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Captured: writing about film and photography.

"IT'S MUSIC, IT'S LIGHT, IT'S NARRATIVE, it's a kind of secular mass, really," began novelist and screenwriter Russell Banks as he peered into the crowd gathered for Black Mountain Institute's April 2009 panel, "Books into Film." "When you go to a theater and see a film, you are with a large group of people together in the darkness, sharing this experience, and it is communal, there is a certain sacred quality. That is the last remnant we have of that kind of experience outside of religious orthodoxies."

Banks' audience, congregated in a darkened Las Vegas theater of its own, was present to hear about the ways in which literature and film intersect, about how novels turn into movies, and about how film is rare among art forms in its accessibility. In terms of screenplay, Banks is an acknowledged professional, having produced scripts for Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, but he is best known for his novels, among them Cloudsplitter, The Sweet Hereafter, Affliction, and The Darling. "Movies are a central part of my visual, and intellectual, and oral education," he continued. "I see things," Banks explained, "and listen to things, interpret the world really, as much as any American of my generation, through film."

Like Banks, most Americans now get their cultural education from visual sources, and he is in good company among other literary luminaries who take inspiration from, and create work in, mingled formats. There are numerous examples of fiction writers writing for film while bringing their distinctive fictive sensibilities to bear; Dave Eggers' adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are is but one example, as is the screenplay for Away We Go, written by Eggers and his wife, novelist Vendela Vida. Of course literary books continue to appear in film, writ large for the shared experience that Banks describes, from Revolutionary Road to Fantastic Mr. Fox, and even in cases where the influence isn't explicit, it doesn't feel like a stretch to guess that filmmakers like Quentin Tarantino have been affected by the noir novels of Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett. If, as Banks says, writing and film are closely linked, the next generation of noir writers may point to Tarantino as an inspiration.

At Witness, as we sought manuscripts for "Captured: Writing About Film and Photography," these questions resonated deeply with the material we collected: How does the lens shape our vision? How does the act of filming affect our behavior? Our writing? How do we represent our ideas about how representations are made, and what, if anything, does this tell us about ourselves as readers? About the (post)modern creative process? And in what ways does the modern writer utilize tropes and familiar trajectories from the worlds of film, movies, photography, and video to express his or her own breadth of view?

The literary subjects of this portfolio, varied and surprising in their depictions, range from James Bond to Werner Herzog, from mega-stars to flunky film students, from the wildlife of Los Angeles to refugees and the starlets who fantasize about saving them. The views vary, too, from toilet endoscopies to intimate family photographs to God's-eye pans. Our contributors play fast and loose with genre, and what was submitted as nonfiction could easily be interpreted as prose poetry or flash fiction. Likewise, screenplay seeps into most everything.

What we unexpectedly discovered in considering submissions for the portfolio is that writers across all spectra--male, female, established writers and those still emerging--have at one time or another been prompted to write about the experience of watching. And we were a little surprised, as we neared the end of our reading period, to find that so much of that writing is about men watching women, or women looking at themselves. In response, we selected a photo essay that confronts the discomfiting power dynamic between the watcher and the watched head-on: Jessica Dimmock's Paparazzi! follows Hollywood-based photographers in their efforts to hunt celebrities and capture their images for the popular media.

But it's the writing in this portfolio--in its immediacy and intimacy, clarity and complexity--that best explores the power of the lens. We chose pieces that are simultaneously mimetic images and meta-fictions: compelling works of art that are aware of themselves as commentaries on the production of art. Such writing coexists with a mirror of itself in a kind of ecstasy of accessibility, of the pleasure we take in looking at something or someone as closely as we like, for as long as we like, while yet remaining part of an unobserved public. As Banks remarked in his closing words, "This is terribly important. We need that communal sharing experience, that giving over of the self that the film provides." And so by sharing these particular views, we reflect them back outward.

--The editors

To listen to the podcast of or watch video from "Books into Film: How Novels Become Movies," presented in conjunction with the CineVegas Film Festival, visit
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Title Annotation:PORTFOLIO
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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