[Note: On Sunday, April 27, 2008, I attended a San Francisco International Film Festival event with fellow House Next Door contributor and blogger Ryland Walker Knight and his friend Jennifer Stewart. After the SFIFF presented Jim Hoberman with the Mel Novikoff Award (named for the famed San Francisco film exhibitor), Kent Jones quasi-interviewed Hoberman on stage for about an hour, and then we were lucky enough to watch José Luis Guerin’s In the City of Silvia. Following the screening Ryland initiated an email conversation with me and Jennifer.  Ryland’s initial email and Jennifer’s response can be found on his blog.  You might want to read them first to pick up on the thread of conversation – though it helps even more to have seen the film.]

Hi Ryland and Jen,I guess I’ll live up to the blogger stereotype offered by Kent Jones in his answer to my question during the Hoberman interview and offer more fragmented responses than a thoughtful cohesive reply.  But this is not to say that Kent has us pegged – like I assume you were, Ryland, I was nonplussed by his focusing on the negatives of blog social behaviors (trolling, escalating shouting matches, etc) without equal description given to what’s good about this forum. Maybe it’s the product of having engaged in online discussions for several years, but I pretty much have developed a filter to extended ranting and dead end discussions and can move on to find better stuff elsewhere.  I’m sure you know what I’m talking about and practice the same casual scrutiny – it’s pretty much a must-have skill if one spends extended periods looking for useful content online, at least until some 15 year old in a basement concocts a filter for this. I’d pay.

On to the film – I have to agree you Ryland that as a work about the cinematic properties about the mere act of looking and existing in the world, this film is hard to beat.  And perhaps making the protagonist this sketchy, borderline sociopathic guy is a way of ensuring that we as viewers maintain a gaze that is ours and not closely aligned with that of anyone in the film, and that we get to partake in our own journey of making meaning as Artist Man does.  I just wish it would rely on something other than the tried and true Suffering, Intense, Misunderstood Young Male Artist pining relentlessly after his Idee Fixe – and what if the roles had been replaced, if this film had been about an intense young woman artist gazing at different men before stalking an Ideal?  Would it have been a different film; would audiences have reacted differently? For some reason I find that far more exciting a prospect for a film.  This isn’t the first time I’ve felt this way – as soon as I finished watching Broken Flowers I wished the Bill Murray character had been played by a woman (Sharon Stone? Tilda Swinton?) journeying through her past flings to find the father of her grown child.  How much do these casting and gender issues matter in one’s pursuit and appreciation of “pure cinema”, a label which this film no doubt aspires to claim for itself? There’s no clear answer, but for me it most definitely got in the way.

It gets in the way of credibility – funny because we were discussing this very issue on the way into the theater, I think referring to one of Jen’s students writing about how a film didn’t work because they didn’t believe in the plot – a tricky and not wholly fruitful basis for an argument, you both seemed to suggest.  And yet things like that can and do throw one out of a film. Look at how Ideal Girl finally confronts Intense Young Artist on the train. She was gracious beyond belief, to the point where she was strongly suggesting that she wants his attention and for him to keep pursuing her.  And I’m like, who the fuck is this chick, if not some projection of a male masochistic fantasy of how such an encounter would play out.  There’s no real dialogue, no depth to the girl’s character – sure, she’s not the girl he was looking for, but that disruption is not nearly as important as the one that would cause him to be jolted from his mental onanism.

I have to wonder if this film offers a wish fulfillment of its own, one radically different on an aesthetic level from the increasingly maligned Judd Apatow, but startlingly similar in its regressive pursuit of male fantasy, accompanied by an objectifying idealization and willfull alienation of the opposite sex. (btw I scanned those YouTube clips of Sylvia to see if any of them had a shot of “Laure Je T’aime” scrawled on the walls – I would love to match those with “I’m so over you Sarah Marshall!!!” Same difference?)

So as much as I love to celebrate cinema, I don’t dare to conflate cinema as solipsism. There’s plenty of that going around that we don’t need the movies to serve as enablers, no matter how masterful they are.  But I guess the difference between your view and mine is how much we align the man’s perspective with the film’s, how much it acknowledges the danger of solipsism inherent in its protagonist as opposed to glorifying his gaze, and how much of that solipsism refracts onto the film itself, despite its attempt to celebrate the variety of human existence – is it still a one way mirror?

Jen, those moments you mention when the gaze is returned is really the heart of the film’s mystery for me, because that is the locus of the kind of disruption from the monadic existence I’m advocating.  It’s where things get really interesting. But what does he really do with those pregnant seconds? 

I read that Calvino novel many years ago (found a copy in China of all places) and enjoyed it very much.  But I’m not sure how much it parallels this film, if only because the Calvino had a very disjunctive structure whereas this film seems to flow from one moment into the next through a continuous way of looking.

 I think him hitting on that girl and sleeping with her amounts to an attempt to reject his past following that humiliating debacle on the train. But it fails because the next day he’s at the train stop looking for that girl who reminded him of Sylvia.  It’s a really creepy moment the night he and that chick bed together and he’s staring at her so intently, as if trying desperately to drink in her beauty.  Who knows if six years later he’ll be looking for her? 

That lady with the disfigured face was no illusion – she takes off her sunglasses and there she is, an infeffable reproval of all the hot young ladies that, from this film, you’d think constituted 80% of the Parisian population. 

Ultimately I’m not sure if this film subverts or overturns anything Mulvey wrote, or at least anything she wrote about Vertigo.  It still plays to me as the scene where Scottie mistakes Judy for Madeleine, only extended to feature length.