We who write about film online have known for some time now that we’ve been involved in a changing of the guard of sorts, a refashioning of the forms and function of film criticism, a shift from a Solitary Voice to an Interactive One, the encompassing of new forms (video essays and the use of DVD as a tool toward examining film down to a frame-by-frame analysis), and of course a shift in the economic paradigm from the Old Media and Getting Paid to a world of Brave New Possibilities and No Remuneration. And while none of us have quite yet figured out how to adapt the New Media toward long-term career possibilities—the truth of the matter may very well be that the structure that will allow for passionate Internet writers to make a living from a love of movies may have played itself out and may be unlikely to reshape itself in a meaningful way, at leas in the immediate future. Critic John Powers was probably right when he suggested recently that the Golden Age of American Movies—the’70s—may be notable for the movies it produced but also for being a time—a freakish window of opportunity-- in which it was possible to make a living practicing the art of film criticism commensurate to the quality of the films being produced. No other age has sustained its critics, in any field of artistic expression, the way film critics were sustained in the ‘70s and, with the advent of those Chicago-based thumbs, into the ‘80s.
Yet there are those who are either retaining the power of the medium to showcase the written word, using it to create new ways of using film images and their juxtaposition with themselves and the written word to forge out new forms of film criticism, and those who are beginning to play with the possibilities of blogs themselves as more than just a conduit for the narrowcasting of personal observations. Three of those people are personal friends of mine, and I would love to take the opportunity to make sure you know what they’re up to, in the hope that they will continue their good work and have an audience for it, an audience that may continue to help push and guide them in ways they may not even be aware of yet, ways in which interactivity and reaching out to the audience may continue to reshape the attitudes behind the work as well as the work itself.
One of my favorite film writers, Stephanie Zacharek, has, after 11 years writing short film reviews and longer essays of film and music criticism for Salon magazine, finally set off for more adventurous shores. This week Stephanie began what one can only hope will be a long and fruitful career as the chief film critic for Movieline, the new and zippier online version of the ‘80s-‘90s movie magazine staple.
In her valedictory piece for Salon on Thursday, April 8, she wrote:
“When I was a journalism student in the 1980s, if you had told me that by 2010 it would be nearly impossible for a smart, experienced professional to make a living wage as a journalist or editor, I'd have accepted it only if you'd told me that by that time, we'd also be zooming around in flying cars, like the Jetsons. Journalism, as a profession, is in danger of dying; I'm still waiting for that flying car. And lest you think I'm going to hijack this space for a speech about the death of film criticism, I need to say that, realistically, the world could survive without full-time movie critics. But if dedicated, disciplined, paid journalists disappear, we're headed for some very dark times.”
Stephanie understands the passion of the passionate who write about movies, but like any talented writer she also knows that movies are not the be-all and end-all, but instead an extension of, a reflection upon the real world about which those paid journalists must continue to have a platform to investigate, to report upon, to analyze and criticize and help to change. Stephanie brings that kind of informed, impassioned sense of reality to her writing about the movies—you always get the sense of the life she lived, that she continues to live, that is enhanced by but not subservient to the movies. It may seem a small point to some, but when, in an interview with me last summer, she talked about sewing her own clothes, it wasn’t to point out her own earthy integrity or score points off of others who don’t, but instead to illustrate one of the ways she stays connected to the world she keeps in contact with through everyday experience as well as at the movies. At Movieline it’s possible that Stephanie Zacharek will have even more avenues available to her down which to explore the many ways movies touch us, inspire us, aggravate us, expand our emotional vulnerability or shut it down. We are lucky, in this age of the Disappearing Film Critic, that she has found a place that seems ready to cultivate her development toward even more expressive ends, and that she is but a click and/or a bookmark away from developing a writer/reader relationship with us.
Matt Zoller Seitz continues his fine work for the Moving Image Source this week with a transporting video essay on the life and work of Dennis Hopper entitled “The Middle Word in Life” (you know where that line comes from, right?) Here’s Matt in his introductory notes to the piece:
“When I think about Hopper, I hear his voice in my head: the nasal Kansas vowels; the cowboy twang; and last but not least, the semicolons where periods would normally go, contributing to a sense that his thoughts, like works of art, are never finished, only abandoned, that he never really stops talking, that there's always one more observation or pronouncement or dirty joke waiting just around the bend. If the final stretch seems to have an elegiac tone, it's because the circumstances made it unavoidable. Contrary to what we'd all come to believe, Dennis Hopper is not immortal. Let's appreciate him now.”
One of the many things that is remarkable about Matt’s video essay, which invokes the spirit of Hopper as much as his concrete contributions to the arts of film and acting, is the way, in an almost offhand fashion, Hopper’s restless, animated, searching, self-indulgent spirit comes to mirror the searcher, the technician, the wayward artist in us all, and perhaps artists like Matt Zoller Seitz in particular, who are looking at the vast expanse of possibilities during a very dark age, much like Hopper did. And much like Hopper, Matt attempts to find his way around in the dark through means that may look inadequate or impersonal at first glance (the film in Hopper’s younger days, the video essay in a time which cries out for new forms in which to elucidate the sometimes ethereal, uncapturable responses evoked by a film’s imagery) but may be a unique key by which to open the door to the true meaning of a film, or of film. And on a very fundamental level you can feel the critic connecting to Hopper’s desire to connect to the world—Matt overlays a monologue taken from Hopper’s appearance on The Johnny Cash Show in 1970 and turns it into a elegy of making one’s mark, in setting out on paths untrodden, unsure, mixing it with clips illustrating various filmic exits taken by the actor and Bob Dylan lyrics from the Easy Rider soundtrack until as clear a picture of Hopper’s meaning for us as viewers and critics becomes possible, and remains as contradictory as it ever has been. With “The Middle Word in Life,” Matt Seitz gives us the Hopper we know, the Hopper we only thought we knew, and the Hopper that will sustain us after he’s gone. It’s a brilliant piece of work.
Finally, old friend Larry Aydlette, first known to many of us as That Little Round-headed Boy, has become known of late for his vagabond tendencies in the blogging world. Larry has never been one for keeping archival records of his previous posts, and for most of us that notion becomes ever more frustrating the closer we’ve come to appreciating what a sharp writer and pop culture commentator he really is. I look back at my own posts, peppered with links to TLRHB posts that are no more, some that haven’t been for years, and it makes me sad that I wasn’t smart enough to make hard copies of everything. (I do have copies of some things, but not nearly enough.) Larry’s refusal to stay in one place for much more than a couple of months of late, and his occasional disappearance altogether, have caused some to worry that we may have seen the last of him. Greg Ferrara recently even started a Facebook page called “If a Million People Join This Page, Larry Aydlette Will Get Back Online.” Larry’s here-and-there absences have also helped to throw into relief the worries and frustration that bloggers bring on themselves—whether fashioned out of boredom, self-imposed expectations, an obsession with tracking site traffic, or just a simple lack of inspiration regarding with what to fill up all those virtual pages, Larry’s numerous disappearances have often coincided with my own moments of self-questioning, of dwindling self-confidence, a frayed sense of purpose, moments which force me to realize that I am far less tethered to the “commitment” of blogging than I at times allow myself to realize. But ultimately, Larry’s absences have largely been interpreted as the simple need for a break, to rejuvenate, to reassess, to figure out where blogging’s future lies, not on a grand scale, but on a very personal one.
And this time Larry has come up with an answer that may not change the larger path of blogging for the majority of those who do it, but one that certainly will infuse his own methods and interests with a pointed mixture of detailed obsession and Larry’s own flirtation with the artistic possibilities of the limited engagement. Returning yesterday under the banner of That Little Round-headed Boy, Larry has initiated a new blogging format which will take a strict two weeks of prepared writing and research, all done around the theme of the underappreciated director. Once the two weeks are over, the posts will disappear, making way for a new director at some unspecified time. (I’d advise getting those hard copies this time around.) Hardly a perverse exercise in contrarian freak flag flying, Larry aims to showcase directors, some obscure, some of the mainstream, Oscar-winning variety, and make the case, by examining their careers in detail and pointing to other areas of research, what makes taking a second look at them something more than an academic wank-off. The new Aydlette experiment kicks off this week with a look at George Roy Hill, Academy Award-winning director of The Sting, The World According to Garp, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Slap Shot and several others that may not as quickly come to mind. It’s part of Larry’s mission to change all that:
“Why George Roy Hill?
Because he's the name director that nobody ever talks about. The name is known, of course, as it graces some of the most famous films of the '60s and '70s, especially Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Sting, the film that won Hill an Oscar for directing. But the talk usually concentrates on those films' stars, Paul Newman and Robert Redford. Hill usually gets left out of the conversation, even though both Newman and especially Redford felt they owed Hill a great deal. "I don't think he's gotten the attention he deserves," Redford has said.
There is only one book on George Roy Hill. No major retrospectives that I'm aware of. Bloggers and film critics have never given him much attention (Pauline Kael damned him with faint praise, and back then Kael's likes or dislikes could steer the conversation on a director's career.) So, I would see his name pop up on films that intrigued me and I'd think: He directed that, too? Why isn't anybody talking about him?
In wanting to form my own opinions, I've steered clear of academic Andrew Horton's 2004 book on Hill. The flaws of this enterprise, and they will likely be deep and wide, are fully my own. What I have read about Hill, mostly short Internet items and obits (he died of Parkinson's disease in 2002), convinced me that Hill deserves greater scrutiny. He's like one of those old-time directors in the Howard Hawks mode, a man who brought his passions and broad life experience to inform his films.”
The man who brought us a whole month devoted to the legacy and movies of Burt Reynolds is, I suspect, more than up to the task to shedding light on directors to whom many of us aren’t so willing to give a whole lot of credit. Whether influenced by Kael or my own eyeballs, I’ve never thought much of Butch Cassidy or The Sting or Garp, but I’m looking forward to letting Larry make the case for the error of my ways, or at least guide me down the path of his own sincere appreciation, which I’ve no doubt will not be undertaken with the blinders of the unabashed fan in place. On the other hand, I adore Slap Shot and think that Slaughterhouse-Five, along with David Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch, remains the cinematic textbook on adapting the unadaptable, and Hill did it without the patented, culture-approved credentials of the certified stylist. I know that Larry will let me know when a new director is coming down the pipe, and I will do my duty to pass the word along. Let us enjoy his efforts, along with those of Matt Zoller Seitz and Stephanie Zacharek, to take us down paths we might not have chosen for ourselves, as they approach the joy and penetrating beauty of the movies from each of their special and evocative places. With friends like these, a future of looking at and thinking about movies seem a whole lot brighter.