Issue 15: The Novelist's Film
I keep thinking about a scene in Hong Sangsoo’s latest movie, The Novelist’s Film, which opened in the US last week at New York’s Film Society of Lincoln Center.
Novelist Junhee (Lee Hyeyoung) is suffering writer’s block. She has taken a trip to the Seoul suburbs to visit her friend Sewon (Seo Younghwa), an author who has given up on her literary ambitions to run a small bookshop. Junhee’s day is full of coincidences. After seeing her friend she runs into Hyojin (Kwon Haehyo), a filmmaker, who is returning to the city with his wife following a day trip. Junhee had fallen out with him after she was dumped from a project he was directing. Hyojin is embarrassed and awkwardly apologises to Junhee for what happened. He tries to explain that the situation was out of his hands, that it was the fault of financiers, and that the experience led him to change his priorities and learn to be less of a workaholic. Junhee can barely conceal her irritation at Hyojin but the trio agree to go for a walk in a nearby park. There they meet Kilsoo (Kim Minhee) a famous actress who has put her career on ice. She tells Junhee that she’s a fan of her books. The director tells Kilsoo that it’s a shame she’s “wasting” her talents at such a young age. Junhee explodes.
“‘Waste’ implies she’s doing something wrong! Do you love her life more than she does?” Hyojin tries to walk back his remark but Junhee is having none of it. “She should keep shooting big commercial films to not waste her life?” She warms to her theme, drilling on the word “waste.” Kilsoo isn’t a child, she points out, she’s an adult. Only she can know what is best for her. “Everyone wants to realize their life in their own way […] A waste of her talent? Just try not to waste your life!” The director and his wife leave. Junhee and Kilsoo decide to keep walking together in the park, but before they set off, Kilsoo, dressed in a leather jacket, asks Junhee to sniff her armpits, because she’s worried she’s sweaty and smelly. After Junhee’s tirade, the bathos of this scene-closer is perfect.
The Novelist’s Film describes creative inconsistency and self-doubt. Talking to writer and film curator Dennis Lim for The New Yorker earlier this year, Hong remarked he doesn’t understand the word ‘consistency.’ “I’ve never been consistent. All my life, people said I should be consistent. Who said that being consistent is good? I don’t think it’s good, nor is it possible.” Hong, now in his early 60s, is no slouch. The Novelist’s Film is his 27th feature in 26 years, and reportedly he has already shot his 28th and 29th—probably more by the time I’ve finished writing this sentence. He has developed a lean and fast economic model for making his movies that is closer to experimental film than the kinds of features he shows alongside on the international festival circuit. They’re written on the go, the shots are simple, and the work is edited swiftly after the shoot. But The Novelist’s Film refuses to present the artist as an industrious producer, or as someone who labours “obsessively,” an adjective that satisfies both a Romantic archetype of the untamed, creative genius and a particularly American Protestant work ethic; the artist who is always on, who never takes a day off.
It’s interesting to contrast the depiction of artists in The Novelist’s Film with the one given by Todd Field in Tár, released a few weeks earlier. Field’s film—which tells the story of Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett), a celebrated American conductor facing a threat to her reputation—depicts artistic success as an exercise in power, wealth and monomaniacal devotion to the craft. The artist is an object of veneration. Success bankrolls self-absorption. Dedication gets you personal assistants, private jets and private foundations. It advances you to major magazine profiles, bespoke suits, famous friends, and gives exclusive access to the dreary beige landscape of global five-star luxury, to a world that’s used the phrase “world-class” so many times that it no longer has any meaning, or class. The atmosphere of Tár is cold, controlled and miserable. The Novelist’s Film is warm, low-key, and chatty. Here artists have day jobs, they feel unsure of themselves, they get sweaty armpits, and know when it’s time to give up doing anything serious with the day to go and drink makgeolli. They gossip, they feel grumpy, they wax nostalgic. Here it’s OK to be a young artist and not know what you want to do (Kilsoo). It’s fine to be in late middle-age and worry about running out of steam (Junhee, or her poet friend and ex-drinking partner Mansoo, played by Ki Joobong). These feelings are also not incompatible with periods of hard work, nor with changing your mind. Contradiction is OK.
It’s relatively rare to see these aspects of creative life depicted in narrative films. To generalize wildly here, many movies about artists tend to fall into one of three categories, or combination thereof. There’s the rags to riches tale (artist escapes poverty to become a star); the struggle against great odds (artist battles injustice/indifference/prejudice/exploitation/calamitous world events to pursue their creative destiny); and the tormented genius story (artist makes works of great power despite mental health problems/booze/drugs/trauma/a dark past/an awful personality). Heroism and noble suffering are the top notes. Never “I need a sandwich,” “the milk is off,” “that cat is cute,” or “do my armpits stink?”
The Novelist’s Film manages to say something about the lives of artists that is true to the scale of life, unlike the archetypal narratives, which almost always over-scale artists, presenting their lives as monumental and world-changing. (And for what? As W.H. Auden put it in his 1931 poem ‘The Orators’: “The pillar dug from the desert recorded only / The sack of a city / The agent clutching his side at our feet / ‘Sorry! They got me!’”) In Hong’s film, the word “career” does not so much signify a professional path into the history books, as it does the sense of careering out of control. Putting your art on hiatus is not a “waste” but a decision that might benefit your health and happiness. Art can be life affirming and transcendent. But art can also be monstrous, eating everything in its path and claiming the world for itself. It may claim that its themes are important—nature, sexuality, history, politics, war, love, whatever it may be—when what it really wants to tell you is that it, Art, is important for having told you about nature, sexuality, history, politics, war, love, whatever it may be.
After Junhee meets Kilsoo, she decides she wants to make a short no-budget film with her, something she’s never done before. They enlist Kilsoo’s nephew, a film student, to help them. Towards the end of the movie, Hong gives us an excerpt from the film they make together. We see Kilsoo picking flowers in the park, occasionally addressing Junhee behind the camera. The clip is loose, intimate, and seems made in a private language that only its makers understand.
The scale of art that The Novelist’s Film addresses reminds me a little of Jim Jarmusch’s 2016 film Paterson, about a bus driver who writes poetry solely for his wife. William Carlos Williams was the inspiration for the film, but it was also heavily influenced by the director’s love of the New York School poets, such as John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch and Frank O’Hara. (Second generation New York Schooler Ron Padgett composed the poems used in Paterson.) In a Time magazine interview, Jarmusch was asked what it means to make art just for yourself:
“I think you can only trust yourself or those you’re collaborating with. And as soon as you step outside of that and start imagining, “How will the world receive this?” you’ve lost your strength. You only have your own intuition. I’ve always said, from the first films I ever made, that those of us making the film, we were making it for ourselves. When I was very young I was on a TV show in Holland with Bernardo Bertolucci […] He got mad at me. He said, “You say you make films for yourself. I think that’s reprehensible. Then you are an elitist, and you are not thinking about the world, the world that you’re supposed to be making the film for.” I was kind of upset, because this was someone I really respected. But I held my ground and said, “No I don’t agree. I’m not trying to make a statement to the world. I’m trying to express something that those of us making the film feel.” There are all kinds of ways to make films or art or poetry. And one reason I’m attracted to the New York School of poets is this idea of writing to one person. Not standing on top of the mountain, saying, “Here is what I believe!”
One day I would love to read a book about the day jobs famous artists have had. Perhaps someone has already written it.
My command of French is appalling but I love Colette Magny’s voice, and particularly love how earnest and serious her young audience is in the above clip. (And I want to know more about her record Je Veux Chaanter, an album of songs written and recorded with children with mental disabilities at the Institut médico-pédagogique in Fontenoy-le-Château.)
I’ve long had a fascination with Dwellings, made in 1981 by Charles Simonds. It’s located in New York and comprises three parts: one in the stairwell of the Breuer Building on Madison Avenue, and two for the building across the street, one on a windowsill, the other on a chimney pot. Here are two films, one made with David Troy in 1972 and the other with Rudy Burckhardt in 1974 (above) which follow Simonds as he places his tiny sculptures in nooks and crannies across the city, talking to curious kids and onlookers.
Thank you Primary Information for sending me a copy of DeForrest Brown, Jr’s Assembling a Black Counter Culture, a new genealogy of techno, and a story of industry, class, and black American history. “We were not Kraftwerk. Kraftwerk had deep pockets,” as Detroit techno producer Rik Davis (Cybotron/3070) once said. I have barely scratched the surface of this deeply researched book but I was intrigued to come across a long chapter on dance music in the UK, beginning with the arrival of acid house in the late 1980s. I thought I’d just read the first page or two. I came up for air hours later. Get it here.
La Cabina by Antonio Mercero: a cautionary tale about phones from 1972. If only we had listened.