Sunday, January 28, 2007

Re-Viewing Films

I’m curious about the nature and degree of re-viewing practices. I tend to re-view films a lot. I noticed that last year, about one out of every four films I saw was something I had seen before.

One reason for re-viewing is to get closer and deeper into films or filmmakers whose work we already feel a strong degree of comfort and familiarity with. These are works whose cinephilic pleasure is more or less assured. Our previous, pre-existing response to the work is not likely to be seriously questioned. But these repeat visits are nevertheless valuable. They take us further, each time, into the work and its constituent details (its very ‘molecular structure’), allowing us a greater intimacy and thus fluency in thinking and talking about it. For me, some examples here might be: Hitchcock, Hawks, Renoir, Fassbinder, Lang, Lubitsch, Demy, Wong, Wes Anderson.

Sometimes, this can be taken to obsessive extremes. There are films one has watched more times than one really needs to, chiefly because their pleasure-giving capacity is endless, even if (at this point) each subsequent viewing yields diminishing returns in terms of critical insight. Nevertheless, these films are evergreen, hard to tire of. I know I’ve probably done this with: e.g. Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort, Sirk’s All That Heaven Allows, Wong’s Happy Together, Hartley’s Surviving Desire, and (idiosyncratically) Roman Polanski’s Frantic.

A somewhat different reason for re-viewing is a filmmaker one feels an affinity for, but whose work is challenging enough to not make us feel completely comfortable. Perhaps we are on our way to cultivating a reasonably well-developed appreciation and understanding but the work hasn’t fully opened itself up to us yet. Occasionally (not always), these films might also make huge sensory demands on us, making them impossible to even fully apprehend on first viewing, thus making repeat viewings essential. For this category, I’m thinking (in my case) of Godard, Marker, Resnais, Straub-Huillet, Brakhage, Costa, etc.

When the closing credits of Costa's Colossal Youth were rolling, I remember Darren leaning over to me to say that he was ready to watch the film all over again, right there and then; I felt exactly the same way. I saw my first Ruiz, Three Crowns of a Sailor, last week, and had the identical feeling. Even as I was watching Three Crowns, enjoying it immensely, I knew that the film, in its fleetness and density of invention, was already eluding my ability to ‘affix’ it to my memory in a strong and lasting fashion.

Sometimes, the reason for re-visit is frustration and difficulty. One reason I was thankful for the Abel Ferrara blog-a-thon a year ago was that I had mixed feelings about Ferrara at the time. There was much I admired about his work but I also felt blocked by his films in some ways—they didn’t allow me the clean, clear, unproblematic access to ‘getting’ them and loving them that I had (with much less effort, it seemed) with so many of my favorite filmmakers. That has since steadily changed (more on Ferrara in a soon-to-come post). Another example filmmaker here is Bertolucci, whom I’ve had trouble with; I hope to give him a renewed try at some point.

All too often, reading a great book or essay is sufficient reason to revisit a film or oeuvre, to ‘see it through new eyes.’ This happens to me a lot, most recently with Nicole Brenez’s book on Ferrara. Other examples: Tom Gunning on Fritz Lang; Chris Fujiwara on Jacques Tourneur; Adrian Martin on late 20th-century Hollywood cinema (Phantasms); Gilberto Perez on Dovzhenko, Godard, and Renoir (The Material Ghost); Robert Philip Kolker on the neo-realists, Godard, and Antonioni (The Altering Eye). Last night, after reading some appetite-whetting words about it, I sent away for a book on Woody Allen by surrealist-influenced Positif critic Robert Benayoun. I haven’t been an Allen enthusiast for many years now, but perhaps the book might end up spurring some Allen revisiting.

There is also the matter of Time. There are films I saw 10 or 20 years ago in my early film-buff days that have receded almost completely into oblivion. Perhaps this is less of a problem for the tender-aged cinephile but for someone like me who was born the year Godard made Contempt (1963), the memory bank needs recharging every now and then. To make things interesting, I won’t of course be seeing those films with the same 'eyes' I did back then. And as time goes by, since we are constantly in flux—always in the process of ‘becoming’—how can we still cling confidently to evaluations we made years ago?

Finally, there is the opportunity cost to be dealt with: every re-viewing automatically means foregoing a (new, strange, vital…?) experience with a film we’ve never seen before….

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So, if you feel like it, I’m wondering: What are your re-viewing practices like? Do you revisit films? And do you do so less or more than you used to? Are there some filmmakers or kinds of films that particularly lend themselves to revisiting? And any other thoughts you may have on the subject….

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So, several years ago, soon after seeing Jean-Pierre Melville’s Leon Morin, Priest at Cinematheque Ontario, I pulled Rui Nogueira’s book on Melville, in perfect condition, from under a big rickety stack at a Binghamton used-bookstore. I bought it for three dollars. I mentioned this at the time to James Quandt who seemed surprised: “That’s a rare book—you should hold on to it.” This morning, surfing Amazon, I discover that used copies are going for as much as twenty-four hundred bucks. Crazy.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Poetic Film

Jennifer MacMillan's The Garden Dissolves into Air (2006)

“Poetic”: Lord knows how many times I’ve flung that word about when describing a film. But what exactly does it mean?

In 1953, Amos Vogel and Cinema 16 put together a symposium called “Poetry and the Film.” The participants were: Maya Deren; playwright Arthur Miller; poet Dylan Thomas; poet/critic Parker Tyler; and filmmaker Willard Maas. The transcript of their discussion in Film Culture Reader (edited by P. Adams Sitney) makes for fascinating reading.

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Maya Deren speaks of the poetic dimension as being “vertical” as opposed to drama and action being “horizontal.” She is distinguishing between the narrative (“horizontal”) and the lyric (“vertical”):

The poetic construct arises from the fact, if you will, that it is a “vertical” investigation of a situation, in that it probes the ramifications of the moment, and is concerned with its qualities and depth, so that you have poetry concerned, in a sense, not with what is occurring but with what it feels like or means. A poem, to my mind, creates visible or auditory forms for something that is invisible, which is the feeling, or the emotion, or the metaphysical content of the movement.

[…] In Shakespeare, you have the drama moving forward on a “horizontal” plane of development, of one circumstance—action—leading to another, and this delineates the character. Every once in a while, however, he arrives at a point of action where he wants to illuminate the meaning to this moment of drama, and, at that moment, he builds a pyramid or investigates it “vertically,” if you will, so that you have a “horizontal” development with periodic “vertical” investigations, which are the poems, which are the monologues. […] You can have operas where the “horizontal” development is virtually unimportant—the plots are very silly, but they serve as an excuse for stringing together a number of arias that are essentially lyric statements.

Deren, in generalizing her idea to the other arts, also gives an example from dance: a pas de deux might be thought of as a poetic “exploration of a moment” after which the dance piece returns to its plot line.

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Arthur Miller expresses the view that speech and sound are redundant to the art-form of cinema, whose potential lies in the image alone. (To my mind, this is an interesting if needlessly purist view.) He also differs with Deren in that action and drama—her “horizontal” dimension—are very important to him.

I think that the reason why it seems to many of us that the silent film is the purest film and the best is because it mimics the way we dream. We mostly dream silent, black and white. A few of us dream in technicolor, but that’s disputed by psychologists. It’s sort of a boast: Certain people want to have more expensive dreams . . . I think that the film is the closest mechanical or aesthetic device that man has ever made to the structure of the dream. In a dream, montage is of the essence […] The cutting in a dream is from symbolic point to symbolic point. No time is wasted. There is no fooling around between one important situation and the most important moment in the next situation.

[…] [I]n the drama there was a time, as you know, when action was quite rudimentary, and the drama consisted of a chorus which told the audience, in effect, what happened. Sometimes, it developed into a thespian coming forward and imitating action such as we understand action today. Gradually the drama grew into a condition where the chorus fell away, and all of its comment was incorporated into the action. Now for good or ill, that was the development of the drama. I’m wondering now whether it’s moot, whether it’s to any point, to arrange a scenario so that it is necessary (and if it isn’t necessary, of course it’s aesthetically unwarranted) for words to be added to the organization of images, and whether that makes it more poetic. I don’t think so.

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I cringed when I read the condescending reaction of the men—especially Dylan Thomas and Arthur Miller—to Maya Deren’s views. Miller starts out disagreeing calmly, then quickly grows impatient with Deren. “To hell with that “vertical” and “horizontal.” It doesn’t mean anything,” he says, which provokes applause from the audience. Dylan Thomas (dripping snark) claims not to understand Deren’s ideas and sneers: “The only avant-garde play I saw in New York was in a cellar, or sewer, or somewhere.” [laughter from the audience]

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One of Bill Nichols’ six modes of documentary is the “poetic mode.” He uses it to refer to a type of film—first dating from the 1920’s—that foregoes continuity editing in order to “explore associations and patterns that involve temporal rhythms and spatial juxtapositions.” Rather than 'explain' or describe action in logical detail, these films might stress mood, tone, rhythm and form.

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In the Bill Nichols-edited book, Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, Annette Michelson writes that Deren was arguing (in the Cinema 16 symposium) prophetically for a certain "duality of linguistic structure, that very duality that [Roman] Jakobson was to propose, through his study of aphasia, as the metonymic and metaphoric modes..." (I know nothing of Jakobson's ideas, and would be glad to learn from those of you who do!)

Also: see Tom Gunning's excellent foreword to Abigail Child's book This is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics of Film, in which Gunning also discusses the Cinema 16 symposium.

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If you like, please feel free to share ideas on what "poetic film" or "poetry in film" might mean to you....

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We've lost too many musical artists lately (Alice Coltrane, Anita O'Day, Michael Brecker) and now comes news of Peer Raben's passing. In memoriam of his work with Fassbinder, here are: (1) "Lili Marleen" sung by Hanna Schygulla [mp3]; and (2) "Blues for Franz" [mp3] from The Third Generation.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

À Bout De Souffle

The new semester is off to a breathless start. I'm teaching a demanding quant methods class I haven't taught in years (forecasting, queueing theory, linear programming, etc). I have to write two conference articles, travel and present them. And I have to take care of my faculty advisor duties. On the other hand, to be honest, it's probably no worse than most other semesters, so I hope to (eventually) locate the groove....we'll see.

The '07 film-a-day resolution hasn't fallen down so far, although I've had to lean on a few shorts to keep it standing. I'm resolving to blog once a week, and post early in the week if I can, to keep the rest of the week free of blogging pressure...

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-- Jim Emerson announces a Contrarianism Blog-A-Thon for Feb. 16-18, and Lucid Screening is hosting a White Elephant Blog-A-Thon on Apr. 1.

-- There's a new issue of the amazing Rouge.

-- Just discovered these three Jonathan Rosenbaum essays at DVD Beaver: (1) "A Dozen Undervalued Movie Satires" (2) "Ten Neglected Science Fiction Movies" (3) "Ten Overlooked Fantasy Films on DVD".

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Back with a post next week. Memo to myself: early next week!....

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Andy Warhol

Paris-based cinephile/critic Harry Tuttle is hosting a Contemplative Cinema Blog-A-Thon.

In the fall, I got the chance to see an Andy Warhol exhibit curated by David Cronenberg at the Art Gallery of Ontario, and also catch some of the Warhol retrospective at Cinematheque Ontario. Before they fly out of my head entirely, I thought I’d set down some facts, impressions and general thoughts.

I’ve always been a big Warhol fan—especially of the ideas generated by and surrounding his artworks—but until recently I’d seen almost no films by him except a few Screen Tests. I remembered J. Hoberman’s line about Warhol (“the most influential unseen oeuvre in movie history”) and tried to make a special effort to take in whatever films I could. I also spent much time at the Cronenberg exhibit (on two separate visits) and picked up the audio CD of his remarkably insightful “audio tour.”

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To begin with, some facts. Warhol bought a 16 mm Bolex camera and started making films in 1963. Almost all his films were made in the five-year period from 1963-1968. As Michael O’Pray has pointed out, these years can be roughly divided into three phases: (1) 1963-64: silent, relatively short B&W films made with the Bolex, like Kiss, Sleep, Eat, Haircut, Blow-Job, and the Screen Tests; (2) 1964-66: longer films, often an hour or more, with sound, like Beauty #2, Kitchen and The Chelsea Girls; (3) 1967-68: an attempt to build upon the commercial success of The Chelsea Girls, with a slightly tighter and clearer, more realist narrative, probably under the increasing influence of Paul Morrissey. Films in this phase include: My Hustler, Nude Restaurant and Lonesome Cowboys. Valerie Solanas shot Warhol in 1968, which abruptly ended his active, hands-on filmmaking activities. He did continue to sign Morrissey films like Flesh, Trash and Heat over the next couple of years.

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Most people think of the little-seen Sleep (1963) as a single unchanging shot of a man sleeping for six hours. Actually, it was made over a period of several months, and is edited together from various takes and angles. Each shot uses static camera and lasts about three minutes, the length of a hundred-foot roll of film. Many shots are looped or repeated, so the film is not a faithful recording of ‘passing time’—time has been manipulated. I point this out because knowledge about the way Warhol’s films were made does add, I think, to the conceptual richness of his work. The film would be less interesting (for me) without knowing these production details since Warhol is in part (but not only) a conceptual artist.

I watched about a half-hour of Sleep at the exhibit. I have two points of concern about films that are part of an art exhibit these days: (1) more and more, they are being shown on DVD and not celluloid; and (2) sometimes (as for these Warhol films) there is no place to sit if you want to watch them—you have to stand, which quickly gets uncomfortable, not to mention the bustle of the circulating crowd around you....

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Warhol’s brilliant stroke in his early films is to shoot them at 24 frames per second and then turn around and project them at 16 frames per second (silent speed). This has the effect of slowing down movement, stretching time and giving the image an ethereal languor. Cronenberg points out that even in a fixed-camera shot of utter stillness (e.g. a man sleeping), the image itself does not stay the same. Just as repeated silk-screened frames in a Warhol painting differ in markings and gradations of color, no two film frames are completely identical because the distribution of grain is unique and different in each frame.

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A certain ‘purity’ about early Warhol. When a film does nothing but show an act like sleeping, eating or getting a haircut in life-like detail, it liberates the artwork from drama! The ‘narrative’ has no past and no future—only present. Just pure here-and-now-ness. There’s no backstory, suspense, psychology, central conflict or denouement. There is only the (intensely) material image, and there is duration (the passage of time). The freedom that this allows is unprecedented in movies and thus, more than a little discomfiting. What are we to do with such a work? What are we to do with the time—this lengthy, perpetual awareness of the present—that the work floods us with?

Also, these films weren't necessarily intended to be watched in a movie theater, from beginning to end, in one sitting. It is well-known that Warhol often projected his films at the Factory while he worked, or during parties. They were almost like moving paintings hanging on a wall, to be looked at intermittently. They moved in and out of one’s consciousness over the course of a few hours. Perhaps, each time, a particular (and different) detail might catch the eye. And spur a particular (and different) cinematic or extra-cinematic reflection or contemplation.

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For me, the single most fascinating thing about Warhol’s work is its relationship to ideas of authorship. It’s ironic: experimental cinema, more than any other, is associated with hand-made artisanal production over which a single creator has an enormous degree of control. Warhol on the other hand seemed to find ingenious ways of giving up control! And the various ways in which he renounced control are not trivial but significant and interesting:

(1) Rather than carefully determining and varying the length of a shot according to some dramatic criterion (like almost all other filmmakers do), he used, arbitrarily, an element of technological chance: e.g. the length of a hundred-foot roll of film; (2) His famously ‘machinic’ manner of production: turn on the camera and leave, as he did for many of the Screen Tests. This industrial mode of production also shows up in the seriality of his work: repeated silk-screened images, or the standard format of the (400+) Screen Tests; (3) His use of ‘found’ elements. Instead of casting professional actors he often used friends and other artists. Liz Taylor (in his paintings) and The Empire State Building (in his film) were ‘found’ material alike.

Another thought: 110 years ago, the length of a single, unedited shot in the Lumière films—a little under a minute—was also determined by technological happenstance. Real time and cinematic time were equal in those films. But quickly, practices of continuity editing began to compress time. Warhol’s films reverse this process by uncompressing time, distending it, returning it to its original starting point, real time....

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LINKS: (1) A fantastic essay on Warhol's films by Thom Andersen at Rouge; (2) A great post on Walt Disney by David Bordwell; (3) Lots of early Thomas Edison films (1891-1900) are handily viewable here (thanks, Darren!); (4) Jim Emerson says: "Up with contempt!"

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I watched fewer films in 2006 than I did the year before. It probably had something to do with more time spent blogging, reading, etc., but nevertheless, I ask you: what good is a cinephile who doesn't watch a lot of films? So, I've made some new year's cinema resolutions: (1) Watch a film a day. On busy or long days, it can be a short film, even UbuWeb! (2) Religiously keep a film-log; (3) Within 24 hours of watching a film, jot down some notes about it.

Make any cinema-related new year's resolutions, however casual? Confess if you like.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

2006: The Year In Film Reading

All year long we engaged in, linked to and talked about on-line film writing here in the blogosphere, so I thought I’d take some time and devote a post to print writing, especially books. But before I do that, let me say that 2006 seemed like the first year I spent more time on-line than with print: reading, writing, making friends, socializing, discussing, debating—discovering and enjoying being part of this quickly-growing on-line film culture. David Hudson’s year-end post handily provides a bookmarkable list of blog-a-thons that dotted the year. And I also tried to corral a fistful of on-line reading into this ‘archiveological’ post a few weeks back.

But so much of valuable on-line writing and comment exchange is widely dispersed, and proceeds to disappear quickly, as time passes, into the dark caves of the archives. It’s my one serious dissatisfaction with the blog format: I wish every blog contained a helpful table of contents page that conveniently listed or indexed all posts at a particular site. This year, I’d like to add a table of contents and index here; I'm assuming it won't be that difficult to do.

For me, the godsend of the year was RSS reader software—what a luxury to be notified within minutes of every new blog post! I started out using Bloglines, then switched to the Mac-only Newsfire. I think I’m subscribed to about eighty blogs, mostly film or arts-related. It’s the one piece of software I truly can’t live without.

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Favorite film books read last year, in no specific order:

Movie Mutations: The Changing Face of World Cinephilia (ed. Jonathan Rosenbaum and Adrian Martin); Negative Space (Manny Farber); Film as Film (V.F. Perkins); Films and Feelings (Raymond Durgnat); Phantasms (Adrian Martin); Cinephilia and History: The Wind in the Trees (Christian Keathley); The Altering Eye (Robert Kolker); Poetics of Cinema (Raul Ruiz); Introduction to Documentary (Bill Nichols); Essential Cinema and Movie Wars (Jonathan Rosenbaum).

Books-in-process, that I’m in the middle of:

Visionary Film (P. Adams Sitney); The Material Ghost: Films and their Medium (Gilberto Perez); Movie Love in the Fifties (James Harvey); Artists in the Audience: Cults, Camp and American Film Criticism (Greg Taylor); Deadline at Dawn (Judith Williamson).

Books I’m looking forward to reading this year:

Abel Ferrara (Nicole Brenez); The Remembered Film (Victor Burgin); Ways of Seeing (John Berger); Theory of Film Practice (Noël Burch); The “I” of the Camera (William Rothman); Underground Film: A Critical History (Parker Tyler); How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (Robert B. Ray); French Film Theory and Criticism 1907-1939 (ed. Richard Abel).

Single most potent piece of reading last year:

Chapter 1 (30-odd pages) of Movie Mutations, a letter relay among Jonathan Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin, Kent Jones, Nicole Brenez, Alexander Horwath and Raymond Bellour.

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Rosenbaum has been blogging at the Chicago Reader. I’ve collected a few choice posts; the comments discussions are also often interesting. In defense of spoilers; Film history that is open to the present; When you can't see what I saw; Difficult becomes popular; Avoiding movies about torture.

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At the Fipresci site, several film critics including Rosenbaum, Adrian Martin and Chris Fujiwara list and discuss film books they feel close to. (via Matthew Clayfield.)

Martin writes about discovering, in his teens, two formative film books, V.F. Perkins' Film as Film and Noël Burch's Theory of Film Practice, and falling under their spell. He likens the experience to Jonathan Richman's "summer feeling" that will "haunt you for the rest of your life." The pair of books contains a fascinating tension:

Perkins represents classical aesthetics: style serves content, form is expressive, movies are about characters, destinies, symbolic worlds. Later, reading more of Perkins and his close colleagues on Movie (Robin Wood, Douglas Pye, Andrew Britton, Deborah Thomas, etc) from the early 1960s until now, I would be led back to the various formative influences on this school: F. R. Leavis, Paul Ricoeur, Stanley Cavell. This is a 'school' of criticism that always had (still has) trouble coming to terms with modernism in all its disruptive cinematic forms (Godard, forever the great divider, the deal-breaker). But, on the other hand, the legacy of classicism is inexhaustible, and I am still in thrall to Ophuls' Letter From a Unknown Woman, which Perkins has written about eloquently and frequently …

Burch, on the other hand, is an arch modernist. Even towards his own work: he appears to have regularly disowned his past achievements, wiped the slate clean, and started again. His intellectual inspirations in the period leading to Theory of Film Practice were people like the serialist composer Pierre Boulez, with his severe theory of a crest line of advanced artistic achievement. Starting roughly in the same period as Perkins (late '50s/early '60s), but in a completely different context (the French nouvelle vague, the American avant-garde), Burch trailblazed a film formalism: the classical/organic language of theme, style, character and so on meant little to him, while the sheerly material delight of framing, montage, image-sound counterpoint, camera movement, and all such parameters of filmic form were everything. It was through reading Burch that I came to know — and love — the thrill of off-screen space, of disjunctive sound, of long-takes and scene découpage …

[...] When I try to grasp now what I got from Film as Film and Theory of Film Practice, I see something that does unite them: in both there is a rigorous analytical sense, a demonstration of some form-to-content logic in every film they alight upon, often dazzlingly intuited and demonstrated. These days, film criticism — even the best-written — does little for me, finally, unless it can unearth, propose and in a way prove the existence of the logic that makes a film 'tick', as we say, that coheres it into some kind of whole work, whether classical-expressive or modernist-disjunctive. Godard, in fact, said it best in his challenge to Kael and, beyond her, all critics: "Bring in the evidence", he demanded. Film analysis or criticism without that logic, that evidence, is just assertion, and assertion is something I can take or leave (perhaps depending on whether or not I agree with it!). It is the work of logic that I still admire so much today in the best work of Jonathan Rosenbaum or Nicole Brenez.

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If you're in the mood, please feel free to list some of your favorite film reading from last year (books or essays, print or on-line), and/or any film reading you're looking forward to doing this year. If we collect some titles and authors here, we might be able to introduce each other to some new and interesting reading....