Free Association: Fireflies Press and Contemporary Film Criticism

By Holly WillisDecember 19, 2021

Free Association: Fireflies Press and Contemporary Film Criticism
WHO DOESN’T WANT to start a magazine in their 20s? It’s a time often electrified by an acute awareness of the world’s mendacious inadequacy. It’s also a time of bravura confidence and a roiling conviction that you can actually do something about the state of things. I say this not with condescension but wistfulness. My friends and I founded a film magazine in our 20s, inspired by French filmmakers Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who, too, were critics in their 20s. Entitled Persistence of Vision (get it?), it featured feminist polemics and our own ineffable love for the moving image, punkishly presented in Xeroxed pamphlets and handed out for free.

So, it is with both warmth and familiarity that I stumbled on Fireflies Press, an independent magazine and book publishing house dedicated to catalyzing rigorous, personal, and unabashedly passionate writing about contemporary cinema. Established in July 2014, Fireflies Press is run by Annabel Brady-Brown, who is based in Melbourne, and Giovanni Marchini Camia, based in Berlin. The pair met in 2011 while working together at a Berlin-based culture magazine. Brady-Brown’s background is in creative writing, and Camia’s is in film studies, and, looking around at the international film magazine scene at the time, they didn’t see much that wowed them. As a result, they decided to combine their interests and start their own publication: Fireflies Magazine.

“I think it was something that we, almost in a selfish way, wanted to exist in the world,” explained Brady-Brown of Fireflies in a recent Zoom conversation linking Melbourne, Berlin, and L.A. “We were excited about experimenting and trying things out.” Noting that there seemed to be room for more provocative writing specifically about cinema, she continued, “I read a lot of really extraordinary arts criticism, but it’s more often coming from the visual arts rather than film and so we were excited about bringing those techniques into film criticism.”

Camia added that another reason for creating the press was their shared professional dissatisfaction. “We were in our mid-20s, and I don’t know if it was the time — it was not long after the financial crisis — but it was very difficult to get paid for our work. We were doing one unpaid internship after another, having to write and publish listicles and whatnot, and our frustration motivated us to start a publication where we could write what we wanted.”

The pair began by creating six issues of Fireflies Magazine working in close collaboration with designer James Geoffrey Nunn, also based in Melbourne. Unlike the handmade zine of my 20s, these magazines are unabashedly beautiful, conceptually arresting, and adamantly committed to a poignant cinephilia. Each issue pairs two filmmakers who share an ardent and sustained devotion to cinema and its powers but whose visual styles, genres, national contexts, or even thematic concerns differ profoundly. Their first issue, for example, brings together the brilliant and controversial Italian director, poet, and novelist Pier Paolo Pasolini, who died in 1975, and the extraordinary and prolific Thai director, screenwriter, and producer Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose newest film, Memoria, recently opened in theaters; and the sixth, at bookstores now, brings together Alain Guiraudie and Albert Serra; others feature directors such as Jia Zhangke and Angela Schanelec, which is to say, artists known for their arresting rigor and commitment to cinema.

Avid cinephiles might recognize the adventurous and idiosyncratic juxtapositions in the pairings, but many readers will hopscotch among these artists and ideas for the first time, finding surprising associations across these disparate bodies of work. Rather than studiously plan these connections via editorial directive, the team imagines the magazine as an open space of possibility to see what emerges serendipitously. Each issue of Fireflies Magazine features long-form interviews with the chosen filmmakers as well as contributions from a slate of international writers across a spectrum of writing forms, offering film criticism layered with fiction, poetry, and visual art. A poem by CAConrad appears in the sixth issue in the section on Guiraudie, for example, and colorful imagery of dogs by Belgian artist Kasper Bosmans appears in the section on Serra. The editors’ curatorial choices craft a stance toward contemporary film journalism that is at once intellectually sophisticated and playful, provocative as well as poetic.

While Brady-Brown and Camia are not typically prescriptive with their writers, they occasionally offer intriguing prompts. For the fifth issue featuring Angela Schanelec and Agnès Varda, they asked the writers profiling each filmmaker to use the structure of Roland Barthes’s 1977 book, A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, as a reference. This curious assignment signals a desire to shift away from typical magazine forms — the profile, review, or behind-the-scenes piece — in favor of more elusive, fragmented prose that cheerfully swerves toward the associative nature of poetry. Indeed, some pieces evade genre altogether as in the exchange in issue six between Wayne Koestenbaum and Bruce Hainley titled “The Curves in the Road. Farm Muck. Gumming,” a correspondence at once hilarious and entirely cryptic. In order to convey the breadth of the issues’ featured filmmakers, the editors often assign “Postcards from the Cinema,” which are 300-word reviews. The catch? Each short review must focus on only one line of dialogue, one image, or one moment and use it to speak about the whole of the film. Writers deliver clever, often poignant snippets in response.

More recently, Fireflies Press has expanded its commitment to creative-critical writing on film by publishing individual books under the title “Decadent Editions,” with the goal to create one book based on one film released each year between 2000 and 2010 (the “decade” in “decadent”). So far, the press has published three editions, each a bonbon of a book, sized to fit perfectly in the palm of your hand. The books boast elegant paper covers with the year of the film’s release, the author’s name, and the title of the film, along with the small Fireflies logo. I offer these details to convey the sense of deliberate care embodied by the books, to suggest the intimacy invited by their diminutive size, and to conjure the spark of desire they ignite. According to Camia, Nunn “did an insane amount of research on the medieval scribes and the proper proportions of books.” Though he doubts anyone will ever pick up on the obscure source dictating the size of the text and the span of white space holding the margins, readers will sense that perfection. Indeed. The books feel quite extraordinary, and they expand on the magazine to show the trio’s commitment not just to print, but to the book as material object.

The first book from the series is Goodbye, Dragon Inn (March 2021) by American film critic Nick Pinkerton, centered on Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film of the same title. It begins somewhat magically: “I remember as if it were yesterday, if I remember right.” This sentence summarily spins the reader in time, to yesterday, then tumbling forward to wonder: what is it to remember right? And the sentence syntax with its ephemeral “as if” — why choose the subjunctive’s sense of loss and desire over the imperative’s clarity and command? Pinkerton’s book is devoted to the pressure of desire and loss in relation to a particular notion of the cinema and its evanescence, an entire cultural art form slipping ineluctably from analog to digital, from dark, communal dream space to isolated Netflix binging in front of exhausting blue screens. On watching Mark A. Z. Dippé’s Spawn at the age of 16, Pinkerton recalls the “first time I could positively identify the faint, fluttering feeling of obsolescence that would become a familiar companion in years to come, a premonition of popular culture walking across my grave.”

Pinkerton goes on to carefully consider Goodbye, Dragon Inn, which in turn is linked to a 1967 film titled Dragon Inn in a story set in a neighborhood theater in Taipei. Here, Pinkerton forges a chain of influences, of one unforgettable movie pointing to another, and in turn uncovering a series of small but profound epiphanies for both the writer and filmmaker in their youth. Pinkerton considers a surfeit of motifs, from cruising, porn, and the erotics of the cinema to Tsai’s editing and his relationship to the artworld. What results is not only a cinephile’s dream resource for a film, but an elegiac testimony to a film’s ability to signal its moment, or rather, to foretell what is to come in the future. While obsolescence provides the book’s atmosphere, what finally emerges is not simply nostalgia but instead a fervent testimony to cinema’s unique power presented on textured pages, one evanescent medium elegantly holding the other.

The second book published in the Decadent Editions series, released in June, was TEN SKIES by Erika Balsom, a senior lecturer in film studies at King’s College London. Here, Balsom thinks through Ten Skies, a film made by James Benning in 2004, which is composed of 10 shots of 10 skies, the frame with each single shot unwavering for 10 minutes each. While Benning is known for often working with certain numerical parameters, Balsom eschews a focus merely on Benning’s mathematical structure even if her reading is itself divided into 10 sections, one per shot. “Probe his entirely sui generis filmography and you will find personal chronicles, travelogues, clever jokes, accounts of murder, indictments of whiteness, and an attention to the particularities of the Midwest,” she writes of Benning’s 40-year body of work. “We are, in other words, a very long way from formalism.”

In place of the immediate turn to form that Benning’s film seems to invite, Balsom crafts a sequence of connected essays that discuss each shot of the film, but with a thrilling expansiveness and intentionally meandering style. In the third section of the book, for example, Balsom expresses her dislike of the self-assurance found in videographic criticism that assumes that simply showing visual evidence constitutes an argument. She strongly disagrees, extolling instead the virtues of written description, not despite its imprecision, but precisely because it is can never be completely correct or accurate. “Ekphrasis, the verbal account of a visual text, is never tautology,” she writes. “It excludes, amplifies, transforms. In trying to stay near, it can go far.” Then she adds, “Rather than attempt to breach this chasm — as the practitioners of videographic criticism and the namers of clouds do — I fall into its depths.” While Balsom is arguing against the video essay’s unearned confidence, the grace of her prose makes its own case for writing’s necessity and invites us, too, to fall into the depths.

In the third book of the Decadent Editions, film critic Melissa Anderson tackles David Lynch’s 2006 film, Inland Empire, opting to focus on its star, Laura Dern. She adopts the concept of “acteurism,” a term borrowed from film critic Dave Kehr to refer to the ways in which certain actors become key points of signification marked by their sheer presence and consistency across a body of work. Appearing not only in Inland Empire but also in Lynch’s Blue Velvet from 1986 and Wild at Heart from 1990, as well as Twin Peaks: The Return, a 2017 Showtime limited series co-created by Lynch, Dern’s persona and physicality become the film’s organizing principle; Anderson writes, “Dern’s corporeality functions as the movie’s irreducible reality.” Anderson goes on to make a convincing case for this reading, offering a welcome path through the maelstrom that is Inland Empire while also acknowledging her pleasure, as a woman, of watching Dern perform.

Like Balsom, who said that choosing to write about Ten Skies “came partly from a masochistic feeling that it would be especially difficult to do,” Anderson acknowledges the challenges of writing about a film in which the slippages across time, space, and characters refuse clarity. “How many categorical errors have I committed so far?” Anderson asks midway through the book before bravely soldiering on.

All three writers at some point announce the impossibility of their project, divesting the authority that comes of authoring, along with the ability to truly know, reveal, explain, or otherwise capture the film they’ve elected to cover. Each has chosen an enigmatic and conceptually complex film, and, in place of mastery over complexity, Pinkerton, Balsom, and Anderson offer essayistic explorations that, in tangling with difficulty and the gap between experience and analysis, reveal as much about the writer as the subject. Taken together, all three writers are passionate lovers of cinema and its revelatory power, which is found precisely in relationship, in the drawing out and puzzling over of concepts. If cinema is imagined to be in decline, surpassed by algorithmically attuned content generators and perfidious streaming services, the gesture toward cinema’s magnificence and ultimate inscrutability is also an act of reclamation, an ardent insistence that we not let it go.

In September, Fireflies published Memoria, a research notebook based on Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s ninth feature film of the same title that celebrates the creative frisson of the director’s process. The film, which premiered in July 2021 at the Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Jury Prize, stars Tilda Swinton as a woman visiting Colombia and inhabiting a peculiarly liminal space, not just of the traveler, but of someone caught between sound and silence, sleep and wakefulness, past and present. The book, built from the director’s vast assembly of materials for the film, similarly floats between fact and fiction, real life and cinematic reverie. Organized in four sections, it presents a dense collage of images, newspaper stories, handwritten notes and the film’s shooting script, as well as a diary of the film shoot eloquently reported by Camia. Paging through the book, I encounter the film’s psyche, an entire dreamscape of storytelling possibility. And, like the Decadent Editions texts, Memoria the book is an exquisite object.

Fireflies Magazine is certainly not the first journal committed to expanding the options for film writing, nor is it the only. A trip to an urban bookstore reveals several: Suspira, an experimental feminist horror magazine; NANG, a 10-issue magazine dedicated to Asian cinema that also boasts a careful attention to writing and the magazine as designed object; and Another Gaze offers a feminist take. It is also not the first and only press to make pretty, small books. The explorations of the self engaged by the writers of Decadent Editions join a long history of self-reflexive essayists from the past, aligning too with a larger trend in contemporary nonfiction writing contextualized by Lauren Fournier in her recent book Autotheory as Feminist Practice in Art, Writing, and Criticism. Examining a history of writing that merges self and philosophy, and that tends to exceed existing genres and disciplines, Fournier explains that works of autotheory tend to trouble categories and boundaries, favoring liminality and entanglement, as well as a melding of research and personal reflection. A turn to the self in autotheory allows the authors not only to work through difficult artworks and express their unabashed passion for film; it also opens up the process so that we can witness the tangle of thinker and thought as they shape each other.

To end, I turn to Balsom’s words once more and assert that, in film writing, there can be “love, thought, confusion, suffering.” While perhaps not the typical editorial mandate for a contemporary film magazine or publishing house, this idea perhaps articulates a possible future for film writing, especially now, in the turbulence of a pandemic and an art form in transition. While many look to criticism for its evaluative capacities — thumbs up? thumbs down? — or for its interpretive agility in revealing troubling ideological subtexts, there is far more to find in the relationships between a writer and a movie, among the experiences of seeing, saying, thinking, writing. Instead of a consumer’s guide with tips on best bets, rather than asserting values and making judgments, in place of a convincing argument and scolding, maybe film writing can offer a sense of opening and recognition; it can be a thinking-with: thinking with love, confusion, even risk. If the typical film journal and academic press present the familiar and codified to assure a certain set of standards and a legacy, Fireflies Press yearns for the surprising flash and spark of its insect namesake.


Holly Willis is a professor in the Media Arts + Practice Division in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where she teaches classes on digital media, post-cinema, and feminist film. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well of Björk Digital, and the editor of both The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing, and David O. Russell: Interviews.

LARB Contributor

Holly Willis is a professor in the Media Arts + Practice Division in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where she teaches classes on digital media, post-cinema, and feminist film. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well of Björk Digital, and the editor of both The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing, and David O. Russell: Interviews.


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