IN THE CINÉMA CLUB OF… NICK PINKERTON
Frequently in the pages of Film Comment, Artforum, and Sight & Sound, Nick Pinkerton’s writing sheds light on unsung and misunderstood moving image artists. But his new book on Tsai Ming-liang’s Goodbye, Dragon Inn demonstrates something deeper: that the Cincinnati-born critic’s best work, both analytical and personal, explores where film culture has gone and where it might take us. Based in Brooklyn, Pinkerton publishes long-form pieces on his Substack, Employee Picks; recent deep-dives include Claude Chabrol and physical media collections. Adjacent to EP, he’s also gearing up to launch a full-color zine, Bombast, in collaboration with Seattle’s Beacon Cinema.
We asked Pinkerton to share five films he loves, from Hong Kong hardcore to no-budget New Jersey horror.
THE DEVIL, PROBABLY, Robert Bresson, 1977
An absolutely abnegatory film with a “structure”—if you want to call it that—that’s essentially a litany of refusals and renouncements. When I was an undergrad I used to go onto eBay to salivate over available originals of the Raymond Savignac–designed poster for the movie, the most beautiful poster of all time, which were out of my price range. In 2018, when I moved into my present apartment following a breakup, I finally took the plunge and bought one, a bus shelter–sized job, and got it framed by the obviously alcoholic loon who ran a framing shop across from my place, which has since gone out of business. I still couldn’t afford the poster or the frame or the apartment, but I was still the kind of miserable prick who self-identified heavily with this film, so it seemed fitting that it should decorate the walls of my mausoleum.
TRILOGY OF LUST, Julie Lee & Tun-Fei Mou, 1995
My buddy Louie Miller, a talented sound recordist and all-around Renaissance man, passed this jawn along to me recently. We’d individually been pigging out on Hong Kong Category III stuff—a designation introduced in HK in 1988 to indicate films forbidden to viewers under eighteen—and he’d been feeding me some gems. It’s hardcore, and I’m not too well-versed in Hong Kong hardcore, but as in all things cinematic, the Fragrant Harbor excelled in this category. The film’s female lead, Julie Lee, is credited as co-director, which is really interesting, and she and her co-stars show a remarkable ability to stay in character while fucking in frequently acrobatic positions, which has to be difficult. The film’s IMDb synopsis is unimprovable: “A sensitive poor girl gets sold to a moronic fish dealer who wants to do some perverse sexual practices with her. However, she falls in love with a young gardener boy and both start having a passionate sex affair. After this guy kills the fish dealer and his mother, they have to flee from the police.” Lee’s sensitive poor girl comes from the Mainland and the moronic fish dealer is a Hong Konger. In classic pre-handover Hong Kong form, both places are roundly indicted. You’ve got some suggestive eel-stroking and egg eroticism worthy of Bataille and much else besides. Lou felt the movie made the act of physical love look kind of gross, but I thought it was rather sweet, and it reminded me of something that I’d once found touching in Bataille and in certain Allen Ginsberg poems: an almost religious faith in the transcendent power of transgressive sexuality. Nobody seems to believe in that now, perhaps with good reason, but the stuff they’re into instead is way more off-putting.
RETURN AT DAWN, Henri Decoin, 1938
Danielle Darrieux, married to director Decoin at the time of filming, gives an enormously sensitive, totally alive performance. She plays a Hungarian country lass who has her head briefly turned by the bright lights of Budapest upon leaving her stationmaster husband for a day to head into the big city and collect an inheritance. She’s ever-so-beautifully shot in this French production set in (and partly filmed in) Hungary; director and star are really in love and it comes across.
THE DEMON’S WALTZ, Ryan Callaway, 2021
My pal Jeff Cashvan turned me on to this guy Ryan Callaway, and we went to see the premiere of his latest in Red Bank, New Jersey, which is of course also home to Kevin Smith's comic book shop. The very prolific Callaway, working in the Garden State with a small troupe of actors, several recurring, turns out no-budget genre movies very ingeniously and humbly, and with no apparent commercial ambitions. Per the website for his Shady Dawn Pictures: “We don’t necessarily strive for ‘Hollywood’, we just hope to continue making movies that people see (and some really enjoy) and if they get bigger and bigger.... cool.” Cool! The performances Callaway gets are uniformly strong—I especially like Sophia Zalipsky, also in 2020’s Let’s Not Meet in the Woods—and his films, at least those I’ve seen, create this very specific universe: a recognizable middle-class Monmouth County where both God and the Devil are actively at work, battling it out in the piney woods. There’s one scene in this movie that opens in a long shot with two women in a room, one reading a letter, presumably aloud to the other, with her back to the camera—but then it cuts to a frontal medium close-up where her lips aren’t moving. It’s a voice-over! It’s disarming and strange and poignant and constructed in a way few professionals would think to make it. Anyways, people like Ryan and Sophia are keeping cinema alive. I admire them a lot.
SHADOWS OF FORGOTTEN ANCESTORS, Sergei Parajanov, 1967
I don’t know if I did a lousy job at this list, but it just didn’t seem very useful to tell people that I liked Vertigo or whatever, which of course I do. My point is that there are tons of interesting movies out there, all kinds of them, just waiting to scramble your DNA. For example: throw this bad boy on, for the first time or for the fiftieth. And my God! What a shot to the arm! “Hey, man, is that ‘Freedom Rock’? Well, turn it up, man!”