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

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

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.

Brooklyn-based writer Lauren Wissot is the publisher of the blog Beyond the Green Door, the author of the memoir Under My Master’s Wings, and a columnist for Spout Blog.