Photogénie is proud to present the host of the second edition of the Young Critics Workshop at Film Fest Gent, none other than Nick Pinkerton, whose writing graces the pages of world-renowned publications such as Sight & Sound, Film Comment or Reverse Shot. And what better way to get acquainted than by subjecting him to an old school cinephile questionnaire, the likes of which adorned the pages of the French magazine Cinématographe in 1980. Their film critical survey elicited responses nationwide, with Serge Daney taking the honors for Cahiers du Cinéma, and is as topical now as it was then.
How did you become a critic? What was your professional trajectory?
As with practically everything in my clumsily-improvised life, it was stumbled backward into. I studied motion picture production at a place called Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio, where I went because I had scored well on a single standardized test. I had been operating under the assumption that I was a prodigious cinematic genius and auteur-to-be, but when my student films failed to exhibit any evidence of this fact, I panicked and relocated to New York City to accrue further life experience, whatever that means. Quite by chance, while religiously attending an Allan Dwan retrospective at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in 2003, I picked up the first copy of a print ‘zine called Reverse Shot, a stack of which were sitting in the lobby for the perusal of whatever indigents were inclined to pick them up. The ‘zine was soliciting outside contributions and, given that I had no more pressing business at the time, I wrote to them offering my services, initiating what would become an ongoing dirty habit. Throughout my 20s I continued to write film criticism as a hobby while working “day jobs” which included variously failed low-level stints in video store clerking, music PR, fashion world drudgery, film distribution, and motion picture subtitling. Disconcertingly, at a certain point my earnings from writing began to eclipse what I made at these regular gigs, and so I made the dubious decision to dedicate myself full-time to arts journalism. Most likely because I have never managed to properly engage in careerism, I hate, loathe, and despise it in all forms.
How do you approach the writing of a critical piece? How do you work?
The ideal, always, is to write the best piece—that is, the most felicitously-phrased, most exhaustive, and most impassioned piece—that I have ever seen on the subject at hand. Usually I abandon that ideal around the time that I’ve run inexcusably over deadline, and instead turn in whatever I’ve managed to slap together by then. All hilarity aside, my only methodology is to finesse every piece until it seems to describe the work at hand as accurately and evocatively as can be done in the space allotted, as well as expresses what I think—or at the moment think that I think—about that work. If it is put across in a way that isn’t soporific, so much the better. A modicum of wit is to be desired, as is a selective degree of deference to the work at hand, so that wit isn’t employed cheaply, at its expense. While once in a great while I come across something that seems to call for either flat-out proselytizing or a schoolyard ass-whippin’, for the most part I try to get past “or”—as in, for or against—and concentrate on “and” instead—as in, this movie is this, and it is also this. There’s a time and place for rhetorical velocity, but for the most part I find a critical journey with a lot of paradoxical hairpin turns and scenic-route digressions more pleasurable and illuminating.
How much influence do you think you exert on the commercial success or failure of a film?
None whatsoever. There may have been a period of a few weeks in 2012 during which I had some sort of pull. I have since happily accepted my fate as a cult writer or “critic’s critic,” which means that my readers, God bless them, number literally in the tens of dozens.
What role do you assign film criticism in the evolution of cinematic forms?
How much of a role does cartography play in the actual size and contour of land masses? Once in a great while, perhaps, a swashbuckling critic may appear who can speak specifically to the relationship between their medium and the zeitgeist, discuss the “new” in the art form that they’ve been entrusted with analyzing in such a manner that they may appear to really be conducting the conversation—in the Anglo-American world, the examples of Clement Greenberg in painting, Kenneth Tynan in theater, and Pauline Kael in film spring to mind, the latter two both advocates for a new permissiveness of subject matter who interfaced in lively ways with the emergent counterculture, so-called. In the case of film criticism, we most commonly see reviewers calling for more films which embody particular types of subject matters deemed desirous (“films for adults,” for example) rather than holding forth on issues of cinematic form, which are beholden to a teleological narrative that non-formalist criticism is rarely very cognizant of, much less able to wield influence over. The majority of reviewers, incorrectly as it happens, write about cinema as a principally narrative art, with questions of aesthetics treated as an afterthought, if they are considered at all. Consequently, it’s rare enough for film criticism to address itself to questions of what cinematic form is, much less to take a lead in suggesting what it should or might be.
What is the place of film history and theory in your work?
Film history, and history overall, are of the paramount importance to my work, and my thinking about film art. Part of the fascination inherent in even the worst film are the various strata of history which are captured within—a documentary snapshot of the time when it was made, the social mores of the day which it might exemplify (or reject) in more or less interesting ways and, in the case of the period film, a representation of how artists working at one moment in time represented another fixed period in the past. As for theory… Generally speaking, theory is a matter of generalities (heh), and I like to believe that I am a champion of the specific and the detailed over the broad-brush or bucket splash. Any programmatic approach which might interfere with my ability to approach each new work on a case-by-case basis is, therefore, to be regarded with extreme distrust. With that said, the hoary old politiques des auteurs still comes in handy on certain occasions.
Out of your recent critical choices, which one is dearest to you?
Back in 2010, J. Hoberman, my colleague at dearly-departed The Village Voice (RIP), complemented something that I wrote about Anthony Mann. Everything since has pretty much been gravy. I was also very gratified to recently hear that George Armitage, a filmmaker whose work I greatly admire, was going to get a retrospective at the Oldenburg Film Festival, something which I have deluded myself into thinking that my recent writing on his filmography may have played some role in. To feel that I have been, on the whole, a good and faithful servant to an art form which has been extraordinarily valuable in my life is something which I hope will give my sustenance in my old age, because heaven knows I don’t have a retirement plan.
Oh, I am also glad that I slagged off on Beasts of the Southern Wild, because that movie is truly heinous.