There was a night last month where I couldn’t sleep. I had to be up early for another full day of screenings and filing at the Toronto International Film Festival, but my mind was cycling through a generic course of memories and misgivings. It was a restlessness fueled partly by a badly timed fistful of jujubes, partly by the rude, stamping heifer in the back quadrant of my brain who loves both simple sugars and leveling with me about what it is I think I’m doing with my life.
That morning I had caught a screening that featured an actor—Justin Long—whom I had written a couple of unkind things about two weeks earlier, when I was assigned to review his last film, Going the Distance. This new one was a historical film, and I winced at the sight of him in Confederate garb, his life ebbing on a battlefield. It was a little like glimpsing a guy you’d just dumped in traffic and hoping to God he wouldn’t look your way. I shriveled a bit, despite myself. Did he see me?
Going the Distance was not a good movie, but it pricked me in the way that separates bad movies from actively bad movies. I was irritated by the self-satisfaction with which the film presented its take on the dilemma of long-distance relationships: unconcerned with being thoughtful or even entertaining, it pushed all its chips onto the relatability of its concept. “Relatability” may not be a proper word—yet—but it is increasingly legitimate as a standard by which things—from TV to books to politicians to romantic comedies—are valued. The more main the stream, the more relatable a thing must be to get over.
Blame Oprah if you want to, but relatability has been fermenting as both a cultural phenomenon and evaluative rubric since the 1970s, when a combination of factors moved the social concept of the self to the front of the culture. The mainstreaming of therapy and therapized language, the platonic “we’re all the same” rhetoric of the civil rights and equality movements, the merging of high and low culture, and rampant individualism conspired to form a kind of cultural currency, a new dialect that had the ear of the country.
As a concept it grew valuable, and could be attached to modes of engagement–whether artistic, socio-cultural, or political–that were previously uninterested in relating to their audience in any conscious way. The memoir boom was built on this idea, as is much of chick lit, reality TV and of course the blogoscenti. With the dawn of the internet and its attendant traffic in user-generated, confessional minutiae—and I’ll comment on yours if you comment on mine—an ascendant cultural irregularity found the medium to turn its message into a malignancy. Romantic comedies often engender the worst of the phenomenon: Instead of telling a story, in the name of relatability they hit notes, make references, and present punchline-based characters in the effort to elicit one of our laziest, sub-trash responses, which in full goes something like this: I was exposed to something, and it reminded me of me.
The most dangerous thing about relatability is the way it is often presented (and accepted) as a reasonable facsimile of or substitute for truth. This, I worry, may handicap our culture so violently that recovery, if it comes at all, will be generations in the reckoning; if in the meantime we lose our appetite for the real thing we are pretty much doomed. The pursuit of truth is a basic human instinct, and guides our engagement with ourselves, with art, and with other human beings; the scourge of relatability—and its sweetheart deal with another basic instinct, adaptation—puts all three relationships at risk.
When one writes a review of a film like Going the Distance, these are not the exact thoughts one has, especially if one has to file within 18 hours of seeing it. But there is a sort of inkling that demands further attention. The above is as close to a full articulation of it as I can manage. At the time I just knew the movie was bad, and bad in a way that particularly galled me. We don’t need characters, it seemed to say, we don’t need an interesting script—we’ll just present our concept, make some glib gestures towards plot, smear some wing sauce on Barrymore’s face, and roll credits.
Although Barrymore can coast in as the assumed heroine—she has managed to merge relatability and dream girlishness into a one-woman, moveable franchise—the equally undeveloped character played by Justin Long was doubly handicapped. Long, whom I have liked since I first saw him on Ed ten years ago, sheds almost everything that is appealing about his persona in the role, and it’s a disaster. Beside Barrymore, who at last has acquired the face of a gorgeous grown woman, he seems especially wan. What I might have said in articulating that particular complaint was that he read too immature, or boyish, but I… I went another way.
There is a paragraph about Long’s character that I wrote and re-wrote. I scaled back one sentence in particular, turning a smackdown into a more general statement—an ad hominem exit clause that was supposed to help me sleep at night. This is the sentence: “How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight is a mystery, as my colleague pointed out in her review of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, we are increasingly asked to accept on screen.”
Now, I know that doesn’t look good, and I guess I’m trying to rough out here—if not justify—how pans studded with snarky jibes get written, in part because I am alternately mystified and troubled by it myself. Part of it, surely, is the fact that I don’t really imagine the person I am writing about seeking out and lingering on my words, despite the fact that I have sought out and lingered on every word and review pertaining to my work that I have been able to get my hands on.
After filing the review my editor replied immediately, singling out that line for some editorial snaps. This had the opposite of its intended effect, and sent me wobbling. I lay awake that night, not wondering so much if I had been fair but if I could have found a way to be less glancing and harsh, or alternately if I have the stomach to be as unsparing as someone who considers themselves first and foremost a critic must be. Maybe if I’d had more time; maybe if I didn’t have to watch so many of these godawful movies; maybe if I hadn’t had to look at the Mac guy’s overdeveloped bare ass not once but twice. I mean my god.
I am aware it sounds silly—agonizing over a few spilled words into the seething trough of the internet—but I have several guilt wounds when it comes to film criticism, and this instance merely refreshed one of them with a little salt.
Background hit: I came to New York to study film more to come to New York than to study film; I had already been writing for several years—fiction, humor, essays, travel narrative—before I wrote my first film review, and it all happened by a kind of accident. God knows it’s a happy accident—it has kept me afloat—but I do tend to think of it as Justin Long might think, perhaps, of his mid-career stint in the advertising world. Most of my colleagues grew up dreaming of being a film critic, and yet as lucky as I am I habitually correct friends of mine who introduce me to third parties as such, and then can’t seem to stop myself from reprimanding them in private. They are bewildered by this, and to some extent I am too. It’s certainly not that I don’t believe in criticism, and what it does; if anything my main objection to the cultural scourge of “relatability” is the deadening effect it has on our collective—and vital—critical mechanism. What I object to, on an increasingly regular basis, is what criticism does to me.
I am acutely aware that, as recovering internet mean person Emily Gould recently put it, “it often feels as though whatever writing spotlight still exists belongs to whoever can be the most abrasive or pandering.” For working critics, it can seem like the ebbing tide has lowered all boats; there’s an option available now that wasn’t there before, and no one’s going to stop you from using it—if anything it’s encouraged; in some fields it’s the competitive option, a way to attract attention and keep the vicious commentariat appeased—or sliding inexorably toward it. That’s on you, and vigilance is required if you want to maintain a sense of identity and purpose uninfected by the internet’s constitutional grammar of incivility.
During that sleepless night in Toronto last month, my worry came down to what every writer’s should: words and the way I use them. I’m not built for film festivals, for watching six films a day and cranking out responses in the grim race to be the first to ding the bell. It’s not that I don’t care (although I don’t care), it’s that that kind of scribbling, insensible mania brings to the fore all my fears about writing for a living, which is a privilege with perilous side effects. Strange but true: Being a working writer is one of the most dangerous things a writer can be.
I often think with a shudder of Renata Adler’s savage 1980 takedown of Pauline Kael in the pages of the New York Review of Books. Both women had worked as film critics—Adler for several years, Kael several decades. The gist of Adler’s attack was that no critic could work for more than a few years (more than she did, in other words) without turning what acumen they brought to the craft inside out. After that the writer’s output is indelibly marked by a grotesque aesthetic inversion, a fate that led Adler to call Kael’s previous five years of work “piece by piece, line by line, and without interruption, worthless.”
Adler had especial wrath for Kael’s halogenic style, and the ecstasies of contempt she was capable of when she really hated a movie, or a performer. Her early work had “liveliness,” “energy,” and “good sense.” Her later work was “hysterical,” “shrill,” and “strident.” Kael was being irresponsible with words, and Adler took exception. “Stunned” is the word invariably used to describe Kael’s response to the piece, and much of the literary world agreed, though they would have probably added “giddy” if they were honest. It just wasn’t something you saw that often, particularly given that the crank call came from within Kael’s house at The New Yorker, where Adler had been an editor for years.
It’s fascinating to watch Adler parse her own aesthetic mortification over Kael’s miscegenetic prose, which proved an unstoppable match for her hydraulic responsiveness to movie art. In his excellent study in contrasts, Sontag and Kael: Opposites Attract Me, Craig Seligman redressed each of Adler’s points of attack. He also defended Kael’s right to be what some people might call cruel: “Niceness, in criticism, is a form of bad faith,” he writes. “Nature is red in tooth and claw, and distinguishing those who can from those who can’t is the first thing a critic has to do.”
Well, I mean, now he tells me. But then I never saw my work in criticism that formally, not because I didn’t take it seriously but because I didn’t see it as a serious, career-defining focus. Kael’s own take speaks more directly to me: “I think the sense of feeling qualified to praise and complain in the same breath is part of our feeling that movies belong to us. Going to the movies was more satisfying than what schools had taught us was art. We responded totally—which often meant contemptuously, wanting more, wanting movies to be better.”
The thing is, I don’t think anybody—whether they write professionally or snark for sport; whether they agonize over their takedowns or proudly make their name on them—expects the target of their criticism to say their name on national television. Kael never said a public word about Adler’s review; Justin Long took me to task on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
That night, last month, when I couldn’t sleep—I finally did, but only briefly, and was up an hour before I needed to be, checking my email. In my email was news of Twitter followers I had acquired overnight, so I checked them too. Here was the last thing the first one had written: “Up way too late, watching Justin Long call out Michelle Orange from Movie Line about her Going The Distance review on Jimmy Fallon.”
After a few moments staring at the screen I tapped NBC.com into a tab, finding two short clips of Long from the previous night’s show. I watched one—nothing—and then the other, and just when I was sure there had been a mistake, Long began roll calling his films, reaping applause after each one. He checks himself for pandering, and Jimmy Fallon cracks, “Wait until Michelle Orange sees this and writes about it.” A big laugh goes up, as if the joke is understood. I sat suspended for a few seconds and then closed the tab in horror, put my clothes on and ran out the door, as though my laptop had been compromised and was about to detonate. Eight hours and three films later it was easy to convince myself that what I saw was actually a fragment of the dream I thought I had foregone between 6 and 7 am.
People began writing to congratulate me, though, which was as alarming as anything else, and Movieline wrote up the incident, helpfully transcribing it in full so I wouldn’t have to watch it myself. Long details his policy about not reading reviews, then how he broke it with Going the Distance only to find one that “was so bad it set the bar […] for insults.”
When Renata Adler was forced out of the New Yorker after her unsparing 2000 memoir of her years there set a new bar for workplace recrimination, she began teaching at Boston University. Her axiom about working critics is very similar to the one I have heard many of my writers friends apply to the teaching racket: after a few years there’s simply nothing left to give, and then the students start to take, often in the form of writing mean shit about your freeloading, bird-dogging ass on RateMyProfessor.com. But we all have to make a living, don’t we, and then find a way to live with it; short stories, travel essays, and even book contracts stopped paying the bills about 20 years ago. When my writer friends call me a film critic I ask them how they would feel if I introduced them as a copy editor, or an SAT tutor, or whatever they do to make ends meet. Sometimes they get it, sometimes they look at me like I’m even crazier than they had already confirmed me to be, but God help me I just can’t relate to that characterization.
Constitutionally I resist categories of every sort—they make it easier for other people to turn away from you, to not face you in full. The bigger problem is that I am feeling weary and a little afraid, because there was no point when I actually decided that this was going to be how I spent a serious portion of my time, and while I know very well how lucky I am to be watching movies and writing for a living, I am also stubborn and procedural enough to object to the situation on those grounds alone. A tension builds up between responsibility and the fear of professional (or, horrors, creative) drift.
When it’s not making me feel like a baby that tension seems like a distinctly adult affliction, and not limited to any one ambition: How much control can we reasonably expect to exert over our lives, or the way our actions affect other lives? Can you practice criticism and still shy away from being defined by it? Ms. Sontag, take it away: Seligman said Sontag only wrote about art she intended to praise or elevate, and hated being called a critic. Kael, on the other hand, embraced the title, and “was happy in the role of evaluator, and evaluation is how she got to insight.” At the risk of aligning myself with greatness (polite pause), I tend to alternate between the two sensibilities. Given my head and a sizable annuity, I would only turn from my own ideas when someone else’s commanded me to; that said it would be an impulse I couldn’t ignore.
Then again, the task-oriented, deeply professional part of me is fulfilled by nailing my response to a film or book to the table. In the moment I feel no compunction about anything but getting it right, which is its own satisfaction. The second part is finite and expendable, I am finding, while the first will go only when I do. Am I a critic? Certainty #1: I am a writer who needs to make a living and is allergic to half-assing, which means if I have to write about your bad movie, you better duck and cover. Certainty #2: I worry more about what I do than how I do it. I don’t know if I’m really that busted up about hurting an actor’s feelings, although, as my colleague Stephanie Zacharek pointed out when I whinged to her about the incident, it can be helpful to remember that they have them.
Before he recited from memory the very sentence that I dithered and fretted over as an example of the way he internalizes negative criticism, Justin Long set the stage: “I actually kind of appreciate this woman—Michelle Orange, wherever you are, at Movieline. I remember it. I remember the quote, and this is word for word.”
I mean, I remember it too, Justin. I do.
Rumpus original art by Walter Green.