On Trying: An Exchange about Essayistic Film Writing

Aaron Cutler & Patrick Holzapfel

Originally published for the print issue accompanying the Young Critic’s Circle at the Viennale 2023.

Dear Aaron,

I am writing from a small hotel room in Duisburg, a German city in the Ruhr area with a difficult past and present. Outside I can hear the scattered roaring of motors and occasional screaming noises that typically greet the Saturday evenings in such a place. I can make out the sound of glass bottles rolling on asphalt every few minutes. It’s a sound of desolation. I’ve turned the television on, but all I can see on it is a flickering void of high-definition gaudiness. So, writing to you gives me some leeway.
There is a reason why I am describing my whereabouts and maybe even some of my emotional responses to them. I feel that in the age of emails we have forgotten where we are while corresponding. It’s almost as if the correspondence is supposed to exist within a place of its own, a void. The same is very often true for film writing, I’m afraid. Many texts emanating from different cinemas and festivals around the world or in front of different screens and written in very different homes or offices pretend that cinema exists somewhere between a fictional vacuum and the latest media discourses.

Of course, there are as many reasons for this burlesquing, as there are counterexamples to it. I think that the film world has improved a little bit in recent times in being more open about who is writing than it used to be – in our case, as you pointed out to me a few weeks ago, two white dudes coming from very privileged countries. I am writing to you in English. It’s not my native tongue and it changes the way I have to think, as well as limits what I am able to express.

A couple of months ago, when we talked for the very first time, you pointed out the importance of the long review form and essayistic film writing. These two forms, we both agreed, are somehow threatened by different developments within film culture and media structures. I just know that the type of so-called professionalism going into shorter pieces in conformity with the demands of a market – a market that, by the way, has been in the process of announcing its own death since I first began writing on cinema and long before – is deeply frustrating for me as a writer and as a reader, as it suffocates the voice of whoever encounters films. Without this voice, what am I reading?

I’ve proposed to stage this correspondence with you in order to deepen our thoughts and learn more about your observations and reflections. I want to know more about the essay within the context of film writing. I want to know how to approach a text that, by its etymological definition, attempts instead of knows. To be honest, I want to know how encountering a film can even provoke any other reaction than an attempt.

As always, such an artificial correspondence involves the risk of sterility and an exaggerated vanity regarding the words that will be read by more than just the person one is actually addressing. But who are we addressing, really, as people writing about cinema? I am throwing these questions at you without expecting answers. I just want to open possible spaces for us to go into.

Maybe that’s already an important aspect of essayistic writing in my mind – for me, it’s about opening things, not closing them. It’s maybe not about answers, but rather questions or doubts. It’s more about exploring uncertainties than about giving definitions. Funnily, I’d say that all of these things also apply to cinema. Cinema and writing, to paraphrase Rilke, are both like spaces opening up, translating the world.
(I admit, I am not used to dialogues, a lot of film writing is closer to monologues.)

In preparation for our correspondence, you’ve sent me quite a widespread reading list with texts from different writers and filmmakers. Are you a fervent reader of film writing? I am asking, because I struggle to read texts about films written around the time that they’ve had their varied premieres or official cinema releases. I struggle to read texts on cinema at the moment that they are published. Often, I prefer to read texts by dead writers. Maybe it is a bit naive or ignorant to think so, but in my experience, the latest texts are often shrouded by an air of fake urgency and deluded excitement. Most texts published today need an occasion, as there are fewer and fewer publications at work that are willing to accept a text for its perspective or its quality. The art of pearl-diving is long gone. Nowadays, film writing resembles the art of catching dove droppings falling from the cloudless sky on a summer day in a big city. I wonder how closely related is the contemporary need for quick responses and the prevalence of shorter texts. In theory, responding quickly could also invite for personal, essayistic takes in the sense of a film diary that evolves certain thoughts from text to text and so on.

It’s midnight in Duisburg now. I hear squeaking car brakes outside and I take this as a sign for me to finish this first letter. I hope that you will find some entry points for your thoughts. Nous pouvons l’essayer.

Yours,
Patrick

Dear Patrick Woodapple,

It is a pleasure to be in conversation with you. I am going to reply to some of your points, with the goal in mind of stopping somewhere around one thousand words and letting you take over from there. I trust that you will catch me if I do not stop myself first.

Speaking of first, I can begin by briefly describing my own space in time, or my Heimat. At this moment, I am seated in front of my laptop at my desk at the living room table of the home that my life and work partner Mariana Shellard and I share in São Paulo. I am writing late at night, as many writers do, because this is the time when we are supposed to be sleeping. To my right are some potted plants, whose presences aid my breathing and thinking, and just beyond them a window that opens onto the street, the view of which aids me in much the same way. I am seated a few meters in front of our living room sofa that, in recent times, has gained a small mattress upon which naps our daughter Ava in the mornings and afternoons. She was born on July 9th, 2023, at 11:41 A.M., and I have consequently been spending much more time at home than usual – even more so, I would say, than I did during much of the pandemic, with the kicker that this time around I feel that I am at home voluntarily and largely through my own choices, rather than in a way that external forces have imposed. My time at the cinema these past months has grown significantly limited, and I have turned down several invitations to attend events such as festivals for the sake of better breathing the comforts of home.

It seems appropriate to me at this moment to try to define what an essay is, since the term »essay« is often viewed somewhat broadly, and since narrowing our focus might help our path forward. In my view, an essay is simply a piece of nonfiction prose that succeeds in venturing beyond a given topic by beginning with it and then ending up elsewhere. The essay tends to be longer than writing from a more strictly defined genre (for example, the critical review), but its length emerges as a byproduct of an exploration rather than a goal unto itself – an essay, like a womb for an unborn child, needs to be roomy and comfortable enough for a thought to develop and gain life and shape inside it. The result tends to be personal in nature (even if it is implicitly so) because the narrative of the piece is fundamentally that of the writer journeying to understand his or her own unfolding relation with something within the broader context of a dialogue – with the work, with the world, and with the page. (Even every good monologue is at least partly a dialogue.)

An essay writer should therefore strive to be open and humble in his or her approach and willing to welcome elements of surprise and discovery that can be incorporated to the betterment of the text. This seems very true of writing about cinema, a field that constantly provides surprises to an open viewer, both in terms of what is on the screen and in terms of what happens inside of us as we react to it. Film writing is, first and foremost, writing, and we are fortunate that many wonderful essays have entered our canons and will continue to do so. The understanding that good films will always be more interesting than the sum of what we have to say about them should be liberating to the essay writer. None of us that write about interesting films will ever get them entirely right, and this is wonderful.
I would add, furthermore, that the essay writer (filmic or otherwise) writes with three readers or sets of readership in mind, regardless of however conscious he or she is of doing so: the audience to whom one imagines that one is most immediately speaking (for instance, Patrick Woodapple), the audience of the outlet or vehicle for which one imagines that one is writing (for example, the public attending this year’s edition of the Viennale), and the eventual accidental audience whose words one reaches, often without one ever knowing it. This trio can be imagined loosely as constituting the personal, the commercial, and the artistic. I would argue that all three are vital to essay writing, and that the essay separates itself from other forms of nonfiction writing with its emphasis on the third. An essayist is also an artist, even if his or her goal is to be a critical one, and therefore allied with other artists in consequence.

You asked whether I am a fervent reader of film writing. My immediate impression is simultaneously »No« and »Sure, why not«. I tend to gravitate more towards writing by filmmakers and specialized researchers than to pieces by critics, since I feel that doing so helps my understanding of artworks by getting me closer to them. I also constantly read about new films – not only through forms of writing that announce themselves as criticism (reviews, profiles, interviews, etc.), but also through materials such as catalogue synopses, which in many instances use individual films to comment on Cinema in synthetic, yet nonetheless essayistic fashion. I read because I want to learn which interesting films might be premiering, as well as what I might think of them based upon the thoughts of others. Throughout the process, I hope to learn something about myself.

I would like to correct and challenge you at this moment. I did not say in an earlier e-mail exchange with you that we are two white dudes coming from very privileged countries; rather, I said that we are two young able-bodied white cis dudes from economically and culturally dominant countries. (I would add to this now that the facts of my residing for over a third of my life in a South American country and pertaining to a historically persecuted minority – the Jews – have done nothing to challenge my sense of belonging to a cultural hegemony.) In the past, it was often assumed that the writer of a piece of film criticism fell under a profile like ours, to the point that few people would note this publicly. I think that we live in a historical moment now, however, in which an awareness of a writer’s demographical background at some level increasingly cannot be elided, either for the writer’s sake or for the reader’s, since this background speaks to the writer’s base and set of references (again, even implicitly).
I can begin to speak about my own case by saying that being U.S. American has been helpful in allowing me to feel free from the pressure of having to advocate my country’s filmmaking, since the American cinema faces little trouble in circulating. I have also felt free from the need to make Brazilian cinema a cause because of how many people I know here that advocate for it much better and more passionately than I believe I could. There are of course filmmakers from both countries whose work I greet with persistent gladness, but I understand that they tend to belong to a category of artist that the great Austro-American thinker Amos Vogel called »the independent filmmaker« – one that feels profoundly isolated in his or her condition, consequently views nationhood either with disinterest or with deep scepticism, and uses art to reach beyond it. Cinema and writing thus go together in helping me discover the rest of the world a little. In both cases, a voice speaks to fill the silence.

As I stare at my cat Hazel’s arrival on the table beside me, I recognize that I’ve blown past my word limit. It doesn’t matter to me that I haven’t addressed some of your topics, since I trust that time and space lie before us. I would like for you to tell me something about your own approach to filmic essay writing – how you proceed with it, and why you think it’s important for you to proceed with it that way. But you can talk about other things, too.

Best,
Aaron

Dear Aaron.

I am writing from a room in the Moabit locality of Berlin. My laptop is standing on a table made of glass and a giant painting of an ear is listening to me from the wall. I am at the flat of a friend of a friend. I find it difficult to write when I don’t trust the space I am in. How can I trust a space with a giant ear on the wall?

It’s interesting you would refer to me as a woodapple, whereas my surname actually translates into a crab apple. It’s a huge difference to be a fruit made of wood or a fruit growing in the wild. More so than out of vanity, I wanted to point this difference out because of how you related the point of view of the writer to his or her identity and demographic background. This touches on some important aspects of writing as someone who, as you wrote, is willing to be open for surprise and discovery.

I think we’ve all felt at some point in the last ten years how the first person, the »I«, has gone through a moment of sustained crisis. There have been many reasons for this, reaching from trends like confessional autofiction to the influence of social media in how opinions are shaped to neoliberal imperatives of self-marketing. Sometimes the writer seems more important than the writing. Secondly, the importance of stressing one’s identity, in my opinion, should not relate to a feeling of responsibility, but of entitlement. With this I want to say that, if we are indeed two young able-bodied white cis dudes from economically and culturally dominant countries (a description that leaves out questions of class, which I find more important than the country of origin and a description that is partly also an assumption from your side), then the right thing to do is maybe to remain silent about it all, maybe even not to write, and instead, to leave the stage. If people whose voices we haven’t heard enough stress their backgrounds then it’s something else, it’s an act of empowerment. For us, doing so ends up making sure that we are on the right side while still dominating. It’s a very Catholic thing. Maybe you disagree. I can see the value of pointing out where I’m from demographically, but sometimes I’m just not sure who I am or where I am really from. I’ve thus always understood Samuel Beckett’s desire to write not as someone, but as nobody. It’s a privileged position to be able to be nobody. However, it’s also a position related to hard work, humbleness, and patience. When I try to be nobody, I fail all the time.
This leads me to cinema, for who are we when watching a film, when reacting to it? I don’t know. I just know that I observe better when I don’t think about myself. Many texts about cinema nowadays seem to forget the act of seeing. They use film like a cart and walk with it through shelves filled with discourse and theory and personal opinions. I am sure that I have done this as well, since it’s easier than watching closely, and since sometimes we don’t give ourselves the time to write and to think and to see.
I feel here that we might discover a threat for or of essayistic film writing. I wholeheartedly agree with your definition of the essay, but I think that it offers an easy way to write quickly. (I have to check whether easy and essay are etymologically related.) If I imagine a text on a film as a dialogue between film and writer, then the essay sometimes gives me a chance to just talk and never listen. Needless to say, it won’t be a good essay in this case. I don’t know if that makes sense and what you think about all of this, but as always, I am very curious to learn your thoughts.

Best,
Patrick

Dear Patrick,

Thank you for your generous and, above all else, open letter. I am going to proceed with replying to you with the stopping point of 1,000 words again in mind. I prefer not to give too much scene-setting this time, since I am sure that I won’t be able to write this letter in one sitting. Certainly, it will be written in my home, at my dining room table, which doubles as my office space. The importance of writing from a place of comfort – to then, hopefully, feel comfortable challenging oneself – is something that resonates with me.

It is true that I did not refer to a shared class background when I characterized us, just as I did not refer to a shared sexual orientation – it is not immediately obvious to me that we have shared profiles in these regards, so I preferred not to state assumptions. In my own case, sure, I believe that the reader may know that I grew up with access to what at the time I believed to be a large amount of money, and that (with the thought of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own in my mind) two of the most important things that money bought for me were time for personal exploration and the empowerment to think that I could do what I wanted.

These two things seem especially important to me now in relation to cinema, since anyone that works within the field should know that it often requires enormous investments of personal time with no immediately traceable financial return. And then, of course, there are the expenses involved for filmmakers, programmers, and writers, which come up in one of the illuminating points that the Filipino critic Alexis Tioseco made in his immortal essay addressed to his partner and fellow critic from Slovenia, Nika Bohinc, »The Letter I Would Love to Read to You in Person«: »Traveling is a privilege, and not one I take lightly«.

When I read the word »traveling«, I think about logistical expenses taken in addition to the purchases of tickets. I also see the word figuratively, in the sense that all engagement with art and artistic practices involves a kind of traveling, a flight of fancy and imagining. In both the English-language and Portuguese-language vernaculars, to say that someone is »traveling« can be taken as pejorative, an empty and delusional engagement in leisure. But I see it as a privilege.

When I consider the word »privilege«, I think about its applications. In my own life, in addition to money, I have had the privilege of being able to sit down to work each day (emphasis – sitting and not standing) with the knowledge not only that I do not have to consciously think about certain aspects of my identity, not only that they have not been foregrounded for me in ways that might seem oppositional to my goals, but that it has even been made clear to me on some occasions that I was being favoured because of them (for instance, the ways in which I externally project my gender, sexuality, and race). In contrast, when a writer such as James Baldwin (whose writings include a remarkable book-length work of film criticism called The Devil Finds Work) discusses racism in art as a function of racism in society, the person does in good part because the topic has proven to be inescapable for him or her. The writer approaches his or her work and faces a blunt wall of racism that must be climbed, over and over, before other topics can be broached. That wall that Black Americans in particular and in general face, fenced by a sentiment of resentment with the unspoken words »How dare you« wafted constantly towards them, is something that I from my outsider’s position believe can only be understood by people who have directly lived under either it or another form of frank oppression.

Of course, I agree with you and other writers I admire that neoliberal world leaders have worked for generations now to fool people into believing that identity-based struggles should be viewed separately from the class struggle, and of course, I believe that such struggles should be seen as being fundamentally connected. With this said, one of the major lessons of Baldwin’s example, for me, is that the work of understanding the necessities and nuances of identity politics must begin with seeking to understand one’s own identity. And, when I think of myself as someone that might choose to write about Baldwin’s work or the work of another artist that I admire – for example, Ja’Tovia Gary, an amazing contemporary filmmaker and installation artist whose work often deals with trauma faced by Black American women, and who often (like Baldwin, Hilton Als, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and others) raises questioningly the possibilities for queer alignment with the Black American struggle – I come to feel that it’s important to recognize that I have not lived certain sets of their experiences. I recognize this, ideally, without feeling guilt, condescension, or piety (all of which risk plunging me into self-involvement), but rather, in the interest of understanding what work I must do to be able to convey to my readers well what the artist communicates. To be able to honestly express the importance and relevance of artistic gestures, I should face my limitations and find socially useful ways to compensate for them.

A word that comes to my mind in describing my work in this case is »research«. A good essayist is by extension a good writer, and a good writer should ideally be some kind of good researcher, in the sense that he or she should be able to write things that can be verified. (I will say, as an aside, that the truth is inevitably useful for a writer to lead with, since it forces you to wrestle with it and doesn’t let you win every time.) As with any good piece that is fundamentally argumentative in nature, a film criticism essay should have a solid factual backing – one should understand something both about the conditions under which an artist worked and about how those conditions differ from the ones of the present moment in order to better convey the power of the artistic project that’s been placed under the microscope. But the writer should also conduct emotional research, a certain deeply dug »How would I feel?« effort of bringing oneself into the situations described and testing their emotional and psychological weight on a personal level.

I find it hard now to get more specific on this second point, since each artwork is different and each approach to it should also be. I will say that, although I do not wish to slap your back too hard, one of the things that I like most about your nonfiction writing is the fact that I know that you write fiction as well. I believe that this makes you more empathetic than you would have been otherwise, and that your explorations of the journeys that both fictional characters and first-person experimental filmmakers take are more sensitive and richer in consequence. I recommend for essayists to pursue additional kinds of creative work, since I believe that doing so often provokes a self-liberation that can help their prose bloom more, however slightly.

And speaking of Nature: I am thrilled to learn that I got the meaning of your name wrong, since the error proves further a point I wanted to make. We both know, after all, that you are neither a Crabapple, nor a Woodapple, but a Holzapfel; however, when I type the German name into Google Translate, »woodapple« comes up as the English-language equivalent. The error speaks to me about the current state of the world – especially for those of us that deal frequently with its virtual component – in which seemingly more information is available for consultation than has ever been before, but much of it is rendered nonsensical or meaningless due to its cleaving from situational context and cultural specificities. I think about this anti-natural phenomenon as being the Googleization of our times, and yes, I believe that the tendency of many people to adhere to a largely English-language online universe (from which I, as a native speaker, have of course benefited) ends up provoking isolation and impoverishment of thought and feeling. To my mind, for instance, an awareness of this problem (far more than do sales or piracy questions) is partly why the virtual film festival model essentially did not survive the COVID-19 pandemic. People simply wanted to be together too much, and they wanted too much the in-person experience to be shared.

It’s possible, as well, that I am being a sentimental fuddy-duddy. I want to provoke you now, but before that, to correct myself: I stated before that we were both young, but the fact of us both being in our mid-thirties locates us as dinosaurs in relation to many younger-blooded cinephiles. You have told me before that you do not use messenger services, and if this is true, then I admire you for it. I use WhatsApp, as well as Facebook and X; I do not, however, have accounts on Instagram, Reddit, TikTok, or the social network that I consider to be most relevant to our conversation – Letterboxd – as I feel terrified of the rabbit’s hole of attention drain into which they might plunge me. Letterboxd especially intrigues me right now because, with its seemingly endless capacities for list- and canon-building, it perhaps represents a few eternal conundrums of the vague term »film culture«. Perusing the site helps me affirm to myself my belief that there are more good films being made today than there have ever been before, and that, although they are in principle often easy to find for someone that’s technologically privileged and consciously looking for them, they seem harder to appreciate than good films have been in the past due to the sense of exhaustion that any kind of accumulation inevitably brings. It seems quite hard to me to make discoveries and to reflect on them at the same time – inevitably, at some moment, you must choose which path to take, either outwards or inwards. So, for this reason and others, I want to ask you: Is it possible to write a good essay through a social media platform?

Now that we’ve established that I’ve never had the courage to try, our readers can do what they like with my own gut-level answer of »Yes, but with difficulties«. The difficulties that I perceive begin precisely with the constant cleaving of attention that the platforms provoke. I believe that an honest essayist must live in dialogue with the surrounding world in the ultimate interest both of forging his or her own path and of following it. Since there exists an incredible number of forces online that work to pull you off your path and onto theirs, the writer must maintain some kind of discipline in the face of them. (For myself, whenever I know that I am going to post something more-than-short on an Internet page, I write the piece in a Microsoft Word document and then copy/paste it online with attention to the need for formatting adjustments – I find it important when writing to sustain what Raúl Ruiz called »the vertigo of the blank page«, and I want no background interference with this.) And the »yes« comes from the number of tremendously valuable comments that I’ve read online about new films. When I want to get a sense of what I will think of a debut feature that has just premiered at a festival, I tend to visit Letterboxd before consulting reviews published through other websites or outlets, as experience tells me that what I read there will often be more attentively written.

I presume that, in most cases, the writer of a piece on Letterboxd posts his or her text without first consulting an editor, a move which occurs as a consequence of working in isolation, even if there’s a communal response to the result. I firmly believe that an editor can be quite harmful to a writer’s work, but that more often than not, outside feedback is useful for helping one perceive oneself and one’s output better. With this said, I think that it is important, always, both as writers and as people, to be able to see ourselves in others, and thus to be good self-editors (and not self-censors). One might call this critical empathy.

A penultimate thought for now: From what I understand, the source of the English-language word »essay« derives from the French »essayer« – to try, to attempt. And »easy« comes in part from the Old French »aisie« – comfortable, rich, wealthy. Your juxtaposition of the two words makes me wonder: Do we enrich ourselves by trying? What would that mean today?

And lastly: Your words about nobody remind me of one of my favourite poems, by Emily Dickinson, which was published for the first time in 1891, five years after her death. I share it with you here in honour of Terence Davies:

I’m nobody! Who are you?
Are you nobody, too?
Then there’s a pair of us — don’t tell!
They’d banish us, you know.
How dreary to be somebody!
How public, like a frog
To tell your name the livelong day
To an admiring bog!

I think that the goal of an essayist (again, filmic or otherwise) should indeed be to be a nobody, in order to better see other nobodies better, whoever they may happen to be. Each nobody is someone.
What are you thinking now?

Best,
Aaron

Dear Aaron,

Your rich thoughts offer so many possible anchoring points that I find it hard to begin this letter. Maybe this is also part of essaying: not knowing where to go, but to begin, nevertheless. Well, in this case, I am writing in the middle of the night. I am in Vienna. On my table there lies a postcard showing Franz Kafka as a child. I like this image, and it reminds me: He’s never had an editor. On the other hand, it’s good to have someone to remind us that we do not control our texts, they control us. We try, but our words try us – sooner or later.

I find it curious and pretty funny how you recklessly violate your own word limit in your letters. It’s as if the words can’t be tamed. It’s as if you try, but you can’t quite do it, and I want to know more about this can’t quite. Up to now you’ve shared (among other things) some very valuable thoughts on what constitutes great film writing and the practice of the essay. My personal experience with film writing is that it’s never enough. There is always the disappointment of not quite getting there and of a certain lack. Sometimes I feel rather empty and cheap after finishing a text on a film. It’s as if the film used me and I couldn’t quite satisfy it. Or it just has to do with time, and specifically with the sad fact that there is rarely enough time when it comes to film writing. I write quickly and betray a medium involved with time. Maybe this emptiness relates to the same lack that constitutes desire, a need to fulfil something that can’t be fulfilled. In this case: doing justice to a film (whatever that means), getting closer to it, touching it.

Or is the essay, maybe, the form of the wise realist who accepts that he or she or they will only try and never succeed? If we agree that writing happens in between the writer and whatever she or he or they are writing about, then it will never quite arrive at the point where it’s aimed. The essay will never become the film, and why should it? Well, I think it’s a question of desire.

I’ve thought a lot recently about the act of imitating the rhythm and style of a film in writing. There is a fantastic text by Harun Farocki on the film Ici et ailleurs by Anne-Marie Miéville and Jean-Luc Godard. In his text, Farocki ceaselessly jumps from one thought to the next. He connects German politics, media observation, Vietnam, personal memories, and the film. It almost seems that his text tries to become its own little Godard film.

In my opinion, there exists a category in film that also exists in writing. It has no name, or at least we haven’t agreed on one. It relates to rhythm. It reminds me of Peter Kubelka’s notion of the editing (another editing!) frequency of any film as related to the pulse beat of its director. There might be a pulse beat in a film, and there is one in a text.

I am not sure if it’s always good for a text about a film to aim for the same pulse beat that the film or its director has. However, when we are in love, we often try to synchronise our breathing, our steps, we try to become the same body maybe. This brings forth the question as to whether film writing is or should be an act of love, in which the body of the text tries to become one with the body of the film. You wrote about empathy. I agree with what you say, but I am not sure who the writer is supposed to love in this case. I don’t think that it should be the film or the filmmaker (though I love to read the letters exchanged between Josef von Sternberg and Frieda Grafe), and I don’t think that it should be the words. I think that the writer should love what’s in between.

As I reflect on this, I remain doubtful as to your question regarding the place for an essay. My issue with social media is that it offers an immediate, unprotected space for publication. The value of any post is measured in relation to its publication and not its writing. The fact that the writer knows what they, he, or she writes will be read changes the writing. The act of trying or loving becomes a public playground. That’s why I prefer napkins and notebooks to Letterboxd.

I don’t think it’s impossible to write a good text in these surroundings, as there are countless examples of good writing on social media. I just observe how it gives power to publicists and takes power away from writers. Even if a writer more or less publishes herself on such a platform, the idea of being read becomes more important than the idea of writing. We forget that this is not the same. What we witness on social media is just the latest blow in a long history of giving power to those who decide what will be read and taking power away from those who care about what is being written. Hence, it’s also in English that most texts on cinema are written, with a consideration for audience size. Needless to say, it’s all work for free, and maybe that’s fine, also because I personally haven’t known another world. Writing has always been an act either of luxury or of resistance. I fear that it tends to be closer to the former in film writing these days.

You’ve mentioned the importance of research, and I wholeheartedly agree. I want to ask you about this. For me, to let a text breathe, it’s sometimes important not to know everything, or at least not to share everything that I know. For example, the non-relation between easy and essay is something I could have looked up. I preferred to not do it because this strange, maybe stupid connection between those two words would never have occurred to me. I like it, though. I like to focus on the search in research. W. G. Sebald wrote about how, whenever he researched certain topics, he coincidentally encountered people or images or books that related to them. It’s as if whenever we set our thoughts on something, we change the way that we perceive the world. I am sure we’ve all experienced this. We love to speak of coincidence, but it’s actually very possible that these things have always been there and that we see them only now.

To follow a thought and arrive at something surprising that’s always been there is maybe a bit like essay-writing. My question for you regarding this is: How do you implement whatever happens in your life into a text? For example, I have the feeling that your reference to James Baldwin relates to a recent reading experience. Maybe I’m wrong. But I’m trying, it’s not easy.

Best,
Patrick

Dear Patrick,

I am sitting in a rocking chair opposite my sleeping daughter with a portable computer open on my lap and the desire at work in me to respond to your various points. I feel torn as to whether to talk about James Baldwin or about word counts. Baldwin strikes me as being more appealing.

In response to your question as to whether his work is on my mind always or lately, the answer (as is usually the case with our references) is »A bit of both«. If you were to ask me for one name to submit as the Great American Essayist, I would give Baldwin’s in a heartbeat – for his stridently clear-eyed efforts to understand the composition of what might be called thornily the American Character, and for his efforts (unsentimental, and yet full of sentiment) to understand his own character in relation to it. At the same time, it is true that I was marked by the screening that I attended in São Paulo this past June of the Harvard Film Archive’s new restoration of Dick Fontaine and Pat Harley’s 1982 documentary I Heard It Through the Grapevine – a reflection on the legacy of the U.S. civil rights movement in which Baldwin plays a key role – and of the work done by the exceptional Brazilian programmer Liciane Mamede in presenting the film, which she did within the context of this year’s edition of the Mostra Ecofalante de Cinema, an event devoted to exploring environmental themes that typically includes in its historical selection a number of films engaged with other political subjects. About word counts, I enjoy your effort to poke a hole in my one thousand word-long balloon (which, in turn, could serve as a metaphor for my being full of hot air). My response when I read your »can’t quite« observation was to think about the work of another great American essayist, Orson Welles, and his line towards the end of the classic essay film F for Fake: »I did promise that, for one hour, I’d tell you only the truth. That hour, ladies and gentlemen, is over. For the past seventeen minutes, I’ve been lying my head off.«

I’ve seen Welles’s film multiple times, but I’ve never checked my watch to confirm how close he gets to stating his temporal allotments accurately. What matters to me in this moment is the idea that a bit of lying can be important in an essay, to the degree that fiction-making and fabulating are important in the life of every human being. This is obviously more so the case when writing about one’s own experiences than when writing about the experiences of others, since being true to oneself means something different than do the responsibilities that we hold in telling other peoples’ stories. Still, if we were open about how genuinely little we know about the lives of others, then I’m not sure that we would ever get anywhere or be able to satisfyingly write anything about them. The task of a writer who describes work that is external to himself or herself involves making assumptions and pretending to know what other people are thinking within what personal judgment ultimately says are reasonable limits. One generally does not know what an artist’s intentions are with his or her work; one assumes; and yet we get away with sentences such as »Godard and Miéville want us to recognize the complexities of the occupation of Palestine« all the time.

In general, speaking broadly, I think that being honest about lying helps us get closer to the truth. For instance, within the course of our exchange about essay writing, I considered necessary the initial imposition of a word count that I would then eventually expose as false in order to show my belief that word counts are irrelevant to this exercise – an essay should simply be large or small enough to accommodate the shape of the thoughts that it wishes to express. (And, if a writer is given a word count for an essay assignment, then he or she should work on expressing thoughts that are themselves large or small enough for that space.)

You ask me about how I go about implementing my own life experiences in a text, which is something that I have often done in different ways. My immediate answer is to be honest with myself from the outset about how I am already doing it. For instance, when I make a reference in a text, I try to understand whether the citation comes primarily from me or is organic to the artistic project that I am discussing, since this distinction informs my usage. I also try to achieve mental clarity on the natures of my histories with works, bodies of knowledge, and personal relationships. For instance, something that may or may not be evident to our readers is the fact that you and I have never met in person – we have never drunk any beverages together or, to my knowledge, even been in the same room. It would therefore be wrong for us to assume a back-slapping intimacy with each other that we do not possess. This would of course be deceitful, but, more importantly, it would be less interesting than would be a joint (and, in many ways, initial) effort to understand each other’s perspectives through the sharing of our different experiences. We would learn less.

You write well about some of the built-in fallacies of social media. For myself, I think that the sensation of what might be called »immediate reading« has helped contribute to my frequent sensation of the writing in these spaces as being inherently less legitimate than the writing that appears in editor-driven publications. Yet with that said, many newspaper columnists write with the goal of being read the following morning, and there are many newspaper columnists whose work I take seriously. So why not admit that it’s possible?

As an exercise, I tried to think of an essay that I had read on Letterboxd that I would hold up as exemplary. It is true that there are several instances of strong pieces that I find hard to separate from the identity of the site, in the sense that they seem to be written for an audience that already knows what the writer is talking about and in direct response or even attached to the film under discussion. After thinking for a while, though, I decided that I had proposed to myself a ridiculous exercise.
The issue is that (and perhaps this is a limitation of mine) I cannot see anything intrinsic to the space Letterboxd inhabits that would make the writing there fundamentally different from writing in other outlets or platforms. I think of the ways in which an artist working with celluloid today conceives his or her work differently from the artist working with digital video, or of how someone conceiving a single-channel moving image work proceeds differently from someone elaborating a multi-screen installation, and I feel that such is not the case here. It all still feels like writing to me, and unless an injustice has been directly involved, I don’t think that the reader should care about issues such as whether the writer has been paid for his or her work. (I think that you and I can agree that, while a paycheck can inspire a writer to create a better version of a piece than he or she might have written without one, and while a decent paycheck inspires better work than does an indecent one, there is nothing that makes the quality of paid work inherently superior to work that receives no direct financial compensation.) I also think that the division between edited and un-edited spaces is somewhat fictitious; while it’s true that the writer on a user-based platform is required to self-edit, I can state from my own experience that it is possible for the commissioning editor of a film criticism piece to post or publish it either without altering so much as a comma, or after altering it and committing inaccuracies without the writer’s knowledge or consent. Is it better for a writer to have to request for someone else to make corrections to a posted piece, or for him or her to be able to make changes autonomously?

I don’t think that there is an obvious or universal answer to my question, although I do think that my asking it could signal a lack of understanding on my part, a lack of advancement in the form of film writing, a new moment of egalitarianism, or something else that I am missing. Regardless, even a practice as seemingly commonplace as list-making strikes me as being fecund with creative possibilities in a user-generated context. One need only look sideways at a more traditionally institutional gesture such as the most recent gathering of individual lists for Sight & Sound’s »The Greatest Films of All Time« poll to perceive some of the ways in which list-making can function as an acute critical gesture, and then perhaps return to Letterboxd with eyes a bit wider open. (The Criterion Collection’s fostering of an illusion of community through its longtime encouraging of writerly and even essayistic annotations to the selections on its individual Top 10 Lists on its website strikes me as one more way in which the company has historically been ahead of the cultural curve.)

I feel caught at this second by your usage of the word »luxury«. A problem of list-making is the facility with which the work can help one avoid challenging oneself – making a list for publication is an easy way to tell the world that you are an expert on something, and even to help yourself believe that you are one. When this happens, list-making serves as a luxurious exercise that works to reaffirm the power of pre-existing luxuries. I felt comfort by the rapidity with which cinephiles around the world poked holes in the Sight & Sound lists, which to me spoke to a greater problem in the logic behind the polling, for which the magazine’s team might not be to blame. The issue that I saw was an inability to account for distinctions between the breadth and diversity of a voting body and the breadth and diversity of the body of film history to which that voting body has access. The factors affecting which films receive widespread commercial distribution and/or high-resolution digitization remain largely the same, regardless of wherever one is from or resides. And the ways in which the past is viewed inevitably carry over to how the present is perceived, with different countries and cultures and their artists given weight based in part on the richness or lack thereof that their histories are perceived to contain.
I see in your words about love in particular (and, in my view, love is always particular, though tremendous efforts have been made to write about it in a general way) a chance for us to take advantage of the opportunity we have to engage with each other as essayists. At some point in your next letter, I would like for you to tell me about an essay you wrote. The parameters do not matter to me – the age that you were when you wrote it, what language it was in, whether it’s online, whether it was even published. I want for you to choose what to say about the essay, with one condition: As you go analysing your own work, please tell me where love is located in it. Do your best to be specific, without worrying too much about whether you ultimately get it right. On the surface, what I am proposing may look like a challenge, but I am hoping for it to be the groundwork for a moment of learning for us both.

Best,
Aaron

Dear Aaron,

This is the first letter that I write to you from the very same spot as the previous one. I almost feel like I haven’t moved at all, even though so much has happened. How curiously time moves through such letters! Our first exchanges are only a few pages distant from now, but more than five months measured in time. Maybe I am lying.

I’ve thought a lot about your various points. I think somehow your letters represent an important aspect of an essayistic sensibility, which I’d call a sense of concurrency. It’s like you open up all kinds of different roads existing at the same time, and while in other text forms we focus on certain threads, the essay allows us to shape thoughts from a ball of wool combining them all. Still, I am not entirely certain as to whether the essay necessarily and generally needs to brim over with whatever the mind and the world holds in store for us. I think to try can also mean to be more hesitant, tentative. I think that the essay always exists in between words, in what is not said or not said yet. I also think that, when it comes to the relation of words and images, we have to consider that one medium exists to stop the other from suffocating us. Words can help us to breathe with images, and vice versa.

Every possible digression also offers a possible silence, in my opinion. It can be valuable not to say everything, also in order to not get our mouths dirty. This is what Jacques Derrida once wrote about Francis Ponge, whose body of poems maybe represents the greatest definition of essaying that I can think of: To make the work visible, to create a poem from your attempts and errors, your corrections and notes, your fragments and striving for perfection.

So, I will keep this letter short, with lots of things unsaid but seething in me and between the lines.
So, I prefer not to write too much.
So, I…

searching for silence, trying to be brave enough to keep it short, precise, not feeling like I have to reply to everything, accepting that there are some points to which I cannot add anything, some films I can’t write about, at least not now.

How can I possibly write to you about the location of love in a text I wrote myself? If we, as Anne Carson did in her extraordinary essay Eros the Bittersweet, consider love and writing to be relatives of some kind, as both aim to control time and the fleetingness of things, then I can only observe my constant failure to do so. Everything escapes all the time. Carson quotes Sophocles, who muses on ice melting in one’s hands. She defines love as being like that, and writing, too. In an essay I try to find some shadow, some cold place to keep the ice from melting as long as I can.

I can only observe that sometimes I write a sentence for the text to become something else. It’s like desire, and it turns visible at the end of a sentence or paragraph, when there’s nothing which can be said anymore. Then I know whether the ice is still there, or if it has melted completely. It’s tricky. I don’t want to let you down, but I really don’t want to talk about an essay I wrote. If I do that then there’s nothing left of what I wrote.

Still, I am curious what you are aiming at. What’s the lesson that we can gather from such an exercise?

Best,
Patrick

Dear Patrick,

I understand that this letter will conclude our conversation, so I am writing with the end in mind. I am also writing in something of a hurry, since tonight’s first paragraph is being written on Thursday and I understand that I must deliver by Monday. My goal is to write either until I feel that I’ve said what I have to say for now, or until my time runs out – whichever comes first.

I want to say, first, that you did not let me down, although I disagree with the sentiment that there will be nothing left in what you wrote if you talk about it. On the contrary: Just as Farocki was able to go through one of his films on an editing table with his students and analyse his choices, I believe that a writer can and should be able to explain every word choice in a text that he or she has written. (I emphasize the word »choice« because even what seems like an accident in the moment of writing becomes intentional in the moment of editing – a writer should understand both intuitively and explicitly why that word serves best in that instance.) This capacity will not weaken a work but strengthen it. You can trust that there will still be mysteries left to unpack afterwards, because any good work inevitably contains them. You know something very well, just like I do, from all the books and films and paintings that we value: The more we look, the more we learn, and the more that we continue to see.

I suggested the entry point of love partly because you brought it up, both through the direct invocation of the word and through some of the references that you have made. In the Farocki essay on Ici et ailleurs that you cited (which I have since learned is available for free online reading, both in the original German and in Ted Fendt’s English-language translation, through the website of the Harun Farocki Institut), Farocki ingeniously goes ascribing a series of motives, intentions, and beliefs to Godard as a way to work through some of what he himself values. By projecting his own loves (words, images, micro-politics, and their capacities to express human beings’ free will) onto an artist whose work he knows well and greatly admires, Farocki is able to turn his love outwards from something private into something socially useful. He uses his love critically, and since love (as we know) is incredibly strong, its presence here brings a special strength to his criticism. The presence of love, by the way, is often what differentiates criticism from complaint, since criticism inevitably exists to argue in favour of something – even if it looks like it is primarily arguing against something else – and one needs to love at least a part of the world and a part of humanity to be able to do this.

I observe in passing my opinion that the world has not given Anne-Marie Miéville’s work as an artist its due.

I respect what you say about your reasons for choosing not to discuss any one of your essays. At the same time I feel that, with your refusal, you ducked an opportunity to set an example for readers of how one can be a more conscious writer and a more consciously political being. We are all failing, all the time, in many ways regarding what we do, but I remember a line from Beckett’s novella Worstward Ho when I think about the struggles related to writing: »Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.«

We can agree to disagree about this (it’s important that we leave this exercise on good terms), which is why I don’t think it would be useful or fair to either of us for me to dig into aspects of my own work at this time. I will only say about my work as a film essayist that Mariana Shellard is present in everything that I write (the nature of her presence varies from piece to piece) and that I am sure that Ava Shellard-Cutler will increasingly be as well. I think that, speaking broadly, an essay written without love is a dead essay in the sense of being a mechanical one, effectively written by a robot set on autopilot rather than a human being whose heart has worked actively to stimulate his or her mind. I would say, relatedly (and I think that this overlaps with your discussion of »the fleetingness of things«), that the presence of love in an essay is often not directly localizable in one moment or another, but that it rather appears as a driving force that animates and guides a piece.

I want to challenge you on something that you wrote before, which was that Franz Kafka never had an editor. While it’s true that, to my knowledge, he never sat with someone to workshop his sentences, my first thought when I read your words was »What about Max Brod?« The selection of which writerly material should turn public and what should never reach the public eye is to my mind a viable definition of editing. With his choice to publish Kafka’s works posthumously (even works that had ostensibly been left unfinished) against the author’s stated wishes that his papers be destroyed, I believe that Brod operated very much as an editor, in addition to working as a friend and a reader.

One reason why I bring up Brod’s initiative (which Kafka himself might have knowingly enabled by not selecting another person as his executor) is because it strikes me as an unusually acute example of the power that readers hold to act as editors, and a gesture that now holds both less weight and greater relevance than it once might have held through the facility with which written works today can be circulated. We have a responsibility to help protect people by encouraging them not to post or share words that might do harm to themselves and others, but we should also welcome the publication of any texts that might add value to the world. I would prefer to face a baffling clutter of too many words online than to lose out on another Kafka, just as I would rather face the task of watching too many films than to have never learned of certain valuable pearls. The choices of what to read and watch, and of how to structure my reading and viewing, reside with me.

It strikes me now that part of the strength that a published writer possesses is evidenced in his or her profound lack of awareness and knowledge. We often have no idea who is reading us, and even when we do know of someone who has read us, we cannot possibly know the full contours of the impact that our work has had on him or her. We can only know our own power to carry forward work that we ourselves value.

I will wear my Rilke hat for a moment as I address initiate essay writers, with echoes of some things that we have said in previous letters. I want to say now the following: Do not expect to earn a living wage from this work. There are specific kinds of writing that you can pursue for full-time financial sustenance, specific models that you can follow, and specific ways in which you can gain the needed technical mastery (including with a self-awareness of how your work differs from what is already in the marketplace). However, on most (not all) occasions, the essay is by nature too individualized and too labour-intensive of a form for you to ever receive a financial compensation adequate for the amount of time and thought that you put into a piece that you will feel proud to see published or posted under your name. As often as you can, you should strive to receive some kind of payment for your work, for reasons both of material survival and of self-respect. However, if your inflexible goal is to receive the monetary sum that you should realistically believe that you deserve on every occasion, then you will risk being eternally unsatisfied. You should always work to understand the circumstances of the party with whom you are dealing, as well as your own power for negotiation (with the Other and inside yourself). You should also understand that the chief satisfaction of essay-writing lies in your own very personal feeling of having contributed well to a larger conversation about something. And that this satisfaction is boundless.
(Removes cap)

If our conversation were unfolding in a shared physical space, Patrick Holzapfel, then I would say, »Let’s have a drink«. As is, I will wish for you a wonderful festival and then return with pleasure to the company of my wife and daughter. I hope for Ava to grow up in the safest possible world and for her to do what she can to make it safer, something that I believe resides within the power that belongs to each of us and to us all.

Best for you,
Aaron

Dedicated to the memory of Peter Schreiner.