Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film and TV critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday morning. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?”, can be found at the end of this post.)
This week’s question: In the wake of the election, Filmmaker Magazine published a piece about the intrinsically political nature of movies, in which the writer argued: “For the next four years (and long afterwards), every time someone leaves a movie theater feeling contented, feeling set in their values, feeling numbed and entertained and nothing else, that’s a problem.”
How does filmmaking — and film criticism — need to adapt in the age of Trump?
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
Filmmakers need to make films and film critics need to write about them. None of them need instruction; the hardest thing in good and bad times alike is to be open to the new and to see the future open up with it. No one knows in advance. Cheap sentiment is the enemy of clear thought; strong and hard-won emotion is its ally. That’s as true for movies as for criticism. As for the horror on the horizon, resistance is something else altogether—it’s a personal, civic, and moral responsibility, a matter of humanity, decency, and justice. It’s an artistic responsibility, too, but the ways in which films and criticism relate to it aren’t obvious or foreseeable. If Daniel Blake had been a ragingly resentful anti-immigrant nationalist, someone somewhere might have learned something useful.
Jen Yamato (@jenyamato), The Daily Beast
Filmmaking, at least some filmmaking, will react to the presidency under Donald Trump. But it will take time to see the fruits of anyone’s election wokeness translated into the actual product we see on screens. Film critics and journalists, however, don’t have to wait. And not enough of us — myself included — have done enough to critically reflect the realities of a diverse audience upon the art we are all offered and sold.
It’s easy to chime in for more inclusion of women, POC, and LGBTQ in film, because obviously. It was easy to call out sexism in Hollywood and cry #OscarsSoWhite… until the Oscars were over and suddenly everyone forgot or moved on to the next trending topic. It will be easy to exhale and think that change came to the movies this year, at least, because we’ve been gifted with exquisite and undeniable films like “Moonlight,” the best film of 2016 so far, with a very short runway left to go for other films to rise to the challenge.
Film critics have the power to hold Hollywood accountable for the misogyny, bigotry, and erasure of others that have never disappeared from this country and its pop entertainment, just like we wield the power to critique bad acting and terrible scripts. But most film critics don’t exercise that power. And many critics, like plenty of other humans, can’t see (through) their own veil of privilege. My hope is that we try harder, filmmakers and critics and moviegoers and non-moviegoers alike, to demand better not just for ourselves but for others in the age of President-elect Trump and beyond.
Mark Harris (@MarkHarrisNYC), Author of “Five Came Back”
I don’t have great thoughts about this. Art created in an insta-reactive way generally isn’t very good, and art that only wants to be directly, didactically useful generally doesn’t even manage to achieve that goal, let alone be good. So I suppose what I would hope from all of our serious artists is that they continue to make films about what this country is, was, and might be. “Moonlight” is one of those films. So is “Hell or High Water.” So are “Loving” and “Manchester by the Sea.” So are “O.J.: Made in America” and “13TH.” Artists who are doing this work, please stay on the job. We have always needed you and we need you now.
As for the age of Trump, I suppose two good places to start would be, first, to acknowledge that on some levels, we have clearly already been living in the age of Trump for quite some time without understanding it, and second, to admit that we don’t yet know what the next “age of Trump” is going to be and accept that art that tries to stay ahead of it is running a futile race. But overall, I would say the mission remains the same: Look at the world, not away from it. Make art to try to find answers to your own questions. And be honest about everything, including things that will make us uncomfortable and you uncomfortable. I think that’s a tall enough order.
As for criticism, the critics I respect already understand that “politics” is not some icky category that needs to be swept to one side when you’re assessing and exploring a movie, what it’s doing, and how it’s doing it. It is central to all of our lives. To those that don’t understand that: You’re about to. To those that do: Keep up the good work.
Christopher Campbell (@thefilmcynic), Nonfics and Film School Rejects
I’ve always tried to stay apolitical in my reviews, even while (actually especially while) focusing on documentary, and in the past few days I’ve wondered if that’s a bad thing. I do like to focus on the filmmaking and not the content and whatever agenda the doc is selling, and I would like to stay that course, but I do think I and everyone else needs to see more and acknowledge more of the films that aren’t fun to watch or write about that deal with basic, no-debate human rights problems and also those that offer different viewpoints from the norm.
As for filmmakers, they need to make these kinds of docs better. Not just “important” in terms of cause but “important” in terms of cinema.
But it’s not just docs. Filmmakers and critics alike need to push for greater media literacy but recognize that it’s generally poor in this country right now. This goes for all kinds of movies. Escapism is fine, but we all need to know that there are ideas being communicated in dumb action movies and smart sci-fi movies and family dramas and even the goofiest of comedies.
Comedy is actually one of, if not the most political type of movie, in my opinion, after documentary. Because people think comedy can literally be laughed off, not taken seriously. We need to understand there’s a big difference between the political incorrectness of “Blazing Saddles” and the political incorrectness of everything thought and meant to be innocent stupid joke fests that perpetuate bad stereotypes just for a cheap laugh, especially regarding gay panic and gender identity. There are tons of comedies where one major offense should keep it from getting a pass.
“Bad Santa” is a movie that’s coming up where it should just be dumb mean comedy, but that sort of humor in certain crowds can encourage rude attitudes in the spirit of it all just being a joke. I expect there will indeed be think pieces about this sort of movie being perfect for the mean and rude side of the Trump crowd. Let’s be sure to look at all comedies with the same scrutiny, even if means more hateful comments on how we need to lighten up or worse.
Eric Kohn (@erickohn), IndieWire
I have always related to criticism as a form of advocacy — an organized approach to sharing sensibilities and championing attitudes that enrich or challenge the limitations of our culture. That’s because I’m an idealist, and obviously, idealism isn’t in vogue right now. However, criticism driven by strong ideals has only increased in its currency. Storytelling has never been a more effective at galvanizing action. Trump may be a lunatic, but he told a better story — a messy, ludicrous one, but it offered an entertaining form of escapism that won over millions of Americans. You can’t account for taste when considering the forces driving the top movies at the box office, nor can you assume that the public knows what’s best for them beyond the multiplex. Criticism is a process of informing the public that every narrative is subject to scrutiny, whether it’s a moving image or deranged Twitter feed. The more we can question the media surrounding us with clear, well-reasoned arguments, the more likely that others will start to see its cracks. And the more we can latch on to ways in which movies reflect real-world anxieties, the better suited we are to understand what those anxieties actually mean so we can discuss how to address them. We should be grappling with the origins of governmental control in “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” and the images of the migrant crisis in “Fire at Sea” in equal measures. And when a movie lacks any insight into the modern world whatsoever, such vapidity shouldn’t go unnoticed. Movies devoid of ideas are failures. Critics must put them on notice, because they can be agents of change in our culture just as much as anything else. We must be vigilant about how the movies tell us to see the world, because that’s just an extension of how the world tells us to live in it.
Miriam Bale (@mimbale), Freelancer for The Hollywood Reporter, The New Republic
A) If you’ve only begun thinking film criticism or films need to adapt to become more political now, in the age of Trump, then that’s precisely why he won.
B) I think politics are the responsibility of the critic, not the filmmaker. I do agree with the “Filmmaker” article that all films are naturally political, especially the complacent ones, but much more in style and narrative than in overt political messages.
C) I recommend reading everything J. Hoberman, Sophie Mayer, and AS Hamrah have ever written. They are great on politics in film criticism. Also, try not rolling your eyes at Armond White so much. Maybe the problem isn’t he thinks about race, liberal complacency and Obama too much but you don’t think about these things enough.
Also, I recommend reading more Raymond Durgnat. I still remember the day I was reading Durgnat and realized how bourgeois Truffaut and Godard films are, upholding the status quo from either side, and how that changed my relationship to cinephilia. It was very disorientating!
Charles Bramesco (@intothecrevasse), Freelancer for Rolling Stone, The Verge, Vulture
Way back in the halcyon days of last week, one of the things that I looked forward to most about this election finally being over was an end to the self-writing “How X Fits Into Donald Trump’s America” pieces. I think political/national film criticism is a vital and legitimate approach, but we’ve all either got to scale it back or get a lot better at it. The next four years will be hard enough without a steady stream of pieces that boil down to “this film shows how racism/sexism/pick-your-intolerance is bad; as such, it is of our present cultural moment.”
However, I’d like to see more films tackle the big topic of America and its many sins head-on in the years to come. Donald Trump’s chilling rise to power should spark a period of national introspection, moving Americans to take a long and difficult look at the factors that brought us here. The German word vergangenheitsbewältigung comes up a lot in postwar cultural studies, translating back roughly as “the process of coming to terms with one’s past” and referring to the uncomfortable period of the German people reckoning with their crimes against humanity during WWII. That we do not have an equivalent word in English speaks volumes about America’s staunch refusal to own up to its own bullshit. We’ve breezed past so many heinous wrongs before; we can’t let the same thing happen now.
David Ehrlich (@davidehrlich), IndieWire
I think that a phenomenon like President Trump — if one can say there has ever been a phenomenon like President Trump — is perhaps even more of a call to action for critics than it is a call to action for artists. Having a White Nationalist in the Oval Office (or several of them, depending on which members of his cabinet Trump is meeting with at any particular time) is one hell of a stress test for this country and its core values, and we need to be part of the bulwark that makes it stronger.
I’ve had the benefit of reading the responses that my colleagues volunteered for this survey, and I’m not sure what more there is that I can add at the moment. Still, it bears repeating that the world is going to make less sense every day for at least the next four years, and it will be our responsibility — in this isolating and uncertain time — to make sure that art finds its audiences and that audiences find their art. Roger Ebert once wrote that “Movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” and it’s our job to make sure that the equipment is working correctly. Now more than ever.
But perhaps the most important thing we need to do is survive. Trump is about to declare a holy war on the press, and while he’s definitely thinking more about David Fahrenthold than he is about David Ehrlich, we nevertheless have to make ourselves valuable. We can’t just be glorified publicists, we can’t just carry water for corporations, we can’t just tell people how to spend their Friday nights. We need to have purpose, we need to curate and shape the creative world that is going to exist in Trump’s shadow, and we need to ensure that the light is pointing in the right directions.
We need to do everything that we’ve always needed to do, but we need to do it better.
Vadim Rizov (@vrizov), Filmmaker Magazine
First off, nothing good is ever going to happen, at least not in the immediate moment. “Film criticism” is, by and large, currently defined more precisely as the process of aggregating trending topics with zero reference to anything that can’t be found on Google in 30 seconds flat: take two Max Landis Tweets and write 500 words about how he’s not woke. The economics of this whole enterprise suggest precisely zero flexibility to practice film criticism as a mode of expressing your most idiosyncratic responses to something, the only things that could fall out of the realm of “the performances were good and the whitewashing was bad.”
But let’s say this isn’t true.
First off: there is a big difference between being a freelance writer at the mercy of having your pitches approved and being someone in an editorial position who is allowed, when you have the time, to write something solely for the gratification of your personal curiosity, even if the traffic won’t be great. If you do have an editorial position that allows for some kind of topical flexibility, please use it! Post the latest stupid Kubrick supercut, get those clicks, and then move on to something more worthwhile. Define “worthwhile” for yourself.
Secondly: let’s assume you can go longform and that you can write about marginal films. It’s important to listen to your internal responses as you watch a film, and those responses don’t have to be evaluative. Use your background, whatever kind of critical theory training you have, your upbringing and local knowledge, whatever it is – situate yourself as the individual as you are, and harness all that.
It is obviously true that every film is, or can be, a political object, but don’t force it. However, I’d suggest that when you’re forced to write about the week’s big garbage release, that you dive in. Hollywood films are overloaded with useless subtext: all that money, all those resources, contribute all kind of unintended frissons. Do the plot summary as fast as you can, then get to what’s actually interesting. J. Hoberman’s idea that any film can be treated as a “found object” is useful. Avoid or engage with authorial intent at will: this is all an exercise anyway.
The point, I think, is that analytical and critical thought is something we just don’t teach very well in this country. Be rigorous with your thoughts, avoid cant, and, when the moment is right, go deep in some weird direction. The point is not NOT NOT NOT NOT to latch onto the most obvious thing that’s Wrong with a movie – its latent sexism, casual imperialism, all those CGI extras dying by the hundreds, whatever – but to demonstrate some kind of ability to think something through. I know this sounds frustratingly vague, but it’s important to be able to demonstrate that original paths of thought are available. And if you can call out embedded hegemony, that’s fantastic, but be clear and targeted. The worst kind of liberalism is the kind that knows exactly when your ideal reader is going to nod in useless agreement.
Also, movies are not Important or Powerful or Must-Sees. When you use this language, it’s dead coinage and it sounds like geese hissing. Be specific.
As far as the filmmaking community goes: it would be just outstanding if people finally got over the idea of Socially Important Documentaries and stopped obsessing over getting an impact producer or whatever. People with money, knock this stuff off.
Joshua Rothkopf (@joshrothkopf), Time Out New York
Movies have a way of bending to current events on their own. We don’t need to do it intentionally. It’s not going to be long before current anxieties find themselves expressed at the multiplex. Horror films have a way of capturing their political moment and mood: George Romero recently told an audience at MoMA the famous story about how, for “Night of the Living Dead,” they cast Duane Jones, a black man, as their zombie-besieged hero without even thinking about his race. He was simply the best performer they knew. In April 1968, driving his film cans to New York City for meetings with potential distributors, Romero heard the news on the radio that Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.
And right now, post-election, perceptive critics are already finding Trumpian echoes in the movies, from Uproxx’s Keith Phipps talking about “Arrival” as the “year’s timeliest film” to MTV’s Amy Nicholson calling Anna Biller’s subversive “The Love Witch” the “feminist witchcraft movie we need right now.” And if you’re a film critic who isn’t taking a stab at the political climate, you’re robbing your work of a richness it deserves. That’s part of our purview: What does a film say about us as Americans, as women and men, as consumers? As a former writer for a feminist art magazine, then for a proudly left-wing pro-labor publication, I try to do this frequently, even if it means getting hate mail for likening the new “The Magnificent Seven” to a fond farewell to Obama: a fantasy about cleaning up the town and riding off into the sunset.
Frankly I think the deeper problem is the oblique shaming provided by this “Filmmaker” article, which confuses the phony “activism” of being an audience member with the real activism of voting, protesting, contacting your representatives, demanding more responsive officials. I appreciate the anger that sometimes gets channeled into hectoring others. People are looking for reasons. They point fingers. But until you march with me for several hours on a Friday night—from Trump Tower down to Union Square, shouting until your voice is raw—you can take your snobby think piece about how I’m the problem because I enjoy movies and shove it up your ass.