The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Kevin B. Lee

Kevin B. Lee
How to look at a movie isn’t something to take for granted. There are as many ways to look at a movie as there are stars in outer space. So we have to ask ourselves: which ways of looking are the ones we want to lead us as we make our way through this infinite universe of images?
Known for: pioneering the short-form video essay. Shedding light on non-canonical Chinese cinema.

Contributed to: Senses of Cinema, Chicago Reader, Cinema Scope, Cineaste, Slant, The House Next Door, Moving Image Source, The Auteurs/Mubi, Time Out New York, Fandor, Time Out Chicago, Cine-File, IndieWire, Press Play, Roger Ebert.com, Shooting Down Pictures, Sight & Sound, Slate, The New York Times.

Noted Champion of: In The City of Sylvia, Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Kate Lyn Sheil, Wang Bing. 

Influences: Harun Farocki ("always looking for new ways to see"), Theodor Adorno ("ferocity of skepticism, especially of cinema"), Walter Benjamin ("transformative vision"), Siegfried Kracauer ("curiosity in mass culture"), Jonathan Rosenbaum ("cinephilia with conscience"), Nicole Brenez ("championing the margins and marginalized"), Manny Farber ("dramatist of restless thought"), Roger Ebert ("populism with smarts and decency"), David Bordwell ("consummate science"), Tom Gunning ("at home in the unknowable"), Chris Marker ("seductive subjectivity"), Serge Daney ("that voice, so clear and purposeful"), Dennis Lim ("master surveyor of the scene"), Matt Zoller Seitz ("pure charisma"), Catherine Grant ("information empowerment"), Ed Gonzalez ("relentless DIY work ethic"), Keith Uhlich and Dan Sallitt ("fearless embrace of personal passions"), Mike D'Angelo and Michael Sicinski ("living termite critics"), The Otolith Group / Kodwo Eshun ("if only for the way he talks"), John Gianvito ("spiritual light"), Slavoj Zizek ("Everything is NOT awesome; Everything Is Ideology"), Thom Andersen ("Essay Plays Cinema"), Guy Debord ("he gave us the spectacles to properly see our society").

One of a few biographies you can find on Kevin B. Lee (January 21st 1975-) begins: A highly regarded producer of critical video essays, Kevin B. Lee blurs the line between filmmaker and film critic. Which would sum it up neatly except that his personality lights his critical work from within like a thousand flood lights. From his earliest piece, a biography of Jia Zhangke for Senses of Cinema, his predilections are clear. A healthy suspicion of canonical logic (his take down of Argo for Slate, at the height of its popularity, is among his most read pieces), a dialogue with critics laced with humility, and the fearless forging of a new path. After a list of everyone Jia's been compared to and the critics who made the comparisons, he quickly shifts gears: 

While these impressive points of reference may lend a feeling of familiarity to those unacquainted with Jia’s films, what risks getting lost in the translation is the glorious strangeness of Jia’s aesthetic. It’s worth making this point because the strangeness of the world is itself a central theme of Jia’s films. It’s a strangeness that descends on his characters and impedes their ability to cope with changes which may be as imperceptible as the shifting trends in music and fashion over months and years, or as sudden and calamitous as a factory explosion. 

He pays tribute, then drills deeper into the issue than he feels anyone else has gone. Perhaps that's why he was uniquely qualified to help popularize and lay out the stylistic foundations for the video essay form, as we know it today. His thorough and thoughtful analysis, on documentary and the question of cinematic reality especially, has allowed him contribute to an almost unprecedented list of highly esteemed outlets including most recently The New York Times. He continues writing criticism to this day, as always his finger on the ever-quicking pulse of the artform and its champions, and it's just as incisive as his video work, but Lee's contributions are of paramount importance to the flourishing of internet criticism. Short form video essays are something only possible in the age of the internet, and they're a great example of the ways in which modern critics can dig deeper into texts than was ever possible in the past. Lee has looked at the unique prowess of certain directors, such as when he charted the evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson in five choice steadicam shots or when he and Matt Zoller Seitz took apart the obsessions that fuel the films of Oliver Stone, as well as the stylistic development of the TV show The Wire. Lee became an unwilling culture warrior when Youtube deleted all of his content in 2009, including clips and full essays on films, citing copyright infringement. In his article on the injustice, Seitz had this to say on Lee's work: Kevin's trailblazing example inspired me to give up print journalism last year and concentrate on filmmaking, and make video essays—criticism with moving pictures—a key part of my new life. High praise and proof that Lee had indeed changed the way many of us relate to and review movies. 

Lee's criticism on the history of Chinese cinema is of particular interest to anyone interested in world cinema. In tackling a largely unheralded Canon, Lee humbly admits his amateur status (unnecessarily, as he's twice the authority most American critics are) and shines a light onto both contemporary and classical work. His work at dGenerate films, a non-theatrical distribution company, further illustrates his commitment to giving a voice to the best unknown Chinese filmmakers. Below is his essay comprised of clips from 50 major films from the start of the artform to 2011. 


For the Moving Image Source, an essay on six contemporary Chinese films:

And finally, among my personal favourites on this subject, his two-part A Revolution on Screen, concerning films made between 1949-1966, a crucial time for the shifting national and cultural identity:





A good entryway into his work on modern independent film from his position as founding editor at Fandor's blog (he also served as editor-in-chief for the video/blog haven Press Play from 2012-2013), this piece on Kate Lyn Sheil's performance in Amy Seimitz' scorching two-hander Sun Don't Shine. It's wonderful not only as an example of granting attention to a work in need of a greater audience, but also it's tuned to Lee's frequency as a critic. The moments that speak loudest to him are often completely silent, and his amazing command of film technique has allowed him to bring those haunting moments to the attention of an audience hungry for new perspectives on art. 


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