Sunday, December 03, 2006

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.


Blogger Bilge Ebiri said...

Films as film criticism -- that's a great idea there. You could carry it into a whole separate post. One could think of other films in that genre: KILL BILL, perhaps, or NEW ROSE HOTEL, or PLAY IT AGAIN SAM, or THE DREAMERS. Or WE ALL LOVED EACH OTHER SO MUCH.

12:33 AM  
Blogger Sheila said...

Wonderful stuff, Dennis.

Wow - it's like you read my own mind with the bit about learning how you DIDN'T want to write. (The laundry-list approach to movie reviewing!)

5:16 PM  

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