Concentrated Nonsense (cinema edition)

Q&A with Chris Fujiwara on Little Black Book (Movies)
December 13, 2007, 4:37 pm
Filed under: books, interviews | Tags: , , , ,


A remarkable little (but heavy) release, The Little Black Book (Movies), has been getting some nice buzz on the internet lately (see Girish and one of the contributors, Noel Vera, gushing), and rightly so: it is truly a fine collection of short pieces on key scenes, films, people, speeches, and events in the history of cinema. Written by a roster that includes some of the most interesting writers on cinema today, the book balances well entries on popular cinema with ones on more neglected work, and features a healthy amount of pieces on countries with a smaller presence on the current cinematic map. Whether a casual lover of cinema or a hardcore cinephile, there is much to discover, to be intrigued by, within the books pages.

It is really impressive to see a book of such great, quality content, printed so nicely, and so readily available in popular bookstores– from Ljubljana to Manila! (in Manila it is available in both Fully Booked and National Bookstore– Oggs Cruz has noted its cheaper in NB: P1350 to FB’s, P1519).

I was curious about how the book was put together and decided to e-mail the general editor, Chris Fujiwara, a few questions. Our exchanged appears as follows:

(1) The general editor
How did you come to be involved in the project?
The publisher, Cassell Illustrated, contacted me and asked me if I would be interested in editing a book on 1,000 key moments in the history of cinema. The basic concept of the book was theirs, including the way moments are categorized as “events,” “scenes,” “speeches,” “people,” or “films.” Actually they wanted more categories, including “special effects,” but I persuaded them to keep things relatively simple.

(2) The writers
How did you choose the writers to be involved?
Many of them were people I knew, had corresponded with, or had worked with on other projects, including Undercurrent, the online magazine I’ve been editing for FIPRESCI. Some were people I liked as writers, though I had never met or corresponded with them. Some were people I sought out because they had written on particular national cinemas, or kinds of film, or periods in film history, that I wanted represented in the book. I felt from the start that the book needed to challenge the standard emphasis on Hollywood and Western European commercial feature films as setting the standard of what cinema is. So I looked for writers who I knew were interested in other cinemas.

I thought it was important to get a range of voices and approaches and methodologies, a variety of contrasting ways of thinking about and writing about films. So I invited film critics, filmmakers, historians, archivists, festival directors, academics, and also writers who are good writers but who aren’t primarily writers on film. In a few cases, a writer recommended someone else, and then that person came in. The mix is really interesting both in terms of the films people pick to write on and the ways they write about them. There are even a number of entries in the book I don’t agree with, which is fine. I wanted to set up a certain unpredictability.

I found it quite interesting that you included some writers who, as you said, are good writers though not primarily writers on film. Can you cite a specific example (or examples) of these writers, why you chose them or what you felt they could bring to the book?

Well, Josh Glenn writes on many aspects of popular culture and philosophy, and I knew he’d make certain kinds of connections between things that wouldn’t occur to people who were focused mainly in film as film. It’s too bad he chose to write only one entry, the one on Red River. He focuses on the problem of leadership in the film, which I think is generally overlooked. James Parker mainly writes on rock music, though he has also written on film, and his entries reflect both his knowledge of music and his sensitivity to codes and nuances of behavior and speech that probably wouldn’t be the first things that would occur to most mise-en-scene-oriented people to write about. Some of the films he chose to write about, also, I don’t think I know many people who would have chosen them, and I’m glad they’re in the book. Tim Cavanaugh is a very intelligent, witty, sardonic writer with a keen awareness of cultural signifiers that don’t lie exclusively within the realm of cinema, but that cinema shares with other areas.

Were there any contributors you wanted to participate that declined?

I’d rather not name anyone specifically…. there were, of course, some who declined.

(3) The division

What kind of instructions or directions were given to writers? Did they change per writer, in terms of topic — for example, did you request that Noel Vera write about Filipino Cinema, Jerry Pinto about Indian Cinema, or Paolo Cherchi Usai write about early cinema?
Before contacting anybody, I had come up with a list of about 600 moments I wanted to include – things that I wanted to write about myself or that I felt strongly should be in the book. When I asked people to participate, I sent that list with a request that the person pick from it the things he or she wanted to write about, and also asked people to send me their own ideas of moments they wanted to write on. Some writers wrote only about their own moments, and others took some of my ideas.

As I say in the introduction to the book, often people asked to write about the same moments, and it was very interesting to see that happening; it was a validation.

The result was that we got most of my initial list of 600 in the final book, plus hundreds more that the writers proposed.

I sent everyone the same guidelines, which included mostly nitty-gritty stuff about format and length and so on, and, regarding the content, nothing more than this:

Although there are no hard and fast rules as to how you should approach the text, an ideal entry on a scene would, I think, do the following: (a) describe the scene in an engaging way, (b) contextualize it sufficiently within its film so that the reader knows what is at stake, and (c) convincingly argue – on whatever basis (aesthetic, historical, or other) you deem appropriate – that the moment is indeed a “key” moment of cinema.

Sometimes I steered people toward writing about certain moments that I knew they would handle well, and away from moments that I felt dubious about, but mostly I just let people tell me what they wanted to do, and then let them do it. I didn’t box anybody in as to what kind of movie or what country it had to be from or from what time period. Jerry writing about Indian cinema, and Noel writing about Filipino cinema, was by their own choices. If they had proposed writing about films from other countries, I would have been open to that.

Regarding the division of the entries, did you have an idea in mind beforehand about how many entries a particular contributor would be assigned, or was that something that was worked out after contacting them?
The publisher wanted to set a limit of 50 entries per contributor, so I stuck to that. Only a few people wrote that many, or close to that many. In the end, the number of entries was worked out between me and the contributor.

(4) The editorial process
What was the editorial process like, after submissions? (i.e. how many submissions in all, and how did you pare down the choices to what appears in the final book). Was the publisher at all involved during this process, or did you have a completely free hand?
I assigned 1000 entries and received 1000 entries, and the book contains 1000 entries. I was very careful about that, because the publisher didn’t want to pay for work that they would end up not publishing, and I couldn’t assign people to work on things they might not get paid for.

Regarding what entries were assigned in the first place, and to whom, I had to make a lot of choices, as you’d expect. Some people made suggestions that for various reasons I passed on – for example, there was a danger of having too many entries on, say, Hitchcock or Godard – not to denigrate those artists or take anything away from their importance, but in a limited space where you want to cover as much of world cinema as you can, there’s only so much space you can give to a single director. (As it is, there are about ten entries on each of these two directors in the book.) Also, I stuck to the rule of one film, one entry – except there are a few cases where a film is represented by both a scene in the film and an event connected to the film, like Sunrise and Psycho.

The publisher gave me a completely free hand regarding editing.

(5) The painfully left-out
1,000 is certainly a lot, but I can imagine the difficulties of paring things down. Were there any particular heartbreaking pieces left out?
There are lots of directors whom I would like to have seen represented somehow, and who in fact were on the “ideas” list I circulated among the contributors, but who ended up not getting in. GrĂ©millon, Guitry, Robert Kramer, for example. Sometimes I wish there were some entries specifically on cinematographers and composers, and more entries on screenwriters – the book is obviously fairly director-centric, and to a lesser extent, actor-centric. I don’t consider that a flaw, though.

I know that certain individual choices, and also the overall mix of entries, can be questioned. But the point was very specifically NOT to come up with some consensus about what were the 1,000 greatest or most important moments in all cinema. The point is, here’s a book that is about people looking at the cinema as if the cinema were nothing but moments. What do we see, and what do we retain in our memories, when we look at it like that? I think the book challenges the whole idea of “the greatest whatever,” like the best movies or albums or whatnot. Because it doesn’t say these are the greatest, it has nothing to do with the greatest. It really is about taking this idea of a moment, and using that to take apart film history and the usual hierarchical notions of what film is. That’s not necessarily what any of us set out consciously to do, but I believe that’s the inescapable sense of what we came up with.


The first entry in the Little Black Book (Movies) is a haunting, provocative piece by silent cinema specialist Paolo Cherchi Usai, author of The Death of Cinema, co-founder of the Pordeone Silent Film Festival, and author of the experimental silent-feature Passio (I would love to see this):

A frightening short by Paolo Lipari, Due dollari al chilo (2000), shows how films prints are destroyed after their commercial distribution. The stuff dreams are made of is converted into low-cost fuel for industrial plants and raw material for benches, combs, eyeglass frames and clothing. The phenomenon is not new: cinema was killed at its birth, when exhibitors could purchase films and dispose them after use; at the dawn of sound, when producers threw away their silent films; with the introduction of safety stock, when nitrate became a liability; it is still going on today, in developing countries where prints are melting at high temperature and humidity levels. Cinema isn’t the only victim: over 95% of the motion pictures produced each year will no longer be extant within twelve months, regardless of their media. To be sure, the percentage is lower in Europe and North America, thus supporting the old dictum that history is written by the winners. As matters of climate change and religious fundamentalism, humankind does not react to processes; we need catastrophes to wake up. Stewart Brand wrote that: “the great creator is the great eraser”; the intentional obliteration of what we see is proving his point. Are we ready to think about the demise of digital? Not right now, as this technology is on the rise, but a healthy society should be prepared for that as well. I’m not afraid of the death of cinema; what I’m terrified about is our indifference towards its life.

Again, just five entries later, and with poetic immediacy, Cherchi Usai writes another entry, this one titled, The world’s first film archive:

In 1897, Robert William Paul donated several of his films to the British Museum, hoping that the venerable institution would begin acquiring reproductions of notable events in the form of moving images. The museum didn’t know what to do with the new objects, so there never was a second donation; the first film archive was an enigma even for its owners. Other attempts followed between 1910 and 1912 in Denmark and Sweden, but there is a certain degree of poignancy in the British precedent: there are now hundreds of film archives all over the world, and yet their status is as fragile today as it was in the late nineteenth century. Regrettably, the motion picture heritage is not seen as so vital to society as other forms of cultural expression such as books, paintings, or theatre. It is at the mercy of commercial pressures, often incorporated within industry bodies; quick and instant access to the collections is taken for granted, to the detriment of long-term conservation strategies.

Archival holdings are being called “content”, in the mistaken assumption that reproduction equals preservation; corporate firms see them as an easy source of revenue; by and large, the public doesn’t care, as it is believed that a 1940 film available digitally is restored somewhere anyhow. It will take time before existing organizations dealing with the past of the moving image will be allowed to treat history in its own terms. Strange as it may seen, the first film archives has yet to exist.

Reading the two above pieces in the first pages of a tome that is otherwise a buoyant, thoughtful celebration of cinema felt like getting hit by a brick while staring at the sunset. In a good way. This is a book in praise of movies, yes, but also one that doesn’t fear reminding its lovers of the responsibilities they must bear. The two entries are among the most important ones in the thousand, not only because of the virtue embodied by their gesture (of activism amidst celebration), but as tenets that ask us to reconsider how we express our affection.



*This post will be updated in the coming days as Chris replies to one last question. I’ve decided to post it already to give the book a small push, as I think it would make a great gift for anyone with an interest in cinema.

9 Comments so far
Leave a comment

Thanks for this heads-up, Alexis. So gonna get my hands on it. = )

Comment by Alfian

Alexis, thank you for this informative interview!

Interestingly, here in the US, the title isn’t “The Little Black Book” but instead “Defining Moments in Movies”. (Personally, I like the former more.)

Comment by girish

hey, your blog (ok wordpress) is getting much more interesting than criticine!

Comment by bob

Hi Alfian: Glad you found my blog. Was going to link it in an e-mail actually!

Most welcome for the heads-up! I think you’ll enjoy it a lot. There are several entries courtesy of Hassan Muthalib that may interest you.

Hi Girish: I’ve been a constant reader of your blog (and of course the great discussion that follows in the comments). Thanks for linking =)

I think I prefer “The Little Black Book” as the title as well. I wonder what the reason is for the change– different distributors, perhaps?

Comment by Alexis

hello anonymous bob from australia:
thanks! yes, criticine is do for an update isn’t it? not hard to be more interesting than something that hasn’t hasn’t had new content for a while ;-) a new issue is due before the end of the year. here’s to hoping all goes well.

Comment by Alexis

wouldja believe, I didn’t find this till today?

I had a longer list of moments; it was my choice to do exclusively Filipino cinema (thought it needed the exposure). I might do as a final entry in my blog on the book, the ideas not chosen…

Comment by Noel Vera

Aha, was just about to ask what the ideas not chosen were. Would love to know. Thought you might have proposed the iconic last shot in “Maynila sa mga Kuko ng Liwanag”. How many more ideas did you have, and were they exclusively “key scenes”?

Comment by Alexis

I think they were key.

But I have to look; for all I know, it was just in email, and I deleted the list.

Comment by Noel Vera

I found the list. And it should please you that there were two entries from Batang West Side…

Comment by Noel Vera

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