Once upon a time, film critics ruled the cinematic universe. In the late 60s and early 70s, luminaries such as Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris could write long and lengthy pieces, praising or damning movies, wrecking careers or hauling some worthwhile (or not) filmmaker into the firmament. Kael famously “saved” Bonnie and Clyde from disaster with a spirited defense in The New Yorker; Sarris brought the term “auteur” to America from France. Film goers in America (and New York especially) hung on their words, argued, and made the film critic into a celebrity.
Times have changed. True, there’s probably more film critics in the world now than then, the Pete Hammondesque quote whores doing their level best to support the big studio, and get their names (and their statements) onto movie posters. The Kaels and Sarris’ seem to have been marginalized to the film journals. Is film criticism dead?
This is an argument that has bandied about a lot lately, especially as critics get fired from their papers, to be replaced by material that comes off the wire. But you’d have to be a fool to just follow what the daily newspapers write. You can complain about the internet all you want, but film criticism is alive and well… it’s just online.
Film critic, journalist, and plain old film geek Mike White is essentially one of the new breeds of film critic, woefully underpaid, opinionated, and tenacious (see below), but he also predates the World Wide Web, having founded the wonderful Cashiers du Cinemart (a witty take the lauded French film journal Cahiers du Cinéma) as a ‘zine. Now, he’s collected the best of Cashiers in a book, Impossibly Funky: A Cashiers du Cinemart Collection. Next Sunday, Mike comes to Richmond to read from the book and screen the great Monte Hellman movie Cockfighter, along with his short documentary Who Do You Think You’re Fooling? (Sunday, November 21, 6:00pm at Gallery 5, sponsored by the James River Film Society and Chop Suey Books.)
All discussions of Mike White and Impossibly Funky really begin with Who Do You Think You’re Fooling?, his short documentary about Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. White discovered a not very good movie called City on Fire, by Hong Kong director Ringo Lam. White was stunned to discover that Tarantino, who usually gives credit to his sources, failed to acknowledge that Dogs borrowed a ton from City.
What makes the story so fascinating is not just White’s examination of the two (which is good in and of itself), but the shitstorm that rained down upon him as he tried to reveal this information in his documentary. The denizens of the indie- and underground film scene went berserk. The resulting story is hilarious… at least I’m hoping White can laugh about it now. (And I’m thinking he can, since Film Threat’s editor Chris Gore, one of the jerks of the story, wrote a hilarious and somewhat apologetic introduction!)
White was apparently not one to just load Cashiers du Cinemart with movie reviews. Like all great blogs and ‘zines, he pursued great subjects, great stories, and even found the artists behind work that he loved and appreciated. Impossibly Funky reprints some of the best interviews I’ve ever read–including Charles Goodis, Guy Maddin, and James Ellroy (all great) to the ubiquitous Bruce Campbell (one of the weak spots), to two discussions with Monte Hellman and Keith Gordon.
Anyone who knows me knows I really, really dig Two-Lane Blacktop, Hellman’s masterpiece. But what impresses me most about this collection is actually not White’s interview with Hellman (and don’t get me wrong–it’s really fantastic, and if you’re seeing the show next Sunday, you should read it to get some insight on him and his movies.) It’s his talk with Keith Gordon.
Wait. Keith Gordon… who? I guess I know who Keith Gordon is, the kid from a bunch of 80s movies, Stephen King’s Christine being the one I remember. And I did know that he went on to direct: The Chocolate War, A Midnight Clear, and Mother Night, among others. Well, I’d always blown him off, because it seemed like he did probably pedantic versions of novels I considered great or damned close (Night the former, Clear the latter.) Gordon is great, and White’s interview is the work of someone who is passionate and knowledgable–and now I want to see those movies. Isn’t that what we turn to criticism for?
Impossibly Funky is one of the most entertaining, crazy, and informative movie books I’ve ever read. (And a digression: bloggers, if you’re going to do this, try to get a cover as cool as this one–Jim Rugg’s artwork? You can see how damn cool it is.) I should note that White hasn’t written everything here–there’s the work of his collaborators at Cashiers, including Skizz Cyzyk, Mike Thompson, and others. I loved reading Impossibly Funky, in part because it’s so well written, but also because it’s like sitting around with a bunch of charged film lovers who are taking you to see something totally new that you would never have thought to see (like Black Shampoo… uh, I’ve got to see that one.) It gives us insight into movies we already love (lots on Star Wars). But above all, it restores your faith. For even as we may think that film criticism’s going down the drain, Mike White and Co. are here to show everyone that it is alive and well and–you know it–funky.