The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Ben Sachs

Ben Sachs
...the ending of a life drags the entire movie to a halt, forcing the viewer to reflect on what an extraordinary object his or her body is...Of all the arts, cinema may provide the best vehicle for inspiring this sort of reflection, as the manipulation of time is such an important aspect of the medium.

Contributed to: The Chicago Reader, The Bleader, CINE-FILE, MUBI.

Noted champion of: Takashi Miike, Robert Mulligan, Alain Resnais, Johnny To, Ulrich Seidl's "Paradise" trilogy, Leos Carax, Pedro Almodóvar.

Influences: "Lindsay Anderson, "What is Cinema? by Andre Bazin, Films and Feelings by Raymond Durgnat, The Moviegoer by Walker Percy, Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan by Robin Wood, and every film critic who’s written for the Reader."

Ben Sachs (1983-) was born in Waukegan, IL and over the last four years has become one of the most consistent writers in the fertile Chicago critical scene. Sachs moved to Chicago in 2005 after graduating from Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. From his bio on the Chicago Reader website, where he's been a full-time critic and blogger since 2011: I started writing film criticism for the Reader in September 2010 with a capsule review of the wrestling movie Legendary; since December 2011 I've written daily posts for the Bleader. Before that, I had been a regular contributor to the local website CINE-FILE, for which I'd been writing since its conception in 2007....In other movie-related business, I've introduced screenings at Doc Films, taught classes at Facets Multimedia, and continue to volunteer regularly at Bucktown’s Odd Obsession Movies. Before he started contributing to CINE-FILE, Sachs wrote plays, drummed for a band, and worked odd jobs, all without a huge measure of success. CINE-FILE isn't only where he honed his critical chops, it's also where his wife Kathleen Sachs (née Keish) writes.  

That last is not included arbitrarily. Perhaps more than any other critic or blogger, Sachs' family defines and broadens his writing. Whether ecstatic or melancholy (one of the most endearing and engrossing modes he writes in), his writing is deepened by his understanding of what his family means to him and has given to him. Recently he wrote a brief, touching piece about his cousin Naomi entitled "The family member who most influenced me as a critic." His nakedness in front of memory and the impact of this very special person is overwhelming. As in his writing on films, he reaches for small, tactile details hiding in his recollection, trying to better understand his cousin, his relationship to her and who he is. How he fits into the world, starting with his home in Chicago. From a piece about watching the films of Alain Resnais: At the time, I was either unemployed or working part-time—I don't remember which, but I was in a position to go to the movies on weekday afternoons, and I did this often to save money. The small audiences often consisted of retirees, specifically old women who went in pairs and chatted through the films. I liked sharing the theater with them; they made the auditorium feel fuller than it was, and they made me think of my paternal grandmother, a lifelong moviegoer who, in her last days of spectatorship, would convince reclusive old women in her apartment building to accompany her to the show. This leads into a discussion of his grandparents, alive with little tidbits about their habits, the things they'd say, etc. Being at the movies with my grandparents the day before I went back to school, it felt somehow heavier than going at other times or with other people. In autumn and winter, the sky would be bright when we went in and dark when we came out—it only added to the feeling that I was hiding from my responsibilities when they indulged me this way. The memory give way to an unbearably sad final sentiment, after meeting an elderly woman who in no way reminds him of his grandparents after a screening of Private Fears in Public Places: the movie made us equals in loneliness. Whatever that feeling was on all those Sunday afternoons, this was its opposite, a quiet terror that I had nothing to return to after watching the film. Exquisitely upsetting. Sachs' blogposts at the Bleader often read like passages from a novel, one that I hope he some day finishes. 

Sachs is never less than honest about his own bias; just this week he wrote a piece about his slight re-evaluation of a documentary he reviewed earlier in the year. He allows himself hindsight and admits when he's made mistakes. He opens himself up to visions he doesn't connect with or understand, meets everyone halfway when he can. Sachs' first major coup as a critic was a series on the films of Takashi Miike for Mubi's Notebook. His writing here takes on the same darkly profound current that colours so much of the Japanese Auteur's work. His phrasing is bold and sticks in the brain with the power of Miike's best images. They make for a great entrée into both Miike and Sachs, and they introduce a concept that serves as something like an unspoken mantra to his criticism. The idea, appropriated from Miike, that he never left a room or walked out of a film because it was ugly or bad. "Even the most routine action film, he argued, will contain some moment of beauty; you just have to keep your eyes open and find it." And finding the beauty in the most unusual places is one of Sachs' strengths, whether in an obscure 70s film like Sometimes a Great Notion or a modern comedy like The To Do List. His optimism as a critic ultimately outweighs his melancholy, no matter how beautiful and engrossing the latter is. To quote a poem Sachs brought to my attention: ...we receive but what we give, And in our life alone does Nature live...To the poor loveless ever-anxious crowd, Ah! from the soul itself must issue forth A light, a glory, a fair luminous cloud Enveloping the Earth...

On Sometimes a Great Notion
"The human body wants to live," I remember a high school teacher saying, after explaining to our class how difficult it was to asphyxiate yourself. Once you lose consciousness, he told us, you can't apply pressure to whatever it is you're pushing to your mouth and nose, and air reenters your body. (He taught world history; I'm not sure how the subject came up.) In most cases it takes a long time before a body expires—even typically demure people discover unknown strength when violently attacked or pinned beneath a heavy object. This is why the climax of Sometimes a Great Notion is so devastating. As the scene goes on, the voice of instinct tells you that this victim must survive, no matter how terrible the situation gets. It's an instinct supported by countless narrative films, which train us to think that death happens quickly and that long, suspenseful sequences will resolve well.

On Robert Mulligan
Still, Mulligan's filmmaking was more powerful when he was working with less-straightforward material. As a case in point, check out his other feature of 1965, the movie-land drama Inside Daisy Clover. The script, by former film critic Gavin Lambert, is rife with allusions to Hollywood history (the movie takes place in the 1930s, though it invokes scandals that go back to the silent era) and contains several shocking plot twists. Mulligan's direction grounds the material, which might have become hysterical or overly cerebral in other hands, in a firm sense of character. Better yet, the straight-ahead presentation of the early scenes gives you no idea how dark the story will get in the second half—in this case, Mulligan's borderline squarishness proves an excellent poker face.

On Izo
Surprisingly, the film is most wearying when it’s at its most violent. Miike’s directed some of the most audacious scenes of violence in modern cinema, not to mention dozens of generic crime movies: It’s no secret he can shoot a decent action scene pretty much reflexively. In Izo, the swordfights generally occur in an unremarkable pattern of several-clashes-then-victorious-blow familiar to anyone who’s ever seen ten minutes of a samurai film.  There are also a lot of them. The fights’ maddening regularity is the main reason why the film is so difficult to watch, but not for the obvious explanation that they’re too graphic. (In fact, the violence here is relatively restrained for Miike.) The awful truth is that they’re boring. It’s by now a cliché to say the atrocities of the 20th century were the most inhumane that have yet been conceived. Less often said is what our responsibilities are, as inheritors of those atrocities, in the 21st century. For most people, the default response is a kind of paralysis. The information has been shoved down our throats, and we see enough violence on TV to know it isn’t pretty. (Izo reflects this numbing familiarity with sequences of stock footage that show up throughout the film. They show more familiar stuff: the Nuremberg rallies, the mushroom cloud over Hiroshima, et cetera. One of the movie’s great jokes is to insert benign images into these montages—people on amusement park rides, old advertisements—that further deny them any power.) Perhaps that cliché is ultimately comforting: If things were definitively bad in the last century, we don’t have to worry about them getting worse. And yet the impulse to cause others harm is never far from us.  Look at any news report about a terrorist attack or, more tellingly, the way ordinary people respond to them with calls for vengeance.  Again, this is nothing new; but how often do we think about the weight of past atrocities when impelled to violence ourselves? The great accomplishment of Izo is that it forces the viewer to do just that, over two hours of unrelenting focus analogous to prayer

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