[Note: On Sunday, April 27, 2008, I attended a San Francisco International Film Festival event with my friends Jennifer Stewart and Kevin B. Lee. After the SFIFF presented Jim Hoberman with the Mel Novikoff Award (named for the famed San Francisco film exhibitor), Kent Jones quasi-interviewed Hoberman on stage for about an hour, and then we were lucky enough to watch José Luis Guerin's In the City of Silvia. I wrote this first email to Kevin primarily, as a fellow blogger, and Jen secondarily, as my friend and interlocutor. I thought it might be interesting to others, too. Look for Kevin's response at his blog shortly. -- RWK]
From: Ryland Walker Knight
To: Kevin B. Lee, Jennifer Stewart
Subject: hoberman, sylvia
Glad we could enjoy that film, and that discussion beforehand, together. Before I talk about the film a bit let me say I remembered (or think I remember as) what Hoberman got mild applause for: he was saying he hoped more online criticism would link to other criticisms, incorporating other texts (and, I imagine, images and sounds) into itself. A very Web 2.0 kind of monadic reading; not simply monadic reading by making associations in writing but actually forging associations with hyperlinks (and images, even videos). It seems like his ideal version of online criticism is exactly what you're after at your blog. Which is a really cool thing! Congrats! Unless, of course, my memory is messing all this up. Which leads me to In the City of Sylvia.
I think I may go ahead and deem the film "a masterpiece" because I do think it's about more (plot-wise and otherwise) than simply a dude stalking some pretty babes. We know dude is visiting this town after a six year absence, trying to recuperate a love/r (or better: a memory of a lover), and not just another passerby inhabitant of this city. And, of course, as you said, that's a thin plot. However, it's a pretty tight little argument about movies, and about watching movies. When we watch a movie we're a foreigner in a familiar terrain (or logic, or vocabulary) trying to piece together different strands that coalesce because we make them (pace Bordwell) into a kind of meaning. For instance, your monadic read incorporates Kiarostami, just as mine incorporates my (potentially wrong, easily vague) understanding of phenomenology. All dude does in this picture is look at things to try to make pictures, to put things together, through imagination and projection and, above all, looking.
Now, the Vertigo analogy is pretty apt, but I definitely don't think this is "art for art's sake" by any stretch. This is an argument for the value of art, of the art of movies, of the art of looking, even the art of understanding (if that can be understood as an art, as I think it can). Of course, that argument would take longer than this brief missive allows. But my sketch, to follow our man from Sylvia (dig that double move!), begins with this: the worthiness of those arts -- of art -- seems to be in what they produce for their participants. I hate to trot this out but Gadamer says we only understand differently if we understand at all so maybe this film is arguing for that kind of openness to difference: our man at the centre is never fulfilled because he cannot accept a rather simple difference in his perception (of a girl, of the world). In a way he's got a greedy nostalgia. Which, of course, translates to our role as spectators: we keep looking, following films, hoping for an outcome. Which ties into something Hoberman said about the different expectations different movie goers bring to films. Some people look for a kind of confirmation entertainment (say, as we discussed, the Apatow pictures and their wish fulfillment drive) whereas other people look for a kind of new perspective, which, we must admit, can easily be another kind of confirmation, if somebody is only applying a certain lens to all films. I'm fairly certain I'm not doing that here. My reading is allegorical, sure, linking his looking to my looking, doubling the remove, but I think the film invites it. As you said, it's a city of surfaces and reflections. Just as movies are a surface projected onto a reflective screen.
But I should hit the hay, or at least read before I hit the hay. Say, you should write me back and I'll post the pair of emails on VINYL. That sound like a cool idea?
Jennifer's reply is posted in the space above (here's a direct link, and look for Kevin's reply over at his blog, Shooting Down Pictures,
Other words worth reading about this picture: