No. 1 February 2015

A Statement of Intentions

By Rumsey Taylor

Cover image from Nosferatu the Vampyre, 1979

In Errol Morris’s 1997 film Fast, Cheap and Out of Control we meet Dave Hoover, a lion tamer. He’s in his mid-sixties, his lips bent into a lifelong frown, seemingly after many years spent staving off lions. Like the other people in the film he describes his profession dramatically:

The chair has four legs… Now, an animal has a one-track mind. For instance, the animal is coming after you with the idea of tearing your head off… You put the chair up, and all of a sudden, he has four points of interest.1

This underscores footage of Hoover in all white, save for a dark leather belt with a gun in the holster, a whip in one hand and a chewed-up chair in the other. He holds the chair up to his beastly companion, Caeser, and almost immediately the lion’s growling halts. The animal shifts his weight back towards his hind legs and sits, his eyes drifting away from the man he could certainly tear to pieces.

I’ve always thought Hoover’s observation was a terrific analogy for decision-making, for defining objectives when the array of choices at hand is burdensome. And although humans are too perceptive a species to be fooled by the four legs of a chair, they’re nevertheless docile when choices are too abundant.

I share this anecdote because it contextualizes what you are now reading: a publication intent on resolving choice with regard to film and those who craft it, or at least a journal of my attempts to do so.

Film writing often describes a struggle to defend oneself against emotional manipulation. To resist this manipulation is to deprive a film of its optimal power; and to be overtaken by it, say, to the point of laughter or tears, is to submit to an illusive and often crude mirror of reality. But despite our defenses we sometimes turn to these writers because we are curious as to what lies in that mirror, if it still possesses the thing that so captivated us the last time we peered inside.

The writing that describes the failure of this struggle is always stronger because it confirms the writer’s subjectivity. One’s evaluation of a drama is bolstered with the admission that it moved the writer to tears, or that even the most inane comedy is capable of producing laughter in more guarded personalities. Such admissions are tangible evidence as to the emotive prerogative of film.

The criticism that I have found the most persuasive has come from those who write about themselves with this transparency. Over time you get a clearer sense of that writer’s biography, as she shares more of her own biases or experiences—it’s as though I can anticipate our conversation were we to meet in person. The best film writers, in turn, are those I have come to trust for their candidness.

I have desired this trust for my own writing, and this has troubled me. My own candidness has been difficult to admit and altogether rare. (This is not to mention the propensity any writer has to be transparent or knowingly subjective.) For instance, my review of Nicolas Roeg’s 1980 film Bad Timing, which is about the end of a tormented relationship, concludes with this sentence:

Intense and tumultuous, [the film] is the remainder of a misguided, under-thought and passionate affair: scarred and broken, a kaleidoscope of painful memories.2

However accurate a description, it is disingenuous because I do not confirm that my own experiences coerced my appreciation of the film. The painful memories I mention are my own, and the film – like all memorable films – served to catalyze them.

This honesty in criticism is integral as a means of engendering readers’ trust, because it makes the writer’s emotions accessible. This honesty must be ballasted with knowledge, however: an awareness that a film is a product of many peoples’ creative labor, a broad understanding of its manufacture, and the concession that it is traditionally commodified entertainment intended for groups of people at a time. This knowledge comes to illuminate the academic faculty of criticism. For measure, there is little subjectivity involved in determining what is qualifiedly the best movie about a man-eating shark; but as to whether or not that shark is frightening is a matter that lies entirely within one’s emotional as opposed to academic faculties.

Over the years, I have developed my knowledge, and yet I question how clear I have been in admitting myself into my writing. There are countless films that have frightened, disheartened, or excited me, and I have written about many of them.3 But my responses are certainly different from yours, and it is this discrepancy that film writing often intends to resolve—to proffer an authoritative response to a film in the interest of securing consensus. In other words, film criticism has both subjective and objective dimensions. It must be informative on matters with which its readers are unfamiliar and diplomatic on those familiar to them. It should be unvarying in its approach or bias, yet it should be open-minded and clear in judgment. It should relay expertise but never condescend. How else may it be genuinely persuasive—or rather, genuinely useful?

Answering this has been, for me, a rarely certain and all too often pretentious exercise. Yet I remain focused on this question in my writing, and in this space will consider it further. Here, I intend to earn your trust, and to be useful.

This will be an attempt to develop an expertise on the topic of cinema and its innumerable partitions. It will specialize in particular filmmakers, writers, actors, and consider the career as a body of work. It will attempt to be clear in admitting and questioning my own biases. It will be published with deliberation, roughly quarterly, and it will endeavor to establish pockets of authority but with no pretensions beyond an earnest resolve to inform and respect its readers.

This is The Completist.

  1. Fast, Cheap, and Out of Control: Transcript.
  2. Review of Bad Timing.
  3. As Editor of Not Coming to a Theater Near You, a film resource specializing in older and repertory films.