I'd be surprised if most Book/Shop fans aren't also Criterion Collection aficionados. I know I am and while the former of course encourages a refined, passionate relationship with the written word, the latter does so with the moving image, the two together not infrequently giving me pause on any given evening whether to pick up a book or start one of their films. Adding to the mix, and a true one for the lover of both quality reading and watching, is Criterion's superb blog The Daily. I value the depth and breadth of what it pulls from all over the internet related to films (especially when it mentions new books) and I always learn several interesting things I wouldn't have otherwise.
Though for decades I've highly respected Criterion's continual output and will no doubt subscribe to however and wherever they show their movies for years to come, I'm actually not much of a film viewer. But as I said, the pause regularly occurs. It's just that reading, surprise surprise, usually wins out, and that's why I find The Daily to be essential—I can keep up with diverse international film culture in one spot and feel thoroughly satiated. I don't pay close attention to any other filmdom blogs. And while I often miss several days' worth of posts (I highly doubt even Criterion employees get to every word every day), I love knowing they're all online when I want to dive in. My favorite kind of bingeing.
The person responsible for it is David Hudson and he is masterful at finding the smartest content, pulling the best bits, and crafting everything with an acute editorial eye to make for informative and satisfying reading and not mere link-listing. In fact I rarely click to the original piece, I just trust David's judgement and prefer his digest. He honed his chops after years writing for Fandor, Mubi, and IFC, and has been with Criterion since 2017. I like that there is next to nothing about him online; he's so dedicated to his services at The Daily that if you find him on Twitter he assumes you're confused and he directs you to @CriterionDaily. The kinds of well-formed paragraphs David delivers every day take serious time to gather and compose so I'm very pleased he could spare some of his to step out from behind the curtain and give us equally considered and lively responses.
We rarely include links in OGR interviews, but they're stock-in-trade for David's job so thought it was appropriate to keep his here for all of us to gain further enlightenment thanks to his decades of great reading.
- Wes Del Val
WDV: Are there any directors, producers, or actors you find more fulfilling reading about rather than seeing their work?
DH: I’m trying to think of a rough equivalent in film criticism to Carl Wilson’s now-classic Let’s Talk About Love. Wilson originally set out to discover what it was that Céline Dion’s massive fan base heard in her music and saw in her persona that he did not. But as spelled out in the subtitle of the first edition, he wound up taking a “Journey to the End of Taste,” and taking us along, too, on a rich exploration of the personal and social dynamics of liking and disliking things. So that’s a book that’s “bigger” than its subject, and for me, and I’m guessing for many others as well, more fulfilling than listening to Dion.
There probably is such a book out there about the work of a filmmaker or performer, and if so, I’d love to hear about it. As for film writing that more or less takes on a job at least somewhat adjacent to the one Wilson has, we could turn to J. Hoberman. For Hoberman, no text stands in isolation. When he was reviewing regularly for the Village Voice, but even more so in his series of books on American cinema in the latter half of the twentieth century, he’s always been primarily concerned with the social and political context of a film as a public event—where it came from and what impact it had on the culture at the time. And there are plenty of films I’d rather read Hoberman on than watch again.
There’s also a subgenre of books on flops and failures, the best of which is probably Lillian Ross’s Picture, an account of the making of John Huston’s The Red Badge of Courage (1951). And of course, there are shelf-loads of books that outright celebrate bad movies or argue—sometimes justifiably!—for the virtues of bad taste. Others set out to rescue the reputation of an all but universally derided work or oeuvre, although I do have to say, even as a Paul Verhoeven fan, that in the case of Adam Nayman’s It Doesn’t Suck: Showgirls, the book really is better.
The thing is, I tend to read about work I do like and seek out writing that enhances rather than attempts to surpass that work. Watching late Godard, for example, I’d be lost without the insights of Nicole Brenez or Michael Witt or the meticulous allusion-mapping of Ted Fendt or Craig Keller. On the experimental front, I eagerly turn to Michael Sicinski, Erika Balsom, or Phil Coldiron. Meantime, it’s been thirteen years since the first, and as far as I’m aware, only collection of film criticism by the critic—now a filmmaker as well—that I value as highly as any other, Kent Jones. It’s high time for another.
What nonfiction books about any aspect of Hollywood were too short? Those you’d have gladly taken at double their length.
Speaking of writers who can illuminate both forgettable and unforgettable movies, and in the case of Geoffrey O’Brien, in such transporting prose, I’d have to say that The Phantom Empire tops the list. The book came out in 1993, that is, just before the Internet really took off, so there’s something of a remove between our own multimedia-saturated moment and the phenomenon O’Brien was writing about at the time, the invasion, since the earliest days of cinema, of indelible moving images into the collective consciousness. But the way O’Brien dips in and out of genres, periods, and an array of national cinemas while returning again and again to Hollywood, plucking and spinning keen observations at every turn, remains as enthralling as ever.
Is it really too short, though? At just over 220 pages, it’s probably exactly the book O’Brien intended to write. Luckily for us, he wrote something of a follow-up in 2002, Castaways of the Image Planet.
Then there are probably a good dozen or more memoirs many of us wish would never end, but who wouldn’t want, most of all, more from Louise Brooks after reading Lulu in Hollywood?
Please keep going and give us some from your “dozen or so” memoirs, I’m fascinated to know.
An excellent starting point would be the smartly annotated list that the Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw put together earlier this year, the “top 25 most compelling Hollywood autobiographies.” Seriously, this is a pretty solid round, and I’m glad that he’s included Michael Powell’s two volumes even though, technically, Powell wasn’t a Hollywood director—just one of the greatest visionaries in all of cinema.
To Bradshaw’s list I’d add With Nails, the 1996 memoir by the way underrated and underused Richard E. Grant. The title, of course, is a play on Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson’s bleak 1987 comedy that gave Grant his breakthrough role. I fell hard for Grant after seeing his character, a screenwriter, pitch a scene in Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and years later, I picked up his book on a whim. Turns out, the man can write. Endearingly modest and often devastatingly funny, Grant has a way of conveying that “how did I get here?” feeling when writing about finding himself on sets being run by the likes of Martin Scorsese or Francis Ford Coppola. The new millennium hadn’t been particularly kind to Grant until he was suddenly being nominated left and right for his turn in Marielle Heller’s Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018). Throughout that marathon awards season, he was clearly having the grandest time. So well-deserved—and overdue.
One more. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s Moving Places could hardly be classified as a Hollywood memoir but it’s a vivid account of growing up as a budding cinephile in an era, the mid-twentieth century, when the only place to see a movie was in a theater. Fortunately, his grandfather owned and operated a small chain of them. Like Hoberman, Rosenbaum, who was the lead film critic at the Chicago Reader in its heyday and who still writes a regular column for Cinema Scope, cannot watch or write about a film isolated from its social and political context. In Moving Places, he broadens that context to include the personal. One point he drives home is that movies can strike us in radically different ways at various stages in our lives. Context isn’t everything, but it’s a lot.
What parts of filmdom haven’t yet been properly documented or given their due justice in words?
Just the other day, the New Republic ran an outstanding piece by filmmaker, actor, and scholar Artel Great that lays out a thorough argument that’s especially urgent right now in 2020. The crux: “Since the very inception of moving pictures, Black directors have occupied a paradoxical role in American cultural history. They have represented an artistic vanguard, introducing innovations in aesthetic sensibilities and production practices, while remaining perpetually on the outside looking in. The truth is, Black artists helped build the American film industry—and it’s finally time for a widespread recognition of that legacy.” There’s work to be done in plenty of underrepresented corners of filmdom, but this right here really does need to be job number one.
Which writers do you wish would script a movie?
Prose style wouldn’t figure into it. The sort of mind that can compose a sentence or a passage that will send a reader into reveries, no matter how splendid or thrilling, may not necessarily be equipped to piece together an inventive structure, which is essentially what the work of a screenwriter amounts to—delivering bare bones to the collaborative team who will flesh them out.
It’d have to be someone who goes looking for material—the people, the places—that we rarely see on the screen and then does something fresh with it, sets it all into motion in unexpected ways that have little or nothing at all to do with the standard three-act structure. I was thinking of George Saunders, who can be ferociously funny and at times oddly moving and whose stories conjure—in me, anyway—images that are rarely like anything I’ve seen on film. That’s the other thing: He excels at the short story, and as everyone knows, there have been far more great adaptations of short stories than there have been of novels.
But looking him up just now, I see that he actually has tried his hand at screenwriting. I’ve never heard of—much less seen—Sea Oak (2017), an adaptation of his own story. And it stars Glenn Close! I’ll have to track that one down. So if this disqualifies him, let’s go with another writer who might be considered to be more or less in the same general neighborhood, Jennifer Eagan. Double-checking to make sure she hasn’t written a movie yet (she hasn’t), I’ve stumbled across a 2015 conversation she had in the New York Times Magazine with . . . George Saunders.
Well look at that neat bow you tied there!
Would you rather lose yourself in watching or reading?
Reading by day, watching by night.
What’s the most memorable review you’ve ever read about one movie?
I’m going to have to cheat a little bit on this one because the one that immediately leaps to mind—and you are asking about the most memorable one—is actually a review of a review. Or at least an appreciation. Late in 2017, less than a year before the Village Voice was forced to end its remarkable sixty-three-year run, Bilge Ebiri wrote in those now sorely missed pages about how a review of Orson Welles’s Othello (1952)—by J. Hoberman!—changed his life. Hoberman’s review ran in 1992, when Ebiri was eighteen, a freshman in college. He had never even heard of Welles’s film, but reading this review prompted him to immediately drop everything, skip his classes, and catch a train from New Haven to New York just to see this movie.
Ebiri sets all this up within the first couple paragraphs, and he immediately had me in the palm of his hand because I did something pretty similar myself at around the same age. In my case, it wasn’t a review that spurred me to drive halfway across Texas—and then back again—but simply the fact that Beware of a Holy Whore (1970) was one of the few Fassbinders I hadn’t yet seen at the time. But the beauty of Ebiri’s piece is in the close rereading of Hoberman’s review that follows the adventure. Turns out, Ebiri didn’t take to Othello the first time around, but when he went back to the review, he was able to trace “a subtle, animating thesis at work” that helped him appreciate what Welles was up to.
I like very much the twist of your answer. Since you bring up the Village Voice again can you share what specifically about it makes it sorely missed for you in 2020 when we’re swimming (drowning?) in so many opinionated and critical voices every second of every day?
It could well be that I’ll miss the Voice more sorely than others. I started reading it practically from front to back as a student, and then later, in the early 1990s, when I was living in Munich, I’d bike or take a tram every few days to Amerika Haus, which housed a library stocked with the most recent issues available of dozens of magazines and newspapers. If I’m remembering this correctly, the Voice was the only alternative weekly of the lot, which speaks to its status at the time.
You’re right to point out that there’s no longer a moment when we aren’t swamped with opinion, but when it comes to editorial guidance, we are, more and more, left to our own devices. The Voice lived up to its name, and while it was home to writers of varying views, the overall editorial stance was bold and clear. And its editors made good writers better. Alan Scherstuhl was the film editor when the paper was shut down in the summer of 2018, and his guidelines for reviewers were being eagerly passed around not long after. Aspiring critics, take note.
Which film critic’s writing has made you laugh the most?
Nick Pinkerton. His reviews are rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but there’s nearly always a sly smile lurking in there somewhere that I find irresistible. If you’ve heard him speak—he was a regular on the Film Comment podcast before the magazine went on hiatus immediately after the coronavirus outbreak—you can hear that unique intonation in your head as you read, which makes it even better. And it’s especially effective because the humor is embedded in excellent writing, sharp insight, and deep knowledge. If the forum allows him to really cut loose—Twitter, for example, or a column he used to write, “Bombast,” for the now-defunct Sundance Now blog—brace yourself.
Who are book world people who deserve documentaries?
I’ve always been fascinated with the modernists, and by always, I mean going back to junior high school when I first read T. S. Eliot. Over the years, I’ve read biographies of most of the major figures, but I’ve probably read more about H.D. than any of them. It’s not that I admire her work more than that of Eliot and Ezra Pound, or William Carlos Williams and Wallace Stevens and so on. It’s just such a remarkable life. Engaged to Pound with whom she launched Imagism, one of a cascade of isms to tumble out of the modernist era. Lost a brother in the First World War. Close friends with D. H. Lawrence and a lifelong bond with the novelist and editor Bryher (Annie Winifred Ellerman). Underwent therapy with Freud. Men and women were constantly falling for her, and she for them, so there’s great gossipy drama here to pepper up the journey from one historical landmark to the next.
And she was a cinephile! In this summer’s issue of Film Comment, Sheila O’Malley has a fantastic piece on Close Up, the film magazine H.D. launched with Bryher and the novelist, photographer, and filmmaker Kenneth Macpherson. They also founded a sort of hybrid publishing and production company, the Pool Group, and H.D. appears in their only feature, Borderline (1930)—with Paul Robeson! You could go full-on Ken Burns with the modernists with H.D. to hinge it all on.
Are you more adventurous in your viewing or reading interests?
For many years, it would have been reading, but ever since I started doing whatever it is that I do—about twenty years ago now—I definitely spend more time and take more chances with my viewing choices. The days and nights are too short!
Since you’re a masterful compiler who/where do you turn to online that produces similar regular posts but for different subjects which you also like?
It’s infuriating that I’ve had to drop so many bookmarks and RSS feeds, unsubscribe from so many newsletters and podcasts just to make space and time to keep up with the steady onslaught of cruelty and incompetence from that miserable excuse for a human being in our White House. Spike Lee calls him Agent Orange, and I’ll just go with that. What’s even more infuriating is that my anger is precisely what he’s after.
I try to avoid doomscrolling, and when I do manage, I’ll catch up with the two newsletters I subscribe to from ARTnews, one in the morning and one in the evening. Other art sites I keep up with are e-flux, MoMA’s Magazine, Artforum, frieze, 4Columns, BOMB, and the Brooklyn Rail. I follow a fair number of design sites and lots of tumblrs (still!), local Berlin news and culture resources, and for music, Pitchfork, Gorilla vs. Bear, Alex Ross, and a few others.
For literature, besides the majors that for you will be all the usual suspects—the London, New York, and Los Angeles Reviews of Books, the Paris Review, and so on—I usually swing by Bookforum and Literary Hub for daily news. Then there’s a slew of smaller magazines that appear quarterly or even more rarely. I also like to keep up with book design, so Daniel Benneworth-Gray, Peter Mendelsund, and Daniel Wagstaff are on the list.
Which characters in films do you imagine had great personal libraries?
I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that the movie about great personal libraries is David Hugh Jones’s 84 Charing Cross Road (1987) with Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Other obvious candidates would include any movie featuring a genius (Sherlock Holmes), scientists (mad or otherwise), and of course, writers (ditto). I think, too, of films in which reading is simply woven into the fabric of the characters lives, films by François Truffaut, for example, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan. I’m guessing that the most daunting personal library of all would be kept not by a character but a director: Jean-Luc Godard.
Yes, his (“God” is in his name afterall) would be one I’d add to the top of my list as well. Thanks David!