IF any contemporary working writer can be called a critic’s critic, it’s Howard Hampton. Los Angeles novelist Steve Erickson, essayist Sarah Vowell and political critic Paul Berman are among those who have praised the individuality of Hampton’s voice. Yet he has never held a staff position at any publication.
Prompted by a letter Hampton wrote to him in the early ‘80s, the cultural critic Greil Marcus encouraged Hampton’s writing and put him in touch with Kit Rachlis, then arts editor of the Boston Phoenix. Hampton made his professional debut in those pages and has contributed to publications such as the Village Voice, Film Comment, LA Weekly, the Believer, Artforum, the Boston Globe, the New York Times and many others. He doesn’t live where plugged-in critics are supposed to: Hampton, 48, lives 90 miles northeast of L.A., in Apple Valley.
If his byline isn’t as familiar as it should be to a general readership, the publication of his first book, “Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses,” stands to change that. A collection of 41 pieces, originally published from 1987 to 2005, that Harvard University Press is bringing out next month, “Born in Flames” finds Hampton pinging from subject to subject, writing like a man having a great time while keeping his footing atop a careering pinball.
“Born in Flames” encompasses literature and movies, television, the jazz of Anthony Braxton and William Parker, the post-punk of Wire and Essential Logic. It’s one thing to make seemingly wild connections among genres, artists and epochs, pairing “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” with D.H. Lawrence’s “Studies in Classic American Literature” or “Apocalypse Now” with Nirvana. It’s another to make those connections stick. Hampton is alive to the excitement of pop culture but also hip to its dross.
“Passion,” he writes, “is not the same thing as a bottomless enthusiasm for white-haired kung fu masters, samurai Morse codes, Nancy Sinatra B-sides, or Sonny Chiba’s greatest smacks.” He refuses to treat “high culture” as cultural dead matter while being wary of the cant its gatekeepers employ to keep out the rabble. Best of all, he’s fun to read.
Hampton and I have communicated via e-mail and phone for the last several years (I’m both thanked and chided in “Born in Flames”), though we’ve never met. I reached him by phone at home to ask him about the new book.
Since his work has long been marked by a blurring of form, genre, and high and low culture, by tossed-off puns and one-liners that shake the dust of reverence off revered subjects (a piece on the German critic Walter Benjamin is titled “My Own Private Benjamin”), it’s only fitting to ask where his sensibility came from. “The closest I can say,” he said, “is that I was one of those kids who grew up with ‘Bullwinkle.’ There were so many references that would go over any 10-year-old’s head. It didn’t wear its smartness on its sleeve but just slipped things in. You just kind of absorbed it by osmosis.”
One of the first indications he saw that he could use one art form to discuss another was a Rolling Stone review of the first Ramones album by the late Paul Nelson, who compared the New York punk band to the movies of Sam Fuller. “I didn’t know Sam Fuller, or anything about that kind of primitive filmmaking. The Ramones were just a rumor, off in New York.”
That’s the vein Hampton believes he’s continued to work in. “You don’t segregate the things you love,” he said.
One of the most passionate pieces in “Born in Flames” is a review of David Lynch’s “The Straight Story” that takes on the critics who accused that odd, delicate film of being a Disneyfied sellout. In it, Hampton criticizes the rarefied sensibility “that is a renunciation of the idiosyncratic, visionary, irreverent strain of American culture (which produced Melville, Ellington, Pollock, and Dylan) in favor of dour burnt offerings purged of America’s wicked temptations.” He challenges the idea that to be taken as intellectually serious, an American critic has to display contempt for his native culture. “I think it’s a sense that American culture is not fully formed,” Hampton explained. “It’s lacking a certain pedigree. But it’s OK to like the film noirs of the ‘40s because the French found them and made them intellectually acceptable.”
The problem, he said, is that “a lot of critics look at movies as intellectual constructs instead of things that combine the intellectual and the sensual and instinctive mixed in together.” Though Hampton admits his tastes don’t run to the mainstream, he deplores what he calls “knee-jerk antipathy to things that don’t have intellectual cachet, that aren’t seen as aesthetically correct or morally virtuous.”
“It’s not that I have anything against the best and the highest,” he said. “But there’s a false idea of what that is. A kind of holier-than-thou attitude. What the pseudo-highbrow critic does is to erect this edifice to their subjects that drives more people away than it might attract.”
He acknowledges that critics need to “keep trumpeting the art form. But they’re not doing a good job of getting people to see good work, and they’re conning people into seeing mediocre things. You go to some of these praised movies and feel cheated. Remember what Johnny Rotten said at the final Sex Pistols concert at Winterland, ‘ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?’ I get that feeling all the time.
“That sort of criticism doesn’t help people discover new things.”
Film critics, he said, “sometimes feel they aren’t seeing a good film unless they’re being punished, to put on a hair shirt and watch six hours of Bela Tarr. Then they feel like they’ve really seen something. There’s something good about larger-than-life art. You want art that expands the possibilities of life. You don’t want art that shrinks life.”
SO is it a matter of being aware of what gives you pleasure? “Pleasure has gotten bad connotations,” he said, as if it were “something cheap and tawdry.”
An aesthetic of pleasure runs through Hampton’s writing. He derives the most joy from “things that operate on different levels, with depth and layers and unexpected pleasures. I like something where there’s this overabundance, where all these contradictions boil and come to the surface.”
Which is why when a topic that encompasses those possibilities comes up, his excitement is palpable. Some of the richest writing in “Born in Flames” delves into the golden age of Hong Kong moviemaking, from roughly 1984 to 1997.
“They recaptured the magic of Hollywood in the ‘30s and ‘40s, the fast-talking, fast-moving, efficient entertainment -- without apologizing or being superior to it,” Hampton said. Another standout is his take on “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” “Within this genre framework,” he explained, “they were constantly going beyond boundaries, dredging things up from the unconscious. They were trying to find these moments that the plot didn’t prepare you for. Instead of a show about a heroic girl, there was this whole feeling of existential dread and desolation and sexual perversity.”
The best criticism forms an unconscious self-portrait of the critic. When Howard Hampton describes the work that matters most to him as having “a personal touch that brings something unique and special, always that sense of discovery, of finding things they didn’t anticipate and going further than they thought,” he’s perfectly described his own.