Thursday, October 20, 2016

J. M. Tyree's "Vanishing Streets"

J. M. Tyree is Distinguished Visiting Professor at VCUarts and Nonfiction Editor of New England Review. He is the author of BFI Film Classics: "Salesman" and the coauthor of Our Secret Life in the Movies (with Michael McGriff) and BFI Film Classics: "The Big Lebowski" (with Ben Walters).

His new book is Vanishing Streets: Journeys in London.

Here Tyree discusses how the autobiographical impulse in his writing connects with his love of film:
As a writer, I blend personal and creative writing with my academic interest in cinema. In Vanishing Streets, I originally planned to write a series of essays about the Free Cinema movement of British documentary that flourished in London in the 1950s. But the book quickly spiraled out of control into a highly personal project that includes my autobiography and my photography as well as my notes on traveling to film-related and literary locations in London. As far as I wandered, I found my own experience was inescapable, and that I would need to write about my life, my marriage, and my friendships as well as my journeys if I wanted to be honest about my own research and writing process.

This is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t think my book would make a very good movie. It’s never occurred to me to try to cast the film of my book in my imagination, and it’s difficult to see any three-act narrative structure that would compel audiences to watch the story of my time in London. That said, my writing “method” involved my best effort to emulate two of the films I love most, Robert Vas’s Refuge England (1959) and Agnes Varda’s Daguerreotypes (1976). These movies set out to reenchant the everyday landscape by transforming banalities into charms. They are urban films that conjure delights out of ordinary moments. They are films bound by location – London and Paris – and doubly bound by viewing their respective cities through a single keyhole.

In Vas’ film, a newly arrived Hungarian refugee spends his first day in London looking for an address – 25 Love Lane – where he has been told he will find shelter. But he has not been provided with the postcode, and this omission forces him to travel across the city, searching out many different Love Lanes in many different neighborhoods. In Varda’s film, the great auteur limits herself to exploring her own street, Rue Daguerre, and takes her camera as far as the “umbilical cord” of her electric power cable will allow her camera to roam. The little stars of her drama, she explains in the film, are “bread, milk, hardware, meat, and white linen…short hair, and always the accordion!” Both Vas and Varda use synecdoche to reveal their respective cities to their viewers, while defamiliarizing the experience to refresh our gaze.

In The Gleaners & I (2000) and The Beaches of Agnes (2008), Varda turns the camera back on herself. Yet the results do not appear narcissistic, they are merely honest about the plain fact that when we set out to discover the world we find that we also encounter our unavoidable self. Maybe any documentary contains a more or less hidden self-portrait, although ideally it is one that is able to encompass others in the process. It’s a risk to put your chips down on yourself but then again nobody else is going to do that for you, and if you’ve got a smartphone you can make your own movie. Besides, now might be a good moment to question celebrity culture by reversing the focus of attention away from stars and towards people and places that are supposedly not worth noticing. There are, of course, no such things.
Learn more about Vanishing Streets at the Stanford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue