Features and Columns

Saying Nothing, Sometimes The Best Thing To Say

This week, rather than practice film criticism or commentary, I want to discuss the process by which these things are made.
By  · Published on April 12th, 2016

This week, rather than practice film criticism or commentary, I want to discuss the process by which these things are made. I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanics of the creative process, and whenever I get the chance to interview actors it’s the first thing I want to discuss with them, and even when it catches them off guard they tend to warm up to it quickly, as it means less opportunity to ask about who they’re dating or about spoilers on a given project. Like acting, the process of writing often involves weight gain and emotional stress, and critical writing often poses the existential dilemma: why should anyone else care what my opinion on this subject is?

Which brings us to the reason this particular rumination is happening on this particular week. Full disclosure: it’s because I have a weekly column due at a given time, that has to be in readable shape and of interest to enough people that it generates a sufficient number of clicks to justify its existence. This week, I could not think of anything to write about. I had thought of something to write about, but another critic said exactly what I was going to say about the subject in question, so rather than be redundant (and, worse, be accused of plagiarism), I killed that column idea. I had the idea long before I knew the other critic was going to be writing on the subject. But the other critic published first. So it goes. The requirements of this particular job (opinion-haver on matters reasonably adjacent to cinema) in this particular climate (rapacious, unforgiving late capitalism) are such that when you have to have an opinion on something at a particular time, by God you find something to have an opinion on and bloviate until your laptop keyboard is ready to explode.

I frequently find myself stuck on the question of why anyone should care what I have to say. There are a few things in this world I know a lot of things about. There are many things I know little to nothing about. There is very little to be gained, to my eye, from emanating an ill-informed opinion to waft through the internet, inert, amorphous, and primed to irritate someone who knows more about the subject than I do. So, despite the crafting of arguments and having opinions on things literally being my job, sometimes I feel the best thing is to do is to be quiet. This complicates the task of opinion-having, in that it increases greatly the number of ideas discarded. And this leads to last-minute deadline crises where the only thing to write about is the sensation of not knowing what to write about.

One of the reasons I value keeping my mouth shut more now is an embarrassing moment I had as a reviewer some years ago. There was a movie I was assigned to review that had not screened for the press, and so I had to go to the first show of the day Friday morning and file as close to immediately afterward as I could manage. This is a thing that happens, and I had previously managed this situation with no problems. On this day, though, there were a series of incidents that delayed my departure for the movie theater to the point where I had to run the last five blocks to make it in time, and then climb several flights of stairs to the theater where the film was showing, leaving me disoriented, dehydrated, and badly winded. The movie happened in front of me while I struggled to engage with it. When it was over, I went home and wrote my review, a negative one. Later, a trusted friend of mine—as opposed to some random troll—sent me a furious note, having seen the movie, essentially accusing me of writing an objectively false piece about the film. This stung, and it was highly embarrassing to discover, once the movie in question was on Netflix and I rewatched it (non-frazzled, with plenty of water), that my friend was right, and I was wrong. I say “wrong” because although opinions vary and there’s a considerable amount of the experience of art that’s subjective, my attempt to pass off an absurdly ill-prepared piece of work as anything approaching a professional assessment was wrong.

It isn’t that experiences like this made me gun-shy as a critic, but that they highlighted the importance of actually having something to say before saying something. That this makes the writing of a weekly column on an inflexible deadline harder to write is of little importance. I’m sure this piece will be read by some as a confession that I work slowly and that I don’t have the get-up-and-go to crank out thousands of words of “content” a day, and as such writing this piece may cost me work. I maintain, though, that merely performing a task to meet a quota “because that’s how it’s done” is insufficient. Similarly, crafting a provocation solely to get attention devalues artistic discourse. Or, to put it less hoity-toitily, it makes you an asshole. I’ve decided that, even though it’s no way to get rich to put it extremely mildly, it’s better only to say things one believes on the timetable one believes them, or as Jean-Luc Godard once put it, in “[t]rying to be a critic, not a regular reviewer. Sometimes I prefer teachers who do occasional pieces. It’s not possible to be a critic once a week.” As is often the case with JLG, I stop short of agreeing with his absolutism absolutely, but he’s onto something here. As is often the case with JLG.

Anyway. I don’t know what any of this is worth. I do hope it isn’t simply a formless complaint, or a punt on second and five to get out of writing my way to a first down. The reason for this is that art matters to me, and the responsibility of having something to say about it is one I take seriously. Which is why when the choices are to say something meaningless or say nothing at all, the former is a far more vast and emptier void.

Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all