Jonathan David Kirshner is Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Boston College. His research and teaching focuses on international relations, political economy, politics and film. His current research includes projects on classical realism, the international political implications of the financial crisis and its aftermath, and the politics of mid-century cinema. Prior to this role, Jonathan was the Stephen and Barbara Friedman Professor of International Political Economy in the Department of Government at Cornell University.
Founded in 1967, Cineaste is today widely regarded as one of the most important film quarterlies published anywhere in the world. The journal’s unique editorial focus is reflected in the in-depth nature of its feature articles and interviews, as well as its reviews, written by leading film critics, journalists, and scholars.
1) Do you remember a specific moment that kickstarted your love of cinema?
Yes and no. I’m of the generation that always went to the movies, and so I don’t remember ever not always going to the movies, which means there was no “a-ha” moment for me that can serve as an origin story. But I can pinpoint a particular watershed experience that changed my relationship with the movies — it happened at the legendary St. Marks Cinema on the Lower East Side during my first year of grad school. In college I had transitioned from avid movie-watcher to active cinephile (back then that’s what we did in college, too — went to the movies — but instead of the latest hits, increasingly obscure features screened at the student-run campus film club). Soon enough I was assiduously working my way through Hitchcock — a cliché to be sure, but Hitchcock, who was both prolific and a brilliant formal stylist, was and remains a great place to start one’s informal film education. And as a committed completist, tracking down every Hitch was a bit of an obsession. And that led me to the St. Marks, to catch one of his obscurities on the big screen. It was on a double bill with Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil. I came for the Hitchcock — which I loved — but Touch of Evil just blew me away. It opened my eyes to the possibility of cinema as an art form, and I’ve been hooked ever since.
2) Which review that you’ve written for Cineaste are you most proud of?
Well, in Cineaste I’m most proud of my essay on Agnes Varda — but that’s not a review, it’s a feature. As for reviews . . . again, I have an indirect answer for you. I’ve reviewed new films, new books, and home video releases. Of these I very much prefer the latter. Because, although I can easily name a dozen critics whose reviews I cherish (and I have shelves full of their collected writings), I actually have mixed feelings about the concept of the “review.” I’m not really interested in telling someone whether a film is “good” or “bad” — and I think all critics need to keep in mind that they are not quite “in the arena.” Someone — hundreds of artists, usually — have collaborated to produce something. And then a critic drives by, gives a look, offers a definitive opinion, and moves on. Now, obviously, I’m heavily invested in criticism, but I most favor writing about newly available editions of older films, because, almost invariably, the remit is more to engage in analysis rather than critique. Great criticism, I think, leaves the reader thinking about the film in a different and hopefully stimulating way. And with that truckload of qualifications behind me, I guess I’d count Bertrand Tavernier’s The Clockmaker, and the raucous Chris Hedegus/D. A. Pennebaker documentary Town Bloody Hall among my favorite reviews.
3) Why have you decided to focus your research on the films and filmmakers of the middle of the 20th century (1941–1979)?
Once I started getting very seriously into film — not just watching movies, but writing about them and teaching film classes — I instinctively gravitated towards the American films of the New Hollywood Era. That movement, which thrived between the end of the Censorship Code in 1966 and the emergence of the blockbuster model in 1977, generated films that most excited me — Five Easy Pieces, Midnight Cowboy, Klute, Mean Streets — that familiar list goes on and on. And my two books on film, Hollywood’s Last Golden Age: Politics, Society and the Seventies Film in America, and When the Movies Mattered: The New Hollywood Revisited (co-edited with Jon Lewis), focus on that period. But in imagining my sweet spot (although there are lots of contemporary films I love and filmmakers I revere), I lean back towards 1941 because, in a phrase, “nothing comes from nowhere.” And the New Hollywood was enormously influenced by the international cinemas of the postwar era, most obviously the French New Wave, as well as by the film mavericks and subcultures (like film noir) that thrived within the studio system of the 1940s and 1950s.
4) Do you have any predictions for how the film industry will change over the next 20 years?
No. But I will say this: even though the suits and the studios can be trusted to do the wrong thing, great films will always be made. It’s just a question of tracking them down.
5) Do you have any work coming out soon you’d like to let our readers know about?
I have no big film studies projects currently in the pipeline, but I do have two brand new books out: The Downfall of the American Order? (co-edited with Peter Katzenstein) and An Unwritten Future: Realism and Uncertainty in World Politics.
Thank you Jonathan for being part of the #MeetTheContributor blog series!
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