in the grain

max goldberg writing on film

Category: Uncategorized

out on a limb

Saddened to learn of the passing of three humane observers, a writer (Bill Berkson), filmmaker (Peter Hutton), and photographer (Bill Cunningham). All three made work with good manners – inviting, occasional, light on its feet. Berkson’s criticism, in particular, is one of the places I go to remember why I write.

Aside from economic considerations, criticism is a public opportunity to be articulate about something that most people ordinarily let slip away into tangential mutterings: your supposedly silent, non-verbal, on-site responses to works of art. I think of it doubly as commercial expository prose and/or (as Carter Ratcliff once remarked) “language somewhere in the vicinity of what it’s talking about.” What makes poets’ criticism valuable, I think, is that they are interested in these situations of looking not as frames of judgment but as observation for observation’s sake: they write to find out what can be said in relation to what they see and hopefully to be communicative of some common pleasure in seeing. Can you say what you see? Can it be described? Or is the feeling of two-way recognition between the looker and the work more interesting to tell about? Pleasure in writing criticism is often connected with the surprise of vernacular – the words that sensibly spring to mind when the mind’s eye is on a sizable patch of orange paint seen some hours or days previous. Poets are less interested in evaluation and motive. They know that the best one can hope for is the equivalent vitality of a parallel text, and to that they bring a technical proficiency as befits the job. (“Poetry and Painting,” 1984)

There are, to be sure, many more direct instances of Berkson’s “parallel text[s]” I could have quoted from, but I am grateful that from time to time he arranged his thoughts into these kinds of statements of principles (though nothing so heavy as that). And then, of course, he can’t help himself: the “sizable patch of orange paint,” the pitter-pat questions (“Can you say what you see?”), the fresh-plucked Ratcliff quotation. (Looking through my own little notebook of quotations, I see that many were first sourced in Berkson’s essays.) I only ever met him on the page, but that meant the world to me.

around the world in a day


The above image, an electrocardiogram that would serve nicely for an album cover, is from Laida Lertxundi’s Vivir para Vivir/Live to Live. I wrote about it and a few other titles in my piece on SF Cinematheque’s Crossroads festival. Local audiences have a chance to see two other highlights – Zach Iannazzi’s Old Hat and Jonathan Schwartz’s Winter Beyond Winter – at the experimental shorts program showing as part of SFIFF. How nice to imagine these kinds of films screening on a somewhat regular basis…

Discards (Jean Epstein)

jean epstein

I like incorporating quotations into my articles, but with someone like Jean Epstein the temptation is just to string the pearls and leave it that. Feeling some obligation to provide context in my essay for the Harvard Film Archive’s forthcoming retrospective, I lost several choice excerpts from Epstein’s essays—sharp-tongued ones, especially. Although Epstein is rightly celebrated for its boundless faith in the medium’s potential, he could be corrosive when it came to particular films and movements. He had no patience for expressionism (“If you must say about a film that it has beautiful sets, I think it would be better not to speak about it at all; the film is bad”), nor the “pure” abstractions of dabblers like Viking Eggeling and Man Ray. Epstein reserved special animus for the studied effects of the surrealists:

The surrealists were slow to recognize that the instrument of de-rationalization of which they dreamt already existed well within their field of application; and when they finally took notice of cinema, they used it against its grain in such a literary, pictorial and artistic way that their attempts were immediately choked by its esotericism. (“The Delirium of a Machine”).

It’s possible this is just sour grapes from his falling out with Luis Buñuel, who got his start on Epstein productions like Mauprat (1926) and The Fall of the House of Usher (1928), but there’s no mistaking the language of a true believer.

The Lineup


Before another bright afternoon falls away, I thought I would point to a few recent articles here and there:

A review of the latest installment of Scott MacDonald’s annals of the American avant-garde, this one a “nonfiction novel” recalling the period when giants roamed the SUNY Binghamton Cinema Department.

A preview of the China Now: Independent Visions tour, which included one of the yellowest films I’ve ever seen (I’m Not Not Not Chen Zhou).

My “year in review” for Fandor focusing on a handful of recent films spotlighting the extravagant gifts of non-actors. During the course of writing this piece, I found that my word processor autocorrects “nonactor” as “nonfactor.” This essay takes a contrary view.

good 4 tune


There are several new articles posted on the “Criticism” page, including a review of João Maria Gusmão and Pedro Paiva’s One Month Without Filming show at REDCAT, a report on the Wavelengths section at the Toronto International Film Festival, and, most pressingly, a short essay on Jerome Hiler’s beautiful new old film, New Shores. I encourage anyone back east to partake of Hiler and Nathaniel Dorsky’s dual retrospective at Lincoln Center. It starts tomorrow and promises to be a little pocket of sanity at NYFF.

solstice meditation


Dear L—,

I tried to photograph a wildflower for you on my way down the hill, but my phone couldn’t stand the drama of a low sun reaching through branches to pluck these petals out from a background already plunged in shade. The phone does not acknowledge the darkness of day, it wants everything evenly lit—“a bright and guilty place”—and so it cannot see the flower. Illumination always means passing through a darkness, doesn’t it?

As ever, —MG

Yesterday’s Papers


Rounding up a few recent pieces here and there: My report of the San Francisco Cinematheque’s annual Crossroads festival is up at SFAQ, as is a brief preview of a few of the worthwhile films playing at the San Francisco International Film Festival. My review of a recently published anthology of legendary avant-garde filmmaker Gregory Markopoulos’s writings was posted on Fandor’s Keyframe blog at the beginning of the month. My review of J.P. Sniadecki’s latest, The Iron Ministry, will be in the most current issue of The Brooklyn Rail for at least a few more days yet. Finally, I’ve yet to lay eyes on the latest issue of the Canyon Cinemazine, but I should have a brief text and images in there about filmmaker Warren Sonbert’s lifelong passion for music

Notes on Lewis Klahr at ATA

breakfasting at tiffany's

It’s difficult to disregard Audrey Hepburn, still more when she is sharing a cab with George Peppard, but Lewis Klahr wanted our eyes on the rear projection. Look, he said: cars were beautiful once; this is how New York was. Strange and wonderful that the documentary gift should come wrapped as a fake. It is a long scene, as long as a daydream. Klahr then showed his Green ’62, a portrait of street traffic in curved glass that proved once and for all that even the simplest actualité is not immune to memory.

Dizzy Spells


New article for the February Brooklyn Rail about three distinctive films made under the sign of Vertigo: Jenni Olson’s The Royal Road, Christian Petzold’s Phoenix, and Mary Helena Clark’s The Dragon is the Frame.


For those in the Bay Area, know that next week brings a visit from the wonderfully idiosyncratic writer and artist Stephanie Barber. She’ll be showing selections from her serial jhana and the rats of james olds at SF State on Thursday and then her recent feature DAREDEVILS at YBCA on Saturday. I wrote about the feature for Cinema Scope just about a year ago, and I still hear it whispering in my ear now and then.

Gilberto Perez


The day before learning that Gilberto Perez had died, I plucked his book The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium off the shelf hoping to find a point of reference for some of my recent notes on documentary style. As usual, I was not disappointed. The Material Ghost is one of the very few perennials shelved under “Film Studies,” a true north for thinking and writing well about movies. I only met Perez once, when we sat next to one another at a screening of Ernie Gehr’s films. I introduced myself, and somehow – I do not remember how – our conversation turned to the riches of Ford’s Wagon Master. Even amidst the din of a sold-out show, I remember his conversation being calm, lucid, welcoming.

Here is that passage. Watch how he drives away the inane preoccupations of much documentary criticism (i.e. “But is it true?”) in one clean stroke:

…Reality is as commonly attenuated, and as rarely confronted, in films now as it was then. The call to confront it, however, has recurred throughout the history of cinema. Taking the camera our into the world, into the thick of concrete things, has been a vitalizing impulse, at different times and places since the Lumiére beginnings, for such various filmmakers as Flaherty and Vertov, Keaton and Eisenstein, Dovzhenko and Vigo, Buñuel and Renoir, Jennings and Rossellini, De Sica and Satyajit Ray, Rouch and Pennebaker, Ford and Nunez and Burnett, Kurosawa and Gutiérrez Alea and Pereira dos Santos, Godard and Sembène and Kiarostami, Antonioni and Straub and Huillet. Not satisfied with a veneer, these filmmakers have sought from reality something richer and stranger, of more potency and consequence, but also, in just that measure, harder to deal with coherently, more resistant to articulate arrangement. For there lies the problem reality poses to the filmmaker seriously aiming to engage it: the closer the engagement to reality, the more difficult the task of giving it form and meaning. The remove of the film images makes the things of reality easier to handle, more amenable to the workings of art, and by keeping things at a far enough remove incoherence may be avoided, but so will any genuine engagement with reality. The risk of incoherence must be run, unruly reality met on a ground close enough to its own for it energies and its resistance to come into place. Only by contending with its resistance can a filmmaker derive from its energies, and arrange into expressive structures, a vividness and force that tell on the screen.