Sunday, December 03, 2006

FIVE IMPORTANT EVENTS IN MY HISTORY WITH FILM CRITICISM


Andy Horbal’s Film Criticism Blog-a-Thon, officially concluding tonight, has been such an incredible feast of good writing that I can’t imagine being able to finish reading all the wonderful posts (around 40 at my last quick count) before Christmas. That makes Andy’s efforts here the first Christmas present I’ve received this year, and no doubt one of the best. And the news that Andy intends to publish all of the submissions together in a ‘zine form sometime in the near future, as the kick-off to a quarterly ‘zine companion to his terrific blog No More Marriages, means that someday I’ll be able to replace all the stapled-together printouts from all those sites that participated this weekend with a nicely bound, keenly formatted memento of this wonderful experience. I only wish that I could have taken more time to be more detailed and creative in my responses—all of my film books, save the newest edition of Leonard Maltin and Pauline Kael’s For Keeps are boxed up in storage to make room for baby dresser drawers and bunk beds. And life did indeed take over this weekend, which is why I’m nowhere near finished reading all the writers who have given so generously to Andy’s celebration.

I do, however, have something more than a couple of quotes from Robert Altman to offer, and now it’s time to serve it up. The article posted below can be found in its original environs among the heady company of Matt Zoller Seitz, Keith Uhlich, Girish Shambu, Wagstaff, Odienator, Ryland Walker Knight, Sheila O’Malley, Steven Boone, Bilge Ebiri, Annie Frisbie, Kenji Fujishima and Harry Tuttle as part of The House Next Door’s epic post ”Five For The Day: Life-Changing Criticism.” In it, the House gives a separate room to each of the 13 writers mentioned above (myself included), in which these writers go on at varying lengths with some eye-opening, brilliant, contentious and often inspirational accounts of five separate occurrences/books/events/pieces of writing that influenced the way they eventually approached or understood the various shapes film criticism could take.

Having only just now finished reading all 13 entries for the first time, favorites have already floated to the surface—Sheila’s recounting of Pauline Kael’s lengthy appreciation of Cary Grant; Steven on Armond White on Spike Lee’s Malcolm X (“I was a black kid reading a black writer eviscerating The Black Movie of the Decade in a black newspaper. Balls.”); Bilge’s account of how Raising Arizona led to The Conformist, and beyond, and also his welcome shout-out to Robert Philip Kolker’s A Cinema of Loneliness, one of my favorite books on film; Odienator on Bosley Crowther and Matt Zoller Seitz; Keith on Manny Farber, and trying to enjoy Star Wars knowing that Pauline Kael didn’t; Matt on Kael’s magnificent review of Casualties of War, Vachel Lindsay, and a book I’d nearly forgotten, Joe Adamson’s Groucho, Harpo, Chico and Sometimes Zeppo; and Girish on a “miracle of the Internets,” the discovery of the film blogosphere two years ago. Amen!

Did I already say I’m honored to be included in a line-up like that? If not, then consider it said. The response to Matt’s request for submissions to this special edition of “Five for the Day” was so overwhelming that he ended up having to create an annex where all the pieces, along with some excellent photos, can be seen in a table-of-contents format. I urge you to go there now and indulge yourself. As for my own contribution, I decided that I would publish it here as well, because I wanted to try to convince myself that I’d been a better participant in Andy’s excellent adventure than I really had, and also because Matt found an great picture to use as the lead-off to my “Five” and I wanted a good excuse to pubish it on SLIFR!

Time has indeed prevented me from expanding on this piece in any way, but that's okay. If it's good enough for Matt, Keith and company, I will gladly default, whatever the reason; it is on SLIFR as it is at the House. Here then are the answers I posted on The House Next Door for “Five for the Day: Life-Changing Criticism,” entitled ”Five Important Events In My History With Film Criticism.”

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 beneath 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 from 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


Thanks, Matt and Keith for the invite, but also for Tom Cruise (brilliant) and the exploding John Cassavetes (brillianter). And, of course, thank you, Andy!

7 comments:

Maya said...

Thanks for replicating your contribution to FIVE FOR THE DAY on your own site. Between your pointer to Matt's House and reading through the contributions to Andy's blogathon, I have my work cut out for me. Or at least my enjoyment.

What I like about your post is how you chronicle your development as a film writer, either by emulating and approximating, or setting yourself apart from and refusing to be like writers you didn't admire. Hits and misses as you found your own voice.

And the pleasure in recognizing your voice was being listened to, whether agreed with or not.

I'm glad you have persevered and developed through your influences, positive and negative, to become one of my online brethren.

Adam Ross said...

Dennis, a couple of my criticism "moments" also happened in Ashland -- as a reviewer for the SOU student paper. The Varsity is one of my most-loved small theaters, where else can you buy a ticket, then walk down an alley to your seats?

Matt Zoller Seitz said...

Hi, Dennis--Thanks for the shout-out, and for trumpeting Andy's quest, which is what this is all about, anyway. (He's one of the nicer obsessives out there.)

Incidentally, since you published this item, I realized that a list by one of our contributors fell through the cracks of the production process and is only now being published as a result. Anybody who's interested can read Dan Jardine's list by clicking here.

The House's art director, Jeffrey Hill, deserves credit for finding that image from The Fury. I like it, too. It sometimes comes uncomfortably close to illustrating my mental state.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Matt, Andy took me on a baseball bet-- Dodgers v. Mets the NLDS-- so it's a good thing he's such a nice guy! :) And yes, all praise to Jeffrey, and thanks again for including me in the "Five for the Day" fun!

Adam: An old Varsity dweller! Great! Do they still serve drinks in the back-alley Varsity Four? I saw so many movies upstairs in the balcony they had converted into its own cinema, and so many of them were movies that needed/demanded a much bigger screen than that one. But in Southern Oregon, you can't be too picky. Does John Schweiger still run the theater? He and I used to get into it all the time when I would write negative reviews of stuff he was showing, but he was always good-natured about it too, and we ended up becoiming friends. (When the Varsity showed Blue Velvet, he threatened to call the psych ward when I showed up on Thursday night, after having seen it the previous Monday and Tuesday!)

Maya: I really appreciate your taking the time to stop by a drop a comment. One of the greatest things about this blogging experience is being able to open myself up to so many people through my writing, and to be able to get the positive and negative feedback from writers like yourself who have carved a place and made it so very uniquely theirs. The Evening Class has literally overwhelmed me with the amount of excellent reading made available there in the last six months, and I am humbled and very happy to be in your company.

Adam Ross said...

I never got to know the proprieter at the Varsity, but I can tell you it's still a great place to see a movie, and the Ashland International Film Festival is thriving. Southern Oregon is slim pickings for good theaters, although I've always been a fan of The Egyptian in Coos Bay.

Brian said...

Dennis--
thanks for yet another reminder of why your film blog is so valuable. I really took to your writing about Pauline Kael as mind expanding. I remember reading her reviews of, of all things, Working Girl and The Little Mermaid (it's like a scene out of annie hall, when allen talks about growing up under the roller coaster on coney island-- for some reason, I remember the two films being reviewed in a single new yorker piece, which is impossible, as they came out a year apart, but nonetheless). Everyone around me had loved the films, but I found them disappointing (even at the age of 15), but it wasn't until I read Kael's scathing, funny reviews that I could articulate why-- as you say, she had a gift for reaching into readers' heads and helping them to speak their own impressions. It's a reminder of one of her gifts to readers-- the value of saying "no" to overhyped films (hollywood, art house, or whatever), and of not being afraid to be critical, since there's probably a community of like-minded readers out there to support you (I think blogs peform this function today).

The other Kael memory is of finding a used copy of I lost it at the movies in the summer between freshman and sophomore years of college, and reading it at a beach house on lake michigan one night, with the waves hitting the shore, in the same manner than kael's words were crashing against my head and opening it up to the possibilities of seeing all these films-- Breathless, L'Avventura. and so many others-- that she wrote about in that book.

Oh, and Mitchell! Yes! "Hey, they've arrested Harlan Ellison!" The last great MST3K before Joel leaves.

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