Translated from the Argentinian Spanish by César Albarrán-Torres
I spent the first few months of the pandemic reading the diary that Adolfo Bioy Casares wrote for over four decades detailing his meetings with Borges. It’s a great book. It’s a compilation of gossip about the Buenos Aires literary world, a register of linguistic nuances, an essay on aesthetics, a testimony to common sense as understood by the Argentinian right, a document on the literary ways of Bustos Domecq, the story of a friendship… and, above all, a book about two readers. It is an unlawful, fickle book in which Rabelais deserves no attention, Shakespeare is irresponsible and Joyce is deemed a second-rate writer. The dialogues written down by Bioy exhibit an absolute passion for literature. The petty fights, the prizes, fame, it’s all secondary to the almost childish enthusiasm of two guys who read for the only reason that really matters: to keep on reading. Borges’ and Bioy’s ideas about literature are born from an everyday relationship with books and from conversations, not from a formal study. This is what sets this diary’s peculiar tone. In an entry from 1977, Borges sums up a conversation he had with an academic, which was published by La Nacion: “What I tried to tell him is that he is interested in the History of Literature and I am interested in literature”.
This distinction has also faded in cinema. This is most evident in a suspicion regarding cinephilia, which is longstanding but seems to be making a comeback. This has to do with a matter of authority. Everybody knows that. Like all passions, cinephilia claims to be justified within itself and is therefore attacked by all who deem it unacceptable. When confronted with an unproductive use of time, a parent might tell his son: go study instead. A person involved in some movement might say: you should do something transformative. A religious individual: you should be thinking about God. These three examples follow some value system that makes cinema (or any other thing) a subordinate to more important criteria. Such is the logic of wasted time: why don’t you do something useful, something profound? From these external positions, cinema is no different to soccer or a PlayStation session. The internal struggle is much more interesting. It’s the struggle of those who give their time to cinema but don’t trust its charm. For this sort of people, the problem of cinephilia doesn’t concern the use or misuse of time, but how cinephilia itself is framed.
I believe within this group there are three ideal types of anti-cinephile. First, the Theorist. Second, the Political-Moral. Third, a sad shadow of the previous two. The most organic attacks to cinephilia come from academics and militants (political, social, educational and religious militants). The first group accuses cinephiles of not being rigorous enough, of being impressionistic, of ignoring or celebrating their pre-theoretical condition. The second group accuses cinephiles of escapism and wankery. It’s fair to say that, in their terms, they are right. They propose alternative ways of relating to cinema, which they consider to be questionable. They use genres such as the academic paper, the thesis, the careful examination of a problem. On the other side, cinematic artifice is subordinate to more important causes, such as justice or spiritual health. For some, cinema is an object of study. For others it is a pedagogical tool. In both cases results are rarely memorable, but coherent in their own right. What is certainly notable is the third ideal type of anti-cinephile: this type repeats the academic’s and the militant’s objections but produces no knowledge or political action of its own. This type epitomises the intellectual of our times: a confused spokesman for other people’s ideas, of ways respected by others, judging from an empty stand, passing judgement on those lives that do not recognise his law. The erroneous lives.
The problem is always the same: distraction. Where should cinema direct our gaze to? In Buñuel’s Simon of the Desert four priests kneel down in order to pray in front of the column where the ascetic lives. When a beautiful woman walks past, Simon asks: “Where did this one-eyed woman come from?”. One of the priests tells him that she has both eyes, that “none of her eyes are shadowed by evil”. Simon replies: “And how have you forgotten the mandate ‘Thou shalt never lay your eyes on a woman?”. And “Do not let yourself be seduced by the female gaze?”. And, above all: “Do not get consumed by the fire of vain contemplation?”. Buñuel changes his shots’ framing each time Simon recites a different mandate. American shot, close up, all from below, of course, because Simon is standing on the column and those who listen to him are kneeling on the dirt. The playful use of gazes places us with the priests, it is as if Simon’s eyes and words were daggers. We don’t need much to realise the last mandate relates also to cinema, the greatest of all vain contemplations. Like Simon, but without his sincere faith (without a carnal body having been offered to doctrine) there are those who want a cinema that resists temptations. Or a cinema that forgets about temptations altogether. A cinema that eats lettuce, that stands on one foot, that resists Satan and in doing so remakes itself. That is, if Jean Epstein is right and cinema is the devil’s work. Seen from this point of view, cinephilia is nothing more than the justification for a theoretical, political or moral lack. A providence of subjectivism. A confusion of hierarchies. A wrong kind of love. Its emblem would be, logically, the sick (anti-cinephilia harbours the hygienists as well). The Jacques Dutronc of What matters is to love, the Will More of Arrebato, and the Godard who in a conversation with Bresson said: “I am addicted to cinema”.
Otar Iosseliani thought about some of these things. Above all, about distraction, and wrote a wonderful poem about it. The main character in Once Upon a Time There Was a Singing Blackbird starts to sew and ends up listening to an album, he writes music and shortly after drawing a note in the pentagram, he stands up and leaves the table, he sits at the library and starts reading, constantly looking at the women in the living room. In one of those many moments of distraction, after gazing at a woman’s legs and a dude’s ass, he exchanges gazes with a man who looks like a censor. An image representing the law. Between the young man’s distraction and the old man’s rictus, between the love for beauty and the discipline required in any project we need not imagine a complete opposition. On the contrary, we can look for a middle ground and dream about dialectic synthesis. But we all know that a meeting ground – if possible – is not experienced the same way by both sides. Iosseliani took sides: he devotes his cinema to the blackbird (doesn’t matter if it’s a tramp, a worker or a nobleman who has seen better days) and he assumes that the price one has to pay for an unproductive life is always high; after its comings and goings, his protagonists end up under a bus, on a boat in the middle of the ocean or in the factory they are trying to escape. Iosseliani gives his films a rhythm that comes close to a waltz, but the apparent lightness of these films fails to hide a bitter conviction: in this world, the world as we know it, there is no place for lives such as these ones. Maybe these lives are possible in cinema, for a little while, until the old man’s face catches the lascivious gaze and the factory interrupts the contemplation of Venice. We leave the movie theatre after wine, songs and free time, knowing that the world will deny us the pleasures that cinema provides.
This is a constant in Iosseliani. At the beginning of Farewell, Home Sweet Home a young girl wants to play but she is not left alone. At the end, she looks out the window of a life won by that which is useful and respectable. Confronting those evils there is sensuality, pleasure, joy for food, alcohol, the sound of water, dance, get-togethers and so much more, things that don’t belong to the owners of this world, things that us, the poor and the workers, know all too well. Or what was Vincent, the worker who leaves the factory and the town in Lundi matin, supposed to do? Study? Write political manifestos on walls? Pray? Watch Histoire(s) du cinema? He could, why not? But if we think about it under his terms and not under the terms of duty, we understand that in his aimless journey he is doing something for his life. He is staring at the light, he is drinking wine, drawing, letting time be his companion. Cinema knows how to honour these things. So when I received an invitation to collaborate in this book, edited by the festival in which I got my education, instead of thinking about this invention with a past and a future, the natural thing to do was to think about cinephilia’s future, which seems more uncertain.
Like the train collector with whom Agnès Varda talks in The Beaches of Agnès, like with any respectable teacher or psychologist, cinephiles’ knowledge is not linked to method, but to experience; like with the night fire, jumping and dancing in Mar del Plata’s coastline, it’s part of the poor man’s hedonism. Of all its faces (some of which are obviously banal) this is the one that matters the most. We’ll have to see if its amateur drive can survive the professionals, who are more interested in film history than in films (they are noble harvesters of obedience when it comes to choosing topics), and to a dual menace: the growing influence of home video formats and the gentrification of the movie theatre. Regarding the latter, we need to remember that in Julio Saraceni’s La barra de la esquina José Marrone’s Fatiga complains that he is not allowed to enter a theatre to see a friend who is now a famous singer, and that he had to open the door for the passengers of 25 cars to save enough money for the entry fee. A 25-cent tip per door. Today, Fatiga would not be able to buy a cinema ticket.
Obviously, many of the current forms of non-standardised public relations and promotion rely on the internet. Virtual communities, fanfics, forums for translation and exchange, little pockets of resistance against the rule of the algorithm. This is how Bioy’s Borges reached me: a Facebook friend offered me the PDF, sent it over and then I resent it a few times. In addition to heartening dedication to literature, what this literary diary offers is what the pandemic has taken away: the shared space, the body, facial expressions and our voices. Maybe this is why I am so excited about it. In 1965, twelve years before the article in La Nacion with the academic, Bioy writes that Borges said: “The author of a study on Ezra Pound says that Eliot is a master, but that he didn’t invent a single thing; that Pound invented that way of writing. How is this important? In no way whatsoever. What the reader cares about is the passion behind the texts, the passion which is communicated. If Los tres gauchos orientales contains all of Martín Fierro, does it matter? Maybe it matters in literary history; a professor will point out the source; but the readers won’t find anything heart moving in Los tres gauchos”. This thought also applies to cinema because what it defines is not an object of study, but a type of relationship that is different to a professional relationship. Perhaps this relationship is merely a sociological marker, a well-earned privilege, a trick of distinction? These questions are even more so. The daily dedication, independence in the face of obligations, the passion and pleasure that shine in Bioy’s Borges don’t belong only to the privileged. They belong and can belong to everyone. Only cinephilia defends his conviction.