BOOK REVIEW – THE PRESS GANG. By Godfrey Cheshire, Matt Zoller Seitz, Armond White. Edited by Jim Colvill. Published by Seven Stories Press. 467 pages.
Presumably the last thing anybody wants to read right now is more tiresome rambling from a middle-aged white guy about how everything in the world seemed so much cooler when he was 20 years old. But if you feel like indulging grandpa here for a few minutes I’ll tell you about a grungy little newspaper I started reading shortly after moving to NYC during the last gasp of the pre-Giuliani era as an impressionable teenager. Smudgy, filthy, and free (in every sense of the word) the New York Press was a weekly collection of potty-mouthed punk rock rants, cranky conservative columns, assorted anarchist manifestos, lewd cartoons, and deliciously dirty first-person sex stories. The stuffy Village Voice was for your establishment hippie aunts, and besides they charged like two bucks for that paper, which was money you could be spending on beer. The Press purportedly operated out of the Puck Building where bohemian Greenwich Village met the skanky Lower East Side, and its pages gave every indication of being a lunatic asylum run by degenerates and drunkards of formidable intellect, unencumbered by any overriding ideology or boundaries of good taste. To my mind, the ideal alt-weekly.
What became the paper’s centerpiece was a staggeringly sophisticated and idiosyncratic film section that stretched out for pages on end, allowing its critics to go on for thousands of words regarding new releases, repertory series, international festivals, and best of all, state- of-the-union jeremiads about a cinema culture in constant crisis and need of defending against the dark forces of mediocrity and conventional wisdom. Over 200 pieces from the Press’ old film section, covering the 20 years between 1991 and 2011, have been culled by editor James Colvill and collected in THE PRESS GANG, so stuffed the text is stacked in small-print twin columns on every page. Thanks to the general shittiness of digital media preservation, a lot of these articles have been unavailable for ages, making the book not just an awesome archaeological project but also an invaluable historical document. Or, as former NY Press staff writer and surly receptionist Jim Knipfel calls it in his introduction, “a reminder of what reading and writing and thinking were like in what may well be the final literate era we’ll ever know.”
Back then I worked at the Tower Video on 4th Street in the East Village, and on Tuesday afternoons we’d all jump up from behind the counter and pounce upon the bundles of papers as soon as they were brought in off the truck, dying to see which writer had tackled what film and settling in for a long, often argumentative read. We all had our favorites. The Press staffed three critics of wildly divergent backgrounds and temperaments, allowing them to mix it up in print to the point of taking pot-shots and piss-takes at each other’s columns, which added an aura of professional wrestling to all the erudition. Everybody in New York who cared about movies – and for a while there in the ‘90s it felt like anybody who cared about what was cool cared about movies very deeply – had a lot of opinions about the New York Press film section. We referred to the critics on a first name basis, the way Siskel and Ebert had become “Gene and Roger” when we were kids.
“Godfrey” is professorial Southern gentleman Godfrey Cheshire, who became a bona fide celebrity in Tehran for his early championing of Abbas Kiarostami and covered mostly foreign films and festivals around the world for the publication, doing work I was far too provincially-minded at the time to fully appreciate. “Matt” – meaning leather jacket-wearing Gen-Xer Matt Zoller Seitz – was more my speed and kinda their genre guy, writing rigorously about action movies in terms of craft and considering the cultural impact of stuff like “Star Wars” back before that all became so exhausting. And then in 1997 arrived “Armond.” The man who famously wanted his byline to read “The Resistance,” Mr. White was a truth-bomb-tossing, black conservative with a penchant for insulting the reader and – whenever he wasn’t completely off his rocker – being maddeningly, sometimes infuriatingly correct. So many afternoons I’d be dying to disagree with his rude dismissal of a movie I’d enjoyed, only to find myself slapping my forehead and muttering, “Shit. Armond’s right.”
The first ten years or so chronicled in “The Press Gang” happen to coincide with the most exciting period for cinema since the New Hollywood revolution of the 1970s. The independent film explosion elevated American directors like Quentin Tarantino to rock star status, while overseas we saw the full flowering of new national cinema movements in Iran and Taiwan, and at the same time breakthroughs in shooting on video opened so many doors as to what a movie could be that the Danes even went and made a manifesto about it. Leaving aside all the insightful reviews, this is a tremendous collection of on-the-ground reporting about an art form and an industry in transition. Cheshire’s famously prescient 1999 foretelling of our digital future, “The Death Of Film/The Decay Of Cinema” is happily included here, but I’m even more pleased that Colvill squeezed in Seitz’s recounting of a DCP projection presentation of the movie “Bounce” the following year that ended with Ben Affleck ceremoniously tossing film reels into a garbage can, an act Matt described as “the aesthetic equivalent of telling your mother to go fuck herself and then pushing her down a flight of stairs.”
The biggest dust-ups involve some of the usual suspects, with Cheshire’s vicious pan of “Fargo” accusing the Coens of “a brittle and very self-conscious cleverness,” while Seitz and White repeatedly – and correctly, if you ask me – key into the sincere, Old Testament morality lurking beneath the Brothers’ clockwork precision and shiny virtuosity. (An expertly deployed Armond-ism asserts they’re more than just “the Steely Dan of filmmakers.”) But it’s telling I think, when these divergent critics can’t help but agree, continually coming back to the works of Robert Altman, Steven Spielberg, and Brian De Palma, and a passionate – everything in these pages is passionate, sometimes to the point of exhaustion – insistence that meaningful images are important, and that motion pictures are made of pictures that move. To paraphrase an old Ebert adage, they’re not talking about what the movie is about so much as how it is about it, which can be bracing to revisit in an age when most film reviews don’t even bother to discuss the filmmaking.
It’s always a kick going back to contemporaneous critiques written before the canon settled in, and “The Press Gang” quite amusingly features plenty of skepticism about new directors who would go to on become the next generation’s sacred cows. The early films of Paul Thomas Anderson are viewed with serious suspicion by Seitz, “[His] staggering showmanship reminds us that nobody can do the things he’s doing. But what is he doing?” while White declares “This isn’t great talent; at best it’s merely talent: the imitative skill of the second rate.” Still, PTA fares better than cinema’s current savior Christopher Nolan, whose “Batman Begins” Matt says “resists visual invention at every turn… If abuse of ‘Scope were a crime, Nolan would be wearing leg irons.”
Seitz was always my favorite of the Press gang because he’s got a beautiful way of reviewing a movie like it’s a piece of popcorn stuck between his teeth and he won’t stop picking away at it until either it’s dislodged or he runs out of column space. I think he’s harder on the movies he loves than ones he dislikes, constantly turning over and re-interrogating his reactions to a point where even a rave can sometimes sound ambivalent. I’m thrilled that Colivll included Matt’s “The Passion Of The Christ” review, which he ranked as his #2 film of 2004 despite some serious misgivings about Mel Gibson sharply articulated therein, calling it “a movie that’s as beautiful and inventive as it is single-minded, unmodulated and (in some ways) offensive… He’s a brute and a poet, and ‘The Passion’ is the most controversial movie of recent times because it deserves to be.”
In a new-to-me 2003 piece entitled “Their Souls For A Freebie: The New York Film Critics Circle Is Killing Movie Culture,” White exquisitely eviscerates his colleagues for “the current lunatic notion that film journalists are part of the movie industry, rather than unbiased reporters, commentators, watchdogs. You know, critics.” And he’s just getting started: “Contemporary journalists are so naïve about their professional mandate that they feel obligated to stroke the industry, cowering before publicists who hold the right to admit them into screenings, parties and gift them with swag.” Now my own unfortunate contretemps with publicists and critics associations could probably fill a 467-page book of their own, but that doesn’t change the fact that Armond was once again exactly right. Without telling too many tales out of school, I can vouch for one such organization that seldom updates their website with new movie reviews but assiduously keeps track of their free goodies from the studios on a shared Google doc to make sure nobody misses out on any. (I’m trying to imagine Manny Farber logging in to let the group know that his “Roma” coffee table book has finally arrived.)
“Many people, having forgotten when American pop cinema used to be astute, may have given up the idea that movies can delight, convey meaning and affect the way you see yourself in the world,” is how White heralded David O. Russell’s “Three Kings,” a contemporary classic criminally overlooked by most critics at the time and curiously missing from a lot of recent retrospectives talking up the films of 1999. In discussing the “ecstatically designed, composed, lit and edited images” in his precious “Revenge of the Sith,” Seitz worries that “critics have unlearned the idea that images create their own eloquence.” Such sweeping statements and mass indictments were par for the course at the Press, reviews packed with what most folks these days would probably call fightin’ words, decrying the ignorance, fraud and complacency peddled by enemies of art. But if you don’t count the sideswipes at one another in their respective columns, the writers actually interact in these pages only once, sitting down for a cheerfully antagonistic, 1999 roundtable discussion of the decade in cinema that reads like the three-way lightsaber fight at the end of “The Phantom Menace.”
I can still tell you exactly where I was when I first read a lot of these pieces, so many of them are burned into my brain. “The Press Gang” worked like a Proustian madeleine on this particular writer, bringing me back to Alphabet City and a diet of Parliament Lights, Budweiser tall boys, and barely edible dollar pizzas from the Bagel Café. But any close encounter with your younger self is bound to get ugly in the end – imagine a longhaired, chain-smoking, skinny twentysomething me saying “I knew we’d wind up fat, broke and lonely in the end, but this is still a bit much” – and upon finishing the book I found myself unaccountably depressed. NY Press reviews were often provocative enough to spill over into shouting matches at my old video store. We argued about films because they meant something to us. Movies mattered. More than just another component of an endless stream called “content,” these were sacred experiences, worth fighting for.
A couple days ago the brilliant Bilge Ebiri tweeted that “We have to stop doing this thing where we treat other people’s like or dislike of a movie (or show, or book, or whatever) as some sort of moral failing on their part.” While I made sure to assure him that my lousy morals in no way reflect my excellent taste in cinema, I do understand where he’s coming from. Bilge and I used to be part of a top-secret online movie nerd discussion group in which we would all bat it around – rather intensely and profanely at times – many happy years before the peacocking self-righteousness and craving for consensus that have infected so many current conversations about art, and maybe more importantly prior to the rise of that insufferable, hydra-headed beast known as Film Twitter. I became a much better critic and I think probably a better person by arguing with people like Bilge who are smarter than me. Disagreement used to be healthy, and fun!
Where I think the fucking corporations really emerged victorious in all of this was the now widely-accepted generational notion that the art you consume determines who you are as a person. It’s why people wear their tastes like team jerseys and how the most insidious aspects of fan culture have weaseled their way into contemporary criticism. Allegedly serious writers “stan” for studios like A24 and Blumhouse the same way slobbering fanboys root for D.C. or Marvel. None of this is a productive (nor even interesting) way to talk about cinema, and it’s been fatal to any discussion of problematic art, which gets reflexively shooed away by the scold-y hall monitor types who have appointed themselves deans of contemporary discourse. It does, however, lend itself to the naturally reductive arena of social media, where the format won’t allow for nuance so people feel compelled to project the most boringly pious personas possible out there into the ether while sanctimoniously commenting on whatever ginned-up, non-controversy is trending today. As if anybody actually gives a shit.
Yeah, so coming to the end of “The Press Gang” sent me into a serious funk, in part because in these shrinking column spaces one can watch the sun setting on longform alt-weekly criticism, and without Godfrey or Matt to push back at him you can see Armond developing habits that would eventually take root in the tiresome, alt-right trolling he writes these days for the National Review. Reading this book made me long for a time when non-franchise movies made for adults could regularly dominate the cultural conversation, and most of all it made me miss that bratty kid I was back at the video store – the skinny, awkward one with bad hair, cigarettes, and $1.00 bagel pizzas – arguing away with a certainty that cinema was going to save the world.•••
Sean Burns’ reviews, interviews, and essays have appeared in WBUR’s The ARTery, Philadelphia Weekly, The Improper Bostonian, Metro, The Village Voice, Nashville Scene and RogerEbert.com. He stashes them all at Spliced Personality