Nick Pinkerton has been a working New York City-based film critic since 2003, but his journey into cinephilia began as a Cincinnati kid informed by everything from Punk Rock to The Little Rascals. And now, nearly 20 years into a writing life he’s made into a vocation, Pinkerton has witnessed the publication of his first book, Goodbye, Dragon Inn, a meditation on Taiwanese filmmaker Tsai Ming-Liang’s 2003 movie of the same name.
Tsai’s elegiac, often unexpectedly funny masterpiece of minimalism is set amid the closing of a once-glittering old-school movie palace in Taipei — a turn of events that, rather coincidently, ended up mirroring our contemporary pandemic-induced shutdown.
“I wrote about Goodbye, Dragon Inn when it came out, and it was not the first piece that I put out into the world, but it was pretty close to it,” Pinkerton says in a recent phone conversation, his booming voice coming through loud and clear from his apartment in Brooklyn, New York.
“And for a first book to be able to circle back to where I began writing about films, that seemed like it had potential to be a pretty interesting exercise. A first book, even if it is a little book, that does feel like some kind of milestone. So why not, in getting there, start back at the very beginning?”
That early review appeared in Reverse Shot, a then-fledgling publication whose rise to relevance coincided with the Ohio native’s; Pinkerton moved to New York City mere months earlier after deciding his studies in the film production program at Wright State University were not going to yield the results he wanted.
“Part of the appeal of writing is that you could do it and you didn’t have all that overhead and all of the sort of logistical complications,” Pinkerton says of his move from filmmaker to film reviewer. “You could do it entirely yourself and it would have whatever integrity that you had. It just seemed a lot more readily graspable than film work did.”
Pinkerton cut his critical teeth over the next several years writing for not only Reverse Shot but also becoming a valuable contributor to The Village Voice, carving out a unique place on the critical landscape through his interest in and understanding of high and low culture. He has championed mainstream staples like Clint Eastwood and Steven Spielberg alongside such esoteric figures as Portuguese filmmaker Jean Garret (whose 1986 film Fuk Fuk à Brasileira Pinkerton describes as “a sort of sci-fi porno picaresque”) and Jim Van Bebber, an Ohio native whose 1988 cult favorite Deadbeat at Dawn is a Hong Kong-inspired absurdist action flick centering on a street gang in Dayton, Ohio.
The latter two films where subjects of lengthy explorations on Pinkerton’s recently emergent Substack page and includes this bit of insight on Deadbeat at Dawn, which could also double as the writer’s own mission statement: “Its intention is to thrill and to entertain and to nauseate, all of which I believe are among the highest ambitions of art, but in pursuing these ambitions it also manages to show us a register of American experience that’s rarely reflected in commercial American films — something unvarnished about the vast section of the nation that is sometimes dismissed as ‘flyover country.’ ”
“I had very weird-kid taste when I was a pre-adolescent,” Pinkerton says. “I loved Godzilla and all the related critters. I also had a huge affection for Laurel and Hardy and The Three Stooges, which is rather strange for a boy in the 1980s.”
Pinkerton grew up in Cincinnati, graduating from Wyoming High School before heading to Wright State. His parents took him to the various Showcase Cinemas in the area as a kid, but by junior high he was ready to move on to more adventurous fare.
“I started getting into Punk Rock and all that adolescent rebel, jerk-off stuff,” he says. “I was not really into my surroundings in Wyoming. I wanted to be downtown where there were squatters and grimy stuff going on. Part of that was also going to the movies as often as possible.”
That included screenings by the Cincinnati Film Society and trips to the Real Movies, a noted repertory theater on Race Street where Cincinnati World Cinema now resides.
“The one that really stands out to me as a kind of 'Saul on the road to Damascus' moment is the rerelease of the restored Vertigo at a midnight screening at Real Movies and just absolutely having my mind blown. There are a lot of piquant memories from that period because I started getting into everything that I basically remain into at that point when I was in eighth and ninth grade.”
Pinkerton’s work as a critic is marked by rigorous research and a rare predilection for the unexplored corners of film history. His dedication has resulted in bylines in such film-culture bigwigs as Sight & Sound, Artforum and Film Comment. He’s also carved out a niche as a creator of Blu-ray/DVD liner notes and audio commentary tracks for distributors like the Criterion Collection and Kino.
All of which brings us back to his book on Goodbye, Dragon Inn.
“Part of it was just thinking about what could sustain a book-length mediation,” Pinkerton says when he was approached by Firefly Press to contribute to its Decadent Editions series, which will feature 10 books on 10 films, one for every year in the 2000s. “I had to be sure not just that it was a movie that I liked and thought had things of interest to it in terms of style and approach but also seemed to encapsulate something about not only the time that it was made but also anticipated something about the tectonic changes that were going to be happening to movies in the years ahead. And Goodbye, Dragon Inn seemed particularly well suited in that regard because this is before the DCP (digital cinema package) change-over, before the rise of streaming giants. You still have this kind of unbroken thread going back to more or less the dawn of cinema and this consistent understanding what cinema-going is — when you go to a big room with a bunch of other people and some film is run through a projector.
“Well ahead of the curve, I think Tsai maybe intuited that this was going to change enormously,” Pinkerton continues. “Of course, there had been all sort of ruptures and changes, which were reflected in his movie, but in representing those changes, I think he also suggests that continuity of change. And that gave me a lot of grist for the mill and space to branch off into different directions.”
And, as movie theaters begin to reopen and we go back to some sort of “normal,” Pinkerton hopes we gain a new appreciation for how vital an experience moviegoing can and should be — especially in the realm of independent film entities and those who support them.
“It’s possibly a totally delusional thing but I think there is an enormous amount of possibility for positive action in the months ahead if people remember the importance of these communal undertakings and come back with some real feeling of how fragile they are and how they can be taken away.”