Introduction to a Proposed Collection


This is an introduction to a proposed collection of mine that hasn’t yet found a publisher. I’m posting it now in order to use it in a workshop that I’m conducting at Kino klub Split (June 17-22) in Croatia that’s based on certain concepts proposed in this book. –- J.R.

So complex is reality, and so fragmentary                                      and simplified is history, that an 
omniscient observer could write an 
indefinite, almost infinite, number of 
biographies of a man, each emphasizing 
different facts; we would have to read 
many of them before we realized that 
the protagonist was the same.
               Jorge Luis Borges, 1943

I get a great laugh from artists who 
ridicule the critics as parasites and 
artists manqués —- such a horrible joke. 
I can't imagine a more perfect art form, 
a more perfect career than criticism. I 
can't imagine anything more valuable to 
do, and I’ve always felt that way.
                     Manny Farber, 1977

First, a few ground rules. Because most of us live in a culture where our marketers also tend to be our preferred epistemologists, editors, and censors, I want to override their usual restrictions that govern collections of this kind by drawing upon my literary criticism and my music criticism (mostly of jazz) as well as the film criticism that I’m usually known for, meanwhile charting some of the potential and actual interactivity between these arts in order to define some of the attributes of my own particular niche-market, at least as I’m defining and addressing it here. And because appreciation is what’s being foregrounded, I’ve mostly avoided my negative reviews. Although the selection encompasses almost six decades, during which some of my tastes shifted, I’ve tried to respect a certain continuity of subjects, concerns, and works regarding film, music, literature, and dreams.

I also believe in niche-markets as opposed to the more marketable mainstream channels because they tend to be more focused and generative. If we consider Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave in cinema, bebop in jazz, and the Beat writers in literature, new movements in art tend to be launched by small, interactive groups of friends and associates. To address the mainstream usually means to exchange one’s own brand for the aura of whatever mainstream venue one has. One reason among others why I haven’t included my dissenting piece on Ingmar Bergman, commissioned by the New York Times for its Op Ed page on August 4, 2007, is that my editor there asked me to rewrite it several times with his own specifications, so that It belongs to the Times more than it belongs to me. I prefer to brand myself, whereas attaching myself to a mainstream venue usually means accepting a view of criticism whereby critics essentially become parasites guiding consumer choices rather than participants in a community discussion that begins before a review is printed or posted and continues long afterwards. And communal niche-markets are often less predictable than one might assume. I count Farber as a major influence on my grasp of criticism as a form of art, yet our respective political orientations were different, and our Hollywood preferences were the opposites of those orientations. Despite his eclectic conservatism, Farber and his moviegoing family favored Warners among the major studios, whereas my liberal family paradoxically preferred the most conservative and upper-crust studio, MGM.

I’ve deliberately thwarted the assumptions underlying such otherwise irreplaceable collections as (a) the Library of America’s Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber (2009), which omits all of Farber’s other critical writing (mostly about art) as well as the entirety of the extended 1977 Interview he carried out near the end of his writing career (included in the expanded 1988 edition of Negative Space), which concluded with the quotation cited above, and (b) two Viking collections of Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions (1998) and Selected Non-Fictions (1999), which segregated the most interactive aspects of Borges’ art into mutually exclusive volumes.

I should add that the performative possibilities of critical writing were vividly realized in the lectures of both Borges and Farber as well as Jean-Pierre Gorin’s, and these are especially relevant in today’s era of podcasts and audiovisual forms of criticism. This is why I’ve made room here for Ehsan Khoshbakht’s conversational interview with me about jazz and cinema. In his teens, Farber was a jazz devotee who played a saxophone (I believe It was a tenor, in emulation of Lester Young), and this Influence carried over into his semi-improvisational lecturing style, full of breezy bluster, at the University of California, San Diego, a style that Gorin embraced and developed for his own purposes at the same venue. I’m sorry that these lectures aren’t available on DVD or Blu-Ray, but Gorin’s “Pierrot” Primer, a 36-minute audiovisual analysis of Jean-Luc Godard’s Pierrot le fou in the 2007 Criterion release, offers a reasonable facsimile: The witty inflections of Gorin’s delivery lurch forward in an impromptu manner suggesting some of the swerves, bends, and detours of the film he’s discussing, and when he briefly bows out to let Godard’s soundtrack take over, replacing his voice and words with Jean-Paul Belmondo’s voice and Godard’s chosen words, it’s a bit like he’s “trading fours” — exchanging four-measure improvs— with his master’s movie.

It’s still criticism, even mimetic criticism, though not necessarily the same kind that can be appraised in textual form. I’m also not sure how helpful it might be to cross-reference Farber’s painting with action-painting, even if the two developed concurrently. But I’m fairly confident that his criticism should be experienced as an outgrowth of action-painting — a spontaneous form of action-criticism in which thought becomes translated into physicality and existential presence, and one that Farber’s prose on the page also suggests — the twist of a thought becoming a dance step or a bleat, sometimes even both when a tenor player like Young performs it. This imposes a different set of criteria in judging criticism as an act and not merely as a market-driven form of advertising -– a performative act with unpredictable slides, leaps, cascades, and mutters that evolves over time, just like a jazz solo.

“You cannot hang an event on the wall, only a picture,” Mary McCarthy famously cautioned in her review of Harold Rosenberg’s seminal The Tradition of the New –- a review aptly titled “An Academy of Risk” and found in On the Contrary (though not, alas, in the McCarthy collection A Bolt from the Blue and Other Essays, presumably because it was edited with a literary bias that short-changes her versatility the same way that Borges and Farber have been). No, you can’t hang an event on a wall, but you can watch It on a DVD and then place that disk on a shelf, like a book. So action can still preserved in an object, and in an era when we can finally access films the same way we can access books — thus altering the nature of their social reception — the value of also viewing them as literary and musical events invites exploration. This is something new and potentially exciting that Farber, Gorin and others have brought to criticism — e.g., Kevin Lee and Chloé Galibert-Laîné, online, on Radu Jude, Georges Franju, and Serge Daney; Yuri Tsivian and Joan Neuberger, discussing and illustrating Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible on DVD, quite apart from their valuable books on the same topic. And there are many others— so many, in fact, of varying range and quality, that the task of discovering the most useful and pleasurable is as daunting as carving out one’s personal niche-market of what films to access (rather than sliding passively into the more predictable realms of the mainstream’s manufactured hits, where the choices are already made for us by ads and Oscars). For that matter, one of the pleasures for me of compiling this collection was discovering certain thematic continuities in my writing that certain ingrained forms of capitalist self-censorship had hidden from my awareness.

Ground Rules 2, 3, and 4: All the selected pieces here are previously uncollected, at least in my own books, and are arranged in (loose) chronological order, giving them an autobiographical aspect shared by my first book (Moving Places: A Life at the Movies, 1980 & 1995) as well as one of my recent ones (Cinematic Encounters: Interviews and Dialogues, 2019). Like those two books, and all my others, it allows for several different voices apart from mine, but in this case — as in Placing Movies, Greed, Movies as Politics, Essential Cinema, Movie Wars, and Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia –the voices don’t belong to others except incidentally.

“In dreams begin responsibilities,” however, is a line I’ve cribbed from William Butler Yeats, and Delmore Schwartz cribbed it long before me for the title of a memorable story recounting the dream of a 21-year-old male in which he goes to the movies. I’ve clung to this statement for many years as a kind of motto, and it figures in a couple of the texts collected here.

I regard movies as literature by another means, and in different ways, movies and music — and music and literature — can also be regarded as alternate versions of one another. “There’s much more story in a piece of music by John Coltrane or Patti Smith than in most films now,” Godard once said to me, interrelating all three arts in a 1980 interview where he also expressed my own intentions as a critic when he remarked, “I like to think of myself as an airplane, not an airport.”

My own airplane (not my airport) is a web site archiving most of my writing —, set up in 2008 — which attracts between 750 to 1200 visitors per day from over 120 countries. I find this audience to be far more focused (and interactive, partly via social media) than my much larger audience in Chicago was during my two decades of reviewing films at the Reader. My fifth and final ground rule: This book is warmly dedicated to that audience.

Chicago, April 2022

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