Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Personal Indulgence

Might I be permitted to take up a moment of your time for something you may very well think dubious? I am, for the most part, convinced that my motive for the following is not to boast, not to place before some of you an encomium that had been aimed in the direction of this reporter as if I thought such placement would alter my standing among the cinephile brethren; nor is it meant to service my narcissistic tendencies in a backhanded manner. No, I offer this only because it is, frankly, a mystery to me:

Kevin Lee, over at his estimable blog Shooting Down Pictures, trained his sights about ten days ago on Allen Baron's late-noir masterpiece Blast of Silence (1961). In the course of this entry he quotes from a rather large sampling of articles that have been generated, mostly over the last few years as that film's profile has, with absolute justice, elevated to such a point that even the folks at Criterion sat up, took notice and put the thing out on the market (I do wish they'd retained Baron's commentary from the slightly earlier Region 2 edition; but you can't have everything, I guess).

For those who followed the link I have provided, and may need a bit of direction, I would like you to scroll down just to the point where you see a quotation from Eugene Archer's fogbound New York Times review, then you come upon an image from the film; whereupon the sampling resumes, headlined by what I can only describe as an extraordinary assertion.

I'm not quoting it here; nor will I allude to its character. If you want to know what it says, go forth and behold all. I saw this entry slightly more than a week ago, and I can sum up my thoughts in four words:

I don't understand it.

Of course I understand the words; don't let's be silly. I just don't get . . . the sentiment. I don't know what it means; or what it could mean. I don't see it; particularly in the context of what surrounds it in that entry.

I wrote that article back in the Spring of 2005; no more than four months after I'd started writing for publication again. What's more, I wrote it in less than twelve hours. Now, those among you who routinely conjure three times that amount of, um, writing in one-tenth the time will undoubtedly think that a pathetic rate of production; but in comparison to my present rate of non-productivity, those twelve hours are (were) as all lightning.

My point is, it simply isn't that good; and I don't see what makes it . . . what he said it is. Admittedly this is no one's problem but mine own (and the idea that he might have been kidding has crossed my mind more than once); but this . . . along with another indicator this week that, at least by implication, points in quite the other direction . . . raises in my mind once again the question of what in hell it is I'm doing pursuing any of this nonsense; why I'm subjecting myself to a non-stop cycle of confusion/demoralization when I know that, as rewards go, that is as good as it's ever going to get.

In closing, I think it behooves me to tell those who may be inclined to express such sentiments, that I'm not posting this because I'm soliciting compliments. I thank you for them, but they are, in truth, the very last thing I am looking for. If you have to call it anything, this post is a way of creating a dialogue with myself; a function this here blogger requires from time to time; a personal indulgence, if you will. No more, no less.


Flickhead said...

The review is coherent -- indeed, far more coherent than the film's numbing narration. But I believe I understand what your dissatisfaction is with the piece, something that probits me from writing "normal" critiques for cinephiles.

Your review covers valid points, but its tone is faceless, humorless. The content is far from generic, whereas the author's voice seems to be quoting by rote.

If it's any consolation, you're among five or six internet writers whose work I'll read without prompting.

Flickhead said...

*Excuse the above typo* -- the word is 'prohibits' in the first paragraph.

Ed Howard said...

What I don't get is why an intelligent, insightful writer such as yourself is constantly indulging in such self-deprecation and doubt. You're a fine critic, and though I haven't seen that film, the review is excellent and makes me want to see it at once.

I'm also not at all sure what Ray's talking about, since I don't find that review "faceless" at all -- other than the fact that I know you both have problems with academic writing, and that review contains such highfalutin terms as "coherent Other," "eschewing a lumbering chiaroscuro," and (gasp!) "mise-en-scene." For my part, I think it expresses your ideas well and with some panache as well.

Flickhead said...

"Eschewing a lumbering chiaroscuro" is a shade too purple... even for me.

Unlike academics, artists are rarely (never?) satisfied with their work.

Tom Sutpen said...

Signor Flick-of-the-head:

I would never claim for myself the mantle of Artist, but I thank you for your previous words. Unfortunately I'm still mired in that sludge of chronic uncertainty where I cannot tell if anything I write is good, bad, mediocre; anything. Which I could live with if the quality justified the amount of time spent. It never does, though.

I incline more toward your assessment of that article. Even worse, however, than than the embarrassingly cinephilic boilerplate are the factual errors; one of which was brought to my attention in an email by the film's director.

Incidentally, a post on Twitter the other day has clarified this matter for me a bit. I won't go into detail, except to say that I think someone in the last week may have informed Kevin Lee exactly whose article he was praising.

I knew there was an angle to it. I just couldn't figure out which one it was.


Thank you for the 'intelligent', 'insightful' sentiment. You realize, I hope, that it puts you in an incredibly small minority; particularly among other film scribes. If a post such as this one makes no sense to you, it is only because my experience in writing about film for the past 4 1/2-5 years has been vastly different from yours; it has in fact been different from anyone of I know of.

With the exception of a few stray moments (moments which I later had cause to regret), that experience has been unrelievedly negative. I am told, by a highly knowledgeable source, that I've been deemed unpublishable by any so-called Serious online film journal (the one I used to be connected with had me on largely for the novelty/freakshow value of my writing), and most of my (you'll pardon the expression) colleagues intensely dislike the way I write about film.

There are a few film scribblers (such as The Talented Mr. Young) who like my writing for what it is, and I've even received immensely kind words from authors that people actually read. But for whatever reason (and I have never come close to understanding why this must be) the practical definition of Serious film criticism would seem to be anything that I haven't written.

At any rate, that's the unremittingly hostile field of play I've set my squalid ambitions on. I thought, a few years ago, that I might be able to write myself through it; produce enough to allow me to pole-vault over the opposition. I realized two years ago that I can't do it. I don't have it in me. More often than not, my ideas never get beyond that first, internal 'Who could conceivably give a damn about this?' question. When they do, the final collection of relatively usable sentences (as I said before) never warrants the months spent setting them down. It is very difficult to write anything when you know that most people are going to despise it as a matter of very warped principle.

Flickhead said...

Tom, since we both tweak and tinker over our work relentlessly, I'm curious to see how your upcoming film club day goes with Kiss Me, Stupid.

Speaking for myself, I'm hopelessly daunted by the pace that has come to be regarded as normal by most of the other club members. Few (if any) comments appear to get posted beyond any given critique's first day online.

My piece on Jaglom took approximately three months to put into shape; I feel certain yours is taking a lot of time as well. Yet the members' discussion that follows runs its limited course in less than twelve hours.

This has dissuaded me from leaving comments on other members' blogs, for I'm totally incapable of expressing myself (coherently, at least) at a pace once reserved for ordering a Big Mac and fries.

Said pace has less to do with a dysfunction within the club than with a culture that's lost its ability to process thought. As in politics, business and entertainment, knee-jerk reactions have become universally recognized, no matter how wrong they often are.

Fortunately for you, your article promises to deal with a Billy Wilder picture. I foolishly opted for Henry Jaglom, whom most of our (to borrow from FoxNews) "fair and balanced" brethren instantly trashed and dismissed on the grounds of one film alone. And I've a sneaking suspicion several folks didn't bother to watch that picture (Someone to Love) in its entirety. Jaglom has never been embraced by cinephilia's myopic arbiters of taste, and only a few brave souls ever wander outside the limits of what's been deemed right or acceptable. They can talk a good game about liberal values, but their foul brand of conservative closed-mindedness pisses me off to no end. It also prompted me to request my name be removed from the members roster.

Ed Howard said...

Ray, you really removed yourself from TOERIFC because people didn't like Someone To Love? That's a shame. Obviously you know I disliked the film, maybe more than anyone else who took part, so maybe you're especially pissed at me. But you should also know that I greatly enjoyed your piece about the film and the resulting discussion, in which plenty of people did have positive things to say about the film and Jaglom.

Plus, your contention about people not wandering "outside the limits of what's been deemed right or acceptable" might make sense for people ignoring Jaglom in general because of his rep or his lack of visibility (and I knew nothing about him before that discussion). But in this case everyone watched the film (and yes, I'd assume everyone actually did) and came to their own genuine conclusions about it. That those conclusions were not the same as yours shouldn't piss you off; film fans disagree all the time about what's good and bad. Calling those who don't share your tastes "close-minded" is a little strange.

Oh well. I'm looking forward to the Wilder discussion now.

Tom Sutpen said...


Tom, since we both tweak and tinker over our work relentlessly, I'm curious to see how your upcoming film club day goes with Kiss Me, Stupid.

I will tell you now . . . and every time I say anything like this, Greg Ferrara thinks I'm either joking, or indulging in unwarranted self-deprecation, or anything other than delivering what I offer as an honest assessment of the work-in-progress . . . that I'm very dubious as to a) Whether I'll have it finished in time; and b) Whether it will be any good. In its current state it has a few decent sentences, and one long segment (on the decline and fall of Old Hollywood auteurs, and the attendant rise of, um, a certain kind of cinephile) that may end up getting me in more trouble than it's worth, since I'm essentially calling these people a pack of frauds and vultures; amoral grave-robbers with no interest in cinema larger than their own private ambition. Altogether the piece goes in at least four different directions and I can't find a way to resolve (stylistically or thematically) any two, let alone all of them. The last thing I want to do is carve a conventional piece of FilmCrit on Kiss Me, Stupid itself out of what I have. I'd just as soon post nothing at all.

Speaking for myself, I'm hopelessly daunted by the pace that has come to be regarded as normal by most of the other club members. Few (if any) comments appear to get posted beyond any given critique's first day online.

Well, you and I have exchanged thoughts on that kind of writing in the past (all those dense rhapsodies on this film or that one, rendered within hours of seeing it), and what its motor is really running on. I would only repeat that the speed with which this process unfolds itself time and again is the best indicator you'll ever need as to its true depth; the ever-present sameness of (non)style is just the bled-white, devitalized window-dressing.

My piece on Jaglom took approximately three months to put into shape; I feel certain yours is taking a lot of time as well. Yet the members' discussion that follows runs its limited course in less than twelve hours.

I started working on this article in April of 2007; developed most of what's there (about 2,000 words; approx. 40% of what I intended) over the 8 or 9 months thereafter, whereupon I put it aside. Last year, when Greg started TOERIFC, I signed on thinking I could get this Kiss Me, Stupid whatsis finished.

Since that time I've added maybe 100-200 usable words; all other work on it has been rewriting what I've already written. As I say, the most difficult part is finding an artful way to fuse the separate components together. More often than not my wiring job is clumsy and/or obvious; poorly executed. I don't want where I'm ultimately going to be apparent until one reaches the concluding passages.

The main problem of consuming this much time is that, even if it were finished, the likelihood of, um, certain people riding in to say "Two and a half years . . . for that??" becomes a certainty. I'm trying to think up ways of countering it when it comes, but I can't think of one. I'm not looking forward to that.

Suffice it to say that all I want is for the article to be good . . . and it's not.

Tom Sutpen said...

Incidentally, I agree with Ed that you shouldn't have said 'Sayonara' to TOERIFC; at least on that point. Henry Jaglom is the kind of film artist who makes things too easy. What his films are about; what they mean; where they go, is right there on the screen. You can't use them to generate reams of similarly-worded analytical fiction. All a critic can do is discuss how well (or ill) he may have developed this intention or that one in the course of a given work. Where's the sport in that??.

It's either that or discuss how Jaglom's work resonates within the history of film (I can hear the cinephile hordes already running for the exit) or . . . even more horrifying . . . the world, the society, the culture outside of Cinema: a place most cinephiles will never acknowledge (except perhaps to deride non-cinephiles . . . believe me, I've heard it) let alone go.

Flickhead said...

Ray, you really removed yourself from TOERIFC because people didn't like Someone To Love?

Ed, this is definitely not the case. My desire to remove myself -- mind you, I've spent the better part of fifty-two years stupidly burning a great many bridges -- stems from the knee-jerk reactions passing for opinions in the comments. As Harlan Ellison once pointed out (bluntly as you'd expect) people aren't entitled to their opinions; they're entitled to their informed opinions. I don't believe most of the club members who left comments were at all willing to explore Jaglom's themes and intentions. I've always found him one of the more interesting American filmmakers for his unwavering adherence to honesty. His own personal beliefs may be screwed up, but that's never dissuaded him from presenting them without embellishment in his films.

Obviously you know I disliked the film, maybe more than anyone else who took part, so maybe you're especially pissed at me.

No. I was, however, stunned by your subsequent article on Someone to Love on your blog, because it seemed less a review or critique than an outright hate piece, wherein opinion appeared compromised by a very sour emotional reaction.

Given your obvious love of cinema and your absolutely astonishing ability to write quality material at a pace that blows me away, I could never be pissed at you. I'm pissed more at a particular brand of film culture that has grown from the internet.

I've been conditioned by print media, in which someone like Jonathan Rosenbaum could be among a select few to see something obscure like Rivette's Out One, spend several months composing a brilliant essay, have it published in a magazine that took a few months to compile and edit, and inspire a dialog that could run for months (if not years) in the letters section of a film mag.

Today they release Out One, every blogger on the planet is there to see it, they bang out their copy overnight, and the film's cheapened by the feverish rapidity of the episode and the stunted comprehension displayed in the reviews.

Maybe I'm just pissed at myself for possessing principles that seem hopelessly archaic in our cultural landscape.

bill r. said...

God, the condescensionion is running thick in here. Ray, despite what you may claim, you did remove your name from TOERIFC because many people didn't like Someone to Love. You had several months to see what the discussions were like, and if you didn't like what you saw, you could have pulled out before your slot came up. What held you back? You couldn't be bothered to leave more than a few comments, scattered here and there, in any of the other discussions -- presumably because each comment took weeks to compose -- yet you hung on just long enough to get your piece up, and then decided we were a bunch of middlebrow pseudo-thinkers. Curious timing.

I like your example of the critical ideal, though. Not because I don't like the idea of Rosenbaum writing a lengthy piece about Out 1 that generates ongoing discussions, but because you seem to like the idea that the movie under discussion could only be seen by a select few. Because we don't want the wrong people seeing these films, do we?

Flickhead said...

You're absolutely right.

Flickhead said...

Bill, please forgive my condescension and irregularities. Your points are well taken. My problem lies between my ears, and if I knew what was good for me I'd keep my big mouth shut.

Tom Sutpen said...

The following is a comment left by Marilyn Ferdinand; one of two people in the last 24 hours (that I know of; there may be others) who were not able, for whatever reason, to leave a comment here:

As someone who has been writing professionally for 30 years in nonartistic fields, my main objectives are precision and clarity, two things sorely lacking in business, science, and academic writing. The written word should be used to communicate, not obfuscate, yet the vast majority of film writing is neither precise nor clear, and this occurs on both the populist websites and among film scholars. Trying to make my way through a recent post on Rosenbaum's blog was an brow-wrinkling experience, one I eventually gave up. I do not hold his writing style up as the epitome of our field of endeavor, whether as enthusiast or professional film critic/scholar.

Conversations other than the structured monthly ones that Ed Howard and Jason Bellamy do so beautifully for The House Next Door tend to be informal. I'm sorry that the pace of comments for TOERIFC does not suit everyone's thought processes or preferences. If either Ray or Tom can conceive of a way to produce the kinds of conversations they crave in this format, I'm all ears.

I'm sorry that the TOERIFC regulars do not meet your high standards of filmic erudition. Perhaps some of us can be pedantic or emotional about a film. I don't think any of us pretends to be a scholar or to know it all. I think that was clear from the start. It would be better to suggest viable solutions rather than to brand us all as ADD fanboys and girls, which none of us are. It's insulting, inaccurate, and unnecessarily divisive. I would like an apology, but I'll settle for an answer to your dilemma.

Ann oDyne said...

'my motive for the following is not to boast, not to place before some of you an encomium ...'

encomium ... *tiptoes away thanking berners-lee for this online education*

D Cairns said...

I'm excited as hell by the idea that you're going to do a Film Club. Let me know when and I'll promote hell out of it. Film Club is the Next Big Thing.

I think you should cut yourself some slack on it, because really it's an interactive event, with the commenters responsible for correcting any imbalances they find in the piece. As long as you get them interested, you've done your job. The piece already sounds mouthwatering, and it's a fascinating film to talk about.

Tom Sutpen said...


Many thanks, but I have to clarify. The other film club (here's its hub) is ongoing; has been since January of this year. I didn't start it, however. I simply volunteered for duty (the less said about which at this point, the better).

When you started your Film Club about a month ago, I wasn't sure if you were aware of TOERIFC or not. Additionally, when you were looking for ways to restructure yours, the idea occurred to me to perhaps merge the two and find a workable format to conduct the uber-club, based on the number of participants. Again, I didn't know how much you knew about TOERIFC.

I get overreaching brainstorms like this all the time. If I didn't keep them to myself, I daresay I'd prove failrly insufferable rather quickly.