In previous years of photogénie, a new editorial board has inaugurated a new run of issues with a mission statement. In the spirit of this open endeavour, this board has decided to try something different. In lieu of a distinct, collectively written mission statement, we offer up this first issue which contains essays, written by the members of this board, that can be variously taken as a gesture or a wider expression of their conception of cinema and/or the role and act of criticism. We hope that both readers and future writers of photogénie will gain sustenance and inspiration from these pieces and from the following issues, which we will have the great privilege to commission and edit.
By way of introduction, we present a series of speculations, anonymously written by this year’s board.
March 13th 17:58: The word of the year (to me) already is scatterbrain. Centring the audio-visual, our techno-society nonetheless taps into our most primal hunter-gatherer instinct. Whatever the pleasure, we are incessantly searching for meaning. Commercially, these are flashes of paradise, visual hedonism on the screens that surround us in whichever point of the data stream we find ourselves. So what do we write about? We sieve in that stream-sieving for specks of gold. And we put them together, exposed to their radiance with a curious eye.
March 17th, 19:22: We call watching films a viewing experience i.e. a visual event that leaves an impression on someone. It’s an emotional and/or intellectual response; a connection we might seek before we enter the dark room of a venue or one that finds us unintentionally, without a warning. That is the time to write. The moment you feel that need to find your origin while looking at Harry Dean Stanton’s face as he roams the streets in Wim Wenders’ Paris, Texas (1984). Or the moment you can almost hear the secret Tony Leung Chiu-wai whispers in an old tree in Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love (2000) and you understand that this is the time to abandon all hope and move on as well. Or when you find yourself confronted with the closing shot of Alice Diop’s Saint Omer (2022) and witness a daughter holding her sleeping mother’s hand—her unborn child tucked away inside her belly—you see three generations of a family’s DNA linked together through literal and symbolic umbilical cords, and perhaps it almost feels like you recovered hidden memories from your mother’s womb. Cherish those moments when cinema exhilarates you. It’s a motion picture; if it moves you, find a suitable outlet and write about it—that’s how you’ll make an impact.
March 24th, 12:01: Three years of pandemic and lockdowns upended the viewing experience and the role and expectation of a critic, but also this disruption extends to the root; to the production of cinema itself. The last few years have seen a wave after wave of cancelled, delayed or otherwise redressed productions, on all levels across the globe, and it still continues. During the very first lockdown, a naïve part of me dreamed that something vastly new may arise out of this state of collapse, but if there were any epiphanies they happened on the level of small groups of individuals, with smaller productions, with those parasitic masters of industry having enough money to bleed, and scapegoats to fire, to weather the storm.
There was no widespread revolution, at least not yet. Either way, it’s worthwhile to think about and rethink how the sausage is made and to act on your stead as much as possible. The received wisdom is that cinema is a uniquely expensive artform, in that capitalism infests every art, demands everyone of either their time or else a financial forfeit, but as a technological endeavour of many parts requiring many hands, cinema foots a larger bill. I think the more serious, immediate problem is not the sheer fact of this expense, but the widespread status quo that this expense is fundamental. The medium was born in the wake of mass industrialisation, and since then some variation of cinemas as industrial production has dominated. This top-down arrangement, of the head office ‘brain’ dictating the factory floor ‘body’, through set, co-ordinated stages at the end of which a determined, standardised product will emerge, can be found in Hollywood, of course, but also across many independent and public-funded film scenes. The ideal state, even if impossible in practice, of a free cinema: that the bare minimum of a lower limit of the different ways a film could be made, would be the number of human beings on this planet, and that a film’s economic value shouldn’t be determined by cretinous boardroom vampires but by those built them up, or across, or every which way, hand by hand, frame by frame.
March 24th, 17:01: As soon as theaters were shut down indefinitely in the big metropolises, elogies to the audiovisual artform started popping up once again. Many of us pondered if this was finally the opportunity to take the rubble of the medium’s foundations, and erect something new, something looser and freer that bypassed the expectations of a multi-layered industrial complex (commercial and festival cinema). Once again we were too naive. No matter the generalized precarious conditions, the capitalist ethos of film production will always rear its head after being buried, emerging violently from the ground like the undead figures in Lucio Fulci’s Zombie Flesh Eaters. What that moment in time did provide, was a brief moment in time where our viewing practices came into question. What we were watching was as important as how we were watching. In what physical space, with whom, in what mental and emotional state, in what format, at what time of the day. What might seem like circumstantial details are actually an integral part of our relationship with cinema. It frames our understanding. It even showcases the specificity of our identity and our sociocultural context. The act of viewing holds weight, and as the chaotic ecosystem of the internet continues to fluctuate, its flux can put forward new avenues to explore. Perhaps not the widespread revolution some of us hoped for, but a humble footing parallel to what has been thought of as “the only way”:
March 25: 19:04: It seems undeniable to me that the best days of cinema are behind us; that it’s gone the way of poetry, theater, punk rock, and Vine; that it’s become over-specialized; that it feeds off itself instead of the world; that we’re left here watching evidence of a time we can no longer understand. The movies aren’t worse because they’re shot on digital or because budgets are too high or too low. They’re worse because they’re no longer the language of the time. Us critics can write our articles and make fancy arguments, but when we try to extol a movie for its brilliance of expression, its mastery of the form, it can take on the air of a Civil War reenactment, waving our arms in dusty uniforms for an audience trying to relive their grandparents’ glory days. The film critic of the 21st century needs to learn that movies can’t say anything: that our job is to speak for ourselves, so that they can just be.
March 27th, 17:12: I am working at the moment with slime mold. The idea of the project is to be able to grow it along certain, predetermined routes within the controlled atmosphere of a laboratory, but there is also the fact that these also grow anywhere, anyhow they prefer, along their own, conscious trajectories. They possess an intelligence that is deeply humbling, for in their company, one realises how much one walks past on a daily basis; how scarce the resource of one’s attention really is. I also discovered in the morning that if you store potatoes inside of a package in the refrigerator, sheer sprouts begin to develop on their skin – apparently, they assume it is spring. The discovery at the heart of these experiences is basic but often ignored: the cosmos is molten; still coagulating, very alive, open to touch.
The thing with slime mold is—as is the case when you work alongside any organism that possesses deep sovereignty—that there is no definitive design you can arrive at; all effort is iterative. I like this notion. For once, we are not trying to put paid to the universe’s mysteries – it is enough to observe it; enough to listen to its many murmurs. I became interested in the cinema very early, when I was 13. Each generation of each family preserves its own fabric of anecdotal tellings: one of my favourites is an incident that my mother likes to narrate sometimes. When I was carried as an infant into a train in India for the first time, my eyes were wide open in surprise because it was the first time I saw blue. In my thirties, my chief purpose has been to restore this virginity in my gaze: how fantastic to be able to see things for the first time.
In the opening scene of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, when Tuco jumps out of the salon window to escape his assassins, the glass smashes and while he is still in the middle of his leap, Leone freezes the frame to declare boldly in a bawdy super: ‘The Ugly’. It is embarrassing but I will take a chance: when I saw this at 17, I had to pause the film to collect myself. I did not know this was allowed in the cinema. Leone had torn the manual for me. My insides were restless.
The question is simple but still essential: is it possible within the proto-digital zeitgeist where each image is but a series of fixed coordinates, yields verifiable metadata, an electronic signal preserved as manybytes, to still be startled? Is it possible in this era of cinema, where each film is a memory of another, vital through its references but not as it itself, for its audience to still be in the throes of a drastic, urgent epiphany?
To summarise: what can slime mold teach cinema?
What surprises may still sprout on its skin?