A Chronicle of Images: Efrén Ordoñez Interviews Scott Esposito

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Efrén Ordoñez

A few days ago I visited New York City. On my first night there, I was lucky enough to attend the launch event for Scott Esposito’s new book of essays, The Doubles. He was to be in conversation with Mexican writer Álvaro Enrigue at Community Bookstore in Brooklyn.

After meeting Scott in person this past April, I remember telling people that he had a book on film coming out. Little did I know, his essays go way beyond. The Doubles is about many things (and I asked him about that in the interview), but at the end it is a smart, personal, and beautifully written book that uses films to tell part of the life-narrative of the author. It can be read as a book of essays, a memoir, but also as a story, perhaps a fragmented novel with fourteen subplots and a myriad of characters serving a purpose.

Scott’s book grows into the reader, allowing a unique experience and some sort of dialogue with the author, with the filmmakers behind the films he wrote about, and with the act of writing in itself. Major props to Civil Coping Mechanisms (keep coping) for getting the book out there.

After the presentation I started a short correspondence with Scott about what I thought would be the best way to approach his book, and this is what he had to say.

Efrén Ordóñez: Scott, The Doubles is a book in which you write about and, in a way, summarize and reflect on each of the movies included in it. But, for whoever is reading about the book for the first time in this interview, we're not talking about a book ON film, are we? During the book presentation in New York, Álvaro Enrigue even said it's a book on writing. Is it? What is it really about?

Scott Esposito: That's a great question—a really hard one, and one that I may not be the best person to answer. One of my hopes for the book is that it's broad enough to give readers their own room to determine just what it's about. I very much enjoyed hearing Álvaro's rationale for calling it "a book on writing," although that was something that never occurred to me as I wrote it. For me, as the author, it's a great pleasure to see someone like Álvaro interact with the book and find a definition of it that's surprising, edifying, and seductive. So I very much hope it is a book that permits these sorts of readings.

As to myself, if I had to risk a theory, I would say that it is a book about the phenomenological experience of art. As a critic and as an enthusiast of art, I tend to seek to understand a piece through my own personal experience of it. For me, all understanding begins in perception. My belief is that if I can craft statements specific enough—statements that can only be applied to that particular artwork, and, moreover, which are not trivial but which are of some general interest—I will have the basis for a very powerful response to that work. Such statements begin in my own subjective experiences with art: as I proceed to evoke how that work felt for me, I invariably hit upon an observation of the kind of specificity and power that I'm looking for. And that is more or less my method in The Doubles: to create a persuasive argument for the importance of these films by narrating my experience of them; essentially, to get the reader so caught up in my retelling of them that they say "I have to watch this movie!" In the process of doing this I hit upon just the kinds of observations I am looking for, and these become points at which I can inject broader readings of the film, pieces of my biography, philosophical thoughts about art, human existence, and film as a medium, and aphorisms that I have taken from other texts.

But as to where this takes me, I really don't know. Some have called it a sort of memoir, some have said it's about film, Álvaro said it's about writing, and I believe he also called it a kind of fiction at one point. My hope is that the challenge of defining it leads to an insightful range of definitions.

EO: That is really interesting. You said that you wanted to create a persuasive argument for the importance of this films (they're all great films, some of them I've seen and some of them I've done some research on), but mainly it's an importance they had in your life, that is why you narrate your own experience of them, and why some had called it a memoir, as you said. However, I'm interested in one of the quotes you included in the very first pages, in the essay about A Brief History of Time:

"I have learned that memories are a little like an old book that’s increasingly filled with falsehoods as you read its sentences. Science now says that whenever we access a memory we are physically changing its fiber. The result is that cherished memories become less precise with time, not more. With each recollection they are less the actual experience and more our impression of it. I cannot disagree."

And the very next paragraph:

Jorge Guillermo Borges: “I think that if I recall something, for example, if today I look back on this morning, then I get an image of what I saw this morning. But if tonight, I’m thinking back on this morning, then I’m really recalling not the first image, but the first image in memory. So that every time I recall something, I’m not recalling it really, I’m recalling the last time I recalled it. So that really I have no memories whatever, I have no images whatever, about my childhood, about my youth.”

How did you manage to structure or maybe balance the recollection of the impact each film had on you when you first saw it, the following years, and when you were writing and "recalling" that first time you sat in front of a screen?

SE: This is a very tricky part of this sort of a project, and one of my interests in writing this book. I first watched A Brief History of Time over 20 years ago—obviously the reflections I've made as I've integrated that viewing into my life narrative is going to be hugely different from whatever passed through my mind as I first watched Morris's film as a naive adolescent in my parents' living room. Of course I do still have some memories of that first viewing and those years of my life—fragmentary, fallible, impressionistic, hugely unreliable, but still memories of some sort—and I've tried to integrate little pieces that I feel most confident of into the essay alongside the statements that I'm making while looking back at my life from the present.

But I think that, ultimately, to a certain extent I just had to accept that a lot of the ground I was trying to cover was lost to me, and to pretend otherwise would simply not be honest. I think this is fine, and appropriate, because memory is a living thing; it's not like a videotape that we take out from time to time to look at, it's a living, evolving part of us, the memories we make at 17 years old become something that is appropriate to our life at 38 years of age. (If they remained the same memories we had at 17 we would hardly be functional adults at age 38!) You can see this transformation in the central metaphor of the shattering teacup that Morris used to visualize entropy, and which somehow in my mind became a wineglass, a transformation I only became cognizant of when I re-watched the film for this project. Why a wineglass and not a teacup? Who knows, but riffing on that question brought me to one of my favorite insights of the book.

One aspect that interested me about this project is that it covers 20 years, from 1996 to 2016, and when I look at the book now I can definitely see a general uncertainty creeping into the essays as we approach the present. The early films all have a very definite purpose in my life—I can see where they fit into my life's narrative—but as we get closer and closer to the present the "meaning" of the films in this sense is much less clear to me; my feeling is that the essays reflect this general uncertainty. If I re-wrote this book 20 years from now, certainly those later essays would change quite a bit—they would grow much more certain—as I discovered how to situate those artistic experiences into this story that began with A Brief History of Time.

EO: I can see that, I can relate to it. We are talking about fragments of memory, about the meaning of each film as well, about putting it all together maybe. That takes me to something that I read in the essay about The Double Life of Véronique. You wrote that there are some human methods for drawing sense upon disorder, and that film is a "major one", perhaps the most important one. Since it is "universal" and the films you use as your method are the work of artists from different parts of the world, do you think there are variations of the cinematic language? Can it be as "articulate" as the written word?

SE: Let me start with the second question, since it's one I address to an extent in The Doubles. I don't know whether film or writing is more articulate as a "language," I only know that they have various strengths and weaknesses and seem to be complementary in some ways. For me, cinema's strength is its immediacy, its ability to communicate through powerful visual signs that can speak to humans anywhere, regardless of their native language or culture. In The Doubles I use the example of the shower scene in Psycho—is there a single human on Earth who would not react in horror at that moment? So I think film has a definite Palvolvian advantage, but then literature can communicate ambiguity, nuance, human thought to a much more precise degree, even if it loses the powerful impact that film can have. So it's a question of how you define "articulate"—for me, I prefer written language, although I do have to admire what film can achieve.

As to your first question, well, cinema is such a powerful medium: in its release, The Force Awakens was shown on every continent, and it grossed $1.2 billion in its first two weeks, so perhaps 100 million people worldwide had seen this film in just 14 days, an amazing achievement of technology and human ingenuity. How many have seen it overall? The global box office is apparently over $2 billion, although that does not count DVD sales, streaming, rentals, and of course the millions and millions who watched it illegally, which may be more than all the rest combined. Compare this to the first volume of Harry Potter, which has sold perhaps 120 million copies in its 20 years of release. In other words, there is no comparison. As a storytelling medium, only television—and of course the holy books of the world's great religions—can come close to the kind of ubiquity that film claims.

Of course there are local variations: when I watch the famous opening scene of La Dolce Vita, in which a helicopter carries a statue of Christ over ancient Roman architecture on the outskirts of Rome, I will read it quite differently than an Italian would, to say nothing of how it would come across to an Italian of the '60s, when the film was first shown. Clearly these cultural differences will mean that Fellini will impact his countrymen different than myself, just as a European will look quite differently on Luke Skywalker than an American might. But still, we're talking about images here, and all humans understand imagistic storytelling, regardless of where they are from—this is our birthright to a much greater degree than language and reading, which only developed much, much later in the course of human history, and which can't communicate nearly as universally (I can understand much more of an unsubtitled Chinese movie than an untranslated Chinese novel).

In The Doubles, I have tried to take advantage of these powerful images by describing ones that have affected me as vividly and memorably as I can. In part, this book is a chronicle of images that have stuck in my mind for years, decades even, my attempt to present them as they exist for me, and to say a thing or two about why they loom so large in my psyche.

EO: And these films that you chose are there, in the book, I assume, because their images were, and still are, with you. However, there have to be a few movies that you left out. This is a question that I guess will be in a potential reader's mind. I don't know if it's a fair question, but, are there any honorable mentions?

SE: Oh yes, so many. When I began this project I made lists and lists of films that I would have liked to write about for one reason or another. I find it hard to believe I didn't manage to write about any of Éric Rohmer's films, he's been such a huge director for me; among others, The Green Ray is perfect. Agnès Varda is another immense omission, I wish I could have managed Vagabond, at least. Max Ophüls is another—Le plaisir has meant a huge amount to me, and his late masterpiece Lola Montès almost made it into the book. I would have loved to do something on Buñel's The Exterminating Angel, such a bizarre film. Woman in the Dunes, a collaboration between Kobo Abe and Hiroshi Teshigahara was an essential moment for me. Last Year at Marienbad was also a revelation, and it would have been such an interesting movie to re-tell. There is also a very strange movie titled After Life by the Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda that is so interesting. As to Americans, David Lynch is a great omission, as is David Cronenberg, Charlie Kaufman (as writer, not director), Woody Allen, and Orson Welles (F for Fake is such an insane movie), and although I did write about Robert Altman's Three Women, it was hard to choose that over The Long Goodbye. And on that subject, while I did write about Lars von Trier's The Five Obstructions, his other movie Melancholia has stuck so powerfully in my mind, I do wish I could have written about that one. I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

EO: I do, and I'll take your answer as a sign and revisit Rohmer. I love The Green Ray. Probably one of the great things about film is that you can go back to any movie and isolate for a quick 80-90 minutes. It's a different experience with books. Yet, as much as we love film, we chose the written word. Literature vs film, as you wrote in the book. I'll just leave the closing to you, to elaborate on this.

SE: I think your use of the word "isolate" is very telling here. It's a strange property of film that even when we go to a movie theater, the connection between our mind and what is happening on screen is so strong that we tend to feel as though we are the only one there. Isn't it always an odd thing to momentarily take one's eyes off the screen and look at all of the other people around us and suddenly realize we are in a crowd of hundreds? Books, of course, can also isolate us—there's the classic image of a bookworm curled up at home with a great novel—but, at least to me, this is a very different sensation. Books take us into a world that remains tethered to the world we live in, whereas movies create their own reality and draw us into it. This is perhaps because when we read a book, it is incumbent upon us to imagine what the characters and their environment look like, so we are always drawing on our experiences to give shape to what we read; whereas a movie creates an alternate world and jacks us into it. I love movies for this very powerful quality of escapism and this ability to create strong images without relying on the viewer, but I think ultimately I prefer the possibility that literature possesses: to not give us new mental architecture but to find some way of creeping into what is already in our heads.


The Doubles Cover Image
ISBN: 9781937865917
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Civil Coping Mechanisms - September 18th, 2017

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