I first met Molly Haskell and her husband Andrew Sarrris when they spoke at the 2008 Moving Image Institute, a weeklong program for emerging film critics organized by the Museum of the Moving Image. Ever since then I’ve wanted to collaborate with them on a video essay. Not so much because of their stature as two highly influential thinkers on cinema, but because of something they expressed at the Institute: their curiosity and slight puzzlement about film culture in the online era. For Haskell and Sarris, both of whom have resisted those hand-wringing “death of cinema” theories embraced by their contemporaries, the profusion of movie websites, blogs, videos, etc. over the past decade was something new, exciting and a little overwhelming. At the time, I felt qualified to help steer them through the flood of content; four years later, I feel just as inundated by all that is out there. But infusing their insights into the realm of online video is one thing I still feel capable of doing, and the Sight & Sound Film Poll video series provides the perfect opportunity to explore one of Haskell’s favorite films, Eric Rohmer’s Claire’s Knee.
Listening to Haskell speak about the film conjures visions not only of the film, but also of an era that it reflects: a late ’60s-early ’70s generation in the throes of a massive cultural shift, discovering new ways to engage with cinema and with the opposite sex. Those impulses are still as present as ever, but perhaps one important distinction between then and now, which the film reflects, is an exquisite sophistication and delight in oral communication that may be endangered in the era of text messaging and tweeting. At the same time, there’s something in the written traces of that era’s film culture that distinguishes it from those of the present. This became apparent to me when, in the middle of our recording, Haskell brought out Sarris’ original 1971 review of Claire’s Knee published in the Village Voice and read passages from it. There is something both rigorous and relaxed in Sarris’ prose that reflects a time when alternative print media was at its mightiest, when writers weren’t pressed to mind wordcounts or angle for pullquote-worthy soundbites, and were freer to ruminate memorably on how a film, or even a knee that appears in a film, could reflect the essence of cinema. I write all this knowing that it may all amount to a nostalgic, Midnight in Paris-like projection of present disappointments upon an idealized past that may never have been as good as I make it out to be. But that doesn’t stop those ideals from being worthy of aspiration.
I’m very pleased that I was able to incorporate Haskell’s reading of Sarris’ review, and also to visualize it with a shot of the review as first printed in the Voice. Juxtaposed with the distracting image of Claire’s sensually sunlit knee, it was a fun way to visualize the relationship between a critical text and its subject, one surface expressing the essence of another surface, itself a beguiling decoy diverting the attention of both the film’s protagonist and its audience from the film’s true beauty.
For additional insights into the film, read Haskell’s essay on Claire’s Knee published in the Criterion Collection DVD release of the film.
Molly Haskell is a film critic, author of many books, including From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, and former co-host of Turner Classic Movies’s The Essentials.
Andrew Sarris is a film critic and author of many books, including The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929-1968.
Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.