The Encyclopedia of Film Criticism - Daniel Kasman

Daniel Kasman
I must admit I saw more, much more, in something small due to the titanic vision of something almost too large. Cinema is so full of images it seems like history only remembers that which looms, towering; but perhaps the mysteries of the lesser things are those created by—if not existing on—those towers' shadows.

Contributed to: MUBI, Senses of Cinema, The Chiseler, La Furia Umana, LUMIÈRE, and Cinema Scope

Daniel Kasman (Born 1982) has been the editor at the MUBI Notebook through many changes to the site over many years and, along with Adam Cook, has kept the place a most vital destination for anyone looking for incisive and unique film criticism. He's been breaking down borders and questioning assumptions [look no further than his involvement in posthumously granting Tony Scott the respect he was denied in his lifetime] with grace and deftness since he first started writing criticism. He's a formally adventurous writer and curator, giving time to short form, image-based, long-form, epistolary and conversational criticism. In a given week he could post spare, minimalist entries in the Notebook, or long, winding diary entries about how his experiences of getting to and experiencing a festival can reflect the films on offer. I've mentioned before that his conversations with Fernando F. Croce are some of the most entertaining reads in any given year. Should one ever need a reminder that criticism is as beautiful diverse and nebulous an art form as the one it comments upon, Kasman is always up to the task of providing one. 

Take a look at this entry, a report from a trip to the 2014 Viennale:

It is a joy, of course, to see such grandiose films by Ford as How Green Was My Valley (1940) and The Searchers (1956) on vibrant 35mm prints. (The weak but comparatively experimental shaggy-dog cavalry film She Wore a Yellow Ribbon [1949] positively radiated warmth from its immaculate color quality, restored by the UCLA Film & Televsion Archive.) But better still is that pleasure particular to large retrospectives full of accepted masterpieces to encounter the smaller, more inconsequential films made in-between. Such is certainly the case for 1925's Kentucky Pride, a tale narrated by a once-favorited racing horse (!) and not so much a drama as a quintessentially Fordian combination of sentiment and silliness. Likewise 1933's Will Rogers vehicle, Doctor Bull, one of my favorites and a film, like Vincente Minnelli's The Reluctant Debutante (to pull another favorite), that's an example of a master filmmaker and an A-list actor collaborating on what feels merely a programmer between more ambitious and/or lucrative projects. Such movies have a humility to them that is utterly freeing.

"Freeing" is the keyword there because on top of being what he searches for from film culture, it's also the perfect way to sum up his approach to writing. Look, for instance at the range of entry points he provides, without slavishly sticking to one. They're not only entry points into the movies, but ways that the experience itself can impact him and the film. He's a gripping extra-textual documentarian. In this paragraph he comments first on the way the 35mm prints of the classics improves them, even a "comparatively" minor film like She Wore A Yellow Ribbon [the juxtaposition of "major" and "minor" is a pet theme], then on the way the way the program he attended presses films together in unconventional ways, allowing them to converse with each other. Then he moves onto the way reputations collide to create hybrid art, taking time to impart personal preference and speak openly about his place in the program as an audience member. Letting himself into the pieces and the films does not sap his razor-sharp focus one iota. He's one of the most refreshingly clear-eyed around. His attitude is never  that a film doesn't meet his standard, but rather that it doesn't meet the standard he knows cinema capable of. And on top of all that, his prose can be delightfully labyrinthine when he finds himself on a roll, a thing to behold. Kasman's understanding of the essence of a filmmaker makes his shorthand intensely satisfying. Look at the asides in this sentence from a review of Steven Soderbergh's Che

If The Argentine recalls Preminger and Exodus, the second part of Che, called Guerilla and detailing the man’s failed attempt to move the revolution to Bolivia, recalls Merrill’s Marauders (1962), though certainly not Samuel Fuller’s brute forcefulness as a filmmaker. A more accomplished film, though to a degree less interesting because less baffling than the indeterminate angle of attack that The Argentine takes, the second half of Soderbergh’s film grasps more firmly the physical sense of guerilla life.

His rhythm here, not to mention the "forcefulness," to use his own phrase, tonally communicate his feeling for the film as well as his individual points. His writing here and elsewhere at times recalls the style of Ghostface Killah, taking gamble after gamble on sentence structure and focus that most writers wouldn't dream of attempting, and getting it right every time. Indeed it's not hard to imagine his last sentence in one of Ghostface's verse's on the Wu-Tang Clan song "Gravel Pit." Kasman's created a safe space for exploration of every facet of film and criticism at the Notebook and his own writing has always led the charge toward ever more freedom of expression and form. 

On The Hole:
One thing I’ve found consistent in the handful of film festival experiences I’ve had is that by a certain point you’ve seen so much sloppiness that when a crafty movie comes along, one made with skilled deliberation and mature filmmaking, there is a danger of overrating its supreme comparative steadiness and experience.  At Toronto this year, Joe Dante’s The Hole is the embodiment of that phenomenon.  Its first act alone is made with such inspired knowhow of how to stage a dramatic scene, how to express and use space, and how to define in human terms genre-based characters—in short, are directed with such expressive expertise—that the relief at being in the hands of someone of obvious experienced talent was palpable, regardless of whether the film would stand as highly on its own.

The Hole suffers from a similar problem as Claire Denis’s White Material in being fundamentally rooted in its screenplay, an heavy-weighted anchor to the imagination.  Still, Dante is one of our foremost spirits of imagination, and let’s count our lucky stars that he’s still getting money to make feature films (his last was 2003’s Loony Tunes: Back in Action); unfortunately with The Hole he is hampered by the overbearing literalness of the Mark L. Smith’s script.  When a single mother (Teri Polo) and her two sons (Chris Massoglia and Nathan Gamble) arrive in a new town and the boys, along with their next door neighbor (Haley Bennett), discover a hole under their house that opens to an endless void, the potential for horror is beautifully evoked and modulated.  Dante keeps the scale of the idea in check and focuses on the various ways the kids explore their new found fantastical feature, how at first it treads the line between creating wonder and horror, and the regular, highly suburbanized ways the boys start and stop their investigations, hide their discovery from their mom, and otherwise integrate supreme weirdness into their every-days lives.  But once the titular void starts literalizing each child’s fears so that they may over come them, there’s little Dante’s directorial imagination can do to enliven a plodding series of supposedly fearful confrontations.

On Redbelt:
With a Mamet film, we can be propelled forward on the confident completeness with which the writer/director thinks he has crafted his characters. Whether or not they are whole, or even meaningful, they nevertheless exist and move like defined masses, whose only purpose is to exhibit their own definition, secureness, and resiliency by coming into volatile contact with other such masses. Lean little planets in orbit, they are dying for a galactic collision that will never come in a cinema so pre-determined. But at least in the best of Mamet there is a sense of melancholy recognition, the awareness that since everything has been set up from the beginning—in both senses, Mamet being a dialog writer above all else, and that so many of his films feature elaborate confidence games—a character should accept the sad fate of never exploding gloriously, never being truly tested for this philosophical wholeness Mamet's killer dialog encases everyone in. The over-determination eliminates the spectacular but it does provide a fast ride of confidence, stories and characters skating forward with believable momentum and weight on rails to the end of their films.

On Kinatay:
Dedicate a movie to one thing, respect the singular attention of the camera, and a film should be rich enough to overcome just about anything.  Brillante Mendoza gives almost half of his film Kinatay to the nocturnal drive of a group of policemen out of Manila to its suburbs, and another half hour of night awaits them at their destination, a police black site.  This rich vision of so much gloom, dim suspension, no action, no spectacle, no drama is a beautiful thing, something out of an avant-garde film dedicated to textures, subtle shifts in color, and spatial uncertainty of a sunless world.  There is a story of course, of a young police trainee just married (that very day!) taken along on an off -he-books mission to torture a drug addicted stripper, and for a long time Mendoza plays the story like Haneke’s Funny Games (or a Park film), building up the audience’s desire for his hero to act violently, here to lash out at his sadistic superiors.  And some of Kinatay is that tasteless, with its handholding music (riffing off of Kubrick’s synth scores for A Clockwork Orange and Full Metal Jacket) and artless, didactic cutaways That Explain Motivation by showing the cops’ horrific acts, the home that must be thought of.  But, as with Mendoza’s previous film Serbis, the rest of the movie is given as a handheld dedication to space—there, a porno theater, here, a sinister, anonymous police van traveling great distances at night for the purpose of terrible things, and later a torture house.  But it is a space of obscurity, of uncertainty in a morally certain situation, and so the space, covered and run over again and again by the roving camera, takes on an abstraction nearly outside the story itself.   A palette of sleek grays makes a death grip on this film that started—again, didactically—in daylight with a marriage, and Kinatay’s immersion into nightfall stands strong, splendidly, as independent force. 

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