New York, NY, April 12, 2010 — About four years ago, Eric Kohn sent me an unsolicited email just as he was finishing up cinema studies at NYU. In the wake of working as a research assistant for J. Hoberman at the Village Voice and as an intern at Entertainment Weekly, he was hoping to make it as a freelance writer in New York. It took me quite a long time to get back to him. A year later, we tried Eric out as a critic. In Cannes, he wrote about festival sidebars and then surveyed first-timers vying for the Camera d’Or. Last year, he began writing for us regularly at festivals and now we’ve asked him to take on an even larger role.
Effective immediately, Eric Kohn is working with indieWIRE as our lead film critic. In addition to weekly reviews of new movies in release, Eric will be writing about films at upcoming festivals – ten or so reviews at the Tribeca Film Festival this month and twice as many next month in Cannes. Additionally, he’ll offer occasional critical essays and also writes a blog hosted here on the indieWIRE.
Today, established and emerging film critics alike are facing increasingly challenging times. But, with more and more movies finding their ways to audiences in sometimes unconventional ways, it’s our burden to try to stay on top of an eclectic mix of new movies, especially those launching at vital festivals like Cannes. More than ever, I personally look to a variety of critics for valuable insights on contemporary cinema. In fact, I only wish I could read more frequent film writing by some of my own favorites today: Manohla Dargis, Michael Koresky, J Hoberman, Karina Longworth, Roger Ebert, Eric Kohn and others. We’re asking Eric to work with us to build a deeper review section. Alongside that, we’ll continue to survey more than one hundred film writers each week on criticWIRE. The section is a starting point for a wider array of voices on film, providing a snapshot grade and ideally a link to a writer’s take on a new movie. Similarly, we invite our readers to share their own views on new films.
At the same time, we’ll continue to look to our friends at Reverse Shot for their views on cinema. Michael Koresky, Jeff Reichert, Eric Hynes and others offer some of today’s best writing about the movies on their website and on a blog here at indieWIRE. We will continue to highlight their work even as it expands to include their exceptional video interviews with leading filmmakers.
Kicking off Eric Kohn’s increased role at indieWIRE as our lead film critic, I recently sent him a few questions by email, expecting that his answers would offer a bit more insight on his background and insights on film and criticism. His answers follow, so I’ll yield the rest of this column to him this week.
What is your background? Where are you from, education, etc?
Eric Kohn: I was born in Houston and raised in Seattle by a Colombian mathematician and a Texan classical music radio DJ, both of European descent. My folks are fairly progressive people, and even though our household was traditionally Jewish, they wisely shrugged when I turned away from rituals in favor of other pursuits. Movies were my great escape from the ideological limitations of my community, and I learned much about the world from them. The by-the-numbers excitement instilled in me by blockbusters like “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and virtually every other Spielberg spectacle initially perked my interest in the possibilities of the moving image.
I discovered more adventurous options as a teenager, mainly thanks to Seattle’s thriving repertory theaters. I recall catching “Le Cercle Rouge” at the Neptune and becoming obsessed with the history of French cinema. I was a Godard junkie within days — not only watching and rewatching “Breathless,” but binging on vintage issues of Cahiers du cinema, too. Later, probably around the time I got my driver’s license, I took an adult education course on the history of American independent film and fell in love with Cassavetes, et al. When I moved to New York to attend NYU for cinema studies, my interests became rather eccentric: I cultivated a penchant for avant-garde and the city’s local history, which led me to swear off Hollywood completely for about a summer before I hesitantly let it back into my life with a few caveats. I’m fascinated by the capacity for art to squeeze into the studios’ industrial process, which makes the opportunity to scrutinize the latest blockbuster for its artistic merits into a weekly intellectual challenge that I have grown to appreciate.
But, I still have an allegiance to American indies and other small scale works, as one would imagine based on my association with this site. I learned a lot about contemporary film culture by traveling the festival circuit and seeing as many new movies as possible. Incidentally, that’s how I wound up connected with you folks.
When and how did you develop an interest in writing about film?
Eric Kohn: I used to be an amateur cartoonist; now, I’m an obsessive doodler. I have always been fascinated with the ability of an image to reflect an idea. To me, cinema provides the ultimate realization of the image’s potential to interpret the world and add something new to it. As a kid, this was the perfect outlet for my active imagination. My mom showed me “Citizen Kane” and my dad showed me “Blazing Saddles,” but it was definitely Spielberg movies that really got me into the medium. I wanted to make movies for a few years, mainly as a pre-teen, but found myself more excited about watching them than coming up with ideas for new stuff. I was captivated by older films and new releases for the same basic reasons, and they all seemed equally available to me, whether on VHS or at theaters. I got interested in criticism when I wrote a high school paper about romantic comedies in Hollywood, through which I developed an obsession with Preston Sturges, Ernst Lubitsch, and two Franks: Capra and Tashlin. I also discovered film theory by writing about this genre, which was a much more tantalizing intellectual pursuit than Talmud class.
How is the the role of the film critic and film criticism changing, if at all?
Eric Kohn: Well, it’s changing, but as someone whose career began while things were already in a transitional moment, I can really only speak to the last decade or so. There are many talented critics writing for free on the web, which wasn’t so true ten years ago, when Ain’t It Cool News and its offspring threatened to edge out the presence of critical thought in that space. Now, quality criticism shows up in all kinds of interesting places. Innovators have pushed the form in new directions, such as Kevin Lee’s video essays. Blogs allow critics to experiment with form and structure, but they also enable a speed of productivity that has no real precedent.
Today’s flow of information is a blessing and a curse: I once live-blogged a movie at Cannes, which was a stupid thing to do, and I deeply regret it. But I also tackled indieWIRE’s innovative concept of “snapshot reviews” at Sundance 2009. That was a rewarding experience both as a writing exercise and an experiment with the possibilities of solidifying an immediate critical reaction. I still like long form writing more than anything else and believe that it generally offers the greatest potential for cinematic analysis, but I’m open to other possibilities. I just hope to refine my own ideas and express them with as much clarity as possible, cut down on using verbose language (a lingering malady from my background in academia), and keep the dialogue about good movies intact.
It undeniably sucks that a lot of great critics have lost their jobs, but critical expression lives on — it’s ubiquitous, in fact, which makes me optimistic that it will survive. Older critics than me tirelessly claim that today you have to network and fraternize to make a living in entertainment media, at the expense of serious critical thought. To me, that complaint sounds like an expression of personal insecurity. Of course, critics have to wade the waters of the industry with caution, but that’s part of the job; I’m not perfect, but I’m not a tool, either. If there’s a reason for me to voice my opinion about a movie, for better or worse, it’ll usually happen.
What do you hope to bring to indieWIRE as a film critic?
Eric Kohn: indieWIRE caters to a sharply individualistic, industry-savvy audience whose interests often sync with my own. My professional emergence has taken place on the festival circuit, which has been my principle source for discovering contemporary cinema. I don’t know enough about younger filmmakers from other parts of the world, and I would like to rectify that, but I eagerly await the next projects of Hong Sang-soo, Taika Waititi and many others. I do catch a lot of promising national work by emerging visionaries that bodes well for the state of the craft in this country: Movies like “Great World of Sound,” “The Puffy Chair” and “Daddy Longlegs” prove that narrative filmmaking thrives thanks to a community driven by an urge to innovate. All of those movies were made on low budgets and tell stories that fit their physical constraints, yet they excel at the medium’s potential. That’s what really excites me, and I think indieWIRE readers care about this, too.
Like indieWIRE’s editors, I find myself less interested in James Cameron than folks like Harmony Korine, Paul Thomas Anderson, Christopher Nolan, David Gordon Green, and others able to insert their own aesthetic priorities into mass market cinema — or defy it in such a way that further empowers them. I’m fascinated by Manny Farber’s concept of the “termite artist” as it applies today: Directors that manage to slip formally or ideologically subversive strategies into the mainstream. An airtight studio product is less enticing than one filled with holes. That’s why I’m partial to the intimacy of personal works, such as “Sita Sings the Blues” and “Grizzly Man” — two of my favorite movies of the last ten years.
I have a strong affinity for first person diary films from many eras: Jonas Mekas, Chris Marker, Jonathan Caouette and Arin Crumley all reflect a universal tendency among artists to record and reflect on their personal lives. We see that everywhere now, given that it is permitted by the ease of technological access that has followed the birth of YouTube and social networks. In this day and age, everyone is a potential cinematic diarist. That means there’s an overabundance of content, which makes the work of a critic harder — and thus more valuable — than ever before. Will the next great cinematic masterpiece debut on the iPad? Probably not, but we should be open to such possibilities. I don’t have to tell you that VOD distribution and the online video boom have had a significant impact on the way we consume content. I’m especially intrigued by stories that reflect this evolution. “Catfish,” which premiered at Sundance this year, is a perfect example of that. It exclusively reflects the current media-saturated climate, but on a personal level.
Other ideas, thoughts, suggestions or reactions?
Eric Kohn: Since I’m young, I’m learning on the fly. I have confidence that my knowledge of film history and ability to scrutinize cinema’s aesthetic merits rises above that of the average American moviegoer, but that doesn’t make me right all the time. I have never resided in an ivory tower, and I don’t expect to make it there. If you think my ideas are somewhat misleading or ill-informed, by all means, call me on it. We both stand to benefit that way. I would rather spark a dialogue than provide the last word on anything. Follow me on Twitter or have your say in the comments section. Whatever works.
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