“Your writing elicits for me a much appreciated sense of flux, a view in a state of change, as well as a much more luminous sense of being, the joys of expression, of living itself, like a wonderfully played piano piece . . . a true delight to receive/perceive.”
The above quote hails from a reader in Washington, DC, written in 1995, seven years before I began publishing movie criticism from a blissfully isolated outpost on the Olympic Peninsula. As an ex-radio DJ, I started off with the intention of being a music reviewer—movies were merely a contagious afterthought; when invites first trickled in during the late summer and autumn of ‘02, I was the only hobbyist who thought it might be fun to spend a day taking six buses and two ferry boats to Seattle and back just to attend private screenings for press or anyone else who had even a wisp of press credentials.
The lady from DC wrote in response to my musings on jazz, which I posted to a bulletin board in the days of the Internet’s comparative infancy, and which were as pointedly opinionated and (sometimes) as scathing as any of my subsequent assessments of the overrated trash we call cinema.
She and I became correspondents in the virtual realm of our real lives. She was my ideal reader: she “got” every nuance and inflection—the traits that went beyond shared passions for the singers Sheila Jordan and Abbey Lincoln, or for the saxophonists Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, that went to, in a paraphrase of Willa Cather, the light behind the prose and the living quality in the sentences.
I like to think that my writing about film—and later about books and the visual arts—has, at its best, much in common with my off-the-cuff extemporizations on jazz: chiefly, that my work is informed, engaging, and coruscatingly entertaining in its own right (always in the service, never at the expense, of the so-called art under consideration).
Since the era when I wrote primarily about music, however, I’ve had few ideal readers—or few that I’m aware of. Mostly, I’m cognizant of the grumblers and complainers, the drive-by shooters perched within comment sections—the roynish scamps who consistently take exception to my departures from orthodoxy.
Tim Page, the former classical music critic for the Washington Post, once wrote: “Journalists have a duty to tell the truth, and the exposure of ineptitude goes along with the job.” Those would appear to be words to live by for any serious appraiser of the arts. Yet how infrequently is that mantra put into practice. Either we have the establishment “critics” who glossily praise works of moral and/or aesthetic repugnance (think of Joe Morgenstern’s eyes wide shut defenses of The Soloist and Every Little Step) or we’re assailed and generally misinformed by 20-somethings tumbling over films that one needs to be closer to 40 before one can appreciate (i.e. the cavalier dismissals of Ang Lee’s Taking Woodstock).
The rigidity and provincialism of cultural gatekeepers in our era, I would learn, particularly those in the watered-down jurisdictions of the “alt,” consistently proved intolerant of a well-spoken dissenter.
In 2002, and probably into 2004 (the year I launched my first site, moviesintofilm.com), I was both naïve enough and confident enough to believe that if one wrote compellingly, as I did, it would be a matter of time before my contributions to criticism were recognized as being on a par with those of James Agee, Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, and John Simon. That I wasn’t based in New York, that I was starting out at least a decade older than most scribes, that our culture at large is glaringly stupid—none of that would matter; my writing would somehow reach the recognition it merited. And certainly, there was more than enough genuflecting, both in print and online, at the graves of Kael and Farber—a certain rote pining among critics that there was no one currently writing film criticism of that caliber. Well, I thought I might say, averse though I may be to self-promotion, here I am!
Instead of being welcomed to the pantheon, I was, among other things, publicly derided by J. Hoberman and Dave Kehr. Each took me to task over Terrence Malick’s The New World, evidently feeling that my praise was fulsome. (Hoberman and Kehr may take heart in the fact that I’ve reversed my earlier euphoric stance on Malick’s film: on a fourth go-round, I found it unwatchable.)
I was, among other things, and this is rather more surprising, censored by the Good Liberals at the San Francisco-based GreenCine. The organization’s founder, Dennis Woo, and Jonathan Marlow, who was acquisitions director at the time, deleted five filmmaker interviews I had written expressly for their site. Woo and Marlow did this behind the back of then editor David Hudson, who had assigned those pieces, and of course neither tipped me off in advance to their intentions. Woo and Marlow’s act, the literary banishment normally reserved for plagiarists, was done purely out of hate. Caught between Orwellian frenzy and the sort of caricatures Joan Crawford once specialized in, the effete Marlow didn’t consider it enough just to “fire” me from GreenCine’s freelance roster, he had to expunge every trace of my involvement, even if it meant deleting an interview with the Oscar nominee Fernando Meirelles.
GreenCine’s lack of ethics—its participation in an electronic form of book-burning—ought to have been a major scandal in the film blogosphere; it ought at least to have sent shivers along the spines of the site’s other contributors, for what happened to me could surely happen to them. But the incident went unacknowledged by anyone with serious intent. The innocent glories of the innumerable friends (and friends of friends) blogging non-stop about the movies were, I imagine, too absorbing for these micro-communities to sit up and take notice. GreenCine never restored my work, not even after Marlow left the company.
Instead of being courted by publications, I was, among other things, invisible to editors who routinely championed undistinguished writers. I was, among other things, the recipient of sometimes scabrous yet more often pitiful attacks either by anonymous comment section kamikazes or by bloggers devoid of much to say. What these reactionaries have in common is this: The same puny misconception of what arts criticism is supposed to be. For starters, it isn’t about nodding in agreement with the herd—often, it’s elucidating how and where the herd has gone so terribly wrong in praising dreck, or in panning/slighting genuine achievements, that gives criticism its reason for being. The negative remarks I received for dismissing the near-worthless There Will Be Blood are instructive examples of the anti-matter I’ve encountered in responses to my work. I would be denounced as “lazy,” for having formed an opinion of my own that went against the grain. Well, I ask, which requires a greater amount of energy and momentum—parroting received wisdom or speaking one’s mind?
A Laughter of Inner Devils reprints the majority of pieces that were formerly available at moviesintofilm.com, the site I published from April 2004 to March 2010. I decided to retire some sixty reviews, mainly minor ones of trifling works, although some readers may note the absence of my panegyric for The New World. Given that my disposition toward the film has undergone significant changes, I felt that republishing my laudatory notice from February 2006 would be a misrepresentation. The movie remains well-acted by Colin Farrell; it is still gorgeously photographed by Emmanuel Lubezki. But that’s all I can say for it now. If enough years go by, I could always reevaluate.
There will be few, if any, new pieces added here, primarily for the reason that movies no longer stimulate my imagination. Even though I made a specific choice to be a selective, intermittent critic (as opposed to a drudge who sits through everything), I wasn’t—and am not—immune to the generic, deadening sameness of movies. It isn’t that there are no new stories under the sun—the story is frequently irrelevant anyway—it’s that a mere fraction of what’s under the sun ever sees the light of the screen. Movies don’t merely falsify life—they have nothing to do with life whatsoever: movies lack the willingness of literature and music to take risks; consequently, they are empty. There will always be brilliant exceptions to the rule; those exceptions, to cite Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues and Joanna Hogg’s Unrelated, are only going to become more difficult to find. When you have the vast majority of critics beating their heads against cinderblock to extract meaning from cheapie exploitation pictures like those hurled out by such Kentucky-Fried no-talents as the Coens, Cronenberg, Haneke, and Arnaud Desplechin, it’s hard to determine which is the more lost of two lost causes: the desiccated little genre pictures that are served up week after week or the hacks enshrined to cheerlead for them. (I write this not in anger—detached amusement will do.)
What is ultimately enervating about the critics today is their narrowness. Too inexperienced to have much in the way of evaluative faculties, these movie bloggers and counterfeit intellectuals summarize plots with the liveliness of the CliffsNotes tradition on an inferior, hollow art form. They banter, they pun, they gossip, they presume; a great many of them labor to appear “knowing” about the movies or at least—should cinema prove forbiddingly abstruse—knowing about the industry. Entire sites, in imitation of trade magazines, are built around nobodies desperate to pass themselves off as “insiders.” Nearly everything is being written on the Internet about movies—everything, that is, except actual film criticism of lasting value. Littered with facile posts of fleeting interest, where on the web are the kind of essays that three or four decades hence a reader can discover (or re-discover) and think, “Here is someone who had something to say and who said it so well that the prose has no expiration date”?
Thirty years ago, in her memorable deflation of Pauline Kael for the New York Review of Books, Renata Adler wrote that reviewing works of art (or non-art, as the case may be) day in and day out wasn’t a worthy or sustaining occupation for a thinking adult: “…no art can support for long the play of a major intelligence… No serious critic can devote himself, frequently, exclusively, and indefinitely, to reviewing works most of which inevitably cannot bear… review in depth.” As a journalist arriving late to the vocation (yet always meticulously on time to the screening room), I prayed that her insights were not quite so true.
By now, I see all too clearly what she meant.
December 28, 2010