“I feel French, conceptual and twisted, with an appetite for commercial American cinema in my way of approaching film criticism.”
Jacky Goldberg is a French journalist, film critic and director based in Los Angeles. In 2007, he began writing about cinema for the French cultural magazine Les Inrockuptibles. His writing has also been featured in GQ, Vanity Fair, Glamour, Vogue, and Elle. In 2012, he produced the documentary The Golden Sleep about the French Cambodian director Davy Chou. In addition to several short films, Goldberg directed the documentary on Judd Apatow titled This is Comedy in 2014 and the documentary on an American camgirl titled Flesh Memory in 2018.
In this interview, Jacky Goldberg reveals how he began directing, what his relationship to the subjects of his films is like, and how Los Angeles has inspired his career.
TGL: How was your childhood?
JG: I had a happy and stable childhood in a town full of roman vestiges called Saintes in Charente-Maritime. People often refer to “provincial boredom,” but I never experienced it. My father introduced me to cinema at a young age, but he was always loose in his recommendations: I could watch anything except horror movies. Before I was 18, I only liked pop cinema, especially comedies - I remember watching Tex Avery cartoons every Christmas Eve. I got into arthouse movies by Telerama, a cultural weekly read by my parents and almost every teacher, when I went to study in Bordeaux.
I had a typical 90’s geek adolescence made out of video stores, TV, video games, role playing games, Magic the Gathering cards…My older brother lent me his CDs and I burnt copies for me and my friends: Nirvana, The Smiths, Bjork…, as well as Les Inrockuptibles, without imagining I would work there one day.
TGL: You write film critiques for Les Inrockuptibles and Vanity Fair France, how did you get involved in the world of film criticism?
JG: I was writing small critiques on blogs and forums, while studying business to become a film producer. Just after graduating, I met the editor-in-chief of Les Inrockuptibles, Jean-Marc Lalanne, in Cannes. He liked what I wrote, and we got along well. He recontacted me a few months later in late 2007, because he was looking for an intern. I was looking for a job in production, and I was not initially excited by an unpaid internship. However, it was only for a couple of months, and it seemed like a fun decompression chamber before entering the real world.
TGL: Which film critiques do you admire the most?
JG: I consider Jean-Marc Lalanne to be my mentor. He taught me everything I know about film criticism. Apart from him, I admire Philippe Azoury among the currently writing critiques, he shows criticism can be a literary style. Among the old critics, I admire Louis Skorecki, Serge Daney, François Truffaut, Eric Rohmer, and Jacques Rivette. I also globally feel close to the Cahiers du cinéma tradition.
As for the American critics, Manny Farber was a genius; he coined the concepts “Art Elephant,” the big and pretentious films that he disliked, and “Art Termite,” the more secretive and discreet movies, which he praised. I have a hard time finding contemporary US critics I feel close to, although I find Richard Brody from The New Yorker and Justin Chang from the Los Angeles Times and Jordan Ruimy from Words of Reel often interesting even when I disagree with them. I feel French, conceptual and twisted, with an appetite for commercial American cinema in my way of approaching film criticism.
TGL: How did moving to Los Angeles change your practice?
JG: L.A. is like a permanent film for me. I feel very much as a spectator here. I watch. I listen. I read. I find everything inspiring. And frightening. In many ways, I feel exterior, not fully part of it. I often compare L.A. to a black hole that sucks people in. I prefer to stay in orbit, on the “event horizon,” a physics term describing the invisible bubble surrounding the black hole, the limit before you fall into it.
TGL: How did your transition into directing films happen?
JG: I started to direct simultaneously with professional criticism in 2007-2008. The two practices are connected yet different. My school of cinema has been reading critiques - not only watching tons of movies - and forging my eye and my morality like this. However, writing a critique and directing a film are completely different. I try not to be excessively theoretical in my directional work, whereas theory is the heart of criticism.
TGL: In 2014, you directed a documentary about Judd Apatow called This is Comedy, what was the starting point for the film?
JG: This is Comedy is the one counter-example where my filming is a continuation of my writing. I heavily defended Judd Apatow as a critic, between 2008 and 2012, and I felt like a TV documentary would be a good way to show why his work was important. I'm proud of this film, it gave me the taste for making portraits.
TGL: You recently directed Flesh Memory, a documentary about a cam girl. What were you interested in exploring by filming a cam girl?
JG: This new portrait is more personal than This is Comedy. I've known Finley Blake for more than ten years, she inspired me to create a short film before she was a cam girl. When she told me she was caming professionally, I decided to make a documentary about her. All my films are about people living in a bubble, and she lives in a bubble of screens. She's had a hard life, but she's a fighter, and I admire that.
TGL: Your film empathizes with the character Finley Blake. How did you create this relationship with her?
JG: I wouldn't be able to film someone I don't sympathize with or admire, and I usually don't like movies which despise their characters. Contempt is for literature, but when you watch a film - especially in a theater - you can’t despise the people on the screen. They're too big. They're here, in front of you, they feel real. Not to be misanthropic, I can't stand when the director tries to make me hate their character, even the bad guys. I want to sympathize with them or at least understand them.
Creating a relationship with Finley Blake was essential, but not difficult. We've known each other for a while, I spent a few weeks at her place before shooting, just for her to get used to my presence, and to explain to her what I was going to do. She gave me access to her life and intimacy, I cannot not respect that.
TGL: Sex seems to be an important subject in your work. What is the relationship between sex and cinema?
JG: As a spectator and a critic, I'm embarrassed by 99% of sex scenes I see in movies. Sex in real life is graphic, but in movies - even R rated movies - it's always modest and hidden. The only genre which reflects reality is, paradoxically, porn. I say paradoxically, because porn is constantly accused of twisting reality, of showing unrealistic practices. Whether we like it or not, our sex life nowadays is influenced by pornography, and by showing genitalia, porn is the only genre which shows what's going on down there. There is truth in pornography, not all of it, but in good porn. That being said, as a filmmaker, I haven't figured out how to film sex! There is little sex in Flesh Memory mostly because I didn't know how to film it, so I decided it was not going to be the subject of the film. I was more interested in what's around the sex life of a sex worker than the sex itself. It's a tricky question, because there is theory on the one side and practice on the other, and they don't coincide...yet.
I remember interviewing Tarantino and he explained to me why, as a fan of pornography and eroticism, he didn't feel capable of filming it himself. So instead, he makes the whole film erotic. Every word, every close up. I love that idea: if you can't film sex, don't even try, but make every second of your film sexual.
TGL: What is a moment of cinema for you?
JG: When just a few words, or a few images open up a new world, a breach, a hole, behind the curtain of what we call reality.
TGL What projects are you are currently working on?
JG: A short narrative film: a romantic comedy about conspiracy theorists. I’m also writing a feature about journalism in France, and the huge changes that occur for this profession in the last decade: Twitter, economic decay, concentration of newspapers in the hands of a few billionaires, lack of public trust, feminism…I also have an American project: an L.A. noir in the porn valley, with a semi-comedic tone.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don't already know?
JG: In paradise, I would have a dinner with Eric Rohmer, Howard Hawks, and Alfred Hitchock, my Holy Trinity. In this world, I'd love to have dinner with Steven Spielberg - it’s not original, but he's the King.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to The Genius List’s readers?
JG: Don’t take advice from schmucks like me!