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From The Top: The Movie-Going Public, Take 2—On the Role of the Film Critic

Filmmakers need to stop viewing audiences in linear terms, to start widening the net, embracing an umbrella approach, thinking in the language of prisms so peasants and kings get fed together.

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From The Top: The Movie-Going Public, Take 2—On the Role of the Film Critic

Editor’s Note: Lauren’s original essay “The Movie-Going Public.” Responses to that piece from Steven Boone (here) and Glenn Kenny (here and here).

Reading the comments thread of my essay “The Movie-Going Public” gave me the same feeling I had riding Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride at Disney World as a kid. This is so bizarre yet exciting, with all these surprising twists and turns. I can’t figure out where I’m being taken and I can’t stop laughing. It would resemble a classic Monty Python sketch if it weren’t so sad.

Because when a deeper discussion I hope to spark fizzles into surreal insanity I take that way more personally than any personal attack. The entire point of my penning the piece was to use myself as a jumping off point, to prompt readers into thinking about their own individual lives in order to foster a meaningful discussion about what it means to be an audience member. Instead, that conversation ended when the focus shifted exclusively to me. And the tragedy is that my particular life isn’t minutely as interesting as the larger picture. It’s disappointing that seven dirty little words referencing sex—in my estimation the least interesting thing about me—out of an entire heartfelt essay could derail the whole critical thinking process.

I guess now would be a good time to state what I thought was the obvious. “The Movie-Going Public” was written from the POV of a movie-goer—in other words, I took off my film critic hat. It is a personal essay, not a film review. However, judging by the comments section you would have thought I’d stuck a flippant reference to casual sex in my actual review of Traitor—which not only would have been inappropriate, but downright Monty Python loony. I happen to be a genderqueer chick, a gay guy inside my female form (which is old hat as I’ve written about it extensively), and tossing off a campy-toned comment about an afternoon tryst isn’t bragging if sex is on par with going to the gym. That’s just how a flamboyant homo like me talks. I’m perfectly capable of cleaning up my language when critiquing a film—I don’t “talk gay” any more than Armond White “talks black.” I understand this requirement because, for as long as I can remember, I’ve been muting myself for the sake of the comfort of others. But a personal essay is my sacred ground. And it hurts to censor myself in this context. (On this note I ask anyone still offended to please express your outrage in the comments section of “Taking The Bite Out of Sex.”)

I understand that my experiences are not the same as yours, that I live on the fringe, not in the center. But since we all go to movies, we’re all part of the collective movie-going public. And however different our viewpoints, what we all have in common is that we bring our individualized ways of seeing with us to the theater whether we’re always aware of this or not. And because we all bring something, we all deserve to take something away as well, an experience not provided by the abundance of films that selfishly and lazily preach to the lowest common denominator when they could aim to do what Shakespeare did—speak to the general public with artistry cloaked in plainspoken language, not with condescension (which happens to be royal critic Roger Ebert’s secret weapon as well). Filmmakers need to stop viewing audiences in linear terms, to start widening the net, embracing an umbrella approach, thinking in the language of prisms so peasants and kings get fed together.

So how on earth can this revolution happen? Contrary to the opinion of some commenters, filmmakers have to actually care what others (beyond “test audiences”) think—enough to genuinely listen and to be open to having their viewpoints challenged. To take an extreme example, The Living Theatre has been around since the forties, engaging numerous viewpoints on all different levels because its founder, Judith Malina, is passionate about her audiences, is humbled by their taking the time out of their busy lives to listen to her message. Not once in all my years working with the company did I ever get the sense that Judith valued her friend Allen Ginsberg’s opinion more than that of John, the old black homeless guy who looked after our space on Avenue C during the day (and I’d dare say the same about Allen). I’d also venture to guess she would have been thrilled if J. Edgar Hoover, who had an F.B.I. file on her a mile long, had come to see a show and offered his viewpoint, rather than trying to bully her into silence. I just don’t get the sense that Jeffrey Nachmanoff, the director of Traitor, really gives a shit what little ole movie-going me thinks as long as I cough up my eleven bucks. But I’ll bet Roger Ebert cares what I think about his own review.

Secondly, filmmakers have to be curious enough to engage with the world outside film so that they speak several sociological “languages” fluently. We need to stop talking about “audiences who don’t care to be challenged” when it’s the filmmakers themselves who don’t care to be challenged. To use another “fringe” example, I get geeky about S&M, boxing, theater, film, and certain genres of music just about equally, and whenever I enter each of these cliques I try to cross-pollinate a bit, try to find common ground (which obviously backfires from time to time). The reason film is a universal medium is because it’s an amalgam of all “languages” (i.e., life experiences). A good many filmmakers have lost sight of this, which is why so many movies speak only the language of LCD. As another astute commenter noted, The Godfather is both box office gold and a cinephile’s paradise. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Coppola can speak wine as well as film.

But of course all these points could have been bandied about in the comments section of my last essay if the conversation hadn’t turned, as it so often does, to my tone or style rather than the substance of my words. So it’s interesting now for me to ask, “Is it because my tone or style doesn’t reflect a very set and preconceived notion of what a film critic is supposed to be?” Is the problem really with my challenging the very idea?

I pose this question only after an email conversation with my ridiculously perceptive colleague Steven Boone whose work I deeply admire. Steve observed straight out that I don’t sound like a film critic. This hadn’t even occurred to me before. But it did strike me as simplistic to assume it all boils down to white hetero males having a problem with my viewpoint—after all, a huge portion don’t and there are quite a few women out there who do. The deeper issue is how exactly a person writing about movies is supposed to sound. This is about something much larger than seven dirty little words.

Nowadays, with all the new technology, anyone can make a movie. And similarly, anyone with access to the Web can be a film critic. The defining difference between those of us writing about movies that have an audience and those that don’t can be measured in the amount of sweat and tears spilled. Film geeks are learning that studying Goodfellas or parsing Farber isn’t adequate anymore (if it ever was). Scorsese’s encyclopedic knowledge of cinema wouldn’t have done him a bit of good if he’d never picked up a camera. Likewise, memorizing Kael isn’t going to make you a film critic if you favor knee-jerk reaction over the actual tough job of critical thinking—not just questioning the films but questioning oneself, calling into doubt your own perceptions, asking why it is you’re having the reaction you’re having, experiencing life both in and outside the cinema. You can’t be a film critic if you can’t see the forest for the trees.

It’s also interesting that after publishing at The House for nearly a year I still tell people I’m a writer. Only when they ask what kind of writing I do will I respond with, “Well, right now I’m mostly doing film criticism.” The reason I can’t bring myself to say the words “film critic” is the same reason I have trouble calling myself an “erotica author.” I’m still trying to figure out what all this means. I wrote a memoir because I happened to be in a mind-expanding relationship with a gay-for-pay stripper and found myself “taking notes” much like he was my college professor. Then I submitted and published my dissertation. Nothing more sensational than that. Likewise, as a film critic I’m really just a glorified car mechanic: the only difference between me and the rest of the drivers on the road is I happen to know what’s going on under the hood, can pinpoint exactly how it is I’m being manipulated and why that’s affecting me, and am able to translate that into words with some craftsmanship. But I guess this admission is a bit like revealing the wizard. No one, including me, finds it easy to face the man behind the curtain. Because where does that leave us—a population conditioned to look for guidance from on high rather than from inside? (Not to mention that, once you do this, a great many talented and hard-working people whose income depends on keeping the wizard firmly hidden lose their jobs.)

You see, the truth is a majority of us writers at The House don’t make our living solely through “film criticism,” and though we all agree that sucks since everyone wants to be paid to follow his/her passion, the upside is it forces us to engage with the world beyond film criticism, frees us up to reinvent the wheel. Film criticism is changing—who writes it and what it sounds like, mimicking moviemaking itself since the advent of DV, Final Cut Pro, and the Web. And either you stay one step ahead of the times or you fall victim to it. I’m always humbled reading Agee, Farber, and Kael—but I have no interest in being any of them even if I could. I’m a genderqueer chick, which is reflected in my own specific way of writing, my own POV. I happen to be interested in exploring cinema as it relates to the living, breathing world at large. The more academic “film as it relates solely to other film” approach just doesn’t excite me as much, is too confining. I venture to guess there’s going to be a hell of a lot of marginalized others like me speaking up in their own unique way in the years to come. In other words, I’m not trying to sound like Kael. I’m the tip of a different iceberg.

What this means for the future of the film critic is that it’s not enough anymore to permit minorities like Armond White, Rex Reed and Manohla Dargis into the reviewers tent. It’s time to expand and allow in those who also sound nothing like them. To use an election year analogy, you can’t pat yourself on the back for giving the Log Cabin Republicans a seat at the table if you simultaneously demand that the drag queens don pants to be heard. Why isn’t their style and tone equally valid as is? The Web has the power to shift the balance, the uncertainty of the outcome both wondrous and frightening.

Finally, let’s not forget that Agee, Farber, and Kael didn’t become Agee, Farber, and Kael by studying Agee, Farber, and Kael. They did it by going to the movies and doing the heavy lifting of critical thinking—engaging with self-doubt, blazing their own trails. The biggest tribute I can give these dynamic legends is not to try to resemble them, but to carry on their legacy by pushing the very boundaries of film criticism itself.

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Review: That Was Something Lays Bare the Ephemeral Desires of a Lost Youth

By the end, the lesson we’ve learned is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft.

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That Was Something

Film and theater critic Dan Callahan’s witty debut novel, That Was Something, chronicles the young adulthood of Bobby Quinn, a gay Midwestern transplant who’s just moved from Chicago to Manhattan to attend New York University. Retrospectively, it examines his obsession with the two leading players in the story of his early days in the city in the late 1990s: the enigmatic Ben Morrissey, an irresistible fellow student destined for fame in the art world, and the mysterious Monika Lilac, a dramatic and performative slightly older cinephile whose devotion to silent films is emblematic of her entire character. “I was looking for the keys to the kingdom, and I found them or thought I did in Manhattan screening rooms, in the half-light and the welcome dark,” Bobby declares to the reader in the novel’s opening, and so begins a provocative—and conspicuously wine-drenched—narrative that serves both as a paean to a bygone era and an emphatic testimony about how we never really leave behind the people, experiences, and places that shape us into who we are in the present.

For a fleeting period of time, the lives of these three characters become intertwined and united by their shared passion for the cinema—and for each other. While Ben and Monika enter into a tumultuous romance, Bobby watches from the sidelines as he privately explores his own sexuality, mostly in dalliances with anonymous older men who he meets at bars in Chelsea, having learned to offer himself up “as a kind of virgin sacrifice.” Throughout, Callahan’s frank descriptions of Bobby’s early sexual experiences are a welcome departure from metaphor, while still seeming almost mythical in the way that Bobby recalls them, just like how all of the liminal moments in our lives—the moments in which we cross a threshold and permanently abandon whoever we had been before—seem to mark our personal histories almost like the transitions between the disparate chapters of a novel.

Bobby has been deeply in love with Ben ever since the two met for the first time in a common area of their shared dormitory at NYU, and Ben keeps Bobby only barely at arm’s length—sexually and otherwise—throughout the dazzling weeks, months, and even years of their relationship as young men. He constantly reminds Bobby that they would probably be lovers if only Ben were gay, which is obviously music to Bobby’s ears, fueling many of his private fantasies. And Bobby is also the prized subject of Ben’s budding photography career, often photographed in the nude, and both the photographs themselves and the act of bringing them into the world blur lines of sexuality and masculinity as the friendship between the two young men deepens and becomes increasingly complex.

Callahan cocoons his characters in what feels like a time capsule, capturing them at their most beautiful and glamorous and then presenting them to us as if on a stage—or on a screen, which the characters in the novel would agree is even more intimate, even more akin to a grab at immortality. Other characters drift in and out of the central narrative in the same way that one-night stands and people we’ve met only at dimly lit parties can sometimes seem blurry and indistinct when we try to recollect them later, but the love story that Bobby is most interested in sharing with the reader is that of a queer young man’s obsession with his larger than life friends during a time when everything for him was larger than life.

Callahan’s previous book, The Art of American Screen Acting: 1912-1960, demonstrates the author’s talent for dissecting the subtlety and nuance of the many nonverbal ways in which the icons of the screen communicate with one another, and here too in That Was Something is close attention paid to the power of performance. The novel is also a story about falling in love with a city, even in retrospect—and even after the version of the city that you originally knew is gone forever. And in the familiar yet always poignant way in which the sights and sounds of a lost New York typically wriggle their way into a novel like this one, the city is at first a backdrop before it inevitably becomes a character.

Monika Lilac hosts a silent film-themed party at her house during which the guests have been cleverly instructed to pantomime their communication to one another rather than speak out loud, and to write out any absolutely necessary dialogue on handmade title cards. At the end of the party, the various revelers—wearing only their underwear, at Monika’s command—all together “streamed out into the night and ran like crazy” through New York City streets while being pummeled from above by heavy rain, not caring at all who was watching. And Bobby, from the vantage point of years in the future, recalls:

In any other place, we might have been harassed, arrested, or the object of wide-eyed stares. Not in Manhattan. And that has its flip side, too. Because Manhattan will let you do whatever you like, at any time of the day or night, but it won’t ever pay attention to you. You can be world famous, and Manhattan still basically doesn’t care, most of the time. And if you aren’t world famous, Manhattan regards you at several ice-slicked levels below indifference. And sometimes, on less wonderful days and nights, some attention might be welcome.

In a blurb on the novel’s back cover, Wayne Koestenbaum describes That Was Something as “The Great Gatsby on poppers,” and there’s definitely something of Nick Carraway in the voice of Bobby Quinn as he looks back at his disappearing New York and the people who populated it, the ghost of a city that disappeared forever the moment he looked away. Callahan’s novel enters the canon of the queer roman a clef—as well as the literary New York novel—by mixing vibrantly realized memories of a fleeting youth, ruminations on the origins of desire, and a deeply felt nostalgia for the way things once were into a cocktail that tastes exactly like growing up and growing older in the same city in which you were once young. And the hangover after a night spent knocking them back in the dim light of a Manhattan dive, as anyone who still occasionally haunts the haunts of his youth can tell you, is always brutal.

Bobby is now many years older as he narrates That Was Something, his desires tempered or at least contained by realistic expectations of how and in what ways they might be satisfied, and his relationships with Ben (now famous) and Monika (now vanished) are either nonexistent or else greatly demoted from the centrality that they had once firmly occupied in the narrative of his life. But there’s still urgency in what Bobby is telling the reader. In the novel’s brilliant final pages, we come to realize that the act of looking back at our younger selves is both masturbatory and transitory, mostly an exercise in framing. Bobby has been explaining how age has made him wistful about his moment in the sun, but then he’s suddenly remembering a fantasy that he once enacted alone one afternoon in his dorm room, back when he was still a virgin—and back when all of his fantasies were about Ben Morrissey:

I entered another place with my mind. It felt like what stepping into the past would feel like now, maybe. It was forbidden, and I was getting away with it. … Looked at from the outside and with unsympathetic eyes, it would be pitiful and grotesque, maybe even laughable. So why am I still so certain that something else occurred?

The lesson we’ve learned by the end of That Was Something is that the stories we tell ourselves about the past have always been revised from a previous draft. Just think of all that film that ends up on the cutting room floor during the editing process, to be forgotten and swept away with the garbage after the best take has been safely delivered. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we wipe away the shame and growing pains of early stabs at love and failed expressions of desire and instead render the past beautifully, artfully, just as the cinematic film frame limits our perspective so that all we can see is what the director has meticulously manufactured specifically for us. The equipment that made the image possible in the first place has been painstakingly concealed, so that all we notice—all we remember—is whatever ends up remaining beneath the carefully arranged spotlight.

Sometimes a great novel, like a great film, can at once transform and transport us, offering a glimpse into a lost world made all the more beautiful by the distance it asks us to travel into our hearts and minds. At the end of one of the last film screenings that Bobby attends in the company of Monika Lilac, she says wistfully to him, “You know, you’re downhearted, and you think, ‘What’s the use?’ and then you see a film like that and it speaks to you and suddenly you’re back in business again!” And the film they’ve been watching, she has just whispered to Bobby as the credits rolled in the emptying theater, was the story of her life.

Dan Callahan’s That Was Something is now available from Squares & Rebels.

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Blu-ray Review: Peppermint Soda Gets 2K Restoration from Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s poignant debut powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth.

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Peppermint Soda
Photo: Cohen Media Group

Diane Kurys’s Peppermint Soda is like flipping through a young girl’s diary, capturing as it does snippets of the small-scale tragedies, amusing hijinks, and quotidian details that define the lives of two Parisian teenage sisters over the course of their 1963-to-‘64 school year. Through a delicate balancing of comedic and dramatic tones, Kurys’s debut film taps into the emotional insecurities and social turmoil that accompany the awkward biological developments of adolescence with a disarming sweetness and subtlety, lending even small moments a poignancy that shuns overt displays of sentimentality or nostalgia. As evidenced by the opening title card, in which Kurys dedicates the film to her sister “who has still hasn’t returned my orange sweater,” Peppermint Soda’s authenticity arises from its specificity, both in its characters’ tumultuous inner lives and the detailed rendering of their friends and teachers, as well as the classrooms within which they passed their days.

Structured as a series of loosely connected vignettes, the film bounces between the introverted 13-year-old Anne (Eléonore Klarwein) and her outgoing, popular 15-year-old sister, Frédérique (Odile Michel), who both attend the same strict, bourgeois private school. While Anne’s concerns often verge on the petty, be it her frustration at her mother (Anouk Ferjac) refusing to buy her pantyhose or at her sister for preventing her from tagging along to social gatherings, Kurys depicts Anne with a uniquely compassionate eye, mining light humor out of such situations while remaining keenly aware of the almost insurmountable peer pressures and image-consciousness that are the driving forces behind most irrational teenage behavior.

Some scenes, such as the one where Anne’s art teacher ruthlessly mocks her drawing in front of the class, are representative of the emotionally abusive or neglectful relationship between Anne and many of the adults in her life, and throughout, Kurys understands that it’s how Anne is seen by her classmates that most dramatically affects her state of mind. In the heightened emotional state of teenage years, the sting of simply not having a pair of pantyhose can be more painful than a teacher’s overbearing maliciousness. But Peppermint Soda isn’t all doom and gloom, as the bitter disappointments of youth are counterbalanced with a number of droll passages of Anne gossiping and goofing off with her friends. Particularly amusing is a conversation where Anne’s friend confidently, yet with wild inaccuracies, describes sex, eventually guessing that boy’s hard-ons can grow to around six feet long.

In Peppermint Soda’s latter half, Kurys seamlessly shifts her focus toward Frédérique, broadening the film’s scope as current events begin to shape the elder sister’s political consciousness. Everything from John F. Kennedy’s assassination to a classmate’s terrifying firsthand account of the police’s violent overreaction to a student protest against the Algerian War lead Frédérique to slowly awaken to the complexities of the world around her. But even as Frédérique finds herself becoming quite the activist, handing out peace pins and organizing secret meetings in school—and much to the chagrin of her mother and her sexist, conservative teacher—she’s still prone to fits of emotional immaturity when it comes to her boyfriend.

It’s through these frequent juxtapositions of micro and macro concerns, when the inescapable solipsism of childhood runs head-on into the immovable hurdles and responsibilities of adulthood, that Peppermint Soda most powerfully evokes the bittersweet feelings of leaving behind the halcyon days of one’s youth. Yet the sly sense of whimsy that Kurys instills in her deeply personal recollections acts as a comforting reminder of the humor tucked away in even our darkest childhood memories. Sometimes it just takes a decade or two to actually find it.

Peppermint Soda is now available on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group.

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Oscar 2019 Winner Predictions: Sound Editing

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt.

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First Man
Photo: Universal Pictures

If it were biologically possible to do so, both Ed and I would happily switch places with A Quiet Place’s Emily Blunt, because we’d much rather give birth in a tub while surrounded by murderous blind creatures than have to once again write our predictions for the sound categories. As adamant as we’ve been that the Academy owes it to the nominees to air every category, which they agreed to after an extended “just kidding,” it might have given us pause had the sound categories been among the four demoted by Oscar. But no, we must now endure our annual bout of penance, aware of the fact that actually knowing what the difference is between sound editing and sound mixing is almost a liability. In other words, we’ve talked ourselves out of correct guesses too many times, doubled down on the same movie taking both categories to hedge our bets too many times, and watched as the two categories split in the opposite way we expected too many times. So, as in A Quiet Place, the less said, the better. And while that film’s soundscapes are as unique and noisy as this category seems to prefer, First Man’s real-word gravitas and cacophonous Agena spin sequence should prevail.

Will Win: First Man

Could Win: A Quiet Place

Should Win: First Man

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