Bombast: Fan Club
If Pulp Fiction, released twenty years ago this week, was the film cultural equivalent to Nirvana’s Nevermind in pop music—and I’ve argued this point more than once—then Quentin Tarantino was our Kurt Cobain, or at least a Cobain-caliber star with Krist Novoselic-caliber charisma. The two men were united by more than the fact of their being suddenly trampolined into iconic fame at approximately the same time thanks to a combination of diligence, talent, and good (or ill) luck. They were four years apart in age. They were both the products of broken families, raised by single-mothers. They were both high school dropouts. They were both autodidacts who created their own syllabi with texts that had no place inside official school culture. For Tarantino it was films and crime fiction; for Cobain, rock n’ roll music. When they became obscenely famous, they dragged their formative influences and new obsessions along with them into what we once quaintly called the “mainstream.” Tarantino shilled for Wong Kar-wai, Jack Hill, and Jackie Chan; Cobain for The Vaselines, Raincoats, Daniel Johnson, and the Meat Puppets. Tarantino’s promotion was emphatic, even shrilly insistent; Cobain’s casual, tossed off, but they were both to a significant degree defined by their tastes. They were, in short, fans.
Neither invented the celebrity-as-fan, but they might be said to have created the template for the contemporary version. In the film world, Tarantino was preceded by the likes of Martin Scorsese and John Waters, who were still providing valuable curatorial service when I was an adolescent—I imagine I would’ve gotten to Scarlet Street and Jean Genet eventually without their help, but I doubt it would’ve been as easy. I’m not sure who has stepped up to play a similar part in the interceding years. Despite having punctiliously avoided her artistic output, which is insofar as I can tell terrible, I’ve noticed that Lena Dunham has established a good track record as a well-wisher and dispenser of lip-service, if not a paying employer. Perhaps it’s difficult to point to any stand outs because fandom is no longer an exception but an epidemic, the very air that we breathe.
“If you’ve got friends, you’ve got fans.” I was informed of this fact today by an ad on Facebook, a website that I principally utilize as a means by which to peddle my sonorous long-form film chat to “a small coterie of friends and critics,” to borrow Dave Kehr’s description of the target audience for Billy Wilder’s Fedora. In terms of the economy of Likes and Retweets that Facebook and other social media services have invented, and which mastheads/content providers have eagerly seized on and perpetuated, this Friends = Fans equation is more or less exactly correct. If you’re self-promoting a song, a show, a sketch, a record, or a new piece of writing, the quantifiable success of the endeavor, including to some degree its ability to be monetized, is largely contingent on your social media presence. The theory goes that genuine talent will be rewarded with more friend/fans, and more friend/fans will lead to greater public approbation and success. Friendship is fandom, and fandom is the coin of the realm. Incidentally, the Facebook ad was encouraging me to “Like” Facebook.
One definition of fandom appears in Logan Hill’s recent New York Times profile of P.T. Anderson. “As he talked about the film [Inherent Vice], Mr. Anderson, fresh from a morning run along the Hudson River, was never less than possessed by a fan’s enthusiasm—unpretentious and quick to profess his admiration for Mr. Pynchon and to note other ways the film might have turned out.” “Enthusiasm,” “unpretentious,” and “admiration” are the key words here, all positive things, and they combine to create an impression of fandom that I don’t suppose many would quibble with—indeed, fandom does not allow for quibbling. (“Quick” is also relevant.) Judging from my social media feed when the trailer for Mr. Anderson’s movie appeared, many members of the wide world of film culture are standing by to express “a fan’s enthusiasm” for anything that he might have done or will do. And let he who is without sin cast the first stone—if tomorrow were the last day of 2014, I would include the trailer for Dumber and Dumber To on any Year’s Best list.
I’ve been thinking about the role of fandom in the economy of film culture and criticism for some time, thanks in part to a series of conversations that I’ve had with fellow critic Eric Hynes. (We are mutual fans.) Ignoring for a moment any talk of “changing media landscape,” let us presume for a moment that now, as ever, all critics began their engagement with their medium of choice as fans—all enthusiasm and hero-worship and so on—and presumably remain so up to a degree befitting professional decorum and dignity. In a moment when professionals and nonprofessionals alike commingle their scrawl on the bathroom wall that is the comments section, and everyone will be heard in the “conversation” (a/k/a Twitter dogpile) one way or another, what now distinguishes criticism from fandom?
Historically, the division has always been a touchy subject. For highbrow critics, the fan was the other guy—“fanatic” is defined by “intense uncritical devotion,” and therefore the fan is someone who by very nature of their devotion has taken leave of their critical facilities. For the discontents of auteurism, la politique des Auteurs was a Trojan Horse meant to stealthily institutionalize fandom, a way for boys who’d graduated from their Topp’s cards to authoritatively bloviate about mise-en-scene in a tone that they’d previously used to talk about OBP. Certainly Pauline Kael thought so, though she stumped for younger talents like Brian de Palma, Warren Beatty, and James Toback in a manner suspiciously close to that which the auteurists reserved for the late films of Hawks, Ford, and Hitchcock.
Let us allow that everyone, but everyone, has their favorites, and thus ever has it been, since well before the days when Ruskin championed Turner and Hazlitt went to bat for Edmund Kean. Fandom consists of cheerleading those favorites on to victory. Criticism is a process of interrogating those favorites—interrogating their work, interrogating the response that it evokes in yourself and in others, evaluating strengths alongside of weaknesses, or accepting that the two may be inextricable from one another, much as fandom is inextricable from evaluative criticism, if such a division were even to be desired. The definitions I’m offering are personal and idiosyncratic, but I think it comes down to this: where fandom cheerily accepts, criticism is suspicious.
The Americanism “fandom” has been in common parlance since the turn of the last century, and is predated by many elder synonyms. There are, however, two developments that have in the new millennium given it a particular coloration. The first, referred to above, is the usage of fandom for promotion—of self or of others—and data mining purposes on-line. The second, also directly related to the Internet, is the mainstreaming of fan culture. This event is usually dated to the stratospheric, even unprecedented fin-de-siècle success of certain works in genres that, at the moment these works appeared, were widely considered the exclusive territory of nerdlingers—the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings movies, the Sam Raimi Spider-Man films, and so on. The table had already been set, however, by Tarantino and Cobain, both steeped in the specialized worlds of fanzining and bootlegging. (Tarantino was a crossover figure to the ComicCon set; I beg you to recall that Christian Slater plays a comic store clerk in 1993’s True Romance.) In the funky underground/counterculture niches that they’d gestated in and crawled out of, as in the worlds of sci-fi/fantasy/superhero fandom, alternative organs for news and criticism had been constructed in the shadow of the official ones, which had for the most part failed to take the objects of fandom seriously. Rolling Stone won’t give a fair shake to SST releases? The New York Review of Books won’t give space to Chris Claremont? Fuck ‘em, we’re going FUBU. Far from blinded by “intense critical devotion,” the line was that fans weren’t unqualified to evaluate the objects of their fandom—they were the only ones uniquely qualified to evaluate them. Why send a critic to do a fan’s job?
There was more than a measure of necessary cultural course-correction when these fan-based cultures hit critical mass, but yesterday’s Salon des Refusés is tomorrow’s Academy—which brings us to the present exalted state of fandom, fandom in decadence. Unlike the gloomy “Time to make the donuts” business of criticism, fandom is fun—remember that “enthusiasm”! It doesn’t follow, however, than fandom exclusively engenders positivity—observe what happens when in-the-tank fandom runs up against criticism of the cherished object by an outsider. You might argue that any cultural specialization is a form of fandom, but I’ve never yet been given the pitchfork-and-torches treatment by angry Alain Resnais-heads, whereas say the wrong thing about Chris Nolan and prepare to get swarmed like you just slagged One Direction. So totally does fandom dominate the conversation now that stances “against” rather than “for” become banners of anti-fandom, to borrow a phrase from Jonathan Gray. Last week I wrote something not-entirely-admiring about Gone Girl and the films of David Fincher, and because it happened to be the movie of the moment, it was duly passed around by people who had their own compunctions about the movie, and I managed to pull a readership somewhat above my usual dozen or so reliable shut-ins. There is—have you noticed it?—a new sense of pride of ownership in not connecting with a work of art, and anti-fanclubs form with the same vigor once reserved for fandom. Didn’t “get” Boyhood? Not feeling the fuss around K-Stew? Just cue up Michael Jackson’s “You Are Not Alone” and take a stroll down Twitter lane!
Anti-fans seek other anti-fans, and fans seek their own kind. And because like goes with like, we arrive at the particular critical reception afforded to the record collector rocker or the cinephile filmmaker. In the cases of Tarantino and Cobain, the massive popularity of their work cannot solely or even primarily be attributed to critical culture forming a column and marching in lockstep behind them, but it’s undeniable that the fan-creator is a particularly tempting subject for the fan-critic. “I like him, but how could I help it?” critic Dave Marsh wrote of Elvis Costello in the May 18, 1978 Rolling Stone, more or less summarizing the allure. “He is so much the perfect rock critic hero that he even looks and acts like one of us: scrawny, bespectacled and neurasthenic, doesn’t know when to shut up, bone-dull onstage.” And just look at the difference between the reception of a World War Two epic from Q.T. and, say, one from David Ayer. The ladies and gentlemen of the press like creators who talk shop in terms of influences—that is, fandom—and for a filmmaker to wear their cinephilia on their sleeve is, if nothing else, to ensure themselves a press willing to listen. There are nearly one million words of interviews with critic-turned-director Olivier Assayas that attest to this fact.1
We root for our own team, and in doing so we perpetuate certain provincial tendencies. If New York City’s assurance of sitting at the head of the table in the cultural conversation is no longer what it was, it is for the moment holding firm,2 and this is reflected in our vested interest in keeping the idea of the East Coast—specifically, New York City—intellectual alive. Hence the disproportionate press granted to figures like Dunham, Noah Baumbach, and Alex Ross Perry, in precipitously ascending order of the circumference of their pop cultural footprints and my appreciation of their work. (“This is the THIRD email in a row someone has pitched me something on Alex Ross Perry,” an editor recently replied to an e-mail of mine.)
This leads quite naturally to the question of conflict of interest. Unless you are an independently wealthy individual working as sole editor and contributor to your own publication, a la Karl Kraus’s Die Fackel, and are capable therefore of staying out of the fray entirely, it’s unavoidable that such conflicts will arise, and anyone who claims to be entirely immune to them is most likely a grandstanding fibber. (I saw you scarfing those canapés at the Squid and the Whale party in 2005, Armond!) Critics work as programmers, and vice-versa. Critics make films, and filmmakers act as critics—even if, via a site like Talkhouse, only for a day. (Surely the oddest fantasy camp ever created, this.) The middle-sized festival circuit is a cut-rate permanent paid vacation for the footloose film journo, who’ll find something nice to say about the experience if they’re expecting a return invite. Payola rules everything around me! In most cases, we can only rely on the conscience of the individuals in question to either provide the requisite (usually very boring) “full disclosure” side note, or to recuse themselves from writing entirely when anything approaching objectivity is unachievable.3
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 1
Part of this uncomfortable, jostling intimacy comes as a natural result of circling wagons in a serious-minded film culture that, rightly or wrongly, is convinced of its own imperilment. What results is the curious phenomenon of rallying ‘round the flag of “difficult” art by subjecting it to soft analysis. “Everyone’s too goddamn nice,” a friend was complaining to me about the NYC scene in the midst of the New York Film Festival love-in, and I’m not sure he’s wrong. It’s one thing to take potshots at big entertainments made by monolithic multinationals that’ll hardly feel the sting, but to apply the same rigor to one’s colleagues is out of the question. We’re all in this thing together, right? And anyways, you never know when you’ll need to ask somebody for a job. These institutions ain’t loyal!
This is, after a fashion, business as usual. What I have seen change in my decade on the scene, really and truly, is the degree to which critics, increasingly indistinguishable from fans, are now pulling no-extra-charge-working-round-the-clock shifts as street team publicists for forthcoming films. (Given that the current model demands that every as-yet-unestablished writer act as their own self-publicist, it is unsurprising that such activity would come as second nature.) Here is where the double meaning of “fan” is relevant—as in fanning the flames, building social media brushfires into a roaring blaze. Geeking out in public forums, the critic places themselves in approximately the same position as the teenaged Hunger Games obsessive who volunteers their time and effort to keep the franchise in full sight of the Internet, in hopes of being rewarded by official recognition, followers, and requests for friendship. And remember, kids: “If you’ve got friends, you’ve got fans.”
The gentleman newspaper critic caricature of the classic Hollywood cinema was a figure at once impressive and ridiculous in his self-importance, usually an ascetic, imperious fop with a pert moustache, walking stick, and a British accent who said things like “solipsistic, soporific drivel,” and whose scourge honest artists lived in cringing horror of. Very probably this creature—part imposter nobleman, part George Jean Nathan—never existed in actual fact, but I can say with some assurance that a contemporary caricature does, Tweeting “masterpiece” before the credits have rolled on several dozen new films a year and taking canoodling selfies next to famous faces after a 15 minute interview in order to suggest a false intimacy. Perhaps this proximity to glamor has become a compensation prize to stand in lieu of a living wage, but all of this fandom feels a wee bit obsequious. If it’s come down to a matter of Which Side Are You On?, I’ll be over here doing my best Waldo Lydecker impression.
1. Proximity and distance, either historical, geographical, cultural, or all three, have a great deal to do with allowing for such phenomena, and they cease to play any particular role when the gap between critic and artist grows great enough. Edward Yang was a cinephile; Hou Hsiao-Hsien isn’t. Both filmmakers’ occidental fanbases are for the most part either attentive to members of the critical caste or part of them, and but their relative relationship to film culture doesn’t play anything like the same role in English-language writing about them.
2. As participation in the critical conversation is less and less contingent on the writer’s being headquartered in a media capitol, and the pay for contributing to that conversation becomes less and less, I suspect we will increasingly be hearing from correspondents in Duluth, Transylvania, and even Woodside, Queens, who’ve been properly vetted for access to press screening links.