Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part Two)

This is part two of a conversation between Ritesh Mehta, my former student, and Anand Pandian, author of Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation.  

Cinema and Life Interpenetrated: A Conversation with Anand Pandian (Part Two) by Ritesh Mehta


RM: Going back to your table of contents, I think that one of the most valuable contributions of your book is the methodology and approach—which I also attempt to employ in my dissertation—of trying to see the phenomenon from the point of view of your subjects, but as you point out towards the end, return it to a universal sense so that the distinction between subject and object disappears. I found that extremely valuable. I wouldn’t be as drawn to your book if you had a table of contents that was more concrete.


AP: None of us would be drawn to any film if it insisted incessantly upon the subject-object distinction. Cinema as a mode of experience depends precisely on the confounding of that distinction between self and other. There would be no affective involvement in something like cinema if it were not possible to undo that divide. And the challenge with this book was to find a way of acknowledging that, and writing in a spirit of fealty or fidelity to that essential quality of the phenomenon, rather than, say, domesticating it or reorganizing it in the name of a knowledge that ultimately would have very little to do with the nature of the thing itself.


RM: There’s a way to do fieldwork where you subsume your observations under the tyranny of concepts, and I really appreciate that you haven’t done that. At the same time, I love how you’ve woven in a broad range of literature throughout every chapter. It’s not even literature as much as, seemingly, an inventory of influences that you’ve interwoven your observations with. They connect the daily life of cinema production that you observed with things that have already been written. I appreciate that.


AP: It was important to me to pass through the book with a certain spirit of naiveté. That is to say, could I sort of wend my way through the materials and through the story in a manner that would allow new possibilities of thinking and perception to emerge, moment by moment, rather than having everything determined too heavily from the outset? I am quite drawn to the idea of the essay as itself a kind of narrative mode of peregrination. There are many literary critics who have commented on the ways in which the essay as a narrative form might be understood as a kind of walking in writing. It was important to me to see if I could write this book in such a fashion. That is to say, could I disarm myself sufficiently with what I have at my disposal as a critic, as a knower, to really allow these circumstances to act on me, to provoke unexpected questions, associations, sometimes even leaps that may or may not be quite intelligible, again as a way of being responsive to the openness of the medium.


RM: That’s great and makes a lot of sense. But from an actual writing standpoint, though, how did you do it? You were writing throughout, I’m assuming. When you bring in Hirokazu Miyazaki [note: the anthropologist, not the Studio Ghibli founder], for example, in the chapter “Hope,” did you plan in advance that in this chapter you will bring in Miyazaki, or did you come across him unexpectedly? How did you decide to weave in the quotations you bring in from your inventory of influences?


AP: I would say that this was a very curious aspect of this process. The whole period of researching and writing this book was one in which I had to really confront my own tendencies to be overly controlling and to recognize that a lot of the charge of not only things like cinema but of these dimensions of experience—of Art, Rhythm, or even of Fate—has precisely to do with the sense of being caught up in something and you don’t know where it’s going.


So the process of writing this book was essentially a series of experiments in seeing to what extent I could allow this spirit to infect the way that I wrote. Could I set up some set of initial conditions and then just follow them through, regardless of where they led? Like that chapter on Desire, for example, I can’t even tell you how it struck me that it might be interesting to have a chapter as a sentence that never ended, a chapter like a scream. It felt intuitively like the right way of proceeding, given that the director that I was writing about here was like this. That in writing that way, I might be able to reach that idiosyncratic texture in that particular situation. A lot of the writing got worked out as I went along. I think one value in thinking about writing as a kind of walking or a kind of movement is that the analogy forces us to take seriously that with every step, with every movement, you can only work with where you are. And I think there is something liberating in that, in knowing that there are any number of things that we do, that unfold step by step, literally, rather than require everything be foretold at the outset. And indeed, that’s precisely the nature of the process as I found it here. It was an incredibly improvisational way of proceeding that I saw with these filmmakers.


RM: Is this improvisational style with initial conditions a new approach for this book, or have you tried that with your prior writing as well?


AP: I think I’ve probably always done it. I think at some level we do always do it. I think there are any number of circumstances in which we make the most of where we are. We really have no other better choice. But because in this circumstance I was writing about something that was so insistently made that way, so insistently of the moment, I wanted to try to do it more deliberately. I have learned through the process of writing that to try to work in this manner can actually deepen your insight into what you’re writing about.


Again, what are the initial conditions here? One is trying to make sense of an incredibly chaotic and improvisational process. How is it that things keep appearing in a non premeditated manner over and over and over again? This is such an open process that nonetheless results in finished films that, mind you, do fail a lot but then sometimes don’t. How do we account for the genesis or the production of order, of integrity, of unity through such spontaneity? John Dewey speaks of experience as qualitative unity. How do we make sense of the fact that things like cinema with a qualitative unity of their own can emerge from such apparently chaotic processes? Perhaps the whole book itself—I’m thinking now as you’re asking me—became a kind of experiment in trying to make sense of that problem through the very process of its writing.


RM: In which case I really admire your mind. I just find that if I had to write something like this, I don’t know if I could let myself improvise too much. If I were involved with my field notes, I don’t know if I could spontaneously work in quotations. I find it admirable that you were being experimental, writing with naiveté, as you said.


AP: This is a book that has about 110,000 words. That means that there are at least 110,000 spaces between words, any one of which is a point of entry, a point of insertion. The book as a medium is extraordinarily discontinuous. We invest books retrospectively with a kind of coherence and integrity and closedness that they actually don’t have because they are rife with openings. And that was again, one thing that was interesting about entering into cinema not from the standpoint of finished films but from the standpoint of bits and pieces, some of which were never finished. So I think that the process of doing the research was one of having to attune myself to the necessary unfinishedness of things.


RM: That’s wonderful because you’ve written this book very deeply from a personal methodological perspective. So I feel like your understanding of your own subject and your understanding of what you wanted your writing to be has been beautifully interwoven with your actual observations and findings. I have hardly heard people describe their approach your way.


I feel like people bring other frameworks to writing. For example, a lot of the literature that I cited in my dissertation was from the field of production studies, which can be described as an offshoot of cultural studies, which is very influential in communication. When these scholars talk about the film industry in Los Angeles or other parts of the world, the frameworks they bring are not about continuity, etc. They’re about difference, they’re about conflict, they’re about power structures. And those frameworks inform what they see in the field.


AP: That’s right.


RM: And I find that a little bit misleading, like putting the cart before the horse. If you are invested in being critical about the material conditions of labor and people “below the line,” which is a very legitimate concern, if you bring those frameworks and concepts with you to the field, chances are that you’ll find that. That’s been one of my critiques of production studies. Methodologically, I am also like you, invested in interpretation before critique, and I think that a lot of the work that I have seen, other ethnographies even—e.g., Vicki Mayer’s ethnographic study of television producers below the line—I found myself not being able to relate to that at all because Mayer brings with her the definition of labor as a sort of an exploitative surplus that benefits political economies. So I think that methodology determines a lot of what we’re going to write about.


AP: Yes, absolutely. I should emphasize that there is a critical project here. There are problems and it is important to be able to find our way around them, to find openings, to rework them, remake them, undo them. All these things are important. But there are some really interesting and important methodological questions around how it is we do that. My disappointment with some of the work in cinema studies has precisely to do with what you’re talking about. The problems are defined so tightly and so straightforwardly that the work can do nothing more but to reiterate the existence of those problems.


Whereas I think that one can approach the kind of texts that we write, the work that we do, as not simply representations of a situation that is out there that needs to be re-described as accurately as possible but instead perhaps as pragmatic interventions in their own right. As modes of imaginative storytelling, as occasions in which we take a set of conditions and find the right circumstances or lines that might confound them. That we begin with a structure and find a point where it begins to fall apart. I am really compelled by the idea—Deleuze and Guattari speak of it in terms of the molar and molecular—that anything can be conceived of in both overwhelmingly molar or block-like terms on the one hand and simultaneously in terms of those possibly infinite lines of flight that undo the consistency and integrity of those block-like formations. As a critic, and I do think of myself as one, as a critical observer of various dimensions of contemporary cultural life, I feel that what I can do best is to seize upon some of those lines of flight or escape, and ride with them a bit, and to show that something really isn’t as integral as its power-laden purveyors might make it out to be. That’s the kind of critical project this book pursues.


To put it very concretely, I try throughout the book to actually undo my own authority as a scholarly observer. I deliberately confound the clarity of my own analytical understanding of what’s happening, not to write a deliberately obscure book, not to write a book that puts forward deliberately confusing messages, but instead to ask the question: “Can we arrive at a more creative and possibly more radical form of critical practice by disarming ourselves a bit, and learning to think with concepts, ideas, circumstances, challenges that are utterly foreign to the ones that we take for granted”? If the purpose is to pluralize our modes of analysis, to open up our capacities of perception, to expand our critical vocabularies, that requires a more vulnerable observer. And a vulnerable observer is someone who must enter into a scene without the ability to wrap it all up with what they came with.


RM: I have a lot of empathy for that approach. For my dissertation, I was responding to the production studies scholars by trying to show that my subjects, who were student filmmakers in film school in Los Angeles, had more agency than what the critical scholars would deem them to have. But I had to go in with that hypothesis and try to see whether various instances of interaction and utterance during the filmmaking process confirmed, denied, or added another dimension to those mini hypotheses, which would then lead to my interpretation and grounded theory. However, if I went in thinking that student filmmakers are going to be churned out by film school into the media industries as future labor, then I would just be using one more set of subjects as an example that confirms production studies’ larger critical project. To me, that’s not the way to do things. That feels very disingenuous.


AP: When a commercial filmmaker says that so much of the force of cinema, so much of the action of cinema, so much of the pull or charge of cinema depends on the extent to which it can leave the viewer asking, “What comes next?”, “What comes next?”, “What comes next?”, what do we do with that? Do we see that as a straightforward moment of manipulation, of pulling the strings, of having these subjects of cinema come along with those strings? Or can we at all take seriously that sliver of indeterminacy that the question holds, the sense that we may not actually know what comes next. This is the value of thinking of cinema as something that is woven together, something that is full of gaps and fissures, moments when one truly does not know what comes next, rather than always anticipating and projecting forward to what will come next, the more conventional, analytical, suturing move that robs that moment and that question of any kind of potency.


RM: Going back, again, to the Table of Contents (you see, I am obsessed), is there a blurring across the modes of experience? Is there interpenetration across these “modes of experience”? So, does your chapter on Desire, for example, about the screenwriting process, also contain examples of what you call Imagination?


AP: Of course.


RM: So how do you decide to frame one set of examples and experiences of production under Desire and others under Imagination? How did you make those decisions?


AP: Do you want me to make sense of why the chapters have the kind of framing that they do?


RM: Yes. So how is the chapter in which you talk about the idea of Dreams—coming up with story ideas—is that different from how you understand Imagination playing out?


AP: I knew for a long time, even when I was doing the research for this book, that it would follow the process. I knew it would have to begin near the beginning and end near the end. I knew I was invested enough in the trajectory of the filmmaking process as a process, that it would have to track these stages.


But I didn’t want these chapters to amount to nothing more than “this is how this is done.” For me, what’s at stake in this work is not simply how films are made but how their making comes to matter for how it is that we live. And what I found is that there is an organic relationship between the kinds of experience that occasion cinema and the kinds of experience that films make possible. So, what I was trying to do with the material was to find a way of moving across that line: literally moving from one side of the screen to the other. Can we say something about the way in which films work, the way in which they work on us, by trying to make sense of how it is that these materials become invested with those capacities?


So, why Dreams? Because this director is constantly talking about dreams. He was really very Freudian in his thinking. He was constantly interpreting dreams. And it turns out that there is a very dreamlike quality to his films. And it turns out that the whole process of writing for him and his crew was itself dreamlike in its unfolding. Why Time? Because there was something about that director being lost in the moment that stood out for me as more essential than anything else about his filmmaking practice. So in each case, I suppose, the conceit was to see if I could find a kernel of experience that would allow me not only to make sense of how these filmmakers were working, but to tap into the ways in which films work on us as well. Can we actually build out from the experiential openness of something like an immersion in time, of something like being lost in dreams, as a way of saying something about how a film can leave us with precisely those kinds of openings?


So, I think I landed on those particular ideas—of Imagination, Light, Color, and so on—because those were the ways I could move most effectively from the kinds of experience that were charging those processes as they were unfolding, and to the charge that the films themselves carried forward to viewers.


RM: I like what you said about moving across the screen from the production side to the side of life. That makes a lot of sense.


AP: As you said that, I was literally imagining, can you leap through a screen? Imagine standing behind a film screen and jumping through it. That’s the endeavor of a book like this.


RM: And that itself is a very cinematic proposition!



From the online companion Chapter on Rhythm - Editor interview

Rhythm3 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.

From the online companion Chapter on Light - "Light invites an epic scale"

Light2 from Anand Pandian on Vimeo.