PRINT March 2000




To the Editor
By Howard Hampton’s lights [“Lynch Mob,” January 2000], “highbrow” critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum, Jim Hoberman, and myself are the enemy (highbrow? Hey bud, what magazine do you think you’re writing for, Women of Wrestling?). By eagerly championing such foreign “cloistered grandmasters” as Hou Hsiao-hsien, whose work we flock to see during our “pilgrimages to Lourdes-like film festivals,” we are implicitly dismissing the homegrown visionaries in our midst. Apparently, Hoberman, Rosenbaum, and I are “film theologians” and “mullahs” who use foreign cinema as a weapon to squash the “idiosyncratic, visionary, irreverent strain of American culture.”

Whew. That's quite an assertion, couched in some mighty fancy rhetoric. Well, Mr. Chairman, I will state for the record that I liked The Straight Story (and I would certainly agree with Hampton’s assessment of what appears to be a blockheaded review by John Patterson of the LA Weekly), although whether or not I liked it enough to satisfy Howard Hampton or Greil Marcus is open to debate. I do admit to preferring Hou Hsiao-hsien to David Lynch, but I think it’s kind of a stretch to interpret that preference as a thinly veiled attempt to snuff out everything vital in American culture. Just as I’m confident that my fondness for, say, Rushmore will never be interpreted as a rejection of “foreign cinema.” As for my reference to the lack of a shared national poetics in this country? Where, to quote Jim Jarmusch, they “stick a gun up your ass” when you try to recite poetry? That was descriptive, not prescriptive.

That concludes my testimony.

Kent Jones
New York

To the Editor:

Hampton in his indignant flag-waving mode—an implicit insult to Americans less xenophobic than himself, of which there are happily quite a few—chides me for calling The Straight Story “propaganda,” adding, “as if Lynch’s taking money from Disney were inherently more compromising than Abbas Kiarostami working under the aegis of a totalitarian theocracy.” What I'd like to know is where he sees propaganda for theocracy or totalitarianism in Kiarostami's films. And what does he mean, “working under the aegis of,” especially when Lynch has to submit his work to test-marketing “experts” and Kiarostami doesn’t? If he considers Kiarostami’s work compromised by the absence of something, what, pray tell, is it? Please clue us into this special insight. Personally I consider Hampton’s conflation of cornball humanism in Iran with cornball humanism in the American heartland a bit on the corny side, particularly when it has to glide over formal matters to chow down with homilies like “Hou’s homespun chickens-come-home-to-Proust.” Is Artforum turning into the Saturday Evening Post? Are we still back in the cold war? Watch out for those furriners, son; when you’re not watching, they might poison your bodily fluids.

Jonathan Rosenbaum

Howard Hampton responds:
The terrific French director (and sometime critic) Olivier Assayas recently voiced his reservations about making a film in English: “We don’t have the same relationship with a language that's not our maternal language. I speak English, but not that deeply. I'm not that in touch with the everyday life and the culture. If I had to write a scene with an American teenager, how would I get into their mind? I worry about missing the nuances, simplifying the characters and the emotions.” Likewise, my piece suggested that film critics no less than filmmakers need to be in some kind of empathetic touch with the everyday life and culture of their own land—if that's “indignant flag-waving,” then I think Jean Renoir, Youssef Chahine, and the Ray boys (Nick and Satyajit) are equally “xenophobic.” While I only mentioned Messrs. Rosenbaum and Jones in passing, I do think Rosenbaum is much given to dispensing cant and gross oversimplifications—he’s tone-deaf and -dumb when it comes to American life in any form. His remark about Kiarastomi’s independence is also pretty disingenuous: Kiarastomi’s films put a benign, depoliticized face on present-day Iranian life, omitting by self-censoring necessity questions of widespread oppression and human-rights violations, political and sexual deviance. I'm not saying Kiarastomi’s more compromised than anyone else trying to do his best work within the confines of a state or studio system, but it’s delusional to think he occupies some lofty moral high ground, either. (And Jon, people who live in vapid Safe houses shouldn’t throw condescending words like “cornball” around.)

I am delighted, however, that Mr. Jones likes Rushmore, and I regret calling him a “mullah”—I should have said “cleric” instead, intending it only in the best, descriptive, diary-of-a-country-priest sense, you understand.



To the Editor:
Dave Hickey [“Clemente,” January 2000] is pissy about something. I don't know, something to do with “exotic locales.” Which, I suppose, one could sympathize with when viewed from his aesthetic backdrop of Tropicana Blvd. But all this repugnant animosity toward Francesco’s private life and blatant envy over his worldly travels is really quite beneath Mr. Hickey. Look, Clemente is not a pup. He’s a middle-aged man with grown kids. The plateau from which he views his universe is a hard-won hill. He fully deserves the fruits of his considerable and courageous struggle.

You bring too much of your self to art, Dave. And you talk way too much. You’ve forgotten how to surrender yourself. How to be quiet. How to open your mind completely and let the colors wash in and take you over.

And no, you are wrong, dead wrong. Art is not a joyful industry. It can indeed be physically painful, wretchedly so. Turmoil, self-doubt, and anguish are constant companions. You, the critic, to a great extent, ensure these inner conflicts.

Really, Dave, why’d you have to go rain on his parade? This is a retrospective, not wares for sale. Much of this art is twenty years old. You guys have had decades to pick over it. This is not the place for pettiness. It’s a time for celebration; he’s playing the big room, for god sake; all the struggle paid off; he’s made it. Hooray for Francesco. Much applause. BRAVO!

Jim Johnson
Long Island City, NY