Interviews

Published on November 15th, 2018 | by Padraic Coffey

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My Favourite Things – Jessica Kiang

Jessica Kiang is a film critic with Variety, The Playlist, Sight & Sound and BBC Culture.

OK Computer (1997, Radiohead)

The task of choosing a single favourite album, or film, or book, is extremely difficult. For me, choosing one book is pretty hard. Choosing one film is borderline impossible. But since I’m not a hugely educated muso at all (I used to have a slight inferiority complex towards many of my friends, who are very knowledgeable about music) the album is a little easier — the one that changed all that, and opened up a huge amount for me, was Radiohead’s OK Computer. I know, it’s a slightly boring choice — I used to have a thing about people who, when asked who their favourite director was, would say Martin Scorsese, because it’s such an obvious and unobjectionable thing to say — and I do realise that’s similar to saying OK Computer is your favourite album. It’s regarded as one of the great albums, and they’re an unassailable band, but I have a really personal attachment to it.

I was studying film at university in America at the time, and maybe I was a little bit lonely or homesick; a lot of my friends had gone home. I was working that last summer, and the only thing I had on my calender was that this album was going to be released. I’d been a fan of The Bends, so I went to the record store in Isla Vista that very day, and I got, I think, the first CD out of the pack. I went back into my flatmate’s room – he had a kick-ass stereo system – and I listened to it all the way through. First time through, I thought it was complete and utter chaos—garbled, panicky chaos. But the second time, it instantly made sense to me on a whole bunch of levels that I didn’t think I was ever going to get to with music.

Even now, although it’s one of the most lauded albums ever made, and though it has been dissected and written about by the most dedicated of music specialists, I love that I feel like I’m the expert in it. The very second time I listened to it, I knew that even if I didn’t understand all the influences and all the references, there was nobody in the world that it could possibly mean more to.

As to my favorite track, it’s tricky. I didn’t really grow up with pop music in the house, so as a child really I only knew the songs I overheard on the radio or at friends’ houses. And now, in the era of Spotify, we don’t tend to listen to albums straight through anymore – or I don’t, anyway. So OK Computer still belongs to this very pivotal moment between those times, and feels almost a concept album, where each track is indivisible from the next. Whenever I hear a song from it, I expect the next one to start playing immediately. I really never need to listen to it again, because I knew it so well: The whole thing is constantly on repeat somewhere in my brain. I know every chord progression. I know every glottal stop in Thom Yorke’s voice. I know every lyric. So it’s really hard for me to choose one piece of it, like “which slice of this cake do you prefer?” But there is a moment in the song ‘Let Down’, in the backing vocals, where Thom does this near-octave leap in the middle of the chorus, and I’ve always thought that the tiny space between those two notes is one of the loveliest places in the world.

I’ve seen Radiohead live eight or nine times now. They’re a band that have sort of grown up alongside me: The Bends came out around the time when I’d first moved away to attend university in England, and my parents had sold the house that I’d grown up in. So when I went back to Ireland for the holidays after first year it was to a house that I’d never known before. I was feeling kind of dislocated — excited about the future, but very aware that I couldn’t go home again, and listened to The Bends more or less on repeat during that holiday. And then OK Computer was such a leap thematically and I was in a very different place too. It’s a more mature album, but also exciting and frightening and new. It showed me that this band was going to expand and grow as I did, and I’ve found since then, with a few of my major life events, Radiohead seemed to be dropping in just around the time they happen. They have sort of imprinted themselves onto my experience of life.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay (2000, Michael Chabon)

So again I’m aware that my (agonising) book choice—The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon—is perhaps a bit middlebrow. I mean, it won the Pulitzer, so it’s not like I’m championing some obscure, tiny title from a struggling unknown, but it meant an enormous amount to me when I first read it. It was my introduction to Michael Chabon’s writing, and simply put, he writes the way that I would love to be able to write. An awful lot of the time, when I’m reading, I’m amazed either by things that are very far outside my realm of experience, and very far outside my style, or by things that completely adhere to what I like to think of as “my style.” Kavalier & Clay is one of the only books that got me on both of those levels.

It was sort of a sublimation when I read it. I often read two or three books at the same time, and I remember distinctly that I was reading Raymond Chandler’s Collected Letters then too. I’d come up against writer’s block myself, and found the Chandler letters very heartening in that regard, because Chandler is one of my favourite authors and always makes everything seem so effortless. But he wrote a particular letter about how difficult he was finding it in one of his novels to simply get his character to put his hat on and leave the house. I thought, “even Raymond Chandler has difficulties with things that wouldn’t, from the outside, seem to be difficult!” In the end I think he just gave in and this gave me hope, because it means that nobody – no matter how great a writer they are – can write a book in which every sentence is perfect. Then I read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, and every sentence is perfect.

So I have a weirdly ambivalent relationship towards it, where it’s both an incredible inspiration, and also sort of depressing that it’s so terrific. I’ve read everything else he’s written, and I don’t think anything quite reaches that same pitch, but even so, every page has some absolutely delightful turn of phrase, or some beautifully succinct metaphor. I just adore the way he writes. But Kavalier & Clay, which is about two young guys in mid-century New York, and the birth of comic books and superheroes, and also about Jewish history, folklore and American self-mythologizing, is still his masterpiece.

The Act of Killing (2013, Joshua Oppenheimer)

It’s currently my job to watch movies and to think about them, but I’ve been doing that for the majority of my life anyway, so choosing a single favorite is impossible. I’m just not going to do it. Instead, rather than trying to decide on the best film or even my most beloved film of all time, I started thinking about films that are extremely important to me as I am now, and so I’ve gone with The Act of Killing. It’s maybe surprising, because it’s more recent than many of the films that have formed me, and probably too recent to be considered part of the canon of classic movies just yet. But, with retrospect I can say that in some obscure way it confirmed my desire to make writing about film a career, and at the same time it utterly changed my perception of an entire category. I’ve become a documentary devotee, and it stems back to the experience I had with The Act of Killing.

It was also one of the most memorable single screenings I’ve ever been to. So much of my job is going to film festivals and seeing four or five films a day in various screening rooms around the world — they can all sort of meld into one. But with The Act of Killing, I remember every single detail, and every single moment of that screening. It was during the Berlinale, at 8:30am. I had a friend, Ashley Clark, staying with me, and we thought we may as well go to this documentary which we hadn’t really heard of — it had already played a few festivals, and a few people had seen it, but it hadn’t built up much buzz. It felt like there were about seven other people in the room, all a bit sleepy and probably cold, and not expecting much.

I don’t think I’ve ever had such a visceral reaction to a film. When I left, my knees were shaking, and I felt really disturbed — almost ill, but provoked and electrified. It had lit up entire avenues of thought and of interaction with cinema that I had never even considered. I think it’s still the only new film I’ve ever reviewed and given an A+, as in I consider it literally unmissable. And its legacy since then has kind of borne that out. It has actually effected political change. As a traumatic and devastating documentary, about an Indonesian genocide which I didn’t have a clue even existed before I saw it, it’s a strange choice to put on any list of “favourite” things. It’s not an easy watch, and it’s not lovable by any means, (it would have been much easier to go with Ron Underwood’s Tremors which was honestly on my shortlist!) but it’s definitely a film that made me feel absolutely alive to the possibilities of cinema and the possibilities of art.

And most importantly, it’s about how and why we tell ourselves stories, while also telling its own. Kavalier & Clay very much does that as well, and to stretch a point, there are elements of OK Computer that can be considered in the same light—there’s a degree of metafiction in all three. Joan Didion had that famous line: ‘We tell ourselves stories in order to live.’ I think that’s true, but it’s not quite precise enough. I think we tell ourselves stories in order to experience being alive, which is a little bit different to just living, and I think, finally, that what each of these three picks has helped me to do.

Follow Jessica on social media.
Twitter: @JessicaKiang

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About the Author

Padraic Coffey is a freelance writer and film critic who currently lives in Vancouver, Canada. He has written for the Sunday Independent, Ireland's largest circulation newspaper, and Trinity College, Dublin, ranked in the top 100 best universities in the world by the QS World University Rankings in 2014. Additionally, his film criticism has appeared on Volta - Ireland's first VOD website - as well as sites such as Taste of Cinema, Film Jam and Head Stuff.



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