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Profiles in Criticism: B. Ruby Rich

Profiles in Criticism: B. Ruby Rich

Each participant in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism was paired with an experienced mentor who shared her or his insight during the course of the Sundance Film Festival. Their profiles will run this week on Criticwire. The Fellows’ complete contributions can be found here.

Since coining the term in 1992, feminist film critic B. Ruby Rich has become the name — and face — of New Queer Cinema. If you haven’t read her prolific writing, which spans two books (1998’s Chick Flicks and 2013’s New Queer Cinema) and innumerable journalistic outlets (Sight & Sound, Jump Cut, the Village Voice, the Guardian, and Film Quarterly to name a few), you’ve most likely seen her on TV or online offering her thoughts on LGBT films — or, at the very least, behind you in line at one festival or another. With a contrarian sensibility and an affable demeanor, Rich’s thick-framed spectacles and trademark neckerchief make her easy to spot despite her diminutive height. 

Beginning her career in exhibitions in Chicago in the 1970s, Rich is currently a professor of Social Documentation at UC Santa Cruz and Editor in Chief of Film Quarterly. As ubiquitous amongst film scholars as she is amongst critical practitioners, she is one of a handful of people that’s able to successfully maintain fluidity between multiple realms of the industry. It’s a testament to the plurality of her interests, which stem far beyond LGBT issues to include Latin American Cinema and Documentary, amongst countless other “non-sexy” obscurities, as she describes them. 

I (barely) caught up with Rich amidst the hustle-bustle of Sundance to gain some insight into the world of film criticism then and now. Following up afterwards via Skype, Rich spoke about the trajectory of her career, how she famously changed her opinion of Russ Meyer’s triple-D-rated Faster Pussycat! Kill Kill! and why she still loves being a film critic today. 

What was the first article you ever published?

Isn’t this embarrassing that I don’t know the answer. 

You didn’t cut it out and paste it in a scrapbook?

I did cut it out and it lives in a manila folder along with all of the other things I cut out in the 1970s in a file cabinet in the basement. The first thing I ever wrote were program notes for what’s now called the Gene Siskel Film Center in Chicago. I worked there in the 70s. At the same time I started writing for the Chicago Reader, which was one of the independent weeklies our generation kind of cut our teeth on but I only started writing for them because they read my program notes — that was the first film writing I ever did. 

Did anyone act as a mentor in your career?

The mentoring I got wasn’t from an individual. It was that the journal Jump Cut was starting up in Chicago in the late ’70s when I was there. Chuck Kleinhans and Julia Lesage were the cofounders and they began to republish my program notes as articles. So they were probably my first editorial mentors… they were very much political editors — they were mostly concerned with what I was saying. When I moved to New York in the 80s, and started writing for Karen Durbin [at the Village Voice], she helped my writing a lot because she really helped me learn how to revise and re-structure. I was a total deadline writer when I wrote for the Chicago Reader. I wrote for them for three years and nobody ever edited me. The only time the editors even spoke to me in three years was when the associate editor said to me, “You know, we don’t have to print everything you send to us. You’re not on staff.”

But somehow I was very confident as a young person. I just thought that he was a nuisance standing between me and my audience, so I just ignored him and kept filing copy — and they kept printing it. 

What advice would you give a young critic today?

Get a day job and keep writing. I think that you’re in a much more brutal economic environment than what I faced. I was in a society where you got paid, but very little, and you had to pay rent, but very little, and you might have student loans — but also very little. Somehow it all fit together and you were able to live and that’s not remotely the case anymore. The mathematics have changed completely and everything’s been shifted into different columns on the spreadsheet. I think there has to be a way to sustain writing that isn’t purely about economics and that’s a hard thing for me to address. But I would say all the platitudes: Trust your own voice, don’t be afraid to say what you think just because it doesn’t align with what other critics are saying, be careful who you read, and be very suspicious of the standards that people are using for judging what’s successful writing — and especially for judging what’s important filmmaking. 

Do you feel like there’s still validity in — and a need for — this profession, especially in the age of mass commentary i.e.: the internet?

In the age of the open mic night? More than ever. I think that there is a more urgent need for informed, critical voices. I don’t think film criticism is the same thing as opinions and I don’t think film criticism is the same thing as attacks — or applause. I think that there’s always been confusion about film criticism, this isn’t the first time that the profession’s been disparaged. Even Roger Ebert talked about that: he’d be sitting in the news room at the Chicago Sun-Times and someone would come up to his music colleague and say “Oh, that was a great piece on the symphony concert this week, thanks” and then turn to him and say “I’ve got a bone to pick with you about your review of such and such film.” I think he tells that story in the documentary [Life Itself]. Everybody thinks they know better than you and this happens to film critics more than anyone else, except maybe rock critics.

I suppose it’s the most accessible art form. But as you say, criticism stems far beyond simply attacking or applauding. 

I think that critical voices are really important to point people to what’s at stake with particular films, to point people to what they shouldn’t miss in a particular film, and to point to shifts in the terrain or shifts in the culture that are visible through those films. I think that film criticism is undervalued, but I also think that we’re in a chaotic moment right now. We’re in the middle of the collapse of the old ways of getting information and the new ways haven’t arisen yet. You are in a position to help shape the new kind of film criticism that will be important for people, but I don’t know what that is. 

I feel like you, more so than most critics, have created a very specific brand or niche for yourself, specifically in relation to queer cinema. Can you speak a bit about how this developed?

It’s funny that you say that, because whenever I go to film festivals I’m always annoyed that I don’t have a niche and I don’t know what to write about. I do, though, clearly have a niche with queer cinema. I wrote a book about it, I’ve been identified with that movement, I’ve written about a lot of those films and filmmakers. I think that at times it was very exciting because I was there when that started and got to feel that I could help co-create it as it was just coming into sight. And it was thanks to the editors that let me do that — Lisa Kennedy at the Village Voice and Phillip Dodd at Sight & Sound. And I’ve been credited with it, which is something that critics never get, so that’s kind of cool. But when there isn’t something at stake in that evolving tradition, then it doesn’t necessarily interest me. In the final chapter of my book, I ended up trying to talk about the future of queer cinema by talking about Girls, which doesn’t have any queer content, really, because I thought it was the kind of unapologetic, spunky, in-your-face energy that had characterized the early New Queer Cinema and that we need back again. 

I don’t think it serves all my needs all the time, but it sure as hell did in the ’90s. In the ’70s, I was mostly writing about women’s films — my niche was feminism. My first book, Chick Flicks, was all about those years of the ’70s and early ’80s. All through that time, though, I was writing about Latin American cinema, but very rarely would anybody let me do that because editors weren’t interested. The uphill battle that I had, for instance to get the Village Voice to let me write a big feature on this huge change in Latin American cinema in the ’80s, a battle which I won, was nothing like the ease I had writing about queer films, which fit much more neatly into their notion of genres and territory. 

Do you ever feel pigeonholed by your association with the New Queer Cinema — perhaps obligated to comment on certain films that you may have no interest in?

Well, I can’t complain about it. I think it’s a great advantage as a critic to be asked for your opinion but that doesn’t mean that I stay within that territory. I actually teach in a documentary program so one of the things I do at Sundance is see documentaries. We Come As Friends and the Swedish Film Concerning Violence were two of the best films that I saw there under the radar in International Documentary cinema. Neither of them are queer films or feminist films but these were the films that really thrilled me. So that’s what I would say about myself as a critic, is that I’m still always looking for something that’s going to thrill me. 

You manage to exist in the worlds of academia and journalism simultaneously, which is fairly rare for a critic. Can you speak a bit about how you manage to balance the two and whether you see them as complimentary or antagonistic?

I oddly seem to need both to sustain me, and when I wasn’t an academic, which was the entire first half of my life, I was always talking to academics. I started out in film exhibition and in a way that’s still where I’m most comfortable, talking to festival curators, talking to other programmers. But my professional worlds are divided between journalism and academics. In the U.S., I’m always told I’m too much of one or the other. In the academy I’m always told I’m too colloquial, in journalism I’m always told I’m too academic. But that doesn’t happen outside of the United States. 

Do you see a way for the two to work together cohesively?

I think there is an inherent antagonism between them. I think there’s a kind of anti-intellectualism amongst critics and journalists and, frankly, popular culture in general. But I think there’s also a kind of sneering know-it-all-ness amongst academics, a dismissal of work that doesn’t have footnotes. But once in a while they work really well together. It helps writing about a film when you know something more than what you’re told in a press kit, or can Google two hours before you sit down to write. I think there’s a lot of ill-informed writing about international films in particular, but also about American films, that take place outside the experience of the reviewer, and given the nature of who’s reviewing films in this country, that’s a huge problem. In academics, partly you have more time — sometimes too much time — but you’re required to know more about what you’re writing about. I guess I don’t think that’s a bad thing. 

Has there been anything that you’ve written about or spoken about publicly that you’ve dramatically changed your opinion about after the fact?

Yeah, very famously. I actually once wrote a piece for the Village Voice about Russ Meyer’s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! And in that piece, I revealed that I had first seen it in the ’70s, when this young kid from the University of Chicago had asked to come over to screen it. This was before DVD and video. It was a 16mm print, and I happened to own a 16mm projector. I was working at the Film Center then and I lived in this crazy loft building where we were famous for our parties — it was an eight-story building and we had taken over different floors of it. So we watched the film and I was absolutely outraged that I’d been forced to watch this misogynist film that objectified women and that was really just short of soft-core porn. I was really annoyed and so were all my feminist friends. But the guy who brought this over was Dave Kehr, who was then just out of school and I think very thrown by these vicious attacks on him for having brought this very famous cult film over.

Years later it got re-released and I watched it on video at the start of the New Queer Cinema moment — it must’ve been ’91 or ’92 when I saw it, and I just loved it. And I ended up programming it at the Pacific Film archive in a program they’d asked me to do for a special summer festival called “Scary Women” where I showed it with Basic Instinct. And what I talked about was how the audience writes the film; how this film, which seemed to be one thing when I saw it in the ’70s in the heyday of feminism, turned into something completely different when I saw it again 15 years later in the heyday of queer culture. So I wrote that piece for the Village Voice, talking about my first opinion, my radically changed opinion, and how films get edited by history. And that’s a really wonderful thing to be able to do. 

What were some of your Sundance highlights this year?

I really liked Dear White People. I really liked a couple of documentaries: Captivated” and The Case Against 8. Laggies, much to my surprise — I wasn’t expecting to. I liked Love Is Strange” and White Bird in a Blizzard and Kumiko, the Treasure Hunter more than I expected. I have to say I don’t usually have high expectations for American fiction at Sundance, given what my tastes are like. I think Sundance is a lot about performance and I would say that my weakness as a critic is that I don’t care about acting enough. I still see films like a layman; I still sit back and let them wash over me. 

I think that’s a good thing. I think if you lose that you’re in trouble.

I don’t know, you think?

If you overthink things then you stop writing from experience, which often results in sounding rather dry.

Yeah, I can see that. I will say that I have not lost my love of film festivals. I would still rather go to film festivals than do almost anything else. I still love the part of being a critic that lets me see a film before anyone else, and lets me see it fresh before I know what to expect or before I know what other people thing about it. I think that’s one of the greatest perks of the profession. People always think it’s the free screeners. I don’t think its that; I think it’s the chance to see freely.

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