"The cinema is cruel like a miracle." -Frank O'Hara

James Wolcott on the Dreamlife of Film Prints


I started reading James Wolcott’s memoir Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York, and was particularly taken by his description of watching beat-up film prints at the uptown arthouse cinemas:

“The prints in those pre-DVD days were legendarily scuffed like locker room floors, with washed-out colors, bleached black and white, frames missing, vertical lines slicing the frames, strange blotches appearing like fungus, fuzzy sound, the screen going blank as a reel came unsnapped and the audience groaned, what little audience there was in the dead of the afternoon. But the imperfections in the prints made the experience more dreamlike, closer to an unfinished rough draft from the unconscious, the subtitles a ghostly reduction of dialogue that sounded so much more expressive and layered than the plain words at the bottom of the screen.”

Wolcott was one of Pauline Kael’s acolytes (a self-professed “Paulette”) and like her, his voice is at once passionate and unrelenting, a binge of petal-to-the metal prose that leaves you exhilarated—and possibly overwhelmed, if you can’t keep up with his references. This passage on celluloid stands out for its simplicity, a pensive nugget in the midst of Wolcott’s dense lore. The phrase “unfinished rough draft from the unconscious” is perhaps the most perfect summing up of Freud’s Mystic Writing Pad that one can imagine. But connecting the scratches, the blotches, the lines—the materiality of film and its imperfections—to cinema’s dreamlike dimension was a discovery for me, an insight that upon reading I knew to be true.