The Movement Toward Artby J.C. Hallman
Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017
I’m on the record as having said this elsewhere, but it bears repeating: the most fundamental problem of criticism today is the belief that, by definition, an act of criticism is an act of argumentation. English, composition, and rhetoric programs all across the country, probably all around the world, allow that “free” or “personal” writing may form a portion of the process of “critical thinking,” but there is always an implied hierarchy: personal writing is what you do on the way to the more serious work of establishing a thesis and backing it up with a few citations. To be critical is to argue—which is ridiculous, of course, but this is what we’ve been imposing on our children for more than a century now.
At least with books. Music criticism has always played by a different set of rules, and though you don’t have to look far to find film criticism plagued by the same impulse toward stodginess that has crippled literary criticism, there does seem to be something afoot with writing about movies. I’m thinking of recent essays or books—lively, personal, and creative—about The Wizard of Oz, Bill Murray, and Stalker by the likes of Salman Rushdie, David Shields, and Geoff Dyer.
Scott Esposito’s The Doubles, which can be inadequately described as a coming-of-age memoir told through the author’s experience of fourteen films, snatches the baton from this select group of relay sprinters.
When I say that literary criticism has been crippled by stodginess—by which I mean, self-interred in the deepest of forgotten catacombs—don’t take me too literally. Consider, for example, the brilliant stream-of-consciousness blurtings of D. H. Lawrence’s Studies in Classic American Literature, which deliciously treats a variety of canonical works so that Lawrence can espouse on the nation that would eventually serve as his own private catacomb. Lawrence doesn’t argue anything in Studies in Classic American Literature. Rather, you sit on his shoulder and listen to him think as he reads. The book is itself a classic case of a better kind of writing about reading.
I don’t mention Lawrence in the context of Esposito accidentally. The fourteen essays of The Doubles similarly permit themselves to wander and mull, and though there are core differences between the two books—Lawrence limits himself to classic works, whereas Esposito includes treatments of more obscure films, such as Kooyanisqatsi by Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass and Suzhou River by Lou Ye—it’s not hard to imagine that Lawrence served Esposito as an inspiration, if not a blueprint.
Esposito’s take on Richard Linklater’s Boyhood suggests another dimension as well. By Esposito’s account, Boyhood is a flat and eventless—though riveting—chronicle of a boy’s transition into young adulthood, and it’s fair to say that Esposito is attempting to take up a baton from Linklater as well. The Doubles begins in Esposito’s own young adulthood and chronicles his “movement toward art,” making it something of a critical bildungsroman.
Esposito isn’t bothering to argue with you either, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t have a thesis—or several of them, actually. One might be that the truth of film is that movies can become so important in our lives as to constitute formative experiences in and of themselves. In other words, we don’t just view films—films happen to us. Hence, a book about the films of one’s life is more than just a series of essays: it’s a narrative, an autobiography, a story.
Another thesis—albeit one happening on an almost inaudible wavelength—is that film, by dint of its reach, has eclipsed writing as a storytelling medium. This is undermined, of course, by the evidence at hand: Esposito’s own sweet, intimate earnestness as a writer. By the time Esposito concludes that the difference between film and print storytelling is arbitrary, we’ve already made the same realization (and no one needed to argue it to us).
Another difference between Esposito and Lawrence—and note that I keep having to say there are some—is that not all of Esposito’s essays work in the same way. Some are, in fact, Lawrentian close reads, but others treat particular subjects inside a film, as is the case with Esposito’s reaction to Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, and still others use films as a springboard for discoursing on the film’s subject without addressing the film itself much at all, such as Esposito’s brief excursions into Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time and Errol Morris’s A Brief History of Time.
This last—the first in the book, actually—perhaps offers the key to Esposito’s whole enterprise. Hawking explains the universe, Errol Morris explains Hawking, Esposito explains Morris, and now I explain that Esposito is here insisting (but not arguing!) that his thinking on individual films will be expansive, that each and every film somehow taps into the history of the universe, such that a later meditation (on Boyhood) will begin with an extended digression on rage in epic histories. The leap from this to a tepid tale of a boy’s growth into manhood is the critical equivalent of a match cut from a spinning femur to a spinning space station, and it demonstrates just how compelling (not to say, persuasive) an evocative illustration can be, as opposed to a scholarly citation.
There are many reasons to recommend The Doubles, not the least among them the sheer range of films discussed: others include Andrew Jarecki’s Capturing the Friedmans, Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent, and Lars Van Trier’s The Five Obstructions. But what most recommends the book to me is Esposito himself, who in moving toward art becomes a mirror of the kind of quiet, unassuming critic we’d all like to be. With a few more books in the world like this one, the films herein discussed might stop being described as “obscure.”
J.C. HALLMAN is a contributor to the Brooklyn Rail.