Wednesday, January 13, 2016


The tone of Marya's post, which I will (admiringly!) categorize as one of febrile desperation, captures some of what (I suspect) most of us sometimes feel now about keeping up with movies and popular culture in general. Up through my thirties and into my forties, I was blessedly free of any distractions that might have prevented me from devoting all my full time to studying the hairy-eyeball sexual fantasies, drug dreams, and savage indictments of high school and Mom that were regularly shoveled onto our big screens by plucky souls looking for a shot at fame and financial reward, or at least something they could put on a test reel that might get them a gig directing episodes of The L Word.
But a few years ago, I acquired a Life, and I cannot tell you how surprised I was to discover how much that can eat into your dream time. Suffice to say that if I ever ran into my former self, the pimply little bastard in the black T-shirt who would always express his chortling incredulity when you ran into him on Monday and told him that you hadn't found the time to see everything that got a "Critic's Choice!" commendation in the New York Times and the Village Voice the previous Friday, I would chide him for his callow, blinkered presumption. Hopefully we would share a merry laugh over it. Then I'd kick his balls through his hat.
I kind of wish I could do a Benjamin Button do-over, because I definitely picked the worst possible time to have a life. One would have come in handy back in the days when TV meant three, four commercial channels plus Ernie and Bert, and you could manage to see just about every big commercial movie release of a given year and find some reason to be glad of it once out of every forty or fifty throws. In recent times, two pop culture writers who did a lot to light a fire under my enthusiasms back in the day, Elvis Mitchell (in a 2012 interview and James Wolcott (in an article in the current Vanity Fair), have both expressed the feeling that being a movie or TV critic now is an impossible job, because there's just so much to keep up with, and so many linked media channels that need to be fed.
I find this kind of talk discouraging as fuck, but I do understand the pressures that feed it. (I even understand why Mitchell is now retired from reviewing and Wolcott has gone from being the swashbuckling hipster of his Village Voice days to being a guy who wishes the culture would quiet down and get off his lawn so he can enjoy his Doris Day marathon in peace.) I haven't quite regressed to the "Pillow Talk, take me away!" stage yet, but I can remember a time when I used to fantasize about becoming the indie/world cinema version of a gypsy Deadhead and spend my days traveling from film festival to film festival, endlessly panning for gold in waters that might never flow directly into mainstream theatrical distribution. Now, I sometimes get a little dizzy when I check to see what's streaming on all my usual streamers (Netflix, Hulu, MUBI, Vimeo, Watch TCM, Indieflix, and don't forget to see which forgotten Pre-Code gems and three-hour Romanian video diaries have just been loaded onto YouTube).
I remember when Pauline Kael's first collected edition of her "movie notes" from The New Yorker came out in 1983, it included a little note advising the reader that if you watch a great movie on a TV set--even if it's on LaserDisc!--you are, and I'm quoting from memory, committing an aesthetic crime of which you are the victim. That passage was conspicuously missing from later editions of the book, proving that one of the first things that people usually bring up when they're explaining why Pauline Kael was the Antichrist isn't true: she DID once change her mind about something! Or at least backslid on a point of principle when she realized there was no other way she was going to get her grandson to sit still through Seven Samurai.
I'm very grateful for the technological innovations that have resulted in an explosion in viewing choices and given small-time filmmakers a shot at broadening their audience without having to drive from one college campus to the next with a film print in the trunk of their car. (It's certainly been a boom for documentary filmmakers, and in the past several months streamers have had the chance to sample excellent new docs about Amy Winehouse and Nina Simone and Janis Joplin, the Black Panther party, and Marlon Brando, Crystal Moselle's mind-boggling The Wolfpack, Alex Gibney's triple bill of Scientology, Sinatra, and Steve Jobs, and Albery Maysles's wonderful, high-spirited memento mori, Iris.) But I also miss the feeling I used to have that, however flawed and homogenized movie culture was, those of us who cared to do the spadework could still get our arms around it, get a clear sense of what it encompassed and who was being clearly left out and where to find the pockets of activity that might speak most directly to a moviegoer's individual needs outside the blockbuster mainstream. It might even have been easier in those days for a critic to discover a deserving movie that the mainstream was turning its back on, like Carl Franklin's One False Move, and beat the drums for it.
Roger Ebert was one of the reviewers in One False Move’s corner, and I don't think there's any doubt that Ebert is the presiding eminence who most members of the critical community--especially the online community--look to as their role model and guiding light. Knowing that this won't earn me any friends, I'll confess to not being sure this is a good thing. Most of the heroic, lasting, meaningful work done in film criticism has been by, to use a technical term, cranks: your Kaels and your Farbers and your Agees and your Fergusons and your Warshows, who had a strong, idiosyncratic point of view and a clear set of priorities and who were determined to cut through what they saw as the foggy critical can't of their day. For all his virtues, Ebert often seemed less interested in developing a strong voice as a writer than in firmly establishing the carefully defined parameters under which one's opinion about each and every movie could be judged respectable. This is widely accepted to be a masterpiece, end of discussion; this is a light entertainment, barely distinguishable from a hundred other movies just like it, but it was competently made by people acting in good faith and anyone who's never seen one of its cousins may love it, so be nice; this is a vile exploitation film with no stars or major studio advertising budget or Blue Velvet, so feel free to smear honey on it and leave it out for the ants.
It's an approach to criticism that, like a U.N. peace treating drafted in the wake of the overthrow of a genocidal tyrant, may make people who long to be part of a "community" feel safe and secure, but I worry that it saps a lot of energy out of the discussion. I am the only person I know who has mixed feelings about Armond White, unless "hanging's too good for him, but I brought my good skinning' knife" counts as mixed feelings. And I was not present at the New York critics' awards festivities that led to his finally getting the official Jason McCord treatment, and so cannot comment on his reportedly vile behavior.
But long before that happened, I was struck and a little dismayed by how quickly the then-forming online critical community managed to agree that White, whose full body of work contains much that is thoughtfully provocative and passionately argued, was just a "contrarian," a word that suggests that his praise of rancid Adam Sandler comedies and imputations of racism to fans of Michelle Pfeiffer weren't just misguided or even wrong-headed, but insincere. One of the dangers of having a narrow, official notion of what's objectively true about the good and bad of movies is that someone who has the potential to bring something new and vital to writing about the arts may be branded unserious and not really our sort, which has always been the traditional punishment for failing to be sufficiently boring.
I don't want to say that the illusion of a perfect "community" of online critics and commenters that's been purged of snakes and weirdos has made the current breed soft, but I was a little taken aback at some of the hair-tearing and keening that greeted the news that some labor-of-love pop culture sites were going under this year. This was especially weird in the case of Grantland, a writers' paradise that ESPN created expressly to pacify its own house wild man, Bill Simmons. Not that its death isn't a tragedy, but did it really never occur to anyone that a major, well-staffed website that was willed into being by a corporation to serve as a lollipop for someone who was guaranteed to someday give the corporation the middle finger and walk away for good might not be a lasting proposition? It lasted a good four years, which is not a bad run at all when measured against the runs achieved by similar labor-of-love one-man operations created in the face of overwhelming commercial indifference back in the days when such things were printed on paper and called magazines.
Everyone I know who's written for a living in the past decade complains about the goddamn comments, but many of these same people seem to harbor the illusion that for every loud-mouthed denizen of the swamp who can neither spell nor modulate his voice, there are a thousand smart, devoted readers who never say a word but will click on as many ads as it takes to keep the operation afloat. But maybe the creation of the Internet hasn't really changed the proportions of the readership as much as it seems as if it must have, and the real work of passionate critical writing will continue to be done by people who don't have that many illusions of getting rich at it. (Ebert got rich by being on TV, but one of the changes that the Internet really does seem to have wrought is that while people will now listen to self-styled critics spout off on a podcast, the world has large has gone back to not wanting to look at them.)
The happiest outcome of this year of the long knives for pop culture sites would be the creation of a thousand--okay, maybe half a dozen, remember what I said earlier about not having enough time for all this stuff--personal blogs by movie freaks who can write and who have their own way of seeing and something to say about it. None of them would be as good as this one, and if even if they were, definitely none would have half as cool a title, because I still kind of feel that they should have just retired the Internet the minute Dennis put that header up. But a few strong voices attached to people with stamina and too much time on their hands might go a long way towards cutting through the clutter of contemporary movie culture, because all those Indiewire and Buzzfeed articles with titles like "30 New Movies You've Never Heard of That Are Burning Up the Festival Circuit and Whose Titles You're Going to Jot Down on a Piece of Paper That You're Going to Lose" sure aren't getting the job done. Or is there already a plenitude of such voices already hard at work but eluding my radar? If so, this if everyone's chance to smarten me up a little before my wife gets home from work.
Phil Dyess-Nugent was a freelance writer and film critic. His work has appeared in Nerve, Hi-Lobrow,  The A.V. Club, Global Rhythm, The High Hat, The New Orleans Times-Picayune, and the University of New Orleans Press anthology Please Forward: How Blogging Reconnected New Orleans After Katrina, as well as numerous personal blogs with deceptively clever titles. He is currently either retired or unemployable, depending on whether you ask him about it before he's had his coffee. 


1 comment:

Dennis Cozzalio said...

"... if I ever ran into my former self, the pimply little bastard in the black T-shirt who would always express his chortling incredulity when you ran into him on Monday and told him that you hadn't found the time to see everything that got a "Critic's Choice!" commendation in the New York Times and the Village Voice the previous Friday, I would chide him for his callow, blinkered presumption. Hopefully we would share a merry laugh over it. Then I'd kick his balls through his hat."

Ha! Thanks for this, Phil, and for everything. I feel like I do run into that version of myself every once in a while, and let me tell you, my balls are getting plenty sore.

This post is a typically thoughtful assessment. Thanks so much for being part of this year's festivities, and especially for the shout-out near the end. What was it that Wayne and Garth used to say, and long after it ceased to be funny?...