Bombast: Subterranean Hot Take Blues
Petitions for my attention drip down my timeline, like drops of rain on a windowpane, and I stare ahead glassy-eyed, dreading each and every one of them. This feeling—and I can’t be the only one who suffers from it—I have taken to calling “opinion fatigue.” Opinions, opinions, opinions, all the time more opinions, until they’re as devalued as the ruble, most with just as little backing them up.
I am writing in the aftermath of a week of Oscar takes, and the takes on those takes, a process that reminds me of that playground game where you would mash your hand down on your friend’s hand until it’s immobilized, and then he’d try to pry his hand out from under your hand and trap your hand, and so on, ad infinitum. Kids have a lot of time for this kind of thing, whereas adults aren’t meant to, and so I try to tune out the hot take sweepstakes, if only because the tenor of the discourse, in tone if not political content, reminds me more than anything of Ed Anger, the fictitious Weekly World News editorial columnist who always began his vitriolic screeds with some variation of “I’m madder than…” (“Helen Keller at a silent movie,” “a [sic] Irishman without cabbage in his pants,” etc.)
We have less time than ever—this applies to almost everyone in the work force, but I am in particular talking about the culture journalism racket, the one that I happen to know something about—because we are always meant to be at work. For the rank-and-file journo, this means more output without more consequent time for research. The world-at-a-fingertip Internet, responsible for both the uptick in demand for content and the new ease of access to a great deal of the amassed content of the ages, is meant to make up the difference by slashing the time necessary to dedicate to the research process. Which of course it does, but only up to a point—certain research can only take the amount of time that it takes, be it shoe-leather reportage or the arts journo equivalent, reading a book, listening to an album, visiting a gallery, going to a concert, or watching a movie. (This is not to speak of actually living with and close-reading these texts, or doing the supplementary research which would allow one to provide a cultural or historical context for them without falling back on received wisdom, cliché, and wiki-paraphrase.) It’s here, on the experiential end, that we can least afford to cut corners, though practically it’s where the gouging usually comes in, because everything which takes the freelancer away from their computer cuts into their income. When direct experience is scaled back, the writer has only two resources to draw upon: their search engine, and their feels.
Last week in The New Republic, Phoebe Maltz Bovy, responding to a piece by Ester Bloom in The Billfold, diagnosed “The Rise of Feelings Journalism.” In Maltz Bovy’s definition, this is a matter of “a writer making an argument based on what they imagine someone else is thinking, what they feel may be another person’s feelings.” Speaking more directly to my point, however, is the conclusion that Maltz Bovy arrives at: “This is not only about time, but money. Especially in feminist journalism, low-paid essays that take a personal or provocative stance are the norm. If a publication can get at least as strong a reaction to a piece that cost $50 as one that took hundreds of dollars to report, why wouldn’t it encourage the former?”
Knight of Cups
Mother teaches that haste makes waste, and the pipes of my social media feed are clogged with the stuff. The day after the 65th Berlin International Film Festival wrapped, an article by one Katie Kilkenny appeared on the website for The Atlantic, and was subsequently passed around for jeers—at least in my immediate circle, though I’m afraid it may have been taken seriously elsewhere. Writing on “The Rich Kids Changing Independent Film,” Kilkenny, to use her own words, was endeavoring to “crystallize a paradigm” (?) in contemporary film culture, a moment when, per the article, “moneyed Hollywood reformers” such as “heir to the Garmin GPS fortune” Ken Kao and Annapurna Pictures’ Megan Ellison, are bankrolling projects by “old masters,” evidently at the expense of Hot Young Talent Yearning to Breathe Free. Kilkenny’s account begins with startup Broad Green Films’ acquisition, at Berlin, of Terrence Malick’s Knight of Cups, a film underwritten by Kao. After cherry-picking three negative reviews of Knight of Cups which appeared during the festival, Kilkenny, who has not seen Malick’s film, asserts that “At 72 years old, the director is retreading old ground”—that this “retreading” is a pejorative and not common artistic practice is implied—before proceeding to further chestnuts such as “Malick might have had a little too much creative control.” (At least she’s remembered the qualifier here.) Though these words appear nowhere in the text, the URL for the piece includes the words “why-terrence-malick-can-afford-to-make-a-dud.”
That an august publication such as The Atlantic would run something like this under their masthead isn’t particularly surprising, as The Atlantic consistently runs some of the worst film writing to be found on the Internet, which is to say in the universe. In the days since “Rich Kids,” we find Kilkenny weighing in on “The Troublesome Rebirth of the Kevin Costner Everyman” (here the p-word appears in a reference to the “paradigmatic trappings” of Costner’s McFarland, USA, a “better film” than Costner’s Black or White, though the latter work is deemed “the more well-intended effort”) and “The Oscars’ Renaissance of Political Activism,” a momentous occasion only dampened by “The Murky Gay Politics Surrounding [The Imitation Game screenwriter Graham Moore’s] ‘Stay Weird’ Oscars Speech,” reported on by Spencer Kornhaber. (Troublesome stuff, that.)
All of this problematic prose about “problematic” art aside, Kilkenny’s “Rich Kids” piece crystallizes a paradigm, as it were, in contemporary cultural commentary: it no longer seems to be considered necessary to have seen or experienced a work in order to hold an opinion on it. While it seems like a thousand years have passed since the kerfuffle over Glenn Greenwald’s sight-unseen assessment of the “torture-glorifying” Zero Dark Thirty in The Guardian, in fact it was only 2012, and Greenwald’s responding-to-the-responses model has since become ever more prevalent. At least, that is, in The Guardian, who more recently have run a piece on Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper by one Lindy West of Seattle, who didn’t let the fact that she’d only seen the film’s trailer prevent her from fretting about its public reception.* West, whose further cultural commentary in the month of January included an undoubtedly soon-to-be-anthologized work called “Benedict Cumberbatch needs to be more careful with words. But we can all learn from his apology,” speculates in her piece about “the chasm between Eastwood’s intent and his audience’s reception.” (This about a filmmaker who is more punctilious than most about crossing t’s and dotting i’s for his viewer.) The sleepless nights that West suffers worrying over the mental faculties of that chimerical construct, The Audience, is an affliction frequently found among self-identified liberal commentators whose sympathies with common punters are so complete that they wholly distrust them to be able to negotiate the vagaries of Art.
Zero Dark Thirty
If you believe that a work’s entire significance can be found in the footprint that it leaves in public discourse, then looking at the thing itself will necessarily be an afterthought. West is trafficking in a brand of pseudo-sociology increasingly common in 21st-century eyeball-harvest journalism—per Maltz Bovy, “an argument based on… what they feel may be another person’s feelings”—though hardly a new invention. Pauline Kael, late of Petaluma, used to specialize in it. Though Kael was of the most perspicacious writers about actors and performance that America has ever had, even her best work is marred by a tendency to digress into sub–Lisa Lampanelli insult-comic mode, roasting a movie by consigning it to be the property of “The type of people who…”, favorite targets including the oft-derided “liberal friend,” strawman East Coast drips, and a variation on the “snaggletoothed hillbillies” derided by that “Brutally Honest Oscar Voter.”**
Adrian Martin, in his new book, Mise en Scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art, doesn’t once address Kael, but is critical of the “socializing tendency” in several postwar critics “who tended to rely on glorified plot synopses as their material for study.” (Among those listed is Parker Tyler, whose value is admittedly more that of a mystic than a social scientist.) It was in Martin’s book that I recently encountered an admirable phrase from Positif’s Gérard Legrand, one of the numerous critics and thinkers whom Martin consults in arriving at various definitions of mise en scène. In Legrand’s formulation, a successful film offers a “‘philosophy’ of space and its contents, a philosophy not reducible to an ideology” [emphasis mine].
The commendable undertaking of Martin’s work is to retrofit the language of classical cinephilia, particularly the phrase mise en scène, which is for many redolent of mid-century Paris and an increasingly distant past, to 21st-century moving picture art, and its critical reception. Formal analysis has always been a bit of a niche group concern, however, and it is in the interest of much arts journalism, so-called—both those publishing and those catering their work to those publishers—that films should be reducible to an ideology that one can be for or against, which is much sexier than all that endless muddling about, hemming-and-hawing, and switchback swerving. To understand the function that is being assigned to movies, it is helpful to turn again to The Guardian, this time to a November 2014 piece by Lili Loofbourow on “How recaps changed the way we think about TV—and our lives.” Discussing The Golden Age of Television and what she dubs, through a peculiar logic obscure to me, The Bronze Age of Television Criticism, Loofbourow addresses “the extent to which, these days, we’ve turned to TV as a common text that we can all analyse and use to generate social meaning,” thus meeting “a deep hunger for sustained, ethical, collective conversation.”
The conversation being referred to is The Conversation, a national-if-not-global water cooler get-together to which the endlessly renewable resource of serial television is perfectly suited, but to which movies can be accommodated once must-see seasons have ended and trade deadlines have passed. The search for those who can perform the thaumaturgy of distilling films into their social meaning brings to the fray movie illiterates, dilettantes with no skin in the game and no stake in cinema as an art form, as such, who think that “realism” in movies has something to do with fact-checking—at The Atlantic, the prolific Kilkenny proposes a new Oscar for “Dramatic Research”—rather than the sort of moment singled out by Manny Farber in Raoul Walsh’s Roaring Twenties, the tonal precision of “Cagney tak[ing] a show-biz beginner home on the last train to New Rochelle.” When paired with the visual literacy that allows for the reading of a film, the ability to place a movie within a larger social/ historical/ political context is something greatly to be valued in a critic, though very often what we see instead are writers who strew the ground with a pocketful of commonplaces (“good performances,” “beautifully shot”) while rushing on their way to the more pressing issue of assigning a utilitarian sociopolitical function to the work in question. Commentary which distills movies into their significance and funnels them into ideological decanters becomes a means through which writers point like-minded viewers towards works that will, purportedly, provide reinforcement to an already-established worldview. This, along with Recommended for You curation, takes us ever further from the credo espoused by that excellent critic, C.S. Lewis: “To love and admire anything outside yourself is to take one step away from utter spiritual ruin.” (Jean Renoir put it another way: “Man is a creature of habit, and the task of the artist is to try to break these habits.”) And while I do not believe in an irreparable cleavage between what, in a recent Twitter contretemps, was called the split between appraising art for “social/ideological utility” and “pretty pictures,” if it comes down to picking teams, just call me Stepan Verkhovensky, stumping for the lofty and the beautiful.
What Lewis was advocating for, I suppose, would fall under the category of what Kael called “saphead objectivity”—one of her personal bugbears, though not precisely one that overruns the media landscape today, when quick-draw criticastering often seems to have wholly superseded circumspection. In trying to sort through the crushing deluge of hot takes that often feels like the death-by-grain-entrapment in Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat, many of us have begun to search for a means to sort the grain from the chaff, as it were. One such criterion is that of experiential investment. Is an opinion valid at the moment of conception, as the Right to Lifers would have it that a zygote is, or do these things take time? Kael, famously, was of the one-and-done clan, trusting to gut response and the pleasure principle, and waving the banner of “If art isn’t entertainment, what is it? Punishment?” (Answer: It’s art.) This position is, if not upheld, then given a twist in a 2012 piece by Stephanie Zacharek, which kicks off from the then-current debate over The Master by Paul Thomas Anderson, a filmmaker whose work is a rallying point for advocates of “slow criticism.” (See for example a recent piece on re-viewing Inherent Vice, aka Inherent Twice). On the very far end of the spectrum we find the zealous frame-counter David Bordwell, who this week has used his blog, Observations on Film Art, to offer a close visual analysis of the newly coronated Best Picture of 2014, Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s Birdman. Bordwell, a consistent critic of sloppy, rush-to-judgment film journalism, responds to repeated inaccurate accounts of Iñárritu’s film as a “single-shot” exercise by going through it with a fine-toothed comb, debunking the parroted single-shot claim while offering copiously illustrated insight into the means through which Iñárritu and DP Emmanuel Lubezki achieved some of their sequence shot effects. Bordwell, whose mission is perhaps more pedagogical than critical, only avers in passing his feelings about Birdman, though is not so guarded when it comes to addressing critical culture at large, whom he admonishes to “be more accurate and comprehensive when talking about film form and style.” (Though to do so at all is a rare enough occurrence—hence positive responses to Boyhood are reduced to “self-identification,” and the film’s function as a formal game is ignored or slandered as gimmickry.)
The work that Bordwell has done here is exhaustive, yet I can’t help but feel that his assessment of Birdman, however perspicacious, neglects the important point about it—that the film is loathsome. (Just one man’s opinion!) At the risk of engaging in “feelings journalism,” I suspect the withholding of value judgments in Bordwell’s piece—at least relative to what one would expect of a review—is no accident, but a quiet reproach to an opinion-glutted market in which supporting analysis (or even basic knowhow) is a scarcity. Maltz Bovy, discussing another breed of opinion-mongering run rampant, is more to the point: “Unlike outright fabrication, feelings journalism doesn’t necessarily cross an ethical line, just one of good sense—and, perhaps, of good writing.” So the Conversation builds into a deafening babble, and the best any of us can do is stake out a quiet corner in which to carry on away from those who talk the loudest, and say the least.
* If I am not bringing up in the same breath the various organizations, most of them conservative in nature, who volubly protested the film adaptation of 50 Shades of Grey, sight unseen, it is because most of us proper-thinking members of the coastal media elite have agreed that such knee-jerk reactions are beneath consideration, except when they happen to originate within our own camp.
** Nowadays, you don’t even have to supply your own sacrificial dupes—Google does it for you! As studios have taken to using Twitter feed pull-quotes to promote their films, so journalists can locate and nominate unofficial spokespeople for works they wish to discredit. The writer trawls message boards, comments sections, and social media feed to find the most grotesque and caricatured responses, positive or negative, to a work; uses this sample to represent the whole of “the kind of people who like” such-and-such; and then handily demolishes their strawman, an unsuspecting dimwit who has been inexplicably elevated to the role of official mouthpiece. This approach benefits from the Internet’s upending of the hierarchical pecking order of opinions, in theory if not always in practice.