A Critic’s Manifesto (West Coast Notes)

I must confess I’ve fallen into a bit of a funk lately, which is pure and simple why I’ve not been posting. (Nay, it wasn’t just because The L Word dashed our every hope.) It’s the “what’s it all about, Alfie?” cinennui that keeps hitting me below the belt, coupled with the precariousness of an underemployment.

I’ve been seriously taking stock of all and sundry in my life. Of the relevance of chiming my own voice in the cacophony of the cultural conversation already chattering. Obviously this sounds like the roaring of depression’s ugly head, but if it is, it ain’t just that. There really does exist an oversaturation right now of critical voices, partly thanks to the Internet — even it is a technology that has democratized the dispensation of information.

In some ways.

I’m out on the West Coast right now again, shedding some Pacifica light on my dusty and dull Easterly woes. As usual, I’m charmed beyond reason by the many missing pieces of the movie industry jigsaw that LA offers up with a big ole glass of watermelon juice. I’ve met Álex de la Iglesia, a Spanish filmmaker who pretty much comes second only to Pedro Almodóvar (pronounced AlmoDOvar here) in his own country but has received US scanty distribution even on DVD. I nervously coffee-klatsched with a group of older, bombastically funny old Hollywood types, including Paul Mazursky. I’ve drunk good wine in a studio bigwig’s backyard while the very future of the movie business was shoptalked. And one point that’s repeatedly been made is that new computer and television-viewing (Pay Per View, TIVO) technology threatens to derail the movie business as we know it.

Which has set me thinking about who really does benefit from all this new technology. When I ride the subway in Brooklyn, it’s mostly the American Apparel set and the lost-youth professionals who wield IPods, for example. The rest still carry CD walkmen, which now appear as bulky as the laptop I bought only three years ago. I try to imagine what steps it would take to bring the CD stragglers up to speed, and I feel overwhelmed for them. It doesn’t just entail IPods and computers and Internet access. It also entails a comfort level with the technology, which in turn entails education in addition to the necessary equipment.

I mention this because those of us who write about culture are in danger of only preaching to the choir — comprised, in this case, of each other.

The summer’s downslide in movie revenue has sparked a lot of conjecture about the habits and proclivities of the American viewing public, and those conversations have revealed critics’ assumptions. In his recent two cents on the subject, for example, Times critic AO Scott dismisses the worth of most recent movies by saying, “They will each show up eventually…on the transcontinental flight when your iPod battery is dead and you’ve forgotten to pick up the latest issue of Vanity Fair.” That’s a pretty specific population that Mr. Tony is identifying there, one that, I’m willing to guess, doesn’t comprise the bulk of American moviegoers, even those who daily read the Times.

Being downright poor right now — the brokest I’ve been since I worked in the labor movement — I’m reminded of how paralyzing serious financial concerns really can be. I’m cognizant that given my education and community, I’m in a good place compared to many people in the US. (At that, most everybody in the US is in a fantastic place compared to many other parts of the world.) But not matter what, being this broke makes you doubt not only your self-worth but also your future. It’s hard to make plans in good faith when money is required to implement every step toward those goals, no matter how modest. Gas money, interview clothes money, daycare money: For lower-income people avoiding credit card debt or who aren’t even eligible for a credit card, the basic expenses of life loom painfully large.

Under those auspices, art is a necessary luxury. We need something to help us feel better, to both inspire us and to provide us a sense of community. And the role of critics in that equation is less esoteric than you’d think: We’re filters. We help connect a creation with an audience, help separate the cream from the crap. We can point people toward work that wakes them up rather than numbs them further.

In a conversation I had this week with Benoît Jutras, the Cirque de Soleil scorer, he mentioned something interesting. As a composer who began in the wildly esoteric community of contemporary classical music and now scores music for a truly mass audience, Jutras says the transition taught him that creations require perceivers. “Audiences complete the circle of creation,” he intones. So no matter what, he tries to be respectful of his audiences. Ideally, he wants his music to not only really reach listeners but to also take them a few steps past their comfort zone. (Along these lines, he is, admittedly, moving on from Cirque, at least for the time being.)

It’s a goal for critics, too.

Since I’ve been scurrying up and down this funny coast (this week I’m at the Seattle International Film Festival), I’ve had a chance to revisit how many different ways film (and television) fit into people’s lives. When traveling I realize just how dangerous it is to suppose anything about audiences because it’s clear how varied Americans still are, even with the mallification of the US. In fact, we are moving from that infernal melting pot toward a (tuna) niche salad these days, one in which critics take on an even greater importance because it falls on us to serve as guides.

That shift makes it particularly dangerous to write from any perspective other than my own. “I,” rather than “they” or “you” (sorry, Pauline Kael), is more useful and infinitely less condescending. Only by being clear on what I like and don’t like — reacting from my gut rather than to demographic suppositions or to the community of other critics — can I speak honestly and extemporaneously enough to be worth heeding. But on the other hand, I can’t assume that the persons I’m writing to are exactly like me. It’s just that the more specific I am, the more universal I can be; that way people can know who they are working with and what they are heeding. A translation is required, and I would argue that it is that translation which completes the circle between critic and audience.

So what does that translation entail, concretely? It requires less of the old boy’s club chasing their own tails and comparing the size of their, uh, pens, for one. We need new blood and new voices that specify where they’re coming from but never misconstrue those contexts as universal. We have to stop approaching films as mere fodder for potential catchy leads or trends to identify before our peers do (though humorectomists need not apply). It means that we should only include NY-LA industry buzz when it speaks to something larger than itself. And although this in some way contradicts what I am saying about being honest about your own perspective, we also do owe both films and audiences what they call in yoga circles “beginner’s mind,” no matter how many screenings we have sat through. When we’re so stifled by cinennui that we can only perceive a film through the lens of other films, maybe it’s time to take a sabbatical.

That said, my own cinnennui is lifting. I do want to get my voice out there right now, if for no other reason that I still really love films and really do think they articulate and ameliorate the modern human condition in all kinds of ways. I’m going to start posting more again. To highlight on this blog more of the films that I see, especially the amazing features that rarely achieve nationwide distribution (especially foreign language features). To include more interviews with filmmakers to raise the Wizard’s curtain. And I’m going to try, for a change, to get out of my own way. It’s time to see the forest and the trees.

"All, everything I understand, I understand only because I love."
― Leo Tolstoy