Jan Millsapps - Three women – three generations – all linked by a mysterious journal, one man, and the enigmatic planet Mars

Jan Millsapps, Venus on Mars, Jaded Ibis Press, 2014.
[Venus on Mars will be published in multiple editions, including interactive multimedia iBook, ebook, full-color print, black and white print and fine art limited edition.]


“Three women – three generations – all linked by a mysterious journal, one man, and the enigmatic planet Mars. With great imagination and a lyrical flair, Jan Millsapps has fashioned an engaging tale about finding your place in the cosmos." —Marcia Bartusiak

”In a style that recalls the haiku imagery of Basho and the laconic economy of Hemmingway, Millsapps writes across the unbounded interplanetary gulf that separates Earth from the brooding red planet Mars and intermingles the lives of three generations of women trapped in an involuntary struggle for gender equality that persists, even in the halls of haute science. Millsapps has a literary gift in her ability to bring the reader inside the eyes and mind of her characters. Every word is carefully crafted and delicately placed, every page magical to read. Even if the reader knows nothing about astronomy, Venus on Mars is a feast. —Dana Berry

Venus takes a fresh look at Mars in a story told by multiple generations of women who live and work at the periphery of early male astronomers and rocket scientists, including Lulu Leonard, a secretary-turned-stargazer at historic  Lowell Observatory, and Venus Dawson, a free-spirited image analyst at JPL whose "enhanced" versions of planetary data keep the staid scientists on edge.
mariner 9
It's the summer of 1971. A lone spacecraft, Mariner 9, is on its way to Mars, programmed to record the first close-up views of the planet's entire surface. The scientists who designed it hope the data it transmits will reveal evidence of life on the red planet.
karmann ghia
pasadena postcard

Meanwhile, Venus is driving back to   Pasadena after attending to her mother's burial in New Orleans, her only inheritance a journal written long ago by her Great Aunt Lulu, assistant to astronomer Percival Lowell, a wealthy Bostonian drawn to the heavens by way of the clear, calm Arizona air.
Lowell built a private observatory dedicated to uncovering Martian mysteries, claiming as "evidence" of intelligent life on the red planet the detailed system of canals he saw there.
wrexielooking But Lowell was not alone at the telescope. Because of her proximity to and (ahem!) intimacy with "Dr. P," Lulu was able to conduct her own observations, unique for her gender at that time. When her findings contradicted those of her beloved boss, she opted to record what she'd seen in a private journal - the book that has just been passed to Venus.
flagstaff postcard

 Cosmological past and present colide, warp and merge as the Mariner spaceship makes its slow way to Mars, and Venus stalls out in Flagstaff, where she decides to take a tourist's look-see through the big telescope at Lowell Observatory. She feels the earth move, and the heavens as well - and she goes from reading her great aunt's journal to living it.
  Author Jan Millsapps deftly teases the female experience out of a story that has been male-dominated, and the story she has created sets the stage for a critical issue still being debated in the scientific community: the need for an expanded dialogue including multiple voices and perspectives, as we continue our collective
quest for a larger understanding of the universe we all inhabit.


Summer 1971.
A lone spacecraft is on its way to Mars. Meanwhile Venus Dawson heads toward Pasadena – and back to her job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, where confidence is high among rocket scientists that the red planet will soon reveal its secrets.
Venus is in no hurry. Her male colleagues make lewd jokes about her, enter her in beauty contests against her will, and encourage her to wear her miniskirts even shorter. So she dawdles as she drives, examining the journal she’s just inherited, written by her Great Aunt Lulu, secretary “with benefits” to a famous astronomer, and a woman who gazed at the red planet through a giant telescope long before women were allowed to do such things.
The clever JPL scientists are certain their new spacecraft will discover evidence of life on Mars, but Venus finds it first – on the pages of Lulu’s journal. But before she can use this information to level the workplace playing field, a cosmic misstep strands her at Lulu’s old haunt, Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff. Venus must navigate the Victorian era and the space age simultaneously to claim her place in an expanding universe.
In this stylish and edgy novel, author Jan Millsapps deftly teases the female experience out of a history of mostly male astronomers and rocket scientists, and tells a mesmerizing story about generations of women struck by the stars.

"Venus On Mars" unfolds cosmic tale
by Vikram Singh

Jan Millsapps
Cinema professor, Jan Millsapps, spent three years researching at various locations such as the Lowell Observatory and Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the Mojave Desert for her second novel, “Venus on Mars.” Photo by Alejandrina Hernandez / Xpress
With NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover constantly sending back new data about Mars, eyes are on the sky.
SF State cinema professor Jan Millsapps’ gaze has been pointed toward the skies for years. Her second history-based novel, “Venus On Mars,” is all about finding one’s place in the cosmos.
Millsapps had a release party for the book June 2 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz. Events took place at the observatory for the transit of Venus, an astronomical event that would happen only once in a lifetime when the planet appeared as a black dot crossing the surface of the sun.
Founded in 1894, the observatory is home to the Discovery Channel Telescope, the fifth largest telescope in the continental U.S.
The novel was made possible by a one-year sabbatical granted by SF State. Millsapps’ research took her to the Mojave Desert; the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.; Lowell Observatory and even Boston.
Set in the 1970s during NASA’s unmanned Mariner 9 mission to Mars, the story follows Venus Dawson, as she returns from her grandmother, Lulu Dawson’s, funeral. Lulu’s character, who faces misogyny and gender bias, is based on astronomer Percival Lowell’s actual secretary Wrexie Louise Leonard.
“At Lowell Observatory I examined all of Wrexie Louise Leonard’s materials, including a journal she kept before she began working for Lowell — but her journal as it appears in my novel is fictional — based on the facts I was able to uncover,” Millsapps said.
Lowell, a main character in the book, was an astronomer who strongly believed Mars contained evidence of extraterrestrial life. The book explores issues female astronomers faced in both the 1970s through Venus Dawson’s storyline and the 1900s through her grandmother’s. Both were times when exploration of Mars was at its peak.
“It was very rare for a woman to be able to look through a big telescope in the Victorian Era. It wasn’t until the 1960s that women got full access to major observatories,” Millsapps said.
She decided that this was the perfect era in which to set the story.
“After continuing with my research, I realized I set my story right at the cusp of when women were pushing for equal status in the workplace,” Millsapps said.
Venus inherits her grandmother’s journal and takes it with her to her workplace in Pasadena, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Both the reader and Venus begin to uncover the romantic relationship Lulu and Lowell had during their time together through a series of journal entries woven into the narrative.
But it wasn’t until she was finished writing the book that she approached William Sheehan, a historical fellow at Lowell Observatory.
“At first I was critical, because I was reading it through a historian’s point of view, but once I loosened up and began to respond to it as historical fiction, I loved it,” Sheehan said.
Millsapps has placed quick response codes at the end of certain chapters to augment the reading experience. By scanning these codes, readers can access content online that will add to the story.
Eleventh grade English teacher, Jeannette Miles from South Carolina likes the idea of bridging the gap between old media and new and plans to use “Venus On Mars” as a part of her curriculum.
“I don’t have any problem asking my students to help me out with my technology. It’s a reciprocal interaction with students and I think this will make me successful with Jan’s books,” Miles said.
Millsapps’ plans to continue to push the envelope with new media back at SF State next spring, when she plans on “teaching cinema as an online medium and do the whole thing with smartphones and tablets.” - www.goldengatexpress.org/2012/12/11/venus-on-mars/

Jan Millsapps, Screwed Pooch. BookSurge Publishing, 2007.

Who knew 'the right stuff' would first show up in a stray female mutt with attitude?   On November 3, 1957, Laika rode Sputnik 2 into outer space, the first living creature to reach earth orbit - but unlike all the animals and humans who followed, hers was a one-way ticket only.   In 'Screwed Pooch,' award-winning filmmaker and author Jan Millsapps describes Laika's historic mission and its impact on the humans she encountered, both real and fictional. We meet her beloved yet duplicitous trainer, the brilliant yet anonymous 'chief designer' of the Soviet space program, her dog gal pals, Soviet top dog Nikita Khrushchev and his heavy-handed KGB, and residents of her old neighborhood, who mount a daring plan to rescue her. Laika's unprecedented journey takes us from the wind-swept Moscow streets to top-secret labs and launch sites, and from the miserable depths of a Soviet gulag to transcendent views of earth from outer space.   Meticulously researched, 'Screwed Pooch' sheds light on Laika as the first space pioneer and examines her role in the early space race as both victim and heroine. Most importantly, Millsapps gives a distinct voice to the canine cosmonaut whose ultimate sacrifice paved the way for human space travel a few years later.

On November 3, 1957, Laika rode Sputnik 2 into outer space, the first living creature to reach earth orbit – but unlike all the animals and humans who followed, hers was a one-way ticket only.
In Screwed Pooch, award-winning filmmaker and author Jan Millsapps describes Laika's historic mission and its impact on the humans she encountered, both real and fictional. We meet her beloved yet duplicitous trainer; the brilliant yet anonymous "chief designer" of the Soviet space program; her dog gal pals; Soviet top dog Nikita Khrushchev and his heavy-handed KGB; and two women living in her old neighborhood who mount a daring plan to rescue her.
Laika's unprecedented journey takes us from the wind-swept Moscow streets to top-secret labs and launch sites, and from the miserable depths of a Soviet gulag to transcendent views of earth from outer space.
Meticulously researched, Screwed Pooch sheds light on Laika as the first space pioneer and examines her role in the early space race as both victim and heroine. Most importantly, Millsapps gives a distinct voice to the canine cosmonaut whose ultimate sacrifice paved the way for human space travel.

JAN MILLSAPPS, a pioneering digital filmmaker, an early web innovator, and a versatile and accomplished writer, has produced films, videos, digital and interactive cinema on subjects ranging from domestic violence to global terrorism, and has published in traditional print and online venues. As professor of cinema at San Francisco State University, she teaches courses in digital cinema, interactive cinema, web cinema and short format screenwriting. She earned her B.A. with honors in Creative Arts at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte; her M.A. in English at Winthrop University; and her Ph.D. in Rhetoric and Composition at the University of South Carolina. She also holds an academic certificate in cosmology.

Fanny Howe - classics whose characters wrestle with serious political and metaphysical questions against the backdrop of urban, suburban, and rural America


Fanny Howe, Radical Love: Five Novels, Nightboat Books, 2006.

NIGHTBOAT BOOKS is proud to present this historic volume, a collection of five critically acclaimed novels by Fanny Howe, originally published between 1985 and 2001. Nod, The Deep North, Famous Questions, Saving History, and Indivisible are out-of-print and hard to find classics whose characters wrestle with serious political and metaphysical questions against the backdrop of urban, suburban, and rural America. Howe s fiction has been praised by writers, activists, and social thinkers alike from Paul Auster to Alice Walker to Robert Creeley. For this new publication, Howe has revisited and revised her novels to present an arresting and poetic portrait of life in the late twentieth century.

“I have not the least doubt that her work is parallel to Paul Auster’s… or any other writer thus whose books are not simply products for the market–albeit the work can reach a very large number of potential readers indeed. In Fanny’s case these will range from contemporary fellow writers questioning ways and means in their art and all who find their enterprise of interest, to those who feel themselves confronted with deeply ingrained questions of religion, person, society, gender, politics, which almost anyone alive at this moment is trying to answer.”—Robert Creeley

1. While reading Radical Love I was living close to the ocean and swimming every day. One afternoon I was feeling sad so I swam out farther than usual, surpassing all of my customary stopping-points, until I was so far out that I suddenly doubted if I’d be able to make it back. I recognized in what I was feeling the preliminary symptoms of panic; racing heart, flushed cheeks, repetitive thoughts about the panic I was feeling which only succeeded in increasing the panic. I floated on my back, trying to breath steadily. The stretch of beach I’d walked on only minutes earlier was now impossible to approach, a landscape which in its brazen totality had become not only remote but imaginary.
2.  I realized that the ocean was terrifying because it was the opposite of lonely; it was abundant. By traveling so far from the shore I’d become an indistinguishable element of that abundance. The terror of my slow, lucid ego-death coupled with the necessity of moving my legs to keep myself alive was a stronger feeling than any kind of loneliness I’d ever experienced.
3. I arrived at Fanny Howe through an interview she did with Kim Jensen of Bomb Magazine.
4 . In the interview she describes her poetics as a reaching towards the ungraspable, the fragmentary, the bewildering. Her preoccupation is with the bentness of time. The freakish all-possible of moments, the vastness of living in simultaneity. How can two people be in two places at the same time? Or: How do we express actions occurring simultaneously?
5. There is a rare precision to her words. They scrape softly and insistently at a very particular feeling. In feeling it for the first time I realized it was a feeling I had always felt. A familiar estrangement. Like seeing a stranger in a dream for the second time.
6. The feeling is intimate with the abject. Between subject and object, the barely separate, like a limb cast-off or a corpse. It follows that many of the subjectivities in her novels are displaced and marginal; madwomen, children, monks. Kristeva writes that the abject inherently exists apart from the symbolic order of language, as a trauma irreconciliable with subjecthood. Fanny Howe makes a language for which abjection is immanent (a new subjectivity?)
7. A Sensual Metaphysics. There’s a body-depth to her narratives, a sense of being weighted, but not weighed down.
8. “She went to the caravan on her sister’s black bike through the dark and felt this way the happiness of being a hard sea animal that machines its way gracefully through the ecstatic interiors of the outside world.”
9. “She began to harden with the first baby. A firm heel slid across the palm of her hand, under her navel, now like a moonsnail with a cat’s eye at its apex. Her wastes, and the baby’s, moved in opposite directions from the nutrients. Her breasts tightened to tips of pain. She entered her psyche daily on rising…”
10. How do you write from inside madness? Most accounts of people going insane seem to come from after or outside psychosis, stressing the role of narrative as a stabilizing and ultimately redemptive exercise. In these texts there is more of a return to madness through narrative. No one is saved and everyone is ecstatic.
11. How I feel about Fanny Howe, in general:

12. When she was in her twenties she ghost-wrote a book called West Coast Nurse, which was supposed to be a pulp romance novel. However, according to the reviews, it was an “unsual brooding book,” “psychologically sophisticated,” and very different from other novels in the genre.
13. Heidegger describes anxiety as what happens when “dasein” or Being, turns away from itself. Anxiety, unlike fear, is fundamentally directed at “being-in-the-world” itself rather than at any definitive entities “within-the-world.” This particular feeling is what first gives us access to “the world as world,” the world existing purely as itself.
14. “Growing old is growing wild. Going mad is growing old too fast.”
15. I recommend the essay, On Bewilderment.
It’s a thorough and beautiful text on Howe’s process.
16. Radical Love is a collection of five of Howes’ novels.
17. “Every act is holy because every act is holy.”
18. Meister Eckhart was a 13th century theologian-mystic-philosopher who wrote in one of his sermons:
“Back in the womb from which I came, I had no god and merely was myself. I did not will or desire anything, for I was pure being, a knower of myself by divine truth. Then I wanted myself and nothing else. And what I wanted, I was and what I was, I wanted, and thus, I existed untramelled by god or anything else.”
“God,” according to Eckhart, is the totality of all that exists, while “god” as a human construct is a singular omnipotent being. What we should do is pray to God to release us from our belief in god because really we are all God and God is nothing if not everything.
19. Fanny Howe writes that “Memory is God.” i.e. the internet, as a rhizomatic, constantly updated and morphing database of collective human material, is God?
20. However, there is something startlingly un-virtual about Howe’s writing. “icicles from eaves, and down the steep cliff the rolling river, touched by brutish blocks of ice and timber, reminded her of the word RELENTLESS.” This is more explicit example than I would like to give, but what I mean is that reading this text was a lesson in immanence, in how words can bind with erotic, sensual experience, in how a piece of text can home somewhere or deepen into touchable space.
21. What is “female” gendered or sexed writing? What is the difference between speaking about one’s experiences as a woman and speaking as a self understood as Woman, and embedded in the lifeworld of Woman? If all language is coded by the Patriarchy, how does a woman write as a woman?
22. Radical Love brought to mind Dana Schutz. I just found out about this artist, and she’s wonderful. She makes metanarrative pieces on “decomposing” or abject subjectivities. Check her out.
23. Also, Robert Creeley, who writes an extremely positive review on the back of the book:
“…no one more actively employs the strategies and possibilities of language than she does. I think this work has no competing instance I’m aware of. It is unique.”
24. While on a plane back to New York an older woman sitting next to me pointed at my Fanny Howe book and motioned with her hands that it was very large. This led to an hour long conversation about spirituality, suffering and love. She had this rare positivity about her, this effulgence. We were namesakes. I almost started crying a few times during our conversation. She told me to never forget that I was young and strong, and that life was an unbearable, beautiful thing.
25. “After all, the point of art is to show people that life is worth living by showing that it isn’t.” - Alexandra Boggs

In “The Middle”: Plot Suspension in Fanny Howe's “Itinerant” Fiction by Bénédicte Chorier-Fryd


Fanny Howe, The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation. Graywolf Press, 2009.

Beautiful essays by Fanny Howe, a poet praised for her “private quest through the metaphysical universe . . . the results are startling and honest” (The New York Times Book Review)
Fanny Howe’s richly contemplative The Winter Sun is a collection of essays on childhood, language, and meaning by one of America’s most original contemporary poets.

Through a collage of reflections on people, places, and times that have been part of her life, Howe shows the origins and requirements of “a vocation that has no name.” She finds proof of this in the lives of others—Jacques Lusseyran, who, though blind, wrote about his inner vision, surviving inside a concentration camp during World War II; the Scottish nun Sara Grant and Abbé Dubois, both of whom lived extensively in India where their vocation led them; the English novelists Antonia White and Emily Brontë; and the fifth-century philosopher and poet Bharthari. With interludes referring to her own place and situation, Howe makes this book into a Progress rather than a memoir.
The Winter Sun displays the same power as found in her highly praised collection of essays, The Wedding Dress, a book described by James Carroll as an “unflinching but exhilarating look at real religion, the American desolation, a woman’s life, and, always, the redemption of literature.”

Fanny Howe’s richly contemplative Winter Sun is a memoir of unusual depth and insight by one of America’s most original contemporary poets. In it, Howe offers a rigorous exploration of her fascinating journey of intellectual, spiritual, and artistic development.
Howe recalls her childhood days in the now vanished world of post-war Boston, with blue-stocking aunts and a mother pre-occupied with the Poets’ Theater in Cambridge. From her lawyer father, labeled “pink” in the McCarthy era for his work defending so-called communists, she inherited a life-long sense of social justice. Feeling unable to compete with her beautiful and talented sister, Fanny sought the inner life, where language was a constant resource.
  Through a collage of reflections on the lives of the thinkers and writers who have influenced her, Howe provides a unique insight into the fabric of her own mind. She writes with great compassion about Jacques Lusseyran who, though blind, wrote of finding his inner vision while incarcerated in a concentration camp during the Second World War. She is fascinated with the life of Simone Weil, whose rivalry with her dominant brother perhaps resonates with her own sibling rivalry. And Howe writes with awe of the single-minded quest of the prominent Scottish nun Sara Grant who spent decades teaching and studying in India.
Winter Sun, is no less than an account of Fanny Howe’s passionate engagement with the questions of the soul. The honesty and intelligence she brings to these questions is a rare gift to us all.

“[The Winter Sun] is full of wondering, noticing and empathetic efforts to weave connections between events and individuals and the cultures they inhabit.”Los Angeles Times

“The book changes the boundaries of biography, autobiography, memoir, and autoethnography.  It is all of these at once. . . . With the sun falling on the pages as a living presence, Howe has expanded our knowledge of what it means to write (auto)biography.”—Janelle Adsit

“Howe is a constant explorer, an asker of difficult questions (some of which remain unanswerable).  What she does in Notes on a Vocation is clarify, at least for herself, the role of the poet in an age of lurking cynicism.  She shows the rest of us what it truly means to invest oneself in a way of life whose rewards are often hidden.”—Brock Kingsley

“[Fanny Howe’s] superb writing never fails to engage the reader, especially as the book develops into a manifesto of a life thoughtfully and richly lived.”—The Georgia Review 

lives of a spirit/glasstown: where something got broken by Fanny Howe

Fanny Howe, The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken. Nightboat Books, 2005.
In this brilliant work that transcends genre--lyric essay, prose poem, philosophical fiction--Fanny Howe pursues her realization that keen metaphysical inquiry is radically essential to everyday life. Howe adds the stunning new coda Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken to her earlier work The Lives of a Spirit
The quotidian brushes up against the infinite in her ongoing effort to answer ancient quetions: "Little word, who said me? Am I owned or free?" "With extraordinary self-scrutiny and complexity--and unmatchable musical poise and beauty--Fanny Howe examines our relationship with 'other' worlds, purgatories of various kinds: genetic, historical, theological. --Jorie Graham

Fanny Howe’s The Lives of a Spirit/Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken does a few clever things in one artful swoop: it re-exposes poetry readers to a text published in 1987 and hitherto out-of-print (The Lives of a Spirit, Sun & Moon Press); it juxtaposes those words with a fresh work (Glasstown); and it introduces the new nonprofit publishing venture, Nightboat Books, an organization that “seeks to develop audiences for writers whose work resists convention and transcends boundaries by publishing books rich with poignancy, intelligence, and risk.” All of these things rather color the reading experience. Howe’s work is deserving of such “important” context -- it is weird, lovely, resistant.
The fact that an older text and a newer one are merged in this elegant package is owed, in part, I’m sure, to Nightboat’s secondary goal: to bring quality out-of-print stuff back to life. But I don’t think the book is a duo-collection. In fact, the demarcation between Lives and Glasstown is barely there. The two exist quite naturally together, nearly as one long poem with little parts marked by slight shifts in narration (what Simone Weil might call an “inanimate I” latent in the voices of the poem) and the real and true passing of time (1987ish to 2005ish). Someone told me once that the poet Charles Wright was actually always working on the same long poem, its pieces being lego-ed on book by book. I like that. Maybe the dwelling space of these texts is simply siblings sharing a room. This notion bolsters my feeling that Howe is not merely a genre-bender, “transcend[ing] boundaries”; no, she is trickier than that. Howe is poetry all the way. But her hot-tempered faith in poetry causes a real flurry. Howe is writing poetry that advances the cause of writing. The collision of this kind of goal with such heady, but cloudy material (the possibility of impossibility, “apparitions of perfection,” the ordinariness of eternity and vice versa, the ache for language to do something other than fail/be broken) makes for a damaging read. “Obedience, like habit, makes time into a thing that you use.”
By “damaging” I mean spiritually challenging. I mean: Fanny Howe (who supposedly is the tamer, more shackled sister of poetry wild woman Susan Howe) is shifting the range of language in order to reflect the life of a spirit. She’s messing with reality. With faith. With the patterns of an unknown universe. As someone who is more apt to atheism, this poetry rattles the mind. Howe’s writing suggests that while language is ultimately a failed communal attempt at expression (a kind of collective folly), it is, nonetheless, the mode most available to us. It will get us closest to expression. It will most closely resemble, mimic, stand in for, this wispy little creature called the spirit. And that thing is unwieldy.
I like that Howe writes about the spirit in a way that privileges narration over lyricism. But she’s full of delicate turns, as well. And the narration is never clean. “When she faked being a dog, it was always with her head down, her tongue hanging out, bruised and beaten from floggings. She climbed the padded stairs on all fours, panting. Explain why he distressed me so. Can anything cauterize these fears till they grow numb as air?” The poems (or the big old poem of the whole book) are (is) a place in which one can do some existing, some resting, some thinking. Few poets are generous enough to offer such a space. Most require you to follow the little bouncing ball through the lines, and sing along. Howe just opens her spiritual existence like a guest bedroom where you get to choose the view and the smell of the linens. - Olivia Cronk

The Wedding Dress Cover

Fanny Howe, The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life. University of California Press, 2003.                 

In times of great uncertainty, the urgency of the artist's task is only surpassed by its difficulty. Ours is such a time, and rising to the challenge, novelist and poet Fanny Howe suggests new and fruitful ways of thinking about both the artist's role and the condition of doubt. In these original meditations on bewilderment, motherhood, imagination, and art-making, Howe takes on conventional systems of belief and argues for another, brave way of proceeding. In the essays "Immanence" and "Work and Love" and those on writers such as Carmelite nun Edith Stein, French mystic Simone Weil, Thomas Hardy, and Ilona Karmel—who were particularly affected by political, philosophical, and existential events in the twentieth century--she directly engages questions of race, gender, religion, faith, language, and political thought and, in doing so, expands the field of the literary essay. A richly evocative memoir, "Seeing Is Believing," situates Howe's own domestic and political life in Boston in the late '60s and early '70s within the broader movement for survival and social justice in the face of that city's racism.
Whether discussing Weil, Stein, Meister Eckhart, Saint Teresa, Samuel Beckett, or Lady Wilde, Howe writes with consummate authority and grace, turning bewilderment into a lens and a light for finding our way.
"Fanny Howe draws the reader into her meditations on spiritual illuminations with a simplicity and an originality of vision and style that I find in no other contemporary work dealing with mysticism."—Etel Adnan
"Here we reach the quick: the cutting edge between faith and fiction. These are not sentences, they are surgical incisions; the whole book a signpost for the new century."—Mark Patrick Hederman
 "The Wedding Dress is the precious end product of an unique sensibility that combines faith, wisdom, experience and an uncompromising pursuit of beauty and truth."—Piers Paul Read "This is an ax of a book, like Kafka's, breaking through the ice of received wisdom, fake attitudes, piety. An unflinching but exhilarating look at real religion, the American desolation, a woman's life, and, always, the redemption of literature. The sharpened edge is Fanny Howe's love of the truth, which (after cutting) does indeed set free."—James Carroll "Fanny Howe's latest book is a primer for the mind America does not know it has. Her prose is utterly simple and truthful yet rings with the formal elegance of past centuries. These pages are a dazzling handbook on the riddles of language, breath and speech. At every moment in the book Fanny is present, precise, mischievous, awesome, a companion in arms to her readers. When she turns with us to address the Unknown, she brings us face to face as no other writer I know can do."—Mark Jay Mirsky "This is, without exaggeration, an extraordinary book. The essays have the concentration and obliquity and suggestiveness of prose poems. The sentences are characteristically short and direct, grammatically simple and seemingly to the point. But so much thinking and responding and feeling have been distilled into these deceptively straightforward statements that they often have the tantalizing and paradoxical witchery of runes. There is no one else like Fanny Howe on the contemporary literary scene."—Albert Gelpi "An important book for anyone interested in contemporary literature and the role of the artist in the present. These essays on the art enact a vital intervention with race, gender, faith, motherhood, and poetry. Fanny Howe uses Doubt to smash conventional systems of belief and Bewilderment to investigate political injustice and to shape a humane response, displaying an embodied wisdom that is both brilliantly articulate and precariously lived."—Peter Gizzi "I have never before had such a physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual experience while reading one book. Fanny Howe makes words reality, thought beauty, and learning meditation. I went with her from 'Bewilderment' to agreeing that this book is 'a path' and 'like a plot--once formed, it seems to welcome and pull you into it.' And I am grateful."—Frances Smith Foster
fanny howe8881.160

Fanny Howe, Selected Poems. University of California Press, 2000.

One of the best and most respected experimental poets in the United States, Fanny Howe has published more than twenty books, mostly with small presses, and this publication of her selected poems is a major event.
Howe's theme is the exile of the spirit in this world and the painfully exciting, tiny margin in which movement out of exile is imaginable and perhaps possible. Her best poems are simultaneously investigations of that possibility and protests against the difficulty of salvation.
Boston is the setting of some of the early poems, and Ireland, the birthplace of Howe's mother, is the home of O'Clock, a spiritually piquant series of short poems included in Selected Poems.
The metaphysics and the physics of this world play off each other in these poems, and there is a toughness to Howe's unique, fertile nervousness of spirit. Her spare style makes a nest for the soul:

Zero built a nest

in my navel. Incurable

Longing. Blood too—

From violent actions

It's a nest belonging to one

But zero uses it

And its pleasure is its own —from The Quietist

A Hymn

Fanny Howe by Kim Jensen

Fanny Howe is the author of more than 20 books of poetry and prose. “If someone is alone reading my poems, I hope it would be like reading someone’s notebook. A record. Of a place, beauty, difficulty. A familiar daily struggle,” Fanny Howe explained in a 2004 interview with the Kenyon Review. Indeed, more than a subject or theme, the process of recording experience is central to Howe’s poetry. Her work explores grammatical possibilities, and its rhythms are generated from associative images and sounds.
Her recent collections of poetry include On the Ground (2004), Gone (2003), Selected Poems (2000), Forged (1999), Q (1998), One Crossed Out (1997), O’Clock (1995), and The End (1992). Critic Jordan Davis lauds the manner in which revelatory thought is presented in Gone: “Howe enacts what the South American poet Jorge Guinheime called hasosismo, or the art of the fallen limb, in which startling insights emerge and are subsequently concealed.” Critic Kimberley Lamm, discussing the poem “Doubt,” writes, “Fanny Howe’s work is unique in contemporary poetry for its exploration of religious faith, ethics, politics, and suffering.”
Her Selected Poems won the 2001 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize. She has received awards from the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Poetry Foundation, the California Council for the Arts, and the Village Voice, as well as fellowships from the Bunting Institute and the MacDowell Colony. In 2001 and 2005, Howe was shortlisted for the Griffin Poetry Prize. In 2008 she won an Award in Literature from the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters. She is also the author of several novels and prose collections, most recently The Lives of a Spirit / Glasstown: Where Something Got Broken (2005) and Nod (1998). She has written short stories, books for young adults, and the collection of literary essays The Wedding Dress: Meditations on Word and Life (2003).
Howe grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and taught for almost 20 years in Boston, at MIT, Tufts University, and elsewhere, before taking a job at the University of California at San Diego. She lives in Massachusetts. In 2012 she was the inaugural visiting writer in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. - www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/fanny-howe

Matt Longabucco - A collection of savage directives from some other time, some other heterotopic helios. Half heartbroken, half ever-hopeful — for the heat of smoky nights, the hot wind of the road, the heartstrings of lyricists and lovable liars alike


Matt Longabucco, Everybody Suffers: the Selected Poems of Juan Garciá Madero, Trans. by Matt Longabucco.  O’clock Press, 2014.

In 1976, Mexican-born poet Juan García Madero, aged 17, ventured into the Sonoran desert with the so-called visceral realists Ulises Lima and Arturo Belano and a young woman named Lupe who was under their accidental protection. They were all one step ahead of a savage avenger, and at the same time intent on the trail of a lost master. Their adventure is recorded in García Madero’s diary, the only document he left us—until his book of poems, written in a burst of inspiration in the few months before his departure, came to light. Here at last is the work of his youthful imagination. As its translator I have come to know it first as an object of fascination and later as a source of wonder and dread. As for my method I may only say that, in order to bring my English closer to García Madero’s Spanish, I was compelled to bring my misplaced purity closer to his soaring vulgarity, my myopia closer to his dilation, my sense of time’s irritating drip closer to his sense of time’s ultimate, not-un-glorious extinction. - Translator's Note, Matt Longabucco

A collection of savage directives from some other time, some other heterotopic helios. Half heartbroken, half ever-hopeful — for the heat of smoky nights, the hot wind of the road, the heartstrings of lyricists and lovable liars alike. The romance of the young poet, heading out for the zones exterior with libidinal cynicism, a mongrel Diogenes of the anti-Paz playa. Turns out García Madero did not go quietly into the Mexican night, but lives on in Longabucco's imaginative translations. – David Buuck

1. Does Everybody Suffer

Does everybody suffer? What’s the poem done to get itself in trouble? No matter. It’s not as though the poem is hanging in, it’s not like the poem’s made it through this long cold season. No, it’s sort of leaning into the pavement (something rock and hard)—I’m not as precise as Juan García Madero—and other than dreaming. As if someone allows herself to communicate among humans. Even where it’s moist, grave and desert there is a seismographic needle. Even though I’m against all forms of communication—I mean I’m not against all forms of communication—I’m in love with no bud of a flower only powder and taste. It can speak you and speak mistake—wiping the flower’s powder off the long nose just right for it. Is what I did. I bought the book Everybody Suffers because it bruised my ego. I can’t say why. It was very reassuring—it was more like feeling hunger. For to be hungry is very patient. No mother ever fed me anything patient except her bright red flesh. Where is my mother, I wanted to ask, because I cannot see her.
The poems were to me where I am anonymous to myself—outside.
Because I suffer I am also the cause and as the poems come out these poems as I was listening, change.
Where were you back then where I am now, García Madero?
Standing (always standing) or getting up to feed the tension, that air, and felt in it a blur (other than visceral?)…or a black hole dilating–not a blur at all but what happens when you grow backwards, what the visceral realists call walking backwards.

2. Hot & Crusty

I do not turn to these poems because they are interesting but because they are what I relate to as directly as I relate to this apricot Danish at Hot and Crusty in an in-between moment of the evening on 86th street. It really isn’t about sin. It’s just what I turn to or know how to communicate with and after I’ve eaten it, I notice there are people next to me whispering, announcing their gossip. It’s all very real but I don’t want anyone to describe it or to joke about it. There is a worm in my thought trying to find its next morsel and the stomach, even afterwards, is still scraping itself (Rimbaud’s rib) and when the worm will be illuminated, when it will freeze and forget it’s hungry then there is someone else saying what needed to be said without me knowing it was on the tip of my tongue where the worm waits like a dance.
Caught! Not yet spoken! A tramp in speech. A beauty queen in thought. The ugly pulse of just wanting a Danish. The poem waits as Juan García Madero waits to talk before being thrown down in the mind by the madness of Quim, by the impossibility of a movement (Visceral Surrealism) because of movement inside the worm, the thing I try to relate to directly, which bombards me without eating the sky and my feet. If only Cesárea Tinajero had not taken the wave and gone CHOP CHOP. Juan García Madero is young and outside in the dark of his own mind’s pimple spot. I eat sugar flour for dinner and health paranoia invades my bourgeois heart. Can you feel my heart it dances with all the only things it has to relate to, every moment in the chapbook by O’clock. Who knows what I am and how I understand this but it can only be because I have no bourgeois heart. Who would alchemize this bourgeois heart and exchange it for something real?

3. Second Thoughts: What holds Visceral Surrealism tightly in our arms?

Or no such thing, it is not our territory, García Madero writes:
I say we should include
everybody, we should decide nothing, truly nothing, but
in the morning also, depart    
Departing, strands of melancholy come together irresistibly, like a tight braid:
Those tendrils of possibility that
Enter this dimension from the dimension
of our longing, called forth only to be
ignored, discarded or feared—they stay,
they dangle and menace and may be woven,
by the damned, into a rope.
Everybody Suffers participates in an imaginary universe, or pretends to, as Roberto Bolaño writes in The Savage Detectives:
I went out into the hallway and realized that visceral realism was all pretend
And Juan García Madero:
…where’s surrealism? In the toilet where it belongs
Walter Benjamin:
Can the point at issue be more definitively and incisively presented than by Rimbaud himself in his personal copy of the book (Saison en enfer)? In the margin, beside the passage ‘on the silk of the seas and the arctic flower,’ he later wrote, ‘there’s no such thing.’
I had no idea what he was talking about and yet, somehow it was all still there, everything in its place…
‘Everything is in its place’ + profanity, like a seat with a hole in it:
Of this seat so poorly made….
Of this seat so poorly made
That it ties our entrails in knots,
The hole must have been built
BY veritable scoundrels
An imaginary universe in Everybody Suffers is the pattern of García Madero suffering which one (and the talking has an omnipresent narrative quality) talks out of like from a hole that is a dark space in the toilet seat or an insubstantial flower anterior to the text. We inhabit this profanity through tension, which is the same state that Roberto Bolaño employs to initiate his readers into The Savage Detectives (just as Juan García Madero is initiated into ‘Visceral Surrealism’).
This was the fifth session of Alamo’s workshop that I’d attended (but it might just as well have been the eight or ninth, since lately I’ve been noticing that time can expand or contract at will), and tension, the alternating current of tragedy, was palpable in the air, although no one could explain why……But poetry (real poetry) is like that: you can sense it, you can feel it in the air, the way they say certain highly attuned animals…can detect earthquakes.
It is clear to us then that only a fool would take this initiation seriously as García Madero, for example does and to such an extreme and quixotic degree—extreme to the point of Dante’s secular religiosity in The Divine Comedy because in Everybody Suffers the whole landscape becomes one’s operating system until comedy strikes, and tension becomes a joke and the joke grows jokier until laughter gets harder, and one has an epiphany that Don Quixote is still alive (Roberto Bolaño too for that matter), sitting right next to you but that it doesn’t matter (luminous melancholy) because you don’t even recognize him, there’s a greater mystery than that or Don Quixote’s quest, which is the mystery of something going slack, melancholia itself, in crystalline form:
the lines of wires or wires of lines limp as the vines that overhang
the temples in hell, as the strands of a drowned girl’s hair, as the superfluous
mooring-lines of Noah’s Ark,
as the limp lifeless cords of light between galaxies
And in The Savage Detectives something does go slack for García Madero. He loses contact with the Visceral Surrealists and gets sickly and depressed. Tension and slackness are like weird hydraulics of fate. They are like learning: as it leaks out of flesh’s realm forever in Juan García Madero’s poem, ‘The Dawn of the Alchemists.’ Something does leak out of the flesh’s realm. Perhaps it is dark, perhaps it is light, perhaps it is matter. What is it? It is this part that I do not understand yet, and is why I am a detective. Can I call it melancholia or a giving way that hurts us more than even the most taut thing could scrape. Bolaño writes in The Savage Detectives:
And of course poetry and prison have always been neighbors. And yet it’s melancholia that’s the source of my attraction. Am I in the seventh dream or it might be one thing or it might be another.
But is it prison that one is attracted to or is there a stranger sense, that while you read someone is banging the door, that there is a moving out and in as if everything had accidentally been left open?

4. Switchboard Operator

I feel as though Everybody Suffers is haunted by the poem “Hold the Line.” Maybe it’s just that I am looking for the omnipresent beast that connects us all and maybe that is my personal stupidity but it still haunts me and the switchboard operator is not those things per se, but she haunts me too.
She was the switchboard operator for the whole district,
though you might say she was really giving human being lessons,
so you could say she was doomed to fail,
offhand but profound lessons like the one about how to “hold your seat”
This poem, as I said earlier, bruised my ego when I first heard it read aloud. It bruised my ego because of this feeling I had that maybe even the angel inside my head—who might have the possibility of connecting the conflicting passageways in my battered brain—even she was suspect, even she was most see-through, more see through than the happiness of couples and friends on sunny afternoons. Even seeing through that happiness was like prison. It’s the process of prison perhaps and not the prison of bars. It is like the circle that the animal in Rilke’s cage draws, who walking in circles suddenly dilates. And the animal’s muscle tightens/slackens simultaneously; we experience a change of mind. ‘Hold the Line’ is the set-up of a pattern in which the intelligence that connects human beings, maybe it’s language, the sweetness of the seeing through-ness is tightening and then abandoning all children. We are orphans by the operator, the orphaned one (though she is arctic, she is no such thing):
and she was probably busiest on those occasional mild afternoons
made perfect by pinkish sunshine and unmolesting breezes,
afternoons undeniably perfect except to a monster
afternoons and evenings when boys call girls and girls call girls
and old colonels call their mistresses and secretaries call for dinner … everyone wants to meet in a few hours,
once they’ve washed off the sweat of the day and pulled on clean, loose, light clothes
to glitter in cafes and restaurants, playhouses and dance halls…
…and this end she, autodidact and minor goddess,
would connect them all, jacking each to each with a little pop or hiccup
…and report to him or her falsely, that in this air conspicuously mild and almost audibly buzzing with happiness the lines were in fact all down,
very unlikely but true, and that the whole world that knew how to pass the time
in perfectly meaningful and satisfying ways would not do so, just now,
so that as a result all was silent and dormant or morose…
Perhaps the monster that believes the pinkish sunshine is less than perfect is our suffering, and the switchboard operator is that monster—an emblem of it. Perhaps she is connecting us by letting us know that the lines are down, that we do not know how to pass the time and our meaning is vacated like an old drafty house, or a room with a door open. (Benjamin: He called ‘Nadja’ a book with a banging door). Perhaps she is not she (‘no such thing’) but silent as so much of The Savage Detectives is silent—silent as the apartments that boys and girls in the poem have departed from to glitter in cafes. Perhaps it is important that in the end melancholia, as in Lars Van Trier’s film, is dialed up on a single breast.
When she looked my way every elastic thing anywhere gave out, went slack.
It’s simply too much, all this talking, and connecting—language. Like Roberto Bolaño’s character Cesárea Tinajero, the switchboard operator does her task cooly. And so does the translator, in this case, without being mild. We will not have our seat so long as she holds us. We know that she is hungry and will never, no matter how far she goes out, as if in a dream, be consumed. - Lizzy Crawford


Nicholas Rombes - a slippery, mysterious study of a rare-film librarian, living now in isolation on the fringe of the Wisconsin wilds, and those movies, or moments from movies, or film-stills culled from movies, that have managed to linger with him through the years. It is a gorgeous, ambient, layered story of obsession, the creative mind, and the effects of film on our lives.

Roberto Acestes Laing, the obscure film obsessive who has destroyed rare, single-print films by notorious directors because their truth was too severe … and the journalist haunted by his own demons who’s tracked him down for a three-day interview in remote Wisconsin … and the waitress in yellow who knows too much … and the doorway that leads into a photograph …and the missing children …
The full trailer—made in Detroit—is coming soon. Here is the teaser trailer, also made in Detroit.

The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing from Nicholas Rombes on Vimeo.
And also, below, soundscapes for several of the films recounted by Laing.
Media inquiries: eric@twodollarradio.com
Press: "This hallucinatory and terrifying secret history of film is so meticulously researched and gorgeously written that I wonder if, in fact, Nicholas Rombes has uncovered a lost trove of works by David Lynch, Orson Welles, Antonioni and Jodorowsky somewhere in the California desert. The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing  is post-modern noir at its best: beautiful and nightmarish by turns. I read it late into the night and couldn’t put it down.” — Elizabeth Hand, winner of The Shirley Jackson Award and author of Generation Loss and Available Dark
Two Dollar Radio interview about the novel.

Nicholas Rombes, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. Two Dollar Radio, 2014.

Rombes’ Blue Velvet Project at Filmmaker

Roberto Acestes Laing, the obscure film obsessive who has destroyed rare, single-print films by notorious directors because their truth was too severe … and the journalist haunted by his own demons who’s tracked him down for a three-day interview in remote Wisconsin … and the waitress in yellow who knows too much … and the doorway that leads into a photograph …and the missing children …

"This hallucinatory and terrifying secret history of film is so meticulously researched and gorgeously written that I wonder if, in fact, Nicholas Rombes has uncovered a lost trove of works by David Lynch, Orson Welles, Antonioni and Jodorowsky somewhere in the California desert. The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing  is post-modern noir at its best: beautiful and nightmarish by turns. I read it late into the night and couldn’t put it down.” — Elizabeth Hand

We all have our artistic polestars, artists whose work consistently surprises and impresses. Steve Erickson and David Lynch, are two of mine. Nicholas Rombes is another.
Like Lynch and Erickson, Rombes possesses that rare spark, which I imagine to be the combustible nature of an absolutely singular visionary. I like watching them play with fire. What’s particularly exciting for me is to be linked to Rombes’ first produced screenplay – ‘The Removals,’ which we’ll put into production this summer – and now his first published novel.
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is a slippery, mysterious study of a rare-film librarian, living now in isolation on the fringe of the Wisconsin wilds, and those movies, or moments from movies, or film-stills culled from movies, that have managed to linger with him through the years. It is a gorgeous, ambient, layered story of obsession, the creative mind, and the effects of film on our lives.
Following is an interview with Nicholas Rombes.
Q: You write regularly about film, for Filmmaker Magazine and The Rumpus, and have written a couple of books about movies – Cinema in the Digital Age and New Punk Cinema. You wrote an unbelievably fantastic piece on ‘Upstream Color’ for the Los Angeles Review of Books, which is a great companion for anyone who has seen or wants to see the picture. The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is brimming with the stories, or the circumstances, or striking scenes culled from fictional forgotten films. Can you talk about your engagement with movies?
We all have our gateway movies, and mine was Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill, in 1980. That was the first time I saw reality as I thought it was supposed to be, as opposed to how it was. The slow unfolding at the museum, and Angie Dickinson’s leather glove. The nurse’s shoe, Nancy Allen telling Michael Caine, “I’ve done most of the bad things you just read about,” the subway scene with the lights flashing out, the score by Pino Donaggio that takes you so deeply and dangerously into the world of the film, which turns out to be the real world, after all. Of course I first saw it as a young man, when everything and anything seemed possible.
But I love the idea of misremembering films, of forgetting the proper sequence of events, or of accidentally mixing up scenes—in your memory—of movies you haven’t seen for a long while. I saw Alien on the big screen when it first came out in 1979, and then a decade went by before I saw it again and during that time it grew and transformed into something much different than, apparently, it was, because The Shining was released the following year and somehow I got the Overlook hallways/maze and the Nostromo corridors/maze mixed up and blurred. As years went on—before I watched the films again on VHS—I imagined the hallways that Danny explores on his Big Wheel as having attributes of the Nostromo corridors, and vice versa. And there was a scene that turns out not to be in either film but that I remembered as appearing in both, which actually turned out to be from John Carpenter’s 1974 film Dark Star.
Anyway, misremembering, that was a big inspiration for The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. Just trying to capture that weird, liminal feeling in prose. That and writing a book about movies that don’t exist, but that I wish did.
Q:  You grew up near Toledo, which is an industrial town that has seen better days, and now teach in Detroit. The movies you choose to cover are the indie, lower-budget, “blue-collar” films in comparison to the regular Hollywood glitz. I’m curious whether living or working in these environments informed your writing or taste in any way?
I think we’re all shaped by where we’re from and the local conditions of home, but I’m not a believer in the idea that we necessarily seek out books or movies or music that reflect our roots. To me, movies are a chance to escape, to extend, and even to destroy the prison-house of our own thoughts and habits of being.
Northwest Ohio happened to be the fertile epicenter of a lot of Midwest proto-punk music. Brian McHale, in his book Postmodernist Fiction, has suggested that “the zone of Ohio, it would appear, is a recurrent feature of postmodernist writing.” It’s a weird state. Iggy Pop was raised and got his start in bands in Ypsilanti and Ann Arbor, Michigan, about an hour north, and Cleveland, to the east, was the home of Dead Boys, Pere Ubu, Rocket from the Tombs, Electric Eels, and Peter Laughner. And then, to the south, in Columbus, there was Screaming Urge. It all adds up to something, but what? A certain kind of brilliant failure.
Jim Jarmusch is also from Ohio (Cuyahoga Falls), and Permanent Vacation (1980) created this lo-fi mood that you wished you could just live in forever. But it’s not only independent, low-budget movies that can do this. Big budget studio films like Chinatown (Paramount, 1974) and so many others from the studio era can take you into another world. I think authenticity—or the feeling of authenticity—is dependent on lots of variables; the size of the budget is just one of them. There are plenty of low-budget, mumblecore-ish films that are just really boring and indulgent and bad, and plenty of high-budget, star-driven films that are wonderful.
Q:  David Lynch haunts the book like a ghost. For instance, in one recollection, the protagonist recounts how he and friends mail-ordered two Lynch films to view with his college movie club. The mail-order company mistakenly includes a third tape in the package, and it is the viewing of this third film that is the focal point of the entire recollection. But by mentioning Lynch, you’re effectively casting a mood. Can you talk about David Lynch and the influence his work has had on you.
Lynch. He saved my life, literally. He’ll never know this but he did. As an undergrad I had a professor—Dr. Fricke—who, in an offhand moment in 1986, recommended two films: Blue Velvet (which was just out on VHS) and Manhattan. I didn’t know what from what. At that time, Blue Velvet meant nothing to me. David Lynch meant nothing to me. My wife and I rented it from Total Video in Bowling Green, Ohio, and watched it on our small, terrible little TV in our apartment on Buttonwood Avenue. Something happened. I can’t say what, but it had something to do with the sound. The sound of the film. To me, Lynch’s films are treacherous and evil-tending because of the sound: the roar of a candle. The wind through the pines. The electricity through a light bulb about to explode. But that’s not when he saved my life. It was twenty years later. A veil of darkness—and I mean a fucking real veil of darkness—had fallen between me and the best angels of my thought.
I drove out far into the Michigan wild and contemplated the potential rotting effect of the earth upon the body.
And then Inland Empire came out, and I saw it in Ann Arbor, and I understood in ways that may seem Viking-like and heroic (but that are not really) how important it was not to give up but to live. That, and the poetry of Olena Kalytiak Davis, dented my head and I put away those thoughts and began to write again.
Q:  You also wrote A Cultural Dictionary of Punk and the 33 1/3 book on The Ramones. How has punk inspired your own aspirations as an artist?
Punk is intrinsically democratic at its most conservative, anarchic at its most open. Mostly I think it’s conservative, in the sense that it’s reactionary, musically. Against the Sixties. It’s a cliché to speak of DIY, and yet some clichés are true. The unmitigated disasters of raw pre-punk and punk, these remind us of our human-ness, our desire to create something authentic and unprocessed. The more we live, the more we realize that, of course, everything is processed. So that doesn’t matter. What matters is the feeling. The feeling of being alive. Punk replicates that feeling, the one that we had as kids, before we were “meta.”
Q:  You interviewed Rodney Ascher, director of ‘Room 237,’ for Filmmaker Magazine, and in the introduction you mention that his film is “an example of how the Internet, as a medium, is reshaping the study of film in fundamental ways.” For ‘Room 237’ and film study, this seems positive. In your screenplay for ‘The Removals,’ you take a more skeptical stance with regards to how social media, and technology, are essentially draining culture of its originality.
Skepticism about digital and social media, however well-crafted or well-intentioned, often comes across as just another form of nostalgia, or the off-target musings of a sanctimonious windbag who’d be better off changing the oil in his 1983 Datsun himself rather than paying some over-pierced kid on Jackson Avenue to do it. Plus there are so many examples of historical alarmism about “new” technology that underestimated the value of that technology to creativity. And yet….this goes back to the idea of misremembering. I do think something is lost today in the easily availability of films and music, and that’s the ability to misremember, or to forget. I’m not even sure why this seems important, but it does. Maybe there’s something about the distortion that comes with memory; there’s something valuable in the imaginative misremembering of our pasts which, relentlessly documented and archived now, live on in zombie-like ways in the present. That gap between the way things really were and the way we remember them to be is closing. If I had a gun against truth I’d use it every day.
- twodollarradio.tumblr.com/post/72588391237/we-all-have-our-artistic-polestars-artists-whose

Imitation is the highest form of flattery. This seems to be the thesis of Ikshu Neithalath’s review of Nicholas Rombes’s latest novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. The review, which recently appeared on Moving Day Review in the form of a short film, sounds more like a love letter to The Absolution than any form of criticism. In his movie, the director stars as an illiterate man reviewing a book he believes is a movie filled with words playing the parts of actors. The whole thing stinks of a washed-up academic on Substance D who probably believes that Christopher Nolan exchanges e-mails with Deleuze’s ghost.
The opening of the film is a rip-off of the “Club Silencio” scene from Mulholland Drive. Neithalath stands in front of an empty theater reading a synopsis of the book only to walk off stage halfway through while the narration continues by voice-over:
“The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is an account of the title character’s recapitulation of ten films he has burned. Some of the movies are attributed to real directors such as David Lynch, Andrzej Zulawski, and Agnes Varda, and indeed all of them bear striking similarity to the work of such luminaries of the cinema. The nameless narrator interviews Laing over the course of four days ostensibly as part of a project for a film journal, though Laing suspects ulterior motives. The sense of a sinister plot developing just outside the scope of the narrative pervades the book. The paranoia exists as a dark haze for the two characters to float in momentarily before the cessation of their communication forces them back into flight from that Nameless Something.”
In the following scene Neithalath is seen backstage. He is given a script by the stage manager and proceeds to walk through a door into a maze of bookshelves. He is periodically met by a copy of himself walking perpendicular to him. He hands off the script to his double when they cross paths. This happens maybe four or five times with a total of ten unnecessary jump cuts. The script reads:
The Absolution reads like a love letter to the cinema focusing especially on those directors the author holds dear. It is a book for people who love movies. Any cinephile will be able to conjure images of the scenes Laing describes not from the textual description but by pasting together bits and pieces of the movies that inspired Rombes’s creations. If we are to judge a book by the questions it forces us to ask then what can we say of one that wonders: ‘What if Easy Rider were a monster flick?’ and ‘What if the overdone flashbacks in dystopian films appeared as sentimental as usual but secretly were something else?’ Rombes gives life to the answers through Laing’s eclectic bunch of lost movies.”
From this point forward it becomes clear that Neithalath is guilty of composing the worst form of review – one in which the reviewer is so completely captive to the author’s imagination that he copies the author’s style (and his flaws). In a sonically nauseating Kabuki scene, the director describes Rombes’s work as “formulaic postmodern noir wherein the reader never has access to the truth and must suffer through layers of mediation between the source of a message and its audience. We are reading an account of an interview with a man describing movies. We will never have the chance to return to the original source and watch the movies themselves. By the end of the novel, the situation worsens when even Laing is absent – his descriptions replaced by a tape recording of his voice.” He notes that issue of removed communication is a central concern to the medium of film itself, which trades in illusions, edits, and realistic-but-not-real mimesis, and that Rombes’s postmodern approach is necessary to convey the anxiety of movie-watching.
In an unsavory twist, Neithalath also tries to immaturely capture the political dimension of the novel. It is a Night Porter-esque scene, in which a woman in Schutzstaffel uniform gives him a massage while they take turns describing the connection Rombes forms between the sixties counterculture Laing rejected and the punk movement he found equally useless (Laing speaks condescendingly, though not pitilessly, of a former professor who really believed that punk heralded a moment of historical change). That Nicholas Rombes is also the author of the Ramones entry in the 33 1/3 series about culturally significant albums is omitted in the review, which is plagued by the indecision of the director in determining whether it is cruel to snip the umbilical cord between author and work. He forgets that the question is not even his to ask, and that the reviewer has no place subjecting his audience to issues of theory.
As if intentionally repeating the error of Laing’s professor, Neithalath segues the discussion of music into a look at the politics of the novel. It seems that several of Laing’s films have an overtly political tone. In Black Star, a man steals from a Nazi couple only to move to Colombia and own slaves. The protagonist of Aitswal Beach is a poet betrayed by the revolution he served, and a similar fate befalls a man tasked with assassinating a political rival in Gutman. In the review, the political disillusionment of the aging, wayward Marxist that is Roberto Acestes Laing is replaced by the childish naivete of a young man with an aural confusion between “fascism” and “fashionable.”
His focus on the revolutionary discourse present in The Absolution fails to adequately incorporate The Insurgent, a post-apocalyptic (he says this is the wrong adjective) movie that uses environmentalism to create a space outside of the left-right dichotomy. Rather than describe the film to the narrator, Laing gives him the treatment, which is reproduced in a different font in the book. As the only one of Laing’s movies to pass the Bechdel Test, The Insurgent earns the director’s acclaim for containing the most interesting character in the book. Evie, an engineer for the State, remembers her lost sister and their imagining of a “dead world” – a fantasy that is realized by the mechanical birds that have replaced the natural wildlife of the barren landscape. The review focuses on Evie’s relationship with her sister and what her past means for the future that exists beyond the unsatisfying ending. From his description, the film is clearly political. That he refuses to read it as such is troublesome given his emphasis on the political trends in the other works. Perhaps the director would chalk this up to the “inherent disconnectedness of the text, which falls about one-third of the way from series of vignettes to short story collection.” In reality, this is a mere excuse for laziness of interpretation.
The uniformed woman and the director are joined by their clones and perform a complex ballet, which would be more impressive if the entire thing were not necessarily done on a computer post-production. Scrolling text gives us the final piece of the movie. His evaluation of the characters is the only negative part of the review, though some pains are made to convince us that the lack of depth in this department are warranted. Laing is the archetypal mystery man. The pieces of his past he chooses to divulge only enhance his mythical status as if to say, “I am an interesting, complicated person but I can’t tell you how or that would ruin the image” (partly the director’s words, partly my own). He goes so far as to say that the back-story about the narrator’s dead daughter seems “cheap.” Regardless of the lack of emotional investment in a character, I believe this is a horrible thing to say.
The review is a failed effort. Some may prefer the word “ambitious,” but that would be a euphemism. Like the book it pretends to discuss, the film is derivative and fractured. The director drives home the point that any movie-lover will love The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing. At one point, he even admits to an act of internet piracy – downloading several films after reading only twenty pages of the book. The entire book is a conversation between two movie-lovers, and he felt as if he were having a similar conversation with the author through the act of reading. Rombes has written words about pictures and so the reviewer decided to make a picture about his words. Where does the madness end? I can see that Neithalath is as enamored by the book as I am repulsed by his review. Since there are few diseases more infectious than the love of a book, I am glad that all that remains of his dangerous film is my condemnation of it. -    

To be a lover of film is to know what it is to be punched in the chest by something with no body, no shape, no corporeal entity at all.
Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line, which I saw when I was seventeen, made me realize there is a terrible beauty retrievable from even humanity’s worst acts, that what we so often call heroism is in fact nationally baptized hedonism, and that moving pictures can carry a devastating power. I was dazed. I saw Lost in Translation half-way through a marriage that is now over, and recognized on screen the loneliness of being with someone who is neither bad nor bad to you, but simply doesn’t know you. It remained a reference point over the following months as I processed the disillusionment I felt in my marriage. L’avventura, Monica Vitti’s face full of vacant melancholy, and my endlessly oscillating interpretations of a simple hand gesture in the final scene. Synecdoche, New York continues to get into my head with each viewing, peeling back layers of the artistic temperament, the simultaneous impulses toward self-loathing and self-revelation, the terror of being known frothing in the face of the overwhelming need to be known, and all of them folding back over each other in the film’s chiastic and escalating complexity. The final scene of La Dolce Vita, when Marcello Mastroianni’s character turns away from the girl on the shore and walks back to the insanity of his life, the fevered early morning haze cushioning his downfall with chemical poetry. Upstream Color, and the surface-breathing panic of clinging to a lover when the world has bared its teeth at you. Nearly every Ingmar Bergman film I’ve watched, especially The Seventh Seal and the knight’s confession to Death: Why can I not kill God in me? Why does he go on living in this humiliating way?
Nicholas Rombes, English professor and film essayist, knows the feeling of being punched in the chest by the phantom blow of a film, and you could say that his new novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, is more than anything else about this experience. The title character has been more than struck by films; he has been struck down by them. They have captured his mind in such a way that they have snagged corners of his soul with it, and the rips have bled him till his exists within the setting of the novel with the flickering, disembodied certainty of the very celluloid figures that haunt him.
In Rombes’s novel, Laing is a retired rare film librarian whose claim to fame, before disappearing to a rundown hotel in the Wisconsin wilderness, was his destruction of the only existing prints of several films by academically adored directors like David Lynch and Michelangelo Antonioni (who directed the above-mentioned L’avventura). The films referenced in the book do not exist in our real world, but such is Rombes’s intuitive understanding of film and these directors that it’s very easy to imagine them seamlessly settling down into these filmmakers’ actual filmographies. The dialogue of the story takes place when a journalist, the novel’s narrator, is sent to interview Laing in his Wisconsin hotel room. The shabby hotel and the circumstances of the interview set the bleak, rural noir tone for the book, but the bulk of the novel’s text is Laing’s narration of the events in the films he destroyed.
These movies do not, as I said, exist in real life. But there is a way in which they do not even really exist in the novel, either. Certainly they don’t exist in any practical way in the book, as their immolation at the hands of Laing is the very reason Laing, and the movies, are of any interest to us. They can no longer be viewed. They exist, if at all, only in the memory of Laing and the imagination of the narrator who receives those memories. Laing’s memory, however, is unreliable. His narration of the events of the films he destroyed is often impossible, mixing in elements of his own life and the circumstances of his viewing of the films. There are times this borders on a sort of intellectual magical realism, the films Laing viewed leaping off the screen and pulling his reality back in with them.
Nicholas Rombes is a champion of the lost practice of misremembering films. He refers to it, in fact, as the gift of misremembering. With the arrival of home video in the 1980s, the ascendancy of DVDs in the late 1990s, the advent of streaming video services like Netflix in the 2000s, as well as Youtube (which gives us access to clips from so many films), it is now almost impossible to misremember a film. There was a time in Rombes’s memory when it was extremely difficult to be able to see a classic or rare film, and getting to do so was an event – a one-time event. That one viewing was what you had to work with in reacting to the film, and inevitably the movie would distort and morph in your memory as it did its work on you. While our modern ability to rewatch rare films easily is in many ways an advantage, it also largely strips us of the opportunity to wrestle with the memory of a film in our minds. Ironically perhaps, the ability to rewatch a movie makes us less able to really interact with it on an intellectual and spiritual level. Ten people who all watch the same movie one time will remember ten different movies a year later. If those ten people watch that movie ten times, they will remember the exact same movie. No work of co-creation has taken place between the filmmaker and the viewer.  In an essay at Filmmaker Magazine in which he is writing about Nicholas Wending Refn’s polarizing Only God Forgives, Rombes has this to say about what we lose in being able to rewatch films: 
“The curse of our times may be that it’s now impossible to forget. We find traces of ourselves everywhere, digital footprints that don’t erode with time. And the books and films and TV shows we loved hang around, it seems, forever, denying us the foggy pleasure of misremembering them. High-definition memory. The tyranny of the past, collapsing in and in and in on the present.”
I have seen more classic, rare, and international films than the vast majority of people in my life. That said, I only got really serious about my film education (and aware, simultaneously, of my personal resonance with films) less than a decade ago, so many of the great films I’ve seen I have seen exactly once. I decided a while ago I would devote a decade or two to catching up, to consuming en masse, to laying a foundation. Then I would go back. I have seen many beloved films multiple times, to be sure, but some films I would call dear to my heart I have seen only once. Undoubtedly I badly misremember them. And yet sometimes I find these are more at work in my mind than those I remember with near perfect accuracy.
I have a confession to make. I hesitate to make it, because to admit it while retaining the right to talk about these movies goes so against modern practice that it badly stings my pride. But here goes. The Seventh Seal and L’avventura, both of which I mentioned above as movies that have stunned me, wormed their way into my mind and stayed there ever since, lingering like a fog and provoking my imagination, two movies I hold as absolute favorites, both of which I own, own on nice, shiny Criterion discs – both of them? – I have seen exactly once as of this writing.
I feel like I just took off most of my clothing in front of the class. I feel like I was just forced to admit I’ve never actually heard of the underground band you just mentioned at the party, the one whose name I nodded in response to knowingly, the one whose first album I agreed was probably their best. I feel like I just surrendered my right to speak intelligently about these movies. I have seen L’avventura and The Seventh Seal only once.
But I dare you to argue about these films with me. I dare you. I will talk at great length about them. I will go on. There will be pontification; there will be brooding. You can have your exact, minute memory of camera angles and shot sequences and plot points (such as they are in Antonioni’s film. The lack of a coherent direction to the lives of those characters is half the point. The non-existence of a plot to guide them is the plot, on some level.). I will, for the short time till I watch them again (it has been years since the original viewing, and I will rewatch them both soon), hold onto what I have held onto in the years since those singular viewings.
Det sjunde inseglet (1957)
The Seventh Seal
I saw The Seventh Seal when the faith of my childhood was disintegrating around me. The knight’s trial shellshocked me with recognition. His willingness to believe mocked by his inability to do so. God haunting his mind even as he desired to shed that God like a skin grown too small. The majority certainty there is no God and therefore no eternal damnation, and the creaturely fear of the consequences if he is wrong. The existential dread that accompanies this no-man’s-land of half belief before there is no belief. Everyone who sets out on the road to religious devotion knows there is trial and cost involved; no one tells you the same is required on the way back, that the halls of faith have but one doorway that is both entrance and exit, and outside it is a gauntlet that must be fought through in either direction. When Max von Sydow’s knight is confessing to Death, wringing out his soul and drenching the floor in his fear and frustration like so much sweat, I quake to remember.
And I do remember. I will confess I have watched that scene online since my original viewing, but I could more or less recite the entire thing without that. It is terrifying, and it is true, and it is no longer what I experience, thank the god I don’t believe in most of the time.
L’avventura is a mood; it is a color, colors, though the film is black and white. The entire thing, similar to Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, connotes the smoky, drowsy reverb of dawn when you’ve been awake all night. The characters in the film live perpetually in that haze, never really awake to their own lives. They move from one diversion to another, optimistically injecting each minor experience as a stimulant but only ever succeeding at further anesthetizing themselves. A woman disappears. Her best friend watches the sunrise, and also has an affair with her still-missing friend’s boyfriend. The movie stops caring about the missing girl, and focuses on what remains; namely, Monica Vitti’s face. Her face always remains. It is haunted, vacant, impossibly lovely, sharp, bored, apathetic, seductive, more hopeful than she dare let on even to herself. The final scene, after her boyfriend who was her missing friend’s boyfriend yesterday has slept with another woman, is one of the most perfectly balanced ambiguities in cinema, as I remember it. He is weeping for what he has done and what he fears he has lost, and his head is in his hands. Vitti’s character is behind him. She reaches out a hand, pauses, then places it on his shoulder. And I have no idea what it means, though I have spent so many hours since that original viewing thinking about it.
Is it forgiveness? Is that touch an act of conscious redemption, a laying on of hands, an absolution for his sins; an absolution, now that she’s been shocked awake by a personal hurt, for her own sins, for the fact she, not her missing friend, is even in the position to grant it in the first place?
Or is it concession? Is it a further sedation, a turning away from this possible awakening and from all possible awakenings and accepting this is the pattern of a life so lived, there is nothing more and nothing better, nothing else deserved, a surrender to numbness.
Is that simple hand on his shaking shoulder an act of life or an act of living death? Is it the first conscious decision her soul has made in many years, her self relearning to walk, or is it acquiescence to the life-long coma her soul has been slipping toward for years. Is she becoming a child or becoming her parents, parents whose money has given her great privilege and nothing else? I don’t know, and I don’t want to. I will watch it again, but I don’t want this resolved, and I don’t think viewing it again will grant something the first viewing did not. I want to rewatch it. But I don’t need to to talk about it, to think on it, to be laid out by it as Roberto Acestes Laing was laid out by these films that were too true to be allowed to exist and had to be burned in a metal drum behind a building for their very honesty. 
“If they did – tell the truth about life – who would want to watch them? They’d have to be destroyed, because who can look at truth and survive, or at least survive all in one piece? Mentally. It’d be like looking directly at the sun, or reading a curse whose words would choke you to death, so yes, to answer the question I’m surprised you haven’t asked yet, I, a lover of cinema, destroyed the films – in nothing more than a shitty little garbage can, which is funny considering the can had no idea that its insides were being burned and scalded by the likes of Lynch and Antonioni and Deren and Jodorowsky – destroyed them back behind the library of that land-grant university surrounded by the Amish and cow pastures. I’d watched them, all right, and seen something in them that should never be seen, and I’m not talking about a real-life killing on camera or a dangerous, evil idea convincingly expressed by an otherwise sympathetic character or anything like that. What I mean is that there was something there, in between the frames, something that wasn’t quite an image and wasn’t quite a sound. It was both and neither of those thing at the same time. In other words, an impossibility, and impossibility that, because it expressed or represented a new way of being, had to be destroyed. An extreme, undiluted truth, that’s what I’m talking about.” – Laing on page 69
Laing misremembers these films in the telling of them, but it could hardly be argued that this makes his memories of them untrue. On the contrary, his memory of a given film he has misremembered is likely  far more real than that of another viewer who remembers the film with perfect accuracy but has been untouched by it. I have to assume the title character was named in homage to the psychoanalyst R. D. Laing, who put forth the controversial belief that a patient’s feelings and thoughts, however “false” they might be when compared with objective reality, are accurate descriptions of reality as they have experienced it, rather than being mere symptoms of a mental illness. From a coldly objective perspective, R. A. Laing is wrong about what he remembers. But from the subjective position of a man wrestling in his own head with his own existential and ontological questions, looking for meaning, love, grace, truth, a shield to hold truth at bay, and a dozen other things, what he remembers is absolutely true. It is real because it is what he remembers. It is what he has lived, and lived with.
For those of us who know what it is to be punched in the chest by a film, or any work of art, the exact details of the work are less important than what the work has done to us. We might misremember it. But what we remember is none the less true. The details we misremember are not truths that have been lost, but truths that have changed upon entering our minds. I expect to find The Seventh Seal and L’avventura different from how I remember them when I watch them again; I also expect to be just a bit disappointed by the corrections. At least until enough time has passed that the details once again blur and change to again become, in my own mind, true. -

In which Alex Kalamaroff & Stephen Shane discuss and review this book Alex K.: A quick synopsis: an unnamed journalist spends a few days interviewing eccentric ex-academic librarian Roberto Acestes Laing who, before he absconded to Wisconsin, incinerated a collection of extremely rare films, many of which were incredibly obscure (and fictitious) works directed by well-known experimental folk, such as David Lynch and Maya Deren. Much of the novel, about 75% of it, consists of descriptions the films Laing destroyed. These descriptions read almost as fragmented short stories or twisted vignettes. The novel ends with an epilogue in which Laing delivers a monologue about a dream he had, a film dream of the future, and the future–it goes without saying–is a pretty desolate, “charred,” and “bombed out” place.
That sound about right?

Stephen: Yup. That about sums it up. And not only are Laing’s “versions” or “dreams” of the future bombed out, but pretty much every film he describes seems to revolve around the theme of destruction. Something irreparable occurs. Something is lost. Much like the films themselves are lost after Laing burned them in a trashcan, as well as the narrator’s daughter who died of cancer. And this theme isn’t exactly subtle either–one of the films is even titled Destroyer.
Alex K.: Ruination permeates Rombes’s novel. Before we get into the details, into discussing the narrator’s “perished” daughter and the novel’s setting “Post Towers” and the anachronistic details, let’s talk cinema. Each of the three chapters begins with a list of the destroyed films that Laing will be discussing. There’s Black Star and The Blood Order and The Murderous King Addresses the Horizon. Were any of these movies you’d liked to watch, to witness, alongside Laing? 
Stephen: Absolutely. First off, it’s just cool to read about an imagined early Lynch or Jodorowsky or Antonioni film. Secondly, Rombes’s flips our expectations by making the films completely uncharacteristic of the work we know of those inimitable auteurs. Black Star is described as “‘Alejandro Jodorowsky’s most coherent film, as if he had decided to make a movie whose style went against his every instinct as a director.” There’s even a point during Laing’s retelling of the Lynch film where we question if Lynch even filmed it at all. And finally, there’s so much description from Laing, so much interpretation interwoven into his recitations of the films, that at times it feels like Laing is nearly reinventing them. You have to force yourself to remember that to actually watch these films would be a completely different experience than to hear Laing describe them. Meanwhile, the retellings put us right there with the narrator, trying to imagine what these lost images could have looked like. And of course, none of our imaginings are even close to the same.
But to answer your question, Gutman was totally fascinating. Laing describes the film as mostly still images of a sandstorm accompanied by a conspiracy-murder voiceover. I saw it like some kind of noir-nightmare directed by an LSD-ridden Ken Burns. How about you? Any favs?
Alex K.: Destroyer. 1969. “The fuck of denim,” Rombes writes. “Motorcycles on American highways, the highways of serial killers, so they say.” That’s my kind of movie. Laing says the “first twenty minutes are like a mash-up of outtakes from Easy Rider.” At the end he describes a lust for destruction, an urge to obliterate that’s aesthetic in its ambitions. Destruction as art. I dug it.
One thing I struggled with though was that I felt all the descriptions of the destroyed films were a page or two too long, especially the Antonioni treatment, The Insurgent. (If it’s any consolation, I feel the same about most of Antonioni’s actual movies.) This run-on sense, however, did add to the atmosphere. Reading this book sort of felt like wandering an expansive  wasteland of culture, wreckage, dreck, and ash.
Laing was an interesting dude and I think throughout my favorite sentences and paragraphs were those that described him in all his oddness, the “dark skin, reddish hair, large hands, and the pale or cream-colored blazer [that] reminded me of the tropics somehow.” That cream-colored blazer–and you know I do like a nice blazer–recalled Klaus Kinski’s outfit in Fitzcarraldo, except instead of building an opera house in the Amazon, Laing wants to immolate his archives, a project that the narrator was totally, unwaveringly enraptured with. We, as readers, come to share this fascination. We wander the wasteland too. How’d you take to this fellow Laing? Would you absolve him?
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Also, complete fashion sidenote: Laing, along with the cream-colored blazer, wears a bright red scarf, “a scarf that brought to mind the sort of clarity that only happens through the iron-willed exertion of power.” #1. I have to get me one of these scarfs. #2. Cream-colored blazer with red scarf? That sounds like a bad medley to me.
Even if you’re a crackpot cineophile self-exiled in Wisconsin, you should still dress with reasonable elegance.
Stephen: Whatever, GQ. I thought the cream blazer was legit. I mean, I wasn’t about to go out and buy one for myself, but it’s kind of flamboyantly villanish, a la Javier Bardem in Skyfall, though I suppose I’m losing cineophile-cred by citing a Bond movie.
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Alex K.: Someone has to worry about the fashion choices of fictional characters.
Stephen: Point being, I can absolve Laing for his wardrobe, but not for burning the films. They were never his to burn. And now we’re skirting some philosophical territory that I was surprised the book didn’t quite engage head on. Yes, the question of why Laing would obliterate art is explicit, but there wasn’t really a section where the narrator took Laing to task for it. It was as if the novel wanted the reader to acknowledge Laing’s act of destruction as artistic, and ignore the fact that it was also a self-righteous and borderline evil elimination of the commons those films could’ve been.
But I agree with you on the pacing of the film descriptions. They seemed to wander and sprawl and become more abstract as the novel progressed. I think part of it’s because Rombes is working to convey experimental films, which at times, let’s face it, can be exhausting to watch, let alone read about. And when the films here falter, I’m suspicious that it’s because Rombes (and/or Laing) are hoping intentionally oblique and overly-metaphorical subject matter might be mistaken for truly rich art. Then again, I can’t help but admire Rombes’s ambition in setting out to describe fictitious films so terrifyingly moving they’re practically unwatchable.
What would’ve really been funny is if Laing said he’d destroyed the films not “for the terrible, beautiful truths they revealed, and to spare others from ever having to look,”  but because they were just shitty movies. (“Why doesn’t anyone believe me? I’m telling you, they were crap, crap, crap.”)
Alex K.: It’s not only that a lot of questions about Laing and the destruction of the films are never answered; they’re not asked. The narrator, he’s a good narrator but a bad journalist–this crafting of his character as basically just a listener, and in that regard a stand-in for the reader, allows Rombes to create that atmosphere I was talking about, an atmosphere that is somber, serious, and absolute, but also not surprising.
What I thought, as I finished the book, was given that it’s set “Post Towers,” that is after 9/11–maybe sometime in the mid 2000s–it still feels like a historical novel in that there’s no discussion of the internet. Let me elaborate because I think this gets to the question of, and longing for, destruction at the novel’s core.
Immediately we’re confronted with the hard reality of these films; they’re analog; they exist in a tangible form and thus can be destroyed, “disperversed” to use a term from the novel. We see “several neat stacks of uncased VHS tapes” soon as the narrator enters Laing’s motel room. These films Laing cares about so much are also unfathomably rare and can only be accessed after one has spent numerous days spelunking through the archives of a moderately august university in Pennsylvania. And their destruction is a loss. Their destruction is actual. It carries dramatic weight.
I’m not sure if this would be possible today, in 2014. Think about it: with the internet, with YouTube and Amazon and this-that-and-whatever-other website, you can easily and readily access content that even fifteen years ago you could only find in an archival vault or in the cellar of someone who didn’t even know they were hoarding an incredibly obscure yet interesting cultural artifact. This is a new reality Patrick Dunagan explores in his essay for Entropy about David Grubbs’s book Records Ruin the Landscape. The internet makes everything immortal and immediately accessible.
In 2014, you could watch the films Laing destroyed on YouTube–just as you can watch David Lynch’s early short works, just as you can download Agnès Varda’s oeuvre from Amazon. In this sense, I found the destruction in Rombes’s novel to be almost nostalgic. Laing still wants to live in a world where tangible culture matters–and what a better way to show a desire for this world than by burning it to high hell?
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Stephen: It’s true, the internet doesn’t come into play at all. And, in a way, just the idea of a film reel feels nostalgic. But I think I was cool with accepting the novel’s nostalgia on its own terms because: A) The writing was that good–it made me want to feel the loss of those films; and B) While YouTube and Amazon and whatever-the-hell-ever might make film seemingly immortal for now, there are plenty of other forms of art today that still have to be handled with care, art whose existence is fragile and fleeting and experienced in only so many ways by only so many people. What’s at stake is more than frames of light-exposed celluloid that could’ve easily been digitized. So I guess I’m in Laing’s boat (a disconcerting thought) with all that tangible culture, which really isn’t as reactionary a crowd as one might think.
Alex K.: Art in the Age of Digital Reproduction? I think it’s an interesting divide, between different categories of art, of when we value the tangible object versus when we don’t. No one says, for instance, that you haven’t really read Moby-Dick unless you read a first edition of it, because that would be ridiculous (even though I do think anxieties about e-reading are related to this).
But then the only reason a filthy richie rich will pay $26.4 million for Christopher Wool’s painting Apocalypse Now is because it’s a unique object–irreplaceable, one of kind, etc. etc. You have to view it, the original, in person to truly “experience” it, we often say about the visual arts. And that doesn’t even get into music or live performances, which is what Dunagan explores in his essay. For me, I recognize the loss of the films Laing destroyed, but I don’t miss them. I’ll watch them on YouTube instead.
After you enjoy Meshes of the Afternoon, I’d like to talk about the narrator’s daughter, whom you mentioned earlier. I found this side-story to be the novel’s weakest part, but I wanted to get your thoughts first on how Rombes balances out the narrator’s thinking regarding his own life with Laing’s garrulousness.
Stephen: That’s a good question, but the thing is, I think in many ways the novel didn’t try to strike a balance between them. Laing is present and alive on the page, gesticulating and drinking bourbon from his Star Wars glass, demanding that you listen closely to the one time you’re going to hear about these lost films. He makes you lean in. The narrator, on the other hand, is mostly absent from the book, which I was totally fine with. The only time it spelled trouble was when the novel seemed to insist on imposing a half-baked psychology onto the narrator through the death of his daughter, which was really the only thing we learned about him. It felt like the daughter was tacked on, reaching for a level of sentimentality that the rest of the book unapologetically ignored. But maybe you disagree? Though before I forget, I want to also make sure we take some time to get down to a sentence level with this book, because line for line, I deeply admired Rombes’s writing. In the turn of a phrase, he can transition from restrained to acrobatic, from subtle to straight up pyrotechnics.
Alex K.: Rombes’s has got some stellar prose for sure. Let’s talk about page 70. Now you know I love long sentences the way Janice Lee loves long takes in Bela Tarr flicks, which means immediately I was enthralled with Rombes’s 460-word sentence, which starts at the bottom of page 69, consumes page 70, and ends at the top of 71.
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The narrator’s daughter, first introduced to us on page 12 as “my perished daughter Emily”–a rather falsely dramatic adjective I thought: who thinks of their departed loved ones as “perished”?–is brought to life here, and only here, in this superb sentence.
In general, I found there to be a sort of hollow gravitas surrounding the narrator’s deceased daughter, whose death Rombes asks us to take seriously but who is never really realized in any substantial way. I mean, basically the only thing we learn about the narrator’s daughter is that she’s dead. She is, however, brought to life briefly on page 70–”with her in-turned left foot and slight lisp and yellow plastic butterfly barrettes that held back her unwashed hair”–and her loss is merged with the destroyed films and with Laing and with the “abyss of unknowing” that ultimately will swallow us all. This sentence is also one of the few moments where the narrator expresses his anger at Laing–“if there’s anyone to blame (not for Emily’s death of course, not that) it’s Laing”–and where we keenly sense the loss of these films, “whose fleeting traces of beauty can now only be conjured in words.”
The sentence is worth reading in its entirety: Rombes’s 460-word sentence.
You got any favorite lines?
Stephen: Too many to recount here. But even within that same 460-word sentence, when Rombes somehow finds a way to juxtapose the love of the narrator for his daughter with the truth expressed in the destroyed films:
a sort of undestroyable love, so fierce and primal and frontier-like that nothing prepares you for it because when it’s depicted on the screen or in books it’s either too sentimental or too cynical, and if I had come to hate Laing it was for that one simple fact: that he had destroyed films that actually captured this mystery, not just the mystery of the love between a father and daughter but the mystery of what that might become if left free to flower.
Clearly, the emotion in this novel is restrained, especially with regards to the daughter, purposefully buried in the narrator’s subconscious. But it’s lines like this that take you off-guard where not only is the writing strong, but where Rombes gives you just a hint of pathos, and it hits home hard.
But I’m wondering what would happen if we played along with Rombes and his imagined films. If The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing were to be adapted for the screen tomorrow, who would you want to direct and who would play Laing?
Alex K.: The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing: A MOVIE
Director: Nicolas Winding Refn
Actor for Laing: Marlon Brando’s ghost
Tagline: Witness this cinema incineration.
Trailer opening: “In a world where an abyss of unknowing will ultimately swallow us all, one man seeks to uphold the culture he loves by destroying it.”
Stephen: See, at first I was thinking Kevin Spacey for Laing, and an idiosyncratic director like Refn, or maybe Michel Gondry, but Laing makes a point to say all those lost films were completely uncharacteristic of their directors. So how about bringing back Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart for the strangest career finale of all time?
Alex K.: The Absolution of R.A. Laing, with Frank Capra and Jimmy Stewart? I’m thinking that’d be a pretty good holiday movie.
Stephen: But would we ever even get to see it? Such a movie would be unwatchable if it expressed the “undiluted truth” the novel is striving for: “If they,” Laing says about the films, “did–tell the truth about life–who would want to watch them? They’d have to be destroyed, because who can look at the truth and survive?”
Either way, just to be prepared. Why don’t you start making the popcorn. I’ll get the trashcan and the lighter fluid.

TOWARD THE END of Robert Aldrich’s 1955 noir classic Kiss Me Deadly, a seemingly conventional detective story, a woman gets her hands on a mysterious and coveted box. She opens it slowly, and it emits a blinding glow, which breathes and hisses and lights her face demonically from below. The light begins to blow out the screen, first engulfing her in flames, then engulfing the building, then (perhaps) more. The scene is apocalyptic not just for its content, but for its violent incongruity with the rest of the film. There’s nothing to prepare you for it — how could there be? Even an understanding of Cold War anxieties about nuclear holocaust cannot normalize this nightmarish ending. In this way, the scene effectively destroys both the world within the film, as well as the borders of that world.
Likewise, Nicholas Rombes’s haunting debut novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing is about a secret history of film; films of destruction, films that destroy their own borders, films that are then destroyed. An unnamed narrator, a journalist on assignment, travels to a run-down Wisconsin motel to interview Roberto Acestes Laing, a film librarian who gained notoriety in the 1990s when he ritualistically burned single-print films “from the likes of David Lynch, Michelangelo Antonioni,” Maya Deren, and Alejandro Jodorowsky. Laing agrees to talk with Rombes’s narrator, but only through descriptions of the films he destroyed. The films he describes (inventions of Rombes, though credited to real filmmakers) — even a half-finished film and a treatment for a film — all lead to endings that seem to share Kiss Me Deadly’s intimations of apocalypse.
The first film Laing describes is Destroyer. It’s a roadhouse movie that ends when, as Laing explains, a “red line appears in the center of the screen,” vibrating “ever so slightly as if etched on the film itself.” And yet the characters onscreen see the line as if it is not on the film but in the film; it divides them and when “the woman reaches across the table she jerks her hand back when it approaches the red line.” The line begins to widen, bubbling “slowly like lava. Shimmering waves of heat push out toward the edges of the screen.” The characters have to “splay their hands in front of their faces . . . to shield themselves from the heat,” eventually retreating off screen. “As the line expands,” Laing continues, “it destroys everything.” And by everything, he means everything, as the molten line expands beyond its frame in a moment of oddly contemplative horror.
These films, with an evolving sense of the apocalyptic, articulate a doom that resonates with each man’s sense of loss. But they don’t just articulate: they seem to — in their abilities to transgress boundaries and frames — absorb and engulf. And yet, these are films that now exist only as legend, much like Laing himself. When the narrator wonders about who this man really is, he notes a “disorienting feeling of depth around him” that is “akin to the extreme depth-of-field in films like Citizen Kane, that make you feel you might fall into the deep background of the film itself, the background that exists in the space behind the characters.” Similarly, the narrator’s sentences — though curiously not Laing’s — share the same deep focus that Gregg Toland’s Kane cinematography opened up. There’s a tumble-forward momentum to his sentences that becomes part of the larger aesthetic concerns of the novel, of the sense of vertigo both these linguistic and filmic spaces inspire. Any word or any image could easily dilate, open up a whole dependent-upon-dependent clause or secret history, as here when the narrator sets out to establish some basic journalistic who, what, why, and hows:
On the surface I was simply here to interview Laing for a short-lived cinema journal dedicated to the preservation of lost films that had been awarded a grant to investigate and report on neglected films. And whose chief editor Edison (that’s what we called him, after Herman Casler, an early film pioneer whose ideas Edison stole, and we called him that because he was a thief himself, but a generous one) I had persuaded, in a rare, belligerent show of confidence, to sign over a large chunk of to fund my excursion by borrowed van from central Pennsylvania into Wisconsin (near the western edge of the Chequamegaon-Nicolet National Forest) to interview Laing, whose obscurity had made him fashionable of late, as if nostalgia for the analog had somehow become nostalgia for Laing and his dirty, mistakist, unrepentant ways.
Even that one sentence break is more like enjambment and can’t stop the discursion. These are wormhole sentences in a novel deeply enraptured by the wormhole quality of cinema. Indeed, the reader perpetually feels like he or she “might fall into the deep background . . . that exists in the space behind the characters.”
While Kane’s sense of space, however, is perfectly fitting its expansive sets, expansive narrative, expansive themes, this novel opens up a similar sense of the cavernous in otherwise claustrophobic settings. We’re mostly limited to a single motel room, but it’s a motel room that develops its own sense of gravity and flexing space-time. It’s surely no coincidence, then, that the fourth (fictional) film Laing describes, Hutton, is one by Maya Deren. Deren’s (real) film Meshes of the Afternoon (cited a few times in the novel) is a seminal experimental short from 1943, and it similarly discovers disequilibrium in enclosed domestic spaces. As Rombes’s narrator feels that he could fall into the depth-of-field of this motel room, in Meshes Deren seems to fall through the interior of a suburban house with a disorienting blend of claustrophobia and agoraphobia. Just as Village Voice film critic J. Hoberman argues that “the house where Deren’s erotic, violent fantasy was filmed might be around the corner from Barbara Stanwyck’s place in Double Indemnity,” the motel room in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing could similarly be adjacent to any of the countless rooms of film noir whose sense of space is distorted by expressionist shadows and uncanny paranoia.
Indeed, the strange gravity of enclosed spaces, of mysterious rooms, plays an important role in the novel. Laing tells the narrator about another room, one that similarly warps space-time. It’s the setting for a moment in his past — a moment involving a woman he refers to only as “A.” — that seems to be at the root of his fascination with, and fear of, these films. While Laing connects the room’s sense of reality to the “split edits” of David Lynch, edits that reverse causality so “the sound arrives before the image that creates the sound,” it’s also a space that echoes the Room in Andrei Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, which grants wishes the wisher didn’t realize he had. (Likewise, this novel at times brings to mind the book Zona, Geoff Dyer’s extended and restless meditation on Stalker. While Dyer’s book offers antidotal irreverence where this novel remains darkly reverent, both books sit with cinematic mystery rather than rush desperately to answers, reminding us that the best literature embodies Keats’s concept of negative capability.) The “strange territory of that room” that Laing recalls also contains an element of the apocalyptic light found in these films’ final moments, a “dull orange light,” that he still sees when he closes his eyes, “glowing like both a warning and an invitation.”
A single image haunting Laing’s memory of A. is the cover of Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, which features a photograph of Kristeva herself looking off-camera, her mouth slightly open as if wanting to say something, her expression both open and opaque. Laing is clearly familiar with Powers — he first refers to it as one of her “most dangerous books” — so he notices that the cover has been reversed. Kristeva’s face is looking the wrong way. This single image is like a glitch, a symptom of a disruption somehow fundamental to this universe’s make-up. Powers of Horror was new to me when I began writing this review, but after wading into the boggy waters of its Franco-Bulgarian post-structuralism, I can say that, aside from being a powerfully visceral read, it spawned many of the questions this novel is wrestling with. “On close inspection,” Kristeva writes, “all literature is probably a version of the apocalypse” — a response to the abject. For Kristeva, the abject is the sense of horror when the division between subject (the self) and object (the observed) dissolves, a transgression or breakdown of borders echoed when the apocalyptic endings of these films bleed out of their frames and screens.
Perhaps Laing’s destruction of these films is a response to these encounters with the abject, where, as Kristeva writes, “meaning collapses.” The narrator’s own encounter with the abject seems to be the death of his daughter; like empathy in extremis, to encounter death, Kristeva wrote, is to suddenly understand our own base corporeality, an experience that erases so many of the illusions that sustain us. For both Laing and the narrator, these encounters, and the “voids” they open up, have given their lives if not meaning then form, just as Kristeva writes about art being a kind of scar tissue over the abject that at once hides and highlights. The narrator’s experience, however, is never center stage as Laing’s is; it always occupies a moment that we fall into amidst one or another wormhole sentence:
Laing is not so good at transitions. As soon as he finishes describing Destroyer he starts in on another film, Black Star. At the time I chalked this up to his age, but even then I knew there was something else at work, and that Laing’s rough transitions between films — his inability or unwillingness to provide connective tissue — was really the equivalent of the rough jump cuts in the films he loves, the films he loved so much he had to destroy, and that my own desire to fill the voice of her loss (a void that had nonetheless given my life its shape) was the very reason I had come out here to find Laing as if somehow he could replace the blank and final fact of Emily’s death with something else, some mystery, the mystery that her life was or would have been had she lived.
The jump-cut analogy the narrator uses to understand Laing’s transition-less descriptions of these films also echoes the theory of montage first articulated by Sergei Eisenstein, the pioneering Soviet filmmaker of the silent era who provides this novel with its first epigraph: “So, montage is conflict.” An early and prolific film theorist as well, Eisenstein explained, in “The Dramaturgy of Film Form,” that “montage is not an idea composed of successive shots stuck together but an idea that derives from the collision between two shots that are independent of one another (the ‘dramatic’ principle).” Laing is enacting this collision, creating meaning not with discrete films but with their encounter, the space between.
The novel pulls us forward with a growing unease, a sense that the closer we get to answers — answers theoretically in (or between) the films themselves, answers about Laing, about the narrator, about what they both hope to solve — the further away from truly understanding them we’ll be, like looking closer and closer at a pointillist painting. And yet, the book is, at its most literal level, two men sitting in a room, one summarizing movies to the other. For a novel, this is an audacious act of constraint, and like all narrative constraints it grants a strange freedom of movement, often in a direction you never thought possible. Nicholson Baker’s The Mezzanine, for example, a novel about a man going up an escalator, constrains physical movement to reveal the endlessly branching kinesis of thought; and Thomas Bernhard’s monologue novels burst with demented polyphony. While this is Rombes’s first novel, as a film theorist he’s already been using constraint to shape his scholarship. Earlier this year he published a book titled 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, the premise of which sounds almost Oulipian: Rombes pauses a film at the 10-minute mark, the 40-minute mark, and the 70-minute mark, and writes just about the three single frames he’s left with. As the subtitle suggests, this is not just an exercise in constraint, but an investigation into the collision — and the possibilities this collision opens up — between two media: the movement of film and the control of digital.
The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing explores a slightly different collision: between image and word, the visuals of film and their exegesis. We see this conflict first in the narrator’s understanding of Laing as “a man who staved off disorder and chaos by sorting, by documenting, by naming.” There is something about all these films that escapes words. For Laing, the ineffable, all that words fail to capture and control, is both terrifying and alluring, and so he attempts “to destroy the regime of the image.”
One of the few clear and sustained glimpses we have of the narrator’s void, the death of his daughter, comes when he returns to Laing’s motel for a second day of interviewing. Laing appears to be gone but a red X has been painted above his door, reminding us of the red lines —searing, sun-like— that appear at the end of the films Laing has burned. Looking at the red X, the narrator feels: 
the presence of my daughter Emily so strongly, so intensely, as if she had not died at age nine but instead lived and blossomed into a young woman beside me now, making the adventure complete, snapping pictures of the marked door as if it was too dangerous (“hot,” she’d say, “it’s too hot”) and we needed to keep our distance and not look at the door directly in the same way you shouldn’t stare at the sun.
An imagined presence, a person as hypothetical, is perhaps a more haunting ghost than a literal specter could ever be, as it opens up a void, enacts a reality that is now simply impossible.
The narrator imagines Emily as the documenter of the visual, while he, the journalist, is left to turn it into words. So when Laing cites a (perhaps fictional) essay by Lionel Trilling “where he says something like, maybe cinema will be able to step in and do what literature is no longer able to do: tell the truth about life,” we begin to recognize this scene of two men, who have suffered and inflicted immeasurable loss, as a scene of two men cycling back to and interrogating scenes and images for some elusive scrap of truth, a desperate attempt to recapture and articulate images now lost. The narrator writes, in the middle of another wormhole sentence, that,
those films whose fleeting traces of beauty can now only be conjured in words, as if the words could approximate the images and edits and cuts anymore than my words can make Emily—with her in-turned left foot and slight lisp and yellow plastic butterfly barrettes that held back her unwashed hair—anymore than my words can make her real for you like she was real for me . . .
This desire for words to reincarnate the lost resonates profoundly in the novel’s final pages, which provide the absolution of the title. While an absolution normally connotes closure, this absolution is inextricably bound up with new questions, leaving readers with a profound and unsettling sense of mystery. Indeed, after considerable time with this book, I still can’t say exactly what it’s doing or how it’s doing it. I want to keep thinking about it knowing I’ll never fully understand it, and I consider that the highest praise. Like the best of Borges (Borges, another film scholar and curator of secret histories), this novel has the erudite and exegetic tone that suggests answers and solutions, while understanding that riddles don’t resonate because of their answers, but because of what they ask.
- Kevin Allardice

Interview with Nicholas Rombes: "I write what I would love to read" 

In the mid-‘90s, a rare-film librarian at a state university in Pennsylvania mysteriously burns his entire stockpile of film canisters and disappears.  So starts the novel The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing by Nicholas Rombes. In his novel, Rombes explores the intertwining of life and cinema through a interview with a highly acclaimed but eccentric film librarian, Roberto Acestes Laing. We had a chance to talk with Rombes to talk about film and fiction, as well as other topics like music and his nonfiction. Be sure to also check out our excerpt from The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing.
Weird Fiction Review: What writers or stories have influenced you and your fiction writing? 
Nicholas Rombes: Growing up I loved Ray Bradbury and have a wonderful memory of the first time I found his shelf at our local bookstore. This would have been in the mid-‘70s and the covers of the paperbacks meant so much, too. The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, The October Country. There was one short story in particular, “The Veldt,” which I think I read in The Illustrated Man, that held — and holds — such sway over my imagination. In college there were several books that shook me to the core, especially McTeague, by Frank Norris. The novel is so realistic and brutal that it feels almost supernatural, as if to suggest that if you look close enough at our own world without blinking it will reveal itself in all its alien qualities. There are monsters among us. You don’t need to off this planet to find aliens. They are us. The other book was Eudora Welty’s One Writer’s Beginnings, which just beautifully takes you into another person’s life and world and I think was the first time I felt how the power of words could make you cross out of your own life bounded by your own experiences and enter imaginatively into the world of another person whose life is so much different from yours.
Other books that shaped my writing — especially the Laing novel — include Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, Barry Gifford’s Wild at Heart, Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants, Brian Evenson’s Last Days, Jean-Patrick Manchette’s The Prone Gunman, and Julia Kristeva’s Powers of Horror. And there are three books of poetry that just gutted me and cleared space to move forward: Dana Levin’s In the Surgical Theatre, Olena Kalytiak Davis’s And Her Soul Out of Nothing, and most recently Cynthia Cruz’s In the Glimmering Room.
WFR: How would you define or describe your personal aesthetic as a writer, in your own words?
NR: I write what I would love to read. I’m very fortunate that I have the time to write, and I don’t take that gift — time — lightly. When it’s all clicking and coming together on the page there is nothing like it. It’s an adventure to fall into the narrative world as you are creating it and it’s in those moments that the typing can’t come fast enough to contain that feeling of falling. I revise a lot at the line level, beginning each day looking back over the previous day’s pages and circling back to words or passages that sound off. That’s especially important for a novel like Laing, which was written over the period of 20+ years. Just trying to keep, as a writer, in the moment of the book itself requires entering into the writing process each day so you don’t loose the atmosphere of the book.
WFR: How did the The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing come about? When did you write it? Where did you get the idea for it?
NR: The Laing novel is something I began in the early ‘90s, at Penn State. I had gotten into a knife fight and stupidly treated my own wounds rather than going to the hospital. It was a month of transformation and on the other side of that I began to write what would become Laing. The section “The Story of A. (Laing’s Digression” dates from that time. The idea came from wondering what it would be like if some of the directors I admired had made films from outside the genres they typically worked in. What if, for instance, David Lynch directed a war film set in the 1940s? That was the initial idea. I also was interested in the idea of misremembering and how we seem to be losing the ability to do that in the digital age with all its archives. For most of my life the films I saw as a child and young man weren’t easily available for repeat viewing and in my memory they became different — sometimes just slightly different — from what they were. I probably saw the original 1968 Planet of the Apes when I was eight or nine, sometime around 1973 or ’74. It would have been on WTOL-TV in Toledo, which ran a program in the afternoons called “The Big Show” that featured movies (Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Hombre, etc.) edited for television. I didn’t see it again until recently — clips are available, like everything, just a click away online — and of course it was much different than what I had remembered. I preferred the way I remembered that film as opposed to the way it really was, and I was interested in exploring this gap in the book.
WFR: I noticed that most of your previous work is nonfiction. When and why did you decide to transition to fiction instead? 
NR: I’ve written fiction that I’ve never sent out for a long time, and published some poetry and short stories off and on, but the transition to fiction began in earnest with the Laing novel and, later, with A Cultural Dictionary of Punk (Bloomsbury, 2009), a non-fiction book that nevertheless has an alter ego author — Ephraim P. Noble — who rails against punk and writers “like me” and who took on a life of his own. I found his voice liberating, and that’s when I began serious revisions on Laing, which had expanded to over 200,000 words before I took some major surgical tools to it and winnowed it down to its white hot core of around 60,000 words.
WFR: Film plays a central role in The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing so I was wondering if you could point us to some films that you’d recommend for those of us who enjoyed the book or perhaps some films that influenced your work.
NR: I love genre films because the best of them offer sheer entertainment that often disguises bigger, deeper ideas. I don’t mean self-consciously generic films like Interstellar, but smaller ones like John Carpenter’s They Live, Roman Polanski’s The Tenant, or Gus Van Sant’s Gerry. Through the ready-made scaffolding of genre (science fiction, horror, the road movie) films like find a way to use that scaffolding to explore provocative ideas. And there is nothing better than getting lost in a film from a country that you’ve never visited or know little about. For me, four films by the Japanese director Kiyoshi Kurosawa—Cure (1997), Charisma (1999), Pulse (2001), and Doppelganger (2003) — embody the uncanny like no other films I can think of. The familiar made unfamiliar. And the taken-for-granted customs and tics and rituals of Japanese society add another level of unfamiliarity that’s disorienting the best sort of way. I return to these Kurosawa films again and again because I feel like I’m missing something in the smallest of things, the gestures between characters, the setting of a table for dinner, small talk on a roof overlooking a city. All these small moments are both routine and utterly alien.
WFRPulse (aka Kairo) is one of my favorite movies but I haven’t seen Kurosawa’s other films.
NR: Cure is definitely the one to see. The other two–Doppelganger and Charisma–are both excellent but the mood is not as singular as in the other two.
WFR: I know your interest in films has influenced your fiction but what about your interest in punk rock, Nirvana, the Ramones, and music in general? Any albums you’d recommend?
NR: Writing about punk was a remarkable experience as I came to appreciate the material conditions of music as I hadn’t before. Craig Leon, who produced the Ramones’s first album, talked about the technical side of trying to capture the energy and feeling of the band’s live performances without having the album “sound” live. The mic placement, track order, sound image — all these considerations and more created the sparky feeling of a live performance while still retaining the big studio sound. Details like that somehow make the music richer without demystifying it. The DIY spirit of punk has been such an inspiration for thousands of people, including me, for whom writing a novel is very much a DIY enterprise. There is something very open and democratic about the punk ethos and learning about it in detail for the 33 1/3 Ramones and Cultural Dictionary of Punk books was an inspiration.
WFR: What’s next for you?
NR: I’m blessed to be a professor and that keeps me plenty busy. I love teaching and the remarkable exchanges between what I know and what my students know. The classroom is not a static space but an open, dynamic one and when everything’s working just right it feels like the luckiest place on the planet to be. Non-teaching wise I’m working with the film production wing of Two Dollar Radio to bring my screenplay, The Removals, to life as a movie. There’s a wonderful set of collaborators working on it, including author Grace Krilanovich (The Orange Eats Creeps) and musician Mike Shiflet. I’m also at work on novel number two, The Insurgent, about a woman tasked with destroying an object that, let’s say, doesn’t react kindly in the face of its destruction.


Nicholas Rombes, 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory. Zero Books, 2014.

In an era of rapid transformation from analog to digital, how can we write about cinema in ways that are as fresh, surprising, and challenging as the best films are? In 10/40/70 Nicholas Rombes proposes one bold possibility: pause a film at the 10, 40, and 70-minute mark and write about the frames at hand, no matter what they are. This method of constraint—by eliminating choice and foreclosing on authorial intention—allows the film itself to dictate the terms of its analysis freed from the tyranny of pre-determined interpretation. Inspired by Roland Barthes’s notion of the “third meaning” and its focus on the film frame as an image that is neither a photograph nor a moving image, Rombes assumes the role of image detective, searching the frames for clues not only about the films themselves—drawn from a wide range of genres and time periods—but the very conditions of their existence in the digital age. 

For Nicholas Rombes, every film is an oracle. In 10/40/70, he proposes a new method of divination: stop the film at arbitrary points, and give a careful account of what you see. The result may be an intense formal analysis, or a new appreciation of narrative subtleties, or a kind of emotional weather report, or a dense train of subjective memories and associations. But in every case, Rombes uncovers unsuspected depths, and shows us cinema in a strange new light. ~ Steven Shaviro

With his 10/40/70 essays, Nicholas Rombes breaks the habitual cycles of film criticism, forcing himself to approach familiar films from odd angles. He delegates to chance the task of selecting a film’s defining images, and the results are a series of revealing observations about movies caught unawares; often, he finds new points of entry to films we all think we know inside out. 10/40/70 can find a film’s vulnerable spots, those moments we rarely notice, whose significance we only gather in freeze-framed close readings. Sometimes the images are well known fragments of the iconic scenes that comprise our shared film culture, but more frequently, they are the unsung or incidental pieces that hold a film together, unassuming but always ripe for re-examination. By bringing into focus these triptychs of framegrabs, Rombes finds fresh perspectives on well-known movies, and demonstrates that there may be riches buried in their every frame if we compel ourselves to look. ~ Dan North

Rombes dives into the self-imposed constraints of his critical project with both feet, and the result is an innovative splash. Arguing that "digital desire" predated digital cinema, this experiment in film writing pushes readers to re-frame our critical practices and to embrace new cinematic experiences and interpretive acts. We need more books like this. ~ Julia Leyda

The rise of the web has led to an explosion of film writing — Roger Ebert has called it “A Golden Age of Movie Critics.” I don’t disagree with him, but I also think it’s fair to say that with the exception of comments boards and social media, the web hasn’t changed the actual form of film writing that much. A few people (Matt Zoller Seitz, for example), are exploring long-form film criticism online through engagingly edited videos. And, of course, the web has brought David Bordwell’s essential essays exploring films through the history of their technologies, styles, and audience’s perceptual abilities to a much larger audience.
Another writer who is looking at films through an original lens is Nicholas Rombes, whose “10/40/70″ series at The Rumpus examines movies through the specific scenes occurring at those minute marks. It’s a concept that might seem more akin to a conceptual artwork by Steve McQueen or Douglas Gordon. In isolating and foregrounding individual moments, it also severely reduces the amount of textual information that can be employed in a discussion about a particular title. But the tight focus paradoxically reveals worlds of meaning — some having to do with the films and some not. And, it has the effect of liberating Rombes’ writing from many of film discourse’s most boring conventions. For example, here’s Rombes on the collision of the “10/40/70″ concept and The Host:

I find myself trapped by the very constraints that I myself have set. In this 10/40/70 of a monster movie, not one of the frame grabs captures the monster, or even any terrifying monster-related action. Does this mean that 10/40/70 is ailing, and in need of a liberalizing policy? Perhaps an exemption to the original constraints that might read something like this: In the case of a movie wherein the 10/40/70 method does not yield any images of crucial importance to the very plot and essence and reason-for-being of the movie, the author is permitted to select one extra frame that reveals a visual to illustrate an element of the movie’s central story arc.
Absolutely not. A resounding no. The liberalization of the 10/40/70 constraints would render the experiment useless. In fact, the original constraints are designed to detour the author away from the path-dependent comfort of writing about a film’s plot, the least important variable in cinema.
I was going to just write a regular blog post about Rombes and his series, but then I decided to instead do an email interview where I’d ask him directly some questions about his approach. The interview is below and you can check out his work here.

70 minutes into "Cleo from 5 to 7"

Why 10/40/70?  Why approach film criticism from this point of view, and what prompted the concept?
When I first started teaching film in the early 1990s, we’d screen them on via VHS tapes playing on VCRs hooked up to TV sets. Pausing a film for an extended period of time to look at the composition of a frame wasn’t practical. It was only with the advent of the DVD it and large-screen projection that it became feasible, in my film classes, to pause a film with clarity and really explore the meaning of the image. This—and an essay by Roland Barthes called “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills”—really transformed the way I thought about film. It was an obvious realization, but one I hadn’t thought about too much: that films are composed of discreet images, and these images have a photographic power of their own.
The idea that constraint can produce creativity—this is wonderful and liberating, especially as harnessed by the Dogme 95 filmmakers and in films like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark. I wondered how this might manifest itself in writing about film. This is the heart and soul of 10/40/70. Rather than pursue a pre-determined idea throughout a film, what if the film itself dictated its own terms? I was searching for a mode of writing about film that could be as experimental and unexpected as film itself. Liberation from the tyranny of writing about film with a pre-determined idea in mind. This is what I am after.
In the world of traditional screenwriting, the kind taught by Syd Field and Robert McKee, a page is a minute of screen time and minute 10 is the so-called “inciting incident.”  40 and 70 are less defined — ten minutes after Act One and a few pages before the end of the third act. Why these specific numbers, and have you developed your own unifying idea of film theory of narrative structure based on these observations?
It’s interesting that you’d ask that, because I hadn’t thought abut the correlation between film time and page time until the Blair Witch/House of Leaves column. But I certainly did want the project to select frames from near the beginning, middle, and end of most films. The other reason for the numbers 10/40/70 is purely semantic: I liked the one-, two-, three-syllable sound of it, and the way each number incorporated the beat of the previous number.
In terms of a unifying theory, what has been a surprise via the 10/40/70 method is how radically unpredictable most films are at the level of sheer image, and how resistant they are to imposed interpretation. In terms of narrative arc, it’s true, many films follow a familiar pattern. But on the level of image, you never quite know what you’re going to get with 10/40/70.
Does the 10/40/70 principle isolate and reduce, or does it find the whole within the parts?
With some films, I’m hoping that the 10/40/70 principle finds the whole within the parts. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t, which I think means it’s working like it should, as a sort of random-generator of meaning. The method works best when it isolates and reduces, so that unexpected meaning blossoms in a field of familiarity.
Do you sometimes find yourself at odds with your concept? I notice some weeks you adhere to the “strict constructionist” application of the concept, while other weeks are more expansive, drawing in broader historical and artistic commentary.
Your question cuts to the heart of it all. Yes, I fight the concept all the time, especially when the film does not yield what I expect it to yield. A good example is The Host. I very much wanted to write about that monster-tadpole. But it didn’t show up. This turned out to be good, because it forced me to address different aspects of the film, ones I hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes certain frames allow for broader commentary beyond the literal frame, and sometimes they lock you into the frame itself. This is a real tension in the 10/40/70 method that always threatens to explode. At the 40-minute mark of Out of the Past, for instance, I felt that Ann’s gaze touched on a recurring visual logic in the film, so I talked a bit about that.
How do you select the films?
Part of the 10/40/70 goal is to disrupt the intentions of the film critic or writer. So I try to select films from different genres, time periods, nationalities, so that the project doesn’t become a study of one particular film trend, genre, style, etc. Having said that, the films so far are all narrative films, and they do reflect something about me. If I could erase that element, I would. Ideally—and I’d like to try this as the project continues—the films themselves would also be selected via the 10/40/70 method. For instance, I could select the 10th, 40th, and 70th film released by date in, say, 1977. Now that I’ve said it, I’m going to have to do it.
As a result of doing this column, when you watch a film now, are you waiting for and then focusing on the 10/40/70 minute marks?
It’s always in the back of my head. You begin looking for the beauty and surprise not of a film’s plot or overall style, but at the level of image. I recently saw Square in the theater, but it was such a tight, powerful film that I soon was lost in its world, and didn’t once think about 10/40/70. I was overpowered by the film, though I resisted. I like a fight like that.

70 minutes into "The Descent"

When you go back and look at an old film, one you’ve seen before, and apply the 10/40/70 method, are you ever surprised by the scenes that come up? Does your memory ever reorder the scenes so that their actual chronology is unexpected when you go back and review them?
Yes—when I watched The Descent again for the 10/40/70 project, I had remembered the first “green light” scene coming much earlier in the film. Often a scene will throw me off balance, especially when it comes right before or after an iconic, memorable scene. It’s almost as if the most iconic movie scenes function like black holes, pulling in and absorbing the meaning of the surrounding scenes. It’s these in-between moments, otherwise overlooked, that 10/40/70 can, with chance, discover.
Are you able to extrapolate about genre, or mode of production, as a result of doing this column? Are patterns emerging?
Strange as this may sound, I’m trying not to find patterns, at least yet. If I’m lucky enough to make it to 100 columns, I plan to create a database of images. I’d have the 100 images from 10 minutes, 40 minutes, and 70 minutes, and classify them according to parameters like close-up/medium-shot/long-shot, action or static, etc. An attempt to find meaning in randomness. Old habits die hard.
- filmmakermagazine.com/10521-104070s-nicholas-rombes-interviewed/#.U38hHZ29TIU

Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

Nicholas Rombes’s “10/40/70″ series is one of the freshest, most boundary-pushing bouts of film criticism in years, a collection of essays on films analyzing only the content of single frames occurring at the ten, 40 and 70-minute marks. Originally published, at The Rumpus, they are now published in 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, an essential collection from Zero Books.
The book is prefaced with an apt quote from Jean Baudrillard: “As for ideas, everyone has them. What counts is the poetic singularity of the analysis.” That singularity is here in ample supply, as Rombes’s excursions venture inside and outside the frames, veering across theory, business analysis, memoir and, often, literature (Herman Melville, Sinclair Lewis and Mark Z. Danielewski all make appearances here) as these disciplines are provoked by people, objects or just ideas found in the frames.
Back in 2010 I interviewed Rombes about the project, and we discussed some of the unexpected results of his chosen formal constraint, such as the fact that the monster in Bong Joon-ho’s The Host doesn’t make an appearance in any of the three frames. Here’s Rombes from our interview:
Filmmaker: Do you sometimes find yourself at odds with your concept? I notice some weeks you adhere to the “strict constructionist” application of the concept, while other weeks are more expansive, drawing in broader historical and artistic commentary.
Rombes: Your question cuts to the heart of it all. Yes, I fight the concept all the time, especially when the film does not yield what I expect it to yield. A good example is The Host. I very much wanted to write about that monster-tadpole. But it didn’t show up. This turned out to be good, because it forced me to address different aspects of the film, ones I hadn’t noticed before. Sometimes certain frames allow for broader commentary beyond the literal frame, and sometimes they lock you into the frame itself. This is a real tension in the 10/40/70 method that always threatens to explode. At the 40-minute mark of Out of the Past, for instance, I felt that Ann’s gaze touched on a recurring visual logic in the film, so I talked a bit about that.
In addition to the 10/40/70 essays, Constraint as Liberation contains three additional pieces found at the beginning, half way and end points. These essays travel from film theory — particularly a reclamation and re-radicalization of Andre Bazin as the patron saint of a surveillance-age, DV-enabled long-take realism — through personal memoir (strange inter-personal occurrences surrounding the watching of a David Lynch film and Rombes’s fixation on the visage of French theorist Julia Kristeva).
Rombes talks about the book in an excellent, wide-ranging Bomb Magazine interview with Andrew Gallix. Here they discuss the role of the DVD player in not only Rombes’ practice but in The Removals, a screenplay he’s written for Grace Krilanovich to direct.
AG: Post-VCR technology has transformed film theory, but has it also influenced film practice? Was this something you took on board when writing the script for The Removals, directed by Grace Krilanovich?
NR: Yes, in the sense that I still don’t believe we’ve acclimatized to the radical displacement of actually seeing and hearing ourselves broadcast back to us, as film made possible only a little over a hundred years ago. This displacement—or removal—of ourselves from ourselves was first made adjustable by the VCR and other early forms of image playback technology. The Removals is a thriller in the sense that it’s about the revenge of this second or third or fourth copy or iteration of ourselves on ourselves. Robert B. Ray has written elegantly—in How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies—about how film theory, especially in the US, suffered a blow to the imagination by adopting a vague sort of social sciences approach to hermeneutics. One of his suggestions is to view film theory as a form of radical experimentation. What would happen, say, if I adopted the editing style of film X as a method of inquiry? The overall goal is to find something new and unexpected, not just in the film itself, but in the writing about the film.

One of Rombes’ points in the book is that the “10/40/70″ markers have multiple metaphoric meanings, one simply being their inevitable allusions to youth, middle and old ages. Indeed, the final beauty of Rombes’ conceit may be this final revelation, where life itself is just another form of cinema:
AG You suggest that the true, ultimate long take may be human perception itself: “a lifespan unfolding in real time, punctuated by cuts and fade-outs that take the form of blinking and sleeping and forgetting.” What’s at stake for you in film criticism is far more than just film criticism, isn’t it? I’m thinking especially of passages where you apply the 10/40/70 method to your own memories: “There was yet no logic. No 10/40/70. No sense that images could be tamed only to be let loose among their tamers.” Could you comment upon that last quote, which reminds me a little of Raymond Queneau’s definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”?
NR There was a deep sadness that accompanied the writing and assembling of the book, and your question touches on the nature of that sadness, which I think has to do with realizing that theory—whether it’s 10/40/70 or any theory—is an attempt on some level to structure and impose some sort of narrative coherence on our very selves and memories. Our brains are the most vicious total cinema machines of all. Our continual efforts when awake and when sleeping to work out the past, to smooth it into layers of meaning, must certainly wear the gears down until we can’t even hear or feel them moving. Forced into a high level of concentration we come to realize that it’s not films we’re talking about, but ourselves. Our fingerprints are already over everything.

10/40/70 #37: Marnie

This ongoing experiment in film writing freezes a film at 10, 40, and 70 minutes, and keeps the commentary as close to those frames as possible. This week, I examine Marnie, directed by Alfred Hitchcock (1964):

10 minutes
Marnie (Tippi Hedren), visiting her mother, suffers one of her red-flash anxiety attacks upon seeing red gladiolas on a table. “I never could stand gladiolas,” she says as she walks over to replace them, which this shot captures. Released in July 1964, the film’s shooting schedule (slated to begin November 25, 1963) was delayed in the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination, and indeed the film itself is haunted by a sadness and humorlessness that in some way absorbs the national mood at the time. (The film was shot in studios in California at various locations around the U.S.) That tension is evident in Marnie’s face, which rarely shows a smile. The red she approaches with terror in this frame and throughout the film is not just a visible sign of her childhood trauma (she murdered, at age 6, a man she saw fighting with her mother the prostitute) but also, a weird way, Presidential blood. And for audiences at the time living at the height of the Cold War (the Cuban Missile crisis had occurred just two years earlier) red wavers a dangerous, unstable, coded sign for the other Red. And then there is the little neighbor girl, Jessie, peering from behind the doorway, a substitute Marnie who sort-of lives with Marnie’s mother. This frame captures Marnie caged by three gazes: the little girl’s, her mother’s (off-screen right) and the camera’s. In other words, Marnie is right where Hitchock wants her, just like he wanted all his screen women: pinned and tormented by the the relentless Gaze.

40 minutes
Having just come from the racetrack, Marnie and the wealthy publisher Mark Rutland (Sean Connery), the man she will marry soon, are on their way to visit Mark’s father, whom Marnie is about to meet for the first time. This catches her by surprise, and she worries that she’s not dressed properly for the occasion. It’s a small moment that reveals the complex power dynamics at play in the film, for just as Mark exerts control over Marnie by throwing her off balance with small but authoritarian gestures like this, so too Marnie has her own secret knowledge, her own trap to spring to Mark after their marriage, as he has little awareness at this point of the depth of her madness. “At the opposite pole to this nature of darkness,” Michel Foucault has written, “madness also exerts a fascination because it is knowledge.”
And there also is the gravitational pull of Sean Connery to account for, who was the face of James Bond, having appeared in From Russia with Love that same year, and Dr. No previously. It is perhaps not possible to watch Marnie while forgetting that it is Sean Connery—not James Bond—playing Mark Rutland and this fact casts the film with an aura of artificiality that only strengthens the dream-like quality of the film. Of all of Hitchock’s films, Marnie is the most bold when it comes to functioning as a traditional narrative film that pulls us in through the classic strategies of invisible editing, while at the same time exposing its own artifice. Hitchcock’s post-1960 films for the most part stubbornly refused the visual anarchy of the French New Wave and hand-held cinema vertité which informed another film released in 1964, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night. In shots like this, which depended on rear-camera projection, Hitchcock doesn’t seem to be seeking realism so much as a symbolic, elegant expression of realism.

70 minutes
On their honeymoon, on a cruise, Mark discovers that not only does Marnie not want to sleep with him, but she doesn’t even want to be touched by him. “Don’t—please don’t,” she pleads with him at this moment. In the trip-wired logic of the film, Marnie exists at this moment as the female “hysteric” in need of being cured by the same beast that wrecked her: a man. But she also exists, if less clearly, as the coming woman of the new Age of Aquarius, resisting—and let’s just be frank—being fucked by a man. For the whole film is really a giant narrative equation trying solve the problem of: why doesn’t Marnie want to have sex? But while it’s tempting to see the movie as a yet another Hollywood male fantasy, it’s also true that the sheer power of Hedren’s iron-willed performance is so overwhelming and focused that we can’t help but identify more strongly with Marnie than with Mark. For Marnie has some serious problems, which means, in other words, that she’s recognizably human in all her flaws. She is us, and despite the narrative momentum towards her “cure,” she can no more be cured than being human can be cured.
The difference between Marnie in 1964 and Marnie in, say, 1967, is that in 1964 her combustive personality is still repressed, controlled, in the same way that Hitchcock’s visual style remained controlled in the face of the coming anarchy of the New American Cinema, epitomized by films like Easy Rider (1969). Even as he was a hero and an inspiration to the directors of the French New Wave, especially Truffaut and Godard, the tightly controlled formalist universe of his films stood in contrast to the restless “mistakism” of the new wave. In an essay published in Cahiers du cinéma just before the release of Breathless (1960), Godard wrote:
Broadly speaking there are two kinds of film-makers. Those who walk along the streets with their heads down, and those who walk with their heads up. In order to see what is going on around them, the former are obliged to raise their heads suddenly and often, turning to the left and then the right, embracing the field of vision in a series of glances. They see. The latter see nothing, they look, fixing their attention on the precise point which interests them. When the former are shooting a film, their framing is roomy and fluid (Rossellini), whereas with the latter it is narrowed down to the last millimetre (Hitchcock). With the former (Welles), one finds a de ́coupage which may be loose but is remarkably open to the temptations of chance; with the latter (Lang), camera movements not only of incredible precision in the set but possessing their own abstract value as movements in space.
Marnie is perhaps the closest Hitchcock ever got to matching form and content in a film, as Marnie’s repression (her caged body language and the position of her left arm and hand in the 70-minute frame) is mirrored in the tightly controlled montage of the film’s visual style. Some of these techniques, which were already becoming anachronistic by 1964, included extensive use of rear projection and matte shots, which have a weird, double-effect on the film. These formal strategies, by 1964, called attention to themselves as artificial, and were just a few cultural moments shy of becoming camp. “The center cannot hold,” Joan Didion wrote in 1967 and in Marnie you can see and feel its disintegration, burning through the screen, as the black hole gravity of the late Sixties destroyed all the old forms, only to make them new again.
Constraint as liberation, knife-wielding film scholars, and the human brain as total cinema machine.
Still from the ten-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.
Still from the ten-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

There was a time when movies lived up to their name. They moved along and, once set in motion, were unstoppable until the end — like life itself. What you missed was gone, lost forever, unless you sat through another screening, and even what you had seen would gradually fade away or distort along with your other memories. I recently happened upon a YouTube clip from a film I had first watched in 1981. I thought I knew the scene well, but it turned out to be radically different from my recollection: the original was but a rough draft of my own version, which I had been mentally honing for more than three decades. Such creative misremembering — reminiscent of Harold Bloom’s “poetic misprision” — is now threatened by our online Library of Babel.
According to Nicholas Rombes, who is spearheading a new wave of film criticism, movies surrendered much of their “mythic aura” when they migrated from big screens to computers via television. Indeed, since the appearance of VCR, spectators have been able to control the way movies are consumed by fast-forwarding, rewinding, and — most importantly, at least for digital film theorists — pausing. If such manipulations run counter to the magic evanescence of the traditional cinematic experience, Rombes manages to recast the still frame as a means of creative defamiliarization and re-enchantment. In 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory, he freezes movies at ten, forty, and seventy minutes. The resulting motionless pictures take on the eerie quality of Chris Marker’s 1962 masterpiece La Jetée, famed for its cinematic use of still photography. But soon the frozen frames Rombes burrows into start to move again — and in mysterious ways. They are rabbit holes leading to subterranean films within films.
In the bowels of an appropriately warren-like cinema, I met up with Rombes, whose criticism, artwork, and fiction are taking on the shape of a beautifully intricate Gesamtkunstwerk. Over several (too many?) espressos, we mapped out the treacherous critical terrain he excavates in this latest book. The danger “of staring too long into frozen images” and the fear of being swallowed up by gaps between frames were visible in his eyes.
Andrew Gallix For you, digital film theory is an attempt to retrieve something — “traces of something that was always there, and yet always hidden from view.” From this perspective, the 10/40/70 method has led to a significant discovery: the importance of what you call “unmotivated shots” — shots that do not strictly advance the storyline but, rather, contribute to the general mood. You go so far as to say that such moments, when directors seem to be shooting blanks, are “at the heart of most great movies.” In The Antinomies of Realism, critic and theorist Fredric Jameson argues that the nineteenth-century realist novel was a product of the tension between an age-old “storytelling impulse” and fragments through which the “eternal affective present” was being explored in increasingly experimental ways. Can we establish a parallel here with your two types of shots — plot versus mood? Are these unmotivated shots the expression of a film’s eternal affective present, perhaps even of its subconscious?
Nicholas Rombes This opens up a really fascinating set of questions about cinema’s emergence coinciding with the height of realism as both an aesthetic and as a general way of knowing the world. I’ll backtrack just a bit. In his 1944 essay “Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today,” Sergei Eisenstein explored the relationship between Dickens-era realism and montage in cinema as pioneered by D. W. Griffith, specifically in his use of parallel editing. Eisenstein quotes Griffith explicitly acknowledging that he borrowed the method of “a break in the narrative, a shifting of the story from one group of characters to another group” from his favorite author, Charles Dickens. And that tension between the ever-present affective experience of watching a film or reading a book and the internal world of narrative time is beautifully explored in Seymour Chatman’s Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. He draws a distinction between “story” (events, content) and “discourse” (expression). I prefer Chatman to Jameson here only because there is a boldness and a confidence to Chatman’s structuralist rendering with its charts, diagrams, and timelines. But yes, the messy correlation between the informational mode of a film still and the affective mode is a mystery. For me, a sort of enforced randomness — selecting the seventy-minute mark, no matter what — is an investigative tool for prying open this mystery. The element of chance is key. This method of investigation is opposed to hermeneutics, insofar as it approaches the text backwards. That is, rather than beginning with an interpretive framework, it begins with a single image I had no control over selecting. Whatever I’m going to say about the image comes after it’s been made available to me, rather than me searching for an image to illustrate or validate some interpretation or reading I bring to it.
AG The seventy-minute-mark screen grab of The Blair Witch Project (1999) just happens to be “the single most iconic image of the film,” but such serendipity is rare. In the case of a monster movie like The Host (2006), for instance, the 10/40/70 method fails to yield a single picture of the creature. As a result, your approach tends to defamiliarize films by pointing to the uncanny presence of other films within them — phantom films freed from the narcotic of narrative:
Such moments could be cut or trimmed without sacrificing the momentum of the plot, and yet the cast-in-poetry filmmakers realize that plot and mood are two sides of the same coin and that it is in these in-between moments — the moments when the film breaks down, or pauses — where the best chances for transcendence lie. [...] It is in moments like these that films can approximate the random downtimes of our own lives, when we are momentarily freed from the relentless drive to impose order on chaos.
As this quote makes clear, your constrained methodology is “designed to detour the author away from the path-dependent comfort of writing about a film’s plot, the least important variable in cinema.” It is often a means of exploring the “infra-ordinary” — what happens in a film when nothing happens, when a movie seems to be going through the motions. One thinks of Georges Perec, of course, but also of Karl Ove Knausgaard, who recently explained that he wanted “to evoke all the things that are a part of our lives, but not of our stories — the washing up, the changing of diapers, the in-between-things—and make them glow.” When such in-between moments lose their liminality, do they become “moments of being” (to hijack Virginia Woolf’s expression) during which a movie simply is?
NR I think they do, and I very much like that phrase from Woolf. At the heart of this is the notion that films — all films — are documentaries in the sense that they are visual records of their own production. In a narrative film, for instance Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England (2013), we have a documentary record of so many things: the actors playing their roles; the landscape, whether natural or constructed; and of course filmic technology itself, insofar as the film is created with equipment that, in recording the narrative, is also leaving behind traces of itself. This is much easier to see in older films that are historically removed from us (i.e., a Griffith film “looks” filmic and reminds us of the technologies of, say, 1906 or 1907) or films that call for immediate and sustained attention to the process of their production (again, The Blair Witch Project). And, in that sense, as documentaries, I like to think that no matter how controlled, how airtight, how totalizing their efforts to minimize chance are, there will always be gaps, fissures, eruptions of the anarchy of everyday life. Even in something so small as the accidental twitch of an actor’s face, or the faint sound of a distant, barking dog that “shouldn’t” be in the film but is, or the split-second pause in a actor’s line and the worry that crosses her face that suggests she is really thinking about something else, something far apart and far away from the movie at hand. And so that’s one of the things I’m hoping to capture in pausing at ten, forty, and seventy minutes, though any numbers would do.
AG What was experimental in the context of the nineteenth-century novel has long been deemed conservative in the field of film. This, you argue, is due to “the near-total triumph of montage,” which “mutilated reality” through its depiction of “fractured time.” But Eisenstein-style dialectic montage is now the “dominant mode of advertising and a tool of media industry” — think “fast-paced cutting and MTV.” This led, by way of opposition, to the rise of neo-realist “long-take aesthetics,” ushered in by digital cinema, paradoxically a technology once thought to “represent a final break with the real.” Could you talk us through this?
NR The single-shot films of the Lumière brothers, though most lasted less than a minute, contained no cuts: they were continuous, real-time shots. These early films are often discussed as “actualities,” which is not helpful in that it suggests that cinema evolved out of this into its “inevitable” status as narrative/fiction, a supposed higher-order form of storytelling. Although it’s been an enormously productive way to think about early single-take cinema, it’s also created a binary that privileges so-called artifice (“art”) over so-called naive representations of reality. For André Bazin, long-take aesthetics, based in the Lumière films, are in some ways a moral act, one that had the radical potential to reveal, rather than to obscure, God’s created world. In his 1955 essay “In Defense of Rossellini,” he wrote:
[T]o have a regard for reality does not mean that what one does in fact is to pile up appearances. On the contrary, it means that one strips the appearances of all that was not essential, in order to get at the totality in its simplicity.
It’s easy to see why Bazin came under such withering assault by the post-structuralists in the 1960s and 70s, for whom words like “essential” were anathema, and for whom reality itself was always already a construct. And yet, a society gets the technology it deserves, and Bazin could only praise the long takes he was given — those in the films of Orson Welles, for instance, or Theodor Dreyer. This was an era when the typical motion picture camera magazine only held enough film for a ten to twelve-minute shot. So I would say that we have come full circle. Films like Alexander Sokurov’s Russian Ark (2002) show that narrative film can be made without any montage.
Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.
Still from the forty-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

AG One of your sources of inspiration was Roland Barthes’s 1970 essay, “The Third Meaning: Research Notes on Some Eisenstein Stills.” Do you share the French critic’s view that a static movie frame is neither a moving image nor a photograph?
NR Yes. One of the things Barthes suggests in that essay is that a “still is the fragment of a second text whose existence never exceeds the fragment; film and still find themselves in a palimpsest relationship without it being possible to say that one is on top of the other or that one is extracted from the other.” With digital cinema all sorts of wonderful complications come into play: in what sense, say, are film frames “frames” in digital filming, processing, and projection? And what’s the ontological status of an image that exists as ones and zeros? But no matter what the technology, the idea is the same: a “stilled” image from or of (in the case of a still versus a frame) a motion picture exists at a weird threshold, and, Barthes suggests, we might as well say that it’s not the paused image that’s extracted from the film, but the film itself which is extracted from the paused image. That’s the secret world I hoped to enter through intense scrutiny of an individual frame. This secret world, however, is perilous, and my own experience dwelling for so long in these film frames is that the tug of motion is sometimes still alive in them, perhaps like a cadaver that suddenly shudders for a moment with a trace of life. I found the experience altogether unsettling and even frightening.
AG Have you ever considered applying the 10/40/70 method to movies you’d never seen before? What kind of result would that produce, in your view?
NR I very much like this idea — sort of like flying blind. Without the context of having seen the movie to appreciate not just its plot but its texture and mood, the 10/40/70 method would coerce me into focusing even more on the formal qualities of the three frames in question. This would be especially true if it was a film that I not only hadn’t seen, but also had never even heard of before. Stripped of context, I wonder if the frames would assume something more akin to the status of photographic images, truly “stilled” in a way that’s impossible if you’re already familiar with the film.
AG Could you comment on the pleasing congruence between theory and practice — the “frozen moving image” being, as you point out, “the ultimate long take”? Something similar happens in the “Intermission” chapter, where your text mimics the split edit technique under discussion. In fact, one could argue that the 10/40/70 method itself produces a series of textual approximations of split edits. Is this continuity between writing and film a quest for a cinematographic writing style?
NR The theorists who’ve meant the most to me — such as Julia Kristeva, Roland Barthes, Jean Baudrillard, Laura Mulvey, Robert B. Ray, bell hooks, Eugene Thacker — perform their ideas through the shape and tenor of their prose, and that’s something I’ve aspired to, especially in 10/40/70, where the split edits between formal analysis, personal reflection, and theory hopefully generate, if only in flashes, the same sort of feeling you get when a film suddenly bares its teeth and shows you that it wasn’t what you thought it was. But I will also say there is a dark gravity at work in certain of the film frames, perhaps because portions of the book were written during a very low point for me. The film frame — motionless — doubling as a long take was an idea born of desperation, of staring too long into frozen images.
AG You quote André Bazin, for whom the power of a movie image should be judged “not according to what it adds to reality but to what it reveals of it.” Do you agree that this would provide an excellent description of your own analytical method, which is all about revealing something as yet unseen? On at least a couple of occasions, you acknowledge that there is “very little to say about [a] scene that is not outstripped by the scene itself.” On others, however, you adopt a more hands-on approach — by projecting a scene from The Passenger (1975) onto Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974), or by splicing together a movie and a novel — as though the 10/40/70 constraint were no longer enough.
NR Well, I do think some films theorize themselves and suffer from the words we use to untangle them. I’ve gotten in some terrible rows with colleagues about this over the years. In fact, one of the sections I deleted from the book described a knife fight between a fellow graduate student and myself at Penn State in 1992. It was about Wild at Heart (1990). After a long night of arguing and drinking Yuengling, I said something like, “that movie doesn’t need your theory because it’s already theorized itself,” then there was some unfortunate language that escalated into an actual, awkward fight with knives. Some film moments are diminished, rather than enlarged, by the words we bring to bear on them. As I’m answering this question I’m reading a novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation, and there’s a moment when the narrator realizes the enormity of the mystery she’s trying to understand: “But there is a limit to thinking about even a small piece of something monumental. You still see the shadow of the whole rearing up behind you.” For me, during the writing of 10/40/70, that shadow was the realization that the constraints I established were weak and insufficient against the tyranny of interpretive intention.
AG Your book is, among many other things, a rehabilitation of Bazin — what is his significance today? Could you explain what you mean when you claim that his “total cinema” is the “end point” of digital cinema?
NR Bazin was interested in excavating the desires that fueled the invention of moving images — desires that he suggests were based on a passion to create an utter and complete replication of nature. In his 1946 essay “The Myth of Total Cinema,” he suggests that what energized this desire was “the recreation of the world in its own image, an image unburdened by the freedom of interpretation of the artist or the irreversibility of time.” He says that the myth (i.e. the desire to replicate reality entirely) preceded the technology that made it possible. The tricky thing here is Bazin’s use of the term myth, which he doesn’t seem to equate with “false.” Instead, he almost suggests that this myth is achievable, as in his point that the flight of Icarus remained in the realm of myth only until the invention of the internal combustion engine. In this regard, Bazin occupies a fascinating and precarious place in film theory. While his approach has something in common with the later “apparatus theory,” which historicized film production, he decidedly didn’t share their assumptions about the ideological contamination of cinema’s very technology, instead framing that ideology within the larger and more important (for him) question of human desire and aspiration. By linking total cinema to a terminal, or end point, I’m wondering if we have achieved, on a symbolic level, Bazin’s notion of the recreation of the world in its own image. Doesn’t the surveillance state suggest this? On a practical level — and linking straight back to Bazin’s terms — it’s possible to have a camera, or multiple cameras, capture in a continuous, uninterrupted shot an object or a place and to keep recording this for as long and longer than you and I shall live. This one-to-one replication, to use Bazin’s term, of reality that unfolds contiguous with time itself, stretching decades with no interruption, with no need for interpretation, was not possible in Bazin’s era, except as a theory.
Still from the seventy-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.
Still from the seventy-minute mark of The Foreigner, 1978, Amos Poe.

AG You suggest that the true, ultimate long take may be human perception itself: “a lifespan unfolding in real time, punctuated by cuts and fade-outs that take the form of blinking and sleeping and forgetting.” What’s at stake for you in film criticism is far more than just film criticism, isn’t it? I’m thinking especially of passages where you apply the 10/40/70 method to your own memories: “There was yet no logic. No 10/40/70. No sense that images could be tamed only to be let loose among their tamers.” Could you comment upon that last quote, which reminds me a little of Raymond Queneau’s definition of Oulipians as “rats who build the labyrinth from which they plan to escape”?
NR There was a deep sadness that accompanied the writing and assembling of the book, and your question touches on the nature of that sadness, which I think has to do with realizing that theory — whether it’s 10/40/70 or any theory — is an attempt on some level to structure and impose some sort of narrative coherence on our very selves and memories. Our brains are the most vicious total cinema machines of all. Our continual efforts when awake and when sleeping to work out the past, to smooth it into layers of meaning, must certainly wear the gears down until we can’t even hear or feel them moving. Forced into a high level of concentration we come to realize that it’s not films we’re talking about, but ourselves. Our fingerprints are already over everything.
AG At times, the book does become darkly autobiographical. This appears to be the case towards the end of the piece on Lindsay Anderson’s If… (1968) and clearly is throughout your Lynchian “Intermission” and “Epilogue,” which often read like short stories. The screenplay you’ve written, The Removals, seems to be, if the teaser is anything to go by, about the gap between life and art, which all the major avant-garde movements of the twentieth century aspired to bridge. Please tell us about the interaction between criticism, autobiography, and fiction in your work in general, and your forthcoming novel, The Absolution of Roberto Acestes Laing, in particular.
NR I’m reluctant to talk about this, so forgive me if my answer is a bit elliptical. There are certain things that have happened to me that don’t seem possible, but that bear witness to truth. The terrible knife fight is one. Criticism, autobiography, and fiction are linked by the desire to uncover what lies beneath and, as you suggest, to fatefully go into the gap between art and life. Once you enter this gap you use every genre and mode of writing to close it, only to realize that in the process you’ve created something new, something in between life and art, and it’s so fragile you dare not talk about it. The Absolution of Robert Acestes Laing is about the frightful consequences of what happens when this gap decides it doesn’t want to be bridged and strikes back.
AG Your constraint-based approach was directly inspired by Dogme 95, but what about the Oulipians: how much of an influence were they? Were you, for instance, aware of the Oucinépo, launched by François Le Lionnais in 1974, which was later renamed Oucipo (Ouvroir de Cinématographie Potentielle) and appears to have done precious little? Could you also talk to us about other sources of inspiration: Laura Mulvey, certainly, but perhaps also Douglas Gordon’s art installation, 24 Hour Psycho?
NR Oulipo has always been a low-frequency inspiration, although I didn’t always know it. I think I was first introduced to them through Brian Eno and Brian Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies, and then worked my way back to Georges Perec. Oulipo must have been somewhere in the back of my mind when coming up with 10/40/70, but it was much more, as you say, the Dogme 95 movement that served as a direct inspiration. It seemed more outrageous to me, more difficult to get a handle on in terms of sincerity and irony. 24 Hour Psycho — yes, but also, now that I think about it, there was a more obscure and personal inspiration. Our children and their friends went through a phase when they were maybe eleven or twelve (this would have been in the early 2000s) when they used the term “random” in a sort of complimentary way. I distinctly remember my daughter Maddy saying, from the back of the car, “that’s so random, Dad!” in response to something I had said. It signaled to me — and I remember very strongly feeling this — that I was, for that one brief moment, in her world, that I had accidentally and momentarily become “cool” because what I had said was “random.” And the movies and video games and even music they were attracted to had elements of this feeling of randomness: sampling, the choose-your-own-adventure-first-person-exploration video games like Metroid Prime (2002) and TV shows like Lost (which debuted in 2004) and which had this feeling of randomness, chance, and risk.
AG You discuss the essentially random nature of the 10/40/70 constraint, but say nothing of the conscious choices that were made while composing this work. How did you go about selecting the films and their order of appearance in the book?
NR This is embarrassing, but prior to the book I had worked out what I thought was an arbitrary method for selecting films. This involved using the IMDB database of all films released in a certain year and having various acquaintances select one from each. But there were so many problems with that, not least of which is that for, say, 1997, there are over forty thousand movies listed, and what are movies anyway? Is a direct-to-TV movie a movie, or is a movie released directly to VOD a movie, or what about a movie made for TV but thought of as a motion picture — like Spielberg’s Duel (1971)? And there are thousands of porn titles listed there, too. And then there were other methods, including a Lev Manovich-like algorithm that used a database and random generator to select films. But finally all these seemed too impersonal and involved — a sort of fakery, a false sheen of objectivity. So I used the limits I had at hand: my own collection of films, which didn’t always represent my tastes because many of them I had purchased simply to illustrate a technique in my film class. My one strict rule was that once I selected a film, I’d write about it no matter what, no matter what it revealed, or didn’t reveal.
AG Perhaps you could say a few words about other similar projects like “The Blue Velvet Project” or “The 70s”?
NR The original idea for “The Blue Velvet Project” was to purchase a 35 mm print of the film, digitize it, and work on each frame, but of course there’s no way to do that in a lifetime, as there are close to 1,500 frames in just one minute of film time. This idea eventually morphed into the project that ran at Filmmaker for one year, where I stopped the film every forty-seven seconds, seized the image, and wrote about it. A goal there was to take a film I was familiar with and devise a method of writing about it that would, as much as possible, dispense with interpretive intention and to subject myself to the film’s interrogation. With “The 70s” I’ve opened the call to anyone who wants to send me a frame grab from the seventy-minute point of a film, partly to see whether there is any weird correspondence, affinity, or secret knowledge passed back and forth between films at seventy minutes.
AG Post-VCR technology has transformed film theory, but has it also influenced film practice? Was this something you took on board when writing the script for The Removals, directed by Grace Krilanovich?
NR Yes, in the sense that I still don’t believe we’ve acclimatized to the radical displacement of actually seeing and hearing ourselves broadcast back to us, as film made possible only a little over a hundred years ago. This displacement — or removal — of ourselves from ourselves was first made adjustable by the VCR and other early forms of image playback technology. The Removals is a thriller in the sense that it’s about the revenge of this second or third or fourth copy or iteration of ourselves on ourselves. Robert B. Ray has written elegantly — in How a Film Theory Got Lost and Other Mysteries in Cultural Studies — about how film theory, especially in the US, suffered a blow to the imagination by adopting a vague sort of social sciences approach to hermeneutics. One of his suggestions is to view film theory as a form of radical experimentation. What would happen, say, if I adopted the editing style of film X as a method of inquiry? The overall goal is to find something new and unexpected, not just in the film itself, but in the writing about the film.
AG Would you like to try your hand at directing some day? Perhaps you could ask Grace Krilanovich to write a script for you.
NR I have all the props to be a director: an eye patch, a Colt single-action Army revolver, and an ascot à la Dom DeLuise in Blazing Saddles. If I directed a film it would be incoherent, but hopefully in the way that Robin Wood uses that term in his great book Hollywood From Vietnam to Reagan.
AG Your earlier work, Cinema in the Digital Age, highlights the ways in which digital films were haunted by their analogue past. Do you think this is still the case?
NR Perhaps not so much as I thought when I wrote that book, and in fact I’m working on a new edition which will address just this question. I bring, as someone born in the 1960s, a certain generational perspective to the analogue/digital transformation, as it unfolded in real time for those of us from that era. But my university students today were born in the 1990s and came of age in the 2000s, on the digital side of history. Also, the haunting that I described, especially in self-consciously digital films, such as those from the Dogme 95 movement, seems to be characterized by suppression. It’s in the efforts to suppress vestiges of cinema’s analogue customs — mise-en-scène, depth of field, shot reverse-shot, etc. — that digital cinema, paradoxically, reveals traces of those very customs. In their absence, they remain. In Lars von Trier’s The Idiots (1998), for example, efforts at ugliness are undermined by our own weird form of metatextual tmesis, which Barthes described as skipping or skimming around in a text, rather than reading it word-for-word. In the sort of tmesis I’m thinking about, we as the audience sporadically fill in the empty spaces and derail The Idiots’ digital attempt to break free from analogue aesthetics: we substitute blank ugliness with mise-en-scène and we credit shaky camera movement. In this sense it may be that it is the spectator herself who haunts digital cinema.
AG Punk is another important point of reference we have failed to mention so far. You have written a book about The Ramones’s classic debut album and A Cultural Dictionary of Punk 1974-1982, as well as edited an anthology devoted to New Punk Cinema.
NR I’m almost ashamed to talk about punk, as I was drawn to it because it repelled me. I wanted to learn more about what this thing was that came along, then destroyed and made laughable the music that I loved. I read Greil Marcus’s Lipstick Traces and then Jon Savage’s England’s Dreaming, and I suppose, to be honest, I wanted to write heroically, as I felt they had. My goal in the 33 1/3 book, devoted to the first album by the Ramones, was to bring to bear upon that material a highly rigorous, almost exaggerated academic method and tone to try to capture what I felt was the cold, removed, distanced feeling of that album. For A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, I switched gears, and will be ever grateful to my editor David Barker (then at Continuum Publishers) who gave me full permission to drive the bus off the cliff, as it were, to see what the crash would look like. So there’s an alter ego in that book — Ephraim P. Noble — who despises punk and who writes some of the entries. But it’s also a heavily researched book, and I hope that it succeeds in drawing connections between the deep tissue of punk and other cultural forms that it corresponded to in coded ways.
AG To return to 10/40/70, does Zeno’s (the bar which casts a Lynchian shadow over the autobiographical “Intermission” chapter) really exist? It seems too good to be true, given that the Greek philosopher — a digital film theorist avant la lettre — is known for his paradoxical arguments against motion.
NR Zeno’s seems too good to be true, but it exists, and was a favorite watering hole for those who wished to get drunk on more than theory in grad school. There was a woman there who tended bar whose face really was melted like wax and who would say things under her breath in a language I didn’t understand, but that someone — a linguist we used to hang out with — said was Coptic. I haven’t been back there for twenty years, but I remember it was one of those bunker-like places beneath an old building, very dark, and the space was difficult to understand. Was it an enormous room, or simply a room that, by its lighting, seemed enormous? Sort of an interior version of the Zone from Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).
AG Has Detroit — where you teach — influenced your work?
NR I’m sure it has — both the city and the place where I work, the University of Detroit Mercy, which has been supportive of all my work, no matter how much it has strayed. The university was founded by the Jesuits and their mode of intellectual inquiry about the created world has inspired and sustained me. I was hired in the mid-1990s as an early Americanist in the English department, having written my dissertation on the late eighteenth-century rise of the gothic novel in the United States. I still teach and do research in that field, but the connections I sensed between the messy dialogism and heteroglossia of the early novel — especially emerging out of a Puritan context, as it did in the US — and similar dialogic noises that punk made, felt natural to me and worth pursuing.
And I drive each day through parts of the city that still bear physical scars of the 1967 riot — or insurrection, as it is called by many in these parts. It can be a strange and exhilarating feeling, like looking at sedimentary rock with its exposed layers of time. Where other cities, through gentrification, “urban renewal,” and the like, have eradicated traces of their past, unless they are pleasing to look at, Detroit retains an almost documentary-like record of its violent past, though not by choice. There is such a strong feeling in Detroit that you have to push very hard through history to be and to exist in the present, and this constant state of adjustment gives people here, I find, a very high sense of alertness and clarity.
The first question was cut during the editing process. I eventually worked part of it into the introduction. Here it is, for the record:
AG In the Preface, you claim that films surendered much of their “mythic aura” when they migrated from big screens to computers via television. This “demystification” — that represents yet another stage in Schiller’s disenchantment of the world — is largely due to the fact that movies have lost their relentless forward momentum. Since the “advent of VCR,” spectators have been able to control the way films are watched: they can fast-forward, rewind, and — most importantly for digital film theorists — pause. The “ability of even the most technically handicapped users to capture video and film frames” runs counter to the traditional “fleetingness” of the cinematic experience — “the impossible-to-stop movement of images across the screen, the ways in which the audience remembered and misremembered certain moments”. Do you agree, with the likes of Mark Fisher or Simon Reynolds, that what we have lost in our digital age is loss itself?
NR I think it’s the feeling of loss, rather than loss itself, perhaps something akin to what Steven Shaviro describes as affect that doesn’t merely represent, but structures subjectivity. Lately, though, I’ve taken my deconstructive cues more from literature and film and less so from theory, so my responses will reference those sources a bit more than the usual theory suspects. A super-abundance, or plague, of meaning. That’s our curse. It’s not just cinematic images: our data centers, digital archives, cached pages, cloud storage — these suggest a weird distorted image of the surveillance state. It is not we who watch films, but films that watch us. My feeling is that this is expressed best through genre, horror specifically, perhaps because of all of cinema’s dirty genres, horror has always been about scopophilia (Laura Mulvey) more than anything else. Theory can be found, today, in the haunted images of the V/H/S films, the first three Paranormal films, and several Ti West films (especially The Sacrament) because the horror genre gives permission, somehow, to theorize not just space within the frame, but the nature of the frame itself. The V/H/S/ horror anthologies, for instance, remind us every twenty minutes or so (or whenever a ‘new’ tape is inserted) of the embodiment of horror in its precarious, unstable situation as its medium shifts from analogue to digital. - bombmagazine.org/article/1000132/nicholas-rombes

Nicholas Rombes, Cinema in the Digital Age, Wallflower Press, 2009.

Does the digital era spell the death of cinema as we know it? Or is it merely heralding its rebirth? Are we witnessing the emergence of something entirely new? Cinema in the Digital Age examines the fate of cinema in this new era, paying special attention to the technologies that are reshaping film and their cultural impact. Examining Festen (1998), The Blair Witch Project (1999), Timecode (2000), Russian Ark (2002), The Ring (2002), among others, this volume explores how these films are haunted by their analogue past and suggests that their signature element are their deliberate imperfections, whether those take the form of blurry or pixilated images, shakey camera work, or other elements reminding viewers of the human hand guiding the camera. Weaving together a rich variety of sources, Cinema in the Digital Age provides a deeply humanistic look at the meaning of cinematic images in the era of digital perfection.


Nicholas Rombes, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk, 1974-1982. Continuum, 2009.

Neither a dry-as-dust reference volume recycling the same dull facts nor a gushy, gossipy puff piece, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk: 1974-1982 is a bold book that examines punk as a movement that is best understood by placing it in its cultural field. It contains myriad critical-listening descriptions of the sounds of the time, but also places those sounds in the context of history.  Drawing on hundreds of fanzines, magazines, and newspapers, the book is—in the spirit of punk—an obsessive, exhaustively researched, and sometimes deeply personal portrait of the many ways in which punk was an artistic, cultural, and political expression of defiance.
A Cultural Dictionary of Punk
is organized around scores of distinct entries, on everything from Lester Bangs to The Slits, from Jimmy Carter to Minimalism, from 'Dot Dash' to Bad Brains. Both highly informative and thrillingly idiosyncratic, the book takes a fresh look at how the malaise of the 1970s offered fertile ground for punk—as well as the new wave, post-punk, and hardcore—to emerge as a rejection of the easy platitudes of the dying counter-culture.  The organization is accessible and entertaining: short bursts of meaning, in tune with the beat of punk itself.
Rombes upends notions that the story of punk can be told in a chronological, linear fashion. Meant to be read straight through or opened up and experienced at random, A Cultural Dictionary of Punk covers not only many of the well-known, now-legendary punk bands, but the obscure, forgotten ones as well. Along the way, punk's secret codes are unraveled and a critical time in history is framed and exclaimed.
"An expansive, erudite, and hugely entertaining guide through the dark alleys and glittering byways of punk—in music, film, literature, politics, fashion—A Cultural Dictionary of Punk is essential reading for anyone fascinated by one of the most influential artistic movements of our time."
Elizabeth Hand

At a cursory glance, Rombes's compendium has the form of a dictionary, covering punk bands from the Adolescents to the Zeroes, but scratch the surface and you'll discover a profoundly weird document, where the notion of "punk" expands to include discussions of Angela Carter, Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo and Barry Hannah—although even Rombes admits the last is stretching the point. The tone veers from the academic to the confessional: "How can you hesitate about a song that has saved you more than once from the black depths you are prone to fall into?" Rombes asks in an entry concerning the British band Wire. There are several forays into the fictional, including stories about imagined versions of Patti Smith and Joey Ramone, as well as entries written by "Ephraim P. Noble," who is almost certainly a fictional alter ego. If it were touted as a definitive guide to punk culture, the dictionary's omissions would be glaring—but this is something altogether different: a personal investigation into the significance of punk rock, an attempt to inject critical studies with "a big dose of chaos and anarchy" and thereby create a compelling cultural narrative.Publishers Weekly

Rombes, the author of works on punk musicians and cinema, here examines punk as a cultural movement through A-to-Z entries drawing upon fanzines, magazines, and newspapers to place media and artists in the context of history. In the author's own words, he has "allowed the content of the entries to determine their shape, format and tone." The result is an eclectic examination of the punk movement as well as the cultural and historical issues surrounding it. The book concludes with a postscript analyzing the end of the punk movement in 1982. BOTTOM LINE: The author's love and knowledge of the punk era shines throughout the work. There are several other books on punk, but this one's focus on the general historical and cultural perspective of the movement, as well as its accessible and informal style, makes it a worthy addition to the literature. An excellent overview of the era for any library.Library Journal

Nicholas Rombes, The Ramones' Ramones (33 1/3). Bloomsbury Academic, 2005. 

Thirty-Three and a Third is a series of short books about critically acclaimed
and much-loved albums of the past 40 years. Over 50,000 copies have been sold!

"Passionate, obsessive, and smart." —Nylon

What could be more punk rock than a band that never changed, a band that for decades punched out three-minute powerhouses in the style that made them famous? The Ramones' repetition and attitude inspired a genre, and Ramones set its tone. Nicholas Rombes examines punk history, with the recording of Ramones at its core, in this inspiring and thoroughly researched justification of his obsession with the album.

When I sat down to write about the album's opening song, "Blitzkreig Bop," my first line was "This is the best opening song to any rock album." Then I decided that sounded too creepily fanatic and more than a little disingenuous, since I haven't heard every rock album ever made, and I took it out. But then I went downstairs to the turntable and played it and midway through ran back upstairs and put the line back in even before the screensaver clicked in. Here's why: "Blitzkrieg Bop" succeeds not only as a song in its own right, but also as a promise kept. The songs that follow live up to the speed, humor, menace, absurdity, and mystery of that first song, whose opening lines "Hey ho, let's go" offer not so much a warning as an invitation to the listener, an invitation and a threat that the song isn't a fluke or a one-off, but that it sets the stage for an entire album that will be fast and loud.

The 70s
by Nicholas Rombes

In Roberto Bolaño’s novel Antwerp, there is a mysterious passage:
Look at these pictures, said the sergeant. The man who was sitting at the
desk flipped through them indifferently. Do you think there’s something
here? The sergeant blinked with Shakespearean vigor. They were taken a
long time ago, he started to say, probably with an old Soviet Zenith. Don’t you
see anything strange about them? The lieutenant closed his eyes, then lit a
cigarette. I don’t know what you’re talking about. Look, said the voice . . . “A
vacant lot at dusk” . . . “Long blurry beach” . . . “A cement box by the side of
the road” . . . Restaurant windows, out of focus . . .”
Images that are heavy and loaded with menace and meaning, but what sort of menace, and what nature of meaning? Joyce Carol Oates once said that “the formal artist is the one who arranges his dream into a shape that can be understood by other people.” But what if that arrangement is hidden, or secretly coded?
As we move deeper into the twenty-first century our world seems evermore bifurcated between the known and the hidden, and this visible divide characterizes our own psychotic state. On the one hand, as the Snowden documents show, we are all of us watched by groups whose names we don’t even know, for purposes that remain obscure. And yet we also still live in the last shadows of postmodernity whose defining feature was a habit of relentless deconstruction and demystification, extending deep into film itself, which is now so overloaded with extras, remainders, making-ofs, that a film’s aura–if there ever was one–has completely evaporated.
It is our responsibility, more than ever before, to search for the mystery, the illusion in film. Like one of the photographs in Bolaño’s novel, their very ordinariness disguises their strangeness. It is a decidedly romantic endeavor, and thus a dangerous one.
And so, let’s assume there are secrets in the common images of film, or more precisely, in the individual frames (if frames is even what we can call them in this digital era) and that the method of discovery must be based on constrained disorder. Constrained, because the 70-minute mark is our entry point, no matter what. Disordered, because what will appear at 70 minutes is not something that we are intentionally searching for, so that we are left open to surprise, which is something I hoped to capture in 10/40/70, forthcoming from Zer0 books in March.
1. Select a film.
2. Pause the film at the 70-minute mark, and take a screen grab.
3. Between now and February 17, e-mail the image to me and the name of the film: nrombesudm [at] gmail [dot] com
4. If you’d like, you can also send a commentary about the frame.
5. At the end of the project, I will put all the submitted images/commentary together in one document, which will be published at Berfrois near the end of February.
If all goes well, the end result might be a “new” film made from the frames, or a secret history of how films speak to each other at the 70-minute mark. - www.berfrois.com/2014/01/nicholas-rombes-70/

The 70 Minute Mark
- www.berfrois.com/2014/05/the-70-minute-mark-nicholas-rombes/


Blue Velvet Project” Creator Nicholas Rombes

And so we begin our year-long journey through Blue Velvet, stopping every 47 seconds. Although released in the U.S. in September 1986, the film lingered at the dark edges of the imagination until the spring of the following year, when it was released on home video by Karl-Lorimar. The rapid ascendency of the VCR and the proliferation of rental stores (in 1980 there were only approximately 2,500 rental stores in the U.S.; by 1987 this had increased to over 27,000) meant that Blue Velvet found its way into the very same sort of leafy small towns as Lumberton. The titles (by Van Der Veer Photo Effects) in their cursive elegance recall a by-gone era, and echo the fluid titles of classical-era films such as George Cukor’s A Double Life (1947). Dennis Hopper’s name—itself a tangle of associations serving as cultural knot points in American culture, ranging from his first film Rebel Without a Cause (1955) to Easy Rider (1969) to Apocalypse Now (1979) — appears against the undulating blue velvet curtain that frames the film’s narrative. The same year as Blue Velvet he would star in Hoosiers playing Shooter, a reverse-image doppelgänger of Frank Booth.
For a complete archive of the project, click here.