The World Viewed: 10 Years of Reverse Shot
Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait
A decade may have passed, but Reverse Shot co-founders and editors Jeff Reichert and Michael Koresky vividly remember the birthday celebration at Dallas BBQ (complete with giant blue cocktails) that gave birth to the online film journal. Tired of endless talk of the “death of film,” Reverse Shot’s editors aimed to show a way forward, or rather, how filmmakers themselves are already showing the way. The first edition—a humble magazine-cum-newsletter held together with a single staple and paid for out-of-pocket by Reichert, Koresky, Neal Block, and Erik Syngle—was distributed at key New York film venues like BAM, the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and the late, great video emporium Mondo Kim’s.
The Museum of the Moving Image marked the journal’s 10-year anniversary recently with the series “The Life of Film: Celebrating a Decade of Reverse Shot.” As part of the program, current and former Reverse Shot writers joined chief curator David Schwartz and FILM COMMENT’s own Kent Jones to discuss the state of film and film criticism. The panel capped four days of screenings, guest-curated by Reichert and Koresky, that included a preview of To the Wonder as well as revivals of The Headless Woman, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, and Primer.
Those early print editions of Reverse Shot emulated a classical magazine structure, with a set of critical essays and reviews of new releases and DVDs, but the journal has since established its own protean form. Published quarterly, the issues are based on “symposiums,” which center on filmmakers or themes that reflect current events or are hitched to particular approaches to film, such as close readings of the use of color. Its 30-plus contributors have gone from being new voices in the New York film criticism scene to part of established film culture. (Koresky, for example, worked as assistant editor at FILM COMMENT and is now staff writer for the Criterion Collection.)
The Headless Woman
Reading Reverse Shot can be akin to perusing a writer’s cherished, unabashedly enthusiastic essay that she labored on until she was certain she’d made a personal breakthrough. The journal’s particular brand of cinephilia is obsessive but inclusive; it does not contain citations like fellow film journals Rouge or La Furia Umana, and words like “intertextuality” and “heteroglossia” are not thrown around. The quality of the writing is not only top-notch, thanks to an unusually thorough editorial process, but Reverse Shot’s writers manage to share their love for the medium as much as they display their taste and knowledge.
A key goal has been to make Reverse Shot accessible to a relatively wide audience. For the “Takes” series of issues, contributors were asked to write a complete essay on a single shot, color, cut, or instance of sound design; each article breaks down these elements of filmmaking in a way someone who hasn’t been to film school can appreciate. One senses that Reverse Shot would be just as happy having a thoughtful newbie stumble onto the site as a kindred spirit pumping her fist in agreement with a writer’s take on the lighting in Béla Tarr's Werckmeister Harmonies.
Past symposiums have focused on American elections on film (near the onset of the second Iraq War) and New Queer Cinema (around the time of Proposition 8, in an issue called “RS Prop 24”). Reichert describes these symposiums as “bringing the films, some of which are old, some new, into dialogue with what is happening around us.” They also afford the opportunity for writers to bring to bear singular perspectives: “It’s important for us to stop, take stock and really reflect on our own personal relationship to individual films. In daily criticism, you don’t need to have the ‘I’ in things, but for what we do, I think it can be valuable.” Auteurs that have received a spotlight include Olivier Assayas, Claire Denis, Tsai Ming-liang, and Steven Spielberg, the last of whom has been given the treatment in two separate issues. (Koresky hopes one day to turn the latter into a Reverse Shot monograph.)
On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate
Part of the journal’s mission is to pinpoint “the ‘now’ in contemporary cinema,” which includes what Koresky calls “middlebrow films.” The resulting eclectic selection of films introduces a loyal readership to previously undiscovered directors. The “East Meets West” issue from 2004, which presented eleven essays comparing a single film from East Asia with an American film, is an early example of this attempt to be both comprehensive and expansive. Koresky put Spielberg’s The Terminal up against Jia Zhang-ke’s The World: “Spielberg’s vision may be refreshingly optimistic, but it is also depressingly reductive; Jia’s portrait feels genuinely connected, yet it’s also surpassingly grim.”
For the same issue, Reichert wrote about Hong Sang-soo’s On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate and Garden State. He begins the essay with an insight that exemplifies the independent-minded analysis that has continued at Reverse Shot: “The face of new South Korean cinema looks a lot like the face of American Independent cinema of the mid-to-late Nineties, given that [Chan-wook] Park’s [Oldboy] draws so much of its power from the mixture of high-concept aesthetics and lowbrow generic appropriations that we’ve been bombarded with since Tarantino.” Ultimately, Reichert asks if directors like Park, Hong, and Lee Chang-dong are “nothing more than film lovers’ alternate-universe box-office champions.” He concludes by provocatively asking: “Who’s creating their relevance—them, or us?”
In another symposium, “On Demand,” contributors were asked to assess how their feelings have changed regarding a certain film they’ve often rewatched. Reichert wrote about Return of the Jedi, his favorite childhood film, and his reappraisal is rigorous, self-reflexive, and heartfelt—that is, very Reverse Shot. In her essay for the most recent Spielberg symposium, Farihah Zaman takes an enlightening and provocative look at Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (84). She frames what she sees as in many ways a racist and sexist romp as an early ode to Bollywood. Zaman also recalls “how strange it was watch[ing] a film that so consistently and fundamentally stereotypes South Asian culture with a bunch of my fellow Desis” as a child. Bringing her childhood experience back to the present, Zaman notes that India, not Indy, got the last laugh, when Spielberg signed a multi-billion dollar deal with a Mumbai-based film group after his 2008 break with Paramount.
Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
Reverse Shot has also pushed into video through a series of interviews with directors and actors called “The Talkies,” hosted by critic Eric Hynes. (Reichert, a filmmaker himself with two documentaries under his belt, in addition to a career in distribution and marketing, directed and edited the shorts.) Instead of the sit-down interviews usually allotted to press, Reverse Shot would try to get an hour with each subject, often taking them to non-traditional, even cheekily chosen locations. When Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives came out, they spoke with director Apichatpong Weerasethakul deep within Central Park, “in a place that looked almost like the jungle.” For another interview, Hynes took turns shooting foam arrows with actor Michael Fassbender, an accomplished archer. The playful scenario (literally) disarmed Fassbender, who opened up about his childhood and his time working as a bartender. For Fast Food Nation, the team brought director Richard Linklater to a butcher, only to discover that the dedicated vegetarian was less than pleased with the choice of venue.
What keeps Reverse Shot’s writers in the game, as much as any hope of others reading their work, is the journal's palpable sense of community and cinephilia. The relationships that have emerged from Reverse Shot, many of them long-standing, clearly contribute to the publication’s vitality. At the Sunday panel, Hynes explained why Reverse Shot is such a special place for both writers and movie-lovers: “Writing for them I can go deep and long . . . while maintaining my voice. Back when I started writing for Reverse Shot, there was nothing like it, which I still think is the case.” An opinionated bunch, the panelists nodded in unison.