. At the moment, Iran seems relatively isolated from other parts of the world, clearly more than it should be and could be, and to recast Quintín’s point a little, it’s good for countries not to feel alone.
With love and affection,
May 22, 2014
Dearest Jonathan –
You’re absolutely right; another exchange of letters is the only way to kick off this new edition of Movie Mutations! It certainly feels like the right way to go, not least because the epistolary form brought with it, for just about everyone involved in long adventure of this book (and certainly for me), a tone of warmth, intimacy and, above all, generosity. In my particular case, the Movie Mutations project has been (as the English-language saying goes) ‘the gift that keeps on giving’. From the very first seed of the exchanges to this new version, the time amounts to almost two decades, which is incredible. You speak eloquently, Jonathan, of the need to be less alone, less isolated. For me, back in 1995, this not very agreeable feeling had a special intensity and sharpness: neither myself (physically) nor my writing had traveled much beyond the confines of Australia in the first 15 years of busy film-critical activity preceding that point. It was easy to suspect, in those still-early days of Internet saturation, that Australia would never become a part of the privileged US/Europe axis of film culture – and that I was condemned to this isolation, as long as I stayed wedded to my home base.
Movie Mutations, quite simply, opened the world for me – with enormous thanks, in large part, to your good self, who has always been so encouraging and helpful, to me and many other young and/or not-yet properly recognized critics around the globe. It became a book (thanks to Rob White at the British Film Institute), but the spread of its spirit, the discussion (sometimes critical) and take-up of it, happened more in the online sphere. I’m glad it never became (and I don’t believe we ever thought about this idea) a specific, locatable, ‘dedicated’ website; it’s better as it has been, more as a rumor, a virus, an idea. As an idea about ‘global cinephilia’ which, of course, can never go far enough, which has no limits – certainly not the arbitrary limits we had to set on what the contents of the book would cover.
Movie Mutations has given rise to translations and adaptations and numerous commentaries, for and against it; even more excitingly in my view, it has sparked the curation and organization of public events, based on a mixture of screenings and discussions. For instance, our friend Tanja Vrvilo has, I believe, managed to stage six Filmske Mutacije festivals (1), of varying scope, around diverse spots in Eastern Europe; she started out with guests (including you and I) from the original letter-writing group, but has long since expanded that to include critics and programmers from all manner of progressive, enlightened film-culture hotspots around the world. And there is also a distant resurrection of the Movie Mutations spirit in several of the events that another mutual friend, Roger Koza, has run or still hopes to run, in Mexico (the FICUNAM festival) and Hamburg.
In fact, I see Roger as the real embodiment, today, of what Movie Mutations was and is all about. At some point in the various, collective elaborations and extensions of Movie Mutations, he came to figure, for you, as a kind of folk hero: bringing challenging cinema to eager crowds in rural areas of Argentina. From there, through his tireless work as a critic, TV host and eventual book publisher, he has become a programmer on the world stage, in some locations far from his home! So his trajectory matches that of mine, the cangurito of film culture: he leaps about. And all us leapers, today, find ourselves consorting in certain, delightful, unexpected places around the world, some actual, some virtual: at festivals, or conferences, or in the pages of magazines such as LOLA (edited by myself, wherever I am, and Girish Shambu in the US), Caiman (Spain) and Filmkhaneh (Iran). And, although there is sometimes no direct or even rhizomatic link back to Movie Mutations, I feel the whole experience has put me on the path, given me the sensitivity, to pick up the vibe of other sympathetic, like-minded ‘rebels inside the system’: such as Eileen Joy at punctum books, which has published all three language editions – English, Spanish (via Roger at FICUNAM) and Portuguese (via the film theorists at Lisbon University) – of my little book Last Day Every Day, which owes a lot to the ideas about film theory, analysis and philosophy stirred up within me by the initial Movie Mutations exchanges.
Today, as I type this on my laptop, I am not, at present, physically based in Australia. I am teaching for a two-year period in Frankfurt, Germany; and my life is intimately bound up with my Spanish beloved, Cristina Álvarez López. Again, the sort of possibilities opened up – in the very form of writing as exchange – by the first Movie Mutations letters appear to inform everything I am researching and exploring now: not just online publication (pushed into novel areas by the magazine Cristina co-edits, Transit), but the new, expressive capabilities offered by the audiovisual essay, at which Cristina is such a master and pioneer. In Frankfurt, Cristina and I are teaching, for the first time and together, this form of practical criticism-as-research: it is fascinating to see how some students instantly bypass the turgid, rational abstractions that their schooling has dutifully drummed into them, and suddenly connect, in a real and vital way, with images and sounds. They tinker, and fuse, and create, like Kleines Godards. It’s not just free-form appropriation art; it’s real, material critique, in action.
And when I read back over our ‘first round’ of letters in the book, I think: weren’t several of us, in our own ways, already dreaming of such a thing? Dreaming of the liberation of writing from the pages of books and magazines, dreaming of new machines or assemblages of materials – image (still or moving), sound and text? In tandem, Jonathan, your new website (jonathanrosenbaum.net), free of past institutional shackles, has become a daily, living, churning archive of film thought (yours and, through you, others’): as Peter Allen (another cangurito) sang, everything old is new again!
That’s what cinephilia has always been for me, and Movie Mutations helped bring this understanding into focus: a matter of action as well as reflection in criticism; a question of the future as well as the past and present in cinema. My dear old Dad (93 now) always used to admonish me, when he saw that (as a kid) I had my head in some book, with the rousing call: “Words must lead to actions!” In the case of Movie Mutations, I think it’s fair to say that quite a few of our collective words not only led to actions; they were actions in themselves. So, where in the big world are we meeting up next?
Love and admiration, Adrian
1. As of now, October 2015, Tanja has now held no less than nine such events; I attended the most recent of these in both Zagreb and Sibinek, Croatia, last month. And Adrian is now living with Cristina just outside Barcelona. (J.R.)