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Dennis Lim interview at Transylvania IFF: I wouldn't talk about the death of film culture, but things definitely changed
Autor: Irina Trocan
Currently, Dennis Lim is the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. He has behind him a very rich editorial experience, as freelance film critic and former editor in chief of the film section belonging to the New York City publication The Village Voice. While he was in Cluj Napoca as part of the TIFF competition jury, I used the opportunity to ask for his perspective on the changes happened in the past two decades in film criticism, a domain he could see evolving from within the most prestigious institutions. Since the concept of „freelancer” is relatively new in the space of Romanian culture, I think his statements make up a very lucid and welcome testimony on the adaptability required to practice film criticism.
Irina Trocan: You worked as an editor, as well as a freelance film critic. Did you feel like your affiliations forced you to be versatile, to approach film criticism differently depending on who you work for?
Dennis Lim: I edited the film section of The Village Voice from 2000 to 2006, so that was my most consistent editorial experience. Afterwards, I worked as a freelance writer, but I had two or three main outlets – New York Times and Artforum among them. I felt I was writing differently for each one – when you can guess who you're writing for and you're familiar with the publication, it comes naturally. In fact, I think it's even easier these days to have a relationship with your readers.
I.T.: I think even the length of the article can influence how you write – when you have 7.000 characters to cover a general topic, for example.
D.L.: Sure. But I actually enjoy having different kinds of assignments: sometimes writing for a general reader, on other occasions for someone who is more aware of the film world or the art world, or writing something that is a little more scholarly. I read different kinds of things, so I really don't mind writing for different types of publications.
Did you ever turn down an assignment on a topic that you were interested in because of editorial restrictions?
I turned down assignments because of prior commitments or because they were on topics that I wasn't interested in. If I'm interested in the subject, I try to find a way to make it work. There's always a way, when you have the time and the desire.
Do you negotiate with the editors?
Sure, I think that the writer-editor relationship is one of constant negotiations, but I think, with some outlets, there's only so much you can do – you can try to convince the editor that something warrants two pages instead of one page or you should write about something earlier rather than later. I think that editors do listen to writers. But with a publication like the New York Times, or in general with a daily, which is much more rule-bound, I think that you adapt.
Did you ever miss a deadline?
Yes. Which writer hasn't?
At the Village Voice, what was your technique for coordinating the film section? Was it ever your concern to impose an editorial direction?
I think, with The Voice, I was stepping into a role which was already clearly defined. The paper had an identity, the film section had an identity, I was working with people that I admired like J. Hoberman. It wasn't so much about creating something from scratch, but continuing a tradition as the media landscape was changing, as film culture was changing: what do you do to continue to write seriously, how do you draw attention to films that you thought were overlooked? All those things, I think, were the challenges at the time. At The Voice, I was lucky to work with a lot of people who I thought were very strong writers. But all of that was ten years ago and it was a very different climate.
Did your reader habits change since then?
I'm a full-time programmer now and the amount of criticism that I can consume at this point is limited. I follow aggregator sites or I save things to read and then I read them when I can. With daily criticism, I'm less of an engaged reader these days because in New York City there are twenty films opening every week and I see no reason to keep up.
Do you think you can tell better than a loyal reader, as the former editor, how much The Voice has changed in the past decade?
I think some changes are obvious. For one thing, there isn't one single person in their staff now who was there a decade ago.
I'm a huge admirer (and avid re-reader) of the Village Voice anthology you've edited (i.e. The Village Voice Film Guide: 50 Years of Movies From Classics to Cult Hits). I was curious how you started the project and how you decided what to include in it.
Honestly, it started when we realized that, in spite of its rich history, it had become inaccessible. Past issues of decades and decades of The Village Voice were impossible to find – even if they had anthologized, those anthologies were out of print, you couldn't find the issues online... To put that anthology together was a way to tell a story about the New York City film culture. It was also released at a turning point – people talk about the death of film culture, I wouldn't call it that, I like to think of it as a shift in film culture –, but I'd say things definitely changed in the past decade, with online media, streaming, downloading and so on.
As for the films we've decided to include, we were thinking of the guide as sort of a counter-canon and, in my opinion, we ended up with a pretty eclectic list. I worked with Jim Hoberman on that list to figure out which were the films that really mattered to the Voice and were influential during this really rich period for film criticism and film culture.
Did you have in mind to also create a polemical evaluation of these films? In the case of Shadows and Jeanne Dielman, the book includes more than the standard one review per film: in the first case, it's the exchange of points of view on the film between Jonas Mekas and John Cassavetes; in the second it's two consecutive reviews, by Hoberman and Andrew Sarris.
Yeah, I think part of it was to show that criticism is a conversation, sometimes even literally so. Even if you look at other authors, you can still find the same: Pauline Kael criticism is very directly engaged with other reviews, as much as other films, often.
Kael writes like she enjoys contradicting other people. And Sarris writes like he enjoys contradicting her.
Right. That was a contentious relationship. I feel that it's pretty easy to be nostalgic or romantic about the time when things really mattered that much to people. You can probably find a lot of critical arguments online these days. I don't know how sustained or passionate or interesting, or for that matter illuminating, they are. I don't want to sound too jaded, I think there are a lot of great writers out there as well as a lot of talented emerging writers, but film criticism as a whole has become, for me, too amorphous and overwhelming to actually be too invested in.
Would you say it was in any way better for film culture to have these celebrity critics whose opinions mattered, even when they wrote about things they weren't specialized in?
I don't know if you can say better or worse, everything was different. The media was different, there were just a few platforms. And when you say 'celebrity critic', you could be referring to people on television or even to critics like J. Hoberman or Jonathan Rosenbaum, who were hugely important for shaping tastes and ideas of a generation. So it's pretty hard to generalize.
Dennis Lim moderating a Q&A with Andrei Ujică, after the New York Film Festival screening of The Autobiography of Nicolae Ceaușescu. Photo by Godlis.
Do you enjoy being a film programmer in the same way you enjoy writing?
Yeah... Increasingly, I saw film criticism – and valued it – as advocacy. As a programmer, I feel like I do that in a more tangible and immediate way. In our criticism at The Voice, we were pretty clear about the films we championed and the kind of cinema that was important to us. When I wrote for The New York Times, I generally wrote about things I cared about and reviewing was about finding a way to communicate that to both a specialized and a generalized readership. I think film curation is a different logical extension of criticism.
Featured photo credit: TIFF archive