Like much of his work to date, Scott Esposito’s new book The Doubles evades easy categorization, yet also overwhelms the reader with a sense of its author’s personality and aesthetics. It encompasses several years in Esposito’s life, weaving in his impressions on one film that he saw in that year. The resulting book blends artistic disciplines, gives a fantastic sense of its author’s approach to film, and does a number of bold things with narratives along the way. I asked Esposito some questions about creating the book, which he kindly answered.
The Doubles pairs one year of your life with one film you saw or associated with for that year. How did you go about coming up with that as a structure?
I got the idea to retell films as a way of understanding myself better after watching Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent. This is an extraordinarily dark and powerful film, and it really slugs you in the gut emotionally. This movie got into my head quite profoundly and just would not leave . . . for days on end I just kept obsessively thinking about the experience of watching this movie, so after about a week I finally had to sit down and write out everything I had been mulling over. After an hour or so I had this 2,000-word essay that was a personal retelling of the film; I almost never write this way, it was very visceral, fully formed, kind of more of a voiding than the way I usually compose. I liked the piece a good deal, and I realized that I might make a book of such essays.
So that was how the idea for the project itself originally came to be, and as for the structure, doing one essay per year: after I had done some work on the book, I realized that I didn’t want it to be an “essay collection,” because nobody ever reads an essay collection straight through (I don’t even do it, and I love essays). It’s just not a form that really works as a book. I wanted some logic there, some kind of elegant structuring that would make it into more of a complete book with a beginning, middle, and end, the kind of thing that would pull a reader forward to see what happens next. Thus was born the idea of covering 20 years of my life via 14 movies, and to insert bits of my life into each essay to give this composite picture of me developing through film. Each film I write about was indeed viewed in the year for which it is labeled in the title—I held firm to that rule, which had some consequences for the project.
Once you’d figured out the years and the scope of the book, how difficult was it to come up with the films associated with those years?
Not difficult at all—the hard thing was to narrow it down to the 14 films that made the final cut. This was a somewhat surprising thing about writing the book: before writing this book, I had never thought of myself as a “film person,” I just kinda figured I liked film as much as the next person. But as I began to do this project, I created lists and lists of movies, and I realized just how many films had played a memorable role in my life. So I began to debate the question: was I really a “film person” without even knowing it, or is this just the way it is for everyone, because film is so ubiquitous and dominant as an art form these days? I’m not sure I have a complete answer for that question, but I have become very impressed by film’s power, its incredible amount of influence, yet how lightly, almost subtly that influence works on us.
Were there any films that you’d wanted to work in to The Doubles that you weren’t able to?
Oh yes, there were many, many that I had to leave out for various reasons. The rule of only doing one film per year eliminated a lot of really extraordinary movies, like Mulholland Drive, Werckmeister Harmonies, Stalker, Melancholia, Le plaisir, Vagabond, Certified Copy, Rohmer’s Summer . . .
And there was also a feeling of mine that I wanted to avoid too much “canonical” cinema; I had this idea for various reasons, mostly to do with the fact that I felt like films that were too canonical had already become overinterpreted and overexposed in film writing, but also because one of my firm beliefs (and animating principles of this book) is that film need not be “important” or overly “artistic” to really have a big impact on us. So I wanted to include films that were not necessarily masterpieces (a friend told me I picked all the “off” films of great directors), films that I might have a strongly idiosyncratic viewpoint on.
The Doubles is centered around film, and your earlier The Surrender also featured a number of references to film. To expand that out a little more, The Latin American Mixtape also references another form of media in its title. Would you say that allusions to other artistic disciplines can make literature stronger?
Well for one thing, it’s insightful that you mention The Surrender, because the middle essay in that triptych—which revolves around Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up—was originally to be a part of The Doubles. It was only subsequently that I realized that The Surrender would be written and that this essay would be a part of that book. So these The Doubles and The Surrender are very connected, even though there are big differences in the subject matter of each.
As to your question about the incorporation of different artistic disciplines into literature, this is something I absolutely endorse. One of the ways I seek to give new life to my writing practice is to draw from artists in other categories like film and hip-hop and the graphic artist, and even something like translation (which is obviously literary but also very conceptual). I like to pick apart their work and figure out what it is that I admire about it, and try to forge the literary analogue to that. I really admire writers like Manuel Puig, who had such deep insights into popular forms like film noir and the Argentine tango, and who really understood how to exploit the innovations of those forms in the literary sphere. So this is something that’s in the modern age has been a big source of new directions for different forms of art, and it has absolutely been a source of vitality for my own work. I hope to keep this in my writing as I go forward. And I do hope that other writers do this kind of appropriation—not necessarily of content so much (which can sometimes get dicey) but just of technique, of forms, of energy and schemes and attitude and ideas.
When you describe the films within the context of The Doubles, how did you balance the need to give a sense of what they’re about without resorting to giving over a significant portion of the book to recapping plots?
Ah yes, this was a big, big question. As a critic I feel like I’m always telling colleagues and younger writers “don’t do plot summary, no one cares!” And I try to avoid plot summary in my own criticism as much as possible. So this was a matter I was constantly thinking about as I wrote The Doubles.
To me, the big difference is that book reviews are generally not literary in nature: for one thing, they tend to be quite short (maybe 1,000 words at most) so there’s not really enough room to do effective storytelling. They’re also evaluative instead of plot-driven—plot is kind of beside the point in a book review—and they generally don’t partake in devices common to fiction like storytelling, characterization, and imagistic writing. So the consequence is that criticism really can’t (and shouldn’t) function as does fiction.
But for the essays in The Doubles, I very much approached the filmic portions as I would approach writing a work of fiction—I wanted to make them as gripping and as vivid as would be a story that you were reading. And people have told me that the book often feels more like fiction than essay, this was a point that Álvaro Enrigue made in our Brooklyn event, when he said that he considered the book a work of fiction.
To that end I also left out all critical evaluation: these essays don’t tell you if a film is good or bad, they’re more like recreations of what I’m seeing on the screen and meditations of what this experience is doing to me. This was something of a challenge, as one of my natural inclinations is to evaluate art, but I fought very hard to leave out those sorts of critical judgments and take my responses to these films to other places.
The Doubles reaches its conclusion in 2016. Do you have a sense of what 2017’s film would be in a theoretical The Doubles II?
I’m very glad that you brought this up, as Hal Hlavinka asked me this exact question in the Q&A portion of the event in Brooklyn, and I did not have a great answer for him, though (and doesn’t this always happen?) about 30 minutes after the event I realized the exact response I should have given him.
Earlier this year I watched for the very first time Orson Welles’s last film, the rather extraordinary F Is for Fake. This movie is generally categorized as a documentary, although such a term is hardly suitable for a movie that has such a tortured and halls-of-mirrors-like relationship with anything in the vicinity of the “truth.” It begins with a magic trick, and the rest of the film is constant cinematic sleight of hand, Welles screaming “look over there!” then manipulating something just out of your field of view, thrusting you from one situation to another, telling you to pay attention to this detail, only to then give the impression it is a red herring, or an outright lie, and then, 15 minutes later, telling you it is God’s own truth. I think I would need to watch it a dozen times just to sort it all out, and even then one could never really be sure. The film would be a distinct challenge to re-tell, and it offers so many points of entry for thinking about the nature of truth, as well as the original versus the fake, for a world in which our relationship with reality and truth is growing stranger by the day.