serious film criticism

“Hitching rides from New York to Chicago; keeping enough change in your pocket to make calls from pay phones; making the rounds of friends and acquaintances living in tenement walk-ups, all with the same makeshift end table next to the same beat-up sofa by the same window looking out on the same fire escape—Inside Llewyn Davis is a story whose every particular is firmly rooted in the early sixties in general, and in the West Village in particular. The Coens have always been zealous excavators of the unheralded or bypassed corners of American life, from late-forties Northern California suburbia to the folkways of the modern American Midwest. They are connoisseurs of the spaces between and the moments before and after or just on the edges of historical milestones. And as storytellers, they seem to begin, gleefully, with a self-imposed challenge: Who is the least likely hero-on-a-quest on whose shoulders we can park an entire movie?

That the Coen brothers are comic artists is lost on no one, but I think of them equally as musical filmmakers. Like Martin Scorsese and the many directors who have come after him, the Coens make films with carefully curated pop-music soundtracks (The Big Lebowski, A Serious Man) tied not only to the ambience but also the thematic drive of the works. Each of the Coens’ movies is “set” to the music of a particular variety of American speech … 

Whenever the characters in this film pick up their instruments and sing, their sense of time, and ours, shifts from the numbingly horizontal to the poetically and ecstatically vertical … Plain American language in all its glory, a deep and aching sadness transfigured by song into what can only be called affirmation, a tattered, bloody flag of freedom planted in the ground of doubt, cruelty, and indeterminacy. That’s the wonder of this music and the movie that holds it.”

from Inside Llewyn Davis: The Sound of Music

By Kent Jones

Read the full essay here.

Regarding Richard Corliss

I met Richard Corliss, in passing, when he came to our first MST3K convention in 1994, not simply as a critic of film or culture, though he was ferociously cogent at both, nor as the fellow who would endure the derision of his peers when he wrote a study of the Cowtown Puppet Show for Film Comment so incisively thorough it taught me things I had not known about the show I’d been dedicated to since its creation.  No, he came to our self-bankrolled convention as a fan,  far more than he did as a scholar of the art of cinema and all the perversions that naturally spring from a budding art form dying to be taken seriously. 

To be blunt, he got it. Richard seemed to write most passionately about the things he got, be it the Italian post-war miracle of movie-making or the hit-and-miss fireworks of Baz Luhrmann.  

But I’m not there yet. I actually got to meet and talk to Richard when I met him on line in 2001 to see Godard’s latest salvo Éloge de l'amour,  a film far more political than romantic. 

And yet… and yet…

See, he was this big plush toy of a man, surprisingly quiet for a fellow of such strong opinions, as humble a writer as you’re ever likely to meet.  And yet so candid, so casually “fuck-you” to his contemporaries, not an any flippant or arrogant way, but in a wide-eyed just-plain-film-loving way that endeared me to him as we stood in line in a smoke filled lobby at the Cannes Film Festival, getting herded into a the theater where soon the French folks in the audience would stand up and argue with the movie as if the movie could hear. And I saw his face, beaming as he took in the spectacle of the audience insisting itself into the screening while nibbling on pocket candy (I think it was Milk Duds but the mind grows fuzzy) And I thought to  myself, “Self, this is your first encounter with a real live actual serious professional film critic, one who backed his opinions with flat-out screening time, like a more serious and less self-serious version of Ebert.” Richard was on our side of the screen, to be sure, but he was so close to the other side, the side where craft and story live, as to make the lines as blurred as they were in say, The Purple Rose of Cairo.

Never mind that he liked my work, because I liked his.  No matter what.

And this is where I fell in love with the man, not in any way beyond what happens when people in the same field learn how to correspond, to battle, to do the work of the critic, to try to make things better.  My book A Year at the Movies came out in 2002, and I did hope he’d review it, which he did, bit not in any way I’d hoped he would.  He did far better.  Since I’d mentioned in my book that he was maybe my favorite critic, he recused himself from reviewing the book in print, but instead wrote volumes about it on his online column.  And he was, much like Frank Conniff used to say of Mavis Beacon, “firm but fair.” 

He took me to task for my undying love of the movie Cinema Paradiso, a film that more than a few critics identify as emotional porn. In an otherwise glowing review, that bit stuck with me, and I emailed him, taking him to task for going deep on that one aspect of mine, mentioning the context in which I’d grown to adore the movie.  And we went back and forth, more than a few rounds, speaking as much about technique as we did about how a film can punch you straight in the heart and leave a bruise.  

And I learned, through that exchange, that odd talent that separates a truly gifted critic from the scum-pond of reviewers (I fucking hate reviewers): an experience and a vocabulary in the art form as deep as most anyone who makes films, and a dedication to the success of a genuinely talented filmmaker, actor, author, editor, makeup artist, to the point that even to jape is to take to task a craftsperson who can simply do better and probably knows it.

I corresponded with Richard a few more times over the years, though I never got to experience the Floating Film festival, or spend any more significant time with the man.  But I did see him face to face one more time in 2001, as I was living what would become my book, at a hot summer panel at a comedy festival on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.  It was an MST panel, chockablock with puppet shoe alumni.  When the panel was done I stayed on the stage, shook some hands, signed some crap.  And there in the crush, not flashing a credential, not working his way backstage, not at all pressing his advantage as one of the nations most read film critics, but just as an unabashed fan, was Richard.  Holding his hand out in the Sharpie-armed mosh pit, saying just loud enough for me to hear, “Hey, I’m a big fan of yours, can I shake your hand before you get too big?”

Thanks to Richard I don’t think I’ll ever get too big.  And that’s an incredibly good thing.  What a great gift. Thanks to Richard, I’ll always value humility. Thanks to Richard I’m better able to spy those foibles that make what I do so much fun.  Thanks to Richard I’ll sit in the dark and rededicate myself to doing what I do as best I can. Hopefully better.

I offer my whole heart to Mary and to everyone whom Richard touched, with his awesome talent, his inspiring humility, his dedication to clarity and purpose and his virtuosity as a human being.


p.s. It’s unreasonably wonderful that, as I post this, on the radio, Nat King Cole is singing Charlie Chaplin’s  Smile.