Sunday, December 03, 2006

Steven Boone

5. Filmmaker Don McKellar’s review of the E.T. re-release in The Village Voice showed me how a cheap, snide, glancing, dismissive review of a beloved American classic… can also be right.

4. James Baldwin’s book The Devil Finds Work put everything that infuriates me about classical Hollywood into a handful of scalding essays, and a simple concept: White supremacy is at the core of even Ho'wood's gushiest liberal projects. (I want to dig him up so he can write something on Crash.)

3. Found footage collage films like the sly Rose Hobart (which I watched with my mouth stuck in a grin as a film student), and the psychotic Outer Space (which I watched my mouth hanging open at the ’99 New York Film Festival) showed me that film commentary can be written in actual film language.

2. Armond White’s dis review of Malcolm X in a 1992 issue of the long-gone radical black newspaper The City Sun knocked me to the floor. I was a black kid reading a black writer eviscerating The Black Movie of the Decade in a black newspaper. Balls. And White pinpointed a disappointment with the film I hadn't been able to articulate. He decried Spike’s heavy-handed “look-at-me tropes,” like the shot of those dastardly Klansmen riding off against a moon backdrop. The X review and the bizarre spectacle of full-page Antonioni analysis in a paper read in Harlem barbershops converted me to Whiteism as swiftly as Malcolm succumbed to Islam. After that, I had to read everything this crazy negro had to say. And I learned a hell of a lot.

1. This lucid rant from Ray Carney always chases the complacency cobwebs away.
Steven Boone is a New York-basic critic and filmmaker, a contributor to Vinyl is Heavy and the publisher of the pop culture blog Big Media Vandalism.


Dennis Cozzalio


1. Discovering Pauline Kael's Reeling in 1977 in a shop called Koobdooga (read it backwards). I tore through Reeling in its entirety for the first time that weekend, and it would expand my head more than any hit of lysergic acid diethylamide could ever hope to do. Suddenly I began to understand how just complicated a response to a movie could be, how complicated some of my own responses already were. I learned how to see movies with new eyes, and I began to learn how to develop my own thoughts and ideas by pitting myself against some of Kael's. Later, reading her thoughts on De Palma's The Fury proved pivotal, as her experience with the movie seemed so different from my own; seeing the movie through her own reviews became an exercise in strengthening my own position and understanding my own reaction to the movie. And when she raved about Dressed to Kill, I felt she was somehow able to reach into my own experience and express things about the movie I believed but couldn't yet tease to the surface for myself. She validated the experience of enjoying these films and others that were considered eneath serious consideration by many other critics, and made me understand that holding a minority position was not invalid. She pointed the way toward films from Europe and the outskirts of American cinema I wouldn't have considered, or perhaps even known about, before. And she was just so much fun to read that I think the seeds of me wanting to be a writer must have been firmly planted that weekend, too.

2. In the fall of 1980 it was discovered that a V.I.F.P. (Very Important Film Professor) and I had a mutually high regard for Walter Hill's The Long Riders. We enjoyed many after-class discussions about the movie, and eventually he asked me to read a paper that he had written on it. It was only after he handed the paper over to me that he told me that a) he wanted me to tell him what I thought of it, and to be brutally honest because b) he?d turned it in to a highly regarded film journal (anybody remember Cinemonkey?) and it had been rejected a couple of times. Gulp. With the encouragement of another professor (who had also read the paper), I was able to go back to the V.I.F.P. and tell him that I thought the paper, which was steeped in the most dense, solipsistic, Freudian booby-trapped argumentative strategies and untrackable, paragraph-long sentences, was virtually impenetrable, even to a serious student of the film. Essentially, I had to tell the man responsible for my grades that he wasn't a very good writer. It was a key experience for me in learning the importance of being forthright and honest in my reactions, and it would hold me in good stead later when I would find myself interacting with other creative people whose work I was assessing. And my professor, for all my worry and sweat over this dilemma I found myself in, was very understanding. It turned out he didn't think much of the paper either.

3. Reading John Simon's collection Reverse Angle: A Decade of American Films (1982) proved to be the opposite of my experience with Reeling. I read it not long after it was first published, but I found Simon's views and approach to criticism to be so sour, elitist and lacking in the slightest hint of the kind of fan appreciation that Kael's work reveled in that it took me a couple of months to slog through it. I've revisited it piecemeal over the years but have never read it all the way through again. It struck me then, as it does now in recalling it, as antithesis of what I wanted from a film critic, as well as the antithesis of how I wanted my own writing about film to feel.

4. I held my first (and so far only) paid job as a film critic for The Ashland (Ore.) Daily Tidings for 1983-1985 and got the benefit of several vivid experiences during my stay there. I learned how to work with an editor-- three different and very encouraging bosses helped me along and only occasionally questioned whether their readership would be interested in what I was writing. Together, we explored how to best get my thoughts and observations organized, but we also paid attention to how I didn't want to write, and we had to look no further than the reviewer for the Medford paper -- "Cinematography is strong, and the acting, particularly by Mr. Cruise, is at a very good level" -- for vivid examples of what not to do. Best of all though, I got direct exposure to the anger of local theater owners -- who often expressed their displeasure at negative reviews in person, and once or twice within earshot of the owner of the paper, as well as pissed-off readers who wrote in that I should be either "beaten" or "have my typewriter dismantled" (two actual quotes from my scrapbook). I can remember being alerted by a friend of mine the first time the paper published one of those blistering letters, and he did so with much hesitancy and worry about what my reaction would be. He was shocked when it turned out to be a kind of giddy elation rather than depression. This kind of reaction told me that at the very least I was being read. For a 24-year-old just getting his feet wet in the wide world of film criticism, that was plenty good enough.

5. Films As Film Criticism:

The Long Goodbye (1973; Robert Altman)

Mystery Science Theater 3000: Mitchell
Los Angeles-based critic Dennis Cozzalio is the publisher of Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, a blog about movies, baseball and popular culture.


Bilge Ebiri

1. "Praising Arizona,” a review of Raising Arizona by Jack Barth, in Film Comment, March-April 1987.

This is a ground zero of sorts for me. I grew up in a family where art films and foreign films were watched fairly regularly, and I had seen my first Fellini, Bergman, and Truffaut films before the age of thirteen. But as much as I loved movies, the true obsession hadn’t gripped me yet. It was this article – which I haven’t revisited in ages – that did it, albeit in a somewhat indirect way. This was a cover story in Film Comment magazine, which my Dad had happened to have left lying around the house back in 1987. One day, after seeing (and loving) Raising Arizona at the theater, I came home, grabbed this issue and read the article. The article – and this is the only thing I remember from it – at one point compared the Coens’ highly stylized aesthetic to the expressive filmmaking in Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. It just so happened that Dad had also left a VHS copy of The Conformist lying around. I popped it in the VCR. I watched it. Not being able to make head nor tail of it, I rewound it and watched it again. A month later, I had watched the film ten times. The rest of Bertolucci’s oeuvre would follow – along with all the Italian and French cinema that influenced him. To this day, The Conformist is still one of my 3 or 4 favorite films. If it hadn’t been for this article, I may never have seen it.

2. Three books by Robert Philip Kolker: A Cinema of Loneliness, The Altering Eye, and Bernardo Bertolucci

I’m cheating here, not just by including three books as one item, but also because Kolker isn’t really a critic – he’s an academic and a theorist. But his writing to me is the model of how to truly write about film. Reading these books as a young teenager (soon after discovering The Conformist – see above), I found myself in awe of the way Kolker could write about a film by analyzing what was onscreen – shot selection, composition, editing, dialogue, music – instead of going off on his own metaphysical tangents.

3. Pauline Kael on The Leopard

Reviewing movies I love can be tough. How to make effusive enthusiasm interesting to a reader without sounding like a broken record? Even though she was notorious for all the films she panned, I can’t help but think of Pauline Kael’s impassioned review of Visconti’s The Leopard, which makes it look so easy. I wish I could include a quote, but all my books are in storage right now.

4. “How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Barry Lyndon,” a review by John Hofsess, in The New York Times, 1976.

This is a review I discovered relatively late, but I’ve always felt it crystallizes perfectly how I feel about some of the pitfalls of film criticism – the notion of articulating in words what, in some senses, is a fundamentally non-verbal experience. I wasn’t around for Barry Lyndon’s panning by critics at the time of its release, but it was exciting to discover that some cooler heads did exist back then. To wit:

“[T]here isn't much for a verbally-oriented person to chew on. There's no conceptual or discursive aspect, no kernel of pop sociology or philosophical nutmeat. It isn't at all like Nashville or Last Tango in Paris, where a knowing reviewer could write the kind of richly allusive in-depth analysis that critics have long done for novels. Instead, Barry Lyndon throws down the gauntlet to those film critics who are really literary or drama critics in disguise and tests their ability to appreciate qualities of form, composition, color, mood, music, editing rhythms-- among other cinematic qualities that generally do not greatly interest them. Words are a film critic's primary tools and when a movie doesn't lend itself to verbal translation-- discussions about character, ideas, values, plot development, and so on--many critics are inclined to dismiss it as unimportant or as a failure.”

5. Hitchcock: The First Forty-Four Films, by Eric Rohmer and Claude Chabrol

Two of the greatest filmmakers of all time writing about another great filmmaker. Rohmer and Chabrol’s book has almost none of the discipline of Kolker (see above) and little of the filmmaking insights of Hitchock-Truffaut. But it’s an amazing book nonetheless: A chance to witness two of the greatest cinematic minds of the 20th Century fully engage themselves in tackling – on all levels -- one of the most astonishing directorial outputs ever. I like to reread this every couple of years.
New York-based critic Bilge Ebiri is the editor of Screengrab.


Annie Frisbie

1. Growing up with the Baltimore Sun. Film Critic Lou Cedrone lived in my neighborhood, and I always thought that he had the coolest job in the world, especially after he told my parents that it was okay for them to let me see Ferris Bueller’s Day Off in the theater. I learned film criticism can bring you the admiration of preteens.

2. Roger Ebert’s Little Movie Glossary: A Compendium of Movie Cliches, Stereotypes, Obligatory Scenes, Hackneyed Formulas, Shopworn Conventions, and Outdated Archetypes. I can’t watch a thriller without waiting for the main character to say, “Why are you doing this to me?” I learned film criticism can be humorous.

3. Noel Carroll’s Philosophy of Horror. This book, and others by Carroll (not to mention Post-Theory, co-edited by David Bordwell) rocked my world when I was in grad school. I learned academic film criticism can actually make sense (and doesn’t have to be in French).

4. Being a source for a writer for the Village Voice. I’m on the record in a piece about nostalgia films as liking The Ice Storm for getting below the surface, and quoted (as an “aficionado”) in a piece where I say that Adam Sandler’s stupidness “makes him strangely desirable as a boyfriend, because he’d be slavishly devoted to you.” Not my finest hour. I gave this writer, the now-infamous Peter Braunstein, the idea for a story called “Miramax Hates Movies,” which the Voice wanted—but nobody from Miramax would go on the record. I learned that film criticism can make the trivial wonderful (and that some phone numbers are worth losing.)

5. The New York Press in the 90s. My Kim’s video compatriots and I eschewed the fusty old farts at the Voice for their feistier counterparts at the Press: Godfrey Cheshire, taking us in new directions, Armond White, driving us nuts, and Matt Zoller Seitz, keeping things grounded. Cheshire’s “Death of Film, Decay of Cinema” piece was one that I tore out and photocopied for everyone I knew, but it certainly wasn’t the only Press clipping that still resides in my permanent collection. I learned that film criticism can be about way more than just the movies.
By day, Annie Frisbie is Senior Editor of Zoom In Online. By night, she’s the Superfast Reader .


Kenji Fujishima

If I had to name one film that had the effect of turning me onto the power of movies for good, Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets would be that film. Before Mean Streets, my movie diet mostly consisted of horror: cheesy (1970s ABC television horror flicks like Curse of the Black Widow in addition to less-cheesy affairs like The Night Stalker and Trilogy of Terror), gruesome (Friday the 13th and other early 1980s Halloween ripoffs like Happy Birthday to Me or The Burning), not-so-cheesy-yet-still-gruesome (Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream) or neither-cheesy-nor-gruesome (Psycho, Halloween). Whenever I went to a video store, I’d experience much more of a dirty thrill standing in the midst of the horror section, with box after box of forbidden images beckoning me to rent them and see what horrifying sights they held. (My addiction to the TV series The X-Files fueled my taste, with its relatively tame yet no less freaky and disturbing glimpses into the supernatural. Flukemen, anybody?)

Then I saw Mean Streets on video in junior high school. Boy, I had never seen a film as sharply realistic and seemingly lived-in as that one. It was as if I was witnessing a few characters’ real lives right in front of my eyes. (Of course, only later would I be able to appreciate Scorsese’s visual stylization: his flaming reds to suggest characters in the hellfire of sin.) At that point, I realized that movies didn’t just have to be imaginative, dark and fantastical; they could touch upon and perhaps even recreate something approaching real life in front of the camera.

But I didn’t just happen to decide on a whim one day to rent Mean Streets from my local library. I was advised to do so from…who else? Pauline Kael, whose impassioned review I credit with leading me to that personal breakthrough.

It is thanks to Pauline Kael — whose For Keeps I had picked up at random before then at that same local library — that I began to develop an interest in film criticism. After watching Mean Streets, I excitedly went back to her review, and I realized how much more she had been able to grasp from the film: its visual stylization suggesting characters in the hellfire of sin, its view of Charlie as tinged with guilt. Even though I was young, I still thought to myself: Wow, I didn’t get all that.

From then on, I resolved to aspire to that kind of wisdom and insight about movies. I read Kael and other critics voraciously. I borrowed film-related fiction and nonfiction books relatively frequently from my local library. And, of course, I kept watching movies, often turning to online or print reviews after watching a particular film to challenge or confirm my own half-formed thoughts on that film, perhaps to better understand what I had just seen and how I felt about it.
In fact, as a soon-to-be-21-year-old wannabe film critic, I’m still doing most of those things, still actively engaged in a self-learning process, still trying to find my voice and figure out my critical interests.

Why am I interested in becoming a film critic? Well, I could try to provide some noble public-service type of answer: that, with in-depth knowledge of movie history and technique, I’m trying to help receptive readers better understand why they may react a certain way to a particular film, or maybe even try to challenge readers to reexamine those reactions. I suppose that is a part of the reason why I’m interested in writing about film, maybe the most important art form of our time. But — at the risk of sounding a bit too much like Howard Roark — I’m not doing it for the people or for the public service. I do it because I take pleasure out of it. I do it because I love movies and I want to share my enthusiasm or disgust about a movie with others who are willing to listen. And I do it, frankly, because I think I’m good at it and that I have something to offer with every movie I write about. Personally, I think those are the kinds of reasons that matter most. If you’re looking for fame or power in the film critic business, then most likely you’re in for a rude awakening; not everyone can achieve Roger Ebert-level success. In my freshman year of college, I was always told that I should do what I felt passionate about. Because I feel passionate about movies…well, here I am.
Kenji Fujishima is a contributor to The House Next Door, a Rutgers University journalism student and the publisher of My Life at 24 Frames Per Second.


Dan Jardine

When it comes to film criticism, I am a true amateur. Writing about movies is a labor of love, and as a result, I have not followed any rigorous course of instruction. In my nearly 50 years of life, I have taken exactly zero film classes. And when I started writing reviews for Apollo Guide back in the '90s, I had read pretty much no film criticism beyond the superficial plot summary plus tacked-on opinion that passed for cinematic analysis in the local paper. I am every professional's nightmare -- a self-taught dweeb with a keyboard and internet access.

That said, I have managed give myself some schooling in the past decade -- a necessarily haphazard, "follow your bliss," Joseph Campbell kind of approach that has led me to some interesting places. Over that time I'd say that these are the pieces that really gave me pause, and provided a glimpse of what criticism could be.

1. Pauline Kael's review of Last Tango in Paris. I have since moved on from my early infatuation with Kael's acerbic witticisms, which I now find are more bitchy and cruel than insightful, but her passion for Last Tango really sparked my imagination. In fact, I like her review more than the movie.

2. Paul Schrader's Transcendental Style in Film: Ozu, Bresson, and Dreyer helped to turn me on to the works of these masters, which is surely one of the great joys of criticism (opening up audiences to new worlds of cinema). It also showed me that there's a lot going on underneath Mr. Schrader's hood.

3. Robin Wood's essay on Before Sunrise. This is a film I liked a lot on first viewing, but Wood's essay helped me to understand exactly why. That's another of the great pleasures of reading (and writing) criticism; when good, it helps us to unravel and iron out our tangled mess of ideas.

4. Francois Truffaut on Hitchcock. I didn't catch up with the Cahiers du Cinema's embrace of Hitch until late in life. What can I say, I'm a late bloomer. But Truffaut's conversations with the master (collected in the book Hitchcock) are among the first I read when, after deciding to try my hand at movie reviewing, I began to climb that long, tall hill. They showed a thoughtful and playful side to Hitch that I found quite engaging.

5. Andre Bazin's Cinema of Cruelty: From Bunuel to Hitchcock. As a fan of "cruel" directors like Bunuel and Hitchcock, and as a really big fan of Bazin's pithy and precise writing, this one was a natural fit. Bazin's affection for these artists mirrored my own, but he expressed it in ways I can only wet-dream about.
Dan Jardine is a contributor to The House Next Door, the publisher of Cinemania, and a contributor to Cinemarati.


Ryland Walker Knight

1. My dad. With a Masters degree and peculiar cinematic tastes running from lowbrow genre work up through the revered classics, he showed me movies as often as possible and bought VHS tapes like there was no tomorrow. Plus, when he sold his first novel, he took me along to New York and I’ve been in awe of that city (I know, I know) ever since, despite a tainted stint there last year.

2. Mick LaSalle. I grew up in the Bay Area and Mick helped prime my weekends with his often hilarious reviews. But for all the snarking, he’s an accomplished essayist and his style taught me more than I ever realized. His podcast his a hoot..

3. Roland Barthes. Camera Lucida & The Empire of Signs. Liberal arts studies in college are useful.

4. The November 2005 issue of Harpers. The Frederick Busch essay-story taught me more about how to write appealing confessional writing. The Lawrence Weschler piece, “Valkyries Over Iraq” informed me a little more about Walter Murch and helped me explain my attraction to the film version of Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead. And finally, Dwight Garner’s critique of James Agee’s body of work (then newly published by the Library of America) was my first signpost towards a new brand of criticism. I saw in Agee a kindred spirit, as many have, I’m sure, but also I was awed by his nimble career, moving from poet to critic to novelist to screenwriter. And you can’t deny the allure of a successful drunk: it’s mystifying he ever wrote at all, much less the volumes he produced, given his liquid diet.

5. The New World and online criticism. The film opened my eyes to a number of things but, as far as criticism goes, it illuminated its champions, mostly of the online variety, and chief among them our very own Matt Zoller Seitz. Also, Malick’s masterpiece saw me find a new inspiration from another current critic I have nothing but respect for and, somehow, share a masthead with: Keith Uhlich. His gifts for prose construction are enviable for any writer in any medium. And, of course, he’s as generous as he is talented, evidenced by the committed (and brilliant) piece he wrote delineating the differences between The New World’s two incarnations thus far. (Did you spot that Miami Vice rave last summer? Or the recent Casino Royale dash-off? Killing me bluntly.)

6. Manny Farber. I’d heard the name for a while – since the Agee epiphany – but I didn’t dive in until Keith recommended Negative Space in an email. Terse prose indeed. And a set of unflinching eyes, quick to deflate any reader’s pre-conceived notions. You simply cannot argue with a Farber essay. When he likens Godard to a zoo master, it’s the most apt analogy imaginable. And the interview that caps the revised edition is essential reading for any aspiring writer, critic, artist, whatever you want to be.
House Next Door contributor Ryland Walker Knight is the infrequent publisher of the blog Vinyl Is Heavy.



I remember the first cinematic opinion I got my ass kicked over: Grease. I was the only person in my class who didn't go ga-ga over the movie John Travolta did before Moment By Moment, and when I expressed my displeasure with this poorly directed musical debacle, people played Hand Jive on my face. It was then I knew I wanted to be a film critic, preferably one with a stronger jaw. I started devouring every film review I could get my hands on, and in nearly three decades I have found some memorable opinions on which to chew. I have also endured numerous cases of heartburn. Here are a smidgen of the former and a dash of the latter.

1. Roger Ebert. Cinema snobs always pick on poor Rog, but I am not ashamed to admit I love Mr. Ebert. He influenced me in so many ways, even though I frequently disagree with him. His writing always seemed like a friendly conversation, a trait I have tried to mimic. He won the
Pulitzer, which I've dreamt about since I was 8 years old. He did fun, unusual things in his reviews (I am still trying to figure out his take on The Howling). And like me, he loves Black women and big tits: Of Queen Latifah in Living Out Loud, Rog wrote that she "is tall, striking, carries herself with placid self-confidence and wears dresses that display her magnificent bosom--not as an advertisement, but more in a spirit of generosity toward the world."

Sure, his positive reviews of dreck like Cop and a Half made my head hurt, but I admire (and emulate) his utter lack of shame.

2. Bosley Crowther's Bonnie and Clyde review. Nobody did histrionic outrage better than Bosley
Crowther, who seemed at times to be permanently stuck in 1937. I was always impressed at how distressed he got over post-Production code movies; as hard as I tried, I could never get that pissed over light shooting out of a projector. Crowther's review of B&C plays like Rex Reed minus the Paul Lynde bitchiness and the Winona Ryder jazz hands. For someone so upset by the film's violence, he sure can't stop talking about it. "This blending of farce with brutal killings is as pointless as it is lacking in taste, since it makes no valid commentary upon the already travestied truth," growls Crowther at one point. He warns us that "astonished people are machine-gunned" (as opposed to "slightly displeased people"), and uses the same adjective to describe himself a paragraph later. "And it leaves an astonished critic wondering just what purpose Mr. Penn and Mr. Beatty think they serve with this strangely antique, sentimental claptrap." Perhaps he felt machine-gunned.

Crowther announced his resignation from the Times shortly after this review. Like so many other critics, he wound up in Hollywood, taking an advisory position at Columbia Pictures. You may remember then as the studio that passed on M*A*S*H because, according to them, "people don't say 'fuck' in films from Columbia Pictures."

3. Joe Klein's review of 1989's Do The Right Thing infuriated me like Bosley Crowther at a screening of Pulp Fiction. Klein called Spike Lee's film "reckless" and indicated that only White people would be able to have a civil, detailed discussion on the film's message. "Black teenagers won't find [the film's message] so hard," Klein wrote, "white people are your enemy." In 1989, I was one of those people Klein painted with his monolithic brush, a Black 19-year old computer science major entering his final year at college. Despite dreams of being a critic, I had become a computer science major because there were no Black film critics (or so I thought), and I didn't think I'd be able to get a job. Klein's erroneous predictions of race riots at every screening made me wish I had done the right thing and gotten that degree in journalism or film, if only so I could publicly let him know what an asshole I thought he was. As a result, I started writing reviews for anyone who would read them. I owe 1,542 movie reviews to Joe Klein's comments.

4. The Divine yet Frequently Wrong Ms. Pauline Kael gives the Odienator his moviegoing credo: "The movies are so rarely great art, that if we can't appreciate great trash, there is little reason for us to go." That's from her essay "Trash, Art and the Movies."

5. The Passion of the Seitz. He'll kill me for doing this, but I could not leave our very own Matt Zoller Seitz off this list. As the resident The New World and Miami Vice dissenter on this blog, I have had my disagreements with Matt, but I can't help but be inspired by his passion for the films that challenge and change him. When he falls in love with a movie, he falls hard, and his prose is so vividly seductive that even I, after rolling my eyes in disagreement, wish I could have seen the movie with him as my projector.

In his 10 best blurb for 2004's The Life Aquatic With Steve Zissou, Matt invoked Peanuts, a very odd analogy. I wrote him a snarky E-mail saying the Peanuts analogy was "appropriate; I think Charlie Brown's comic strip is boring as shit too." This is part of what he wrote me back:
"I also think that if you accept the movie on its own terms -- i.e., if you agree to give in for a couple of hours and see the world through Anderson's eyes -- the emotion becomes apparent. On its most basic level, The Life Aquatic is about confronting and accepting mortality, a theme expressed in the bookending dramatic events (the death of Zissou's partner at the hands of the Jaguar shark, and the death of his maybe-son in a random helicopter crash) as well as in Zissou's obsession with leaving behind an exploration/filmmaking legacy that will endure after his death. It's about accepting the fact that you can't do anything about death. ("I'll fight it, but I'll let it live," Zissou tells a skittish backer who doesn't want him to slay the shark that killed his partner. "Now where's my dynamite?") The finale where the mini-sub goes right up to the Jaguar shark and observes it without confronting it, much less fighting or killing it, is a metaphor for the need to get close to death, to understand death, without succumbing to it."
Even though I still thought the movie was garbage, I saw a different perspective on it. That's what great criticism does for a person.
The Odienator occasionally haunts The House Next Door, professing an undying love for Billy Wilder, Barbara Stanwyck and good trash. He also looks a lot like Cuba Gooding Jr.


Sheila O’Malley

1. James Agee’s “Comedy’s Greatest Era”. Published in Life Magazine in 1949, this groundbreaking essay about silent movies is a high-water mark for me, in terms of critiquing films and how to talk about the art of performance. (You’ll see that most of my critical choices come from the critic’s ability to talk about the art of acting, the craft of the actor – why something is good, why something is not good.) David Thomson said, in regards to Agee’s criticism: “he wrote like someone who had not just viewed the movie but been in it -- out with it, as if it were a girl, drinking with it; driving in the night with it.” James Agee made me see movies in a different way. He made me HUNGRY to see movies I had never seen, and to watch them not just as entertainment, but as puzzles to be pieced together. WHY does something work? WHY is something effective? Nobody is better than Agee at attempting to answer these questions. Any critic can say, “This is good” or “This is not good” – but it takes a master to explain why. I read this essay in college, I believe, after I had discovered Agee’s Let us Now Praise Famous Men. I hadn’t seen any Chaplin when I read the essay, but after reading the following paragraph, I had to see them all:
"The finest pantomime, the deepest emotion, the richest and most poignant poetry were in Chaplin's work. He could probably pantomime Bryce's The American Commonwealth without ever blurring a syllable and make it paralyzingly funny into the bargain. At the end of City Lights the blind girl who has regained her sight, thanks to the Tramp, sees him for the first time. She has imagined and anticipated him as princely, to say the least; and it has never seriously occurred to him that he is inadequate. She recognizes who he must be by his shy, confident, shining joy as he comes silently toward her. And he recognizes himself, for the first time, through the terrible changes in her face. The camera just exchanges a few quiet close-ups of the emotions which shift and intensify in each face. It is enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies.

2. Pauline Kael: “The Man From Dream City” (The New Yorker, 1975) I love Pauline Kael, in general, even when I vehemently disagree with her – but her 40 page essay on Cary Grant “The Man From Dream City” has got to be one of my all-time best reading experiences. Ever. Cary Grant is my favorite actor – and I have spent much time myself pondering him and pondering why he is so wonderful. Pauline Kael analyzes him within an inch of his life. I read that essay in the height of my first Cary Grant manic episode (a couple of years ago) and it turned me on so much that I had to go back and re-watch all of his great films again, with her observations in mind. There is a mystery at the heart of Cary Grant’s appeal, and although he is obviously well-loved, he makes acting look so easy that I think sometimes it is not appreciated just how skillful and brilliant he is. Here are a couple of my favorite excerpts from her essay, the ones that made me want to race out and see all his movies again:
"Grant doesn’t assert his male supremacy; in the climax of a picture he doesn’t triumph by his fists and brawn – or even by outwitting anybody. He isn’t a conqueror, like Gable. But he’s a winner. The game, however, is an artful dodge. He gets the blithe, funny girl by maneuvering her into going after him. He’s a fairy-tale hero, but she has to pass through his trials: She has to trim her cold or pompous adversaries; she has to dispel his fog. In picture after picture, he seems to give up his resistance at the end, as if to say, What’s the use of fighting?"
Here Kael addresses his performance in The Awful Truth (my favorite of his performances, second only to Only Angels Have Wings):
"Grant uses his intense physical awareness to make the scenes play, and never to make himself look good at the expense of someone else – not even when he could waltz away with the show. He performs the gags with great gusto, but he never lets us forget that the character is behaving like an oaf because he doesn’t want to lose his wife, and that he’s trying to protect his raw places. Henry Fonda played roles similar to Grant’s … Fonda, with his saintly bumpkin’s apologetic smile and his double-jointed gait, could play bashful stupes more convincingly than any other romantic star. However, it’s part of the audience’s pleasure in Grant that he isn’t a green kid – he’s a muscular full-bodied man making a fool of himself."
It’s one of my favorite essays about the art of acting, focusing in on one of the most talented men to ever practice the craft.

3. Richard Schickel, Cary Grant: A Celebration (1983) Continuing on with the Cary Grant theme, my next favorite critic is Richard Schickel. He wrote an entire book about Cary Grant, an analysis of his acting and his career, from film to film, charting the development of the Cary Grant persona. How can you truly appreciate something like Gunga Din or Awful Truth without knowing the context surrounding it, and where Cary Grant was at that point in his development as an actor? It makes such a difference knowing that Sylvia Scarlett was the true breakthrough for Cary Grant, the first time he (as George Cukor put it) “felt the ground beneath his feet”. And I watch Sylvia Scarlett (a lovely weird little film) differently knowing that this was Cary Grant’s breakout part. He’s not quite there yet – The Awful Truth was a mere year later - but Sylvia Scarlett was the beginning of that confidence and humor and strange crankiness copyrighted by Grant. Schickel’s book breaks this whole journey down. One of his observations goes a long long way to describing the Grant phenomenon (this is in reference to Only Angels Have Wings):
"‘Jean Arthur half falls apart waiting for him to make a move,’ [Pauline] Kael writes of this movie, which is, for her, another prime bit of evidence about Grant’s essence as she sees it, which is ‘to draw women to him by making them feel he needs them’ without coming right out and saying so. But there is something more than a sexually shrewd enticement going on here. What’s really up is active resistance. Which resistance is based on an utterly firm belief that women gum up the works in enterprises where men must depend on one another to be undistracted. Grant’s character here is not playing hard to get; he is hard to get."
This is so right. It explains so much.

Here is Schickel’s analysis of Bringing Up Baby, and why this particular performance is so hilarious and perfect:
"There may be something sympathetic about a nebbish, but there is nothing funny about him. So they [Howard Hawks and Grant] added a certain crankiness to Grant's character -- a crabby, exasperated, put-upon quality. After all, the man was a scientist, a rationalist ... What, logically, would be his response to the sheer impracticality and heedlessness of Hepburn's character when the full import of their consequences to him dawned? Obviously, it would be a fuming fury, suppressed only by the demands of propriety (so many of her assaults on him occurred in public, a golf course, a nightclub, her aunt's dinner table, a police station) and politeness (she was, after all, a woman, and he could vaguely remember from childhood that you were supposed to be polite to them, even protect them, as they were the weaker sex.)"
Well, this was splendid. This was even historic. Grant would use this comically-stated balefulness often in the future. It became part of his identity.

Schickel has such a good eye for that stuff -- for nuance, for development, for how A leads to B leads to F and G. Cary Grant’s arc has never been analyzed with such clarity. Not to be missed.

4. David Edelstein is one of my favorite movie reviewers working today. I first became aware of him with his laugh-out-loud funny review of Battlefield Earth and I have been hooked ever since. My love for him has nothing to do with similarity in taste, although I often agree with his reviews. My love for him has to do with his skill as a writer. His writing just tastes good to me. Here's an excerpt from Battlefield Earth review:
"Let me try to summarize the plot. It's 3000 A.D., and the Psychlos are strip-mining Earth. What humans they haven't exterminated seem to have de-evolved and live in caves or primitive huts outside the giant mall-like structure that the Psychlos call home. Jonnie Goodboy Tyler (Barry Pepper, looking like some '80s heavy-metal guitarist en route to Betty Ford's) leaves his village and dishy cave girlfriend in search of food, then gets ray-gunned by Psychlos. Enslaved, Jonnie catches the eye of Terl, who has evidently been looking for a smart human to help him plunder what's left of the planet and keep it for himself. He zaps Jonnie with a knowledge ray and then, for some reason, lets him read the Declaration of Independence. I'm not sure what happens next because I went out for malted milk balls and then remembered I owed my mom a phone call."
Edelstein is best when he dislikes something. He never loses his sense of humor. North Country, he writes, " powerful and then some. I came out shaking, dabbing at my eyes, and vowing never again to write the c-word in shit on the walls of a women's room." In the middle of a pan of King Arthur, he comes up with this gem: "And then there's Clive Owen, rising above it all. Aloof yet watchful, the actor cultivates an inner stillness that is perfect for faintly ironic brooders. He neither distances himself from this risible material nor pulls out the stops and opens himself to ridicule. His King Arthur tells us little about Arthur, but much about protecting one's flank. The mark of a box-office king?" What a perfect way to describe the Clive Owen thing: “cultivates an inner stillness that is perfect for faintly ironic brooders”.

5. Peter Bogdonavich. Love his movies, but I think I might even love his film criticism more. His most recent book Who the Hell’s In It is a gold mine of observations about actors. His essay on Dean Martin has to be one of the most eloquent and moving tributes to that hard-to-pin-down ultra-cool guy. I actually got tears in my eyes reading it. This is not just because I love Dino. It is because Bogdonavich has such a good eye for detail, such a generous spirit towards talent, such a wide knowledge of films … It’s an essay that makes you want to race out and rent every Dino movie, and watch them again, because you realize, anew, just how good that guy really could be. Essays on Karloff, Cary Grant (of course), Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart … Great stuff. And Bogdanovich’s commentary track on Bringing Up Baby is one of the best commentaries I’ve heard on any DVD.
Sheila O'Malley blogs about movies, books, and mortifying high school memories at The Sheila Variations.


Matt Zoller Seitz

1. Pauline Kael's review of Casualties of War. (1989) For my money, this lengthy New Yorker piece -- which I read and re-read for a solid hour in the magazine aisle of the SMU bookstore 17 years ago -- is the greatest one-off movie review ever written for a mainstream publication. It deserves that accolade for the sheer number of difficult things it does well.

First, it's a matchless example of Kael's enthusiasm, emotional engagement and conversational intimacy (three qualities that made her an important critic, and that are largely AWOL from even the most thoughtful American criticism being written now, too much of which is smug and/or pseudo-Olympian).

Second, it identifies what Kael thought was high water mark in director Brian De Palma's development as an artist and popular storyteller, and contextualizes it within his career.

Third, offers detailed descriptions of specific filmmaking choices, De Palma's possible motivation for making those choices, and their effect on her as an audience member (unusual for Kael; though she was brilliant at summarizing a film's narrative, its general temperament and its most significant subtexts, lines and performances, for some reason she often couldn't be bothered to write about specific shots, camera moves, cuts, sound cues or other visual/aural elements).

Fourth, it declares a moral and emotional kinship between the artist and the critic -- a hell of a brave and risky thing to do because it brings the critic down to the level of the nonprofessional moviegoer and opens her to charges that she's just reviewing her own feelings and not the movie (a favored tactic of those who disagree with an enthusiastic review of a particular film or filmmaker, but are too lazy to mount a detailed counter-argument).

This last part is crucial: what made Kael important -- so important that her persistent shortcomings seem trivial in comparison -- was her conviction that while there are objective criteria for judging a film's artistic worth, subjective responses should not be discounted, because they're the reason people go to movies in the first place -- and more importantly, they are stirred not by some random and inexplicable synapse firings within the moviegoer's brain, but by specific aesthetic choices made by the filmmaker. Analyze the technique and the response simultaneously, and you'll discover how the technique provokes the reponse in a particular viewer (though not in every viewer); make criticism personal and it will become universal. To that end, Kael's work was as much autobiography as criticism; it's part of the reason so much of her work remains compulsively readable (and in some cases more enjoyable than the movies she's writing about).

Last but not least, here and elsewhere, Kael didn't cut De Palma special breaks because she happened to respond to his work. Unlike many of her present-day acolytes, she spanked directors who disappointed her. Her review of De Palma's Bonfire of the Vanities was tough and appropriately brief, and her review of The Untouchables made it clear that she thought De Palma was basically slumming for a paycheck, and subordinating his own vision to David Mamet's script, with its black-and-white morality and yahoo vigilante streak. And she was honest about what didn't work, even in movies she adored. Her Casualties of War review makes it clear that she thinks it's one of De Palma's masterworks, yet she still spends a section decrying how the script alters the original source material, a New Yorker article by Daniel Lang, to dummy-proof a message and make the soldiers' dialogue more faux-naturalistic. "Great movies are rarely perfect movies," she wrote of this one -- a quote that every critic should tattoo in reverse on his forehead so he has to read it in the bathroom mirror every morning.

From here on out, it's best to let Kael speak for herself. So here are two passages from that review, included in the 1992 anthology Movie Love:
"Trying to escape along a railway trestle high up against the wall of a canyon, Oanh might be a Kabuki ghost. She goes past suffering into the realm of myth, which in this movie has its own music--a recurring melody played on the pan flute...That lonely music keeps reminding us of the despoiled girl, of the incomprehensible language, the tunnels, the hidden meanings, the sorrow. Eriksson can't forgive himself for his failure to save Oahn. The picture shows us how daringly far he would have had to go to prevent what happened; he would have had to be lucky as well as brave. This is basically the theme that De Palma worked with in his finest movie up until now, the political fantasy Blow Out, in which the protagonist, played by John Travolta, also failed to save a young woman's life. We in the audience are put in the man's position: we're made to feel the awfulness of being ineffectual. This lifelike defeat is central to the movie. (One hot day on my first trip to New York City, I walked past a group of men on a tenement stoop. One of them in a sweaty sleeveless t-shirt, stood shouting at a screaming, weeping little boy perhaps eighteen months old. The man must have caught a glimpse of my stricken face because he called out, 'You don't like it, lady? Then how do you like this?' And he picked up a bottle of pink soda pop from the sidewalk and poured it on the baby's head. Wailing sounds, much louder than before, followed me down the street.)"
And lest you think Kael's serving up critic-flavored patter rather than real criticism, here's her superb, plain-language analysis of how De Palma's filmmaking choices illustrate his personality, philosophy and creative process -- particularly his use of dutch tilts, slow-motion and split focus compositions:
"De Palma has mapped out every shot, yet the picture is alive and mysterious. When Meserve rapes Oanh, the horizon seems to twist into a crooked position; everything is bent away from us. Afterward, he goes outside in the rain and confronts Eriksson, who's standing guard. Meserve's relationship to the universe has changed; the images of nature have a different texture, and when he lifts his face to the sky you may think he's swapped souls with a werewolf. Eriksson is numb and demoralized, and the rain courses down his cheeks in slow motion. De Palma has such seductive, virtuosic control of film craft that he can express convulsions in the unconscious.

In the first half of the split-focus effect, Eriksson was so happy about having hit the grenade that he lost track of the enemy. In a later use of the split effect, Eriksson tries to save Oanh from execution by creating a gigantic diversion: he shoots his gun and draws enemy fire. What he doesn't know is that Clark, who is behind him, is stabbing her. He didn't know what was going on behind him after he was rescued from the tunnel, either. This is Vietnam, where you get fooled. It's also De Palmaland. Ther are more dimensions than you can keep track of, as the ant-farm shot tells you. And the protagonist who maps things out to protect the girl from the men (as Travolta did) will always be surprised. The theme has such personal meaning for the director that his technique -- his own mapping out of the scenes -- is itself a dramatization of the theme. His art is in controlling everything, but he still can't account for everything. He plans everything and discovers something more."
2. Joe Adamson's Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo. (1973) I made my parents buy this book from the Smithsonian Institition's gift shop during a sightseeing vacation to Washington, D.C. in the summer of 1983. I read it all the way back to Dallas and re-read it over the summer and into the fall; it's a deceptively great book; it's easy to imagine a casual reader enjoying it as showbiz biography and a fan appreciation without noticing what a sublime work of analysis it is. Adamson understands that "serious" and "humorless" aren't synonyms; where most books about the mechanics of comedy seem to have been written by the professorial equivalent of Margaret Dumont, this one is laugh-out-loud funny. And it hews to the anarchist vaudevillian spirit of its subjects, prefacing a detailed look at the dialogue-free mirror scene in Duck Soup with with a blank page that represents "ghostly, unreal silence," and noting that "...Horsefeathers' idea of college is all speakeasies, dog catchers and football, and its idea of a college professor must rank somewhere between Captain Hook and the Sherriff of Nottingham."

3. Vachel Lindsay's The Art of the Moving Picture. (1915) One of the earliest attempts to explain the aesthetic cause and intellectual/emotional effect of cinema, and still indispensible, particularly for anyone who didn't get Pauline Kael's memo and still judges movies as if they were novels or plays (or their descendant, the commercial linear narrative with a three-act structure). The associative interplay of images is paramount to Lindsay; everything else is mere garnish; sets, landscapes and props can be as expressive and as significant as any fact of characterization or performance, and rather than prove cinema's inferiority to other art forms, this fact confirms the medium's singular strengths. The Cabinet of Dr. Calgari, Lindsay writes, proves that "...the play is more important, technically, than in its subject matter and mood. It proves in a hundred new ways the resources of the film in making all the inanimate things which, on the spoken stage, cannot act at all, the leading actors in the films."

4. Agee on Film. (2000) James Agee's collected criticism for The Nation, Time and other publications is in many ways a forerunner of Kael's output -- equal parts film reviewing, history, journalism, social criticism and autobiography. Sometimes he dispensed with five to ten films in a single column, picking them off with a few lines each; other times he concentrated on two or three films; on certain occasions -- such as the release of Charlie Chaplin's Monseiur Verdoux and William Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives -- he would return to the same movie for several weeks running, using his publication's bully pulpit to evangelize on behalf of a work he knew in his gut was a classic. (Armond White, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Stanley Kauffmann have all borrowed this tactic.)

Agee didn't just analyze trends in subject matter or visual style; his specialty was unpacking the values (or lack of values) encoded in a motion picture, then judging them in relation to his own and highlighting the difference. The critic's humanism shines through in every paragraph, but one of my favorites is from his review of Shoeshine, which could be a mini-manifesto for artists hoping to produce movies that are honest about human behavior and the plight of the individual within society.
"The heroes would presumably not have been destroyed unless they had been caught into an imposed predicament; but they are destroyed not by the predicament but by their inability under absolutely difficult circumstances to preserve faith and reason toward themselves and toward each other, and by their best traits and noblest needs as well as by their worst traits and ignoblest needs. Moreover, the film is in no way a despairing or 'defeatist' work, as some people feel it is. I have seldom seen the more ardent and virile of the rational and Christian values more firmly defended, or the effects of their absence or misuse more pitifully and terribly demonstrated."
5. Durgnat on Film. (1976) For more, click here.


Girish Shambu

1. Easy: my first stirrings of the critical calling can be traced directly back to Pauline Kael's review of Brian De Palma's Dressed To Kill.

2. James Monaco's book The New Wave, which introduced me to French film. I read and re-read this book without having seen a single French film!

3. J. Hoberman's Vulgar Modernism, a collection of his 1980's Village Voice columns. I admired his love of both Hollywood and avant-garde film; his deep awareness of history, politics, and aesthetics; and his bone-dry sense of humor. Later, I had to work hard not to imitate his writing style.

4. I wrote a fan letter to Strictly Film School in the late 90's; the site was a rare and inspirational oasis of world cinema writing on the web. Acquarello's encouragement spurred me to try my hand at writing about film, for Senses of Cinema.

5. The discovery of the filmblogosphere two years ago. Until this point, I had mostly just read a handful of critics in a few high-profile publications. Suddenly I realized the potency of a large and dispersed population, ordinary cinephile folks like me, generating critical thought on cinema, all around the world, 24/7. Ah, the miracle of the Internets!


Harry Tuttle

1)-André Bazin's Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?(1958) The Bible for understanding the nature of cinema and to form a rigorous critical awareness.

2) Andrei Tarkovsky's Sculpting In Time (1988) The philosophy of one of the greatest, what cinema means and how it's formed.

3) Trafic #50 : "Qu'est-ce que le cinéma?" (Summer, 2004) Serge Daney's revue published a compilation of essays on the nature of cinema, criticism and cinephilia by great writers, filmmakers, critics, living or dead.

4) Radio program :Le Cinéma L' après-midi (cancelled now) Weekly roundtable of filmmakers talking about other's films and cinema in general. With Pascal Bonitzer, Catherine Breillat, Philippe Grandrieux, Claire Denis, Emilie Deleuze...

5) Critique et Cinéphilie (2001)Compilation of essential articles published in Cahiers over the years about film criticism and the relationship of critics with cinephilia. Among which : Fereydoun Hoveyda's Sunspots (1960); Serge Daney's La Fonction Critique (1974); Louis Skorecki's Against New Cinephilia (1977)

Paris-based critic Harry Tuttle is the publisher of >screenville and the coordinator of the Unspoken Cinema blog-a-thon, scheduled for January 8. (For details, click here and scroll down.)


Keith Uhlich

It is my hope that this "5 for the Day" doesn't just elicit commentary from the professionals. Certainly the writings described below are significant touchstones in my own development as a critic, but the reason I return to them time and again, in both memory and actuality, is that they all had (and continue to have) a profound effect on my ways of thinking and of being. To an extent, these pieces confirmed things I already felt yet was unable to express (half-formed ideas--seeded who knows where, when, or how--achieving full bloom), but these moments of clarity were never comforting. True epiphanies don't allow us to settle back into our preconceptions and prejudices, but propel us forward, a little wiser and a little more aware that, in life, we're often falling through the air without a net. Today, I’m happy to be able to claim several of the authors of these pieces as friends, though at the time of initial publication they were only words on a page. It speaks well of them and of the longevity of their work that a fully-formed personality shined through the text, engaging in conversation (if only between the lines) with a young reader in search of his own voice and of the best ways in which to use it.


1. Owen Gleiberman on The Godfather, Part III:

The reaction to the third film in the Godfather series was particularly stinging to my thirteen-year-old eyes and ears, and not just because I was enamored (and still am) of Francis Ford Coppola's elegiac, self-proclaimed "coda." My tastes had diverged with the consensus before, but this was the first time I recognized how criticism, at its basest, becomes cruelty. Most of the bile was directed, of course, at the "amateurish" performance of Sofia Coppola (a malice currently perpetuated in a good number of the reviews for her underrated and misunderstood biopic Marie Antoinette), but there was a concurrent sense of mock-proletarian outrage for how Francis Ford Coppola recast his amoral gangster epic in a redemptive mold. I recall discovering Owen Gleiberman's against-the-tide Entertainment Weekly review (Grade: A) in a supermarket checkout line. It was the first piece of his that I read and it made me an EW subscriber (and Gleiberman acolyte/imitator) for a good many years to come. It wasn't just the way he strung words together into vivid descriptors that I would endlessly attempt to duplicate (Part III is, in Gleiberman’s purview, a "flawed, spellbinding, end-of-a-dynasty epic"), but how his prose stylizations possessed a weight and purpose--a seriousness--that I failed to find in any other analysis of Coppola's film. A favorite passage:

"Coppola and coscreenwriter Mario Puzo have concocted a densely packed narrative that builds very slowly. The movie, however, is more than the sum of its mazelike convolutions. For Coppola is telling a story of emotional incest: He shows us a family strangled by its own blood ties."

I've distanced myself from Gleiberman of late (the final straw: his consistent disdain for and childish dismissal of De Palma), but I can’t deny (and am thankful for) the influence he had on me at an intensely formative time in my life.

*Click here to read Gleiberman's review in full. Originally published in Entertainment Weekly, 1/11/1991.


2. Pauline Kael and Matt Zoller Seitz on the Star Wars trilogy:

I wonder if every American child born in 1977 carries with them the subconscious stigma of Star Wars. I've had a long-term love/hate relationship with George Lucas' behemoths: the first video I ever rented was Return of the Jedi and it began an unconditional love affair with the original trilogy that came to a screeching halt when, while making my way through what Matt Groening aptly described as "the deepest pit in Hell" (i.e. middle school), I first read Pauline Kael's harsh critiques of the series' opening and closing installments (somehow I missed out on her favorable analysis of The Empire Strikes Back--it would have alleviated a good many sleepless nights). From that point forward, there was a constant argument in my head: Every time I'd quote my favorite lines to the ether ("But I was going into Toshi station to pick up some power converters!"; "You will bring Captain Solo and the Wookie to me!"; "I have FELT him, my master!"), Ms. Kael would appear, growling like the Rancor ("For young audiences [Star Wars is] like getting a box of Cracker Jacks that is all prizes."; "But I can't believe that Jedi will give kids any deep pleasure, because there's no quality of personal obsession in it, or even of devotion to craft."; "It's an epic without a dream."). I saw her points then and I still do now, but her dissent would never fully resonate until it met its antithetical complement, which appeared during my middle years of college, courtesy the creator of this site.

Matt's a Star Wars kid, too, though being a few years older, he was able to absorb it consciously. (By the time I got around to it, the trilogy had had its first run in theaters and was well on the way to becoming a video staple.) In this way, he was the perfect representative (a Jedi knight in flowing robes) to reclaim the trilogy for a generation that had been so consistently lambasted by its elders. I no longer have the specific piece in my possession that he wrote for New York Press circa 1997 (in anticipation of the trilogy's twenty-year anniversary and re-release), but I remember a good number of the particulars, especially the lengthy opening anecdote detailing how a thirteen-year-old acquaintance's spoiler-heavy comments about Jedi drove Matt to fisticuffs, not to mention the essay's terrific, forward-looking closer ("I'll be the one booing when Chewbacca doesn't get a medal."). The most important thing for me in this piece was that Matt never stumbled in proclaiming his love for Star Wars; his confidence never wavered, despite the chants to the contrary by the barbarians at his gate. Matt's piece didn’t exactly give me the ability to love Star Wars as unconditionally as I had, but it did help, immeasurably, in balancing out the violently varying opinions in my head.

*Versions of Kael's commentary appear in The New Yorker magazine (dates for Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back reviews: Unknown; date for Return of the Jedi review: 5/30/1983), 5001 Nights at the Movies, and Taking It All In. Seitz's article published in New York Press, May, 1997.


3. Godfrey Cheshire on Steam:

Godfrey Cheshire's New York Press review of the Turkish film Steam came to me at a time when I was questioning my sexual preferences. I distrusted any specific group that proclaimed there was a singular rule of attraction and the review expressed for me what I only knew intuitively and could never state with any clarity. Despite my eventual identification as Queer, I don't pretend that to be an incontrovertible descriptor, and I have Cheshire's review (one that he later bemusedly admitted was a toss-off) to thank for that. It is probably the most yellowed and read article in my scrapbook. I underlined certain passages from it and think it only appropriate to reprint them here:

"… there’s the subtler suggestion that the desire dealt with [in Steam] doesn’t appear straight-on and clear-cut, but elusively, diaphonously, as if through a mist of possibility."

"American gay films believe in homo and hetero as very distinct categories of being; they also believe they know the markedly different ways that gays and straights look, act, talk, joke, decorate, desire and relate to screen images of sexuality… The continental gay film, on the other hand, smudges the boundaries that its American counterpart specializes in scrupulously respecting."

"Europeans… don’t seem to grasp our commodofied, Berlin Wall view of sexuality. They make films in which "gay" and "straight" describe what people do, not what they intrinsically are. Such movies assume that there are no immutable categories, that people change as the situations around them do, and that variety is the spice of life."

"Bisexuality is as natural to [Steam] as pasta to a trattoria… it seems innocent of the ideologies of sex, which in the U.S. morph people into self-identified types as surely as gym regimens mold physiques… you don't have to be Robert Graves to see that this is a huge esthetic improvement over our prim, exclusionary notions of sexual "identity." Because of their thinness and rigidity, such ideas virtually dictate that American gay films, even the best, end up like Jeffrey or Billy’s Hollywood Screen Kiss: full of cartoonish types rather than complex individuals, punchlines rather than insights and unvarying comic flippancy instead of dramatic nuance and penetration."
*Originally published in New York Press, circa 1998, exact date and issue unknown.


4. Phillip Lopate: "Anticipation of La Notte: The "Heroic" Age of Moviegoing":

Phillip Lopate's reminiscence of his tumultuous days as a Columbia University student and budding cinephile remains one of the best pieces of autobiographical criticism I've ever read. As a college undergrad entertaining occasional thoughts of suicide, it was more than cathartic to read about Lopate's own failed attempt, which he contextualizes, retroactively, as an act of simultaneous purity and selfishness:

"Between screenings of [Jean] Vigo's L'Atalante and Zéro de Conduite at West 106th Street, I told my older brother that I was thinking of killing myself. Distressed, he counseled patience, but it was too late to listen. Vigo’s dream of a man and a woman drifting down the Seine in a houseboat, touching each other, seemed insultingly unreachable."

He goes on to describe the attempt: twenty sleeping pills downed with a quart of Tropicana orange juice, suicide note with quotes from Paul Goodman and Freud ("I can laugh at it now."), and the undigestible dining hall beef stew that saved him ("it is that wretched institutional food I have to thank for being alive today."). Perhaps most appealing to me was the aftermath where, immediately upon his release from a psychiatric ward, Lopate and his brother "went straight downtown to see a double bill at the Bleecker Street Cinema: Grand Illusion and Paths of Glory… I had gotten suicide out of my system, but not cinema." Lopate's words effectively got suicide out of my system, and I credit his climactic recollection of his failed Antonioni-esque student film, Saint at the Crossroads, with setting me on a more decisive career path, far away from my own ill-advised attempts at filmmaking. As the writer wisely observes: "It [is] easier and cheaper to control pens and paper than actors."

*Click here to read the essay in full. Originally published in American Film; reprinted in Totally, Tenderly, Tragically: Essays and Criticism from a Lifelong Love Affair with the Movies, Anchor Books/Doubleday, ©1992.


5. Manny Farber: Interviewed by Richard Thompson:

Manny Farber seems to speak as he writes (even if, by his own admittance, his text requires a significant amount of polishing). His and wife/collaborator Patricia Patterson's interview with Richard Thompson--reprinted in the essential Farber collection, Negative Space--contains a number of resonant observations, though the one that hit me deepest (and quite recently, at that) was as follows:

Q: "What is the role of evaluation in your critical work?"

A: "It's practically worthless for a critic. The last thing I want to know is whether you like it or not: the problems of writing are after that. I don’t think it has any importance; it's one of those derelict appendages of criticism. Criticism has nothing to do with hierarchies."
As anyone who's read Farber can attest, his writing often contradicts this statement, but that gets at his genius. There's a constant sense of forward momentum and, more importantly, of development in his work. The words don't stagnate trying to fit ideological points that no longer mesh with the critic's consistently mutating mindset. Farber helped me to see the importance of re-evaluation, the necessity--though it requires a good deal of effort and toil--of reinventing the wheel with each new project, with each new observation. The seven critical precepts he and Patterson list at the end of the interview mark just one specific moment in an ever-evolving belief system and, if revisited today, would no doubt require significant reappraisal and overhaul, though the words might very well (embracing true contradiction) remain the same:

Our Critical Precepts

(1) "It's primarily about language, using the precise word for Oshima's eroticism, having a push-pull relationship with both film experience and writing experience."

(2) "Anonymity and coolness, which includes writing film-centered rather than self-centered criticism, distancing ourselves from the material and people involved. With few exceptions, we don't like meeting the movie director or going to press screenings."

(3) "Burrowing into the movie, which includes extending the piece, collaging a whole article with pace changes, multiple tones, getting different voices into it."

(4) "Not being precious about writing. Paying strict heed to syntax and yet playing around with words and grammar to get layers and continuation."

(5) "Willingness to put in a great deal of time and discomfort: long drives to see films again and again; nonstop writing sessions."

(6) "Getting the edge. For instance, using the people around you, a brain like Jean-Pierre Gorin's."

(7) "Giving the audience some uplift."
*"Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson in Interview with Richard Thompson," reprinted in Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, Expanded Edition, Da Capo Press, ©1998.
Keith Uhlich is managing editor of The House Next Door, a staff critic for Slant Magazine, and a contributor to a variety of print and online publications.