This Prologue serves as an introduction to the first publication of the “Movie Mutations” letters in book form. Movie Mutations – Cartas de cine (Ediciones Nuevos Tiempos, 2002), published in Spanish, was launched at the 4th Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema. It contains both the original letters written and published in 1997 and a second series completed in 2002. Authors of the original letters are Jonathan Rosenbaum, who was integral in initiating and conceiving the project, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones, Alex Horwath, Nicole Brenez and Raymond Bellour. Originally intended for publication in the French magazine, Trafic, these letters also appeared in Dutch, German, Italian, and English in other cinema magazines. The letters tackled the idea of ‘the death of cinema’ and traced a shared sensibility in film taste and interests among four younger film critics and programmers from diverse parts of the globe. In October 2001, the director of the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Cinema, Quintín, instigated the second series of the “Movie Mutations” letters, including some of the original participants (Jonathan, Adrian and Nicole) and new participants (Quintín, Mark Peranson, editor of Cinema Scope, and myself), with the idea of publishing the entire collection of letters in book form in Spanish and launching the book in Buenos Aires, April 2002.
In addition to introducing the Spanish book, Jonathan’s prologue is a personal reflection on the “Movie Mutations” project and the significance of Buenos Aires as a place for an important milestone in the “Movie Mutations” ‘journey’.
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March 23, 2002
Dear Quintín and Flavia (1),
I guess it must seem excessive, starting off a book of letters with yet another letter – and rounding off a neat dozen of them with an unlucky thirteenth in the bargain. Skeptics who will find the following correspondence too chummy and cozy for comfort are apt to be equally or even more irritated by this Preface, but I can’t see any way out of this dilemma. When you, Flavia, asked me to write this less than a week ago – emailing me that as the instigator of a project called “Movie Mutations”, I should be the one to introduce it in its initial book form—my first rude response, uttered only to myself, was, “But haven’t I done this already? Considering that the first and last of the dozen letters by nine individuals that follow, written respectively in April 1997 and only three weeks ago, are already mine, what could I hope to add in an introduction to make them more user-friendly to the world outside our artificially constructed little circle?” To which someone – meaning any reader, including either or both of you – might reply, “Well, for starters, you might try addressing the reader outside this circle.” And of course I could – but only at the cost of diluting and therefore betraying the spirit of friendship and intimacy bridging four languages and six countries, a kind of togetherness that this exercise was intended to foster.
Let me see if I can clarify this last point. As a child of the John Dewey system of education supported by U.S. liberals in the mid-20th century, I believe in learning by doing, which also entails teaching by example rather than by explanation. And the key point in this endeavor was articulated in the third sentence of your own letter, Quintín: “it’s good for critics not to feel alone.” Of course, feeling alone was partly what brought me and many others to cinema in the first place: not just attending movies (which came more naturally to me than to many others because of my grandfather being a theater exhibitor in Alabama) but thinking and talking and writing about them, the social activity that took root in order to justify and contextualize a more solitary and even solipsistic mental activity. After all, most hardcore cinephiles that I know are basically lonely people; a group that I hasten to add doesn’t really include you, Quintín, because, as you explain in your own letter, it would appear that the social impulse came earlier in your case. Which, from my standpoint, makes you perfectly suited for the job of running a film festival.
In any case, it was as an instinctive response to my own solitude—my relative isolation as a Chicago-based critic whose friends mainly reside in other cities and countries—that I first thought of investigating the shared sensibility of four disparate and far-flung younger critics in other parts of the world. What started out as a taped dialogue with Adrian Martin in a suburb of Melbourne on October 20, 1996 eventually took shape about a year and a half later as a series of letters written (and, in three cases, translated) for the French magazine Trafic. Some time later this became reconfigured as a book of international exchanges about some of the directions in which world cinema was heading—initially to be co-edited by Kent Jones, the only other American in the group. Then, roughly a year after a contract was signed with the British Film Institute—once it became clear that Kent’s new duties as a programmer and his continuing work as a writer made his involvement in the project more difficult—Adrian agreed, with Kent’s blessing, to step in as his replacement, a decision actually made in Buenos Aires a year ago. Finally, almost half a year later, at the Vancouver International Film Festival—where both of you, Adrian, Mark, and I all happened to be—came your proposal, Quintín, to launch a second set of letters, specifically for publication by the Buenos Aires International Festival of Independent Film in 2002, though Adrian and I quickly decided that the same series should conclude our own book as well, currently scheduled for publication in 2003.
So it’s been a road with various curves and detours, not a straight, linear march towards a predetermined goal. Yet virtually from the start, a few underlying convictions and sentiments have been present—the most conspicuous of which has been that all the participants have certain underlying convictions and sentiments in common, and a growing desire to extend our common ground to others. Thus, over six and a half years of gestation, an overall development from theory to practice, from relative isolation to social activism – a path taken in all our separate careers as well as collectively, through this project and others like it. Some of these convictions and sentiments involve synchronicity (explored in detail by Alex), the influence of driving and music on notions of cinema (first broached by Kent), functions of pedagogy (discussed in particular by Adrian and Nicole), notions about civilization (introduced by Raymond and extended by Quintín), and extending forums to other critics (as Mark and Fiona have been doing). The list continues, of course, and that’s part of our point; we’re trying to spread a certain gospel more than preach it—a gospel that is still being discovered, propounded, and extended by others.
And why does Argentina seem like such an appropriate place for this gathering of resources? I can’t speak for the other letter writers in this regard—although I can’t help but recall the zeal of Nicole when I joined her in paying a visit to La Boca last year, shortly after she arrived in Buenos Aires for the first time, with memories of Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) still dancing in her head, as well as your previous remark to me, Quintín, that this film does a better job of depicting Buenos Aires than any other (a significant trait for a film that also happens to be about another city configured as a structuring absence, namely Hong Kong at the tail end of its colonial rule).
But I can speak of other, much more specific reasons why Argentina seems to me an ideal place for launching “Movie Mutations” in book form. For one thing, it’s because, at the moment, Argentina seems relatively isolated, and to recast Quintín’s point a little, it’s good for countries not to feel alone. And speaking quite personally, I must say that this country seems to have an important bearing on my own past, in at least three separate ways:
(1) Two of my best and oldest friends over the past 30 years, both met in Paris in the early 1970s, are Eduardo de Gregorio and Edgardo Cozarinsky, both Argentine filmmakers.
(2) A central intellectual trait that I associate with both of them and with their one-time teacher Jorge Luis Borges is an aristocratic attitude toward culture that has little to do with class or money and a great deal to do with an almost epicurean cultivation of the past, as well as a deep affinity for other cultures, languages, and viewpoints. (Significantly, the one time I encountered Borges in the flesh—in Santa Barbara in the mid-’80s, where I was teaching at the time, shortly before his death—I asked him about Olaf Stapledon, whose Star Maker he had introduced in 1965, an English writer who served as an important touchstone for me in the first letter contained in this volume.)
(3) This leads me to the profound feeling of kinship I experienced when I stood for the first time in downtown Buenos Aires the September before last, 2000, and was immediately brought back to my experience of Atlanta, Georgia in the springtime of 1953 and 1954, at the ages of ten and eleven—my first real experience of the magic of a cosmopolitan city. (On both occasions in the 1950s, I was accompanying my father to a movie exhibitors convention—seeing early demonstrations of CinemaScope and VistaVision, and coming along with him to the film companies where he booked movies for my grandfather’s theaters in northwest Alabama.) It’s a magic I associate with such things as large newsstands, bookstores, theaters, and cafés, not to mention various hangouts and meeting-places, diverse nests and lairs, restaurants that stay open late—the excitement, in short, of any cultural Mecca during the first half of the 20th century, and a spirit which I’d like to regard as being, in spite of everything, alive and well in Buenos Aires today. Which is another way of saying that the ‘good air’ of Buenos Aires has for me a relation to a shared and cultivated past that is relatively absent in my own country, a relation I nostalgically associate with cinema and with community—the two subjects that the following letters are most concerned with.
With love and affection,