Baumann and Burch Conversations #11: Year-End Review and Yelling at Each Other Because of Vox

This was a weird one, a real flumpo of a conversation. Matt and I got into some of the controversy of Roma, talked about Jack White and A Star Is Born, and then went headlong into the role of cultural criticism and probably what it’s for and also get right on the edge of like, multiverse stuff and planning for institutional overhaul. Hang on, friends. Here’s a link to a Richard Brody article mentioned early on, and here’s the Todd VanDerWerff we collectively had a hissy fit about.


Tim: Happy year-end review season, Matt. That was a joke, because this is obviously about three weeks past year-end review season. How are you?

Matt: The season, much like the other season, starts earlier and earlier every year. Which is stupid. I’m apparently ready to call things stupid already, so doing well.

Tim: Yeah, so let’s just go get it. When I did my year-end review, which was entirely about me and not about the year because that somehow makes more sense, one of the ten movies I left out was Roma. And I left it out because it was probably in the top 17% or so of movies I watched this year, but the conversation about it has mutated into several things and I feel like we should talk about what’s actually going on with some of the following takes:

  1. People should see it in theaters.
  2. The movies (“the movies”) should do something about the fact that this is sweeping the nation via Netflix.
  3. There’s something offputting about Cuaron’s subject, which we got to after we all feted the movie for the requisite number of days before we got to more content.

Am I missing anything? You’re on Twitter more than me.

Matt: The biggest reaction on Twitter, at least initially, was “wow, this movie is sweeping and gorgeous.” Lots of praise and, as I revealed just before we started, I hadn’t yet heard specific backlash. Although I could have extrapolated as much given that anything that is read to be a vision of an entire geographic place is going to get backlash. This is, in part, a reflection of my own internet choices and whom I follow, but it never strayed too far from “beautiful movie; Netflix has even more sway now.”

Tim: Mm, that’s okay.

Matt: I don’t say that to invalidate your points. It’s actually more so implicit support for the “before we got to more content” bit. For as much of an “event” as it was, how much are people still talking about it? I ask you this because you follow the movie blogs/writers. I am deeply interested in the forced dichotomy of movies, though, between theatrical releases and streaming ones.

Tim: There’s sort of a gap right now in what people are talking about. Honestly I’ve heard as much about Vice as anything else, which is weird. I think A Star Is Born and Roma are being put up against one another as the Best Picture favorites (The Hurt Locker – Avatar, The Artist The Tree of Life, Moonlight La La Land, this happens a lot).

Matt: Almost like one can’t exist without the other. Différance. [to your bingo cards, audience]

Tim: I think #3 is the one that’s getting the most talk at the moment, and I think people are getting braver about saying that it’s not as emotionally affecting as it needs to be to be a truly great movie, and I think that’s a reasonable criticism. In fact, if we do an Oscars thing sometime later, that’s sort of the running critique of virtually all the frontrunners. Like I said to you before we started, I think it’s sort of a bizarre criticism. We critique filmmakers so often for doing stuff they know, but short of calling for Alfonso Cuaron to never make a movie again and convincing Netflix to give the contract to some person with whatever the right demographics of the week are, I don’t know what we’re mad about. If it is about his maid, it’s a sympathetic portrait, maybe even leaning more towards sappy.

The one I’m actually mad about is #1. Can you guess why, or, alternately, why this is the reason the death of Filmstruck really kills me?

Matt: My inner Marx is starting to yell.

Tim: That was it. So after Filmstruck died, Richard Brody wrote this article that, boiled down, said, “This is why we should have physical media,” and of course the only response to that is “Not all of us are paid for a sinecure job at the New Yorker.” I loved Filmstruck for many reasons, but the fact that in the year or so I had it I managed to get it down to 50 cents a movie means I saved an absolute buttload and learned a lot. Go ahead, I’m between ideas.

Matt: First, support your local libraries, kids. Theaters and (new) physical media assume a certain level of access and financial well-being that skew high-end. And you might be yelling at me, “but what about paying the artists?” and that’s an argument to which I am hugely sympathetic. But if you think the money you spend at a theater or on physical media is really going to the artists you’re a fool. Same thing with Spotify. I love Spotify, it allows me to listen to things I otherwise wouldn’t A) have access to or B) not buy because I’m focused on other things.

Tim: I also want to say that I’m a prude and I don’t get my movies from anywhere but a service I pay for, a library, or my own purchased collection, which is to say I don’t do illegal jawn.

Matt: Also support your local record stores, kids. When I can, I get stuff on Bandcamp to support artists directly, but I can’t always do that. I can have, simultaneously, the thoughts “this is bad for artists” and “this allows me access to a lot more than I would have otherwise and that’s good.” The problem, as always, is massive corporations.

TIm: Where that takes me is this weird spot Roma is inhabiting, which is getting a lot of talk along the lines of not just, “Go see this in theaters” but “You owe it to yourself to see it in theaters,” which is really something. And of course I don’t love the idea of lining Netflix’s pockets any more than the rest of us, but like, Roma is one of the true populist movie experiences of the year. The number of people who actually pay for that movie, let’s be real about this, is much lower than the number of people who have their own Netflix login.

Matt: No one can tell me the number of people who have watched or will watch Roma on Netflix is anywhere near what would have happened in theaters.

Tim: Right now it’s maybe the second-best movie on the service. (The Third Man is streaming on Netflix right now, which, sure.) And it would have been pigeonholed as foreign language artsy fartsy stuff. It would have been bigger than Cold War or Burning, but I can’t imagine it’d be a lot bigger. We’re just in an interesting spot where it doesn’t really count if you watch the movie at home, but if that’s the case there’s an absolutely insurmountable gate for people who don’t get to go to screeners or who didn’t go to some vastly expensive film school. A lot of assumptions, most of them by the same coastal critics as usual.

Matt: Hyden (my muse) was talking a while back about how most critics just move to coastal cities so it’s becoming even less about who gets heard and more that’s just where they are. A bit reductive, but I think the trend is right. Also, not as many people would have even heard about Roma if it weren’t a Netflix thing, let alone have gone to see it (assuming they had access to a theater that picked it up). It’s amazing to me how movie theaters get to play the small, aggrieved player here despite having extorted movie goers for years. Not that Netflix is saintly by any stretch.

I’m doing that economic thing. I’m interested in the difference between “go see it” and “you owe it to yourself to see it” in theaters. One of those is more sympathetic.

Tim: I just think both are completely out of touch with the way people do movies anymore.

Matt: That’s true. My underlying question is would Roma be a better experience in a theater?

Tim: It probably would. That’s a movie which is shot tremendously, and Cuaron absolutely fills his frames. There’s one shot I haven’t been able to get out of my head that takes place after the mother has given her kids some bad news, and they’re outside of the restaurant licking on ice cream and there is an enormous crab statue there. Maybe it’s actually stuck to the restaurant, I dunno. It’s stunning. There are people milling around, and the kids are sort of glumly eating their ice creams and this giant crab is just there. There’s easily a dozen more examples like that in this movie. But you know what is also true, is that many people have goodly sized televisions and can get the point. I mean, I haven’t seen 2001 on the big screen yet, but I get the point.

Matt: This is a good analogy for everyone but you, probably, but it’s why I go to concerts.

Tim: Good, I wanted to talk about this.

Matt: A different context can make the same text feel different, and perhaps everyone should be able to do that. Not that they have to, but it’d be nice if access were equal. I’m not saying everyone “owes” it to themselves to see Roma in theaters; I’m saying it might have been a cool recontextualized experience. But that’s not how we, generally, take in movies right now (except for Marvel ones).

You wanted me to talk about concerts?

Tim: I just don’t think people go around saying, “You don’t really love the band unless you see them in concert.” Or maybe they do? Or maybe those are the nutcases?

Matt: Those are nutcases but the difference between music and movies here is that bands end up in fewer places than movies. Depends on the band too. Like, Phish is kind of something you have to see live. But bands/artists have audiences that bond over shared interest and tracking in a way that movies don’t have. The equivalent would have to be, like, large disparate groups “following” directors around.

Tim: I was thinking that there’s something in following Phish or the Grateful Dead or Bob Dylan around, but that’s an experience of a rather different type. I think the movie equivalent is that if you live outside of like, fifty cities in this country Bob Dylan will never come. (Sorry, that’s “Nobel Laureate Bob Dylan.” Can’t wait to get to that conversation/podcast.)

Matt: Dude deserved that in the 60s. Not now. I’ll always love his trolling though. The assumption behind people saying this about Roma is that Roma would have been in most theaters. Which is a bad assumption, but it keeps the argument consistent if it’s accepted. We know bands are only going to so many cities and fans know this.

Tim: It’s also an empirically silly argument, because Roma could have come out in more theaters, but in Atlanta the one place I know that’s showing it is has “art cinema” in the name.

I guess the reason I jumped on this immediately is because this is a discussion I expect we’re going to see about more and more content, whether it’s movies or music or whatever else. We’re having it with Roma, and to some extent we’re having it with Minding the Gap, and we could very easily have had it with The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. The real question is when Netflix will get its Best Picture winner, and if it will stop Bradley Cooper, help us God.

Matt: I’m guessing Buster Scruggs has been exempted from this because it looks like a mini series. Speaking of which, the final season of Game of Thrones (I can’t go on; I’ll go on.) will be basically several feature length  episodes put together. The definitional problem is that too many people assume movies exist in theaters. “Straight to video” has always been code for crap.

Tim: Here’s the Bergman mention: two of his best movies were aired on television first, and more of his other work was made for TV. One of the better movies I watched this year was The Tale, which HBO picked up and which has never really gotten a theatrical release. Like, a movie is a movie if it’s a movie, and a television program is a different entity, and any time you hear a showrunner say “We’re making a movie in eleven episodes” you should run away.

Matt: That is different than what I was saying. Each episode is supposed to be movie length. Not the season makes one movie.

Tim: Yep. But Game of Thrones has in the past I think been guilty of the thirteen hour movie thing.

Matt: That’s a different Conversation. I think that gives the later seasons too much credit and underestimates the earlier ones. But this probably shouldn’t be about Game of Thrones. (Should we do one of these for Game of Thrones when it ends so we can yell?)

Tim: (I think Josh can take my spot and I’ll referee.) Long story short, Roma is one of the more interesting releases of the year and has opened a can of worms that we’ll get to track for the next ten years or so before climate change obliterates us.

What’s next in this supposed year-end review?


Matt: (quitter) Pssh, ten years. That’s kind of you. Umm…what is next? The “Death of Rock” thing happened again, like every year.

Tim: How many times can it even die?

Matt: Every year since about 1970, apparently.

Tim: What died about it this year? Or is this usually written as like, the bastion of rock and roll released an album and did we mention rock is dying?

Matt: It’s usually a matter of even the most insightful music critics like what was important 10 or 20 years ago and the genre evolutions rarely satisfy that fondness. Like 7 of Billboard’s top 10 rock songs this year were Imagine Dragons songs, and that band is junk (see, I do it too). They aren’t junk; the real problem (for most) is that they’re pop because that’s what influenced them when they were cutting their teeth and, as a result, don’t sound like the Rolling Stones or something. Greta Van Fleet is currently huge but reviled by critics and they sound exactly like Led Zeppelin. It’s all weird gatekeeping that always happens and is never right. That said, what’s popular in “rock” music isn’t the sound that’s been calcified on classic rock radio. It’s poppy and genre-hopping and reflects increased access and wider taste of young people. Some bands do this well (The 1975) and some sound like record company products (for me, Imagine Dragons). And, of course, that whole narrative ignores all the good stuff happening outside the radio world. All music fans know the outsized power record labels have and yet we can’t seem to do much. So, rock dies every year because it doesn’t sound like what we had when the writers were growing up.

Tim: So do music critics care about how much money a band makes? Or like, how big they are? Is that a thing that enters into their equation often?

Matt: Pitchfork didn’t review Taylor Swift for the longest time more or less because they didn’t have to. She would get her coverage regardless. So some critics and sites definitely try to give some shine to smaller acts and actually indie record labels. But unless you’re perusing for those things specifically you’ll hear what gets on the radio (which is usually geared toward teens and “heartland” America). The critics I follow most want to find and talk about music they like no matter how big it is.

Tim: I feel similarly about the movie people I try to read, but then I think about A Star Is Born and how many people in the critics’ world glommed onto it in part because it reminded them of “old-fashioned movies,” which doesn’t mean anything, and I think part of it is that movie critics do want to say nice things about big grossers.

Matt: There is the worry that if you slam an artist or film with a big budget/production company that they’ll come to get you, to be blunt. Part of that can be genuine nostalgia, though, if “old-fashioned” is the thing.

Tim: I just defy someone to tell me what “old-fashioned” movie this one is like.

Matt: But yeah, if a small blog (bigger than me, smaller than Pitchfork) slams, like, T-Swift they’re not wrong to worry about negative consequences.

Tim: It’s nice to be totally anonymous, because it allows me to hate everything. I hate art.

Matt: I’d be worried about how much I dump on Arcade Fire and Mumford if I had any platform. I love art, I hate the art world.

Weird connection between “(insert genre) is dead” and the popularity of A Star is Born. Is it nostalgia? Do we just want a simpler time, which basically means “when we were young?”

Tim: I certainly read a lot of the Star Is Born joy in that vein. It’s a star-driven crowd pleaser with a story that we’ve literally seen before but like, in a classy way. That it’s also a star-driven crowd pleaser with white stars doing white genres is predictable. There’s such a hankering for unity, and Star Is Born is not obviously political.

Matt: This is what annoys me about so many people saying they want more options than big franchise flicks and remakes. If you really do, then support the other stuff. But most people don’t actually want much departure, let alone any radical one.

So Star is Born is doing that weird (wrong) centrist thing? [I still haven’t seen it, friends. I’m the smart one.]

Tim: You know what’s funny is that when I wrote my review of the movie, I explicitly said I wasn’t going to critique it from a political perspective.

Matt: I won’t ask you to now.

Tim: Well, no, we may as well. This was most of my first paragraph:

The politics of A Star Is Born are what we might euphemistically call “old-fashioned.” They are the politics of whites in the spotlight (Cooper, Gaga), people of color on the sidelines cheering them on (Dave Chappelle, Anthony Ramos). They are the politics of rock ‘n roll as superior to pop. They are the politics of the frankly strange belief that an unvarnished appearance is somehow more authentic than a practiced one, and its equally fervent belief that authenticity is superior to performance. A Star Is Born, now in its fourth iteration under that title, has always been guilty of that belief that, as darkness follows light, so must a woman’s ascension be countered by a man’s collapse.

So I guess I still kinda did, but to answer your question, yeah.

Matt: Everything is political.

Tim: Well, here’s more of that paragraph:

(Real talk: the politics of a film are as much a part of the movie as its frames, and cannot be excised from the movie no matter how much Robert Penn Warren you’ve read.)

Matt: I’m saying that matter-of-factly, not begrudgingly.

Tim: Star Is Born is really safe, really predictable even for a movie that’s getting its fourth go-round, and really tired. It’s just tired, and I think it’s probably as good as any movie since Saving Private Ryan at assuming that you’ll rely on your sense of what you should care about to care, even when there’s no good reason proffered to do that. Is there any music doing that this year that you want to savage? I’m working myself up for the first Best Picture winner that’s really just going to make me mad since Argo.

Matt: Hee. Hi, Jack White.

Tim: I’m telling you (I feel like Uncle Sam pointing) that if that movie starred Jack White instead of Bradley Cooper and was otherwise identical, I think it would be a good movie. Right now I think it’s tripe, but with White that’s an interesting movie.

Matt: I’m all for Jack White in that movie. I’m not at all for Boarding House Reach. It doesn’t actually represent a larger narrative for me, I just think the album is bad and White has reached this point of we’ll keep listening because he’s an established name and used to make great music. So in that way the album felt like it was riding a wave of a “sense of what you should care about to care” rather than any merits to the music. Dude still puts on a great live show, and I know there’s good music left in him, but this wasn’t it.

The larger narrative he put himself in that I resent is he tried to make a medium-sized deal about the influence hip-hop and digital recording methods have had on him recently and just shut up, dude. The whole “true rockers go analog” thing is just stupid and elitist.

Tim: Ever wonder why all the people we spend our time invested in always turn out to be nincompoops? I wonder about this all the time.

Matt: I thought about this a lot when Julian Casablancas went mildly insane mid-year (not that I have a particular fondness for him, but The Strokes will always be important for me). Part of it is that any artist who says something that isn’t canned or typical gets narrativized real quick. Jack White says different stuff and it gets big even if it’s not particularly weird. Which is to say I don’t think he’s entirely a nincompoop so much as making bad music right now. The digital thing was a bad look though, for sure.


Tim: This has been a reasonably depressing review so far, which I guess is appropriate. I know you’ve got a year-end list that’s got stuff from this year, so I don’t want to step on those toes too much, but do you have a couple albums that you think are getting left behind as the year goes on that you’d like to prop up here? I was thinking of a couple movies that I think should get more Oscars consideration (which is how normies find out about this stuff, I guess) and I’m afraid they’ll be left behind.

Matt: I was going to ask before you opened the Jack White door for me if there’s anything from 2018 you wanted to give some love to, so yes let’s do this. I’m also interested if there are any “popular” films, or ones already getting Oscar buzz, that you’ll stump for in opposition to Star is Born.

Tim: I really think it’s going to be Star Is Born and Roma for the big prize, and if a third movie butts in it’s probably like, Green Book, which is somehow worse. I think Widows might whiff on the Oscars entirely, which amazes me because I still think it’s the best movie from 2018 that I’ve seen. They already didn’t nominate Zama for the shortlist of the Best Foreign Language Film, and that’s not good at all. First Reformed seemed like it had a chance at some awards, but that’s really fallen off the larger radar and that’s a shame. I have no idea what happened to The Death of Stalin.

The one that has grown on me a lot the more I thought about it is Sorry to Bother You. It’s just so smart and so over the top and it’s definitely going to come true one of these days. It’s got such a profound twist that I’m almost scared to talk about it, and I’ll leave it alone in case you haven’t gotten to it on Hulu yet, but I really think it’s one of the absolute stand-outs of the year regardless of language or national origin. Right now I have it fourth on my list of movies from last year that I actually saw, and whatever Boots Riley wants to do next I will go see.

Matt: I wish I could do this with the Grammys, but they don’t even have bad narratives, they just suck.

Tim: Who even knows what happens at the Grammys. I have zero sense of how they work.

Matt: No one knows. And then Beck wins for his, like, sixth best album. Weird stuff.

Speaking of, music is also weird because there’s so much that good albums get lost a week or two after release. It’s really hard to maintain any momentum critically.

Tim: That’s gotta be basically impossible. There’s just too much for an awards show to get its arms around. (Original take alert.)

Matt: And for a poor random dude trying to write about it at the end of the year. I believe firmly in music’s transportive abilities, so I’ve automatically gone to some albums that help me feel better in these weird (awful) times, if that seems okay. I’ll say before that though, one of the albums with some momentum that absolutely deserves it is A Brief Inquiry Into Online Relationships by The 1975, but I’m vaguely planning a blog piece about that one.

Anywho, two that came to mind real quick are LP 5000 by Restorations and Yolk in the Fur by Wild Pink. The former I feel a bit guilty about because I just realized today it got lost when I was reshuffling my list, but it’s a super well produced and moving lament of, minorly, their problems with an old record label and, majorly, just existing in this historical moment. Lines like “No I don’t want to hear that name again” and “Yeah I hope he dies too” hit super hard. Musically they’re like a harder version of The Gaslight Anthem, if that helps anyone. There is just enough light and defiance in the album that it feels like we can make it through if only because we aren’t alone. Yolk in the Fur is just gorgeous. John Ross is a great storyteller and has a knack for finding just the right line to repeat in a song. “I thought I’d never get out” on “Lake Erie” just feels like what all small town kids experience. A bit like War on Drugs in their compositions but more feedback and distortion, which is balanced by these incredible moments where the production drops and the music opens up like clouds parting to reveal the sun. “Yolk in the Fur” is a great example of that, and the moment happens when Ross starts repeating “I’m changing the path of my life” so there’s a great sense of how music and lyrics enhance one another.

My agenda here (which became apparent as I started writing that paragraph) is that both albums were released by Tiny Engines, which is the best record label right now. Genuinely independent, based in North Carolina, and has a stunning roster of bands all of whom I wish could break big for their and the label’s sake.

Tim: If they grow more will they have to change the name?

Matt: I hope not. It’s one of the record label names I actually like. A lot of them are just odd.

Tim: Like vineyards. Or craft beers, really, that’s who I want to complain about.

Matt: I wanted to make a time in a bottle joke here, but it isn’t quite working. I will say neither of those is my number 1 album, so I haven’t stolen all my thunder.


Tim: This is actually sort of a nice break: when you write a year-end review about stuff that comes out this year, what do you want to emphasize?

Matt: You mean what I’m looking for in 2019, or my approach in general?

Tim: The second one.

Matt: Right on. Honestly I started writing them because I want to share and learn more good music. That’s also the primary driver for me, making connections over art and trying to suss out why it’s individually important. I do like emphasizing artists that aren’t getting much attention, but I don’t mind talking about big acts if they made a good album. When I write the entries, they’re usually focused on either how the album informs, or maybe even alters, my listening habits/preferences, or what it said about some part of my year. I don’t often mention those factors explicitly, but I’m always looking at albums for how they affect me in terms of listening to stuff the following year and also just as a person. For example, A Brief Inquiry helped me make sense of a lot of stuff that was swirling through my head this year, while something like Mitski’s Be the Cowboy or Camp Cope’s How to Socialise and Make Friends pushed my understanding of the “woman dominate indie rock” narrative, and then an album like Coheed’s just made me happy. I’m always looking at impact first and foremost because I can’t really go through and tell people “here’s why this slight key shift is incredibly complex.”

Tim: So for you the list has to be personal. Or works better if it’s personal. Maybe that’s a more fair way to put that.

Matt: I don’t have a 50 person staff to make an “objective” list like some publications, so it’s inherently personal.

Tim: I occasionally forget those places kind of exist.

Matt: I think it works better that way anyway, even if I’m audacious enough to say “best.” I don’t actually believe it is, but I believe in my ability to say these albums have had a certain impact and are good in various ways. If we aren’t looking at music for it’s personal impact than what are we looking at?

Tim: Those slight key shifts, presumably.

Matt: Which isn’t to say technical aspects don’t matter, they absolutely do. But we don’t live separate from this stuff.

Tim: One likes to think that the technical aspects make the personal impact.

Matt: Sometimes. That’s not wrong, but it’s not always true, if that makes sense. The two aren’t separate. Think of it this way, no year-end list is really trying to quantify the experience of an album or movie. They’re saying it’s the best because something more emotional, more personal. Which stems from some combination of audience and technical quality.

Tim: I think that’s fair. In music it’s certainly harder, I think, for the audience to be flat wrong. Not that it doesn’t happen, but I feel like movies are worse about this. (I was going to offer a reason why and then I realized I didn’t actually have one.)

Matt: I have a guess for one. There’s just so much music. A lot of movies come out, but it feels like to me that conversations more or less stratify in similar ways. That’s impossible in the moment in music. Now, if you’re looking at “Best of the Decade” lists that starts to happen. Time buries a lot of good stuff. That guess could easily be bad.

Tim: I’m curious mostly because you actually make year-end lists based on the year, so that’s like, novel for me.

Matt: I mean, my Excel sheet has over 100 albums from 2018 and that’s only scratching the surface (and not counting other genres I’ve listened to in smaller capacities). Not hard for me to comprise a list of just one year and have it be completely different from other ones.

Tim: The real difference between us is that I think you are genuinely interested in the stuff that came out this year, and I watched half the stuff from 2018 that I did because I didn’t want to feel left out. I still haven’t seen Infinity War, but let’s be honest, no one’s been left out there.

Matt: Ugh. Are you old and grumpy and I’m young and hip? Is that the thing here?

Tim: I think there’s a little voice in my head that says that I don’t actually know anything if I don’t know the history, and I’m further behind on the history because I only started trying to watch movies seriously a couple years ago. It also takes longer on average than listening to an album, which makes me nervy about time.

Matt: Music travels, which is what allows me to go this in-depth and still listen to old stuff. I feel decent about my historical knowledge, so that is the big difference here.

Tim: I feel a roaring inadequacy. Which is why that year-end list thing I did had two movies from this past year.

Matt: There’s a certain joy to trying to tackle the year in the moment, though. It frees you a bit from historical comparison, which I think is nice when I write these. I still make allusions to older bands and albums, but I don’t feel bogged down by the nagging voice saying “yeah but how does it stack up to X.”

Tim: I’m just excited I can stack anything up to X now. But I see your point.

Matt: My final evolution will be when I organize this sucker alphabetically and just say have at it. But I have a weakness for lists. Maybe this works better in music than in film, but I also get excited about seeing trends and through lines when I sit down with the year-end list. I get a real sense of what was happening and of ways to understand the year in general, as a chapter in an ongoing narrative of change.


Tim: Did you read Todd VanDerWerff’s recent article about the role of cultural critics?

Matt: No, but now I feel dumb for having missed something like that. (I need to stop falling of the wagon with Vox)

Tim: It’s okay. Vox is still home to a lot of writers who think socialism is bad because of taxes or something.

Matt: Bah.

Tim: Here’s something from the end of his article that stood out to me:

Cultural criticism isn’t necessary just so we know what movie to see when we head to the multiplex. It’s necessary because it is part of how we begin to understand both ourselves and this weird, vibrant, crumbling country we are all a part of.

Better than any data set I can think of, it tells us where we’ve been, where we are, and maybe even where we’re going. It’s vital to any publication, to any newsroom, and to any well-rounded news diet. Now, in 2019, let’s see even more of it.


Matt: I said that like 2 pages ago :p

That’s right to me. Change doesn’t happen otherwise. It’s not about trapping bugs in amber, it’s about actually criticizing the culture, about criticizing ideological and artistic power and oppression.

Tim: Maybe I’ve copy-pasted the wrong thing. I guess VanDerWerff is planting his flag on the side of “When I write about Black Panther,” which somehow the two of us haven’t mentioned yet, “I have to write about the cultural impact of the movie as well as its technical or emotional bona fides.” Which is not a position I find compelling.

Here’s another one that’s closer to what I was thinking:

No, the role of a critic is to pull apart the work, to delve into the marrow of it, to figure out what it is trying to say about our society and ourselves. You can love a work and think its politics are deeply problematic; you can believe something is terrible yet offers some accidentally acute insights about the way the world works.

Matt: Seems to me he’s saying we need those takes, not that literally everyone needs to be writing them. I reject any vision of art as non-political.

Tim: Me too, but I also reject this idea of “figure out what it is trying to say about our society and ourselves” because that’s largely been understood as “Check this box if Mary Queen of Scots is sufficiently feminist, whatever that means.” I guess the idea isn’t straight up wrong, but the number of people who are worth listening to when they do what he’s talking about is very slim.

Matt: But it’s worth having more. The cultural critic is a specific type of critic, and taken that way his position makes sense to me. Not that anyone and everyone can do it, but if we had more shrewd voices doing that type of work we’d probably benefit. It’s not worded all that well, VanDerWerff’s thing. I don’t think every writer needs to figure out “what it all means” but we should be attuned to ways in which a text moves us and what we read from it. What it is “trying” to say is important; what it is saying to each of us is more important. I don’t begrudge anyone who doesn’t want to look at a film or an album that way. But I also think it’s valuable work.

Tim: In movies, there is a total of one person who I think does that with skill worth the reading, and it’s Wesley Morris. I think Matt Zoller Seitz could if he wanted to, but he’s a self-proclaimed aesthetics critic. The problem is that this is also what Armond White, full on in his troll phase now, is doing, and it’s also the sort of thing that has people saying that Black Panther is one of the year’s best films when it isn’t out of some obligatory wokeness. We’re probably not disagreeing here, but I just think that anyone who thinks their job is to divine a movie or an album like some kind of tiromancer is barking up the wrong tree. Barking up the wrong cheese? This was a fraught metaphor from the start.

Matt: I think you’re envisioning this as an inevitable dictatorship of meaning and I see it as a process that needs more voices. Not any one person can do that type of cultural work, that’s fascism. It also goes back to the problem of who gets to be a critic.

Tim: That’s what the Internet is, though, fascism.

Matt: Nowhere have I defended the Internet, thank you. Though what happens if we go back to everyone having one or only a few publications at their disposal? It’s a rigged question.

Tim: It certainly is. I think criticism, which is on the Internet or it may as well not exist, is in a spot where more people want to tell us what this movie or novel or album means within the zeitgeist than they want to tell us if the movie/novel/album is good. I’m definitely afraid of that being the case, and it’s there every time someone offers their incel take on the new Star Wars movies or every time someone capes for Black Panther as something momentous for filmmaking.

Matt: We can tell those people they’re wrong. The type of criticism I’m stumping for doesn’t preclude that. Rather, it calls for interrogations of the privilege that even allows those takes.

Tim: I’m going to intercede for VanDerWerff, who does argue in that article that there ought to be more diverse sources of criticism (sex gender race geography and so on), which is super obvious and should be said all the time.

Matt: All the time. That’s the only way forward. I don’t think goodness and badness are separate from cultural import as that makes it seem, even if that position is being abused. But every position gets abused. The incel thing with Star Wars, for example, I think would have happened regardless.

Tim: Almost certainly. I just sort of chafe at the idea that we have to take something seriously because lots of people take it seriously.

Matt: To me the point isn’t group think so much as knowing what does appeal to mass amounts of people and why. Because it’s reflective of some reality, or illuminating some problem. That’s worth knowing but we don’t have to be sheep.

Tim: He talks about Girls some in that article as an example of the culture war that had its groundwork laid in the early parts of the decade. And he says in retrospect that it was fairly clear that Girls was up its own butt, and I would add that the self-satisfied smirk that show wore is not unlike the one Hillary Clinton wore when she decided not to visit Wisconsin. But to me the important thing is that VanDerWerff isn’t able to make this point until it’s in retrospect. I think this kind of cultural criticism either has to be able to see the future with some level of clarity—if it’s blurry, then that’s cool too—or it has to look backwards from its own moment. This is me repeating the reason I’m more interested in watching 20th Century movies than 21st Century movies.

Matt: That’s a small step from the fascism of history. Less dramatically, this is why people say rock is dead. It’s not what they remember Led Zeppelin or The Who being, but that in no way invalidates what current artists are doing or even says it’s worse. Give me any Sleater-Kinney album over Black Sabbath.

Tim: I’m with you on that, but the problem to me is someone thinking it’s more valuable to write about what Sleater-Kinney “means” than it is to write about what Black Sabbath “means.”

Matt: We already wrote about what Black Sabbath means in the 70s. Why shouldn’t we write about what Sleater-Kinney means as part of that narrative that focused on 98% male acts in the 70s?

Tim: Because what something means changes rather forcefully once it gets older.

Matt: And…

I’m not seeing why that’s a massive problem. Revision is good and inevitable. And we need something in the present, not just the past.

Tim: I just think that if you’re smart enough to know what Sleater-Kinney means, or what The Hateful Eight means in 2015 (VanDerWerff’s example), you should have a more important job than cultural critic.

Matt: Like?

Tim: Some government personage…rocket scientist…climate change fixer…

His example about Hateful Eight is that it presages some of the Trump furor and nastiness that we’ve sort of gotten used to, or at least come to identify, in 2016 and beyond. But if he could have seen that in 2015, which he did not and which I don’t think anyone did (apologies if you did, anyone reading this), then that’s an entirely different matter and you should be in a position to actually do something. What he’s doing is making a case about this past movie with his present knowledge, which is essentially what I’m advocating for. It is obviously easier for him to talk about what The Hateful Eight “meant” in 2018 than it was for him to talk about it in 2015.

Matt: These things can exist simultaneously. Let me ask it this way, what’s wrong with the coverage of Black Panther?

Tim: I think one judges the movie on its merits, and one leaves it to someone else to talk about what it means to people. Or, better yet, those people talk about it themselves. It’s like when everyone sent sports journalists to talk about the Penn State scandal; it’s the wrong group of people. Susan Sontag was a cultural critic. Pauline Kael wrote movie reviews. Let Sontag do her thing, let Kael do hers. But VanDerWerff is a movie/TV critic who’s also modeling himself, I think, as this cultural critic as well. The number of people who can do both is very small.

Matt: I’m saying we should encourage more Sontags.

Tim: My position is that there aren’t enough people with the brain to be Sontag.

Matt: I’m approaching this institutionally. We can’t actually know that because only so many people have access to the training. I’m not asking for sui generis writers.

Tim: Certainly everyone should be given a chance to have Sontag’s education. But all you have to do is look at the number of movie critics (and good ones, too!) to know they are out of their depth appraising culture and what it might “mean.” So many critics loved Crash. Roger Ebert loved Crash and I admire him very much. If you go through and read the positive reviews, and it’s kind of entertaining, these people are overwhelmed with the movie’s politics. Entranced by the possibility that someone can be racist and not let a black woman burn while she’s in a trapped car, or that a black carjacker might have some sense of systemic inequalities. They’re the genus of people VanDerWerff is pumping up.

Matt: We’re caught between reality and possibility. Not the general we, like you and me.

Tim: Idealism and cynicism, man.

Matt: I don’t even want to grant that because I’m not sure this can happen but we should sure as shit try something. If Crash actually made some people rethink their racial politics that’s something, I don’t care if it came because of a badly made movie. I agree that, currently, these types of critics don’t overlap (but I also said early they’re different types) much but that shouldn’t say we can’t call for better and more guided cultural criticism.

Tim: But what if it made them rethink their racial politics in a way that’s just empirically wrong? As in, this is not how racial politics in America actually work, and a day in real Los Angeles would prove it? I don’t mind the idea of cultural critics, but it’s not from the people on Rotten Tomatoes or Pitchfork that I think it ought to come.

Matt: If it’s empirically wrong then we should say it’s empirically wrong….which is cultural criticism.

Tim: Though that’s not really what we’ve been talking about.

Matt: I always assume we should call out movies or music for good and, especially, bad.

Tim: I think so too. I don’t know that it ought to be the centerpiece of most reviews, though. The approaches don’t go together all that well.

Matt: I think they, in my fantasy land, should. Aesthetics are cultural.

Tim: And if you’re Wesley Morris, you should knock yourself out.

Matt: To be the true devil’s advocate, who are we to make that judgment?

Tim: Beats me, but I knew Crash was garbage the first time I saw it.

Matt: Was that in 2005?

Tim: Yeah, the Brokeback Mountain year.

Matt: I meant the first time you saw it. Still yes?

Tim: Oh, no. It was last year.

Matt: After years of hearing about Crash?

Tim: I’d heard the movie was middling. Like, I see where this is going, but I was also not a middle-aged person with more life experience (or movie experience) than I had, and my background on paper wasn’t precisely conducive to reading this movie the way I did.

Matt: I feel like we are exactly the type of people to not like Crash given our education.

Tim: At a private school for seriously white one-percenters in the Deep South?

Matt: As English, Education, and Philosophy people, yes.

Tim: I think that’s sort of sanguine. Obviously it panned out the way it did, thank heavens, but I know my FIP and my ERA don’t necessarily go together.

Matt: Literal inside baseball. You’re a Hausmann dude, I think you’re exactly the type of person to doubt Crash.

Tim: In the way things shook out, yes. Though in terms of the different possibilities out there for me, I think probability would have swung me a different direction. This is really taking a turn.

Matt: Probability doesn’t matter here, we have the hindsight, which is what you’ve been advocating for. My other point being we don’t know what either of us would have thought in 2005 (even if we’re certain it would have been different).

Tim: Which is why cultural criticism about the present is a very difficult thing.

Matt: Difficult, yes, but also necessary I think. As long as we keep revising.

Tim: I think that’s the closest we’ve come to agreeing in about forty-five minutes.

Matt: (I did emphasize revision early on here, to be fair. That’s always the key to me.) Stasis is the enemy. When we don’t read present happenings culturally we get stuck in wars in the Middle East.

Tim: I feel like the only thing I’ve emphasized besides the might of Susan Sontag and Wesley Morris is revision.

Matt: What I’ve been hearing from you is we shouldn’t even try for a few years to culturally critique, which is what I’m pushing back on.

Tim: I think the number of people who should try is really low, and that the vast majority of people who have a job reviewing albums and movies and what have you aren’t qualified.

Matt: Even if they’re only talking about aesthetics, that’s a cultural judgment. My point is that we can’t actually escape that, and all of my wants end in institutional overhaul, which is always the case. We’re also two highly educated white dudes talking about this…

Tim: Practically I think what Zoller Seitz is doing and what VanDerWerff is advocating for more of is just fundamentally different. It’s all cultural judgments, but they have very different intents. And the fact that we’re white is sort of like the fact that Cuaron made Roma or that Linklater makes movies about white guys from Austin…I’m not sure I’m invalidated by it.

Matt: I’m not saying we’re invalidated, I’m saying we’re the type to even be able to talk about cultural criticism in a theoretical manner.

Tim: Oh. Yeah.

Matt: There’s a certain privilege we need to recognize. Not that we’re automatically wrong or bad. I think this is a good conversation, but we have a background to have it while most don’t.

Tim: Do you sense that it’s gone unquestioned?

Matt: I think you and I are always thinking about it, but it’s worth typing out every so often.

Tim: As we frequently seem to during these chats. (Josh is a better person than us and makes us do it earlier.)

Matt: (because aesthetics and culture aren’t separate)

Tim: (of course they aren’t separate, but the people I mentioned look at their job descriptions differently, and someday someone will be able to say what Zoller Seitz was culturally taking for granted or prizing, and that’s good.)

Matt: I could start doing that now. Zoller Seitz likes Wes Anderson movies, I’m directly familiar with the cultural questions involved in that. Which multiple people should look back on as we go forward and revise. I’m for this being a constant action, not just one of the future (especially if it’s only 10 years).

Tim: I think there’s a difference between saying Wes Anderson is right on the line of twee and to consider his privilege, or, to consider Oliver Stone, who’s another one of MZS’s interests, that he’s a rabidly political director who comes from an incredibly privileged background that’s given him the soapbox, than there is to say that The Hateful Eight could have told us in 2015 that Donald Trump was coming. And if there was someone who could have said that, they should have done so, and that would have been good, but it also would have been exceptional.

Matt: But what if that sort of take didn’t happen because they were so focused on how Hateful Eight doesn’t work well as a movie?

Tim: Means someone else should have been responsible for being the cultural critics and they can keep on being the ones reviewing the movies.

Matt: You keep going back to VanDerWerff when I’ve said something different, which is that cultural criticism is its own genre and that we need more of it.

Tim: Right. I’m there. I’m saying that the people we appear to have given that job to are the wrong people, for a whole host of reasons we’ve outlined.

Matt: Because of a general misunderstanding of what cultural criticism is, so we should attend to that concept.

Tim: I guess so? But in the time that’ll take we still have to finagle with these folks.

Matt: Nothing happens instantaneously. That’s close to the people who tell me socialism can’t work because we can’t kill capitalism immediately.

Tim: Yes, so we have to get the people who will become actual cultural critics on the right path and the people who review things for outlets should be on that path which is likewise right for them.

Matt: That’s what I said at the beginning!

Tim: I know. I don’t disagree with that.

Matt: What are we disagreeing about anymore?

Tim: Hard to say at this point…it may well be bedtime for Bonzo. (That’s me. In this metaphor you might be Ronald Reagan.)

Matt: That’s just hurtful.

Tim: At least I didn’t say you were Ronald Reagan in the movie where he gets his limbs cut off. You can be fully ambulatory while I sleep.

Matt: Free the apes.

Tim: No, no, we know how that one ends too.

Matt: We probably deserve it.

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