Around this time last year I made a series of video essays in collaboration with several film critics in advance of the 2012 Sight & Sound poll of all-time greatest films. One video I wasn’t able to complete in time featured Keith Uhlich, staff critic for Time Out New York, member of the New York Film Critics Circle and someone who played an essential part of my cinephile development during my New York days. One year later, on the week of his birthday, I present the results of our afternoon of filming while watching one of his all-time favorite films: Jonathan Mostow’s Breakdown.
If you raised an eyebrow or uttered a “Huh?” at that title, you share my own initial response. But that choice didn’t wholly surprise me, as Keith has arguably the most idiosyncratic tastes of any critic I know. His top ten list from the 2000s still spins my head: there’s Aqua Teen Hunger Force Colon Movie Film for Theaters; Coppola’s Youth Without Youth; Looney Tunes: Back in Action; but there are also films for which I share his passion: Miami Vice and The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein. But whatever his likes or dislikes, Keith doesn’t stake them for the sake of seeking fatuous attention as a contrarian. If his sensibilities are startling, they are also immensely sincere. More than just about anyone with whom I talk movies, discussing films with Keith is a bit of a gut check, often leading me to reconnect my reactions to a film, be they visceral or cerebral, to a baseline personal honesty, ignoring the nerve-numbing influence of conventional wisdom.
You can sense that naked immediacy in how Keith watches Breakdown in this video. His reactions show someone completely vulnerable and open to a film that, in his view, achieves the perfect apotheosis of classic, pre-digital Hollywood action filmmaking. Watching the video, there’s something unsettling, even obscene, in having voyeuristic access to someone in the throes of cinematic pleasure. But Keith has been able to make that enthrallment his critical métier, confronting and exploring the ineffable traumas of the cinematic senses, however irrationally pleasurable or depraved they may be, whether they be found in respectable auteur films like Fritz Lang’s Spies, Luis Bunuel’s L’age d’or or Andrei Tarkovsky’s The Mirror; unbridled pop like Step Up 3-D or Sucker Punch; or a confoundingly defiant work like The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein that stands doggedly apart from both mainstream and arthouse criteria for quality. It seems that for Keith, the best moments of cinema are the ones that live up to the title of Mostow’s film: breaking us down, ripping away our socially-constructed rationales and defenses, returning our cinephile identities to a neonatal state.
Video: Keith Uhlich’s Cinema Breakdown
The setting of our video, Keith’s living room, is fitting for this public record of a private viewing, as it’s where I first emerged as a cinephile debutante into the real-life social circles of New York cinephilia. Keith invited me there shortly after we first met during the legendary 2005 Mikio Naruse retrospective at New York’s Film Forum. In the beautiful Brooklyn brownstone he shares with Dan Callahan, a formidable critic in his own right, I and just about every other New York cinephile I know have enjoyed countless home screenings, as well as epic Oscar parties, holiday feasts and other occasions for gathering (if there wasn’t a proper occasion, we’d make up an improper one). Their home is where I got to first meet a number of critics I hold in high regard, and where my cinephile life escaped its confinement in anonymous screening rooms or private computer screens and immersed itself a non-virtual community of people I will forever cherish. How fitting that this was made possible by the hospitality of a consummately personal and personable lover of film.
Keith Uhlich’s Ten Greatest Films of All Time, submitted for the 2012 Sight & Sound Film Poll
Spione / Spies (1928, Fritz Lang)
L’age d’or (1930, Luis Bunuel)
The Reckless Moment (1949, Max Ophuls)
Late Chrysanthemums (1954, Mikio Naruse)
Les Demoiselles de Rochefort (1967, Jacques Demy)
The Mirror (1974, Andrei Tarkovsky)
L’Argent (1983, Robert Bresson)
Breakdown (1997, Jonathan Mostow)
The Mad Songs of Fernanda Hussein (2001, John Gianvito)
Certified Copy (2010, Abbas Kiarostami)
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.