The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism: Aaron Cutler

Aaron Cutler
For as long as I can remember, I have considered myself a writer.
Influences: “Mariana Shellard and many others”

Champion of: Nights of Cabiria

Contributed to:, The Believer, The Boston Globe, Cineaste, Cinema Scope, Fandor Keyframe, Film Comment, Idiom, Jornal da Mostra Internacional de Cinema de São Paulo, The L Magazine, The Los Angeles Review of Books, Screen Machine, Sight & Sound, Slant Magazine, and The Village Voice among others. Articles are posted at his site The Moviegoer.

Freelancer Aaron Cutler (December 20th, 1985-) makes his home in São Paulo but was born in Blue Bell, PA. After binging on TLA Video rentals and writing for his high school and college newspapers, Cutler moved to New York for graduate school. He made overtures to Slant Magazine and The House Next Door separately, began writing for both of them, and then continued to do so after the two online publications had merged. Thanks to Slant/House, he attended both the New York Film Festival and the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2010, seeing Certified Copy at the first and meeting and interviewing Abbas Kiarostami at the second. 

The Kiarostami conversation, which found a home at Cineaste, was the first of his published filmmaker interviews, which are probably the best entryways into Cutler's writing. He believes art to be a way to reach out, and the job of a critic to be helping an artist to make contact with his or her audience. In the case of his interviews, that means giving people space to express themselves, to the point of sometimes turning conventional interviews into monologues after deciding that the artist has no need for his questions. The interviews often double as criticism, as Cutler guides his interview subjects to talk about themselves in thoughtful ways. When interviewing fellow critic and film programmer Miriam Bale about her publication Joan’s Digest, some people might have asked how she arrived at such an unusual name for a film journal. Cutler asks simply, "Who’s Joan?"

Cutler's writing comes from a place of humility. He's in the service of good art and exalts it. Along with this, he rarely writes pans. If he has to attack something, he does so implicitly rather than explicitly. His pieces become less about what failed and more about how something succeeded. 

When Cutler talk about himself, as he does in the postscript to his discussion of Claude Lanzmann's film Last of the Unjust, it's to give the film and director's aims a historical context outside of technique or theory. In that case, he refers to his family members that were killed in Nazi concentration camps during the Second World War as a way of localizing Lanzmann’s discussions of the exterminations of Jews by the Third Reich. Crucially, he begins that same piece with a quote from Unjust's subject, a rabbi named Benjamin Murmelstein who was accused of collaborating with the Nazis: "I’m sorry, you accuse me of sidetracking all the time but one cannot understand things without their context." Each Cutler article contains a narrative outside of the film up for review, usually about the people involved, the directors or actors or subjects. He finds different ways to place films within the context of careers and, more importantly, of lives.

Humanity is his work’s defining characteristic. Grouping films thematically instead of flowing chronologically through a body of work risks missing important points and losing the history of the creator. Criticism is Cutler’s way of sharing a life story in a few paragraphs and letting the world know the character of an artist with whom he connects on some level. He doesn't use superlatives as they tend to soar over a film and the minute, important ways it affects a viewer. He can be meticulous with the details because that's where he understands his strengths often lie, in the simple description of a scene. It may seem elementary but he finds great emotional payoffs in talking about a change of lighting or the nuts and bolts of a performance. His films capsules for The L Magazine and The Village Voice express the height of economy and yet you still know precisely what it is about the film that has touched him. 

In a young critics’ symposium for Cineaste, Cutler tells a lovely anecdote about his first date with his wife, the Brazilian artist Mariana Shellard. They went to see a new 35mm print of Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans together and maudlin though it may sound, that title isn't a terrible way to think about the role that Cutler has given himself as a critic. There is the filmmaker and there is the critic who has been touched by his work, and the song that the critic sings is always one of love: Love for the medium, love for the director, and love for people who might also be touched in the ways he that he has been.

On My Darling Clementine (The Village Voice, 1/22/14)
John Ford is often called a great American filmmaker, but rarely a national poet. He filled space with silence and introspective breaks as well as any Frost or Stevens could, though, even when his subject was as dynamic as the settling of the West. My Darling Clementine (presented in a new restoration on DCP) tells the tale of Wyatt Earp's time as marshal of the town of Tombstone, Arizona, following a brother's death and culminating in his and his family's gunfight with the Clanton gang at the O.K. Corral. Yet the film is really about a death-soaked man falling deeply in love with life. Henry Fonda, cloaked in shadow, plays Earp as firm, responsible, and fundamentally shy; he differs from Fonda's naïve young men of promise in earlier Fords like Young Mr. Lincoln (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940) by carrying a weight of unspoken sadness from losses past. Earp holds himself apart from the town, patrolling it without feeling like a member, until the arrival of sweet nurse Clementine (played by Cathy Downs), who has come to reclaim her former partner, the gentleman-turned-outlaw Dr. John Holliday (Victor Mature). Holliday rejects Clem outright, and the smitten Earp does his best to accommodate her during what they both know will be a brief stay. They step out together one Sunday morning and dance with the other townspeople on a wooden platform where a church will someday be built. At that instant, light floods over them, and for a moment, the couple fits into the group.

On Century of Birthing 
(catalogue description for the 37th São Paulo International Film
Festival in October 2013, when the film was screened within a Lav Diaz retrospective that Cutler helped organize)
A Christian cult led by the forceful Father Tiburcio chants while baptizing new members. A cynical photographer observes the group and thinks about how to destroy it. Meanwhile, a filmmaker named Homer sits at his editing table, taking breaks to talk with an actress about his struggles to finish a film that might resonate with common people. Scenes from Homer’s film sometimes appear showing a nun and a criminal, both of who seek to redeem themselves. All these stories intersect, overlap, and enter into dialogue with each other, in ways explicit as well as implicit. This is one of Diaz’s most troubled, self-investigating films. In it, art is equivalent to religion, with both the filmmaker and the cult leader holding responsibility to potential followers. Neither practice is made out to be better than the other—both can be used for good as well as for evil. It is rather up to people to decide what right and wrong are, and how to use their capacities for each.

On Perceval (The L Magazine, 9/18/13)
[Éric] Rohmer was a Roman Catholic whose contemporary tales of people shyly, fearfully revealing themselves to one another often worked as metaphors for the difficult process of giving oneself over to god. While this, his medieval epic (screening on 16mm), might seem abnormal for him, it's actually a consistent act of faith. The film’s actors inhabit what initially seem to be outlandish circumstances, alternately chanting and singing verses from Chrétien de Troyes’s 12th-century Arthurian poem (translated by Rohmer) in front of colorfully painted backdrops on theatrically artificial sets. Yet they all do so with gravity, grace, and commitment, including Fabrice Luchini as the sweet, young, wide-eyed titular knight who leaves home with an open heart to test himself and face whatever adventures the Lord provides.

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