TIFF 2015: Films and their Paratext

Two films at TIFF, both by filmmakers who exhibit their work in museums and galleries, raised for me some interesting questions about the role that “para-textual knowledge” plays in film criticism. Here, the paratext in question was detailed information about context and intentionality provided by the artists, stated outside of the films themselves. Let me first begin by describing what the films are doing — and then air my questions.

One of my festival favorites, Invention is the first feature by the Canadian artist Mark Lewis; it is a stately and ambitious work designed to function on multiple levels. Some of these levels are easier to intuit and unpack than others. Most overtly, it is an homage to the city symphony films of the 1920s such as Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) or Sheeler/Strand’s Manhatta (1921). Lewis spent two years shooting in three cities: Paris, São Paolo and Toronto.

But the similarities to those earlier forebears are ultimately less than they might appear. Beyond the fact that they are all interested in exploration of urban space, the differences outweigh the family resemblances. Invention contains just 14 shots, and throughout its 80-minute running time, the camera is almost always in slow, steady and deliberate motion. This combination of long takes and camera movement has the effect of conferring a truly autonomous curiosity upon the “kino-eye”.

Not all aspects of the city, however, are of equal interest here. City streets, modernist buildings — for example, by Oscar Niemeyer in São Paolo, Mies van der Rohe in Toronto — and art museums become the film’s privileged objects of curiosity. The camera is especially drawn to glass and reflective surfaces, and to spaces in which light and shadow are at play. The film is silent except for the opening, which features solo piano as the camera slowly encircles a sculpture at the Louvre, and the final frames, which are accompanied by explosive rock music. All in all, Invention makes for a spellbinding viewing experience, unspooling a nonstop stream of sensations and a non-narrative suspense.

But once the movie ended, I read the “artist’s statement” in the presskit and learned a great deal about Lewis’s conceptual framework for the film — almost none of which, I should say here, was evident from “simply” watching Invention.

Lewis means for the film to have an entire background narrative: A camera is “born” into a world without cinema, and proceeds to “learn” about this world by moving through the space of cities — through modernity itself. There is a historical backstory to this choice: Lewis believes that 17th century baroque architecture marked the beginnings of the modern, and when people first moved through its architecture (he cites the buildings of Francesco Borromini as an example), they experienced “cinema” for the first time. So, not only was the experience of the modern city that of cinema “avant la lettre,” it also provided new “lessons in perception” for the city’s inhabitants — similar to avant-garde cinema’s capacity to “remake perception” in its viewers. (We might recall Stan Brakhage famously imagining an eye “which does not respond to the name of everything but which must know each object encountered in life through an adventure of perception”.)

Lewis also singles out a specific inspiration for his work:

Jacques Tati’s Playtime is a sublime consideration of the city in relationship to its ideological representations. At the same time, Playtime insists, with great humour and strange precision, that the modern city is simply an invention of the cinema, but also that cinema is only the imagination of that very same city. Tati’s Playtime produces a kind of indeterminate either/or in this regard, refusing to privilege one over the other. This is its brilliance, I believe, and this is why I watch the film over and over again. I, too, cannot decide whether my films, for instance, depict the city or if they are helplessly produced by the city.

The title of Lewis’s film is a nod to Louis Lumière’s well-known line about cinema being “an invention without a future”. Lewis is trying to imagine the inverse: a future without an invention. Or rather, a future where the invention of cinema is just beginning to take place …

Artist Mathieu Kleyebe Abonnenc’s first fiction film, Sector IX B, is 40 minutes long, and begins with an epigraph that is a brief quote from French surrealist Michel Leiris. It proceeds to narrate the journey, in elliptical fashion, of Betty, a scholar who travels to museums in Dakar and Paris to do anthropological work. We occasionally see her ingest pills and have hallucinatory experiences; and we watch her linger over old photographs that might be from a personal album. The film closes with an enigmatic sequence, atmospherically reminiscent of Apichatpong, in which workers come upon what might be some kind of lost or hidden artifact in the basement of a museum. I enjoyed this mysterious, carefully composed, beautifully paced movie while having only the most rudimentary idea (outside of its barebones narrative) of “what it was all about.”

It turned out, when I chatted with the filmmaker backstage after the screening and read his “artist’s statement,” that there is a rich contextual backdrop without which the work is almost impossible to decode. I learned that the protagonist Betty is trying to recreate the state of mind and body of researchers who traveled in the 1930s to Africa as part of the Dakar-Djibouti ethnographic expedition. The primary inspiration here was Leiris, who was part of this expedition, and who wrote an account about it called L’Afrique Fantome (Ghost Diary).

What drew Abonnenc to the subject was the fact that Leiris’ field notes do not pretend to “scientific objectivity”. Instead they foreground his psychological state (he had been in analysis in Paris prior to leaving on his trip), and interweave multiple genres (including erotic stories and literary criticism). The result is a highly subjective account of Africa that implicitly critiques the way scientific research renders invisible the inner psychological and physical states of the researchers themselves.

I also learned from my conversation with the director that members of the original expedition took powerful drugs in order to strengthen their defenses against African illnesses (such as those transmitted by tsetse flies), which significantly altered their perceptions, thus further undermining claims of “scientific objectivity”. In the film (I learned later), Betty recreates the medical prescription box given to members of the expedition, and tests the effects of the drugs upon herself. The film’s final scene, in which workers unearth an unknown object in the museum’s basement, was intended by the director to question the status of each artifact in a museum’s collection: which items are chosen to be exhibited — and which are deemed less worthy of display, and why.

Suffice it to say: my experience of these films would have been unimaginably impoverished without my extended encounter with all this artist-provided background – and the resulting knowledge about how these works need to be approached.

* * *

The term “paratext” originated in literary theory and interpretation, and refers to the material that surrounds the main text, such as the preface and foreword, and also including such things as formatting, typography, and author portraits. Interviews and commentaries by the author also belong in this category.

The theorist Gérard Genette thinks of paratext as a gray area, not exactly the text but not exactly outside of it either. He calls it “a threshold … a zone between text and off-text”. It is a place, Genette writes, “of an influence on the public … an influence that is at the service of a better reception of the text and a more pertinent reading of it.” Paratext thus becomes “a fringe of the printed text which in reality controls one’s whole reading of the text.”

Artist’s statements are, of course, an important kind of paratext. When I first encountered avant-garde films that came with such “instructions for interpretation,” I remember being a bit skeptical. An artwork, I then believed, must enact its themes and intentions within the work, rather than impose or announce them from outside. But reading Genette made me reconsider this hard distinction between text and not-text. Our interpretations of a work never emerge completely from within a work and its details anyway; we routinely bring outside knowledge to bear upon the work when we interpret it. So, over the years, I’ve come to value statements of the artist’s intentions and commentaries, regarding them as always potentially useful.

I’m curious to know: If we were to think of paratext as a “genre,” are there particularly good examples of them in the history of avant-garde cinema? Also: I tend to think of artist’s statements in the experimental film world as a recent phenomenon — perhaps spurred by artists being forced to “commodify” and “sell” their work in the art marketplace to grants organizations, art galleries, and the like. Have avant-garde filmmakers always accompanied their work with written or spoken aids to interpretation? I suspect there is an interesting history, waiting to be written, of artist’s statements in avant-garde cinema.

* * *


— At Sight & Sound, “best films of the year” lists by over 150 critics worldwide.

— At caboose: Catherine Grant’s audiovisual essay “Dissolves of Passion,” which forms an integral part of her contribution to the upcoming caboose volume “The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image,” whose primary authors are Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell.

— Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin’s reflection on making audiovisual essays in Frames Cinema Journal begins: “Not only is the work we do para-textual in relation to the usual academic work on film; we ourselves are para-academics …” Also: Three audiovisual essays by Cristina on Luis Buñuel, commissioned by ICA on the occasion of their Buñuel retrospective.

— The new issue of cléo: a journal of film and feminism is on the theme of “grace”.

— A conversation between Jonathan Rosenbaum, Raymond Durgnat and David Ehrenstein, “Obscure Objects of Desire: A Jam Session on Non-Narrative,” that appeared in Film Comment in 1978.

— Alex Ross: “A Hundred Years of Orson Welles” in The New Yorker.

Jonas Mekas interviewed by Peter Bogdanovich in Interview magazine. (Via Will Stephenson.)

— Best of the year lists at Artforum: by John Waters; and J. Hoberman.

— An interview at Film Comment with the poet Susan Howe, who recently introduced a screening of Tarkovsky’s The Mirror in New York City.

— The theme of the new issue of NECSUS European Journal of Media Studies is “Vintage”.

— Lesley Stern’s lecture (in her charismatic voice and delivery), “How does (the) Cinema Feel About (the) Animal?” at SoundCloud. (Via Catherine.)

— I’ve been enjoying Kelley Conway’s new book on the films of Agnès Varda; David Bordwell has put up a post on the book.

— On the occasion of its 30th anniversary, the journal Australian Feminist Studies has put up 30 articles from its history for free download. (Via Adrian.)

pic: The hallucination of a scientist in Sector IX B.

Comments (8):

  1. Unknown

    December 7, 2015 at 3:09 pm

    I love this question about paratexts. Indeed, I've been questioning my own skepticism regarding authors' comments lately–a skepticism that remains even after writing a book on an author! I think teaching film to undergrads eager to seize upon an author's words as a means of "checking their work" (or excusing the need for it) encouraged me to swing too far in the other direction. I'll think of examples of comments soon, but I wanted to immediately throw in the possibility that there are subgenres within the genre, as in the artist's dodge. Demarcating the statement from the dodge might be tough!

  2. Just Another Film Buff

    December 7, 2015 at 4:58 pm

    I am very, very skeptical of artist statements, Girish. And increasingly so.

    I too used to think that, since our response to art is almost completely determined by external, experiential baggage, an artist's statement should not be discriminated against. But I've started to renounce this idea. I think one should not equate the artist statement to any other kind of knowledge that a spectator/listener brings because the former is a special kind of knowledge that slots the latter into a narrow framework. Our response to an art work with the our chaotic experience-knowledge is polyvalent wheras the artist statement is prunes it down to a single angle. Consider a monocrome painting displayed numerous times: first with the title "Untitled", the second with "Search" and the third with "The sporadic beauty of the experience of floating down a the river of life at the twilight of existence" or something like that. Surely, the responses are not similar. Now, it might be questioned whether this variation in potential response deserving of critique. I think it does. If the immediate artist statement is what is defining our approach to her work, what we are seeing is just, to quote Tom WOlfe, painted word.

    Also I agree with Kyle above that there are multiple varieties of this. One is the obvious gobbledygook betraying insecurity at best and insincerety at worst. The opposite is the ironic, self-deprecating, post-modern kind of artist statement that just describes the art work as a layman would react, in effect, attempting to preempt criticism. Jeff Koons calling his puppies puppies, for instance. Though the latter is much better and sometimes comes close to the best choice of having no statement at all, I find even this irony and feigned humility at times annoying.

    And there is the awful artist statement that justifies the work in terms of personal experience. As though the art is important because it is personal. As if personal experience trumps all other critical categories.

    Long story short, I am progressively cynical about artists vokuntarily talking about their work. I follow the old maxim of trusting the art (and myself) than the artist.

    This ends another episode of Look How Philistine I Am.

  3. girish

    December 7, 2015 at 6:36 pm

    Kyle and Srikanth, thank you for your comments!

    I absolutely agree with you that we must approach artist statements with caution and skepticism. For one thing: the intentional fallacy. For another, the artist has a certain self-interest at heart in creating the artist statement in the first place: I think it's totally reasonable to assume that he/she clearly wants their work to be viewed in the best, most favorable and positive way.

    But even if we were to assume that most artist statements are self-serving, self-promotional, unnecessarily constraining, and even lazy (in that they freight the statement with doing "the work" that the artwork itself should be doing/enacting), I'm still curious about those artist statements that are truly good, imaginative, and illuminating examples of the genre. (Surely a few of these exist? I suspect they do.) I'm thinking of artist-filmmakers like Chantal Akerman, Harun Farocki, James Benning, and so many others. Like, for example, Akerman's "statement of intent" for ALMAYER'S FOLLY that Adrian and I were fortunate to publish in LOLA.

    Srikanth, this is a genre that lends itself so very easily to caricature (and not unfairly so), but I wonder what we risk losing by consigning all of it to the dustbin. After all, to make an analogy, I probably would not watch MOST films made in the world in any given year–and yet I consider myself a passionate cinephile. No matter what your "philia", I think it is almost inevitable that the VAST majority of artifacts you will encounter will be not very good/worthy/worthwhile examples of what you love. And yet we hold on to, expand, and deepen our love for our object (cinema) over time instead of saying it's all garbage, the hell with it all …

    I appreciate the dialectic happening here, Kyle and Srikanth: thank you.

    Finally: my fault, but I'm confining "paratext" to the item of the artist statement alone, which I know is not the case …

  4. Just Another Film Buff

    December 7, 2015 at 6:47 pm

    I hear you, Girish. Yes, it is true, it is very easy to scorn artist statements and unfortunately artists are making it all the more easier.

    I narrowed down the idea of paratext to the artist statement because a number of things you classify as belonging to the paratext, I would tend to think as part of the text (typeface, preface, credits). The rest is mostly context in my mind (expanding the idea of a paratext to any contextual knowledge dissolves its boundaries right?). Yes, I can think of a thin layer between the text and the context (the blurb or artist statement, for instance), but I'm not sure if that can't be subsumed as the context as well.

    Looking forward to more erudite comments here!

  5. Nathan

    December 7, 2015 at 11:10 pm

    It's funny that one of the first links you post is to Catherine Grant's video essays, as the first thing that popped into my mind was "Los Angeles Plays Itself", and it's only a short step from there to video essays in general. Probably a fair amount of people people (though perhaps not Andersen himself) would consider Vanishing Point and some of the other films discussed as paratextual to Los Angeles Plays Itself rather than vice versa; if, that is, we assume that one need take precedence over the other. But if we admit criticism as art, and video criticism as criticism, then any video essay becomes a work of art to which its subject is paratext, and therefore… not completely necessary to its comprehension? At which point, wham! we find ourselves swimming in an amniotic sea of postmodern relativism. Oh my.
    More seriously though, it's an interesting question, as when a text becomes more important than the work that gave rise to it (Kapo and Daney's article being the archetypal example for film criticism).

  6. Christian Keathley

    December 12, 2015 at 3:21 am

    Might we also think about these artist statements in relation to the tradition of critical writing undertaken to create the context by which later work should be evaluated? Think of T S Eliot's critical writings, or better yet for cinephile purposes, the Cahiers du cinema critics' "la politique des auteurs" as an artist statement written in advance of the films that they later produced. Or Mulvey and Wollen's critical writings, written in advance of production of their films. Mulvey has said that the films and the critical writings must be understood as parts of the same project. Without the critical writings, the films might not have been understood in the way the makers intended — but by writing in advance, they perhaps avoided creating the natural suspicion that comes with the kind of artist statements you encountered.

  7. passthepopcorn

    December 29, 2015 at 2:49 am

    It's a bit ironic to see the question of artists' statements being raised by a critic.

    I don't really see artists' statements as being part of the so-called paratext. Artists' statements, the institutional context, and so forth are already part of the work, and the best artists assimilate all those types discourses in their artistic practices. Failure to do so is to work in a state of denial, an "as if" that is much more dangerous than the "what if" of the artist statement.

    Seeing an artwork as a closed system is, to put simply, an impossible critical position.

    It goes without saying that there are instances of artists' statements that don't really add to the critical or aesthetic reception of the work, but that's a whole different topic.

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