Three Years of Artist of the Year
As 2021 came to a close, so too did the third year of my Artist of the Year project. For each of the past three years I selected a director and watched through their work in relatively chronological order. Over these three years, I learned a lot about how to watch movies closely, how to structure a watch project, and how to research. This piece is mostly for me to reflect on how the process has gone.
Context Is King
Focusing on a single director was a convenient lens to do comparative viewing, as it allowed me to easily note recurring themes or chart shifts in their work. This convenience was actually somewhat illusory. Without understanding the prevailing trends of the time and place someone worked, I can’t ascribe anything I observed to that person, or a group of people. I noticed a mild version of this when watching Why Don’t You Play In Hell 地獄でなぜ悪い, which has a title card that borrows from Battles Without Honor and Humanity 仁義なき戦い. I’ve seen Battles multiple times, so I understood the reference, which is largely inconsequential. But how many more important homages are embedded there? What other works is it in conversation with that I can’t see from a lack of exposure? What can I actually understand about Seijun Suzuki’s (鈴木清順) work if the only Japanese films from the 60s I’ve watched are his?
To offset this, last year I watched far more films in the orbit of John Woo than I had for either Sono or Suzuki, and it enriched my understanding of Woo’s characteristics. This extended Artist of the Year project included Hong Kong contemporaries Chang Cheh (張徹), Tsui Hark (徐克), and Ringo Lam (林嶺東). It also included early millenium American action films, as well as films by directors that Woo himself had cited as inspiration, such as Peckinpah.
The particular accents in a person’s work are best revealed in juxtaposition with similar material. Understanding a person means understanding their collaborators, their peers, their inspirations, their teachers, as well as their imitators.
For Christmas in 2020, I received Time and Space are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki, a companion to a traveling retrospective of Suzuki’s work. Upon completion, I committed to incorporating more reading into my project. I hoped to build an understanding of the dialogue about Woo’s films at the time of their release, as well as to give me guidance on how to build up the context that I mentioned above.
I read John Woo: the films by Kenneth Hall chapter by chapter as it lined up with the movies I’d seen. Additionally, I gathered essays and articles from various journals that explored Woo or his work. This process managed to feel somewhat comprehensive, as often the later works cited pieces that I’d read earlier in the project.
The library proved to be invaluable. My local library’s media collection is great, and their journal collection is extensive. There was very little trade journal writing on Woo that I couldn’t access . Essay collections proved harder, and the Internet Archive’s book library often filled that gap.
I’m still uneasy about the possibility of my reading of a film being swayed by what I read, and I haven’t figured out how to resolve that tension. There’s great value in being primed for certain concepts, or in finding the words for something I already feel, but how often am I replacing my own observations with someone else’s?
Writing Is A Tool For Thinking
I started writing much more in the last year partly to combat the above issue of being swayed by others. By putting my thoughts down it forced me to be more honest about my intial impressions rather than conveniently forgetting details of my response.
The greater benefit was in letting me think deeper. My memory is poor, and without some kind of artifact to capture my thoughts I have to reconstruct them from scratch with each interruption (or night of sleep). By externalizing my memory, I get to refine my thoughts in a way that wouldn’t be possible without being able to read them back to myself.
I’d done this once before. I have a file on my computer, “IDEAS”, that’s a more than 10 year long collaboration with myself. Assorted scraps, both on paper and my computer, helped me have the same dynamic over a shorter time period. My March notes on character names in The Killer took on new meaning when reading Julian Stringer in November. Without having this offloaded memory, I’d have had no hopes of making those connections.
Trust My Gut
Project rules are a helpful framework for me, as it allows me to focus my limited energy and attention on a smaller set of things, hopefully yielding results more likely to make me happy. But strict adherence to these rules isn’t a good in and of itself. One of the perks of an explicitly unprofessional project is that I have the luxury to change my mind and do what feels good in the moment.
As 2021 was winding down, I simply wasn’t excited about any particular director. I’d made a short list, refined it, expanded it, and then thrown it away. Something about the structure wasn’t compelling right now, and that’s ok. The thing that was exciting to me was adaptation, and I figured I’d lean into that idea. So my next artist of the year is Jane Austen, and the project is more multi-media (novels, film, and television) than it had been before. It’s different, but it feels right, and that’s enough for me.