Collect ‘em All!
On Scarcity, Abundance, Collection, and Territorial Pissing. On Todd Verow’s 2012 ‘Bottom,’ Éric Rohmer’s 1967 ‘La Collectionneuse,’ and Luc Moullet’s 1989 ‘Les Sièges de l'Alcazar’
This piece is about, among other things, collecting and commodification, scarcity and value, and before getting into the swing of things I’d like to address a few minor matters pertaining to the economics of this Substack. If you have no interest in such gibble-gabble, the “fun” begins in earnest after the page break.
Production on the “value-added” physical media promised to paid subscribers—‘zine, button, etc.—is, as should be evident to anyone checking their postbox, lagging behind the proposed February mail-out date, but I believe I can commit with some confidence to getting everything in the mail for arrival around the first anniversary of Employee Picks’ appearance in the world in late March. Around the same time, I will begin changing the setting so that last year’s pieces are accessible to paid subscribers only, by which point I hope to have some hard details to share about a print collection of those same pieces. Ideally this retiring and binding of the year’s work would become an annual operation, so in time your shelves can groan with these bricks of cinematic arcana. I would say, then, that this is the time for freeloaders to feast before the famine, but if in fact you can’t afford the price of admission and really want to read something in particular, you can drop me a line and I’ll get whatever it is headed your way.
In trying to make this mickey-fickey operation a going concern, I’ve tried to keep payment on a wholly optional basis, and I’ve been extremely pleased and surprised by the results—I am receiving what is, I think, fair recompense for the not inconsiderable time and effort that I put into this dog and pony show, without having thus far provided a single thing to paying subscribers in return. In trying to expand the scope of my operations going ahead, however, I’m getting other people involved in this dirty business, and it behooves me to see that they have a reasonable expectation of reward for their involvement. If I’m going to ask a friend to invest money into making a print edition of this work a reality, that same work probably ought not be readily available online to any Tom, Dick, or Harriet. If I’m going to bring in someone around the way occasionally—new viral Internet star @Nickpintern, on Twitter—to help me stuff envelopes and, hopefully by the end of the year, get some kind of archive of my Collected Works online, it would probably be decent of me to pay her something.
All of this has to do with a concern that quite a few of us living under capitalism of one strain or another, which by my count includes just about everyone, have to address constantly: how to be “cool about money stuff” and not go broke. Operating in the field of cultural commodities, especially in the Internet age, this is a pretty sticky wicket. I like getting things for free, and giving them away, as much as the next person, and as a general principle I believe in the freest possible circulation of art in general and, to take the case of this Substack’s main focus, cinema specifically. But I have a vested interest in seeing home video companies like Vinegar Syndrome, Second Run, Arrow, Potemkine, and so forth, survive. And I also know that artists have to eat, and so do curators, and so do home video producers, and so come to think of it do I, and that restorations cost money, and all of these things that we take for granted can and will go away if no-one is willing to pay in a little bit, and so I try to chuck a few extra simoleons where they’ll do some good—though if you don’t have the extra scratch, sure, steal your ass off, I certainly would, and often do. All of which is to say: I am trying my best, and I’m sure you are as well.
Alright, that takes care of the housekeeping. And now, once more, into the breach…
Todd Verow’s 2012 documentary Bottom is the sort of movie that I always jump at, a hanging fastball right over the plate: a film about obsession, about a man on a mission. Its subject is an anonymous male New York City professional—he is never named, his face doesn’t appear on camera, and his voice has been rendered unrecognizable with a scrambler—who is endeavoring to get as many loads of cum pumped up his ass as possible, documenting this process on a blog called “confessions of a bareback cunt,” from which the film’s voiceover narration is drawn. This desired goal is often achieved by way of anal sex, but not necessarily; he also, for example, accepts the saved contents of used condoms, and even cubes of cum that have been left in the freezer overnight. I have to assume he enjoys fucking as much as the next person, but at the end of the day, getting the load is the essential thing.
The subject’s exact proclivities aren’t my own, but the acquisitive impulse that Bottom spotlights in a very pure distillation is, I must say, very familiar. I live in a modest, overpriced apartment in Brooklyn, New York—living room, bedroom, kitchen, and bath—that is full to the ceiling with shit. Ideally the current financial collapse would allow me to negotiate my rent down a couple of hundred bucks by threatening to take my almost consistent monthly payments elsewhere, but it would be easy for my landlord—or, rather, the U.S. representative of my landlord, the scion of a French halal foods fortune with properties spread across three continents—to call my bluff because in point of fact I cannot and will not do this, as the prospect of moving the abovementioned shit again is both financially impossible and logistically terrifying.
I have a few records but a by no means a particularly impressive collection, having for financial reasons stopped buying vinyl around a decade ago, faced with a significant dip in my income concurrent to my catastrophic decision to become a “professional writer.” One of the recompenses for this decision, however, has been the receipt of free DVDs and Blu-rays for review purposes. These fill up one wall of my living room, and if counted alongside with four bins of burned screeners acquired during a period in which I was regularly writing about repertory series—a time-consuming, low-pay business that, with typical perversity, I gravitated towards for years—and a host of accumulated .avi and .mov and .mkv files spread across several external hard drives, I would wager that if the Internet went down tomorrow, I would still have access to three or four thousand films.
The bulk of my shit, though, is books. In Charles Portis’s 1979 novel The Dog of the South, which I finally got around to reading a couple of months ago, the book’s protagonist and narrator, Ray Midge, refers to his own collection in lineal feet, which inspired me to do some measuring of my own. I came up with one-hundred and ten feet, to which I’ve probably added another three in the last couple of months. Ray, whose considerable estimation of his own intellect is the source of much of the novel’s humor, has a mere sixty, but he is only twenty-six years old, fourteen years my junior, so this is no grounds for me to get cocky. I’ve read a good chunk of these feet but by no means all of them, a fact that I am not particularly conflicted about, because life is long and I really do mean to get around to them, and even if I don’t they brighten up the place and generally make my time on the planet more pleasant, so I’m not too eaten up over it. Walter Benjamin writes on the subject of unread books in his “Unpacking My Library”:
“And the non-reading of books, you will object, should be characteristic of all collectors? This is news to me, you may say. It is not news at all. Experts will bear me out when I say that it is the oldest thing in the world. Suffice it to quote the answer which Anatole France gave to a philistine who admired his library and then finished with the standard question, ‘And you have read all these books, Monsieur France?’ ‘Not one-tenth of them. I don’t suppose you use your Sevres china every day?’”
I take a certain pleasure in my collections, but whatever small pride that I have in my acquisitions doesn’t preclude my taking pleasure in the collections of others, even as they may inspire a small competitive twinge, or the solemn knowledge of never being able to catch up. Above is an image of Annette Michelson’s bookshelves in her Upper West Side apartment, taken in 1973 which never fails to give me a little thrill—I even love the Thonet rocking chair—as does this footage of Umberto Eco roaming his labyrinthine collection. Whenever in another person’s living space I immediately set to scrutinizing their books, which I’m very aware is an off-putting habit as it comes with some implication of judgement being passed, though I promise I’m just curious, and have for years been in the habit of discreetly snapping pictures of friend’s bookshelves—in fact, if I have been in your apartment, I’ve probably done it in yours. This I do in part because I just plain enjoy looking at bookshelves, in part because these pictures let me remember what other people have and, incidentally, what I might one day hope to acquire myself.
My friend who gave me my copy of The Dog of the South, a bookseller by trade, is just a few months my senior, and I’m afraid he may have more lineal feet than me, though this would take some time to definitively determine. He has less visible shelf space—I have no idea what goes on in his warren-like bedroom—but deeper shelves which permit for a double-tiered shelving system. Any accurate measure would be further confused by his mixture of horizontal and vertical stacking of books, which is aesthetically pleasing in a crazy-quilt kind of way, but also appears somewhat chaotic to the naked eye, though I have seen him go into the stacks and produce a sought-after volume with the frightful accuracy of a diving falcon. Does he often feel the urge to dip into those hefty reference volumes about Plains Indians and the birds of the southwest, or are they so much Sevres china? Another friend, three years my senior, is a nearly pathological lifelong collector of what is still quaintly sometimes referred to as home video, with VHS, laserdisc, DVD, and Blu-ray holdings scattered across his current apartment and a former home, and on top of that a record collection that’s none-too-shabby. His living space is something like a museum or altar to physical media, and his roommate once told me that when younger people visit for the first time: “Sometimes they’re confused. They don’t know what all of this is.”
That these friends that I am talking about and myself are all around the same age—Millennial/Gen X cusp, let’s call it—and that we grew up in a world of physical media, in every case, working video store and bookstore jobs, surrounded by the stuff, is probably not irrelevant to our attachment to it. I do, however, know a few younger collectors: a 29-year-old with interests ranging from vintage vinyl to comic books to the unclassifiable. (He owns, for example, a nametagged windbreaker worn by Brian Wilson’s nefarious psychotherapist Eugene Landy on a 1984 Beach Boys tour.)
It was this friend who turned me on to Richard Blackburn’s Record Weasels: A Novel of Addiction, which in turn introduced me to the phrase “Nympholepsy,” defined in the book’s epigraph as “A violent emotional state brought on by pursuit of an unobtainable ideal.” Set in the record collecting scene in the northeast in the late ‘90s, it begins as Kevin Dougherty, a 36-year-old bartender and vinyl junkie living with a new wife in Providence, encounters a White Whale object of desire: a Vg++ copy of The Blue Jays 1953 “White Cliffs of Dover” 45 on “webtop” Checker, on offer for $5,500. From here, Dougherty sets to trying to scrape together the money while keeping his hustle a secret from his spouse, with whom he is trying to have a baby, in knowledge that she would believe it far better to set the cash aside for that endeavor.
All of the people I’ve referenced up to this point are, incidentally, men, and I don’t think it’s essentialist to say that the demographics of certain collector’s markets skew male, as others skew female: I, who presently own one pair of pants, once co-habited with a woman who could I swear have worn a different Raf Simons garment from her closet every day of the year. The voracity of the female collector should not be underestimated. In Record Weasels, Dougherty’s wife, Marlene, goes in for “pop tchotchkes”: “old menus, scandal magazines, and lurid paperbacks,” among other retro goods. I asked my friend Margaret Barton-Fumo, whose program No Pussyfooting on the online station KPISS.fm is my favorite thing on digital radio, for numbers on her record collection, which is combined with that of her partner, and she ballparked it at 3,500. Another friend’s mother, living in my hometown of Cincinnati, is I am told possessed of one of the nation’s foremost collections of Black Barbie Dolls. And if in the Queen City, do make a point of visiting the Lucky Cat Museum at the Essex Studios, where owner Micha Robertson will proudly walk you through a collection of more than 2,000 Maneki Neko.
I have been speaking for the most part of my own small social circle, which is populated largely if not exclusively by obsessives. These are the people that I have collected and the people who have collected me, and as such certain affinities are to be expected. But my circle is not the wider world. In the wider world, from what I can gather, the clutter that comes of collecting is “out,” as is physical media in toto, replaced by streaming services for movies and music and tablet devices for reading. Still quite recently everyone was talking about organizing consultant Marie Kondo and “Sparking joy” and doing away with unnecessary things—all of life’s unused Sevres china—and if the pictures in the CB2 and Design Within Reach catalogs that inexplicably keep appearing in my mail are any indicator, there seems to be a broad consensus that a clean, tastefully minimalist living space is considered a good living space.
I am mistrustful of a consumer society that seems to be encouraging us to let go of our things; if it is doing so, I suspect it is doing so only so that it can find a way to lease those things back to us, on its own terms. Viewed in this light, packrat proclivities can come to seem downright principled, and of course I have an interest in dressing up my inclinations as a high-minded stance. Collecting, the purest consumerist pastime, can be interpreted as a means of resisting a newly emerged model of consumer capitalism that oh-so-helpfully offers to absolve the public of the heavy burden of ownership and overwhelming options, promising freedom from choice through easily navigable menus designed to hard-sell a few “Recommended for You” items du jour. Thanks but no thanks. I will not be lured into zoning on an Oculus Rift while drinking a frosty mug of cockroach milk in an egg-smooth pod. You will prise all of my shit out of my cold, dead hands.
While algorithmic recommendations aren’t necessarily inimical to discovery, what they offer is a chartered discovery limited by holdings and guided by corporate priorities, whereas the true collector is forever in search of undiscovered country. I have a friend in Cincinnati, Adam Williams, who collects 16mm prints, and whenever I’m back he has some new comestibles to thread up. Once it was a 1933 copy of Two Black Crows in Africa, a short by the blackface duo Charles Sellers and George Moran, known as Moran and Mack, discovered among the effects of a deceased neighbor—not a lost masterpiece, okay, but nevertheless fascinating as an instance of what you could find in the garage of an average middle-class Cincinnatian of a certain generation. Another time it was a 1958 episode of General Electric Theater called “One is a Wanderer,” which can be seen nowhere online. It’s based on a short story by James Thurber and starring Fred MacMurray as a writer spending a melancholy, empty weekend bumming around downtown Los Angeles. It keeps up a hangdog, downbeat tone throughout, and the teleplay, credited to one Samuel A. Taylor, is surprisingly adult in its treatment of a peculiar strain of middle-age masculine ennui, here tinged slightly with misogynistic malice. Taylor, as Adam pointed out to me, is probably best known as a repeat Hitchcock collaborator, the co-screenwriter of that same year’s Vertigo, a film which contains the following line from Kim Novak’s Madeleine, spoken to James Stewart’s “Scottie”: “Only one is a wanderer. Two together are always going somewhere.”
I don’t know if this particular piece of knowledge has given me any especial insight into Vertigo or to life, but at the very least it’s interesting, and it’s in search of these items of interest as much as Lost Masterpieces that we keep up the work of crate-digging, cadging files, swap meeting, sifting through the chaff, all in hopes of getting a more encompassing view than that offered through official narratives of culture, advanced with all manner of sinister agendas in mind that are inimical to the well-being of art.
The unobtainable idea is the dream of comprehensiveness, of having left no stone unturned, but beyond the practical barriers presented by limited resources, walls and fences have been put in place to stymie the intrepid explorer. This same friend with the mountain of home video has recently been on a bit of a tear on the topic of what one might call proprietary cultural hoarding, inspired by those roadblocks encountered in trying to gain access to rare and little-seen films. There’s no corner of film culture in which scarcity and proprietorship don’t play some role, from festivals jockeying for premiere status to archival withholding to programming power plays between competing cinemas to the scrambling for position, flag-planting, and erecting of defenses that occurs among culture journalists and academics alike. A rather infamous example of annexing territory came up in 2012-13 when Boston University’s Professort Ray Carney staked a claim of ownership over the hard copies of the films of Mark Rappaport against Rappaport’s stated wishes, with Carney announcing himself as “the Mark Rappaport Archive” and arguing that he had a right to the materials due to a previous understanding with Rappaport and the man hours and money that Carney claimed to have put into their preservation.
Anyways, my friend was holding court on this subject a few weeks ago, and wrapped up his rant with a blunt question, directed to cinema’s self-styled warders: “Are you a sharer or a hoarder?” His position, which I am inclined to agree with, is that it is better to be a sharer, although I don’t suppose that very many of us ever manage to be purely one or the other, at least not in every aspect of our lives. I don’t, in the main, like claims of ownership of art, and long before that Rappaport affair, Carny rubbed me the wrong way—not just the cult of personality and the pseudo-mystical proclamations about Art and the prose tics (“hearing dog frequencies,” “ju-jitsuing the culture”) and the bow-tie and the vague resemblance to Mark Lesko, the guy in the question mark jacket who you used to see on TV yelling about free money, but the manner in which he’d tried to call “dibs” on John Cassavetes. This is described in a 2001 Cineaste piece by Jonathan Rosenbaum which discusses Carney’s “critical monopoly” on all things Cassavetes, in which Rosenbaum accuses Carney, through “his reluctance or inability to make certain kinds of information more available,” of “setting up obstacles to other researchers that are so formidable that he effectively seems to be staking a territorial claim and announcing ‘No Trespassing’ to other scholars.” It is perhaps natural, when one has expended a certain amount of sweat and blood in exploring a topic, to have some misgivings about its belonging to the wider world, but then again I’m not sure what the purpose of losing all of that sweat and blood was if not to do exactly that.
There are, however, limits. I will happily slide you an file of whatever if I feel reasonably confident that I’m not taking money out of anyone’s pocket by doing so, and if you’re a writer looking for an editor’s email I’m only too happy to share, but it doesn’t follow that you’re welcome to take a shit in my bathroom if you happen to be in the neighborhood or, in theory, pop up and fuck my wife, though I’m very aware that such compunctions might mark me to some minds as terribly reactionary. Old habits die hard; they talked a big game about the abolition of the traditional family in the heat of the Russian Revolution, but by the time you got to the New Economy Policy, the bourgeoisie dining room had quietly settled back into place as the center of social life. Still and all, there were increased opportunities for women in the Soviet Union, as testified to by the case of Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the Red Army sniper who had 309 confirmed kills in World War II. There is nothing in this world that cannot be collected.
Distinct in character from the kind of collecting that I’ve been discussing is sexual acquisitiveness, of the sort detailed in a distilled and monomaniacal form in Bottom. Not least of its singularities is the fact that it leaves no physical imprint—you can rut like a madman and otherwise live an existence of monastic asceticism, although I wonder how often that happens, as the vow of celibacy and vow of poverty tend to walk hand-in-hand. Save for the works of the amateur pornographer, non-procreative sex leaves no physical residue, and in the post-Polaroid era it can barely even be said to leave that. Erotic connoisseurship, like eating, is tied to a physical function, and one can more easily speak of a sexual gourmand than a literary one.
If considered as a collectible commodity, sex has certain peculiarities, among these that it is not necessarily subject to the same law of scarcity that govern other collectibles. It may be priced at whatever someone is willing to pay, or it may be given freely; it may be guarded as something precious, or it may be made available to any and all takers. On his 1969 album Testify, Clarence Carter has a song called “You Can’t Miss What You Can’t Measure,” the thrust of which is that you shouldn’t sweat your man or woman running around on you, because there’s plenty of him or her to go around, and refractory time and other wear-and-tear notwithstanding, I suppose he has a point.
Bottom may be counted in the ranks of a body of films that make sexual collection their subject. This was the subject of what is, to the best of my remembrance, the only piece that I’ve ever written that could be described as a “listicle,” timed to the release of Steve McQueen’s heinous sex addict movie Shame (2011), and comprised of blurbs describing other movies about lotharios: L'Homme qui aimait les femmes (The Man Who Loved Women, 1977), The Pick-Up Artist (1987), Boomerang (1992), and a few others. It’s not the proudest moment of my professional career, though at the time, to quell my conscience, I imagine that I convinced myself that it was some kind of meta gesture: a list of list-makers.
This accrual of sexual partners belongs to a category of disembodied collection discreet from the collection of physical objects, something that we might call experiential collection. Travel is a kind of experiential collection, with souvenir refrigerator magnets and photographs and those world maps with pushpins in the places visited acting as tactile evidence of miles logged. Keepsakes like moldering shoeboxes of ticket stubs and press kits notwithstanding, theatrical moviegoing belongs to this category as well.
For the systematic film viewer who has been at the game long enough, some kind of list-making is almost inevitable. I’ve never particularly enjoyed the practice of listing art for public consumption, year-end lists included. There’s a certain base hypocrisy in this, because I have myself been at times a consumer of lists, and like many a compulsive film viewer, I was to some degree raised by them, and got some sense of my bearings through the framework for exploring “world cinema” that they provided.
There are principled stances to be taken for and against the list. Representative of the pro- camp is Rosenbaum who, in the introduction to his collection Essential Cinema proposes the list as a means to speak truth to power, writing that “the disinclination of American film academics to offer any alternative canons has continued to give the industry an unchallenged playing field, assisted by such recent promotional campaigns as the American Film Institute’s various polls that list the one hundred greatest American films, stars, comedies, and so on.” For the anti party I’ll offer an excerpt from a 2019 piece, “Against Lists,” published in Another Gaze by Elena Gorfinkel, a UK academic, who writes: “The impulse to list is allied with collection, a desire to record, to archive, to remember, to preserve experience and the aesthetic feeling of films one might not otherwise recall. These are meaningful, important and historically enshrined activities, on their own terms. But in this hyper-mediated moment, the recirculated compulsory form of the list—list as desiderata of consumption, a grocery receipt of your watching—has become an instrument of commodity fetishism, of algorithmic capture, of priapic, indulgent self-exposure.”
Some of Gorfinkel’s grudges with the list resemble in passing those that Rosenbaum cites in his description of the “unraveling of literary canons” in academia—spurred, as he puts it, by “arguments about dead white males and bourgeoisie complacency”—which had already begun in his college days in the early 1960s, though to this Gorfinkel adds a distrust of the increased prominence of lists in the Internet age, describing lists as “attentional real estate for the fatigued, enervated, click-hungry.” Rosenbaum and Gorfinkel might well agree on most or all of their stated intentions in endorsing or pillorying list-making, both being leftists who recognize the deficiencies of canons shaped by money interests and Western parochialism, but they ultimately define positions on either side of a long-standing divide between cultural journalism and academia, positions that might be described as reformist and, if not revolutionary, than staunchly non-participatory or abolitionist. The former believes that bad lists must be combatted with better lists, the latter that any list-making at all perpetuates what Gorfinkel calls “narcissistic cinephilia’s allegiance with capital.”
While feeling myself far closer to the “film buff” tradition that Rosenbaum speaks for, and usually reliable for grudgingly slapping together a year-end list, I am more inclined to the practice of private list-making “to preserve experience and the aesthetic feeling of films one might not otherwise recall” that Gorfinkel describes. Rosenbaum’s continuing belief in the potential of list-making and canon-forming to do some good cannot have been hurt by his having had some direct experience of alternative canons, to use a painful phrase, “making an impact.” He cites the example of Andrew Sarris’s 1968 The American Cinema, the catechism of American auteurism—and however you might quibble with the limitations of Sarris’s purview of “American cinema,” it is an untrammeled good that Douglas Sirk, to take one name, is taken more seriously because of it. I, however, cannot recall much in the way of list-making and awards-giving in my years that has seemed to serve much purpose aside from consolidating consensus, all in the service of an economy of aggressive aggregation that erodes what precious little territory remains to intelligent cultural journalism addressed to a general public. At the same time, the generosity of the good, iconoclastic list-makers—John Waters in Artforum, to name another—makes me a little ashamed of my stingy stockpiling. Am I a sharer? Or am I a hoarder?
I don’t know where the pastime of listing films qualitatively began—the first Sight and Sound “Greatest Films of All Time” poll ran in 1952, though certainly the habit stretches back before then. Whatever the case, it was elevated to an artform by that nation of encyclopedists, the French, and the mid-century journalist cinephiles who provided Sarris something of his working model and who, for good or ill, largely are responsible for creating a model of film culture that has persisted to the present day.
Some of those list-making cinephiles, of course, became filmmakers themselves, and when they did, questions concerning taste and value, unsurprisingly, informed the films that they would make, with one sterling instance of this being Éric Rohmer’s La Collectionneuse (1967). The film’s three central characters are introduced in three prologues, the last and longest of these belonging to Adrien (Patrick Bauchau), who is found conversing on the porch of a manorial home with his fiancée (Mijanou Bardot, Bauchau’s real-life wife) and her friend (Annik Morice). The subject of their talk is one that will be the heart of much of the film’s dialogue: curation, in this particular case, the cultivation of one’s personal circle. The friend, a winsome brunette, states that a degree of physical beauty is a necessary prerequisite. “I find very few people handsome,” she says, “It limits my friendships severely, because if I’m repelled by people I never see them again.”
Shortly after this, a small tiff occurs between Adrien and his fiancée; she is headed to London for July and wants him to come along, but he is determined to head to a villa near St. Tropez owned by one Rodolphe, the same wealthy friend whose manse they’re presently visiting, to take a meeting relating to the financing of a gallery that Adrien, a collector of Asian objects d’art, intends to open. Arrived at his summer home, Adrien connects with the subjects of the first two prologues, Daniel (Daniel Pommereulle), a longhair artist, and Haydée (Haydée Politoff), a girl of about twenty who, at the end of his own prologue, Adrien had caught a glimpse of in Rodolphe’s bed.
Adrien’s stated plan for his vacation is to live in “monastic style,” spending his mornings in the sea, his evenings in repose. The intention is to achieve “That state of passivity, of total availability,” a retreat not only from the rat race—he works, we learn, as an optometrist—but from himself, seeking a state of no-mind bliss. This is not, as his voiceover assures us, so easily achieved, for Adrien, always immaculately coiffed and pressed and dressed with casual elegance, is an aesthete, with a mind given to cataloguing and connoisseurship. “I wanted my glance to be as empty as possible, void of a naturalist’s curiosity,” his voiceover begins as he stands in the sea, continuing over images of undulating aquatic flora, “For if I had yielded to one of my desires, I’d have spent my life collecting plants.” As these plants go with the flow, so shall he, free of preference and choice. “I’m not looking for anything,” he proclaims to Daniel, “If I come across a Rousseau, I read Rousseau. I could just as well read Don Quixote. If a pretty girl offers herself, I take her.” Not only a holiday, then, but a holiday from intention, from selection.
Adrien resolves nevertheless that he will not take Haydée, whose agitating presence quickly makes a quixotic undertaking of his design for a zen vacation. She brings home lovers nightly, and the resulting racket disturbs his rest, just as her seeming indifference to who she picks up disturbs his sense of priority as an arbiter of taste. Adrien broods, unhappily sure that Haydée will set her sights on him—tall and fit with a noble jawline, he is a man accustomed to being desired—and Daniel, too, categorically rejects the possibility of romance with their household nuisance, stating flatly: “Those types of girls don’t interest me.” There is a lot of talk about “types” between the men, implicit in this a serene confidence in their ability to sort the good from the bad, which recalls another art collector aesthete drawn into a folly, Marcel Proust’s refined Charles Swann, who at the end of his affair with Odette de Crécy in Du côté de chez Swann marvels at his having conceived of a passion “for a woman who did not please me, who was not my type!”
Soon enough, of course, Adrien is chasing after Haydée—I say “of course” because Rohmer is as ever attentive to incongruities, the little slippages between what people proclaim themselves to be and what their actions proclaim them to be, in this case contrasting the denials of Adrien’s voice-over and the budding attraction visible in the image. The suppressed connoisseur in Adrien returns as he passes an afternoon with Haydée lying out next to some Provencal vineyards, he opining: “The worst thing here is the wine. It’s disgusting! I don’t drink it anymore. It’s wrong to drink something one doesn’t like, to accept things one dislikes, to see people one dislikes, to caress a girl one dislikes. It’s supremely immoral.” As Adrien speaks, he is caressing Haydée’s bare legs as though illustrating his words, though also, obviously, because he wants to, even as his announced intention for this outing is to dissuade her interest in him. Standing up, he proceeds to insult her “ugly nose”; tries to put her on the trail of Daniel, even though “He’s far superior to [her]”; and chides her for her promiscuity. “You’re too popular,” he tells Haydée.
Far from resolving things, from here the vexations pile up. Haydée sleeps with Daniel, then returns to her nightly gallivanting. What Adrien’s voice-over describes as “an era of open hostility” follows, coming to a head when both men cross-examine a sunbathing Haydée, and the following dialogue occurs:
Adrien: “If you sleep around without premeditation you are the lowest of the low. The atrocious ingenue. But, if you collect in a consistent way, with obstinacy, if it’s a plot, things are entirely different.”
Haydée: “I’m not a collector… I’m searching. I’m trying to find something. I may be mistaken.”
Daniel: “She takes what she finds. She doesn’t know what postponement means.”
Haydée: “No, I exploit. It can be anything, the main thing is for me to get something.”
Daniel: “No, you scrape the barrel and you end up with only a pile which collapses ‘cause there’s nothing behind it.”
Haydée: “You scrape the barrel, too.”
Daniel: “I’m a barbarian. If I slept with you it was without ulterior motives.”
Haydée: “Illogical. You blame me for taking anything, and you brag about doing it.”
Daniel: “Not being a barbarian, you can’t behave like one. But I can. One must always be killing something.”
The “illogic” that Haydée spots is what many of us might call a double-standard. This sensitivity to commonplace male hypocrisy may be accounted for by the fact that Politoff is has a credit on the screenplay, as do Bauchau, Pommereulle, and Rohmer, a collaborative practice that Rohmer would return to with his 1986 Le Rayon vert, co-written with star Marie Rivière.
What exactly is it about Haydée that gets under the skin of these two men who so insistently profess their indifference to and even disgust with her? To hear them tell it, it’s her perceived absence of refinement, her failure to exclude and—even worse!—her failure to accede to their pronouncements of what is or is not worthy of attention. For Haydée, Adrien extols the virtues of a 10th century Song dynasty vase that he is planning to sell to a collector, the potential business partner, but her eye strays to a worthless 19th century Japanese Satsuma vase decorated in an imitation of Chinese style. The frustration is that which comes when encountering someone who fails to honor your sense of value, which for an aesthete whose identity is wrapped up in taste is tantamount to a personal insult. This particular case has less to do with porcelain than with pride, for both Adrien and Daniel view themselves as exceptional specimens, and to see that valuation rejected is a hard pill to swallow—sometimes you want the ego validation of being offered a job you don’t intend to take.
The distinction the men make—though here, too, Haydée is loathe to accept the terms in which they make it—is between selection and collection, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. Adrien, the connoisseur who will spend three years on the trail of a vase, has a definite type in mind, while Haydée, in her unstructured “searching,” has no fixed destination. Selection begins with a type and eliminates that which doesn’t meet requirements. Collection has no fixed ideas, casts a wide net, uncertain what might be caught, or even what is being sought after. In antiques as in romance, rarity is one way to confer value and distinction. “I’m fed up with little girls everyone admires,” says Adrien to Daniel, “Fed up with girls everyone shares.” The sentiment is not unique to Adrien. Later, as he discusses the “fast” Haydée with the would-be backer of his gallery, a filthy rich middle-aged American named Sam (Eugene Archer, a former film reviewer for the New York Times billed as Seymour Hertzberg), the older man says “I like ones that are hard to get.” This moment, it should be noted, comes after the “easy” Haydée has rebuffed Adrien’s advances not once but twice.
The title of Rohmer’s film, with the feminine “La,” refers to Haydée, but its characters are all collectors of a sort. Haydée has the men she beds indiscriminately, Adrien the vases he collects with care. Daniel, the artist, is a more ambiguous case. We see only one instance of his artwork, in the prologue, a coffee can bristling with razor blades affixed to its exterior with some kind of resin. In short, it’s reclaimed junk, junk that has attained whatever value it has through the artist’s touch, as discarded bits of wood found lying on the curb in the East Village become valuable by virtue of being arranged into a sculpture by Louise Nevelson. A bricolage artist must necessarily be a magpie, but in speech, at least, Daniel disdains the collector—his words towards the end of the testy exchange quoted at length above are directed towards Haydée, but might be meant for Adrien as well, as he bewails the “poor wretch who thinks only of adding. He’ll never be happy with one object. He’ll always look for the remarkable object in a series. He’ll always want to have a set. We’re very far from purity. What’s important is elimination. The idea of collecting is opposite to that of purity.” The collector’s ache of incompletion that he’s describing is, of course, nympholepsy.
Finally there is Sam, the man with the money to buy Adrien’s taste and Daniel’s sharp-edged coffee cans and perhaps more, the man who when he hears Adrien refer to Haydée as a “collector” purrs “We have something in common.” Sam arrives at the trio’s villa as Daniel is on his way out the door, fed up with Haydée and Adrien and the whole scene. As he leaves he insults the American, telling him “I hate collectors. I can’t bear the sight of them.” Adrien, just rejected by Haydée for the second time the previous night, recruits her to be dropped off to spend the night at Sam’s villa. In his voice-over, he identifies the arrangement as a three-way bluff, a “joke,” though there is something distinctively punitive in both Haydée and Adrien’s maneuvers. Having twice had the opportunity to turn down flat a man who has made such a show of being convinced of her inferiority, she can now rub her nose in her unavailability to him by trotting of willingly with an Ugly American. For his part, in asking a woman who gives of her body quite freely to make her sex a commodity, Adrien can thereby sully her liberation with the taint of money, devaluing her further in his own eyes and, he perhaps hopes, her own. Nothing can taint amateur enthusiasm like money can, as is explicit in a line in Hal Ashby’s Shampoo (1975), delivered with cool contempt by Warren Beatty, among Hollywood’s most famous amorous collectors, in the character of pussyhound hairdresser George Roundy: “I don’t fuck anybody for money. I do it for the fun.”
Adrien’s bluff is called, and after an afternoon bout of unexpected gut-gnawing jealousy the next day, he resolves, upon picking Haydée up, to bring their little comedy to a close. He arrives at Sam’s villa to find the master of the house in ill spirits, and the conversation between Adrien and Sam is sulky and contentious. Wrapping up a speech about people’s “useless work,” Adrien concludes “I’m not a parasite,” the clear implication being that Sam, the man who buys other men’s expertise, is. If Adrien resents the older man’s money, Sam resents the younger man’s genetic inheritance, painting Adrien as a bit of a grifter gigolo, growling “If I was 6’6” with an eagle’s profile I’d feel closer to the Gods, too.” Adrien hits back, defending his honor: “I’ve always regretted my not being rich. But if I were, my dandyism, as you say, would be easy, and would totally lack heroism. And I can’t imagine a dandy without heroism.” Paul Gégauff, the frequent Claude Chabrol scenarist discussed in my last missive here, a dilettante, dandy, and an intimate of Rohmer, is sometimes pointed to as an inspiration for both Adrien and Daniel, though I wonder if with this line he wasn’t thinking a little of Jean Eustache, whose origins were much humbler than Gégauff’s, a working-class boy from the south who on arriving in Paris transformed himself into the Beau Brummel of the cinephile set. In any case, there is more than a touch of Gégauff’s legendary loathing of producers in the truculence that Adrien and Daniel display towards Sam, for among other things La Collectionneuse may be taken as a meditation on the often tetchy relationship between the three “types” that one tends to find around the arts: the creator, the curator, and the monied “benefactor.” The collector without deep pockets who pursues the avocation at personal loss must always resent a little the collector with bottomless ones—in Record Weasels, Dougherty frets that while he scrambles to get his knock together, he’ll be scooped by “moneyed collectors [who] went after rarities they only mildly liked just for bragging rights”—for there is a sense that sacrifice sanctifies obsession. Here we may meditate on the lesson of the poor widow’s mite, and Christ’s statement “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put more into the treasury than all the others. They all gave out of their wealth; but she, out of her poverty, put in everything—all she had to live on.”
Rohmer, though confessedly fascinated by the excesses of Gégauff’s character, was himself a distinctly Apollonian personality, and this abstemiousness is reflected in his filmmaking approach, producing movies largely without non-diagetic music or foley sound, shot largely with available light, largely without close-ups. Gégauff, who first met Rohmer at a fireman’s ball in July, 1947, would marvel at his friend’s self-control with women, and described him as living “like an ascetic in a maid’s room,” recalling of the chamber in the Hôtel de Lutèce that Rohmer occupied as a bachelor at the beginning of the ‘50s: “Within the white walls of his room, everything counted, every penny, every cracker, every teabag. He remained very well-groomed, but severe, no frills of any kind.” A decade later Rohmer’s first feature, Le Signe du lion, would draw inspiration from one of Gégauff’s misadventures, and in the odd-couple dynamic that existed between Gégauff and Rohmer, we can find the model for that between the paired men of Rohmer’s Moral Tales, described by Rohmer’s biographers, Antoine de Baecque and Noël Herpe: “On one hand, the bon vivant who expends a disorganized energy; on the other, the voyeur who remains in the background while awaiting his time.”
One of the paradoxes of Rohmer is that this ascetic produced some of the most sensually ravishing films that I know of—but paradox was the stock-in-trade of the critic-turned-artist who wrote in the January, 1959 issue of Cahiers that “Cinema’s true nature is contradictory; one can enter its temple only by the door of paradox.” This, or some variation on it, was something like an article of faith among the Cahiers crew, though for Rohmer pre-dated the association; in the introduction of an unfinished novel, La Tempête, written while he and Gégauff were at their closest in 1948-49, he writes “My personal philosophy has been only that of good intentions: reconciling the rejection of passions and the impossibility of life without passion… There is no good without the possibility of evil, but good is nevertheless in nature. I am sensitive only to a certain beauty of things or to the innocence of a good intention.”
Another paradox: The Cahiers Young Turks formed a united front against overvalued “literary” cinema, but their efforts towards creating a cinematic canon profoundly bore the stamp of a French educational system based in the teaching of the Francophone literary canon. Several filmmakers who graduated from Cahiers gravitated towards the 19th century social-realist novel rather than the contemporary nouvelle roman that, for example, Alain Resnais set out to address through cinematic means in his first features. Chabrol invited comparisons to Balzac and Zola in his exhaustive cataloguing of the national scene. Rohmer tended to look further back—his criticism vibrates with tension between the “classical” and the “modern”—but he is quite convincing discoursing on the Histoire des treize: as the “Balzac Expert” in Out 1 (1971), the 13-hour epic by Jacques Rivette, who had a career-long engagement with Balzac, while his best-known film, Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974), was made under the sign of Henry James. Truffaut starred himself in an adaptation of James’s story “The Altar of the Dead,” 1978’s La Chambre verte, and though he left school at fourteen, he was always a rapacious consumer of the canon, found in his childhood correspondences with friend Robert Lachenay arranging to swap literary classics in the Fayard collection as other boys might swap Donruss baseball cards or Pokémon packs.
This generation of Cahiers critics left behind their lists, but they were no dedicated Diderots—the real work of cataloguing would go to the likes of Bertrand Tavernier and Jean-Pierre Coursodon or like-minded compatriots in England and the United States, including the writers of the English periodical Movie and, of course, Sarris. Writes James Morrison in the history of auteurism that opens his Auteur Theory and My Son John, part of Sarris’s project in adopting certain ideas from the Cahiers camp was “to co-opt auteurism to construct a model of film history oriented around directors, with ‘auteur theory’ standing as a prompt to endless further research, a provocation to completism.” The counterpoising of system-driven Anglo-American pragmatism and eccentric, erratic French romanticism is something of a staple in any discussion of aesthetics, film culture not excepted, reflected, not without reason, in any discussion of the contrasting conservation and curation practices of Ernest Lindgren of the British Film Institute and Henri Langlois of the Cinémathèque Française, with the former depicted as a punctilious, pin-neat postmaster, the latter—a mentor figure for the Cahiers kids—a disorderly dervish with spools of film trailing from his back pockets.
Pauline Kael, sallying forth against Sarris in the pages of Film Quarterly in 1963, fretted that Sarris’s imported foreign credo was a simplifying template designed to allow film fanboys avant la lettre to pull for their favorites against all evidence of failure, handy recourse to vagaries like “interior meaning” a workaround easing the burden of proof on the proselytizing critic—whereas the great critic must use “their full range of intelligence and intuition, rather than relying on formulas.” More than fifty years later, Kael’s former acolyte, Paul Schrader, would echo his mentor’s fear of formula in one of his more cogent Facebook missives, writing of “a critical phenomenon I call ‘buying stock’. Critics and viewers consciously or unconsciously purchase shares in an artist’s work. 10,000 shares of Tarantino, 50,000 shares of Star Wars, etc. Once a viewer has purchased stock in an artist he/she becomes committed to that stock valuation.”
In fact, the interrogations of confirmation bias and other shortcomings implicit in the auteurist proposition coming from within the auteurist ranks are more far more rigorous than Kael’s takedown, which, as Morrison observes, leans heavily on the idea that the auteurists were heaping false praise on “bad” movies, or movies that Pauline Kael dislikes, while undervaluing “good” ones, with little intelligence or intuition on display in explaining the apparently self-evident difference between these categories. (That Howard Hawks’s 1962 Hatari! is used as an example of the former and Henry Hathaway’s 1960 North to Alaska is used as an example of the latter does not strengthen Kael’s case.)
Far more valuable is Sarris’s 1962 piece “Dialogue of a Schizocritic,” structured as a argumentative conversation between the author’s “Cultural snob” and “Movie buff” sides on the auteur issue, or Cahiers latecomer Luc Moullet’s Les Sièges de l’Alcazar (1989). The film is a 54-minute moyen métrage masterpiece set in Paris in the 1950s which follows the peregrinations of a young Cahiers critic, Guy (Olivier Maltini), scheduled almost entirely around film screenings. Guy becomes fixated on Jeanne (Elizabeth Moreau), a female critic for the rival journal Positif after he sights her, with some suspicion, at screenings of a retrospective of the films of Vittorio Cottafavi—a director that Guy has championed, and that Positif had taken a stance against. Such splits were not infrequent during the 1950s, for the magazines, both founded in ’52, maintained a lively rivalry of competing canons, with Positif a politically committed left-leaning publication, Cahiers a jumble of aesthetes of various affiliations—founding editor Jacques Doniol-Valcroze and frequent contributor Pierre Kast were leftists with Resistance bona fides, Bazin was a liberal Catholic, Moullet generally described as an anarchist, and Rohmer a neo-royalist—who in their admiration (or at least serious consideration) of Hollywood and other commercial cinemas were regarded by detractors as suspiciously right-leaning. Trying to explain to a friend her growing fascination with Guy after a few prickly exchanges at the Cinéma l’Alcazar, Jeanne explains he’s the perfect subject for her investigation “into cinephilia and its reactionary substratum.”
Moullet pokes fun at his reactionary reputation, the title of his film a play on Le siège de l'Alcazar, one version of the title of a 1936 book extolling the bravery of General Francisco Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War by Henri Massis and Robert Brasillach, the latter executed as a collaborationist by De Gaulle. There is, however, a real Cinéma l’Alcazar in Paris, in the northeast of the city near the Gare D’asnières-sur-Seine, and Guy is, rather clearly, functioning as a stand-in for Moullet, who once wrote in swashbuckling fashion for Cahiers that Cottafavi’s La Vendetta di ercole (Goliath and the Dragon) was the best film at the 1960 Venice Film Festival. To express a preference for sword-and-sandal picture starring Brooklyn-born bodybuilder Mark Forest to, say, Luchino Visconti’s Rocco e i suoi fratelli (Rocco and His Brothers) is no less provocative a proposition today than it was sixty years ago. The core Cahiers writers, with their appetite for gaudy studio system fare and other unmentionables, often stood suspected of deliberate contrarianism in their predilections, and none among them risked this charge more than Moullet, the youngest of the lot, whose preferences—and confrontational, slangy, street-fighting style—were near to those of the MacMahonists, a cabal of cinephiles whose home base was the Cinema MacMahon near the Arc de Triomphe, founded by Pierre Rissient, who in their house publication, Présence du cinema, rallied around such beyond-the-pale, lowbrow hero figures as Don Weis, Charlton Heston and, yes, Cottafavi.
Made by a man over fifty reflecting on the events of his early twenties, Les Sièges de l’Alcazar is Moullet’s send-up of his younger self and of the storied cinephile culture of his sentimental education. A fearless toppler of false idols in print, Guy is hopelessly timid with this woman who clearly fascinates him—this sexual timidity a quality the swaggering Gégauff never tired of mocking in the pasty young eggheads around him. The sneaking sense of the puerility of cinephilia is underlined in one of the film’s many well-turned sight gags—Guy favors the cheap seats up front at the Cinéma l’Alcazar, usually reserved for children, and so spends screenings solemnly taking notes surrounded by rambunctious pre-adolescents, grumbling in his voiceover monologue: “Surrounded by ten children, I felt like John Wayne under attack from the Indians or the Commies. It was a form of modern heroism.” And while loudly decrying the bogus taste of an establishment that praises “pretension” over a good peplum, Guy privately questions his own, thrown into a tailspin of doubt when Jeanne snaps: “The only reason you champion Cottafavi is to make a name for yourself.” Earlier, he’ll have a moment of panic seeing Ottavio Scotti credited as the director on a poster for 1954’s L’Affranchi (Nel gorgo del peccato), a film he had, correctly, enjoyed while under the impression that it was directed by Cottafavi, wondering of the film’s mis-credited “artistic director”: “Was Ottavio Scotti a genius?”
Moullet, the true believer cinephile, is far more cutting in his depiction of the culture that produced modern auteurism than Kael, his film savagely funny as only an insider’s account could be. His boy’s club cinephiles are caricatured and rather grotesque; Jeanne recoils from Guy’s halitosis, and he’s the nearest thing to a ladykiller in his circle, which includes a squirming stutterer, a nose-picker, a comatose lump, and a runty fellow who curiously manages to seem both pre-pubescent and middle-aged at the same time. Their table talk consists of the peacocking of esoteric knowledge and the little games of one-upsmanship that is so often the preferred patter among specialists of any breed—one feels the palpable satisfaction of the stutterer when he tops the obscurity of Guy’s Cottafavi fetish with his own discovery (“There’s only one filmmaker who excites me, and that’s Sam Newfield”), the pride of the little old man when he rattles off a figure attesting to Newfield’s prolificity without missing a beat (“The only man who made 206 films”) and, the greatest triumph of all, when the stutterer is able to issue a smug correction (“207. You forgot, he took over from Ákos von Ráthonyi who went down with peritonitis while shooting Across the Sioux Territory.”)
These little back-and-forths are the tissue of the flirtation, such as it is, that arises between Guy and Jeanne between screenings. He champions Cottafavi’s “discreet, supple, invisible” adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’s La Dame aux Camélias (Traviata ‘53) over the “pretentious” treatment of the same source (La signora senza camelie) by her beloved Michelangelo Antonioni, both released in 1953; she nails him on a point about the composer Giovanni Fusco, and corrects his pronunciation of “Cottafavi,” snottily deeming his attempts as sounding “like a cocky Parisian kid.” Born of working-class stock, Moullet was an outlier among his friends and colleagues, and this moment, and Guy’s humiliation here, has the feeling of a pushy, insecure young autodidact’s rankling memories of being put down by peers with more formal education. Moullet has plenty of fun with his own side’s odd obsession with rifling through the charity bins of film history for undiscovered geniuses, but he gets in his jabs at the pieties of engagée cinephilia as well—Guy and his gang go out to see their low-bred movies in a fleapit with the punters, like real proles, while his foray behind enemy lines on Jeanne’s trail takes him to an absurdly serious-minded bill that includes Antonioni’s La signora and Joris Ivens’ This Spanish Earth (1937), a pro-Republican, anti-Franco documentary. Guy may be ridiculous in his affectations, but he’s also unafraid to clash with authority, as when he outsmarts cops at Cinéma l’Alcazar trying to drag him to the hoosegow with a knowledge of legal arcana, triumphantly proves to them that management have snipped a reel from L’Affranchi in order to squeeze in an extra showtime, and enjoys a private screening for his efforts.
Moullet uses a floating voiceover technique: at various times we hear the thoughts of Guy; of Jeanne; of Angela (Sabine Haudepin), the friend that Jeanne recruits to go out with Guy as proof of her own indifference (shades of La Collecteunneuse); and, finally, of the middle-aged couple who own the Cinéma l’Alcazar, who get the film’s final line and last laugh, having pocketed the proceeds from servicing generations of sicko moviegoers: “With our savings from the last thirty years, we’ve bought a one-bedroom flat in Palavas-les-Flots by the seaside.” Another party also appears to voice Guy’s thoughts—the dialogue that resounds through the Cinéma l’Alcazar. “Are you saying I have a style?... It’s amazing how you find out these little things about me,” says a character in L’Affranchi, to which another responds, “Anyone could have found out.” The effect is like a secret message Cottafavi is slipping to his most ardent admirer, a “Thank you” note for the attention paid. Earlier, Guy muses in voiceover about the myriad inconveniences of seeing films at the Cinéma l’Alcazar: “Perhaps my love of this cinema stemmed from the obstacles it presented.” An immediate rejoinder appears to come to him from the soundtrack of the film he’s watching, Cottafavi’s Una donna libera (1954): “That’s a lot for so little love. But if that amuses you, I’m amused.”
Moullet comes very close here to Kael’s dismissive crack about the auteurist sleuths who she imagines searching for directorial signatures with spyglasses, fetishizing these paltry “triumphs” when discovered in the least-promising material. “When Preminger makes an expert, entertaining whodunnit like Laura,” she writes, “we don’t look for his personality (it has become part of the texture of the film); when he makes an atrocity like Whirlpool, there’s plenty of time to look for his personality—if that’s your idea of a good time.” As regards the Cahiers crowd, however, she’s rather wide of the mark with the idea that they lionized “simple technical competence” and craftsmanship; as Morrison points out, they were in fact unusually eager to point out the stylistic infelicities of their favorites. This is because, contra Kael, the auteurist proposition wasn’t against discriminatory taste, but rather petitioned for a redefinition of those “bads” and “goods,” the latter which Kael claims to judge by a stated criterion of “unity of form and content.”
If it seems strange that such a bibliophiliac bunch as the Cahiers gang would use “literary” as a pejorative, what needs be understood is that part of their proposition was that the “unity of form and content” that Kael puts forth as a yardstick for quality that could be applied in any medium was insufficient for a case so singular as that of cinema. Per Morrison, the “politiques des auteurs was a project of trans-valuation dedicated, among other things, to overturning the critical establishment’s general preferences for refined, tasteful, polished, respectably packaged cinema.” Kael played the part of the shit-kicker razzing the pieties of the Eastern intellectual establishment while trumpeting her common, carnal taste, but she always drew a clear line of demarcation between what she considered “art” in cinema and that which was merely “fun trash,” and in “Circles and Squares” one finds her aghast that anyone could confuse the latter for the former.
There is an idea that auteurism belongs to a bygone era of studio “assembly lines” and popular cinemas, when artists working in established genres would be forced to smuggle their personalities, like contraband, into works otherwise conforming to pattern. (Moullet’s second feature, released in 1967, was significantly titled Les Contrebandières—The Smugglers.) Setting aside the question as to if any filmmaker working in any context is ever really free, this somewhat misses one of the basic premises of the politiques des auteurs, which is that compromise is built into the medium by virtue of its automatism, the encounter between the cineaste and the camera mechanism. Drawing on a reference to the “automatic… writing beloved of the early surrealists” in a Godard review of Nicholas Ray’s Hot Blood (1956), Morrison connects the Cahiers rabble-rousers to the Surrealists, for whom “the cinema was understood as an ‘automatic’ medium that could, in the course of its operations, reflect in some mysterious and complicated way the human interventions that set the machinery in motion.” This leads Morrison to Jean Epstein’s idea of the photogénie, which he defines as “a unit of cinematic being, a monad, a moment, simply the ‘photogenic’ in literal terms, that which lends itself to being filmed, but really the glimpse that lays bare in an instant some passing cinematic essence, not transcending the mechanism of the form but disclosing a real presence that leaps up at intervals alongside it.” The struggle that fascinated the auteurists, the “obstacles” that stir the love of Guy/Moullet, were not, as Kael would have it, “the frustrations of a man working against the given material”—the Hollywood hack trying his best in an artform compromised by commerce—but a struggle with the material of the cinema itself. The customs agents in charge may change, but there was always smuggling to be done. Cinema is not another artform that aspires to unity, per the politiques des auteurs, but one that offers flashes, glimpses, violent ruptures.
The essential insights of the Cahiers critics are for my money correct, but the Tradition of Quality upheld by the critical establishment hasn’t suffered much for their having been made, and this is perhaps the way of the world. Much as there is no good without the possibility of evil, per Rohmer, you can’t épater la bourgeoise without a bourgeoise around to épater at. Les Sièges de l’Alcazar suggests the almost symbiotic relationship between two strains of cinephilia, not to say culture in general: that of the “art for art’s sake” aesthetes and that of those for whom art needs necessarily be directed towards some social purpose. (“Film studies” had not yet entered the academy in the period depicted, but if it had, it’s a safe bet that Jeanne would be working towards her doctorate.) We may not like one another, but we need one another, if only as a whetstone to sharpen our convictions against. The necessity of an enemy was well understood by Truffaut who, in his best-known polemic, the 1954 “Une certaine tendance du cinéma français,” quotes Paul Valéry: “Taste is made of a thousand distastes.”
Guy’s claim in Les Sièges de l’Alcazar for “modern heroism” in obsessive connoisseurship is given a rather more earnest treatment in Truffaut’s 1966 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, a rumination on the relationship between value and scarcity set in a future in which books are banned and burned by the firefighter functionaries of an authoritarian state—one of the volumes seen consumed by fire is Gégauff’s Rebus—this loss largely unnoticed by a public numbed by interactive television, what we now know as content. Literature is kept alive by a few chary collectors, in contraband cachets and, in the case of the “book people” in whose company the film’s protagonist eventually finds himself, through commitment of texts to memory, a very romantic image of amateur ardor keeping art alive in barbarian times. There is often a felonious aspect to the love of art in the films made when Truffaut was still near to his truant youth—recall the cadging of the lobby card in Les Quatre Cents Coups (1959), a scene that has an analog in Les Sièges de l’Alcazar, in which a fetishist freak can be seen hunched in the Alcazar toilets, carving an actress’s face out of a framed film still filched from the cinema walls.
Later in life, when he had the means to buy what he wanted, Truffaut made two very poignant and very different films about collection, one concerning romantic fidelity, another concerning sexual incontinence. In La Chambre verte, the Truffaut character turns an abandoned chapel into a monument to dead friends and lovers filled with their images; in L'Homme qui aimait les femmes, a compulsive Don Juan, played by Charles Denner, is followed on his various amorous pursuits. Denner, fourteen years earlier, could be seen playing the lead in a very different film about serial seduction from another of the Cahiers cohort, Chabrol’s Landru, about French murderer Henri Désiré Landru, executed in 1922 for romancing and then murdering not less than ten women. (The screenplay is by Françoise Sagan, whose debut novel Bonjour Tristesse, beautifully adapted into a 1958 film by Preminger, which plays with the meaning of the phrase “ladykiller.”) In Chabrol’s film, Landru is less Bluebeard than bourgeoisie businessman, his killings so many chores to be got through so that he can pursue his true pleasure in ammassing his victims’ belongings, forming a cluttered collection of furniture and bric-a-brac testifying to the chintzy taste of middle-class women in the Third Republic. There’s a belly-laugh moment early on, a perfect puncturing of the pretenses of any collector, which finds Landru sitting on a divan in his Ali Baba’s cave contemplating a piece of ceramic statuary to which he says, voice throbbing with affected emotion as it does throughout the film: “Mindless thing, I wonder if you have a soul…” The Landru case, incidentally, provided the inspiration for Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux (1947), in which Chaplin’s title character, collared for his crime, tells a journalist “One murder makes a villain…millions a hero. Numbers sanctify, my good friend.” I believe this is what is referred to as economies of scale.
In L'Homme qui aimait les femmes, Landru, La Collectionneuse, and Les Sièges de l'Alcazar, sexual desire and the collector’s impulse are in constant interplay. In Rohmer and Moullet’s films the central connoisseurs escape with their chastity intact—in Rohmer’s film, this is a muddled moral victory; in Moullet’s, a tragicomic faceplant, as Guy fails to leave the cinema to go home and enjoy connubial transports with the very game Angela out of loyalty to Cottafavi. The connection between collection and libido has been remarked on by Freud, who wrote “When an old maid keeps a dog or an old bachelor collects snuffboxes, the former is finding a substitute for her need for a companion in marriage and the latter for his need for—a multitude of conquests. Every collector is a substitute for Don Juan Tenorio.” I have, incidentally, been to the Sigmund Freud Museum, housed in the rooms in Vienna’s Alsergrund district where Freud lived and worked for forty-seven years, where one of the main attractions are samples of the doctor’s collection of antiquities: Etruscan urns, Egyptian statuettes, Roman bronzes, and so on.
Even if one doesn’t accept the premise of the good doctor—and I don’t, if only because I know of enough collectors whose habits are accompanied by, to borrow from Gorfinkel, very real “priapic, indulgent self-exposure”—it is not usual for collectors to harbor ambivalent feelings about their habits, for there is sometimes a sneaking suspicion that collection operates as compensation for some enormous lack. See for example the story of perhaps the most famous collector in American cinema, Charles Foster Kane, inspired by those check-cutting captains of industry who bought refined taste through their wives and their wives’ art advisors. (In a self-deprecating frame of mind, Orson Welles would call the Rosebud reveal in his 1941 Citizen Kane “dime-store Freud.”) The model for Kane’s Xanadu, William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon in San Luis Obispo County, California, is described in Eco’s 1973 travelogue essay “Travels in Hyperreality,” which follows the author on an itinerary of visiting the many monuments to the self—described as “Fortresses of Solitude”—that are scattered across the United States. In San Simeon, Eco writes, “what offends is the voracity of the selection, and what distresses is fear of being caught up by this jungle of venerable beauties, which unquestionably has its own wild flavor, its own pathetic sadness, barbarian grandeur, and sensual perversity, redolent of contamination, blasphemy, the Black Mass.” Poor Willy, all that money spent just to have a Viennese witch doctor imply to future generations that you couldn’t get it up, and a roving Italian semiotician call you tacky.
Hearst’s collecting was an act of arrogant self-display to which few of us more humble, fixed-budget collectors can aspire. For those of us working with more modest means and in cramped spaces, collection can come at times with a sense of mastery and dominion, as when I am putting the lovingly accumulated detritus in my apartment to work and can think with pleasure of the description of Karl Marx and the library that he kept as he slid into genteel poverty that appears in Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station, plucking volumes out at will and playing his bookshelves like a baby grand piano. It comes also, occasionally, with shameful sense of slow immurement. And so at other times, looking around myself, I think of an exchange from Terry Zwigoff’s Ghost World (2001), in which Thora Birch’s Enid first sets eyes on the extensive collection of 78 records and assorted old-timey ephemera that has been accumulated by Steve Buscemi’s Seymour, whose passions mirror those of Zwigoff and his sometimes bandmate R. Crumb. “You are, like, the luckiest guy in the world. I would kill to have stuff like this,” Enid says. To which Seymour responds: “Please… Go ahead and kill me.”
Every form of collection, physical or experiential, is both a race with death and the construction of a tomb, with each box ticked bringing us closer to the grave—Eco, in “Travels in Hyperreality,” describes another Fortress of Solitude, the mountain of memoranda at the Lyndon B. Johnson Library in Austin, Texas as a “monument, pyramid, mausoleum.” The collection may be a form of denying mortality, but also a form of embracing it. One of the whopping three epigraphs that open Bottom—the others are from Leo Tolstoy and Michel Foucault—comes from Eugene Ionesco, and addresses this: “Since the death instinct exists in the heart of everything that lives, since we suffer from trying to repress it, since everything that lives longs for rest, let us unfasten the ties that bind us to life, let us cultivate our death wish, let us develop it, water it like a plant, let it grow unhindered. Suffering and fear are born from the repression of the death wish.” Ionesco, incidentally, returned repeatedly to the image of actors being overwhelmed on stage by the accumulation of amassed objects, as in his 1952 Les Chaises, in which performers are hemmed in by a forest of chairs—a potent image of the collector’s nightmare of being buried alive.
The subject of Bottom, who posts online as bare_whore24, and is never identified by any other name, introduces himself thusly: “What I do isn’t important. Just something to fill the days and pay the bills so I can fulfill my true life’s work: Being a cum dump. I know there are a lot of cum dumps, load counters on-line, but I intend to beat them all. I won’t count the loads I shoot. That’s not important. It’s all about my bareback cunt.”
Verow takes bare_whore24’s assertion that being a cum dump is his raison d'être at face value, and dutifully records him in the process of fulfilling his life’s work. If he has friends or outside interests, they don’t enter into the film. He is getting fucked on-screen for about half of the movie’s runtime, and for much of the rest of it indulging in some kind of sexual activity: an early “set piece” details him having his ass held open with a speculum while an assistant dutifully snips the reservoir tips of eleven used condoms and dumps their contents in the waiting gape, a sequence that lasts for around seven minutes of screentime. His face never shown, what we see of bare_whore24 is mostly his Prince Albert-pierced cock, which he lazily dandles between assignations, and his ass, usually framed with a jock strap that says “Nasty Pig” on the waistband, or followed dutifully when the subject is out sashaying through the street. From what can be seen of bare_whore24 I would guess him to be in his twenties at the time the movie was shot. His apartment appears to be somewhere in Manhattan, or at least this is where he does most of his cruising—there are references to Paddles NYC in Chelsea and The Blue Store on 8th Ave., and even some glory hole footage, though most of the fucking we see is done in his living room, a fairly spartan chamber dominated by a plush sofa that’s usually draped with a towel.
bare_whore24 goes about his business with Fordian efficiency, favoring quick “pump-and-dump” fucks from men met on BarebackRT.com Manhunt.net, so to get on to the next customer—as he puts it, the idea is “Not a whole lot of endless fucking. Down to business.” This mania for efficiency extends also to an eschewal of small-talk: “Most of the guys I don’t really want to know a lot about,” he says. “I kind of don’t really like when people stay after we had sex and start talking about… I don’t know… Work… Politics… Or whatever. You came here to fuck me, okay, let’s go.” There’s one rather funny sequence where our protagonist is interrupted in flagrante delicto by the buzzer, a fresh breeder arriving before the last has made his deposit. The current visitor is instructed to finish his task, take a little walk, and come back for seconds once the newcomer has done his thing, which he does, all of these comings and goings documented by a fixed camera-eye.
The descriptions that bare_whore24 sets down of his partners are terse, telegram-like: “British, little chubby, hairy, small cock, who fucked me for just two minutes before breeding my hole,” “Hot Mexican muscle-fucker, huge Mexican meat,” or simply “Hot fucker last Monday.” His descriptions of the sex are also to the point, the highest terms of praise being “Very verbal,” “Sleazy,” and “Hot.” His standard for who gets to add to his load count is quite lenient; he shows a preference for hot guys, but he isn’t above “Not very attractive or athletic guys,” and notes that “sometimes I think it’s really hot to give my ass away to some old, nasty man.” Sometimes there’s no way of distinguishing, as when he reports on coming from a party where he “can’t really tell who gave me the loads”—though he never, ever loses track of the scoreboard. He doesn’t particularly like drugs, this due to their effect of diminishing sexual capacity, but the only absolute rule is it’s bareback or bust—or, rather, bareback and bust. He ruefully recounts turning down a guy at a bathhouse (“Hot, Italian-born, shy, cute, beautiful eyes”) who asks to wear a condom after bare_whore24 responds to his question “Are you [HIV] positive?” in the affirmative, which is the first we hear of it, though it’s not exactly unexpected given his stated preference for “verbal, POZ [HIV positive] breeders.”
The attitude that bare_whore24 takes towards this is expressed in a testy exchange of online messages with a “Mr. R,” who accuses bare_whore24 of having given him syphilis, and being “too cum-hungry to take care of [himself].” To this bare_whore24 responds “What the fuck, Mr. R? These are the risks of fucking bareback. We are all adults and are well aware of the risks of STDs.” For Verow’s part, a disclaimer before the film states that “This film makes no judgments about the sexual activity of its subjects,” while bare_whore24’s voiceover establishes Verow as a participant-observer, noting that at a hotel sex party, the man he refers to only as “Video Guy” is present, “just watching and stroking his cock.” The film is in fact a collaborative effort, as many of bare_whore24’s encounters are shot discreetly with a “tiny camera” on loan from the absent Video Guy. (Another opening disclaimer also assures that “Everyone presented in this film is over the age of 18 and consented to being filmed.”)
The film has a somewhat sinister tone, a jumble of faceless bodies cropped with Bressonian framings and iris effects, artifacted and pixelated DV cinematography, voices lent a mechanistic quality by the scrambling filters, and a rumbling industrial noise soundtrack by Rake. In none of this do I descry a judgement by Verow. The film’s subject has a pronounced taste for the sleazy. His preferred “verbal” is punitive and debasing, with references to “toxic loads” and “AIDS cum” singled out for especial praise, and he recounts with relish being slapped around by one “fucker” who identifies himself as an ex-con in the middle of coitus. Verow has accordingly made an extremely sleazy movie, and it is one that I suspect its subject would find nothing less than hot.
I confess don’t know enough about the mores of the barebacking community to have a stance on the behavior presented in Bottom; what fascinates here, along with the spectacle of athletic vigor, is bare_whore24’s singleminded pursuit of possession. The film’s subject isn’t what you would traditionally call a connoisseur, for implicit in that term is discrimination. The title of the film refers of course to the term of sexual self-identity, referring among gay men to the one who is penetrated while fucking, as our subject is with such frequency. Here, though, it also has a connotation of the baseline, the purification of the sex act down to one of its most basic rudiments, to the 10ccs. In this focus on jizz above all else, sentiment and selection are almost entirely stripped away. The movie’s subject has some partners who he prefers to others, naturally, but this is a secondary consideration. The load, finally, is the thing, to acquire an ever greater volume of goo the goal to be greatly desired. bare_whore24 measures by year, by night, but above all by weekend, and the film ends with a triumph, as he manages to take in fifty loads, a personal best, while sustained by only a protein shake. “I feel like the biggest cum-dump on the fucking planet right now,” the conquering hero announces over the film’s climactic image, a fountain-like disgorging into a mixing bowl. But next weekend, one supposes, the quest for fifty-one must begin. Ah! The melancholy of nympholepsy!
Bottom offers a vision of a near-total abjuration of taste, that freedom from conscious choice that Adrien yearns for at the beginning of La Collectionneuse—“If I come across a Rousseau, I read Rousseau. I could just as well read Don Quixote”—but ultimately rejects. bare_whore24 flits between lovers as the Surrealists used to hop between cinemas, going in and out of movies quite at random. More than once Verow uses a tally counter to illustrate his subject’s quest for ever-greater numbers, and the image puts me in mind of certain cinephiles obsessed with average shot length (ASL), who will quietly click through screenings every time the camera set-up on-screen changes.
The blogging of bare_whore24 constitutes a variety of erotomaniacal list-making that is by no means uncommon, a way to capture in amber those fleeting moments of pleasure. In his dotage Fritz Lang began to keep a scrupulous journal, methodical and passionless, its main features being his detailing of the meals that he ate and the call girls that visited. According to firsthand accounts by Rissient, who got a gander at them, Lang’s diaries contained descriptive notes on the master’s visitors, replete with exclamation points in special cases. Others will go into far greater detail, as in Giacomo Casanova’s Histoire de ma vie, composed when the Venetian adventurer had finished a long career of sportfucking his way through the kingdoms of Europe as the librarian of the Dux Chateau in Bohemia, sifting through his memories when not minding the vast collection of volumes amassed by Count Waldstein. The sexual score-keeper, after the model of Casanova, Don Juan, and bare_whore24, is very often a memoirist—in L'Homme qui aimait les femmes, the Denner character embarks on writing his autobiography, its contents so scandalous that the typist he hires walks out on the job.
The argument for connoisseurship by way of comprehensive study of the subject is that it attunes one to the thousand particularities of the object of interest; of Casanova, V.S. Pritchett wrote that “He is superior to all other erotic writers because of his pleasure in news, in gossip, in the whole personality of his mistress.” This is the opposite of the conclusion of Federico Fellini in his 1976 Casanova film, in which the most famous of Latin Lovers is portrayed as a rutting robot bereft of feeling or senstivity, in one scene seen competitively screwing a chosen mate in tandem with a stud stagecoach driver going to town on a filly of his own in a contest to see which man can clock the most climaxes in a single hour without running out of steam. There is no equivalent to this scene in the Histoire de ma vie, though it does call to mind “Pecker Full of Miracles,” a piece in Josh Alan Friedman’s Tales of Times Square which documents an evening in which Plato’s Retreat proprietor Larry Levenson, in response to a bet from Screw magazine publisher Al Goldstein that Levenson can’t shoot his scum fifteen times in a single day, proceeds with a bevy of partners to do precisely that as an awestruck Friedman watches on. Levenson explains the secret of his prolificity to his audience: “I never fuck girls for more than twenty minutes. There are so many women, it’s not worth it to spend that much time with one.”
But how much do the numbers tell the score? In the matter of sex or in any other, is there an absolute correspondence between quantity and quality? There are, I would venture to guess, people who have had a single sexual partner who have enjoyed their sex lives more than those whose conquests number in the hundreds. Ray Midge has sixty linear feet of books, a considerable knowledge of military history and strategy, and a good head for automobile maintenance and upkeep, but he can’t keep his wife from running off with a man who he considers his inferior in every measure. Manny Farber, who I have sometimes believed the best film writer that this country ever produced, was judging by the films referenced in his work a deep viewer rather than a broad, prodigious one, and knowing this I wonder if I haven’t diminished or dissipated myself through trying to see everything rather than trying to really see a few things, in the manner which Gustave Flaubert proposed in a missive: “What a scholar one might be if one knew only some half a dozen books.” There is an absurd and unnervingly funny scene towards the end of Norman Mailer’s 1987 film Tough Guys Don’t Dance which finds the fascistic Provincetown police chief Luther Regency, played by Wings Hauser, confined to a hospital bed, felled by a massive stroke. He is visited by his wife, played by Isabella Rossellini, and her ex-, played by Ryan O’Neal, to whom she has returned. In a final attempt to assert ownership over his woman, Regency, speaking with thick-tongued difficulty from the corner of his saliva-wet mouth, reminds her “I made you come sixteen times in one night.” Rossellini’s character responds: “Yes, and none were any good.”
There is a thin line between loving curation and compulsive tallying, between connoisseurship and mechanistic box-ticking, and it is natural to wonder at times on which side one’s habits fall. Some reassurance comes in a belief in the practical application of the collection. Freud’s antiquities may be considered necessary to his work of connecting ancient mythology to the life of modern man; another Viennese collector, René Rupnick, the breast-obsessed math teacher subject of Ulrich Seidl’s 1997 documentary Der Busenfreund (The Bosom Friend) who lives in a flat cramped with old newspapers and debris dragged in off the streets, doesn’t have much of an excuse. The countless hours that I have spent slinking between the repertory cinemas have some professional application, and so my pursuing this pastime in lieu of acquiring any of the trappings of a secure adult existence is not “sad,” whereas the subjects of the 2002 documentary Cinemania, four men and one woman living off disability benefits and inheritances who spend their lives marathoning movies at the same institutions, never finding a practical outlet for their knowledge, are to be regarded as piteous creatures: “There but for the grace of God go I.”
The pretext of professional due diligence or investment grants a patina of respectability to what might otherwise be pegged as childish or demented behavior, thankfully. There is a scene in Les Sièges de l'Alcazar in which one of Guy’s colleagues is upbraided by the Cinéma L'Alcazar’s co-owner for sitting in the cheap seats up front reserved for children and blocking their view of the screen, and watching it I was put in mind of the Beanie Baby Bubble of the late ‘90s, in which plushies manufactured for kids suddenly ceased to become playthings at the moment when a speculative secondary market sprang up around them. To be trawling gift shops in hopes of spotting a Humphrey the Camel was briefly considered akin to being a day trader, and the adults jostled the children out of the way in their Gold Rush sprint to the Beanie bins.
The Beanie market went bust, as did the market for baseball cards and the mass-manufactured “collectible” comics with foil-embossed covers and holographs that have never left their packaging, and as has, several times in my life now, a stock market whose performance over the last year has appeared completely disconnected from the lived economic reality of most Americans. If in your time on this planet you have only seen speculative spasms and diminishing expectations, it is perhaps not unusual to hold a dim view of the concept of “value,” and to want to have done with owning things, and paying for things, altogether.
The increasing ubiquity of the Internet blew up the Beanie bubble, and it popped it, the rise of eBay disabusing collectors hoping for a plush payday in the future of the mass delusion of scarcity that had driven sales of Ty critters. The Internet also created a fantasy of limitless abundance and access that has, to-date, been only partially fulfilled. File sharing and torrenting have been a boon for savvy music lovers and cinephiles operating on a budget or living outside centers of cultural activity, taking over a large part of the function previously held by tape trading, swap meets, and record fairs. For the rank-and-file consumer, however, horizons aren’t significantly broader than they were twenty years ago, with properties divvied up by proliferating streaming services, and the chance of the incidental encounter minimized by these services’ promotion of “original content” over back catalog items, whose availability is subject to the whims of the front office. And in the middle of all of this are artists, trying to find a way to scrape together a few smackers for their poor wares in a world where the old ways no longer work, where Spotify pays musicians a thin tickle of dollars and cents while non-fungible cryptokitty tokens are on the auction block selling for a cool million.
Amidst all of this, the compulsion to collect acquires a sense of mission: I had best download the entire Fox film library now before the House of Mouse lowers the boom and the Disney private police are kicking in my door for trying to download Raoul Walsh’s What Price Glory? (1926). Fill your hard drives with .avis, snap up every disc you can, fill the garage with 16 and 35, I say unto you brethren that a hard rain is going to fall!
Even as this feeling of paranoiac precarity creeps in, it can be said that the Internet has brought down barriers of access, with a concurrent evaporation of mystique. Connoisseurship is to some degree reliant on scarcity, or the illusion of it—aesthetics aside, Adrien attributes a certain aura to the Song vase that he doesn’t to the Satsuma because, very simply put, very few fragile vessels travel through a millennium intact. Reproducible recorded media are of a slightly different ilk than the plastic arts, but here, too, there is scarcity to be fetishized, as with Kevin Dougherty’s Vg++ “White Cliffs of Dover” 45. For the cinephile, too, there are always “Holy Grails” to be hunted—Ignatiy Vishnevetsky uses the phrase in a 2014 recounting of his search for Godard’s second short Une Femme coquette. In his intertwined history of the film and his quest for it, Vishnevetsky makes mention of a 1968 screening in New York City as part of a Richard Roud lecture series, and a New York Times “Eugene Archer, a level-headed writer whose work has largely been forgotten”—Archer being, of course, the Sam La Collectionneuse. Re-reading Vishnevetsky’s piece, I checked to see if Une Femme coquette was included in a massive MyAirBridge folder of Godardiana that a friend shared with me in December, and sure enough there it is, in an .mkv file that I hadn’t gotten around to downloading, though I did just now.
I have outstanding Holy Grails of my own, of course, and miles to go before I sleep. Right now I’m quite interested in A True American, a zero-budget 1996 independent by one Paul Roberts, a Nigerian living in Philadelphia, which concerns a black American CIA operative who finds himself drawn into an Agency coverup of U.S. toxic waste disposal in Africa. It was written up in Variety by Godfrey Cheshire, was slated for a short commercial run in late ’96, and I have been informed that the negative is apparently still at Colorlab, where Roberts has an outstanding balance, but otherwise the film remains shrouded in mystery. If you have access to the file, or are by any chance Paul Roberts yourself, please do get in touch.
There is no end in sight to all of this, which is very much the point, and very much the source of the nympholepsy: whether it’s “White Cliffs of Dover,” a finally acquiescent Femme coquette, or a mythical hundred load weekend, there is no winning in the collection game, only the thrill of the hunt, the momentary satisfaction when things click into place, and the sickness unto death. In Record Weasels, Dougherty recalls the wisdom of the old time collectors: “Nobody will ever know it all and nobody will ever have it all.” Ain’t that the truth—and even if you get it, you can’t take it with you, and chances are that if you’ve passed all of your waking hours in collecting, you won’t have produced offspring who are terribly invested in keeping your collection together, if you’ve produced any at all. Where is Sage Stallone’s print collection now? Who will mind my copy of The Great Beanie Baby Bubble when I’m gone?
The collector’s lot is often lonely—“One is a wanderer…”—and as bare_whore24’s mission leaves little time for social niceties, so the collector may let life pass them by in pursuit of that which cannot be captured. Cost confers distinction. For the rich, this means a price tag, while those who can’t buy whatever they desire have nothing to offer but our time and dogged effort. Such sacrifices inevitably color the experience of the object sought. In James’s Italian Hours, a 1909 collection of pieces written over the course of forty years of travel in Italy, before and after Risorgimento, James describes at some length the work that an enthusiast of Italian Renaissance painting would have to go to in order to see certain pieces in the period before the lion’s share of acknowledged masterpieces had been finally clumped together in great collections: the jostling daylong journeys to country churches in carriages rented for the occasion, the guided tours from wizened monks, the squinting up in dark vaults to at descry frescoes by Giotto and Perugino, the lumpy mattresses at roadside inns.
That James’s experience in pursuing and encountering these paintings would have been vastly different from mine of taking a package tour or getting up a couple of hours earlier than I otherwise might to hit the Italian wing in the Louvre to beat the crowds, and demands a greater degree of fervency, should go without saying. And a vast gulf of longing necessarily separates Vishnevetsky’s experience with Une Femme coquette from my own. I suppose that cinephiles of whatever vintage have an inclination to put on a rueful smirk when onetime rarities become commonplace, in the secure knowledge that the spoiled coming generation can never know your dedication—that whole “You-young-whippersnappers-I-used-to-walk-five-miles-in-the-snow-to-see-Out 1” type of thing, to which I am hardly immune.
With this pride of self-sacrifice comes, at times, a false sense of possession—I say “false” because none of us, in the final balance, owns any of this—and protectiveness. It’s bad enough if a cherished artwork or artist, on coming before a larger audience, is treated with dismissive derision, but heaven forfend that they be met with widespread acceptance. This snobbery is satirized at the end of Les Sièges de l’Alcazar, in which Guy, at the last screening of his hero’s Traviata ‘53, muses in voiceover: “I was proud to have convinced everyone of the genius of Cottafavi. But I was also sad. Cottafavi was no longer mine alone. This success worried me. Did this mean it was a bad film?” Part of the joke here is the yardstick of “success” that Guy is using, for the cinema is half-empty, another is the delusional megalomania of believing that he is actually responsible for getting most of those asses in the seats. When the connoisseur cn’t have privilege of access, they can become sulky, as when Adrien in La Collectionneuse chides Hydée, telling her “You’re too popular.” (The pioneer mentality that Moullet’s film describes, feeling the need to light out for the plains once the neighbors are getting too close for comfort, is very real, though in his actual critical practice Moullet has been the most generous of collector-sharers.)
I take it for granted that I will never see a Cottafavi retrospective projected on film in my lifetime, if I ever see one at all—auteurs are “out,” especially unestablished ones; archives are cagey; overhead is high; and did you know there’s a gorgeous new DCP available? The decoupling of “cinema” from physical film had made such happenings a distant memory well before the present pandemic, while at the same time this decoupling served to make clear what ought to have been clear all along: that every encounter with a film is infused by a variety of circumstances with its own particular flavor, and that mechanical reproduction notwithstanding, no two film prints, and no two screenings, are alike. As Vishnavetsky writes: “The cult of the obscure and elusive has a substantial overlap with the cult of the film projection, with the scratchiest, most nicked-up 16mm print valued over the cleanest, 4k-restoration DCP. A print constitutes two different experiences: the movie itself and the print as an object, which has circulated, sometimes for decades. Battered film prints tend to inspire a certain quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo, because their wear and tear represents a link to the past. It is ceremony. For the list-making, log-keeping viewer, a movie is a movie, but also a particular time, place, smell, set of accompanying incidents and anxieties, and, ideally, a moment of communion with the past.”
In New York City, where I happen to live, a full year without the option of seeing either the stepped-on 16mm print or the 4k restoration on-screen is slated soon to come to an end, with the announcement that the CoVid-era ukase on theatrical moviegoing will be lifted and cinemas allowed to open at 25% seating capacity on March 5th. Over the past year, in order to keep some revenue coming in, most of the repertory and art house venues in this city and in other cities across the country, have debuted “virtual cinemas,” offering first-run programming to the home viewer, regardless of their location. Along with major studios rolling out releases via streaming services, this represents a total upending of standard operating procedure, and the question on the minds of everyone inclined to care about such things is: how, after the rollout of these unprecedented contingency plans, does anything work when and if the world comes back online?
Via Twitter, the programmer and writer Steve Macfarlane opined that “repertory film will never be the same. Programming is now just as much about PR/streaming as exhibiting IRL. The scarcity of prints/materials/in-person appearances will make the difference for screenings in NYC.” The idea, if I understand correctly, is that the availability of streaming alternatives, many of them now originating from the venues themselves, will encourage or necessitate event-izing every film screening with some value-added element—rare print, alluring presenter, etc.—to bring out audiences who’ve grown accustomed to a new plethora of home-viewing options. I don’t think he’s wrong, and if prints are given greater priority, so much the better, though some of the implications of this are, potentially, troubling. In the world of the multiplex, as well, there is a sense that a fundamental change in theatrical exhibition lies ahead, voiced by Ron Howard, who around the time of the October, 2020 Netflix release of his Hillbilly Elegy told Deadline: “The multiplexes are going to become a little bit like Broadway in a way. That’s where the expensive projects go. It’s to get as many people in there to create memorable events.”
What Howard describes has already come to pass to a significant degree. The question is how ticket prices will be impacted if theatrical moviegoing is, at either the repertory cinema or Broadway-ified ‘plex, fated to become an increasingly rarified pastime. In a piece hosted at his website called “Fake Independence and Reel Truth,” Carney presented a modest proposal to expedite this process, stating “The best way to improve attendance at independent theaters would be to charge more for tickets. Much more–say thirty or forty dollars a seat. You should have to pay a premium to see art films. What's wrong with that? It makes perfect common sense. Star Wars is like a Happy Meal. You can mass-produce both the meal and the movie so cheaply and sell them in such quantity that you can almost give them away. Art is different. You just can't make great works of art that cheaply and count on selling billions and billions of them. In line with the example of an independent restaurant in comparison with a McDonald's, the independent theater should stop trying to compete with the mainstream theater on ticket price. It can never win that battle. There are too many economics of scale that favor the fast-food artistic operation. People should expect to pay more for the gourmet meal, and if they don't want to pay it, they should be denied the chance to partake. If you aren't willing to pay fifty dollars to see Milestones or Scenic Route, you don't deserve to see them anyway.” That it may for some people be less a matter of willingness to part with fifty dollars to see a Robert Kramer film than it is a matter of ability to never seems to occur to Carney, evidently not one of those dog frequencies to which he, alone, is attuned.
In contrast to Carney’s vision for a cinema that survives by embracing exclusivity is a very different proposition, articulated by Chabrol in an interview from the Winter 1970-71 issue of Sight & Sound. “The cinema,” says Chabrol, “ought to be like a pissotière (public urinal) or a café, with free admission. And exhibition ought to be automatic, rather like television. That would do away with critical selection, which is always misleading, since critics inevitably go wrong all the time. So good films would get as much chance of recognition as bad ones.”
Chabrol was a churl and provocateur, but in his proposition for a casual cinema he is not entirely joking. Along with Godard and producer Marin Karmitz, Chabrol had in ’68 approached the Etats Généraux du Cinéma with a proposal, described by Karmitz in a 2014 interview with Film Comment: “We raised a little hell in all the do-gooder thinking of the other groups which had formed, with a completely crazy project to make movie-going free. In fact, it wasn’t that crazy: it foreshadowed what would happen in the Eighties with French cable channel Canal Plus offering people subscriptions to have unlimited access to movies. That’s what we were proposing, more or less: you paid a cultural tax, people made films, and you could go to as many movies as you wanted.” Something like this, I think, is what people have in mind when they throw around the slogan “Nationalize MoviePass” on social media.
At the time of the Sight & Sound interview, Chabrol was a self-described man of the left—fiscally Positif, socially Cahiers, you might say—living and working in a post-’68 France in which there is still, perhaps, some glow of the promise of a radically different world in the air, and where there was a far more robust tradition of public money in the arts than there ever has been in the United States. Carney’s remarks were made to accompany a screening of Cassavetes’s A Woman Under the Influence (1974) at the 2003 re-opening of Grand Illusion Cinema, an independent non-profit movie house in Seattle, at that turn-of-the-millennium moment when unfettered free-market capitalism had asserted itself as the uncontested, one-and-only Way of Things, just a few years after the World Trade Organization protests in 1999.
Both proposals present, on the face of things, certain difficulties. Were Chabrol’s plan to be enacted and the cinema made a free public utility, he confesses to the distinct possibility of vagrant clochards using the cinemas as a flophouse shelter, shutting out people with a real interest in what was playing. (It might well be imagined that in a world where cinema is free or close to it there aren’t still people sleeping rough, but that’s another matter.) For Carney’s plan to work, it would require the cultivation of an audience that perceived “art” films as objects with the same elevated cultural cachet and ticket value as grand opera or ballet, an audience that would, presumably, resemble that for the grand opera or ballet—that is, largely made up of the upper middle-class and above. Historically this has not happened, nor has the patrician class that underwrites orchestras and operas ever gravitated towards the dirty, down-at-the-heels cinema in quite the same way it has to those more respectable artforms, which these days face fundraising difficulties of their own—there are exceptions, yes, with the biggest spenders seeing their names slapped on a chair or an entire cinema, but we are some ways from seeing a vast pool of benefactors funding restorations out-of-pocket in promise of seeing their names on the print, as they would loaning the family Corot to the nearest art museum.
I’m not overly inclined to fret over the ins and outs of executing Carney’s plan, because I would rather see cinema—or at least theatrical moviegoing—disappear from the earth than see it survive as something akin to opera or ballet or Broadway, catering to the same demographics as they do, and I would rather watch A Woman Under the Influence next to a flatulent, scrofulous, scabies-ridden Boudu type than next to the kind of swell who would pay seventy bucks for the privilege. (I’ve adjusted Carney’s proposed price for inflation.)
In cinema as in any going business concern a bit of scarcity, both that which is cultivated and that which occurs naturally through the unavailability of materials, is to be expected and, so long as profit margins remain a consideration, both inevitable and necessary. But the medium has for its lifetime been the great value menu artform, at least in comparison to any of the performing arts, and I believe that this relative cheapness is as central to its identity as the singularity of the photogénie’s “passing cinematic essence.” And if collecting of one kind or another is to be expected among cinephiles, as among any fanatics, hoarding, undertaken with an eye towards increasing value through scarcity, seems to me inimical to cinema’s basic nature.
Whatever quibbles with I may have with the gaggle of French lunatics in the mid-twentieth century that I’ve been writing about, I cannot find fault with their basic “project of trans-valuation”—the proposition that the artform that they were addressing was unlike those that had come before, and that in order to meet it on its own terms, old categories of taste and criteria of what constitutes a masterpiece would have to be rethought entirely. Their perceived impurities of cinema were not something to be overcome but part of the bargain, an inborn feature of the medium, and woe unto anyone who tries to wrench the medium away from its low birth. At any rate, I’m not sweating what the future will bring too much; I’ve got the files.
In his essay documentary Routine Pleasures (1986), former Godard associate Jean-Pierre Gorin brings together observations about the painting practice of Farber, his colleague at the University of California, San Diego, and a breed of obsessional enthusiasts as unlike and exactly identical to cinephiles as any strain of obsessives are different yet akin to one another, the members of the the Model Railroaders Club who congregate every Tuesday at the city’s Del Mar Fairgrounds. Says Gorin of Farber’s work as both critic and painter: “It was the same thing that he was saying over and over: That it, life, wasn’t too big a deal.” A final paradox: that movies can form the basis of all-encompassing preoccupation and, at the same time be just this, not too big a deal. And if they must be made to radiate an aura of scarcity in order to survive in the cinema, let us hope they don’t do so at the expense of their disposability.
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