The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Adam Cook

Adam Cook
The cinema is, for me, a means of engaging with the world, coming to terms with it, and figuring out how to live within it.

Contributed to: Mubi Notebook, Cinema Scope, Film Comment, Filmmaker Magazine, Cineaste, La Furia Umana, Indiewire, Cléo, Film Society of Lincoln Center, Grolsch Film Works, Fandor, De Filmkrant, Senses of Cinema. 

Known for: MUBI Notebook, Cinema Scope, image-centric criticism.

Influences: David Bordwell, Serge Daney, Jonathan Rosenbaum, "the best critics right now are Kent Jones, Dennis Lim, R. Emmet Sweeney, and Daniel Kasman."

Noted Champion Of: Classical Hollywood ("Ford Ford Ford Ford"), James Gray, Johnnie To, reappraising Scorsese, "vulgar auteurism."

Born in Vancouver, BC, Adam Cook's (July 24th, 1989-) first language is film. Reading him is to open a travel guide to worlds most of us only ever dream of visiting. "As an only child, my obsessive movie-watching began very young as a familial substitute. It wasn't until my late teens that this unhealthy amount of viewing became anything productive. I had considered writing on movies as early as elementary school, but I finally put pen to paper at the tail end of high school when I started a blog. It wasn't long before I was writing for my university paper, and not long after that that i started pitching around and finding myself published in the outlets I was myself a dedicated reader of like the MUBI Notebook and Cinema Scope. Having a foot in the door at the Vancouver International Film Festival and MUBI (not as a critic, but an editor, and now a programmer) didn't hurt. I love writing about movies, and I hope I always can. But I always never want it to be all that I do. I mean, it's impossible to make a living from, of course, but not because of that. I get restless. I also don't want to force my writing. Programming is more rewarding. And I love working for MUBI."

At 24 as of this writing, Cook has a perspective and list of critical achievements many lifers would tip their hats to. And because he has a ton of editorial/creative freedom at the Notebook, he's been able to craft crticism his way, much of it integrating visual reference points. "It's interesting. We try to intellectualize cinema, but without that intuitive, emotional connection, what's the point of watching a movie? I definitely come at things from a visual angle. Cinema that ennobles cinema is at least more immediately impressive. I love movies of so many different kinds though, I don't think I could ever define my taste. I think I need to sense something human and honest behind the lens though. I think that's most important." His only rule is that he'll never back down from championing a film he loves, and is always willing to be proven wrong about a film he didn't. A negative Adam Cook review is a rare thing indeed. The heart-warming start to one of his capsules: "The first film in competition to stand out as fiercely unique is Denis Côté's Vic+Flo Saw a Bear, though the word spreading around Potsdamer Platz after its premiere was not one of bountiful praise, but let's ignore that." 

Cook brings a gonzo narrative to a lot of his writing. He invites readers into his circumstances of viewing, offers a shared mindset, rather than a simple relaying of an outcome. If his relationship to film is emotional and visual, then he seeks to welcome others into his consumption via the same means, his evocative prose allowing us at once into his world and that of the film. Cook's role as a programmer as well as his festival schedule have given him a new appreciation of what's paramount to good cinema. Cook seeks out rare, unusual and lasting pleasures, films and artists that break ground or raise the dead in new, honest ways. In his powerfully humane words, cinema is, quite literally, a matter of life or death. On Closed Curtain, Jafar Panahi's second film from under house arrest: "When the film touches on suicide, it becomes almost uncomfortably naked, and the notion that Panahi could "give up" is a disheartening one. But how could he? He's still a man with a movie camera, no matter what any authorities may think." The prose is empathetic and open. The familiarity of the first sentence suggests that he's writing a letter (and much of his writing has this kind of intimacy), and the rhetorical question further closes the gap between author, artist and reader/viewer. It's a human concern, not merely a cinematic one; film and life are one and the same. Cook knows the lines have been blurred between film, criticism, and everything that doesn't fall under that banner, and his writing often takes the form of a galvanizing search for a new language to describe it. If cinema is a place, Cook is an environmentalist, an ecstatic conservationist. The final sentence exposes his optimism, his willingness to believe that everything negatively affecting the creation and pursuit of good art can be changed for the better.

On watching Ken Jacobs:
As I assume is the case with most cinephiles—even the most well-viewed veterans—there always seems to be something to catch up on before a festival. A filmmaker has a new film premiering and a recommendation leads to a cram session of sorts in the days leading up to the festival, and even in that most undesired of all viewing spaces: the seat on the airplane. It is in this first unofficial screening room that my own programming began with a viewing of Ken Jacobs's Seeking the Monkey King (2011). Embarrassingly neglected in my viewing history, I was eager (and also obligated) to acquaint myself with the renowned avant-gardist before seeing his new feature-length The Guests (hopefully a subject of a future Berlinale dispatch). What ensued was one of the most memorable, and trippy, watches in my cinephile career. As those in my row slept beside me, I grew nervous of prompting an epileptic fit as an elderly woman across the aisle turned her head towards my MacBook on which Jacobs's twisting tinfoil masterpiece of anger and frustration pulsated with alternately blue and gold light, emanating (projecting?) a noticeable flashing in our darkened corner of the fuselage.  (This prompted me to pause the film and dim my screen whenever a flight attendant neared). This process of "seeking," a journey through this phantasmagorical shifting of dreamlike, chasmic space, is, I think, where the festival began for me. The opening selection of my personal Berlinale.

On On Death Row
Having once described all the characters in his films as somehow part of one family, I was afforded the opportunity at the Locarno Film Festival to ask about this idea and how the inmates on death row fit in. Herzog cited everyone from Woodcarver Steiner, Aguirre and onward as somehow being linked—though he advised me to be careful on "riding this donkey to its death". It isn't their similarities as people, however, that connect them, but their proximity to the abyss which darkly masks them in the same shadow. It is in these figures, somehow closer to the edge of existence than most, that Herzog finds a uniting humanness, qualities that articulate the core of being, while also allowing the specificity of every character to register on screen, complex, and fascinating in their existential solitude. 

On Computer Chess
One of cinema's great virtues is to take us into environments, settings, and contexts that we'd otherwise never explore. Sure, there are films like Lincoln that put monumental moments in history under the limelight, but the tiniest pockets of American mythology can be just as interesting. Andrew Bujalski's Computer Chess finds such a tiny pocket, taking place mostly in a small hotel conference room and is about a group of computer chess nerds who face off their beloved chess programs in a tournament to determine the best designer. Exploiting his PortaPak-style aesthetics for comically expressive means, Bujalski creates an absurd mini-universe on the outskirts of computer culture's early days. However, for all its silliness, the philosophical questions at the film's core, mockingly presented though they may be, carry a real weight. If computers that could barely compete with humans set off alarms about artificial intelligence and the implications of its potential then, the film by implication magnifies the scale as it is now, in which technology's rapid progress is hardly accountable, maybe even unfathomable. Bujalski shows us a time not so far in our past that is easy to laugh at because it is so difficult to laugh at where we are now.

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