Tuesday, December 07, 2021

"Every day I have to invoke the absent god again"*

 

I really enjoy this YouTube channel despite my general lack of interest in films. The presenter’s restrained voice-over is ideal for one approaching its concerns; imagine a lullaby sung by Werner Herzog. I envy him the medium for its music, its visuals, even its potential for income, but, above all, for the critic's ability to watch a film within a few hours. It often takes me several weeks to read and re-read a book and then another several to excavate something worth saying about it. I wish there were more literary critics (one, even) who asked questions of books as Like Stories of Old asks of films – in this case, why films about a character's crisis of faith resonates so deeply with someone who does not consider themselves religious – and produced something as graceful and moving as this.

Vlogging about books, by contrast, is an abomination. I stare at the talking head and pity the book as its cover is flashed up to the camera like a packet of biscuits. Why do spoken words incline me to think nothing is further from the written word?

Such distance, however, is key. Like Stories of Old’s latest video quotes a critic’s statement that Terrence Malick’s A Hidden Life is a film “you don’t just watch; it’s a movie you enter”. No doubt this is true, as Malick's films tends to be exceptions to my negative opinions about cinema, but it does highlight the critic's instinct to mitigate the primary attraction of film: the passivity of the viewer.

In the shot of Liam Neesom's character crying out into the void (from which film, I'm not sure), I recognise the attraction of the form, and my doubts. We watch in a relaxed silence similar to that of the silence into which he is pleading. We are impressed by his talent for transformation, but we are not beside him; the anguish burning his face is rhetorical hyperbole to mitigate the necessary failure of the form. Contrast this with Javier Bardem's recitation of the old Irish prayer St. Patrick’s Breastplate in Malick's To the Wonder. We watch there too, yes, but, as we are held at a distance from the character, seeing what he sees, we join his search and wonder (which is closer to the experience of reading). The sequence can stand for the entire film, its central relationship in particular, in which intimacy and distance are as one. Meanwhile, the BBC's cheerful film reviewer wants things spelled out like in the press release.

*Hölderlin in a letter to Susette Gontard, June 1799

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