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Lights in the Dark

Lights in the Dark

Who Is this guy, anyway?

Just as I’ve always found that it’s more profoundly satisfying to work a nine-to-five job under those you respect and fear than those you feel intellectually or spiritually superior to, I believe those film critics I find myself reading the most often are those by which I feel somehow humbled.

It’s always been my main motivation to try and tease out meanings in films, and try and wrestle with their attributes and shortcomings, rather than lord over them with dictatorial relish. When I don’t accomplish this task, when my ego or withering insecurity gets the better of me, when the need to look at the work from all sides crumbles in the face of simple spite or easy condescension, my own sense of failure is haunting. Yet just as I am inspired and motivated to keep on going by my colleagues and staff writers here at Reverse Shot, I am also appropriately spurred on by other voices out there, sparkling like diamonds in the very, very rough webscape of “ideas.” Judging from imdb.com’s eternally blow-your-brains-out boobish “comments” section, the old saying that “opinions are like assholes, everyone’s got ‘em and everyone thinks everyone else’s stinks” has never felt more prescient. All this is a prelude to introducing one rational, mellifluous voice beaming like a siren call in this age of passive-aggressive web crit …I’ve never met him, never spoken with him, and feel no need to write this as a way of fostering a web relationship or new reader base. But instead of merely posting a Link of the Day, I thought I’d give a serious shout-out to one of my favorite writers out there: Nick Davis, whose blindingly dense pieces (and just blinding…white on black text…eek, see also: this site) on the unpretentiously named ”Nick’s Flick Picks” are the sorts of rigorous, considered, passionate traditional reviews that seem less and less readily available. One gets the sense that every film is a not merely a discovery for him but a new way of pitting his own preconceptions and thoughts against each other and waiting to see which side will emerge victorious. So authentically immersed in the language of film, and furthermore, the politics of filmmaking and the attendant sacrifices and compromises that go hand in hand with the work’s ideological underpinnings, Davis’s writings (even when I disagree with the final summation, which is often) make for an exquisite call to action for all serious critic wannabes.

Take for example this throwaway line from his review of De Palma’s The Black Dahlia, which uses the minutest element of the film’s design to comment on its overall grammar: “…when a prop newspaper blares the pugilistic, nearly nonsensical headline GIRL TORTURE SLAYING VICTIM IDENTIFIED BY EXAMINER, FBI, you note its kinship with the grinding, arrhythmic, sensationalized syntax of De Palma’s own movie, and you doubt that anything is a coincidence.” Or this perfect encapsulation of why The Devil Wears Prada is so fleetingly entertaining yet has a decidedly fishy aftertaste: “Best, then, to forsake our briefly rewarded hopes of a fully integrated film and to savor what’s best, brightest, and most exciting about the movie we actually get. This is not, after all, a terrible way to regard a fashion spread itself: understanding clothes as riffy, imaginative aggregates of the old and the new, the inspired and the functional. Prada’s own ensembles follow this basic maxim, yielding a film that is more satisfying to glance at and casually deconstruct than to contemplate at length.” More tellingly, when Davis praises a film I detest, it’s always for reasons that make me, if at least momentarily, question my own response. Hence, Palindromes: “A lot of the movie’s most conspicuous identifying marks are less intriguing to me than what lies underneath the whole project, the million ways in which American culture obsesses itself with innocent infants and pathologized adults, so that the riven, confused, inchoate years of childhood and adolescence as they are actually lived are almost invisible to popular regard, and ripe for the kinds of surreal figures and the skewed but revealing exaggerations that Solondz offers here.” Do I still detest Solondz’s film for what I see as its caricatured, politically stunted approach? Yes, but Davis’s words make a silk purse from the film’s sow’s ear, and one is inextricable from the other in my mind now.

More intriguingly, Davis’s studied, intellectual approach to cinema resolutely does not remain outside of the mainstream routes and alleyways of film culture. Hence, his fruitful yearly correctives to the Academy Awards, which sandwich high art into middlebrow packages. Hence, by picking his favorite actors and pictures of the year and categorizing them by the Academy rules, he announces his own complicity in the game of award-mongering and predicting that eats up so much of the film year. Thankfully, he makes room for the unheralded and needy, even nominating Joao Pedro Rodriguez’s Two Drifters as Best Foreign Language Film, alongside Three Times and Syndromes and a Century. And this little nugget, from his explanation for his Best Supporting Actress nominee Ashley Johnson, from Fast Food Nation got me to nearly pump my arm vertically and exclaim Yes!: “How many actresses this young, and this new to cinema, can hold the screen so compellingly in shots of active listening, fond onlooking, genial small-talk, and the nearer and nearer tremors of a shifting inner life? Johnson is a terrific, fresh screen partner and a shrewd, disciplined actress, and she manages all of this with the ease of prime Kirsten Dunst, but without the aloofness or the heavy lids. She acts terrifically without ever seeming like she’s auditioning for other roles, or straining to demonstrate her gravitas…. Johnson’s is the smile with which Fast Food Nation serves up its terrible news. The movie wouldn’t work if the smile weren’t so sparkling, and so real, or if the gathering storm of fear and knowledge weren’t palpable beneath that smile.”

Of course, Mr. Davis has an open invitation to write for RS at any point, though I don’t see how he could manage the time, or why this professor, located in Hartford, CT (stalker-like, I greedily culled it from his blog profile) would feel the need to hone his skills along with a pack of drunken, slovenly hooligans such as our staff writers. So I’ll just keep on reading….And, oh yeah, the link, again!

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