Patrick Preziosi talks to Nick Pinkerton about his newly published book, a career as a critic in today’s landscape, and the future of film culture.
I first met Nick Pinkerton—the Cincinnati-via-Brooklyn film critic—on a plane to Brussels in 2018. I was a senior in college, and had been selected to participate in the Young Critics Workshop—sponsored by Film Fest Gent and photogénie, the editorial arm of Cinea (formally known as Flemish Film Culture Service)—of which Pinkerton has served as mentor in residence throughout the program’s entire existence, save for its very first year. Both being from New York, it made sense to travel together; on a jet-lagged train ride from the airport to Ghent, we discussed the laughable film selection on our flight (he chose We’re the Millers; I The Shape of Water), and went deep on Claire Denis, among other things.
My own experience as a writer and critic had been relatively cloistered until my participation in the program. For example, my understanding of contemporary film writing was limited to repeat returns to a handful of trusted websites and publications, and my own work published in school newspapers and blogs; I’d only reactivated my long-dormant Twitter account a few weeks before the workshop, so “Film Twitter” was an absolute nonentity to me. Under Pinkerton’s tutelage, combined with the editors of photogénie and my newfound peer group, the communal possibilities of the industry began to open up, and what’s endured since is the conscious balancing of an omnivorous intake with an undaunted critical comportment.
Pinkerton’s new book, a monograph on Tsai Ming-liang’s 2003 film Goodbye, Dragon Inn / Bú sàn (as the inaugural release of Fireflies Press Decadent Editions series) is a striking exemplar of this critical model, wandering but never distracted, referential but never pandering. This holds over to his recently—in the cosmic sense of the word—minted Substack, Employee Picks (which has just celebrated its first year of being), where a subscription will offer up some of the most exhaustively researched pieces on film history of the past few years.
Carrying out our interview from a safe distance at his apartment, Pinkerton sat in the corner, flanked by towering shelves of records, movies, and books; the displayed variety—and organisational neatness—gave the impression of one who’d cull from all sorts of media to bolster his writing. Our conversation followed a similar trajectory, beginning with Goodbye, Dragon Inn, and winding its way through Larry Clark, Éric Rohmer, Burial, the gallery space, the future of the medium, and more.
electric ghost: You’ve written at similar length before, with numerous multi-installment pieces published by sites such as Reverse Shot. Was there anything different in your writing process when it came to approaching a book?
Nick Pinkerton: I think the process is always pretty much the same, which is a bullet pointing of items that I want to address in the piece and things that seem essential in what I’m writing about, however apparently tangential. Starting out with this disparate jumble of bits, I then find ways in which things can—with, hopefully, the appearance of natural flow—lead into one another, and then work on those connections, smoothing over those segues as much as possible. In the process of doing that, other avenues of pursuit suggest themselves and other things that perhaps I hadn’t initially thought of come to mind. It’s a very lacework-y kind of thing.
The opening was always the opening: discussing this “formative” screening of Spawn on its initial theatrical release. But a lot of the other material was shifted about through the course of writing, which is a very crazy quilt, magpie kind of process. In this case, it was only a matter of doing a little more writing, and a little more finagling, than I had been accustomed to. In point of fact, I think the longest thing that I’ve done up to that point was the series of pieces on Twin Peaks: The Return [for Reverse Shot in 2017], so this was a significant step up. Over the course of the last year my already existing tendency to grandiloquence has gone further, maybe even gone a bit off the rails. But it’s been an interesting experiment, and you hope at least to keep yourself interested.
What was it like to once again take in Tsai’s body of work from this point in time, considering you’d begun writing about film around the same time that he was reaching his peak popularity stateside?
I wrote about Goodbye, Dragon Inn in Reverse Shot upon its release, and even cannibalised several bits from that review written in 2004 for the monograph. It’s been a slightly bittersweet thing to see that some of the particular passages that people have responded to or singled out in the book are, in fact, passages that I wrote when I was 23 years old, which suggests that there is possibly some process of degeneration going on as I enter my “late style” period. I won’t say things have gone full circle here, but it was an interesting film to land upon to do this monograph on because Tsai is someone who, during my baby steps years as a writer, I was very much following, very much in conversation with. And having the opportunity to do something a little longer and more ambitious, that would be preserved for posterity between covers, it was very interesting to go back to this figure who is so very, very important to me at this period. So there seems to be a certain aptness in this particular subject for a first book.
So is writing about Tsai at this length something you’d always thought about, to some extent?
No, it hadn’t been. With regards to the revisitation, they are definitely different movies for me now at 39, 40 years old (as I was when working on the book)… Certainly, all of the things that were appealing to me about specifically Goodbye, Dragon Inn remained appealing: that muted yearning and luxuriant melancholia, and all of the sort of things that a slightly depressive young man might gravitate towards. But coming back some 15 or 16 years later, one has a much more developed sense of some of Tsai’s other preoccupations that I don’t think I would have understood or have internalised in quite the same way. One has a better sense of the passage of time, and the manner in which the world that you occupy as an adult slumming into middle age no longer resembles that same world that you came to adulthood in. I certainly think there’s several sedimentary layers of feeling the movie strikes that I can access now, layers that were still buried to me in 2004 when the film had its initial stateside release. That’s the thing with revisiting films, in revisiting any artwork, the way they act like an object seen in passing, and maybe the initial glimpse is more favorable or more definitive, maybe you’ll never really grasp it “in the round”, but there’s something to be said for trying. I think you’ve been on a bit of a Peckinpah kick lately?
I’ve watched Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia  every two or three years since I was 18 years old. The film, seen by a snot nosed film school brat, I first took as: “Oh, this is so ‘batshit.’ This is just so over the top, so extreme.” And now, with every revisitation, and with the concurrent progress of my dissipation and disillusion, I feel like it becomes a slightly different film. And the last time that I came back to it I thought that, “Oh, okay, this is actually just like life as I experience it now. I have a complete comprehension of everything that’s going on here, emotionally, chemically.” So, I suppose, this is one of the many pleasures of revisiting things, and of getting older.
“It did seem like it was possible to do work that wasn’t pandering, that wasn’t making any condescending concessions in addressing a broad readership, or concessions that were perceived as necessary by editorial juntas following the mania for ‘broad appeal’ or ‘popularising’, which almost invariably means adopting an official policy of condescension.”
Goodbye, Dragon Inn / Bú sàn (Tsai Ming-liang, 2003, Taiwan). Ticket Woman (Chen Shiang-chyi).
Was there particularly anything written about Tsai—or more in general, articles or reviews from the same time period—that you found particularly inspiring as you began writing about film more and more?
I think for me, and most of the people that I became friendly with and in almost every case have remained friendly with those who were trying to write about film at that time, Kent Jones was the paragon to be aspired to. I don’t think we had the widest purview of what was going on in the wider world of film writing, which is no knock on Jones’ writing whatsoever. But in terms of writers who were visible to anyone who was trying to do something fairly rigorous and in keeping with a certain tradition of “serious” (which shouldn’t be synonymous with joyless or humorless), American film criticism, he was really it for us.
And obviously, there’s the instances of American writers who were a few years older: J. Hoberman, Dave Kehr, Molly Haskell. Jonathan Rosenbaum was also important for a lot of us, although I’ve come to really appreciate him more in later life. But because Jones was just a little bit closer in age than those people, there was something conceivably Big Brotherish there… not that I had any real relationship with him during that period. Otherwise, Hoberman was still on the scene, and had a very public platform, which was exciting; Armond White in the New York Press was exciting: the pugnacity, the performance of it all, which had a strange attraction-repulsion effect. Though I think this was the devilish deception of that period, which has kind of haunted me over the last decade as I’ve been trying to operate as a professional critic, is that it did seem like it was possible to do work that wasn’t pandering, that wasn’t making any condescending concessions in addressing a broad readership, or concessions that were perceived as necessary by editorial juntas following the mania for “broad appeal” or “popularising”, which almost invariably means adopting an official policy of condescension. It seemed possible by the example of a handful of figures that you could try to remain within the tradition of The Village Voice film section or Film Comment, and you could potentially make that work and maybe even have a career.
I think that was very much what I had my sights set on when I quit the day job and tried to “go pro.” I don’t want to say that turned out to be a wholly illusory thing, but if one is going to pull off that kind of career, or put together that kind of body of work, it is not going to be done under the auspices of a local free weekly anymore. That dog don’t hunt.
In the very beginning of the book you write on a trip to see Spawn as a teenager, of all things. Did Goodbye, Dragon Inn stoke similar reminiscences upon seeing it initially, or do these memories come more with repeat viewings of the film at later dates?
I don’t know. I can imagine that when I first watched Goodbye, Dragon Inn I knew I was going to write about it, and at that time I had such a high level of anxiety about writing anything, and was still very much finding my sea legs and figuring out a way to express what I wanted to express about films in writing. And so I was probably so totally clenched up in the grips of trying to see the thing properly that it somewhat scuppered the basic experience of the film. There was so much anxiety connected to this concern with doing things correctly during those younger, more vulnerable years.
Now, I have a lot of intense, sort of Rosenbaumian movie memories. But I just remember really sweating over those first couple of years of writing. As I always have occasion to address in the Young Critics workshop that I do, when you’re first writing for public consumption, however tiny the publication may be, however miniscule that public, and you don’t have an accumulated body of work behind you, you really live and die with every sentence. And any spot in which you might trip over your own dick, it just feels like the absolute end of the world. Whereas, once you have some stuff behind you, you start to recognise that it is a marathon not a sprint, and you loosen up a little bit. And as a general rule, I think I’m better when I play loose.
“I think it was very helpful to be reminded of the basically casual nature of the medium, and to unclench a little, allowing myself a respite from that punishing self-seriousness. I used to get so upset with myself when I’d doze off at a movie, or be inattentive for a second, pinching the backs of my hands until they were practically bleeding…”
Goodbye, Dragon Inn by Nick Pinkerton (Australia: Fireflies Press, 2021). 240 pages.
I feel like when you’re steeped in a specific sort of arthouse cinephilia, you’re not drawing connections to films like Spawn. I know in my first few years writing was similar to what you’ve just described, but lately, I find myself more and more nostalgic for theater going experiences that were otherwise unremarkable, or for not too significant films.
During my undergraduate stint—and this is nobody’s fault but my own—I had become a bit of an uptight scold when it came to how one was supposed to interact with films. Part of it is just the natural response to being in this environment where you’re encouraged to take films seriously, which is not something that really had been part of my existence until that point, and in my excitement at that perhaps lost some essential sense of playfulness about things. I became something of a Cromwellian, roundhead Puritan who was so zealously certain of the particular manner in which I pursued and practiced the faith of cinema. I think I retained that tight-assedness for a little while. But then the thing that was tremendously helpful was getting a video store gig and putting on movies at the store as background, and rediscovering my capacity to be a little irreverent about films, recognising that that wasn’t something that diminished them in any shape or form, and that receiving things like Holy Writ didn’t necessarily enhance the reception, and in fact probably hindered it. Generally just lightening the fuck up. Because I had become so uptight about watching and doing things right—and having that proper, cleansed-and-ready-to-take-the-host-attitude—I think it was very helpful to be reminded of the basically casual nature of the medium, and to unclench a little, allowing myself a respite from that punishing self-seriousness. I used to get so upset with myself when I’d doze off at a movie, or be inattentive for a second, pinching the backs of my hands until they were practically bleeding in Film Forum, things like that. There was a real grim, monastery vibe to my cinephilia for a while, and I think I was still shaking loose from that in 2004.
You’ve still covered a handful of new releases, either by review or interview (Tommaso, the Demonlover re-release, Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets), but this book—along with your Substack, Employee’s Picks—are more concerned with film history than the current landscape. Is this something you’d always wanted to give more focus to?
I recall reading somewhere Ken Tynan, the English theatre critic, saying something to the effect that critics only have ten years in them. I don’t entirely believe that, but I do have the feeling I could only be of use to contemporaneity for a certain amount of time. Part of it is a matter of having to keep things interesting for myself and having to reformulate what it is I’m actually doing from time to time, which is perhaps why things I wrote ten years ago or even five years ago don’t entirely resemble what I’m doing now, or pursue the particular areas of study that I’m going into now.
Part of it too is just totally practical. There’s a piece in N+1 some years back, “To Have Done with the Contemporary Cinema” by Chris Fujiwara, in which, among other things discussed, is the relationship between the ivory tower academic and the punter critic. One of the attractions to cultural journalism is what Fujiwara describes as the fact that it provides a relief for one’s anxiety as to one’s contemporaneity. For my part, though I do want to feel as though I’m not operating entirely in a void, I’ve never felt an overwhelming compulsion to be contemporary. At the end of the day I guess I tend to find going down a research wormhole on Cecil B. DeMille’s Unconquered  more engaging and gratifying and useful than trying to dredge up an opinion on Promising Young Woman, or whatever.
Another part of the urge to disconnect is tied up in trying to figure out how you can set your own agenda as a critic rather than assenting to play a role in a script that’s been imposed by money interests. How can you not be beholden to a narrative of culture that someone else wrote? How can you try to forge an existence that’s independent to that? Where you are assigning importance rather than having importance imposed on you? To take today’s instance, I don’t want to have an opinion on the Snyder Cut. I don’t want to say I don’t like Zack Snyder. I don’t want to say this is a triumph for a certain kind of hard-nosed, individualistic filmmaker that we see less and less of. I don’t want to say anything. It’s a very Bartleby kind of outlook: I’d prefer not. So it becomes a matter of trying to figure out how one can participate on one’s own terms without becoming part of this attention economy that one doesn’t necessarily want to pay into, or use the script of. Seeing to what degree it is possible to operate outside of all of that, outside of around-the-clock cultural journalism that demands every aspect of the contemporary be rendered down to provide maximum content, while still allowing one’s self the chance to jump in and proselytise for the new when the new needs proselytising for.
“This is a thing that I’m continually vexed by: the suggestion that the rejuvenation of cinema lies through following more closely the path of another artform, that cinema will be rejuvenated by the gallery, that it can be rejuvenated by becoming this high ticket item that’ll be comparable to Broadway or the Grand Opera.”
Nick Pinkerton in his New York apartment. 35mm. Photograph by Maximum Russell for electric ghost.
Considering this, then, does this outlook impact your work at the Young Critics Workshop? When I participated, the landscape was entirely different, even just in 2018, 2019.
In the last few years, prior to the shutting down of the world, I was on the festival circuit a lot. In some ways, that satisfied that desire to have a little more autonomy in what I was giving my attention to. Because at least at festivals, what you’re seeing reflects value judgements and priorities that have been made by a curatorial staff, but you’re not limited to a completely pre-scripted narrative of what’s important. You have a little room to see things relatively fresh, before coronation. So still up to relatively recently I have stayed at the table in terms of keeping tabs on contemporary cinema. And if this year has made me completely out of touch, I don’t know that it’s detectable as of yet. Give me another year to see.
Not to harp on “what could’ve been” in regards to the book, but I know that you had also had the idea to possibly do something on Larry Clark’s Bully. I was wondering if that’s also a film that, like Goodbye, Dragon Inn, encourages thoughts on both the history and future of cinema?
My dear friend Michael M. Bilandic recently authored a short piece for MUBI’s One Shot column about a Mike Kelly and Michael Smith project [“A Voyage of Growth and Discovery”], and this experimental feature that involves a be–diapered character frolicking around Burning Man. This acted as a little madeleine, because it recalled me of one aspect of my impulse to write about Bully. Among many other things, it is a singularly contemporary movie. What is so striking about this is that films are a famously sluggish medium, by virtue of the agonising pre-production process and all the moving parts that have to fall into place to get the actual thing made. So when they finally do get made, they often come into the world feeling just a couple beats off of what is going on in the here and now. By the time they appear, they’re already time capsules. But Bully is one of a handful of films that, upon its appearance, felt exactly like the moment it was made, down to the nanosecond. Mike B. was writing about this Kelly/Smith project as this distillation of internet-imposed infantilism, and I immediately thought of the Mortal Kombat II “Babality” scene in Bully. It struck me in retrospect that in the 21st century, we’ve all been dealt a devastating “babality”, all left squalling in soiled diapers, mewling and puking, and Larry saw it then.
When Giovanni Marchini Camia and Annabel Brady-Brown [of Fireflies Press] contacted me about doing something in this series it seemed like a Kismet kind of match, because their focus on trying to create a sort of survey of relatively recent film history with the series corresponded to something that I had been quietly working away at over the last few years largely, if not exclusively, in pieces that I’d done for Film Comment, which was trying to isolate and describe phenomena that were unique to the culture of moving images in the 21st century. Going after these phenomena, trying to enumerate things that were genuinely new in film culture and moving image-based art. Offhand, I can think of the Ready Player One piece [“Le Cinéma du Glut”], which becomes a jumping-off point for a discussion of the sort of bricolage, junkyard aesthetic of our increasingly backward-looking popular culture; the piece on Chinese multiplex culture, and the degree to which a courtship of the Chinese market had impacted the films that Hollywood studios were making; the piece on the disappearance of working-class actors; various dalliances with “Net Art” or whatever you want to call it. This a line of inquiry I had been going down already, just trying to elucidate certain things that I could say with some certitude singularly characterise the last 20 years or so in cinema, however that is now defined. I’d even had the idea at some point to weave them together into a suite of interlocking essays, should any publisher be interested in losing money. But to be asked to contribute to a series that was very historically minded, and interested in trying to put together some coherent idea about film culture in my adult life, all of that seemed a very hand in glove kind of thing.
I’ve always appreciated your measured take on the future of cinema: you’re neither champing at the bit to hail every new release as a reaffirmation of the medium, nor are you unduly mourning the artform. Was this always your mindset, or did it develop gradually over time?
Well, I have a monetary incentive for keeping this racket going. And I am so absolutely simpatico with Tsai’s own statements about the necessity that he has felt of exploring alternate channels for distribution of his work, though I find much less to hope for than he does in the “white box” gallery as the path to redemption. I don’t think that I need to enumerate at length the many things that are dubious about the gallery: who’s doing the selling? Who’s doing the buying? This is a thing that I’m continually vexed by: the suggestion that the rejuvenation of cinema lies through following more closely the path of another artform, that cinema will be rejuvenated by the gallery, that it can be rejuvenated by becoming this high ticket item that’ll be comparable to Broadway or the Grand Opera. As somebody who has such a vested interest in the continuing robust health of this medium, everytime I encounter one of these propositions, it brings me to a full fucking stop. Because the moment that cinema grows closer to, say, modern poetry or subscription ballet or gallery art, it ceases in some essential way to be the thing that I got involved in, which was never, of course, perfectly egalitarian, but was open to the world in a way that these older, rather exclusive arts were not. This makes me think of that Burial song, “Gutted”, which has that sampled voice intoning: “Sometimes… you gotta stick with the ancients… the old school ways.” I say this with all knowledge that Tsai is a much more intelligent man than I, who has his antenna attuned to what is happening in the world in a way that I do not.
In thinking about the future of cinema, I keep coming back to a term used by the literary critic Van Wyck Brooks: “a usable past”. This may be a completely delusional nostalgia for an age that never existed on my part, but it seems to me oftentimes that the way forwards is the way backwards, that there are valuable models to be found in the usable past of film culture—an amateur culture—for how we might cultivate a healthy contemporary film culture, and in so doing preserve certain things about cinema which I think are essential to its nature: that casualness, the fact that is not a stuffed shirt art, that it is not a hushed temple art (a temple art, maybe, but a lively one). And I don’t think I’m Cassandra-ish, nor do I have “the sky is falling” attitude… ever. What I do have is a great deal of skepticism at the idea that the proper attitude is to concede to a diminished and somewhat niche position within the arts, and shore up and retreat to a slightly specialised corner, resigned to an ever-shrinking public profile.
If anything, I don’t think the battle is lost at all. If it is, better to get licked thoroughly than to crawl back with tail between legs to some compromised, near-beer version of the thing that the artform is, has been, and can be. I wouldn’t say my mindset is optimistic, but I’m trying to fuckin’ win! In Éric Rohmer’s The Tree, the Mayor and the Mediatheque , there is a monologue by Arielle Dombasle where she launches into this broadside against “survival” alone as being a necessarily desirous concept, this mere ability to maintain, to keep things going even if enfeebled, even if on life support. I was so thrilled at hearing this upon watching the film again because I think it’s precisely the correct mindset, by which I mean mine. Why content ourselves with trying to keep cinema going in any way shape or form? We should be trying to hoist the trophy! I know I have little to no ability to actually affect any of this—I promise you that I am not delusional on this point—but with that in mind, what can it hurt to be a little idealistic? Which is why I like to imagine a cinema that is something other than a wasted-away specimen subsisting on thin gruel.
Photography by Maximum Russell.