Book Review: THE PRESS GANG – Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011 (edited by Jim Colvill) + author interview

★ ★ ★ ★

Film criticism is a thrilling, if mercurial, business, and one which can either chew a writer up and spit them out on the other side of corporate vacuity, or lead them to stand firm against the cultural tide.

In many ways, The Press Gang exemplifies that ongoing struggle. Subtitled ‘Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011’, the book strings together two decades worth of criticism spanning an era of cinema undergoing a long-standing, pervasive metamorphosis into a corporate mono-culture. Edited by Jim Colvill, who undertook a mission to seek out the writing of three critics who penned a brace of work for the now long defunct New York Press, the book is a snapshot of criticism during a key time, filled to the brim with detailed, often fascinating analysis on pictures as diverse as Michael Bay’s The Island through to Mohsen Makmalbaf’s A Moment of Innocence (nope, I’d never heard of it either).

This is uncompromising, often searing film writing which is not designed to simply encourage you to indulge the filmmaker or studio producing said films, but rather question their cultural, aesthetic and personal value in the world, as part of a broader societal whole.

As a British man who was only a child (certainly at the beginning) when Godfrey Cheshire, Matt Zoller Seitz & Armond White—the three critics in question—penned for the New York Press, I was unfamiliar with their work for the publication before this book passed my way.

I’ve followed Seitz on social media for some years and enjoy his work, but I confess I was unfamiliar with Cheshire and White. Neither had crossed my radar, which says perhaps more about me than their reach, but Jim Knipfel—a contemporary NYP columnist of the time—gives them all a useful and scene-setting introduction, establishing their position inside New York Press and the broader impression the magazine had on ‘90s culture in everything from film to music to politics and beyond. It sounds like a fascinating publication, one which challenged the edges of accepted, doctrinaire discourse, and one that no doubt allowed for a rare insight into cinema of the like provided by Cheshire, Seitz and White.

Cheshire, very much the Southern gentlemen with his sharp, assured but fair prose, serves as perhaps the counterweight between Seitz and White, whose opinions often starkly contrast the other. Cheshire is slightly more forgiving of the advancing vicissitudes of blockbuster culture that become truly apparent in the ‘90s, when the three critics are all working together at the end of that decade, but he finds the state of affairs equally depressing, displaying scorn at the degradation of festivals such as Sundance and working harder to champion non-American, and particularly Iranian film. His pieces discussing his sojourns to Tehran and working to better illuminate the cinema of that intriguing culture are among my favourite of his writing collected in this volume. I am left to wonder what he would think of Iran and its cinema twenty years on (see interview below).

Seitz, perhaps as someone whose work I am more familiar with, is the writer whose opinions I am most aligned with. The younger of the three by almost two decades, Seitz has a deeper appreciation of the intersection between the post-Star Wars transformation of cinema into a corporate exercise, while at the same time railing against the dearth of examples which aspire to the kind of innovative post-war American cinema Cheshire and White both grew up experiencing. He won’t take against Paul Thomas Anderson to the vein White will, but he will struggle to contain his frustration at the erratic blend of skilled populist filmmaking yet terrible narrative structure of a Revenge of the Sith, for example. Seitz wants to believe in American cinema but, during this period at least, it often keeps letting him down.

White, as a contrast, would be the enfant terrible of the NYP film circuit were he the youngest kid on the block. His position is often vibrantly contrarian, fearless in terms of rebuking filmmakers or movements which hold significant popularity (see his views on Anderson or indeed how he takes against Titanic and The Blair Witch Project). White, most prominently, believes in the slow death of cinematic culture, and how the growing consumerist propensity for vacuous franchises and star name-festooned event pictures is destroying certainly American film. He regards Spielberg, at a time producing films such as Amistad or A.I. that he was not generally considered at his best, to be the standard bearer for great art, but he casts aspersions on much of the rest.

The book operates chronologically from 1991, with Cheshire’s writing, through to 2011 when White is the lone figure, and often sees the writers cross pollinate on subject matter and, in one instance (and this might be my favourite piece), engage in a roundtable discussion at the end of the 1990s discussing the decade and cinema in general which is at times insightful, illuminating and combative in equal measure. Each critic visibly has respect, deep respect, for the other while being unafraid to challenge their perceptions and stand in opposition on certain subjects – see how Cheshire loves Blair Witch in contrast to White, for example.

Ultimately, while I don’t always agree with their take on certain films (honestly, I probably disagreed more than the opposite), their writing fascinates and enthrals equal measure. You will be left with deep, penetrating insights into many of the pictures you know and love, and a good handful you barely may have heard of, which will leave you excited to appreciate and digest them again – surely the intended modus operandi of any work of film criticism.

While naturally subjective as all cultural criticism is, The Press Gang provides a frequently astute window into the state of cinema at the end of the 20th and the beginning of the 21st centuries. Whether film culture has continued to decay or, Lazarus-like, has since revived, these writers leave you to be the judge.

Godfrey Cheshire, Armond White and Matt Zoller Seitz were kind enough to answer a few questions about the making of the book, their process and how The Press Gang came together.

A J. BLACK: This book must feel quite personal to you as a writer and lover of cinema. What was your response when the idea of a book from these collated reviews was proposed?

GODFREY CHESHIRE: I was initially surprised but very pleased by the idea of the book, and I want to give all credit to editor Jim Colvill. Not only was it his idea, but he did a tremendous amount of hard work in tracking down the pieces from disparate places, and them editing them down into what I think is a superb and very readable whole.

ARMOND WHITE: I am grateful for the opportunity that New York Press afforded me to express my interest in popular culture, particularly the movies. I also wrote some music pieces for NYP (Madonna, Morrissey, Roxy Music) that I regard with equal fondness as the film pieces.

AJB: What was your general process in writing for NYP? Were you assigned topics or did you have the freedom to go wherever you wanted?

MZS: Godfrey was the film editor as of about 1997 and handled logistics of screening information and so forth. Together with the editors, we instituted a “dibs” system to keep conflict and turf wars to a minimum. Each of us rotated having first choice, second choice and third choice, only picking one film or film series (if a retro/special event). So if it was Armond’s week, it would go:

Armond picks a primary topic
Matt picks a primary topic
Godfrey picks a primary topic
Armond picks a secondary topic etc

Godfrey or a top editor would intervene if there were conflicts anyway — for instance, Martin Scorsese has a new movie opening and Film Forum is also playing Mean Streets again, and one of us wanted to pair the two. But it was very rare that one of us would have a “packaging” idea for a bunch of releases/events with a common theme and the other guy would interfere with that. After Godfrey left, we continued to do the dibs system, but it was just me and Armond alternating.

GC: In my first couple of decades as a critic, I was extremely lucky to write for alternative weeklies where I basically wrote about what I wanted to and could write at any length — which usually meant long. I’d guess there are few if any print publications that offer writers that kind of freedom today. At Spectator Magazine in North Carolina through the ’80s, I was the arts editor as well as the only film critic so I had a completely free hand, which gave me the chance to help build the local arthouse contingent by writing more about their offerings than about the latest Hollywood releases (and the ’80s was a pretty lame decade for Hollywood). When I got to NY Press in ’91, it was very much the same situation for the first four years: I was usually the only critic and could write about anything I chose to. When Matt and then Armond arrived, it was a bit different in that we had to divide up the assignments, but that was no hardship. Matt has described the process.

AJB: There is a roughly three year tenure when you are all collectively working together in the late 1990s. What was that like in a practical sense? Did it differ from periods you wrote separately? Did the analysis and criticism on the page bleed out into your relationships off it?

GC: Things were occasionally testy among us in terms of deciding who would write about what and sometimes about our differing views of films. But we all respected each other and the friendship has remained strong down to this day.

AJB: I’d love to know how you feel about many of the questions and issues you bring up in these essays from your standpoint now. Godfrey, for instance, how has Iranian cinema evolved since you wrote about it here? Armond, do you still believe Spielberg is an important, underrated force? Has cinema improved, declined or remained in the same state since your NYP days?

GC: I would guess that the most unusual and impactful things I wrote for NYPress were my coverage of Iranian cinema — including reports from Iran: I made seven extensive visits there 1997-2018, something no other U.S. critic did — and my 1999 essays “The Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema.” I am very proud of my work on Iran for a variety of reasons and have remained engaged with the subject. My book Conversations with Kiarostami was published last year as was my Criterion essay on The Koker Trilogy, and I’m now finishing my next book, In the Time of Kiarostami: Writings on Iranian Cinema. As for “Death of Film/The Decay of Cinema,” in retrospect I certainly missed some changes that were looming, especially regarding the Internet, but the two-part essay had a big impact at the time as the first major examination of the impending changes wrought by the exchange of celluloid-based technology for digital. I’m continually told that I got so many things right as to make the pieces “prophetic,” and I’m very, very glad to see them finally in book form in The Press Gang.

AW: As for Spielberg, ResistanceWorks publishing will publish a collection this fall titled Make Spielberg Great Again (MSGA) that chronicles his career and my responses to it over the years. There might be hope for Spielberg yet.

AJB: When you reflect back on your time working for New York Press, how do you feel about the experience & the work you did?

GC: I still feel extremely grateful for the freedom I had there and for the inspiration supplied by the New York audience and one of the most remarkable decades in American and world cinema.

AW: Working at NYP allowed me to continue the journalistic pursuit that began at the Black-owned The City Sun where I was Arts Editor from 1984 to 1996. I joined NYP in 1997 and wrote there through 2014. (In 2012, NYP transitioned into CityArts where I served as Editor-in-Chief for two years). The Press Gang book contains writing only up to 2011. Looking back, it seems that the NYP trio had the only serious film criticism published on a consistent basis at that time. Its impact even moved the New York Times to change its policy and hire three first-string reviewers in 2000 as a response to the way NYP influenced film criticism. Not enough people know that. The Press Gang matters.

Huge thanks to Godfrey, Armond and Matt for their time. 

The Press Gang: Writings on Cinema from New York Press, 1991-2011 is now available from Seven Stories.

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Author of books: Myth-Building in Modern Media / Star Trek, History and Us | Writer of words on film/TV/culture | Rotten Tomatoes approved critic: Twitter: @ajblackwriter | Podcast chief: @wmadethis | Occasionally go outside.

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