Letters as Films/Films as Letters

Dear Garbiñe Ortega and Francisco Algarín Navarro,

(I am sorry for my English, it feels very hard to write a letter in a language that is not my own. Since I know English is also not your mother tongue I will nevertheless go for it, so we can meet on this huge island where we all think that we can understand each other.)

one of you I do not know personally, yet, after reading your publication Correspondencias. Cartas Como Películas my voice might seem strangely familiar to you. I can not write this letter as a stranger. Only letters having to do with money can be written as a stranger. Then we must keep a distance as if to make sure how important money is. The letters of filmmakers and people of the film world you collected and arranged beautifully in your book sometimes have to do with money. For example, Jacques Rivette writing to Henri Langlois or Joris Ivens to Jean Painlevé. However, they are not business letters in the strict sense of the word. They are incidents of reaching out and your book makes the point that this reaching out ultimately helps us readers to get closer.

You have to know that letters are very important to me. I didn’t want to read your book because I am interested in those little and great cinephile anecdotes that hide within those intimate offerings by filmmakers. Of course, I was fascinated by such exchanges and disappointments as between Marguerite Duras and Alain Resnais concerning first the shooting of Hiroshima, mon amour (Resnais: “I have been in Hiroshima“) and later his rejection of La Destruction capitale. Still this kind of information is just a byproduct for me, something to brag about next time I get into one of those cinephile get-togethers in which it is all about who can tell what story. For me letters have a different meaning and this is why I was so intrigued when I first heard about your book and also the retrospective you organised during the Punto de Vista Festival. It is this idea of films as letters and letters as films that I have been thinking about a lot recently. There are three aspects concerning letters I am particularly interested in.

The first one is the impossibility of a letter. It is related to a silence. The silence of the person addressed, a silence that is also a waiting for an answer. In a couple of letters published in your book I can find this silence. It occurs when a letter does not ask for an answer. Such is the case with the letter Gregory J. Markopolous writes to Stan Brakhage. It is a curious letter because Markopoulos seems to need a silent reader in order to collect his thoughts about his own film. Does it really matter it is Brakhage he writes to? I think so because he feels an understanding. Another obvious example would be Manoel De Oliveira’s letter to the deceased Serge Daney. Here the letter is a rather beautiful pretence to lay out a personal film theory. There will be no answer and he knows it while writing. The impossibility of a letter for me has to do with the paradox of a dialogue which does neither necessarily get nor always need an answer. It is an imagined conversation, a reaching out that contrary to modern day communication never knows if the addressed has read the message or not. It is more like an invitation to correspond, an opening or offering as you label it. I didn’t quite understand why you decided to divide the letters into different chapters (Offerings, In the Battlefield, Collaborations, Processes, Cinema and Life). I would think that almost all the letters are about all of this things. They try to begin this impossible dialogue. Sometimes it is about admiration (this can go very far, in the letter Raymonde Carasco writes to Duras I had the feeling she was even imitating her style, something we probably all do after reading one of her novels; here admiration becomes inspiration and imitation, it is a sharing that can also go wrong as with Carolee Schneemann’s letter to Yvonne Rainer. I find it very cruel but honest how Rainer does not respond to Schneemann’s feelings concerning her work. Another kind of imitation, more playful, can be found in the letter of Vanda Duarte and Pedro Costa to Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. Here the imitation related to Robert Desnos’ letter that Costa adapted for his work), sometimes there is a real questions like when Peter Hutton writes to Warren Sonbert and wants to know about somebody he saw in Noblesse Oblige, sometimes it is a searching for soulmates, a way to overcome insecurities (I think about Orson Welles wanting to know if Robert Flaherty likes Citizen Kane), sometimes it is asking for help. Maybe Chris Marker’s statement in his letter to Alain Cuny helps us a bit to understand more. He writes: “Poets exists to offer a strength that is not inside us.“

Isn’t the silence after writing a letter like this poet? It only fits then that many of the letters are works of art in their own right. I am not sure if I can follow your perception that they are films but surely they are art. Maybe we can say that they are like the beginning of a film, like a shot without reverse shot, like a fade into a world we are allowed to discover. It is also no coincidence that many letters in your book announce a film to come. They are about the anxieties and fears that go into a film. I wonder how many letters can be found that announce films that will never come. How many films remain in this silence that is a letter.

The way you illustrated the book and also your choice of letters helps a lot to get an idea of the materialistic approaches to the art of the letter. You stress the work of assemblage, of montage that is of course a cinematic idea. As I had to read the English translations in the back of the book I most of the time lacked the possibility to read and see at the same time. Yet, sometimes I was able to discover more about certain letters in your book from the way they look (the handwriting, the color of paper which is also stressed in a letter from Sergei Eisenstein to Esfir Shub, the postcards used and so on) than from the writing. A core letter for your argument is maybe when Hollis Frampton writes to Brakhage about how to speak about a film with words. In this letter we may find the tension between letters and cinema, an impossibility that like good criticism lives in a gap that it always needs to overcome. I think your book looks beautiful. It may seem a bit peculiar but for me with letters it is as important to find them, have them rest on my table a while, to be a promise as it is to open and read them. Your book keeps that promise. Like with certain letters this beauty has nothing to do with perfectionism. Some of the pages give the impression of a rather hasty and sloppy work. Some names misspelled, letters missing in the overview and so on. This does not make it a worse book. It is just a reminder of what it means to sit down and write a letter. The time, the tiredness, the formality and the freedom.

The second aspect I think about concerning letters has to do with a practice of correspondence. Especially from today’s perspective writing a letter is an act of resistance. It would be so much easier to use any other mode of communication to bridge distances, to reach out. A letter demands more time, more thought. It also demands going to the post office, it demands deciding for a kind of paper, a postcard maybe, deciding for a pen or a typewriter. All these decisions say something or allow us to say something. Like analogue cinema today, it teaches something about what we lose. What I write to you now is not a letter. It is a bastard brother of a letter written on a computer. It is an imitation at best. After reading your book I felt like writing a real letter. I didn’t do it. Maybe it is laziness, maybe it is that I can not get out of my habits, maybe it is a hesitation, maybe this must be my last wrong letter. Yet, we must be careful as much as we must be careful with analogue cinema today. It would be dangerous to assume that the medium is already the message. Letters also carry with them the double-edged air of nostalgia. I am very glad that the letters you published are, like cinema, always in the present. I never have the feeling that they try to be conceived as romantic reminders of the thoughts that once we had. It also helps that you included very banal letters. Like a banal shot in a film they help to be reminded what is necessary and what could be too much. No matter in what medium writing takes place, I like to think that people sit at a table to do it. The silence I was writing about earlier can only be heard when one invests a bit of time. This is why the film critics in Cannes and comparable festivals often touch the ridiculous with their texts written sitting on the floor waiting for the next screening. But then maybe a review is not a letter. I think it should be, though.

The last aspect has to do with a personal crisis I faced about a year ago. It is related to the questions: Who do we write a text for? Who do we make a film for? I still have some problems imagining a reader or a viewer in the plural. As you might know I also make films. Sometimes in the middle of working on a film or text I wake up and wonder why I am doing it. Is it only for myself? It became apparent to me that I want to make a film or write a text in order to show or tell someone something. It is important for me that this someone is a specific person because depending on this person I choose what I show or tell. Lets suppose I make a film about the chocolate factory I live next to. It would be a completely different film/letter if I send it to my mother or you or the boss of the factory. In contrast to Jean-Luc Godard who writes so wonderfully to Philippe Garrel that he wants to see a film with his own eyes, I’d love to see films/the world through the eyes of others or even more in a kind of merging of gazes. I find it to be very strange that it is taken for granted that a film is for more than one person if a letter is not. I know about the social aspects of cinema, the importance of sharing and the self-satisfied insouciance related to it, yet, for me it proofed to be poisonous to care about more than one person while working on a film or certain texts. Your retrospective and your book gave me the courage to film a first letter. It is not addressed to you but maybe you can see it one day. Or another one will be addressed to you.

Jean Cocteau to Jean Marais: “Your last letter is wonderful. It gives me courage.“

The energy you spread for cinema is like the best letters an act of love that keeps us going. Thank you for that.