In 2006, a now defunct alterna-weekly in Boston asked me to write a short review of the movie Little Children, starring Kate Winslet. They told me they would pay me $100. I had been living in New York for exactly four years, and since I’d moved, newspapers in Boston had started asking me to write for them, which they hadn’t done much when I lived there.
Little Children was the follow-up to its director’s debut feature, a surprise hit and critical success. His new film, based on a literary novel, concerned cheating spouses in a suburban town outside Boston. Escape from that part of the world was still pretty fresh in my mind when I got to the theater. The screening was filled almost to capacity, but I spotted an empty seat in the middle of a row, next to a man I recognized. At the time he was one of the most prominent film critics in the country, with a staff position at a prestigious magazine. I recognized him from the photo on the dust jacket of his most recent book, which I’d read the year before. The book was about how his marriage had collapsed, and how he’d become fixated on both internet pornography and making money in the stock market. In the stock market he eventually broke even.
The book was not that interesting, but it did, at least, contain forays into film criticism. He worried, for instance, that superhero movies were ruining our children’s dreams—not their dreams for the future but their actual dreams at night, when they went to bed. He’d already said the same thing in the magazine he wrote for, so he must have been thinking about it a lot.
I sat down next to him and said hello. He acknowledged me without speaking and soon the film began. The then prominent film critic had a notebook in his lap, but he remained immobile until a scene revealed that Winslet’s husband was an online porn addict. At that point the critic began furiously taking notes, scribbling with great force and speed. Since I had read his book, his vigorous jotting during that particular scene caught my attention. When his review came out, he called the movie, which was average and predictable, “extraordinary” and “startling.”
A couple of weeks later the alterna-weekly in Boston assigned me another review. Most of the assembled critics and I were already seated in the Midtown screening room waiting for the movie to start when a movie reviewer I’d been watching on television my whole life bounded in. He looked around and detected a man he knew sitting several rows away. “I saw Spamalot last night,” he yelled across the room to this person, referring to the Broadway musical based on the movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. “It was OK. But the girls in it were not good-looking,” he shouted. He then loudly asked the man he was addressing, and by extension everyone else in the room, “What ever happened to real beauties, like Joan Crawford?” He pronounced Crawford’s name with gravity, as if here in 2006, Joan Crawford was a universally understood measure of beauty that everyone in earshot also used as a point of comparison when judging chorines.
As the movie began, I wondered who would yell that across a crowded screening room at ten in the morning. And who goes to Spamalot to ogle women? Who goes to Spamalot at all? Back in Boston I had worked as a movie theater projectionist. Sometimes in the morning I ran press screenings at the theater. The Boston critics, an unassuming bunch, did not shout insults about chorus girls to each other or write books about playing the stock market. There was one woman in Boston who silently performed calisthenics in the back of the auditorium behind the other critics while the movie was on, trying not to bother anyone. That was as boisterous as it got at press screenings in New England.
The first time I saw something I’d written in print, out in the world—I mean something that I’d written for a periodical that was not a zine—I was in the checkout line of a Whole Foods supermarket in Massachusetts. The magazine in which it was published came from the Midwest and mostly repackaged semi-leftist lifestyle content from other publications, but it also commissioned one or two new articles each issue and had a reviews section in the back.
I had recently become this magazine’s film critic. Since the magazine did not publish reviews of new movies, I wrote about films that were coming out on home video, which at that time meant VHS tapes. I still don’t understand why this publication had a specific policy of only reviewing movies on video; it might have been part of a larger philosophy of home consumption. Eventually they wanted me to start reviewing tantric sex instructional videotapes alongside or instead of movies.
The magazine was not the kind of publication usually sold in supermarket checkout lines. I picked it up and flipped to the page where my piece started. I had written a review of the Orson Welles film F for Fake, new to video that month. I was excited to see my article, and as I placed organic items on the conveyor belt I held out the magazine, open to my review, and announced to the cashier, “Hey, I wrote this! This is an article by me!”
She craned her neck toward the magazine pages, where a photograph of Orson Welles illustrated the piece. This was the corpulent Welles of the 1970s, just as he appeared in F for Fake, with a full gray beard and a cigar, dressed in a black fedora and a matching cape. He might have even been wearing gloves, the kind he wore when he performed magic tricks.
The cashier looked at the picture, then at me, then back to Welles in the magazine. She looked up again at my young, beardless face and my full head of black hair, which was clearly visible because I was not wearing a hat or a cape. “Is that you?” she asked, pointing at the photo.
“No!” I blurted out. “That’s Orson Welles!”
“Oh,” she said, scanning a can of pinto beans. I put the magazine back on the rack where I found it, gathered my grocery bags, and left through the automatic doors. Wow, I thought, that was a lesson in the artist-critic divide.
The first thing I wrote for n+1 I dictated over the phone to my editor, Keith Gessen, from outside a subway station on 72nd Street in Manhattan. I can’t remember why I was uptown, something for my job in television brand analysis. Keith wanted a column on the Oscar nominees that year, for n+1’s website, because he had noticed that every year the media was becoming more obsessed with the Academy Awards. I was too busy to write it, I told him. When the economy crashed in 2008, I realized freelance work would not pay the bills, so I got a job using semiotics to analyze television programming for a brand consultancy. I stopped writing so I could have health insurance. Print was paying less and less, anyway, for smaller and smaller word counts. (Some of my earlier, pre-n+1 pieces appear toward the end of this book.)
Keith was insistent. He wanted me to write this Oscar roundup. So he said the title of each Oscar-nominated film one at a time over the phone and wrote down exactly what I said about it, then published it without editing it. It was the easiest thing I’d ever written. After that, I wrote a long piece on movies about the war on terror and the war in Iraq, “Jessica Biel’s Hand,” for n+1’s seventh print issue.
Writing those two pieces, or speaking one and writing the other, put into perspective all the frustrations I’d had with film criticism in the 21st century. By 2008, film criticism seemed boring and repetitive, and too beholden to studio release schedules. Much of it had been obviated by the internet; its style was obsolete. Every review was the same, in the same format. I hated how in magazines the film column was the exact same length from issue to issue, and that I always knew which two of the week’s releases would be covered and in what order. The columns always seemed too long, because they were boring. The shorter capsule reviews in lesser magazines and newspapers also seemed too long, for the same reason. They were even harder to read than the longer ones because whatever space they had was filled with extraneous material. I could not imagine that every other reader did not feel the same way I did.
By writing for n+1 I was able to identify what I disliked most in the reviews I read and then cut it from my own work. The very first review I had ever written for the midwestern liberal digest, of a strange, disquieting movie called Begotten, included a bit of praise that ended up quoted on the packaging of the film’s subsequent video releases. Seeing it there when I went to the video store bugged me; it made me feel like a bad writer. It continued to bother me long after the last copy of that video went up for sale on eBay. I decided I would try to never include anything in my writing that could be extracted and used for publicity.
The next thing that had to go was the endless plot description that pads most film reviews. In the 21st century, film plots are known before the movies arrive in theaters. There are few points a critic has to make that need much plot description, but critic-journalists still put everything on the record like they are preserving it for a future in which we have no way to know what happened in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
The third thing I wanted to discard was having to identify actors, directors, and other artists by mentioning specific, obvious instances of their past work every time they came up, as if no one had ever heard of them before. For instance, every time a Jennifer Aniston movie came out, Aniston was described as the former star of Friends. This bit of non-news served no function, yet there it was, every time. It was as if the critics were writing DVD packaging copy.
These aspects of film reviewing may seem superficial, but doing away with them forged something new for me. All three represent the slow creep away from actual criticism toward thinking about movies solely on the entertainment industry’s terms. Entertainment journalism teaches us to think and talk about the ever more valuable franchise-based content the industry produces in ways that infect our thinking and writing about other movies. Even when trying to dismantle them politically or read them symptomatically or just say we love them or they suck, this capitulation to the demands of the entertainment industry is ever present. When film criticism becomes one of the places where tyranny meets banality, we have to change it.
The internet didn’t invent bad criticism or gullible and complicit thinking. For that I blame USA Today, which began the 1980s trend of dumbing-down news into bite-size nuggets, and Entertainment Weekly, which institutionalized the consumer-guide approach to film criticism. Entertainment Weekly came out in 1990, and soon enough there were zine writers freelancing for it. I remember one of them giving a B+ to 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her in the new-to-video section, not that I was under the illusion that anyone read Entertainment Weekly for the Godard coverage. Its mission was obvious: Hollywood PR. It was (and is) a trade publication with more photos and lists, with its coverage carefully tied to the studio release schedules that turn critics into publicists no matter the content of their reviews.
I was inoculated against blockbuster cinema in the years before Entertainment Weekly because I grew up in a small town in rural Connecticut that did not have a movie theater. The closest first-run theater was thirty miles away. The town where I lived was next to a slightly larger town, Middletown, the home of Wesleyan University. When I got my driver’s license I immediately began going to all the movies they showed there at night for their film classes, screenings that were open to the public for a couple of dollars. There were two different theaters on the Wesleyan campus that ran film prints. Before I ever saw Raiders of the Lost Ark, I had already seen films by Godard, Bergman, Lubitsch, Renoir, Fritz Lang, and others. When I finally got around to seeing all the Hollywood blockbusters I had missed, I wondered why An American Werewolf in London wasn’t considered the best one.
Seeing Godard’s Masculine Feminine at Wesleyan effected some change in me, on a cellular level. Contrary to its not being “the total film we carried inside ourselves, that film we would have liked to make, or more secretly, no doubt, the film we wanted to live,” as Jean-Pierre Léaud explains in some narration Godard, I later learned, cribbed from Georges Perec’s novel Things, my high school friends and I, watching it twenty years after it was made with older college students and the few cinephiles there were in central Connecticut, really did feel like we had discovered a secret key to life. Everything about it had an immediate and visceral effect. The sound cuts, with their audible jumps within scenes, did something to my brain that changed me. Léaud’s subsequent narration in the film about his job as a pollster probably had more to do with my actual subsequent professional life than I would like to admit: “Do vacuum cleaners sell? Do you like cheese in tubes? Do you know there’s a war in Iraq on?”
Jeanine Basinger, the great film historian who programmed the films at Wesleyan, used to do something I loved, something I’ve never seen another film studies professor do. When the movie reviewer in the local newspaper wrote a review Basinger disagreed with, she would write a sarcastic letter telling this woman why she was wrong. The Middletown Press, looking to fill its Letters to the Editor page, would publish these missives aimed at their hardworking film reviewer, the paper’s only arts reporter. This reviewer was in her twenties back then, I later learned, but she read, to me and my friends, middle-aged and out of it compared to Basinger.
To me, their arguments were the most interesting thing in the paper, better than Siskel and Ebert on TV. Maybe those letters, which read like they took thirty seconds to write, were not Basinger’s proudest moments, but they stuck with me. Today no film academic from a nearby university would bother to write to a local newspaper to comment on a syndicated four-star, fifty-word review of some superhero movie. After all, there is a cutoff point for wasting your time. Film studios and newspapers found it together.
Today some of the most avid readers of film criticism are the fanboys who dwell in comments sections and on Twitter, eager to become enraged when film critics do not conform to their bizarre expectations about the reception of expensive blockbuster movies. Haters of the media in general, they eagerly participate in a tedious, predictable wrestling match, defending Superman and Iron Man and the franchise movies in which they appear from the people these fanboys consider the real haters, the critics. As part of their strategy, they are obsessed with manipulating Rotten Tomatoes ratings online, where en masse they think they can beat the critics at their own game while advocating for their reactionary, sexist demands. The studios are also obsessed with Rotten Tomatoes, even though the website is owned, via Fandango, the online movie ticket seller, by two of them, Universal Pictures, the producers of the Jurassic Park, Fifty Shades, and Fast and the Furious movies, and Warner Bros. Entertainment, the producers of the Harry Potter, Batman, and Hobbit movies.
The studios and the fanboys like to blame critics when movies bomb. Bad reviews for a movie that tanks are what caused it to fail, they claim. Yet bad reviews for a movie with good box office prove the critics were wrong and are therefore irrelevant and should be ignored and eliminated. The critics, we see, are both all-powerful and weak, just like the superheroes the fanboys defend, and just like the chimerical enemies Donald Trump rails against at his rallies.
It is easy to see why studios, streaming services, and ticketing apps have employed or will end up employing such trolls. On Chinese versions of Rotten Tomatoes, studios hire fanboys to write fake reviews that boost or lower scores—a “water army” of content workers flooding review-aggregator sites with bogus opinions. In the precarious gig economy, a troll can now go from outraged loony to semiprofessional phony in one easy step.
All the reviews that appear on Rotten Tomatoes have the appearance of finality—fresh or rotten—but the site often misreads the negative reviews as positive ones, and vice versa. Critics can learn from that: write so that Rotten Tomatoes cannot apprehend your work, which will allow its meaning to be deformed to the point where studios will not know what to do with it.
The blockbusters the studios make their primary business are lucrative and dominant, but they suffer from an inferiority complex. They are muscle-bound and destructive but, like their protagonists and villains, they look silly and they know it. The studios expend enormous effort endowing this kind of lightweight, childish entertainment with heft, mostly in the form of expensive, repetitive special effects, but also in the form of pseudopolitical subtext used to mask militarized, fascistic tendencies and themes. When critics and others write think pieces about whether, say, The Last Jedi is anti-Trump or Avengers: Infinity War is about immigration or something, they are playing into the con. The studios hope that writers guiding audiences to debate these productions will lend them relevance and add to their box office receipts.
The actual political content of these movies lies there, in this cynical desire to leverage ambiguous, implanted meaning. The blockbusters made by the Hollywood studios reflect a period of US-sanctioned war, in which the police have been militarized at home while death and destruction (and torture) continue overseas, with no end in sight. “It’s not all war,” says the title character in Lady Bird, a film tellingly set in 2002, the last year a character in a movie could make that claim and still be honest. Lady Bird didn’t know the war her boyfriend prattled on about was never going to end.
When critics celebrate big movies in this era, it is good to remember that a large number of blockbusters and/or masterpieces of the last half decade or so were executive produced by Steven Mnuchin, Donald Trump’s secretary of the treasury. Mnuchin has had money in everything from The Lego Batman Movie to Wonder Woman, from Inherent Vice to Mad Max: Fury Road. Just this morning in the Sightings section of the New York Post’s Page Six website I saw a story about Mnuchin at a garden party in Southampton, Long Island, where he was enjoying the summer weather with Steven Spielberg.
One of the pre-trailer ads appearing on-screen in the big movie theater chains these days is for an app called the Fantasy Movie League. In this version of fantasy sports, players pick the movies they think will make the most money at the box office. While success for this app is a pipe dream—the real fantasy is that it will make money—it reflects a fandom emotionally invested in the success of men like Steve Mnuchin more than in any artist, even Spielberg. Just as in fantasy football, players in the Fantasy Movie League pretend they are owners. Concentrating on box office this way aligns players with big corporations. It’s no different from publishing take after take about the politics of Incredibles 2 in a magazine or on a website. Box office stats determine cultural importance, which in turn determines column inches and website word counts.
Identification with the system has gotten so extreme that it has replaced a functioning critical culture. When it comes to movies today, we are constantly being asked to exult in other people’s successes and to gang up on their failures. Congratulating movie studios on making lots of money on films that are not very good is a real turning point in film criticism—the ultimate refinement of the consumer-guide model.
What is now being celebrated, we’re told, is the system’s newfound commitment to greater inclusiveness. But there is a sharp distinction to be made between celebrating the appearance of new talent in filmmaking and celebrating the continued box office success of the blockbuster form itself. For moviegoers it is not always so easy to tell the difference, but every film executive understands it.
Criticism’s function is separate from that. “All that is required of the embattled critic as a test of his courage is that he never lose faith in his own judgment,” the film critic Andrew Sarris wrote in 1970. That kind of critical courage has waned in the age of the blockbuster. Jonathan Rosenbaum’s retirement from the Chicago Reader in 2008 left a vacuum in critical conscience that was filled by a strange, renewed interest in the opinions of the top critics at major media outlets, even as their opinions became more wishy-washy and noncommittal. No critic wants to get owned by Samuel L. Jackson on Twitter, like one did when the Avengers movie before last came out. It’s easier and safer for critics to embrace the style of feeble criticism that has emerged alongside the blockbusters they would prefer to avoid. For all the anger at critics, film criticism is very gentle these days.
We can partially attribute it, I think, to how infantile Hollywood cinema has become. The American film industry is dominated by children’s films—superhero movies, post–Star Wars franchise films, and animated family films. As the audience becomes similarly infantilized, the critics have followed suit. No one wants to be too mean to these babyish productions that audiences cart their families to again and again, or that they leave on permanent repeat in the back seats of their cars.
After a big-budget movie has underperformed at the box office, all the prescheduled profiles, interviews, and behind-the-scenes stories still have to come out as planned, revealing that kind of content for what it is: empty. When this happens, as it did earlier this year with A Wrinkle in Time, it’s a blip on the screen, so to speak, a momentary glimpse into the void of entertainment journalism. Things go back to normal a week later. The publicity becomes seamless again. Even as fanboys and studios and Samuel L. Jackson blame critics for the slightest digression from the party line, directors are never really held responsible for the failure of their movies. When something like Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, with its sophisticated lawsuit title, comes out to universal horror and disgust, its director’s career is unaffected. It is guaranteed he will work again, and after a few months, some critics on Twitter will reconsider their initial reactions to find the good in this director’s style and preoccupations. When a hacky Hollywood director goes down, the culprits are the perennially greedy, anxious studio executives or, in a new twist, alt-right personalities who militarize the outrage machine to make the studio heads even more nervous. Film critics have nothing to do with it.
And yet each week brings with it a new frustration with film critics. After Ocean’s 8 was met by reviewers with suggestions that it was less than perfect, Sandra Bullock, the film’s star and one of its producers, stated that this mild disapproval resulted from a lack of diversity among critics. American film criticism is not as diverse as it should be, but a different critical establishment would not have made Ocean’s 8 a good movie. And what did some grousing about it matter to the film’s box office? As of this writing, Ocean’s 8 has already quintupled its budget in ticket sales. What Bullock wanted was more deference from a profession already noted for its servility to movie stars.
From the 1950s through the ’70s, film and television criticism was defined by a questioning stance toward mass media. But anti-idiot-box polemics began to disappear as audiences lined up for blockbusters in the late ’70s. Forty years on, film and TV have begun to merge, and there is no longer any discourse that can conceive of being against cinema or against TV. There is nothing left but celebration of the greatness of American entertainment. When I saw the documentary Generation Wealth recently, I was shocked that the left-wing journalist Chris Hedges was allowed to point out on a movie screen that “television is a form of violence” that destroys people’s inner lives and values. Soon, his observation will be streamed on TVs and other devices courtesy of Amazon, the film’s distributor.
It is inconceivable today that any director would announce “I hate entertainment” to a reporter, as John Cassavetes did during the shooting of his last film, Love Streams, in 1984. Entertainment has won, on its own terms. “The locusts had their day / The suckers pay and pay,” as Aimee Mann put it last year in a song about Hollywood success.
In his 1995 book, Placing Movies, Jonathan Rosenbaum, writing from Chicago, described the “institutional glibness” of movie reviewers, which he saw as widespread and unjustifiable. This was especially true of New York critics, he wrote, with their “star auras.” Rosenbaum was also critical of academics, who he said are passive and reactive when they write about movies, meaning they are not on the front line.
When Rosenbaum was writing in 1995, a new world of cinephilia had to be created, and it waited to be ushered in via the internet. Today, serious film criticism operates in that world. Following the template established by Rosenbaum, it is fair-minded, open to films from all over the world made by all different kinds of people, and knowledgeable about classic cinema and the avant-garde. It seeks to rediscover forgotten films, it is supportive of micro-indies, and it strives to be polite and respectful. Trying to find the good in everything in this best of all possible subcultures, however, does little to improve an art form dominated by blockbusters and streaming television, especially when writing about those things dominates arts pages. At the same time, social media discourse around film fluctuates between too nice and too mean. The dearth of jobs in journalism, which has gotten worse year after year over the past two decades, had led to more and more film criticism being written for free on the web. Increasingly it is boiled down to tweeting, a form in which there is truly no upside but which commands the time and attention of many writers.
I have seen this described, glibly, as “film criticism’s transition out of print,” as if film criticism were being uploaded and stored to the cloud, the way we’re told our memories will be after we die. Besides the fact that that is not happening, this description ignores the way software and content production are taking over the American economy. As those become the dominant industries in the US, there will be more and more film critics, most of them underemployed, many of them working for free in the hope their tweets will attract employers. At least in the days of Entertainment Weekly, writers got paid to be conformists. They had the potential to end up with full-time jobs in journalism. Now they go to grad school and do it for the likes.
Dedication to the cinephile world Rosenbaum brought into being will have to steadily decline for writers to keep up with the new ant-like production of the movie-TV-streaming industry. How are we to face this world? By writing about the new Avengers movie as a group, each person with a take just as good as everybody else’s? Each take will crumble into digital dust like the evaporating superheroes at the end of that movie. The new generation of post-Rosenbaum cinephiles will end up performing much of the same labor as recappers, and to survive, recappers and reviewers will have to merge into one being, a new breed of plot describers who add commentary and serve the studios more than their employers or themselves. Seeing the good in everything will have helped.
A few excellent critics may emerge from the recapping subgenre, but staying up all night to produce writing that describes TV shows is proof of the industry’s hold over its transcribers. In a system that properly compensated writers instead of endlessly auditioning them, such writing would not exist. The New York Times used to do the same thing, with the same amount of wit, in one sentence in its weekly TV listings. “The American critic is well paid,” François Truffaut wrote in 1975 to explain the difference between film criticism in the US and in France. “Even if he doesn’t publish books, or have a second trade, he can manage, and he doesn’t feel as if he belongs to a different social class from those in the film industry. . . Having a certain peace of mind, he is able to simply relate what he sees.” The phrase relate what he sees has surely taken on a different meaning in the age of the recapper and the immiseration of critical life.
I have read older critics on social media happily announcing that, because of the internet, we now live in a world where more movies are available than ever before. They are delighted that they can view Roberto Rossellini films at home and never have to enter a movie theater unless they decide to go to an overseas film festival. Middle-aged film fans take refuge in streaming services, glad they don’t have to pay for a babysitter or parking. Young cinephiles short on funds sit at home and catch up on canon by watching All That Heaven Allows on the screens of their computers or phones, sitting at their kitchen tables or lying in bed. We are all becoming like the underground miners on Mars in a Philip K. Dick novel, watching Perky Pat and pretending we are living full lives back on Earth.
Mostly it’s Netflix that people watch. Netflix began by making thousands of films available on DVD before they switched to streaming and became content producers themselves. Now the company offers only a handful of movies made during each decade before the 21st century, sometimes just one or two. “We are not in the old-movie business,” one of their executives once told me. At the same time, the new, non-blockbuster movies and straight-to-streaming films they offer are difficult to find, almost like they are hiding them. They disappear into a void, buried in a virtual content mound.
When I used to rent movies through the mail from Netflix, there was, on their website, a sign-in screen with a box you could check. Next to this little box, there was some text that said, “Remember me on this computer.” That already seemed post-cinema and melancholic. It reminded me of the Christina Rossetti poem that appears in Robert Aldrich’s movie Kiss Me Deadly: “Remember me when I am gone away, / Gone far away into the silent land”—the silent land of life not lived online.
Since Netflix started making their own television shows and movies, I have become skeptical of any company that offers films that are not new. Successful multinational companies are gentrifiers: they move in on old content before they start to make their own content and become television networks. As a result, the old content has to move to a cheaper area. Some of it just disappears. Remember those people who lived next door? No? They moved away. We never saw them again.
With the ability to stream content over the internet, any company can now do what Netflix did. Netflix leveraged cinephilia to their own acquisitive and cynical ends, morphing into the website that ate TV. MoviePass, which started as a way to see any movie—new or old—playing in any theater, looks like the same shell game. It has turned into a content provider that limits what users can see. It will try to take over the motion-picture-exhibition industry the way Netflix usurped TV, unless its ongoing cash shortages and service outages sink it too fast. I’ve used MoviePass to see everything from Phantom Thread to The Other Side of Hope, but it is easy to hear a MoviePass executive saying, “We are not in the quality movie business.” Like Netflix and Amazon, they want to go mass.
In February 2017, Greenpeace issued a report on the ways smartphones are ruining the environment. The report was only about phones, but its findings extend to tablets, laptops, and everything else that ends up as e-waste. Manufacturing and getting rid of our devices to replace them with new ones leaches copper, lead, lithium, cadmium, mercury, zinc, and arsenic into groundwater, contaminating soil. Cleaning it up will take decades, if anyone bothers, and if it can be cleaned up at all. Streaming also has a disastrous environmental footprint. Hyperscale data centers are using up most of our electricity. Every time you stream something on Netflix, the kilowatt hours at a data center in Utah or Virginia tick up and another barrel of oil sells in Jeddah.
The other day I was on the subway at eight in the morning, sitting next to a man watching the first Star Wars movie on his iPhone. It was a weekday and rush hour, so the train was crowded, but he looked happy. He was in his own world, blotting out the rest of us with his headphones. Hollywood has gone carbon neutral and now on movie sets they print screenplays on both sides of the page, but soon this placated commuter was going to throw his phone away and replace it with an all-glass, no-bezel True Tone display model on which he could watch Return of the Jedi while jabbing people with his elbows on the way to work.
Part of what made this victory of perpetual blockbuster reanimation possible was the abandonment by most baby boomers of the film-critical cultural sphere, a flight that culminated in the publication of Susan Sontag’s 1996 essay “The Decay of Cinema” in the New York Times. Sontag claimed that both cinephilia and cinema were dead, an argument that now resembles the early 1990s “end of history” posited by Francis Fukuyama. At the beginning of the 21st century, however, as internet cinephilia began to rise, world cinema gave us, to name only a dozen, Mulholland Drive, In the Mood for Love, The Werckmeister Harmonies, In Vanda’s Room, Trouble Every Day, Khrustalyov, My Car!, Platform, The Piano Teacher, Kandahar, The Circle, Batang West Side, and Millennium Mambo. A serious, vital cinema of great originality, emotional depth, and beauty—the kind beloved by Sontag—was not in decline at all.
If the directors who made those films are not household names like Fellini and Bergman, their relative obscurity reflects a lack of interest in their work from newspapers and magazines that had covered serious cinema from Italian neorealism through New German Cinema and then, abruptly, stopped. While it is racist to ignore films by Abbas Kiarostami and Hou Hsiao-hsien by dismissing them as too difficult, the truth is that by the time those directors made their greatest films, the US media had already lost interest.
As critics of a certain age ceded cultural ground and declared the fight over, their fellow baby boomers were busy running entertainment conglomerates. They, at least, showed no sign of giving up. They did not desert the movies, where, unlike in journalism, there were still big bucks to be made. Newspapers and magazines played into their hands so thoroughly that by the end of the 1990s, average readers in the US could be forgiven if they didn’t know movies were made anywhere but Hollywood.
Today, right now, there are probably more good movies, from the entire history of filmmaking, showing in theaters in New York than there were in Paris in the 1950s, the heyday of canonical cinephilia, or in Sontag’s 1960s New York. As new movie theaters like the Metrograph and the Quad (to name just two) open in New York, and as places like Film Forum expand, the cinema has found a way to work around streaming services.
This should be a model for the rest of the country. The cineplexes of the blockbuster era have made people go to them. In many parts of post-collapse America they now sit abandoned next to or inside dead malls. New movie theaters will have to go where the people are.
The essays and columns in this book cover about a decade and a half of writing and thinking about movies. More than half of them were originally published in n+1, where I have been the film critic for more than ten years, with a new column in each issue since 2015. In pieces for other publications I’ve mostly written about canonical directors and films—or those that should be canonical—and about the critics who have shaped the profession. My n+1 columns almost always focus on new releases, but include forays into other areas. There are things I missed because so much of what I wrote during this period I wrote while working a full-time job, so I often wrote in haste. I’ve amended things in cases where my haste was too obvious.
There were a lot of movies I wanted to see but couldn’t get to. Even so, there were three films from this period I kept going back to when I could. The Turin Horse, Hard to Be a God, and Melancholia—one by a retired filmmaker, one by a dead filmmaker, and one by a filmmaker a lot of people wish would retire or die—exist as art-house films that are still in some kind of proximity to the mass market they repudiate; they played in first-run movie theaters. Though contemporary, two of them are in black and white. They depict, respectively, the promise of centuries of barbarity without change, the lights going out on civilization forever, and the end of the world.
I focus on these difficult, depressing films, which give themselves over to what the film critic Manny Farber called “long stretches of aggressive, complicated nothingness,” without resort to any compensating knee-jerk poptimism. I don’t feel compelled to tell you that I also love Edgar Wright movies to show that sometimes I luxuriate in mediocrity. I don’t love movies like that, I don’t do that, and it doesn’t matter.
When I think about those three films by Béla Tarr, Aleksei German, and Lars von Trier existing in the same world as the endlessly optimistic franchise films that keep coming out, the constant replacement of one thing by another that is just the same, the repetitive cycle of festivals that critics somehow manage to jet to every year on the fairy dust of other people’s money, the Tarr-German-von Trier pessimism keeps me going. They are the antidote that restores life by nullifying entertainment.
At the New York Film Festival in 2016 I saw a movie that really worked that kind of movie non-magic on me, a feeling that is better and longer lasting than whatever it is the entertainment industry is trying to sell. The film was called The Human Surge. It’s the first feature by an Argentine filmmaker named Eduardo Williams. I didn’t get The Human Surge at first, but I have been thinking about it for a long time since I saw it. An experimental documentary, the film moves between an actual anthill and the anthill of the internet, ending up in a factory where a robot voice intones over and over again the same message to a worker in a sterile lab: “OK, OK, OK.” Williams shot the film in Buenos Aires, in Mozambique, and in the Philippines, using digital video and 16mm film, some of it rephotographed from a computer screen.
The Human Surge provided a dreamlike, underexplained look into contemporary life akin to what is found in Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s films, but more chilling, more linked to global disasters and smartphone realism. Weerasethakul might have made the best films of anyone in the period this book covers. I wish I had written more about them, but only Cemetery of Splendor came out near any deadline I had or assignment I got. I did shout out Syndromes and a Century in that first Oscar roundup, and at least when I was editing the N1FR, the n+1 film review, I assigned a piece on his work when Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives came out. Now the Thai government seems to have cracked down on filmmakers, and Weerasethakul plans to make his next film in Colombia. In the first decades of this new century, his ghostly reanimations and animal transformations, so flat and matter-of-fact, pointed the way for a cinema without bombast or special effects.
There are two filmmakers who have come to the fore in recent years in ways I did not expect. Both are gone, but the stark confrontational truculence of each makes them of the moment to me, or at least of a moment I sense existing simultaneously behind the present. One is Chantal Akerman, the other is Stanley Kubrick. Their films are so unlike anything being made today, yet cinephile audiences seem to hunger for what they were doing. Each got rid of so much of the baggage of cinema, in completely opposite ways. Their hardness, their intelligence, and their recalcitrance has made them difficult to follow, in more ways than one. The urge to give in to entertainment is strong in most filmmakers, and the ones who ignore it are too self-conscious. Akerman and Kubrick avoided that by making demands on producers and on the audience and not giving in. Akerman I responded to from the first film of hers I saw when I was a teenager, but Kubrick was a filmmaker who for a long time I just didn’t get. Some filmmakers, I have come to understand, reveal to me over time how slow I am to grasp things.
It is nothing to mention Akerman and Kubrick at this point, and it seems odd to link them. But the ways they subverted acting, backstory, cheap psychology, framing—all the feints of cinema—points somewhere new, the opposite direction of everything else.
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