Friday, May 02, 2008

Good Night, and Good Luck

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - First Marcus Brauchli, then a few of my fellow monitor-desk employees, and now...Matt Zoller Seitz???

Those winds of change I spoke about in my last entry are now starting to feel more like a hurricane.

Matt Zoller Seitz, for those who don't know, is the founder and so-called "Editor Emeritus" of The House Next Door, an entertainment-related blog toward which I occasionally contribute on movies, the film business, other art forms, and even occasionally politics. This week, Matt made a momentous announcement: that he is leaving the print-criticism world and focusing his creative energies almost entirely on filmmaking. This means that, while he still intends to maintain a presence in the comments sections of entries, he will no longer be writing full-length film reviews.

His gain, our loss.

I'm trying to convince myself not to get too bummed by this. I mean, it's not like he's leaving the blogosphere behind or anything; he's just getting out of the business, so to speak.

Still, I can't help but feel rather wistful about this particular departure...not only because I value Matt highly as a critic---he's gotten to me to think more about form, style and how both create meaning in movies than any other critic I read (his New York Press article on Barry Lyndon was a particular eye-opener for me, and probably the reason why I consider it my favorite Stanley Kubrick feature)---but also because of what he's done for me in the past.

I posted a comment on the entry in which Matt made his announcement, so I might as well reprint some of it here:

It's spring 2006. I am still just a lowly writer for the weekly entertainment section of the Rutgers daily paper, and I'm itching to break a bit out of my review-writing comfort zone and try my hand at a one-on-one interview story. It's Oscar season, and thus I decide it might be fun to take a bit of the piss out of the usual Oscar hype by getting a professional film critic's perspective on not only the Oscars, but on movies in general.

Who would be my interview subject, however? Well, I had recently become quite attached to the film critics writing at the New York Press at the time, Armond White and Matt Zoller Seitz (I think Godfrey Cheshire had been let go before then), and while I briefly flirted with the idea of sicing White's singularly fiery sensibility on unsuspecting Rutgers folk (no offense to the guy, who I still read religiously, even if that screed of his last week did put me off), in the end I decided to try Matt---seemingly more approachable, and I figured that maybe his background as a Star-Ledger TV critic and filmmaker would add a bit of depth to the conversation.

After having a complicated time trying to arrange for an in-person interview, we decide to do a phone interview, which I conducted while sitting alone in an editor's chair in the Targum office, digital recorder in hand, speakerphone on. The interview lasts about 1 hr. and 20 minutes, and Matt is lobbing thoughts about The New World, the good and bad points of the Oscars, the state of movies today, TV versus cinema, and so on while I try my best to jot down as much as I can in my notebook for possible use in my story. Of course, once the interview is over, I look over my notes and realize there were questions that I neglected to ask, and thankfully he is around at about 10:30 in the evening to answer 'em at home.

As someone who hadn't done much interviewing in general up to that point, I was rather nervous about how all this was going to turn out, because throughout the interview I was flying mostly on the seat of my pants, trying to be an attentive listener and feed off Matt's responses while trying not to forget the points I wanted to cover. But I completed the interview, I wrote it up, and got it published a little less than a week later. [Check it out here]

I sent a link to the online version of the story to Matt; later, I check my email account and discover that Matt had sent me exactly the kind of sincerely inspirational response I had been waiting for from a professional film critic/journalist ever since I decided that that was the field I wanted to pursue in college. I won't reprint the content of the email here (although I still have it archived); suffice it to say, it was just about the kind of confidence-builder I needed at that point in my life. And, as I have later discovered in becoming a sometime contributor to The House, that email was indicative of the broad generosity of spirit that would later infuse The House Next Door, and could only come from a man who was equally generous.

Without Matt and The House, who knows where I would actually be publishing movie-related pieces and reaching a wide audience? For this, I am grateful, and my only regret, Matt, is that you left print criticism before I could really blossom (I feel I haven't yet made my big breakthrough yet, for various reasons). Of course, another thing this blog has forced me to do, especially in recent weeks, is to consider whether there is much of a future in print film journalism, as I had originally hoped. Maybe the 'Net truly is the way of the future; if so, then I better prepare to find another way to make a living (especially if I want to live close to NYC---where the action is)!

I think that excerpt speaks for itself, but let me add a couple of things:

I cannot help but admire the guts behind making a major decision like this. I mean, becoming a full-time filmmaker, man! The first question that would pop up in my mind if anyone made such a decision would be, how would you support yourself? Getting paid for writing movie reviews for a paper would at least go some way toward helping to, at the very least, put a roof over your head as you pursue your artistic passion; without that, what then? All the passion in the world may not necessarily get you enough money to get bites to eat day-to-day. I've been raised not to buy into the whole "if you really love something, you'll find a way" ideal; for that reason, unless I had a clear idea about how I'd go about supporting myself financially while doing something as unstable as art-making, I might never summon up the courage to pull the trigger the way Matt has done. (Maybe I just put too much value in being secure at all times---it's probably why I'm still working at The Wall Street Journal right now.) That---perhaps even more than the simple fact that I count him as a friend and as a mentor---is why I sincerely wish him well in this new phase in his life, and hope for the best for him. I probably would never summon the nerve.

Maybe I shouldn't worry too much about him. I've gotten a sense of the man over these past two years---and I've met him a couple of times---and my sense is of someone who has the practical good sense and worldly wisdom to go along with that burning passion. In the podcast interview accompanying his announcement, for instance, when he says "There's more to life than movies"---well, that may be surprising, perhaps, to hear that from a film critic, but I hear a hard universal truth in that statement. Sure, the best movies can perhaps help you get a better sense of the life swirling around you, or at least challenge you to perceive your world in a different way---but, in the end, movies are movies. They're just images flickering on a screen---maybe images that you react to with every fiber of your being, but images they remain. What you get out of those images, perhaps, depends on what you bring to them, and what you do with those newfound perceptions. At heart, however, they're no more "real," really, than words on a page. So if you're expecting constant enlightenment from the cinema---well, maybe you'd be better off simply seeing the world on your own instead of expecting to have it brought to you via movies. Because most likely you'll be disappointed in that regard.

I'm not entirely sure if that's what Matt was getting at when he uttered those words, but that's what I get out of them, and it's the kind of wisdom I have valued from Matt for a while now. I just hope he will still be around to offer more pearls of wisdom of that sort as I continue on my own uncertain journey that is Real Life.

(Of course, it also just makes me realize how little life experience I actually have, and how much living I have yet to do.) if you're reading this, Matt---well, I don't think you really need to hear yet another round of "good night, and good luck" (yes, to steal from a TV broadcast legend), but I'll say it again anyway: thanks for all that you have done for me up to this point, and lots of luck in your future endeavors! (And hey, I might not mind being of assistance on some feature you're working on in the future, either---try to get my own filmmaking experience, if I haven't tried at my hand at it myself until then. A part of me says I really should...)


Two (or three) brief final notes:

First (and speaking of The House Next Door): I had mentioned in passing a couple times before that I was working on a piece about Jean-Luc Godard's 1965 Pierrot le fou. Well, it's finally up; check it out here. What the review doesn't really get into is my own personal reaction to the film: its first hour has always struck me as brilliant, but then its second hour---even after three viewings---always feels somewhat rote and disappointing, with a conclusion that feels more indifferent than anything else---fitting, perhaps, but emotionally exhausted and dry. On the other hand, my intellectual side tells me that perhaps that distant, uncomfortable feeling is part of what makes the film so mysterious, fascinating and unsettling long after those initial visceral disappointments have faded away. (Besides, who knows if even Godard had his heart in the film's second hour either? His subsequent, radical films suggest that maybe his mind really was on other things.) For that reason, I found myself admiring the film more and more as I worked on this article, and I already can't wait to revisit it.

Second: know what I consider genuinely exciting in my life? It's my unreasonable delight in finding out that both Wong Kar-Wai's My Blueberry Nights and Hou Hsiao-hsien's The Flight of the Red Balloon are playing at the same art-house theater in New Jersey. Yessss!!! (Maybe that says more about how dry my own life is than anything I would candidly divulge; I'll leave that to you readers to figure out.) I've already raved about the Hou film on both this blog and The House, of course---but I didn't expect it to be playing anywhere here. Now that it has come around, however---fuck it, I think I'll go check it out again and see how it holds up. (I have little reason to believe it won't.) I previously had low expectations for the new, American-language Wong film, mostly because of the middling advance reviews and the sense that Wong pretty much summarized all of his visual and thematic concerns in 2046. I mean, after the sheer ambition and scope of that work, pretty much anything that follows would probably, by sheer default, feel like a trifle. But I've read a few recent reviews---including Matt's at The House---that dare to take My Blueberry Nights as something at least a little bit more than simply Wong on autopilot; after reading those reviews and seeing 2046 again recently (I loved it a lot more the second time), I am officially stoked to finally see this. Hopefully I'll get to both films, if not this weekend, then very, very soon.


Finally, I might as well return back to Matt Zoller Seitz to end this entry, with two links and a passage from one of his reviews.

First link is to the Amazon page for the one feature he has made to date, a microbudget multi-character roundelay called Home. It's actually not a bad little movie, worth checking out---and a) I intend "not a bad little movie" without a trace of condescension, and b) I'm not just saying that because the maker is a friend of mine.

Second is to a particular passage from his review of/feature on Steven Spielberg's The Terminal, in which he responds to the usual knocks about Spielberg by explaining what he calls "The Friendship Theory of Movies." It never fails to get me thinking:

Most people have lots of friends, for the simple reason that it is impossible to get everything we need from just one friend. Human beings are too complex and imperfect, so we must content ourselves with seeking out friends who satisfy one or two needs, three if we're lucky. We have friends who are great at giving advice, but whom we wouldn't trust to feed our cats when we're out of town. We have friends who've deceived or betrayed us, but who are so resourceful and clever that we'd like to have them beside us in an unfamiliar city if our heart suddenly gave out.

This same attitude can apply to movies—and moviemakers. I'd like to think that if it were applied more often, film criticism might seem more reasonable, less full of mindless idolatry, adolescent snottiness, Soviet-style dead-end polemics and all-around b.s.

Oliver Stone, for instance, is a fearless dramatist and a bold assembler of images. His jagged, free-associative montage style probably gets closer to representing our media-addled, multitrack consciousness than any strategy in modern cinema; in sheer fluency and daring, only Jean-Luc Godard and Craig Baldwin (Spectres of the Spectrum) can touch him. But any moviegoer who looks to Stone for droll humor, evenhanded political analysis and nuanced female characters is wasting his time.

Or take Kubrick, one of the great ironists and visual poets of modern times, a cautionary satirist who took a God's-eye view of humankind's pitifully arrogant schemes. He could be showily cold, cruel and reflexively smug at times. (Think of Private Joker's wiseass lecture in Full Metal Jacket about how the "Born to Kill" and peace symbols on his helmet symbolize the Jungian duality of man. It's so juvenile and embarrassing that it might have been staged by a precocious 15-year-old who just discovered Dr. Strangelove.) And if you're looking to be reassured that most people are basically decent and can escape the prison of their conditioning with a bit of elbow grease—and who hasn't felt that way on certain days, or wished he could feel that way?—Kubrick cannot satisfy your needs. Spielberg can.

Which is why I propose that Spielberg's detractors treat him as they'd treat any other thinking person they've known for years. They should stop expecting him to be something he's not (hard-edged, bleak, bitter) and instead take a closer, more appreciative look at what he is, while keeping in mind that the relationship between artist and audience involves a certain division of labor. The filmmaker tries to choose material that plays to his strengths, makes a few game stabs at mastering things he's not good at, then resolves to avoid or downplay his own weaknesses, forge ahead and try new things, to the best of his ability. We the audience respond by taking the artist seriously, honestly assessing his faults and virtues, seeing through his nonsense and savoring his moments of clarity, invention and wit. That's what friends are for.

1 comment:

1minutefilmreview said...

Nice stuffs you've got there. We're fans of Wong Kar Wai and Kubrick too.