Sunday, January 25, 2009

Taking Off

Since I decided on starting this blog, I should probably explain the title I chose for it.

The very last seat on the right, in the very last row in the back of the theater, was always the favorite seat of Jan Olszewski's, a Polish film critic that I owe everything to. He was the one that (without even knowing that) started me on going to the movies regularly and writing about them. It was the biggest thrill of my life when I met him when I was 18. We went to see a Bertolucci movie together ("Partner", 1968), and he told me that he *always* seats in the last row on the extreme right, so as to follow not only the movie itself, but also people's reaction to it.

For a long time I tried to fool myself into thinking that this is my favorite place to sit, too -- just as I tried to mimic Olszewski's writing style as much as possible. Now I can freely admit to myself that I don't like to seat in the back at all, and that one *can* write in a different way than Olszewski and *still* be a decent enought critic. But somewhere there, in the back of my head, there always rings a question after the lights go up: what would Olszewski make of the movie I just watched...?

Thus, even though I prefer sitting in the middle section of the theater now, there's a little "last seat on the right" always in my mind.


  1. Ah yes – one's favorite seat in a movie theatre is a subject that any self-respecting cinephile could write an entire essay about, though one that may be a bit tedious to read (at least for anyone who is not a cinephile). For a long time in my teens, my favorite seat was fifth row center, but as my eyesight grew weaker and I wanted to get "deeper into the movies", as Pauline Kael would say, I gradually started moving closer, "as close as possible to the big screen, ideally the third row center", as Susan Sontag would say (opposites attract me, as you can see). Indeed, the third row center seat was in many ways ideal, at least at the movie theatre Orion in Helsinki, where I've spent countless hours for the last 15 years or so and got the basis of my cinephilic education: close enough to the big screen to allow you to absorb yourself entirely in the movie you're watching, almost losing sight of the edges of the screen (and thus, of the outside world), but not so close that you have to break your neck while staring up at the screen. I've always marvelled at those people who sit habitually in the first row, something I've only resorted to out of necessity – though I must admit that in the case of a film like Sunset Boulevard it was definitely worth it, giving Gloria Swanson's famed close-up at the end a whole new edge!

    I guess you could say that my movie-going sensibilities were for a large part formed by the two "opposites" that I mentioned, Kael and Sontag. I don't mean so much the writers themselves, whom I got to know relatively late in my movie-going life: I only started reading Sontag about five years ago, and while I got my introduction to Kael early on through her witty one-liners that were quoted in Halliwell's Film Guide (a bible for me), I didn't get to read her own books until I was already in my twenties. I mean certain ways of looking at movies, which could be epitomized by them. The "Sontag way" is the tradition of cinephilia, the "distinctive kind of love that cinema inspired" described by her so lovingly in the essay which I have quoted, "A Century of Cinema". This is, or at least has been, the tradition that is prevalent in Finland (as in so many other European countries), and one that I grew up in as well: the tradition of Cahiers du cinéma and the auteur school, of an almost religious reverence to movies and directors, the tradition of sitting through entire retrospects of a director's work (and considering it sacrilegious to miss even one movie), preferably watching at least three or four movies a day.

    In short, it's a way of watching movies that corresponds to the period of devouring books that most serious readers go through, and that is likely to appeal to one most at approximately the same age and for the same reasons. And for some people, of course, it never ceases to hold its appeal. But at some point I started feeling estranged to this cinephilic tradition I had grown up in, and veering more and more towards a way of watching and loving movies that for me is epitomized by Pauline Kael – a critic, I might add, whose presence in the Finnish film discussion scene is almost negligible. For a large part, this tradition overlaps with the cinephilia I have described, of course, but in some respects it's characterized by almost opposite qualities: by a certain principled irreverence towards movies and directors, even movies and directors that you love; by a general preference of seeing movie only once instead of thinking that a movie will only yield its true meaning after about two dozen viewings: by a stubborn insistence to trust your own instincts and scorn the authorities, not to hesitate calling a dull movie dull, even if so-and-so insists it isn't; by even committing without stings of conscience that ultimate sacrilege of walking out of a movie that simply doesn't seem to give anything to you.

    In this sense, reading Kael, getting into the Kaelian sensibility was a liberating experience – but at the same time, as so often happens to movie buffs who get absorbed in Kael, she developed into the kind of "critic at the back of my head" that you desribe Olszewski being for you. Perhaps I never went as far as thinking "What would Kael say?" after seeing a movie (but then, not being a film critic, I don't have to think of such things at all), but I do remember feeling pangs of conscience about liking some "guilty pleasures" of mine that Kael had panned (silly stuff, admittedly, like Wilder's One, Two, Three!, but still), and also about not getting as much as I should out of some movies that Kael had praised.

    I'm writing in the past tense, as I feel that I've outgrown both traditions by now, escaped from them with the best of both worlds, you could say, into a world of my own – or so I hope. As a suitable symbol of this, I might mention the last movie I watched in a movie theatre (again, at my beloved Orion), Shoeshine (1946) by Vittorio De Sica, which I went to see last Saturday – partly because I had only seen it once before, some seventeen years ago on television, and didn't remember a whole lot of it, but partly also – I have to admit – because of Kael's famous review of it (the first chapter of which can be found here), which, ever since I had first read it, had made me think that Shoeshine might be a film worth revisiting. Now, it would be wrong to say that I was disappointed by revisiting it, but I found it hard to take it quite as seriously as Kael had taken it, either – it's a tragic film, all right, but like so much of Italian neorealism, its mounting, inevitable tragedy and histrionics seem, nowadays, more of an operatic than slice-of-life variety. As I reread Kael's review after seeing the film, I couldn't help thinking that perhaps her strong reaction to the film had at least as much to do with the lovers' quarrel that she mentions as with the film itself (if not more), and I even found myself sympathizing, somewhat maliciously, with the college girl Kael mentions with such scorn, who complained to her boyfriend: "Well I don't see what was so special about that movie!"

    And perhaps it's also worth mentioning that although the theatre was almost vacant on a Saturday afternoon and there was nobody sitting in the third row, and although Shoeshine is the kind of movie that you should experience as intensely as possible, to throw yourself at it, as it were, I still chose to take my seat where I could keep a reasonable distance to it – in fifth row center.

  2. P. S. I didn't mean to clutter up your blog with autobiographical ramblings of my own (though I guess I've already done so) – your initial blog post just happened to inspire the preceding thoughts and memories in me, so I thought I might as well write them down. But as an "enough-about-me" gesture, let me use up your blog space just a bit more to welcome you to the blogosphere, wish you luck on this project, and hope to read more thought-provoking posts from you soon!

  3. Hello Michael,

    I'm sitting at my desk at this very instant cataloguing a series of letters sent between Jan Olszewski and Lindsay Anderson from 1976 - 1978 (my job is cataloguing the Lindsay Anderson Archive). I looked up Olszewski's name to see what I could find out about him, knowing nothing about him myself. The first Google hit was the Prime Minster of Poland from 1991 - 1992 so I figured I had to search deeper! - hence I found your blog and realised that this had to be the Olszewski I was looking for. Thanks for helping me out! Is Olszewski still working? I found a reference from 2008 but nothing more recent on a quick search.

    Thanks again,


  4. Dear Kathryn,

    this is so exciting to hear! Yes, Jan Olszewski is still writing for "Kino" film monthly. He's a bit of a recluse, though -- he doesn't have an e-mail account. I have his phone number, if you wish to contact him. If you'd like, I can send you a brief note about him from the Polish encyclopedia of media -- it may come in handy.

    Let me know, my e-mail is:

    Can you tell me in general terms what the letters were about? If that's asking too much, just ignore the request.

    So good to hear from you!