Monday, April 21, 2008

Blogs as public transportation, conversation and self-examination.

by Ryland Walker Knight

peeking out

Girish asks every blogger's favorite question, "Why do you blog?" and there's already a lot of generous, thoughtful replies, as ever. Here's my rambling auto-critique. It doesn't do itself justice. It doesn't even answer the question that well. But I figured it'd been a while since I put anything up over here so here y'are. Now, back to work on that blasted Honors Thesis.

I dropped out of college four years ago. My college career has been one long, stupid story that began eight years ago at UC Santa Cruz in 2000. After that waste of time, I had a part-time pit stop at a junior college from 2001-03 before transferring to UC Berkeley for the 03-04 school year. I finally realized, with the help of some financial headaches, that I had never enjoyed any of my university level learning. I was, for the most part, happiest in auto-didact mode. I left school and began bouncing around, away from Berkeley, to Seattle and New York and back, not really "doing" much beyond working, reading on public transportation and watching movies.

Like many young people, or so I imagine, I put a lot of value in my taste during that period of my life. I was proud to like this or that; angry if you did not. I bullied my ex-girlfriend and our friends into new opinions, routinely steered conversation back to those silly topics of movies and music and books only to show off some new bit of knowledge I'd gleaned. I think my impulse to return to school, in the summer of 06, stemmed from that snobbery, when I'm honest with myself. I noticed that I hadn't written anything in a long time and before that I'd only written fiction outside of school. (Like the good drop out I was, I wrote a novel--a really awful novel--during my time away.) At work, I spent a lot of time arguing movies on the craigslist forums, where I first encountered, and struck an accord with, Steven Boone and Brian Darr. So, with encouragement from my forum friend Suzi, I went over to that blogspot account I'd started after dropping out and decided I would blog about movies, if only to try to hone my writing skills for my return to school. Looking back at some of those early entries it's a wonder to see how much stronger my writing is, how much more comfortable a writer I am, now. I tried not to self-promote my blog out of timidity, really, although I was much more active on certain blogs' comments threads then. Never did I think I could attract an audience. Much less the eyes of Matt Zoller Seitz, who, by November that year, asked me (and Steve) to start writing for The House Next Door. I think that's when I started to get serious about the blog, about writing.

Then I went back to school. The other day my good friend Cuyler said, "Surprisingly? We've learned a lot in a year and a half." I replied, "Yeah, but it feels like intangibles." School taught me, more than anything, a humility and generosity (that I'm still trying to put into practice) I did not have before. I think I'm a better reader now, sure -- I'm definitely a more generous reader, even though, on occasion, kneejerk habits pop up -- but I think I have a better take on living, too. Even if I still procrastinate; and even if get turned off by certain things (ahem, fellow students/sections) to the detriment of my studies (ahem, GPA).

So why blog? It's a question I ask a lot, too. Part of it, I'll admit, is a kind of careerism. I'm hanging on to that pipe dream that I may, one day, get paid real money to write something. (Or, more simply, that I may write for more outlets when I'm done with schoolwork in the coming months and I get to choose what I write about and when I want to write it.) In the meantime I can throw together little arguments when I please and maybe strike up a conversation about the object at hand. But I often find that the comments threads on other blogs are rarely as generous or humble as the threads we enjoy here at your blog, Girish. Even at my own, when I do get a random thought shared. For this reason I've kind of retreated from blogging in 2008. As much as blogs offer one a public forum to practice writing, there's always the danger of trolls and nihilist cretins out there trying to shut down conversations with posture. I stifle those urges, generally, because I don't want to perpetuate pointless arguments of taste. What I hope to offer is good criticism that argues for the real value of a film, or a book, or a song, or a poem, or a play, or a photograph; that is to say, of life. I'd like my blog to incorporate as much of my worldly interests as possible. I hope I go river rafting this summer. And if I do, I hope to share. Cuz, as fun as movies are, there's a lot else out there. Like Michael Jackson's Off The Wall. Say, Girish, while we're in the arena of almost-dance music, have you happened to listen to Cut Copy? Over on that other (silly) blog Cuyler and I started, freeNIKES!, I've linked to some of their songs. I wholly recommend both of their full length records. They're very 80s in a good way: not glib or facile but smart and fun. Here's my favorite song on their new album. It's superficially saccharine but these boys really know some things.

Thanks again for the stimulating post. It's a big question ("why?"s generally are, aren't they?) so I hope this epic, tangential, indulgent answer isn't boring. Also, thanks, Michael and Tucker, for your honest, open replies. Made me comfortable to share mine.


  1. Ry, I want to thank you for taking the time to share those great personal stories. I loved reading 'em.

    Thanks also for introducing me to Cut Copy. Seriously: I need to pick up that album right away!

  2. And is that Cary in To Catch A Thief? I spot a striped shirt, which signifies...La France?

  3. Yes it is _To Catch A Thief_. For some reason that still seemed fitting since it's a film often read quite un-generously and because I often think all I'm doing is poking my head up to the surface of some delightful field of activity, of beauty, even, when I go ahead and offer something to the 'sphere--either as a comment or a full fledged ViH post.

    As for La France, it's cool, I guess, but that movie is still all about America. Or so I think. And, really, it's just another opportunity to post a cool picture of Cary Grant, my favorite of many movie stars. There's so much color in _Thief_! Such a fine pair with _NxNW_ (so devoid of colors) when you think about it. I don't know if I'm going to take the time to write about it in my thesis so it's still a double bill I'd love to argue for at some point. So many projects... well, at least I know how to keep my brain busy. (Not sure I ever stepped out of auto-didact mode.)

  4. Funny that now you're probably my most frequent commenter, Girish, of all the other bloggers and lurkers and friends out there. Or, you're give Virgil P a run for his money...

  5. Another note: One thing I have thought again and again, looking at my betters pump out piece after piece, is that I simply don't have as much to say as somebody like David Bordwell. Seriously: that dude doesn't quit. I voiced this concern to a friend and mentor and he said, "Maybe it's a just fear of offering nothing new to the conversation. Some people simply don't have that problem: they need to be heard no matter what. You seem to want to make sure every thing you write will add something."

    I don't want to say that Bordwell doesn't add anything to our conversation; rather, he has an agenda. I'm still learning what my place is, and where to locate my time. I figure I can offer a few things of value to our conversation, sure, like a defense of those _Pirates_ movies, but I often worry (probably too much) that I'm covering something somebody else has already covered. (Although I know that I will always see something different than my betters by simple virtue that I am a different person with a different perspective.) Still, it was a lot of fun watching and writing about those Costa pictures. As is it fun to write about Michael Mann and Terrence Malick and Daniel Plainview and Stanley Cavell and Manny Farber and Paul Ricoeur and Hans-Georg Gadamer and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and and and and...

  6. As always, Ry, lots of thought-provoking points in there.

    I've been nothing but an auto-didact all my life; I've gotten used to its rewards and frustrations. I'm formally schooled up to my eyeballs in the engineering/quantitative disciplines and completely unschooled in everything else. I haven't had a humanities course (let alone film) since I left high school. (That's how technical schools work in India.)

    I often fantasize about how cool it would've been to go to school for cinema studies or music or philosophy or French. But then I realize that I should simply make the most of where I am and what I have today...

    On the good side, I love how every new insight seems so *hard-won* and sweet-tasting for an auto-didact...

    I know what you mean about the impulse to not say something until you feel you are really and truly adding something new, BUT...

    "(Although I know that I will always see something different than my betters by simple virtue that I am a different person with a different perspective.)"

    Don't underestimate this. You have a clear, distinct, thoughtful voice that comes from a very personal place. No matter how 'familiar' the film or filmmaker you might choose to discuss, what you say will make others' ears perk up. (It always makes *my* ears perk up.)

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