Interview with Matthew Dessem of the Criterion Contraption, Part 2
Christopher Zane: You're in LA, right? Do you work in the movie industry?
Matthew Dessem: I am in Los Angeles; I've lived in Silver Lake for the last four years. As far as being in the industry, yes and no: I work in the IT department at New Line Cinema. So although my paychecks come from a studio, very little of my day-to-day work would be different if I worked for a bank. The huge advantage to my current job is that I have access to screenplays and occasionally get to see films for free.
Did you study film in school?
Not exactly. I studied English Literature at Williams College, which has no formal film program. I took two classes in film through the English department, "The Feature Film," taught by Jim Shepard, Stephen Tifft, and Shawn Rosenheim, and a winter study course on American film in the 70s taught by Jim Shepard. Those were both criticism courses, though; I've never been behind a camera. I actually appeared in a short film that my friends Yuli Masinovsky and Dave Talone directed: I played a guy in a faux-snakeskin jacket who was playing rockabilly music on an acoustic guitar in the library. That film also featured Robin Paul, who has gone on to better (if not stranger) things. But that's the extent of my education in film.
What's your dream job?
Writing full time.
Are you from California, or did you head there as a fresh-faced youngster to become a star/star critic?
I was never fresh-faced. I mostly grew up in Tennessee, but my family moved around a lot. After college, I taught high school English in Warner Robins, Georgia for a year. I headed to Los Angeles simply because I'd never been there, and I was bored. I managed to fit most of my stuff in the passenger seat of a Mazda Miata, drove to Dallas in one day, and then drove from Dallas to Los Angeles in one 28-hour marathon--during which I couldn't put the top of my car up because everything was stacked so high. So I arrived completely exhausted, burnt to a crisp from crossing the desert at sunrise with the top down, with no friends, no job, and no place to live. I landed on my feet, but it took a while.
Do you have a favorite movie critic? Who's on the short list of working critics you regard highly?
I think the essays Jim Shepard used to write for The Believer are brilliant--they were supposed to be published in a book called Heroes in Disguise, but this has recently vanished from the McSweeney's website, so I assume something fell through. I've also always liked Roger Ebert, simply because he approaches everything on its own terms. Keith Phipps tends to enjoy the same films I do (we're both on the short list of people who liked Josie and the Pussycats). I'm afraid I've read very little serious film criticism.
Tagline: "They were three small time girls with big time dreams. Now, fate is giving the Pussycats the chance of a lifetime."
Any comment on the Pauline Kael question? That is, are movies art? I've been in a few vigorous discussions about (1) What Kael is saying in "Trash, Art, and the Movies" and (2) if she is saying that movies are trash--but sometimes good trash--is she right?
Speaking of not having read serious film criticism, I'd never read that. So thanks for sending it my way. I think Kael gets one thing dead right in that essay: the best art of any kind is playful. My least favorite films tend to be the most solemn. I was struck by this line:
The critic shouldn't need to tear a work apart to demonstrate that he knows how it was put together. The important thing is to convey what is new and beautiful in the work, not how it was made—which is more or less implicit.
That's exactly the opposite of what I'm interested in, frankly, because I'm trying to get better at writing movies, not be a champion of any particular artist. Not that there's some secret technique that creates wonderful films, but for my purposes, paying attention to how a film works matters.
As far as the larger question I don't get the impression that Kael believed that movies couldn't be art, but I think she felt that people were looking for art in the wrong places. Critics were (and are), so eager to put cinema (and film criticism) on par with high culture that they were tying themselves up in knots coming up with rather silly reasons to revere particular movies, finding depth in films that were all surface--but enjoyable, artful surface. If anything, the pendulum has swung too far the other way now; Ain't It Cool News tends to stick to the surface, to say the least. I also got a kick out of her displeasure at the way the Academy heaps praise on "movie[s] the industry can be proud of." She would have loved the showdown between Crash and Brokeback Mountain.
What good are lists? Should we treat critics' lists as definitive, fodder for discussion, a learning tool?
Lists are best as a learning tool; no list is definitive.
What good are "difficult" movies? If a relatively smart person can't watch a movie and enjoy it, what's the point in making it?
If no relatively smart person can watch a movie and enjoy it, then perhaps there was a point in making it (if the filmmakers learned from their mistakes), but there's no point in watching it. And a film shouldn't be difficult for the sake of being difficult. But difficult movies have the same value as difficult books: they can reward a careful viewer in ways "easier" films can't. Andrei Rublev is probably the best "difficult" film I've seen so far as part of this project; it requires a great deal of sustained attention and thought to enjoy. But it also addresses parts of human experience that aren't easy to think about or articulate. To paraphrase Neal Stephenson, life is a difficult, complicated thing, and you can't make difficult, complicated things easy by filming them differently.
The music critic Lester Bangs once said something like "Good rock and roll is anything that makes you really feel something." I think that's a bit of an oversimplification, but one thing I do enjoy about difficult movies is that the good ones often have something unique or compelling to say about the human condition. That is, difficult culture often pushes us out of a comforting place and into a new realm of understanding/feeling. Apparently our movie comfort zones usually include snappy pacing and 100-minute runtimes.
Right, and our rock song comfort zones usually include verse-chorus-verse and three-minute runtimes. But obviously there's a difference between a "difficult" movie and a "long" movie--a film that spends 100 minutes efficiently shredding your unexamined biases like The Third Man is more difficult than a three hour tourist slideshow like Lawrence of Arabia. To put it another way, breaking some sort of structural comfort zone doesn't guarantee you're making a difficult movie (though it may guarantee that some critics will believe you have). I feel like the Bangs quote may be the beginning of the end for criticism, though, because I think there's a straight line from him to Harry Knowles. It's not enough to make you really feel something -- there has to be a precision and artfulness to it, too. Even Sex Pistols songs have a formal structure.
What are your thoughts on authorial intention? Does the director have the final say on what a movie "means"?
No. For one thing, I don't buy the premise that the director is the one and only author of a film. Writers, actors, producers, directors of photography, art directors, composers, and so on, all have varying degrees of authorial status depending on the project. But in a more general sense, I think how much say any author has in a film's "meaning" varies proportionally to their competence. I think the best examples of what I'm talking about in the Criterion Collection are Paul Morrissey's films. Jeff McMahon said it quite well in a comment about Blood for Dracula:
The Morrissey films raise an interesting question. If, as he and esteemed film critic Maurice Yacowar proclaim, these films are about how society's licentiousness have led to corrupt morals, etc., then how annoyed are they that these films are generally enjoyed as pure horror-comedy spectacles? (Or do they think their message is breaking through into peoples' heads anyway?) Ideologically I find their agendas clumsy and kind of dumb, yet the movies are fun in a way that either transcends the filmmakers' intentions or skirts around them.
I imagine there's something similar going on with Ed Wood. I don't really know what he thought he was doing, but what audiences get out of his work now certainly couldn't have been his goal. Similarly, when directors discuss their own movies, they tend to have very different opinions about what their best movie is. Woody Allen has said that The Purple Rose of Cairo is his best movie. No doubt that it's great, but I don't even put it in my top five of his.
I think you get too close to anything you create. Ed Wood is an extreme example of enthusiasm in the face of overwhelming counterevidence, but yeah, you see that with just about any artist. Kevin Smith has said he has kind of a sentimental feeling for Mallrats just because so many people loathe it. I suspect Scorsese would be glad to talk about the unappreciated greatness of New York, New York.
Why do you love movies?
I love storytelling. Movies in particular appeal to me because they're a visual medium, and they act on the brain in a way that comes very close to actual experience.
Thanks for having me!