Sunday, May 18, 2008

Quotational Writing

I’m fascinated by writing that juxtaposes quotations, allusions, and citations, ceaselessly making connections to other texts.

Of course, a postmodernist would say that all texts do precisely this. Roland Barthes’ famous essay, “The Death of the Author” (1968) calls any text “a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.” Similarly, Michel Foucault writes in The Archaeology of Knowledge (1969) that every book “is caught up in a system of references to other books, other texts, other sentences … The book is not simply the object that one holds in one’s hands … its unity is variable and relative.”

Barthes and Foucault, in an early expression of the postmodern sensibility, were pointing out that intentionally or unintentionally, all texts are intertextual: Every text exists not in isolation or autonomy but as part of a vast ‘environment’ of texts.

But I’m after something a bit more specific here: I’m wondering about texts that literally collage together quotations and citations from a variety of sources. One example that leaps to mind is Lesley Stern’s amazing book, The Scorsese Connection (BFI, 1995).

Completely flouting every available model of the ‘director study’, Stern weaves her book around Scorsese’s cinema rather than writing narrowly or exclusively about it. All through, she interpolates passages large and small from a wonderfully diverse and stimulating set of writers and artists: Deren, Godard, Nietzsche, Proust, Benjamin, Irigaray, Roger Corman, Derrida, Robert Mitchum, Raul Ruiz, and many others.

These quotations are set off prominently in boxes throughout the book but in addition she draws in passing from the writing of scores of other writers. (The dense “Notes” section at the end of the book is a treat to pore over.) Her book does a whole lot more (like exploring the countless ways in which Scorsese’s films might be seen as ‘remaking’ other films) but I’m confining myself to a more narrow agenda here: the collaging of writings.

Robert B. Ray’s The ABCs of Classic Hollywood, which I wrote about last week, gathers together over a hundred entries; nearly every one of them draws upon formulations or observations made by other writers or artists. In the foreword to Ray’s previous book, How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies (2001), James Naremore writes that Ray “sometimes aspires to a “readymade” or montage of quotations.”

At first glance the writing of Peter Wollen doesn’t appear to belong to this category, but in fact what powers Wollen’s writing is a furious erudition. Even his slender BFI Classics monograph on Singin’ in the Rain (a must-read) has a huge bibliography. He may not frequently interpolate quotations but it’s clear that the vast amount of writing he has read and digested stands behind his every line.

Wollen wrote a definitive short-introduction to Godard called “JLG,” a 20-page essay that can be found in Paris Hollywood: Writings on Film (2002). In it he remarked that in the period immediately following May 1968, Godard’s famous quotational impulse continued to flower: his quotes of Romantics (Poe, Dostoyesvsky, Lorca) were now replaced by those of Marxism-Leninism and Mao. I read somewhere that every single line spoken in Godard’s Nouvelle Vague (1990) is a quotation.

Writers usually keep a repository of interesting quotes they encounter in what is known as a "commonplace book." The Pulitzer-winning book critic for the Washington Post, Michael Dirda, has published his own collection of favorite quotes in Book By Book (2005), a light and delightful read that exudes wisdom on every page. In recent months, this is the book I've given most frequently to friends as a gift; it never misses.

Finally, the epic example and summit of this mode of writing is, of course, Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project.

I'd love to learn about other books or essays that make heavy use of quotations. Any suggestions or recommendations will be most welcome.

* * *


-- Chris Cagle's Film of the Month Club kicks off with its first film: I've just put up a post on Kazuo Hara's The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On (1987). The discussion will continue for the rest of the month, so there's still plenty of time for you to rent the film and join the conversation at the site if you feel like it.

-- New issue of Senses of Cinema.

-- Jonathan's Rosenbaum's latest blog entry is an unpublished 2004 review of Brad Stevens's book Abel Ferrara: The Moral Vision.

-- Film-blogger discovery of the week: Marc Raymond, a cinephile living in Seoul and writing his dissertation on Martin Scorsese.

-- David Hudson, the hardest-working man in the film-blogosphere, puts up his big and indispensable Cannes index post, which will be updated throughout the festival. We'll be bookmarking and returning to this post for all our film festival needs until next Cannes.

pic: Scorsese cites The Wizard of Oz in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.


Blogger girish said...

Some terrific listening: at the Monash University site, a podcast of a lecture by Adrian Martin on 'Social Mise-en-scene'. (You can go to this page to download the podcast mp3.)

Here's Adrian's description:

"The idea of mise en scène has become a classic - meaning historic and traditional – tool in film analysis. Conceived as the ‘creative gesture’ par excellence, the director’s mise en scène (the positioning and moving of actors and camera in relation to an environment) has long been imlicitly or explicitly seen as a way for cinema to give ‘form to the formlessness’ of space, time, body and place. But, more recently, particularly in various parts of Europe, a new idea has emerged: the idea that the ‘pro-filmic’ reality with which cinema frequently works is itself already (as sociology has long investigated) a complex matter of cultural or social mise en scène: a series of customs, rituals and manners that set bodies in circumscribed places and behaviours. Cinema, then, would be the interleaving or collision of two kinds or levels of mise en scène: social mise en scène and artistic mise en scène. My presentation will offer examples, from fiction films by John Ford to Roy Andersson, also taking in comedy and documentary, to demonstrate this fertile new idea in cinema analysis."

May 19, 2008 7:41 AM  
Blogger Marc Raymond said...


Glad to see you mentioning Stern's book, which is my favorite book-length study of Scorsese (even if it's not really focused on Scorsese's films the way most other director studies are). Her brief discussion of GOODFELLAS is more thought-provoking than other essays on the film.

However, it is a book that I know drives many people up the wall. I assigned the chapter on ALICE DOESN'T LIVE HERE ANYMORE for a Scorsese course I taught about 3 years ago. Very few students were capable of engaging with it, and more than one student complained about it on my teaching evaluations.

That said, I think the analysis of that opening scene in ALICE is perfect, and when I show just that sequence and plagiarize from her discussion in intro film courses, it works really well.

And, of course, thanks for the link to my site.


May 19, 2008 8:34 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

According to a mentor of mine, there are two main writing styles. The 'Quotational' you mention, or 'Cut n Paste' style, as he calls it. Then its alternative, the 'Magic Bullet' style where you employ near enough a single thinker (so often Foucault, Derrida and other deconstructionists) to skewer each and every loose point into a straight-jacket of coherency.

Personally I find cutting 'n' pasting much easier, since it allows for theoretical mobility and variety. But also demands less on the me (and reader) to grasp any single thinker to a comprehensive degree.

But perhaps it is also an issue of confidence. What is more preferable, demonstrating your writing as a product of wide reading and research? Or offering yourself as another magic bullet?

May 19, 2008 9:07 AM  
Anonymous Recktall Brown said...

A few quick thoughts, away from my books: Much of David Markson's recent fiction, while not explicit quotations, is made up of this sort of juxtaposition and recitation of "quotes" or information from numerous sources.

Georges Perec's "Life, A User's Manual" has many parts that are retellings of quotations in a sense. Similarly OuLiPian (sp) and a working through of quotations in some respects is Jacques Roubaud's "The Plurality of Worlds of Lewis". (If one goes the OuLiPo route tangential examples multiply, Harry Mathews largely in shorter works)

Gaddis' "Agape, Agape" (Sorry no accents) is largely a "quotation" of Bernhard but throughout has many "buried" quotes from authors (I believe Julian Barnes is in there amongst others if memory serves correct. And he quotes his own unpublished/abonded works throughout his oeuvre, not to mention others.)

Thats all literature, but on Godard as you mentioned, much of Godard's/Godard/Mievielle's late work, especially Nouvelle Vague, Histoires, and The Old Place are created from the fertile grounds of quotation. There is much more with film to think about...

Also, The Mekons are brilliant in their uses of quotations, often juxtaposed, yet often just out and out. Whole songs composed of fragments and passages of Hammett, Chandler, Benjamin, Michael Kerr, Beckett, anonymous poems about cocaine, and so many many more. One of the finest pleasures to be had is to be reading and come across the origins of Mekons lyrics.

I know much more will come to mind once posted.

May 19, 2008 10:00 PM  
Anonymous Pablo said...

Any Foster Wallace´s

May 20, 2008 4:05 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for the link to Adrian's podcast, Girish. I love those. :)

May 20, 2008 5:00 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Marc, Edwin, RB, Pablo, Harry!

Marc, I can see how Stern's book might baffle and frustrate students but perhaps they'll come to appreciate your assigning it a few years down the road, when they might realize the originality and value of its approach. We need more books that break the mold implicitly endorsed by academe in a visionary way; there are not too many of them out there.

And I'm glad to have discovered your blog, and look forward to following it.

Edwin, I think both approaches have their value and their challenges, and can be done 'well' or 'poorly'. We must be cautious about constructing a binary opposition between the two terms ('Cut n' Paste' vs. 'Magic Bullet') because as Derrida himself warned, such oppositions always privilege one term over the other (e.g. in this case, the latter term, at least from the name alone). I think they're both valuable and can be difficult to execute well.

Contrary to what is sometimes believed, I've always felt that a collage of quotations can be as capable of 'individual expression' as a more overtly 'original' text penned by an author in her/his 'own words'.

RB & Pablo, those are great suggestions, thank you. I picked up a small stack of Mekons and Jon Langford CDs at a record show recently because I've long wanted to check them out.

Harry, isn't that podcast really something? It would be great if Monash took the initiative to record all of Adrian's classroom lectures and archive them. I hope the university realizes what an uncommonly gifted teacher it happens to have on its hands. (And I speak as someone who has witnessed literally hundreds of college/university teachers over the last couple of decades.)

May 20, 2008 9:19 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Glenn Kenny on James Gray's Two Lovers at Cannes:

"[M]ost of my US colleagues here hated James Gray's new film even more than they did last year's booed-right-here We Own The Night, which I wasn't too crazy about myself. But I gotta give it up - as earnest and awkward as this loose rethink of Dostoevsky's 'White Nights' can get, it frequently moved me. Perhaps it's something to do with my own past as a fall-hard guy for troubled, difficult women.... Turning away from the crime-steeped mileus of his previous features, Gray aims for a kind of deliberately ache-filled romanticism that no other filmmaker I can think of is particularly interested in today. Good for him, says I."

May 20, 2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

DVD Beaver has some Criterion announcements:

Brand Upon the Brain! (Guy Maddin, 2006), Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1975), The Small Back Room (Michael Powell & Emeric Pressburger, 1949), Twenty-four Eyes (Keisuke Kinoshita, 1954) and Eclipse Series 11: Larisa Shepitko Box Set Includes: The Ascent (Larisa Shepitko, 1976), Wings (Larisa Shepitko, 1966)

May 20, 2008 10:22 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Yeah it was a great lecture! Really interesting research and demonstration. This could inspire critics to review films with more attention to details.

That's my dream utopia where internet will be an open source for free culture worldwide, across borders.

With these very visual descriptions it would be awesome to make it a video essay like Kevin Lee's, by adding the clips of the movies cited.

May 20, 2008 2:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, I totally agree!

-- Chris Cagle asks: "does You Tube employ a different type of montage?"
-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, at his blog, on Jacques Tourneur's Wichita, a piece published originally in the Chicago Reader a few years ago.

May 21, 2008 10:53 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Actually, more than critics, this precision and "realist" of meaningful (social) mise-en-scène should inspire filmmakers themselves. It seems that older films (the era of Hitchcock, Ford, Leone) put a lot more significance in the blocking of a scene (even if the classic Hollywood was more academic/conventional). Today, most (genre) directors have no clue how to construct a social space...

May 21, 2008 1:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

For the ultimate in quotational writing, although without the postmodern pretensions of many, see dearly beloved Jay Leyda's (!) two-volume biography of Herman Melville. If you're enything like me, when you look at this book you'll be amazed not only that it exists - a compelling model for a hackneyed genre of writing - but also that it was done by the pioneering film scholar Leyda.

May 21, 2008 6:11 PM  
Blogger Alex said...


You're unaware that much of - indeed, the vast majority before 1800 - of Jewish rabbinical literature is entirely intertextual, with the Talmud being only the leading example? And the Islamic and Scholasic philosophers of the Middle Ages were equally so intertextual, with such works as:

Aquinas' commentaries on Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Canticles, Jeremiah, The Church Fathers on the Gospels, Boethius, Aristotle's Posterior Analytics, Aristotle's Physics, Aristotle's Politics, Aristotle's On Generation and Corruption

Machiavelli's Discourses on Livy

Averroes wrote commentaries on: much of Aristotle, Alfarabi's Demonstration.

Maimonides' commentaries on the Mishnah, Hippocrates' aphorisms

Giles of Rome's commentaries on Canticles, Peter the Lombard, Guido Cavalcanti, Genesis

Duns Scotus' commentaries on Porphyry, Aristotle's Categories, Aristotle's On Intepretation

Leo Strauss' commentaries on Machiavelli, Plato's Laws, Xenophon's Oeconomicus, Xenophon's Hiero

Kojeve's commentary on Hegel

Derrida on Abraham, Walter Benjamin, Carl Schmitt, Levinas

May 21, 2008 7:04 PM  
Anonymous Bharath said...

Wonderful post Girish! I am unsure if you are aware of the blog, "Voltaire's Monkey" but it deserves some attention, and directly related to your post:

May 22, 2008 9:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Harry, Anon., Alex, Bharath!

Harry, you're right: I can easily see Adrian's ideas and the way he presents them in this lecture as having the potential to impact all three endeavors of film: theory, practice and criticism.

I've read that Bordwell's book on staging, Figures Traced in Light, is valued by filmmakers because it approaches its subject through the lens of day-to-day 'problem-solving'.

Alex, it's always struck me that you're amazingly well-read. One of my countless lacunae is that I've read almost no Western religious writing. I took Sanskrit for 5 years in school was able to read a few Hindu religious texts at that time, although I've forgotten a lot of it since. And I've long wanted to take a class on the Bible.

May 22, 2008 4:36 PM  
Blogger girish said...

-- J. Hoberman has a piece in the Voice on the Cannes festival thus far: "[T]he comeback of the festival (or perhaps the century) belongs to 70-year-old Jerzy Skolimowski—making his first feature in 17 years and his first film in his native land since 1966."
-- Marc Raymond has a nice post on Hong Sang-Soo.

May 22, 2008 9:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Danny Kasman on the new James Gray film at Cannes:

"James Gray has exactly what American cinema needs—sincerity. Gray deals in melodrama—and male melodrama at that—but treats it with a solemn seriousness that makes one believe again in the earnestness of American genre cinema. Rooted in place (Queens, New York), milieu (ethnic urban families), and social bonds of family, heart, and loyalty, Gray’s cinema is poised to make us all remember the reason why international audiences ate up Hollywood films of the 1930s—a heartfelt vision of one’s society, coded in style and basic human psychology."

May 23, 2008 9:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

J. Hoberman:

"[T]he story of the 61st Cannes Film Festival is Steven Soderbergh’s two-part four-and-a-half-hour Che—an epic non-biopic that might well have been approved by Roberto Rossellini, envied by Francis Coppola, and even appreciated by its subject. [...]

"Soderbergh’s $65 million rumination on Che Guevara’s activities, first during the miraculous Cuban Revolution and then his doomed Bolivian campaign a decade later, may be a great movie, but it is also something just as rare—a magnificently uncommercial folly. This skillfully didactic, nervily dialectical, feel-good, feel-bad combat film has less in common with The Motorcycle Diaries than with Peter Watkins’s La Commune (Paris, 1871) or even a structuralist extravaganza like Michael Snow’s La Région Centrale. Che is a thing to be experienced. Soderbergh’s single-minded meditation on the practice of guerrilla warfare, the creation of militant superstardom, and the nature of objective camera work is at once visceral and intellectual, sumptuous and painful, boldly simplified and massively detailed. Despite this, as well as a commendable performance by Benicio Del Toro, Che may require its own miracle—or at least a few angels—to reach an audience in the form Soderbergh intended. While the first half could certainly be tightened, the movie demands to take its time and be taken in at a single sitting. One can only hope that the world beyond Cannes will get the opportunity to do so at something approaching the original running time."

May 23, 2008 7:11 PM  
Blogger Alex said...

"One of my countless lacunae is that I've read almost no Western religious writing. "

Most of the medievals are not religious in the sense that you are probably using - i.e., they would have rejected our modern concept of "religious". Gersonides, for example, argues that Aristotle and divine relevation are fully compatible.

May 24, 2008 8:37 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

for me, that shot from "alice doesn't live here anymore" evokes the graveyard scene from "the searchers" more than "the wizard of oz."

June 01, 2008 8:11 PM  

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