The Responsibilities of Writing About Film

I recently bought, and quickly devoured, Patton Oswalt’s new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life from an Addiction to Film. From one cinéaste to another, I appreciate a lot of what Oswalt wrote about – yes, Sunset Boulevard is a must-see worthy of arguing with your friends about them needing to see it, and yes, Bloodsucking Freaks is a disgusting masterpiece of Z-grade grossness (which I have special affection for since one of my former high school teachers has a role in it) – but I couldn’t help feeling a little let down by the book’s central point, which is that Oswalt’s movie-watching was an unhealthy compulsion that he eventually had to triumph over. Silver Screen Fiend’s narrative, recounting the four years of Oswalt’s “addiction,” reminds me of a book I read a few months ago: Wim Wenders’ Emotion Pictures: Reflections on the Cinema (1986), which covers 1968-1971, including the year that Wenders spent going to movies at the Cinémathèque in Paris. The major difference between the two books is that while Wenders writes primarily about the movies he saw (and not about how to apply filmmaking techniques to future projects), Oswalt uses his observations on films as a springboard for voicing his dreams of becoming the Next Great Director… which is something Wenders actually ended up doing a quarter-century earlier.

Two main ideas define Oswalt’s recollections of being a “sprocket fiend” between 1995 and 1999: describing classic films with appropriate (which is to say, expected) adulation and complaining about people who don’t have the proper awareness of and respect for Billy Wilder, Harlan Ellison, Jean Cocteau, etc. Contrary to what Oswalt hoped to achieve with his book, writing about movies isn’t an inherently funny undertaking, except maybe if you’re Libby Gelman-Waxner. The best stories in the book weren’t examples of film criticism; they were cringeworthy stories from Oswalt’s years as an up-and-coming comedian, like failing horribly during his first set at San Francisco’s Holy City Zoo comedy club and having a disastrous series of run-ins with an old college friend who was trying to break into the sitcom world. Oswalt’s opinions on Citizen Kane (“more panoramic than most widescreen movies, in its literal and figurative depths”) were not nearly as interesting to me as his anecdote recalling the time he tried to watch Kane in a theater where the only other audience member was Lawrence Tierney (“‘Don’t clap for that squawking bitch, she can’t sing. Siddown, ya chump!’ ‘Aw Jesus, what’s he staring at? You gonna cry, fancy man?’ It was the best DVD commentary I’ve ever heard.”). I would have enjoyed reading more about how certain movies have affected Oswalt’s life, not just about how well-made the movies are. And I must say I have to disagree with anyone who prefers the Alain Resnais film Last Year at Marienbad to the one that the “dullards” (like me) are more partial to, Hiroshima Mon Amour.

Both Silver Screen Fiend and Emotion Pictures were fast reads for me, but maybe I take Wenders’ writing more seriously because I can see how his early thoughts on film (each chapter is an essay that reads like a diary entry) translate into the films he made later on. In the introduction he writes that “images are fragile” and that writing about film is quite a responsibility to bear because “the danger of writing only about oneself and of burying the film in the process is quite considerable.” I want to avoid the preening that so many reviewers and aspiring film scholars fall prey to, a pitfall which is inescapable when you only want to write about films you know you love. That’s why the chapter Wenders wrote about the 1977 documentary Hitler, a Career was so effective: “The second time I see Hitler, a Career I am gripped by such a feeling of nausea that I leave my tape running and walk out” is a brusque response (though it is followed by the observation that there is a swastika etched on the wall in the theater’s bathroom), but it is all the more visceral since it comes at the end of many pages of detailed critical analysis. Sometimes your emotional reaction makes a statement stronger than what words can accomplish.

My favorite chapter in Emotion Pictures is a one-and-a-half-page entry on Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West. Wenders wrote something that I had never heard or read before: “This Western actually functions like a horror film, it makes you believe that terror waits behind every closed door, so that at the end the simple opening of a door makes you gasp. Christopher Lee’s vampire teeth have become Charles Bronson’s harmonica. The castle in the Carpathians is now the stable-saloon on the way to Sweetwater.” Who would have thought that you could connect Spaghetti Westerns with Hammer horror? That is ultimately what I want to do with film criticism: give the reader a way of seeing things differently. Anyone can write that a movie is good or bad, but an interpretation that leads to a new realization – a true “wow!” moment – should always be the goal.

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