Pensive Prowler #23 by Dmetri Kakmi
Of Film and Book
A friend recently asked me to take part in a 10-day movie challenge on Facebook.
In case you live under a rock, this is one of those dubious social media memes that spreads like a virus and infects any one with idle hands. They’re probably started by an algorithm that wants to figure how you think so that it can sell you more blu-rays.
The point of the game is simple. Every day for ten days you choose a movie that ‘has impacted’ you and present it without explanation. (I wager ten days is how long it takes for the algorithm to colonise your thought processes and behavioural patterns.)
Being a cinephile, I leaped on board, being aware all along of the spurious nature of such lists. Under different circumstances, or different states of inebriation, I’d probably pick a different lot of films. As a pedant, I also changed the irksome and inaccurate noun ‘impact’ to ‘affect’ on my posts because the verb more accurately describes the effect the following movies had on me when I saw them.
A Man Escaped (Robert Bresson, 1956), Vertigo (Alfred Hitchcock, 1957), Le Samurai (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1967), Dersu Uzala (Akira Kurosawa, 1975), Carrie (Brian De Palma, 1976), In the Realm of the Senses (Nagisa Oshima, 1976), Suspiria (Dario Argento, 1977), Beau Travail (Claire Denis, 1999), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar-wai, 2000), Holy Motors (Leos Carax, 2012).
It’s an eclectic list, one that perhaps self-consciously focuses on ‘foreign cinema’. (Foreign for whom?) For me, the list highlights ‘pure cinema’. That is to say films that rely heavily on vision and movement, rather than dialogue, for story telling. In other words, it’s a return to the medium’s elemental origins.
Half way through the ten-day challenge (which was no challenge at all), I had a revelation. I’m a writer, I thought. I ought to be putting together a list of books that affect me. And why don’t such memes circulate more often?
Probably because, I went on to tell myself, cinema is the primary art form of the last two centuries. Not jazz, as some claim. The novel features only for those who think they have a novel in them when it’s really only gas.
If I were to put together a list for a ten-day book challenge, what would I choose?
Weirdly, the list of films came easier than the list of books. A lot more thought went into choosing the books I will soon put before you, which tells me I’m probably more in tune with cinema than literature. Which, in turn, suggests two things:
1: I’m not cut out to be a writer. Or, more accurately…
2: So powerful and overwhelming is the influence of cinema on the popular imagination it has ‘impacted’ every other art form, which may account for why writing schools nowadays encourage students to write a novel as if they are writing a film script (short, sharp sentences and paragraphs, lots of dialogue, story beats that are more suited to cinematic story telling than the flow of a novel, and so on) and to have their eye on the holy grail of film adaptation.
In certain quarters, writing a novel for the sake of writing a novel is no longer enough. It must be ‘cinematic’ — think of the number of times a book reviewer positively cites a novel’s ‘cinematic qualities’. When was the last time a reviewer observed that so and so utilises ‘novelistic details’ in his or her film?
Or maybe I had a hard time putting together my ten best books list because the novel’s innate qualities reach deeper than film and we must therefore excavate the substrata to find the source?
In any case, here is the list of ten books that have affected me over the years. Keep in mind that under different circumstances, or under different states of inebriation, I’d probably pick a completely different lot films. I mean books.
The Arabian Nights, the Richard Burton translation, Metamorphoses, Ovid, To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf, The Song of the World, Jean Giono, The Violent Bear it Away, Flannery O’Connor, We Have Always Lived in the Castle, Shirley Jackson, Therese Raquin, Emile Zola, Tirra Lirra by the River, Jessica Anderson, The Tree of Man, Patrick White, The Complete Short Novels, Anton Chekhov.
Must I explain them to you as well? How tedious you are. Let me see…
In short, the first two contain stories I absorbed by osmosis as a boy. If you’re born on a Greek-Turkish island in the Aegean Sea you naturally imbibe not only the Greek myths of creation and transformation recounted in Ovid, but you also get a taste for tales of the djinn and desert sands. With her fifth novel Woolf captures lightening in a bottle and made me want to be a writer. In pure, simple language, Giono’s epic perfectly evokes man’s symbiosis with nature. The Americans O’Connor and Jackson are exemplars of the stylised novel. Both toss out the window every rule about novel writing and still manage to produce books that stand the test of time. Zola is ruthless in his forensics of mind and body. Anderson is melancholy, beguiling as she draws you into a hornet’s nest. White evokes a new mythology of becoming in a new, though hardly uninhabited, land. As for Chekhov, he’s there because he can do no wrong in my eyes.
Now go away and read them all before we next speak. You will be tested.
Dmetri Kakmi (Episode 158) is a writer and editor based in Melbourne, Australia. The memoir Mother Land was shortlisted for the New South Wales Premier’s Literary Awards in Australia; and is published in England and Turkey. His essays and short stories appear in anthologies and journals. You can find out more about him here.