In my living room there is a poster on the wall that says “There are no rules”. Actually, it’s in a house I used to live in, but I like to think that a non-physical version of that poster is on the empty wall in my new home – I don’t care much for decorating and, in the spirit of the poster’s statement, I don’t see why my imagination can’t stand in for an actual poster. I wasn’t raised Catholic but for all of my natural guilt and fear of the consequences of adopting this mantra, lest some consequence equal to the pains of my conscience get at me, I might as well have been. This makes believing the mantra difficult, and my own Saint Augustine–style torment is to work out whether I’m trying to unlearn, ignore, or break the proverbials.
And then there’s art. I feel like art—the good stuff, you know, the type that makes you feel horny, or at least a little hot under the collar, and definitely isn’t Catholic—believes the mantra on the imaginary poster on my wall. My favourite art form is film and my favourite films don’t have narrative and aren’t interested in adhering to anything as arbitrary as a set of filmmaking rules.
Still, I was once a good film student, so I do recognise the craft of filmmaking even if my desire is to be rid of the rules for making, writing about, and interpreting a film.
Fireflies, still a relatively new kid on the cinema journalism block, doesn’t care about the rules. Well, sort of. The writing isn’t strictly critical; the pieces range from personal essays to short fictions and visual art inspired by film. There are postcards and poems and, wherever there is analysis, it’s fleeting. It’s as if the artefact as a whole just sort of shrugged at the idea of critical structure, as if it had been raised by the imaginary poster on my wall.
That’s not to say that the thing doesn’t make sense or that it’s blissfully ignorant of the tradition of film scholarship. On the contrary, it seems as though Fireflies has a biological parent, at least, who was an academic. No, it’s only free from the rules in so far as it doesn’t impose them on its contributors – much like The Lifted Brow. But it knows what they are and how they work.
What editors Annabel Brady-Brown and Giovanni Marchini Camia have cooked up with Fireflies is a structure deeply steeped in film scholarship but seemingly free from it. Each issue, of which this is the third, devotes itself to two filmmakers. They don’t necessarily make up a yin and a yang but they do make up equal halves of the journal’s content and the filmmakers are what film scholars, cinephiles, and critics would call auteurs.
The auteur theory, though older than the Nouvelle Vague (French New Wave), was popularised and cemented into film scholarship by François Truffaut and his cohort at Cahiers du Cinema in the 1950s. Since then, the world of film criticism has been hard pressed to divorce art from maker. The idea is that the camera is a sort of pen for the director to write with, making him or her the author of the work. Film theory may take its cues from the literary world but so far as Roland Barthes is concerned, it’s all just a bit of harmless flirtation.
Still, figuring out a consistent thematic world view or aesthetic signature of the filmmakers profiled is not what Fireflies is interested in. Though whether or not it intends to, it does make a case for the singular vision of those filmmakers by the way in which it profiles them.
Where it gets interesting is in the reading – and here I really mean reading the thing as a whole. Though it offers itself up as an object of beauty that one could dip in and out of like a bag of corn chips, its mashable joys can only really be experienced if consumed in one go. What happens in the reading is like watching the work of an avant-garde filmmaker who uses mainstream film as the material for their art. Like Peter Tscherkassy, Martin Arnold, or Nicolas Provost (who work with mainstream titles like The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, To Kill a Mockingbird and The Shining respectively), Fireflies takes auteur theory to the editing suite, cuts it up, rearranges it, manipulates it with technology, and then re-presents it as its own work of art. A sort of bastardised newborn. The results are both pleasing and political.
I’ll start with what’s pleasing. The one half of the journal that’s devoted to French filmmaker, Claire Denis, sets out on an accessible yet academic foot. Toronto-based film critic and lecturer Adam Nayman gives a fairly comprehensive and insightful overview of Denis’s oeuvre and the role of popular music within it in his piece, ‘Mixtape Movies’. It’s not a stale, factual intro, but it does offer the reader who is unfamiliar with Denis’s work a sense of what’s unique about her films and, significantly, why she might be worthy of half a journal filled with personal essays, postcards, pictures, fictions, and interviews.
There’s also some scholarly reflection on post-colonial context in Denis’s films. She is, after all, a French filmmaker who grew up in Africa and several of her films revisit the issue. Peter Baxter’s essay ‘Watching White Material, Remembering Chocolat’ is more descriptive than analytical but, painting a pretty picture, it does get at the uncomfortable connections and incomplete narratives that characterise her interrogations of post-colonialism.
My two favourite pieces are filmmaker Mark Cousins’s (The Story of Film: An Odyssey, I am Belfast) postcard, which is perhaps the only one in the collection that really feels like a postcard, sent by cinema, and Ellena Savage’s exploration of love and desire in Denis’s Trouble Every Day and Friday Night, deliciously titled ‘Armpit Pussy’. The latter is most enjoyable for how it feels like a real response to the films and how, even though those are two of Denis’s films that I haven’t seen, it somehow feels like it could be my response to the films. It’s unusual, and I’d say remarkable, for a writer to make the reader feel so at ease and included that they begin to think they might have written the piece themselves.
The more political stuff is in the yang. Chinese filmmaker Jia Zhangke is the second filmmaker profiled (or the first, depending on which side of the thing you pick up). Here, the brief introductory editorial from Marchini Camia and Brady-Brown is really helpful. Unlike the writing around Claire Denis, this half of the journal is a little less accessible for readers who don’t know Jia Zhangke’s work very well. Camia and Brady-Brown write that the “dual dimension” of Zhangke’s work, “the purely artistic and the socio-politically specific; the instinctual and the intellectual” are why they love him and why his work deserves celebrating in ink. Knowing this is key to understanding the often abstract contemplations that follow.
In ‘Doomed to Violence: A Touch of Sin’, Oscar Schwartz writes about the violence of technology and how Zhangke interprets its uncaring brevity to create something that offers context and understanding of contemporary high crime China. It’s both the most personally indulgent and clearly critical piece in the anthology.
Esther Yi, who has written for very well respected, scholarly film publications like Cinema Scope and Cineaste, addresses the duality of cinematic presence and absence in her essay, ‘We Need to Talk’. It’s the kind of article that you expect to read in a film journal but it also reflects the ethos at the heart of Fireflies; structure, format, one foot in criticism and the other in creativity. Fireflies sees two sides to the same coin, even if the first encounter with that coin is one sided, as the audience stares passively at the singular screen before them.
Fireflies, like most film criticism, has an interest in provocation. But this provocation doesn’t have to be expressed in any one form. What it does have to do is take the notion of passive viewing and turn it into activity. The reader, like the viewer before them, must engage with the work on some level – even if the reader has never seen the work. The journal’s submissions brief says as much, “selected pieces will illuminate the film(s) under discussion and motivate readers to seek them out, whether for the first or umpteenth time.”
So it’s not so much a rule as a goal, but one that creates a rule, an insistence on activity. Fireflies isn’t trying to break, ignore, or unlearn the rules of film scholarship in its approach – it’s still a contributor to the field. But what it is doing is putting up its own imaginary poster, one that speaks to cinematic response. And so far as even the most critical minds are concerned, when it comes to response, there really are no rules.
Tara Judah is a critic, programmer and broadcaster, and Co-director at 20th Century Flicks video shop. She’s appeared on Monocle24, BBC World Service, Made in Bristol TV and writes for Senses of Cinema and Desist Film.
Fireflies co-editor Annabel Brady-Brown is also one of The Lifted Brow’s online editors, and several of Fireflies’ staff and contributors have worked with or written for the Brow.