Slow Down

Speaking to The Playlist in a conversation about Men, Women, & Children, writer-director Jason Reitman had this to say about the state of modern film criticism:

Film criticism has become a tweet. The moment the movie plays, people are writing about it and there's no digestive period. The most important movies in my life are the ones that I've watched and watched again and have changed for me over time. Not films that I instantaneously loved the moment the credits rolled.

It would be easy to write this off as a defensive play from a filmmaker looking to do damage control for his latest film (which has not exactly been embraced by the critical community), but it's not. In fact, it's one of the sharpest and most concise summaries of the general problems facing the field. Proving Reitman's point, a young critic named Michael Pattison, who participated in the 2013 Locarno Critics Academy, had some choice words for other critics:

Step up or step off. If you can not write 500 excellently watertight words in 40 minutes flat about a film you have just finished watching and analyzing, then you are shit at what you do, and you should resign yourself to sitting there like some flaccid lump of flesh sponging up the pretty colours and lovely, fluffy sounds that bedazzle your waste of a layperson’s mind.

I admit I smiled when I read this. It's the kind of piss-fueled fire a lot of us throw in our 20s, eager both to claim the mantles of our elders and allay any fears we might have about our own shortcomings. I didn't begrudge Pattison the folly of youth, or even its anger, for what else is youth for? But there's no doubt in my mind that Pattison's approach is deeply, wholly wrong, and that it's antithetical to any kind of serious or searching criticism.

To jam out copy, to churn and burn, to gorge on five movies in a festival day and be expected to write something insightful about them: these things are not unfamiliar to working critics. And indeed, critics (like most people) aren't short on opinions after seeing a film. But the insistence that a reasoned thesis or appreciation of a film has to come fast or not at all betrays a massive misunderstanding of the writing and analytical process, and worse, it treats films as means to an end instead of approaching them as works in their own right, to be studied or talked about with care and reason. Not every film is a masterpiece, but every film deserves more than a tossed-off dismissal or pasted-together praise.

Part of the issue is the cycle that treats each film as pure product, good only for discussion on the day of its release and the weeks leading up to it, forgotten until a five- or ten-year anniversary rolls around. But that's not new. Distribution models have evolved over time, sure, but there's always been the pressure to hang a piece of criticism on a news hook. That makes sense. What is new, though, is the amount of platforms with which we can make our voices heard, and the contracted form that those platforms encourage. I can all but guarantee that whatever you produce in an hour after a film ends will only be the start of what you want to say, and that's OK. Pick your well-worn advice here: you can't unring a bell; measure twice, cut once; you get the idea. When the point is not to write something accurate and honest but to write something fast, it's easy to lose sight of the film in question.

I've been guilty of this in the past. You're at a screening for something that's getting a lot of buzz, and you know that the general public won't even be able to see the movie for a few days (or weeks, or months), and when the lights come up you let loose 140 pithy characters that reduce a movie that took years to make down to a two-beat joke you've crafted for maximum retweetability. It's awful and reductive, and it's symptomatic of the mindset Pattison seems to champion. Writing takes time. Writing takes thinking, which takes time. Half of the job is just sitting at a keyboard and staring at nothing while you map new roads in yourself. You wrestle and think and wrestle some more. Sometimes the words come easy, and sometimes they don't, but only rarely do they come quickly. If anything, the more you feel and want to say, the more time it takes to get it right. We're reading braille with gauze over our fingers, and no one's bad writing was ever praised because it came out before everyone else's. When it works, the process brings with it the kind of relief that accompanies physical labor: earth has been moved, fence posts have been sunk. Something was built. That just takes time.