Tag Archives: film criticism

Writing Samples 2014-15

This is a collection of links to writing I’ve published outside of this blog over the past year or two. It includes some of the recent work I’m proudest of, and I wanted to have it all assembled in one place for easier browsing.

A static medium shot of a man in a park paging through a book might not necessarily scream ‘scene of the year.’ Nor might a pan from left to right and then back again, even if it involved a woman’s husband waving a gun in her face. If, however, that latter shot broke off from the former, taking place on a separate, concurrent visual plane until they merged back together, with each half intended for just one of the viewer’s eyes, well, now we’re getting somewhere…

Attending the Ann Arbor Film Festival is a bit like stepping into a parallel universe. Here, dialogue and narrative lie on the margins, while abstract animation and ethnographic documentary take center stage. Absent are movie stars, paparazzi, and bidding wars; here, a “big name” is someone like Peggy Ahwesh or Lewis Klahr. It’s as if this one week in March at the historic Michigan Theater, just a couple blocks away from the University of Michigan campus, had been carved out of normal space-time and given over to the love of film as an art…

An hour into Robert Altman’s Nashville, a shot opens with a cluttered wardrobe where statues of saints rest next to a candle, a hair dryer, a lava lamp, and a mirror. A zoom out reveals a bathrobe-clad woman in that mirror, singing and shimmying as she listens to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. She’s Sueleen Gay (Gwen Welles), and she’s already been established as a waitress at an airport café with dreams of country-music stardom. She’s on the bottom of the film’s food chain, and her nasally drone of a singing voice means she’s unlikely to rise any higher…

“Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” an audience member shouted, interrupting Jared Leto. Again and again she shouted, until she was heard: “Transmisogyny does not deserve an award!” This was, per The Hollywood Reporter, at a ceremony in Santa Barbara, California. It was February 2014, and Leto was sweeping through the awards circuit, receiving statuettes and ample acclaim for playing the HIV-positive Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club

The day after that piece went up, Filmmaker Magazine published my first professional interview, with Tangerine director Sean Baker. And here are a couple other tidbits: in June, a tweet of mine was embedded in an online article for The Guardian; in January, another was named Indiewire’s “tweet of the day”; and reaching back to January 2014, my writing appeared (in embedded tweet form) on Sight & Sound’s website. None of these one-sentence snippets are especially insightful or representative of my writing, but I’m amused by how far and quickly they can travel.

I’ll wrap this up by mentioning that throughout 2014, I reviewed every single movie I watched on the social media site Letterboxd. Below are links to 15 of those reviews. They’re a mix of the ones that garnered the strongest reactions and the ones I’m happiest to have written.

The Big Parade · Bride of Frankenstein · Brief Encounter · Bringing Up Baby · Commando · Home Alone · Invasion of the Body Snatchers · Jodorowsky’s Dune · Mr. Peabody & Sherman · Night Moves · Nostalghia · One from the Heart · The Phantom of the Paradise · Point Break · The Silence of the Lambs

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Crying Out Loud

When I wrote my recent article on Tangerine for The Dissolve, I spent some time researching the history of how movies about trans characters have been received. I’m not talking about reviews by cis critics, mind you. I already knew that those involved a lot of misgendering and lexical stumbling, even from the best-intentioned of writers. (Or fucking wordplay. The late Richard Corliss was a wonderful writer, but I’ve long loathed the coy “SHE IS A HE” bullshit acrostic in his much-loved Crying Game review.) Instead, I was curious to see what trans writers and activists have had to say over the years about seeing themselves portrayed onscreen. Those writers, however, have rarely been able to write on anything but tiniest of platforms. The farther back through the decades you go, the harder this (oft-buried) writing becomes to excavate. Maybe two trans women saw Chris Sarandon playing one of their own in Dog Day Afternoon on an autumn evening in 1975; maybe they had a rich post-screening discussion about it. Well, if they did, it sure wasn’t printed in Time.

Here’s what I did find, though. In early 2003, the trans activist and filmmaker Andrea James—whose status in trans circles I’ll charitably describe as “complicated”—reviewed the movie Normal on her website and vocalized a discontent that was also central to my Tangerine-spurred op-ed:

Yet another male actor playing a male-to-female transsexual left me feeling pretty apprehensive, too. Out transsexual actors are rarely allowed to play others in our community, let alone non-transsexual roles. I doubt I’ll live to see the day an out transsexual actor plays a lead role in a movie put out by a major Hollywood studio. We’ll see what we can do, though!

Going back another decade to 1993, I found a pair of writers whose work excites me far more than James’: the Toronto-based Xanthra Phillipa and Jeanne B. (the latter a nom de plume for Mirha-Soleil Ross), who together created the zine Gendertrash. The zine’s first issue, hosted online at the invaluable Queer Zine Archive Project, is the only one I’ve been able to find so far, and it’s a 40-page grenade hurled at LGBT complacency. It’s a snapshot of a particular time and place, boiling over with the anger that comes from real suffering. The whole issue is essential reading, but since the subject at hand is film criticism, here’s an excerpt from page 14.

gendertrashfromhell_thecryinggame

Since its release, The Crying Game has born something of a checkered reputation; two decades later, I suspect that what’s most remembered about it are (1) the indie phenomenon it became thanks to a Miramax release and (2) Fergus throwing up when he sees Dil’s penis. When untethered from the film itself and spread via years of pop-cultural osmosis, that scene becomes terrifying shorthand for the way trans women are seen by a hateful world. But here in this clipping, with the film fresh in the air, are two trans women explicitly claiming The Crying Game as their own, saying that Neil Jordan probably has “first hand” experience with its subject matter, all while using language that looks totally alien only a generation later.

This polemic/review provides so much to unpack, but right now I’m primarily fascinated by it as an example of how cultural history works. Nothing, it says to me, is static. How you look at or talk about something right now may not be consistent with how it’s approached only a few years into the past or future. All you can do is try your damnedest to situate yourself in space and time. For me, that means tracking down the words of trans and queer artists who have come before me. Now to pick up my shovel and keep digging.

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On Vulgar Auteurism

Predator (John McTiernan, 1987)”

“Not so much a movement as a loose form of advocacy, it celebrates undervalued craft in critically overlooked genres, as well as the termitic properties of the best works.” Jake Cole

“[T]he term generally refers to unfairly maligned or under-discussed filmmakers working exclusively in a popular mode—filmmakers like [Justin] Lin, who, despite an obvious formal command and distinctive directorial voice, are rarely discussed in a serious way.” Calum Marsh

“Vulgar auteurism simply seems to be a way for people to intellectualise their guilty pleasures.” Craig Williams

Vulgar Auteurism, often abbreviated “VA,” is a critical outlook that’s been gaining traction (and fomenting controversy) over the past couple of years. The above quotes define it from a few different angles. I’ve been also been repeatedly pointed to Jack Lehtonen’s “Vulgar Auteurism: A Guide,” which didn’t coin the term, but—with its collection of screenshots, director names, and movie titles—seems to have helped codify its meaning. (It’s the second Google result for the term, right beneath the “Vulgar Auteurism” Tumblr that Lehtonen co-curates, which was my source for the image above.)

VA has been gradually embraced, “particularly among young critics” as Marsh notes. But it has also been roundly derided as contrarian, cliquish, and redundant, the latter because plain old auteur theory already covers the filmmakers in question. I think the truth of these charges varies, especially since VA’s practitioners are themselves anything but unified, falling all over the map in terms of the approach and quality of their writing. Some speak ardently for movies that, according to received wisdom (my bête noire), merit kneejerk dismissal; others lean so hard on the value of image-making that it’s as if coherent plotting and dialogue had suddenly become vices—symbols of a tradition de qualité that vulgar cinema has displaced. (See the eloquent Sean Gilman for more on this.)

At its worst, I believe VA writing gives excess attention to dumb action movies in a media landscape already dominated by the loud and masculine. It overclaims so insistently that I begin to sense a persecution complex on behalf of movies that are, in reality, high-grossing and well-loved. But that’s at its worst. Personally, what I’ve read on VA and its adherents’ still-developing canon leaves me skeptical but curious. Part of that curiosity is probably because of my inexperience with these movies: for the most part, directors like Tony Scott and Paul W.S. Anderson remain unknown quantities for me, so essays like Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s “Smearing the Senses” intrigue me; they make me want to dip my toes in and learn for myself the veracity of these critical claims.

My own tastes may not automatically gravitate toward these frenetic spectacles, but that doesn’t mean I can’t scour them for points of interest. Even if a movie is frivolous, stupid, or awful, it can still provide some out-of-nowhere beauty, and I love being startled in the middle of a movie I’d never call “great” by some image or another that sways me, shakes me, grabs me by the neck. At its best, Vulgar Auteurism seems to be about this phenomenon, and about doing what good critics should do: giving every movie a chance, regardless of subject matter or provenance, and examining them from different angles. Whether or not the label is necessary, that particular inclination strikes me as an absolute good.

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Link Dump: #91

This week’s kitty is the iconic, vaguely malicious one from Nobuhiko Obayashi’s cult classic Hausu (1977). It’s so cute and fluffy and also a harbinger of weeeeird deadly things to come. Love that kitty. And here are a bunch of links:

And now, some incoherent and/or porn-ish search terms: “hiroshima wet cunt,” “seymour skinner gay porn,” “hh holmesggfrrrrrrr,” “masturbating to malthusian,” “ukraine / pussy lady /nice photos.” People really searched the Internet for all of those things… and somehow found themselves here.

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Link Dump: #90

This week’s kitty is from The Sessions, a movie that doesn’t take many creative chances but is unusual by virtue of being about disability and sex. And now, a whole bunch of links:

And here are our recent search terms, which read like a window into some sad Google user’s erotic nightmares: “fat firl uteras pics,” “www.real-virgil-pussy-ukraine.com,” “she bends on her four ready for deflowring her stories.”

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Lists of Fury

Joel Bocko of The Dancing Image recently asked, “What are 100 (of Your) Favorite Movies?” As soon as I read the question, I knew I had to answer. I’m a list junkie: I love reading, collecting, and composing ’em. I just can’t get enough lists. And, with Sight & Sound’s seventh “greatest films” poll being released in September, there’s been a lot of “list” talk in the air. Roger Ebert wrote about his contribution to the new S&S poll; Criticwire’s Matt Singer asked critics to replace a film in S&S’s top 10; and Film School Rejects’ Cole Abaius announced a 10-best list “according to the Internet.” So lately I’ve been pondering the politics of listmaking… (If you just want to see my 100 movies, skip the next few paragraphs.) Continue reading

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Recommended reading #2

I love putting together our Link Dumps. They’re a valuable platform for disseminating high-quality online writing. But sometimes, bulleted lists just aren’t enough. Such is the case with two terrific blog posts from late January, pieces that cut very close to my cinephile heart. They’re “Spirits and Influences” by Jim Emerson (part #13 of the “SLIFR Movie Tree House” roundtable) and “What the Siren Will Be Doing on the Night of Feb. 26” by the Self-Styled Siren herself.

Both posts demand more than a mere hyperlink and an injunction to “go read this!” Emerson’s, for example—arriving midway through an incredibly erudite six-way conversation—reads almost as a moviegoing manifesto. He deftly jumps across myriad topics: the troubled release of Margaret; his distaste for We Need to Talk About Kevin; the death and ethos of his friend Bingham Ray. And all the while, he espouses a desire for greater diversity in the worlds of critical thought and film production. A pair of quotes especially caught my eye. First, this one:

All that matters is what the critic has to say about the movie. Everything else is irrelevant and/or speculation. On the other hand, if a critic can’t articulate why he/she loves or hates or is ambivalent about something, then how can his/her opinion possibly matter? It doesn’t. Opinions are a dime a dozen, but they have to be tested to find out whose carries any weight.

Which pretty much sums up my beliefs about what criticism is and should do. Opinions are like assholes; everybody has one. At the end of the day, a critic’s worth (and the worth of their opinions) comes down to the quality, meaning, and power of their writing.

A couple paragraphs on, Emerson addresses the fact that he and Armond White both listed Kevin as one of their least-favorite movies of 2011. (Emerson explained his decision, but White just answered the film’s title with a glib “Must we?”)

So, do I “agree” with AW? There’s no way of telling. I gave my reasons. He didn’t. We may hold entirely different views about the movie, even though we both, evidently, don’t think very highly of it.

I’m reminded of the legal concept of a “concurring opinion”: when one justice on a court agrees with the majority, but for a different reason. The point being, you can come at a movie from radically different critical mindsets (as Emerson and White certainly do) and still “agree.” Cinema isn’t just a world of thumbs-up, thumbs-down, “yes” or “no.” It’s a thorny world of reasons, aesthetics, context, and personal histories. (Or, to borrow from Renoir in Rules of the Game, the wonderful thing about discussing movies is that “everybody has their reasons.”)

As for the Siren’s post, well, it’s an impassioned plea for a history-centric Oscar ceremony, and you need to read it. It’s an excellent case for why The Artist or Hugo should win all the awards, and why the filmmakers behind them should then turn the ceremony into a soapbox for film preservation. It’s a pipe dream, yeah, but a beautiful and noble one. This isn’t, after all, about two specific movies of mixed quality; it’s about the thousands of movies that no one will ever learn about or see. (In part because they might not exist anymore.) That’s a tragedy, and it’s one that these two backwards-looking films could, possibly, go a little way toward reversing.

So thanks to the Siren and Mr. Emerson for elevating online film discourse and inspiring me with their incisive prose!

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