Saturday, January 5, 2008

Some late night ramblings...

In a bizarre instance of cosmic synergy, I’ve just received in the mail my copy of Kent Jones first collection of critical writings. Much like my hero Jonathan Rosenbaum (although a generation younger), Jones is a critic poised between international discovery and exploration, an unabashed proponent of favored directors (some of whom are his friends), a critical denigration of Hollywood product and it’s cultural/corporate institutions, and an interest in situating films in a personal context (not to be confused with obsessing over the zeitgeist). My fascination, besides the fact that he is one of the finest commentators on film writing in English today, is the unexpected correlation with my own ideas as I struggle to come to terms with this most recent year in filmmaking.
“Physical Evidence: Selected Film Criticisms”, while less than six weeks old, has somehow managed to preemptively address the same issues that have overwhelmed me in this year of film. For instance, his second entry concerns the reputation of Hou Hsiao-hsien, a director who’s most recent film “Flight of the Red Balloon” is one of 2007’s finest. Jones mentions Todd McCarthy’s infamous report from the 1999 Cannes Film Festival that attacked certain films and filmmakers for being esoteric and for being, he observes, elitist (a giant no-no with regards to America’s “every-man” approach to culture). Jones concludes his introduction with a simple “what’s up with all this compassion for the common man?” More Jones, regarding the “ever-growing number of filmmakers who have supposedly climbed to far out on the limb of aestheticism, showing callous disregard for their paying customers.”; he continues: “Why would any critic at the end of the century consider a populist litmus test to be a valid tool of the trade, unless they were trying to pitch woo to their readership?” It’s obvious that Jones’ thinking on cinema has influenced my own, and that his concerns are, fairly directly, at the heart of the introduction to my previous (and initial) entry. His introduction begins: “There’s a tendency to slip and slide all over the place in film criticism, between the populist and the exclusive (or “esoteric,” which is to movie culture as “liberal” is to politics), the aesthetic and the practical (meaning: the financial), the sacred and the profane.” This is, or at least should be, at the heart of all our interactions with film – acknowledging the mediums’ dependency on capital (film stock is expensive) while, nevertheless, maintaining the recognition that not all films are produced from the same aesthetic/cultural/economic structures. I’ll go on here to mention Rosenbaum’s best of 2007 list, a glorious fuck-you to anyone who wants to play by the rules and promote (perhaps unconsciously) the same old same old, those well publicized concoctions designed by the studios to win awards and tug at the heart strings. Rosenbaum’s list is almost perversely contrarian, corralling 12 mainstream features into one tied category, while spending the rest of his space on a Jacques Rivette retrospective and the newest film by Argentinean maverick Pere Portabella. My hypothetical challenge to Roger Ebert has been answered, quite loudly, by Rosenbaum.

To further cement my admiration/devotion to Jones, his first chapter is an essay from 1996 regarding Olivier Assayas, and his eighth entry is on John Carpenter, two of my favorite filmmakers. Disregarding this for a moment, and further fueling my suspicion that I’ve unconsciously plagiarized Jones’ book before its publication, is an early entry on the Coen Brothers, Joel and Ethan. It is perhaps the most measured account of their body of work I’ve ever encountered – neither hagiography nor outright condemnation, but a genuine exploration of a specific body of work, warts and all. I sense that what’s most refreshing about Jones’ criticism is his ability to recognize what brings him, as a viewer, pleasure, while not succumbing to that sensation as the be-all end-all of movie-going. What titillates us might also be, upon further reflection, less worthwhile than we first suspect (my general response to Spielberg’s films). I shouldn’t have to mention that the Coen’s “No Country For Old Men” has emerged, unanimously, as the film of 2007. And as much as I appreciate it on its own merits, some of my nagging complaints are addressed by Jones.

My connecting of Kent Jones with Jonathan Rosenbaum isn’t particularly insightful, as they are part of a small clique of critics that have emerged as not only the chroniclers of contemporary film, but how the changing shape of our increasingly technological society is being reflected by those films. Along with Gavin Smith, Nicole Brenez, Mark Peranson, (the late) Raymond Bellour, Quintin, Adrian Martin, Olaf Moller, and others, these are critiques in tune with the changing face of world cinephilia (to co-opt the subtitle of the jointly edited collection “Movie Mutations”), equally fascinated with film preservation and I Pods, Howard Hawks and Pedro Costa, DVDs and gallery installations, Claire Denis and Richard Linklater, John Cassavettes and Orson Welles. It’s a great time to love movies, as long as you don’t believe what the golden Globes are trying to sell you.

I'll be back soon with some kind of an attempt at finalizing my own best-of-the-year list, along with some musings (perhaps ramblings) about the overwhelming experience that is "There Will Be Blood".

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