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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:
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.

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.

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. -

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. -

The 70 Minute Mark


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.