Exactly a week ago I took a step that I had been considering for some time and began this Substack account, imploring my motley hordes of social media followers to sign up for it, preferably for the crazy low cost of $5-a-month, less than the pricetag of your daily flat white. As I noted at the time, current professional commitments make it unlikely that any of my High Quality Content would actually be available until we’ve passed the threshold of April. (As to if further professional commitments will be forthcoming in April is another matter.) I thought, however, that it might behoove me, in asking friends, acquaintances, and randos to allow me to batten off of their hard-earned paychecks, to at least give some indication as to what they would be getting for their dollar, Euro, RMB, baht, forint, etc.
What is on offer, at least at this present moment, is a steady diet of substantial pieces—either brand spanking new material or material not previously published elsewhere—to appear at a rate of not less than two and likely not more than four posts a month, authored by yours truly. (This may be padded with some offline from-the-vault moldies; I’m not yet certain how to deal with the back catalog.) Some years ago I kept up a weekly column, initially titled The Classical and then Bombast, first at the now-defunct SundanceNOW blogs, later under the Film Comment imprimatur. The spirit of what I’d be doing in this space would be somewhat the same, though my intention at present is to concentrate on individual films, filmmakers, and performers, with less of the sort of wide-ranging essays that have been hung with the unfortunate sobriquet “thinkpieces.” Many of those earlier columns were written with the intention of staking out and articulating a critical position, of striking an oppositional stance to certain tendencies perceived to be at large in the culture industry. I feel as though my positions have been fairly well established at this point. My intention now is to burrow in and reinforce my redoubt.
I will be alternating between publishing pieces available to any Tom, Dick, or Harriet who wanders in and pieces that will be available only to my elite, sharp-witted, sexually attractive paying subscribers, who I could not cherish more were they my own daughters and sons, though things will remain payment optional whilst I get this tub off of the ground. Don’t get me wrong, I would love to have your cash—Jesus fucking Christ, I’d literally do anything for it!—but if it’s a question at the moment of deciding whether to apply limited resources towards either a worthy cause or towards Nick’s beer money-generating film esoterica newsletter, you probably ought to do the former. (Probably. Man, I’m not gonna tell you how to live.) I may or may not reconsider this set-up with the passage of time, much as I may or may not reconsider everything that I’m putting down here on the basis of what the near-future brings.
Most of the material that I intend to address here is of the variety that I would describe as un-pitchable, which is to say, outside the pale of the jurisdiction of the better class of publications to which I regularly contribute, for reasons of conceptual ungainliness, absence of perceived reader interest, or matters to do with keeping up of tone. (This is not to suggest that any of those publications are snobbish—James Bell at Sight & Sound, for example, has given me more opportunities to write about Umberto Lenzi in that magazine’s pages than any representative of such an upstanding publication should have done.) My intention is to write about films and filmmakers that are not particularly well known and, in the case of those filmmakers who are well known, to concentrate on the works of theirs that are least seen or appreciated. Robert Altman’s Nashville (1975) would be, then, inadmissible; Altman’s 1998 TV pilot Killer App or the 1980 film HealtH would absolutely be fair game. I am aware that the term “well known,” as applied to filmmakers, is a relative one—your aunt in Sacramento likely has never heard of Hong Sang-soo—but I am using it in the more-than-casual cinephile sense. Some of the films will be “bad,” some will be “good,” and probably a few will pose “problems”—the criterion for inclusion is that they should all be, in some aspect at least, interesting. At present I have about a year’s worth of topics stored in the larder, and I would be overjoyed to have readers bring potentially appropriate subjects to my attention.
Part of the impetus for getting this up and running is to have an outlet through which to pursue immersive research projects that interest me but almost certainly wouldn’t entice any editor looking to keep their job. For the time being, at least, I have plenty of venues in which to address whatever I believe is worthy of discussion, praise, and condemnation in the contemporary cinema; this will be an offloading outlet for Everything Else. (Which is really, I promise you, the Good Shit.) Some of the works in question may not be readily available, or may take a good bit of effort to exhume. I realize this may be a discouragement to people who might be put off at the prospect of reading about movies, at least occasionally, that they don’t feel they have a realistic hope of seeing—at least not with one-click ease—but my intention is to use this space to practice a criticism of enthusiasms, and for those enthusiasms to stay fresh, they must have free-range leave to lurch off in whatever direction they see fit. For my own part, some of my most treasured cinema memories involve the anticipation of films, of reading a pungent description of a movie or seeing some especially evocative still—Kurt Raab hung by his neck in the workplace bathroom in Fassbinder and Fengler’s Why Does Herr R. Run Amok? (1970), for example—and then nurturing an imagination of the thing for months and years thereafter, until the devoutly wished consummation could finally occur.
Above all, my intention is to make this a space as nearly as possible immured from the bugbear of topicality, of relevance. I can’t say definitively that a new film or home video release or a gallery show or a contemporary repertory screening—should such things continue to exist in the post-CoVid-19 world, and should that world exist—won’t occasionally wriggle its way into the spotlight here, but in the main these are pieces intended to exist untethered from time, untethered from release dates and anniversaries and PR pushes and the dreaded, dreary “cultural conversation.” (Like many irresponsible wastrels of my generation, I gravitated towards the arts because I wanted to not have a real job and have fun. Of late, the priesthood has been looking like the superior option.)
Of course nothing can truly avoid the grasp of contemporaneousness, and as it happens this intended avoidance of timeliness is at the present moment very timely, for at the moment we are effectively without a contemporary cinema, the movie theaters having been shuttered, the gears of the culture industry having been ground to something very near to a halt—hence the creeping uncertainties that run through what I’m writing, and the sudden decision to go out to whatever readership that I have, cup in hand, made in the haze of a mild hangover and “economic anxiety,” after a lifetime of avoiding striking out into the world without a supportive masthead at my back. Well before the scope of the present world-historical pandemic was made known, however, I’d had an increasingly nagging conviction that the various cultural institutions that I’ve relied on to make a living over the last decade or so are in fact houses built on sand—the recent foundering of so venerable an institution as Cahiers du cinéma was a reminder, should any be needed, that absolutely everything is vulnerable.
My fear—and I pray that it is unfounded—is that the result of the this pandemic will be an expedition of processes of dismantling and destruction long underway, with catastrophe employed as a cover for enacting amidst the chaos the “necessary austerity measures” that have been planned for and put off only for fear of public censure: slashing staff and wages, dealing print pubs the killing blow, and making those short-sighted, identity-diluting “popularizing” pivots that inevitably end with a “Going Out of Business” sign going on the vitrine a few years later and a trip to the glue factory. (cf. The Village Voice, among many, many others.) That we will emerge, blinking from our hidey-holes to find cultural institutions and outlets that have been operating from a position of precarity have been washed away by the flood, while empty storefronts wait to be overrun by the few dozen remaining chains with loaded coffers which could stand to weather out the deluge. None of this, I should hasten to add, is based on a solid grasp of crisis-time economics, but instead in an instinctive pessimism, an ingrained belief that there is always room for things to get stupider and worse, a pessimism that has had plenty to validate it through my adult life, and through my life as a writer, which very nearly amount to the same thing.
Maybe things will get bad, so bad that we won’t be able to talk about anything else. I consider myself a stoic, but if I find myself fleeing the city on foot with only a cat carrier and a stout hittin’ stick, I doubt I’ll be able to bring myself to pause in rural Pennsylvania and post 3,000 words about William Edwards’s Dracula (The Dirty Old Man) (1969) or whatever. Maybe man will nearly go the way of the Dodo, with only a few international survivors posted at Antarctic bases left to slowly repopulate the planet, as in Kinji Fukasaku’s Virus (1980). Maybe the Antarctic bases, too, will fall into the sea, our new Adams and Eves washed away in a slurry of melted ice. And maybe beyond the present darkness lies the first chink of light from the opening of the gates of a New Jerusalem, and the financial arrangements that previously supported cinemas and galleries and publications and podcasts will come to seem as primitive to us as serfdom and the suttee do today, and humankind will be free to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, and criticize after dinner, just as they have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman, or critic.
To continue to busy one’s self with matters pertaining to art at such a juncture as this perhaps betrays a greater optimism than I am willing to admit to. But for the time being, at least, I’ll continue to criticize—work that’s concerned with passing value judgments yes, but just as importantly if not more so, concerned with putting down lucid description of the experience of a work, and an attempt to describe as best one can the circumstances, both conscious artistic decisions and externally imposed exigences, that made it what it is, whatever it is. (I’m not sure that in any social arrangement that I would be very much interested in hunting or herding, but to each their own.) For some time I have noticed alarming degrees of consensus routinely being achieved in various review aggregators which have largely supplanted criticism in the public eye, and not without some reason—should 90-something percent of a healthy, diverse critical commentariat ever agree about anything? This has been accompanied by the praise of a retrenched Cinema of Quality that fulfills a certain hidebound, literary conception of the masterpiece: seamless, technically tight, high-finish filmmaking, preferably addressing a socio-political subject of readily comprehensible importance or, yes, relevance.
Well, to quote Paul Walter Hauser in the title role in Clint Eastwood’s Richard Jewell (2019): “I hate all that stuff.” This is, then, to be a place to talk about the other stuff: misshapen, misbegotten, coloring outside the lines, failing to “read the room.” After some deliberation, I’ve gone with the name Employee Picks, a tip of the hat the video store tradition whereby underpaid counterpeople were given a modicum of curatorial dignity by laying out a few of their favorite titles in a place of privilege, a shelf that could be used to describe a personal canon or a Wunderkammer of oddities. (I hope to split the difference between these approaches, with some lean towards the latter tendency.) Some years back, when now Film Comment editor-in-chief Nicolas Rapold and I began programming erratically at the departed 92Y Tribeca we proposed this as the name for our slapdash series, but the proposition was declined, for fear that it might lead people to believe that we actually worked there. As I am here the lone contributor , this should clear up any confusion—and after a lifetime of contributing to the work of arts organizations and publications in varying states of Death of Cinema distress, I look forward to the opportunity to finally lose a readership all by myself.
A note as regards that: Some time back I appeared at a young critic’s mentorship program at which critic B. Ruby Rich also spoke, and noted that she had gone essentially without editing during her time writing for the Chicago Reader, and that the experience had been for her a liberating and validating one, allowing her to develop a sense of care and of certitude in her writing. My own experience has been rather the opposite, which is to say that I have been helped enormously through the years by several consummately excellent editors, including but by no means limited to the abovementioned Mr. Rapold, Allison Benedikt, Melissa E. Anderson, and Michael Koresky, who found me getting off a port authority bus looking very much like hayseed Axl Rose at the beginning of the “Welcome to the Jungle” music video and shaped me into the silver-tongued cosmopolite I am today. I will be operating without their assistance here, and I beg your indulgence for the inevitable infelicities. Another quote, this from a 1994 Robert Zemeckis film: “I’m not a smart man. But I know what love is.”
Ten years ago I was, with Ms. Benedikt beating the passive voice out of me via GChat, regularly contributing to the Village Voice, addressing a broad, variegated readership, frequently on the subject of wide-release mainstream movies. At the time I suppose I imagined myself to be working in the J. Hoberman tradition of practicing rigorous, intellectually serious criticism with a bit of swing to it for an audience not necessarily comprised of hardcore cinephiles—or at least trying to. What I did not realize then, more because of myopia than for lack of writing on the wall, was that the market was not looking for inheritors to that tradition, epigones or otherwise. In the interceding decade I don’t know if I’ve varied my approach greatly, but the film chat industry has definitely experienced tectonic shifts, and through these I’ve felt myself steadily drifting away from the possibility of ever again having that broad, variegated readership.
Which is, probably, all for the best. I don’t feel like doing kayfabe to “wrestle with the problematic legacy” of anyone and I don’t want to presuppose what movies “You’ve Probably Never Heard Of” and I don’t care to judge the relative merits of most multiplex tentpoles any more than I would care to participate in a taste-test contest evaluating different consistencies and flavors of diarrhea. I am only, as David Cassidy once sang, lookin’ for a good time, and it seems to me the place to do that now is as far away from all of that as humanly possible. At the end of the world—or of cinema, whichever comes first—let me be the begrimed black marketeer with a few battered thumb drives and VHS tapes under his trenchcoat who slips up behind you and whispers “Pssst! Want to see some ‘bad objects’?”
So! Down with the nattering in the cacophonous congregation of the cultural conversation in the overcrowded public square! Up with the obsessive and the disjointed, muttered monologue spoken while slipping down soiled side-streets of cinema! Together to the margins!
If you’ve enjoyed this piece, please consider becoming a paid subscriber to Employee Picks, as that’s the only means I have to receive remuneration for researching and writing it.