Obtuse Film Critics Still Obtuse on Matters of Gender, Regrettably

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People seem to want to talk about women at the movies at the moment, and for the mere fact of this I suppose I should be grateful, even as I’m terribly frustrated with the form it (always, inevitably) ends up taking. The latest salvo arrives from a flap on Twitter when the (excellent) BuzzFeed entertainment reporter Kate Aurthur dared, on Twitter, to question the critical adulation poured on one particular film at Sundance:

As a person who wasn’t at Sundance I can’t really comment on the gendered nature of the adulation for this particular film. However, I have to say that the reaction from the Variety critics she references is pretty damned familiar. Sample, from one Scott Foundas:

A lot of people come to Sundance with ideological axes to grind. Aurthur’s comments reminded me of those folks last year who ganged up on our own Geoff Berkshire for panning Ryan Coogler’s “Fruitvale Station.” I admired Coogler’s film enormously, but I don’t think disliking it makes you racist or privileged, any more than I think liking “Whiplash” makes you a male chauvinist pig. Likewise, the constant score-keeping of certain culture writers over how many filmmakers of this or that minority are represented in major festival lineups is exactly the sort of reductive thinking that a movie like “Dear White People” so cheerfully booby-traps. I’m glad that, in my own years on the New York Film Festival selection committee, these questions of gender, ethnicity and nationality were rarely if ever raised, either by me or by the various female and minority members of the committee. Frequently, we didn’t even know who had made the films we were looking at, as most submissions arrived in rough-cut form, lacking full credits, and the same is true of Sundance, Cannes, et al. We all know that the movie business is alarmingly white and male — a top-down problem that festivals, which show movies rather than making them, have little power to affect. Their job, rather, is to choose the best movies available, regardless of who made them or where they come from.

Short version: we men are just here, dealing with aesthetics in the abstract, and the rest of you are “viewing it exclusively through the prism of identity politics,” to quote another member of the Variety braintrust. It’s adorable when anti-intellectualism is cloaked in this sort of blather, but not terribly convincing.

I get shots across the bow often from other critics who insist, like this one did, that to ask questions about gender is to “scan for acceptable attitudes.” This is admittedly useful terminology, so let me employ it myself. When all you’ve got to say in response is some bland observation that such analysis is all about “reductive thinking,” “political correctness,” or whatever terms your independent mind has imported wholesale from the right-wing literati this month, the scanner in the room is actually you.

It’s sort of amazing this needs to be said at all. But critics of this ilk seem unable to read beyond a headline, so let me lay it out even further. The counts are a tool, a rhetorical strategy, rather than an end in themselves. They are levers, and levers are by their nature designed to open doors and be subsequently discarded. But not before everyone gets into that room. No one needs me here to recount the abysmal statistics applicable to women in film at the moment. Nor, I think, do we need to engage in complicated-and-not-very-coherent critical exegeses which somehow end in classifying all “female-driven movies” as “romantic comedies,” precisely the kind of “help” from critics that women filmmakers don’t need. Let’s just all agree that we need a change and try to have better and more intelligent discussions to the end of seeking that change.

See, critics being somewhat obtuse about this stuff isn’t just frustrating in the sense of broader equality. It also actually makes “cinephiliac” discussions stupider and flatter places to be. For example, in the limited Sundance case that set this all off, there was a lever in Kate Aurthur’s tweets. It was asking whether there is a value in having some presence of identity politics in the critical discussion of the film. This, though, was not what the men were interested in discussing. Too busy dismissing Aurthur’s question as rooted in an unacceptable attitude, they lazily resort to weary clichés about “male chauvinist piggism.” And here we are with nothing in their defense worth discussing other than the bankruptcy of its frame.

I don’t actually think that anybody’s opinions about anything are reducible to “just” gender. But I do think gender is a part of life, and life is a part of criticism, not least because criticism is, as any critic worth the money will tell you, a form of covert autobiography. The more critics deny that their lives have anything to do with the way they respond to a film, the more I know they’re just plain intellectually dishonest. Which is useful, as it means I don’t need to read them much, and my reading time comes at a premium these days. It’d just be nice if such critics would hand over their jobs to people actually willing to do deep, self-questioning work instead.