Film Criticism Doesn’t Need Devin Faraci

Taken from The Art of Dismantling – Amiris Brown
Sometimes I still think about Devin’s review of Spider-Man 2. Yeah, we’re going there.

I was about 16 when Spider-Man 2 came out. Something about it touched me deeply. I’ve actually, until now, never taken the time to interrogate what it was that moved me so. My sense is that it was simply one of those formative pop cultural experiences. It came along at the right time, at the right age; it hit all the right teenage angst notes and contained a therapeutic kind of pathos.

I remember dealing with a lot at that time, and movies were a place of deep, comforting refuge. My father was in and out of my life, and verbally and physically abusive on top of that. Sixteen was the age at which he first hit me, so I was luckier than many. That was also the year my mother and I were evicted from our apartment. We’d gotten a three-bedroom place to accommodate my sister and her children. My sister, then and now, was consumed by a fairly monstrous drug addiction. When she didn’t get a job to help out, my mom fell behind on the rent and we were kicked out.

So I suppose, maybe, I really identified with Peter. Spider-Man 2 was probably the first comic book movie to get that the person behind the mask needed to be just as compelling. In that film, nothing seemed to go right for Peter. He’d lost his powers and his friends. He seemed to almost fall apart, burdened as he was by everything in his life, and by his own guilt. There’s a scene where Peter sits down with Aunt May, and he has to explain to her that he is partly responsible for Uncle Ben’s death. She can’t even respond. She gets up from the table and walks away from him. I was so struck by this scene, this display of what seemed to be genuine human emotion. In his review, Devin pointed this scene out. He called it brave. As I said, I still think about this review. I’m not ashamed to say that this small moment has probably informed how I approach movies, and how I write about them.

If you don’t know by now, Devin Faraci was accused of sexual assault a few days ago. Here are some relevant tweets:

@devincf quick question: do you remember grabbing me by the pussy and bragging to our friends about it, telling them to smell your fingers?

— INVISIGOTH (@spacecrone) October 9, 2016

In case you missed that, Devin was called out for Trump-style pussy-grabbing and subsequent braggadocio *in the process of him calling out Trump for the same thing*. This is a work of art. His response was to feign ignorance, but also to apologize immediately. He stepped down as EIC of BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH and his career in criticism seems very much in doubt. I’m not interested so much in rehashing, at length, the circumstances around the particular assault, or @spacecrone’s accusation. It seems abundantly clear that he did it, and that it wasn’t the first time. I genuinely hope that @spacecrone finds some measure of relief and peace in all of this.

What I am interested in is the culture that let Devin Faraci be Devin Faraci for so long. Because Devin isn’t just a sexual predator, he’s a vicious bully par excellence. He is a virulent shithead. I say this as someone who has appreciated and respected his work, but has long noticed how cruel and callous he could be. Sometimes that kind of cruelty can be seductive, especially when you’re young. I mean, here’s this guy who is smart, insightful, and who shuts down all of the idiots. You see this kind of attitude at BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, where Devin would repeatedly dunk on DC Comics stans in the comments. In other moments, however, that unbridled cruelty was not quite as welcome, and these moments seem to outweigh the former. You only need to look at the man’s Twitter.

So how did this happen? If you read Sasha Stone’s article here, you begin to get a sense of the kind of culture that is able to turn a blind eye. Stone’s argument is essentially that Devin’s downfall is a loss to online film critics, and particularly to women online, because he was a fanboy who took on the mysogynistic fanboy trolls; now, there’s no one left to do this very important work.

This argument is stupid, at best. At worst, it is utterly repugnant. Even if you put aside the allegations of sexual assault (which, why would you?), the man was absolutely toxic. He tore people down. He told them to kill themselves. He became needlessly, joyously hateful to anyone who disagreed with him. What is the argument here? It’s ok to treat people like garbage as long as you write some blog posts about movies and feminism? That his feminist lip service somehow outweighs actual sexual assault and the overall toxicity that he adds to the already-toxic online discourse? What is the point?

That said, these questions give Stone’s argument too much credit. If you had any doubt that the entire article wasn’t suffused with apologetics, pay close attention to the atom bomb that Stone drops at the end:

I wish the women involved all the healing and respect they deserve. Perhaps Devin’s loss of his site, an ouster from the Los Angeles Film Critics and the end of the Canon podcast (or at least a hiatus) will make her feel better.

This is gross and petty. Real petty. She may as well have said, I hope you’re happy now or I hope you got what you wanted. Look what you’ve done. The only thing Stone has accomplished here is to argue that, somehow, the consequences Devin has faced are a bridge too far, a part of the outrage culture that her and Devin would often decry. Are the material conditions of the woman he assaulted of no concern? Shouldn’t men who garb themselves in feminist rhetoric, but have this kind of past, be forced to reckon with that past? Again, is all of this ok if you agree with someone and they’re doing something you believe to be important?

This article is slightly disconnected from reality. Film is important. Really important. Discussing film is important. Discussing identity in film and film criticism is important. I believe this so much that I’ve created a very poorly written blog to do it. I spend every day watching, thinking, and writing about movies. Yet all of this pales in comparison to the importance of holding sexual predators accountable for their actions. This pity-poor-Devin article is an affront to the very work that I know Sasha Stone cares about deeply. Devin should face consequences for what he’s done, and whatever nebulous effect he’s had on feminist film discourse is entirely secondary  to that (and likely imaginary, too). The only thing that Devin really did was to latch on to a burgeoning online discourse begun by women like Anita Sarkeesian.

For myself, I can say that absolutely nothing Devin has written re: feminism and film makes me mourn the loss of his allyship, if that’s what you want to call it. Recently, his online output was heavily weighted toward Marvel shilling, where he would excruciatingly unpack the most uninteresting minutiae. But beyond even that, there is simply nothing new or remarkable about Devin’s advocacy. Men like him are a known quantity in feminist discourse. Plenty of men have coopted the language of feminism and social justice to cloak themselves, and they will continue to do so.

A couple of years ago, another renowned feminist man had a (second) meltdown. Hugo Schwyzer was an abuser who went on to write, widely, for feminist and women-centered publications. He wrote for Jezebel. He was an instructor of gender studies. He was a self-proclaimed Male Feminist helping other men see the light. In short, his bonafides were much more legit than Devin’s. But hey, he was caught creeping on black women writers, trying to erase their writing and discredit them. This was such a big deal that it spawned the solidarity is for white women hashtag by Mikki Kendall and Flavia Dzodan. Do you know how he got away with it for so long? Because white feminists continued to support him by publishing his work and giving him power in the field. That’s how this shit happens.

That should be the real takeaway here. We are complicit whenever we are silent. When someone’s words don’t match their actions, and we say nothing, we’ve done ourselves, and each other, a great disservice. The impulse to react defensively, to defend people and their work, rather than recognize the harm they’ve caused, only reifies the structures we mean to tear down. Remember, Faraci isn’t just a sexual predator; he’s a vicious bully, too. Feminism doesn’t need men like him. Film criticism certainly doesn’t either.

The Girl on the Train is good, but somewhat misunderstands novel’s strengths

Image result for the girl on the train movie

The Girl on the Train isn’t a particularly great book, but it does have a certain set of strengths. These strengths, unfortunately, don’t translate quite as well to the big screen.

Hawkins’s narrative is almost all internal dialogue, broken into sections meant to capture the experiences of three different women at distinct points in time. Only one of these characters – Rachel, our primary protagonist – emerges as truly compelling. Anna is unspeakably dull. Megan has some interesting moments, but ultimately drowns in soap opera melodrama. Her initial reluctance to have child with her husband appeared at first to be the strong choice of a woman who just didn’t want children, but the novel, unable to let that stand, concocts a tragic back story as explanation.

Rachel emerges from this web as a kind of anti-hero. She’s a thoroughly unpleasant person. We know this because she pretty much tells us, and it’s confirmed by her interactions with other characters. She’s recently divorced. She’s an alcoholic to such an extent that she frequently suffers blackouts, trashing the flat she shares with a roommate. Also, she may have murdered someone. Hawkins handles Rachel’s train wreck of a life with such care and wit. She creates a real tableau of misery, of a life fallen completely to pieces. The novel builds with a kind of frenzied precision. By the time Rachel wakes up from a black out, covered in blood, we get the sense that something has gone terribly wrong.

While these things aren’t absent from the film, they’re not executed as well, though they still tend to be the best parts of the narrative. There’s a sense, though, that all of this – the alcoholism, the despair, the domestic violence and gaslighting – become just details, mere window-dressings that allow the story to take place. Instead of it being a story about these things, it becomes a story wherein these things are just in the service of a crappy murder mystery. It makes the film drag. Taylor’s uninteresting, workman-like direction does little to improve the film’s pacing problems (though the way he realizes the quiet domesticity of the film’s ending is chilling).

The murder mystery is the least interesting part of both the film and the novel. This truth is compounded both by how obvious the killer is, and how artificially the book withholds information from the reader to preserve its central twist. One never feels as if they’re actually in the middle of a mystery, with clues that can be pieced together. Instead, characters behave strangely – omitting crucial information in a journal, for instance – in ways that are totally in service of the plot, and nothing else.  All of this ignores, of course, the unavoidable truth that Rachel probably should’ve been the killer. Even though you’d lose out on some of the excellent gaslighting material, you’d gain so much more. This is neither here nor there, though; I obviously can’t expect a narrative to conform to my own wishes and expectations.

That being said, Blunt’s performance as Rachel is reason enough to see The Girl on the Train. She inhabits the character so fully that you kind of forget that she doesn’t match the physical description of the character at all. In particular, Blunt’s depiction of Rachel’s alcoholism is at turns funny, heartbreaking, and terrifying – a truly effective mix. Blunt often moves through all of these emotions in one scene. Pay close attention to the moment in the bathroom. Here, Blunt slowly ratchets up the tension until Rachel imagines brutally slamming a character’s head into the ground. It’s a shocking turn. Blunt lives in and, at times, elevates the material.

The critical reaction to the film has been strangely harsh. It’s not great, but it’s certainly entertaining, and features one of the year’s best performances. Many critics seem to have been actually expecting Gone Girl 2. That may have been what the studio and the marketing wanted, but I find it difficult to believe that was ever the intention of Hawkins or the filmmakers. Whatever similarities exist between The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl (there are many, but that’s sort of a function of the genre) they are very distinctly their own things. The extent to which critics are unable to accept that distinction reflects much more poorly on them than it does on The Girl on the Train.

37 Questions about Don’t Breathe


Is the movie’s Detroit setting supposed to function as a gesture toward a larger understanding of the economic misery felt by Americans in similarly devastated areas? Or is it just shorthand for “here be poor people”?

Do the scenes of the three characters — particularly the young woman — being poor as hell serve as a way to generate empathy? Or are these scenes just poverty porn that slowly but nightmarishly transform into torture porn?

Why is the first guy to die some super thugged-out caricature?

Aren’t these kids ultimately harmless? Doesn’t even the most gung-ho of them falter when he has to commit real violence? Don’t we then watch him beg and plead for his life before his head gets blown off?

Does any of this even matter in a culture like America’s where people actually believe that murder is a reasonable response to personal property disputes?

Is Don’t Breathe the anti-thesis of The Purge?

Are we supposed to revel in the brutal deaths of desperate poor people carried out by one of our culture’s most superficially “honored” figures — the military vet?

Is there importance in his being a vet other than, again, as lazy shorthand for “this guy has killed people”?

To what extent are we meant to see these kids as “deserving” what happened to them?

Isn’t the answer obviously “to every extent, duh” when putting this question to the American people?

That dog was really well trained, huh?

Isn’t it amazing that, in a movie as brutal and gross as this, (more brutal and grosser in its own way than anything an idiot like Eli Roth could dream up) that they find so many ingenious ways to NOT kill the dog?

How much does the reveal that this guy is keeping a kidnapped, artificially-inseminated young woman in his basement actually do to turn the tables on him?

Like, sure, he’s a monster, but didn’t convicted rapist Brock Turner only serve three months for actually, really, literally raping an unconscious girl in full view of two eye witnesses? Didn’t tons of people, including his friends and a judge, vigorously defend him?

What are we supposed to make of the fact that this torture is punishment for her “getting away” with accidentally running over and killing his daughter?

What are we supposed to take from his statement that “rich girls don’t go to prison”?

Given this rationale, are we meant to see the vet as a victim of the same system that has doomed these desperate kids to a life of poverty?

Is this ultimately a movie about how this country pits the poor and vulnerable against one another?

Is this a movie about how we rage against individuals and victimize each other instead of directing our anger at the systems of power that control our lives?

Is this just right-wing fan fiction?

The turkey baster scene is one of the most horrifying things in a motion picture this year. That’s not a question.

How are we supposed to interpret the fact that this guy lives, and that the police immediately and uncritically buy his story about dead burglars?

Didn’t they search the house at all? Wouldn’t they have found the blood of the young female burglar all over the place?

Wouldn’t they have found his torture funhouse in the basement?

Is the last scene supposed to suggest that this guy is gonna track Young Female Burglar down, following her around for the rest of her life, Michael Myers style?

Do we really need Don’t Breathe 2: Breathe Even Less?

Have I just thought about this too much?

Isn’t this just a dumb horror movie where some punks get brutally owned by an old psychopath?

Does it actually mean to say anything at all?

Whether it means to or not, isn’t it actually saying things and sending messages about poverty and crime and life and infinity just in how it’s constructed?

Isn’t “turn off your brain” a kind of crappy response to a movie that so thoroughly distorts poverty and class?

They’re really going to make Don’t Breathe 2, aren’t they?

Z for Zachariah takes a shot at race and love in a post-apocalyptic world, misses


Z for Zachariah isn’t the first film to mistake ponderousness and pretty cinematography for depth, but it seems like something of a standout in that category this year. This movie is engaged in a kind of languid myth-making, a regenesis in a modern Garden of Eden. It depicts the first sin in a post-apocalyptic new world, but it never quite arrives anywhere, though it has its fair share of pregnant silences, tense conversations, and tortured psyches. It’s still all a little blah.

Z for Zachariah is a love triangle movie where the third person doesn’t show up for what feels like a full hour. Margot Robbie’s Ann catches Chiwetel Ejiofor’s John bathing in some irradiated water. They have a little stand-off before she’s able to tell him that he’s killing himself, after which she drags him home and brings him back to health. What follows is a series of scenes meant to establish each compatriot’s personality. Ann is younger, religious, a bit naive and innocent, but also extremely resourceful; we learn that she’s been growing crops and raising chickens, surviving on her own, but only just. By contrast, John is an older scientist, decidedly unreligious, with a pragmatist’s view of sentimentality. He suggests that they tear down the nearby chapel to use the wood for other projects around the farm. Ann explains that the chapel belonged to her father, who was a preacher. Smooth move, bro.

Heightening the sense that the film doesn’t know where it’s going is its weird flirtation with the obvious race dynamics at play. I want to say that the film knows exactly what it’s doing by pairing an older black man with a younger white woman in this situation. But I don’t know that I can. It knows it’s doing something, because it leans heavily on the black buck when crafting the relationship between Ann and John. He’s the first to suggest that they will repopulate the planet. Later, drunk and out of control, he grabs Ann, screaming in her face about how she worries over him. It’s not that the movie is positioning John as threatening, exactly; it’s more that, in this scene, unknowingly or not, the movie mobilizes centuries of traumatic history regarding relationships between black men and white women. It frames this white woman’s body as specifically vulnerable to this black man.

After this scene, we see John pull back and apologize. Ann propositions John, but he tells her, essentially, that they should wait because sex complicates things. This all sets the stage for Chris Pine’s Caleb to roll in with his white boy good looks and easy charm. Aside from being a beautiful white dude, Caleb is way more laid back than John, way less caught up in whatever’s going on in his head. He’s also the only other man within fucking distance, a fact not overlooked by Ann, who has been ready to throw down with John for at least 20 minutes before Caleb shows his face for the first time. John senses Ann and Caleb getting closer, his insecurities rushing to the surface almost immediately. Ejiofor plays this beautifully, for what it’s worth. When he finally pulls Ann aside and tells her, “You all go on and be white people together,” it’s shocking. Partly because you never actually expect them to name race as a thing, but also because it briefly injects life into the film’s narrative. John’s anguish leaps off the screen in this exchange, suggesting things about him and his experiences at which we can only guess.

Unfortunately, the movie just plods along from here. They all tear down the church to repurpose its wood. Caleb and Ann sleep together. The ending isn’t even worth ruining, really. The film’s big moment is left ambiguous (though not really) and the last shots are of the characters sitting around, looking pained. You’re left feeling like this was all kind of a waste. This type of slow-burn ambiguous plotting has its place (e.g. Todd Field’s masterful In the Bedroom) but we do sort of have to end up somewhere. With Z for Zachariah, you never do. You’re also left feeling like the narrative is dependent on some tired plot mechanics. The last three people on Earth can’t imagine anything outside of love-conquers-all heteronormative monogamy? These gorgeous dudes aren’t interested in each other at all? They’d rather fight over the only woman left in the world? I don’t know, man. I’m just asking questions.

For the record: Chiwetel. Every time. Are you kidding me?

Dope is cynical and dumb


What is this movie actually about?

Like Dear White People, which I consider a kind of sister film, Dope seems to believe that it’s staging some searingly complicated look at the complexities of blackness. These complexities include… being successful? Liking certain music? Getting good grades? I honestly couldn’t tell you. Both Dope and Dear White People are deeply invested in a kind of movement away from blackness, a destabilization of the entire category itself that boils down to a statement that’s something like: “Hey, we’re just like you [white people]!” Aside from being trite and naive, this also feels wholly misguided. The inability to like “white things” or to be a geek, or to get good grades, is a limitation that is contrived by these movies to address a problem that actually doesn’t seem to have a lot of primacy or pull in the culture.

I say this because, in both films, all of the characters are already engaged in these things. And they’re not exactly punished for them. In Dope, the main characters aren’t picked on because they like white things, they’re picked on because they’re geeks, like literally every other movie about high school ever made, ever. The fact that their cultural context is particularly dangerous, that they could lose their lives to random violence at any moment, is a context shared by everyone around them. It isn’t specific to their geekiness or their bizarrely well-produced punk band. The end result is that all of this, that is to say, the obsession with 90s hip-hop, 90s style, the other accoutrements of geekiness, even the violence, come out as affectations, as an expression of style over substance.

Dope follows three high school misfits, Malcolm, Diggy, and Jib, who get in way over their heads with their attempts to be cool.   After a party they attend goes wrong in an extremely violent way, they find themselves in possession of an unknown but large quantity of Molly. The first half of the film deals with the misadventures involved in trying to return the drugs to their rightful owner. However, their rightful owner happens to be the alumnus who is conducting Malcolm’s Harvard admissions interview. Did I mention that Malcolm really, really wants to go to Harvard? Because he really does. Anyway, the alumnus charges Malcolm with selling the drugs himself, explaining that his ability to do this will “tell me more than any interview ever could.” Oh brother.

Look, there’s potential here. We can’t pretend that the same people who make it out of their communities don’t also sometimes return to prey upon them. There are at least two scenes in Dope that suggest the movie actually has something to say about all of this, about cycles of exploitation, about affectation. Earlier, when Malcolm learns who will be conducting his interview (before he knows the guy’s a drug dealer), he also learns that he runs a check-cashing place. His guidance counselor? teacher? hands Malcolm the guy’s business card, telling him, “They don’t all go on to become President.” This is a clever moment that sets up the movie to interrogate this obsession with Harvard, to possibly explode it. Later, when Malcolm is asked about his obsession with 90s style and hip-hop, he calls the 90s the “golden age of hip-hop,” citing It Takes a Nation of Millions and The Blueprint as its seminal works. Dom, the black man questioning him, immediately calls Malcolm out on the fact that neither of those albums came out in the 90s. Malcolm admirably recovers from this, but Dom’s point is well taken, right? Malcolm’s obsession is a construction, a kind of artifice. That said, neither of these things really go anywhere.

The movie, with shocking speed, devolves into basically a gangster comedy, punctuated by snapchats and bitcoins and the DarkWeb, culminating with Malcolm pointing a gun at someone. I think the idea here is that so much of this is, to some extent, impossible to escape; it pulls and sucks you in no matter how much distance you put between it and yourself. I get it, and I don’t think we should avoid depicting the cycles of violence and poverty that pervade some black communities. I just wonder if there’s a way to do that in movies like this without actually becoming a gangster movie, without voraciously indulging in the kind of stereotypes the movie seems to want to destabilize. In his review at Grantland, Wesley Morris writes something similar:

Going for something Tarantino-esque, Dope has the aforementioned gratuitous nude drive with a nose full of Molly, among other social-media-friendly humiliations. As the movie lumbers toward the finish, it drags with it an audience apparently hungry for the gallery of stereotypes Famuyiwa thinks he’s upended. Nothing here is as fresh as the filmmakers think it is. These black characters are crammed into a box that Famuyiwa lacks the imagination to think beyond. The characters’ fetishization of the 1990s holds for him, too.

And this is the essential problem with this movie: at its core, it is cliché, hopelessly trite, neither as smart nor as transformative as it believes itself to be. The preoccupation with Harvard is particularly telling. This movie tells you that the only black man who has made it out of Inglewood and into Harvard is also a drug dealer who, presumably, opened a check cashing place in his old community as a triple-fuck-you: to prey on them by gobbling up their paychecks with outrageous fees, to pollute their communities, and to enlist young black men to help him do so. And after learning all of this, Malcolm still wants to go to Harvard, still sees it as the pinnacle of success. The idea that Malcolm could reject Harvard as his only path isn’t even considered. His acceptance is a foregone conclusion, and the movie has zero thoughts about what Malcolm’s willingness to do all of this to get into a school says about him as a person. I just struggle with black movies in 2014 and 2015 that are about getting into the ivy league or existing in it. Malcolm will probably go on to be the kind of black person in Dear White People, which is to say, ugh.

This movie doesn’t know what to do with the women it depicts. They’re prizes to be won, their agency wrapped almost entirely up in which dude they’re going to sleep with. Else, they’re sex objects, gibbering drug users stumbling around naked for no reason. The one character who threatens to upset this dynamic is Diggy, the film’s lesbian tomboy character. She feels in some ways like the freshest part of the film and her loyalty to Malcolm is sweet and real. But she’s played almost entirely for jokes, or I should say, as a joke, that joke being: “hey, it’s a girl who dresses and looks like a boy kinda.” Other than that, I have no idea what’s going on here. This is a movie that’s supposedly thinking a lot about blackness, but never once stops to think about being black and a woman.

If all you’re looking for is entertainment, Dope will satisfy you. It’s funny. All three leads do great work and the film has an abundance of style. But if you’re going to try to puzzle out what the film is saying or doing, I suspect you will be left frustrated and disappointed. By the time the painful spoken word poem appears at the end of the film, an exclamation mark on the clumsy triteness that is Dope, I just wanted it to be over. I wanted it to stop picking and prodding at things it clearly can’t handle.

The Visit marks a strong return to form for Shyamalan


Shyamalan movies have become a curiosity, their quality largely irrelevant.

There was a time when his movies were legitimate pop culture experiences. Beginning with The Sixth Sense and ending with Signs (some people might include The Village), Shyamalan crafted thoughtful, entertaining genre material with mass appeal, and he did so at a level above most of his contemporaries.

No more. Now you don’t see a Shyamalan movie to witness a director working at the top of his game; you see a Shyamalan movie to watch a filmmaker with clear talent proceed to fuck up every single aspect of a film. The overwhelming feeling of watching a Shyamalan movie like The Happening or After Earth is, “Why?” Not “Why is this happening?” or “Why am I watching this?” Just, “Why?”

Enter The Visit. It’s a surprising return to form for the beleaguered director, a return to all of the things that worked so well for him at the start of his career. You might have thought Shyamalan would have to move away from his directing and storytelling quirks, but he hasn’t done that at all here. He’s pulled back a bit. He’s toned things way down. And, perhaps most importantly, he’s crawled ever-so-slightly out of his own butt.

The Visit is about two kids who go to visit the grandparents they’ve never met while their mother (Kathryn Hahn in a deft, lovely performance) goes on vacation with a new boyfriend. The simplicity of its premise is a big part of The Visit‘s draw. It eschews a complicated narrative in favor of creating something sinister out of a benign trip to see the grandparents. It’s a conceit rife with possibilities, one Shyamalan stretches and pushes with relish.

Because these are exceptionally weird grandparents. There’s something off about them from the start. At first it seems as if they might just be eccentric, or that their various oddities could be attributed to their age and general unfamiliarity. The grandfather is forgetful with a slight edge to him. The grandmother is somewhat vacant, compulsively cooking and cleaning. At one point in the film, she chases the two kids around a cramped, underground space on the property. The scene culminates in a brief flash of her bare ass, probably one of the best, most disquieting uses of nudity you will see in a major motion picture this year.

There’s a twist coming, obviously. As an audience, we know this because we implicitly understand the kind of film we’re watching, but also because we know how Shyamalan works. It quickly becomes obvious that there’s something seriously wrong here (and Shyamalan drops enough hints early on to let you in on the secret). But the nice thing about this twist is that you can’t quite feel the movie groaning and creaking under the weight of it like you can in, say, The Village. There are a few things you have to take for granted (maybe too many things for some people) but ultimately it works because the movie is generally strong.

Here’s where I want to talk about two of things that I think make The Visit a real return to form for Shyamalan. First, Shyamalan is clearly a natural director with actors, maybe young actors in particular. He’s able to coax two great performances out of his child leads, Olivia DeJonge and Ed Oxenbould. And they’re doing complicated work here, walking a very fine line between cute kids that are smart and cute kids that are too smart. In other scenes, they’re doing emotional work well beyond their years. A highlight involves Becca (DeJonge) forcing a traumatic peewee football story out of Tyler (Oxenbould). Subsequently, he turns on Becca, asking brutal, incisive questions in a way that only a sibling who knows you well could, reducing her to tears in front of her own camera. In this moment, everything else about the movie seems to fall away, and you’re left with two siblings wrestling with the influence of the past.

This leads directly into the second thing: emotional resonance. The emotional throughline of The Visit works because you believe in the relationships between Becca, Tyler, and their mother. You could say similar things about The Sixth Sense and Signs. We might say that Shyamalan’s greatest strength is in his ability to dramatize family dynamics within the context of genre material. Clearly, this doesn’t always work for him, but in The Visit there’s a startling lack of artifice between us and the simple story of a family that’s broken apart on a number of levels, in different ways.

But even aside from all of this, the movie’s just fun. It has strong performances and a great sense of humor. Its found footage gimmick is well-utilized. It’s also just somewhat of a joy to watch Shyamalan go back to what he’s good at, great to watch him play with your nerves as he threatens to shove a child into an oven, twice.

Why I No Longer Eat Watermelon, or How a Racist Email Caused Me to Leave Graduate School


Names have been changed to protect myself from these very silly and possibly litigious white people.

I received a racist email in 2011, when I had just started the English PhD program at Rutgers University. This email has come to define so much of who I am, in ways both good and bad. I think about it every day. I get lost in it. Sometimes a stray thought or an offhand comment can catch me off guard, bringing this email and everything it represents rushing to the surface. It’s an awful cycle, and a destructive one that I want to break. The purpose of this post is to attempt to do exactly that. I want to exorcize these memories to the best of my ability, to drag them out. So here we are.

Some context. As I said, I was a first-year student in the English PhD program. I got this email in the third week of the semester, in my “Post-Bellum/Pre-Harlem” literature class. The professor, Bill, had shown parts of Song of the South to the general amusement of the white students in the class, and it’s this amusement that prompted a desire to see the film in its entirety. And that’s what brought upon the email itself, which I’ll quote here. It’s dated September 28, 2011, and it’s titled “My fellow non-racist racists.” We’ll call this white student “Junie.”


There seems to be an understandable demand for some hardcore Song of the Southing and preferably whiskey-based cocktails to accompany.  My house is small, but my sound system is mighty, and I suggest that for those of you who’d rather not go on an awkward date with Bill to see The Help tomorrow come join me for some rollicking Disneyfied Ole Darkeyism. Lyle, your friend can come, too.  Laura, so can your Alan.   But I might yell racist things at the TV.


If you do come, hooch is most welcome, as are straw hats and other Darkeyisms.  I might even buy a watermillyum if I get enough interest.

One thing worth noting. The email was sent to only the white (or white-appearing) students in the class, and some white people outside of the class. This is despite the class itself boasting, what might be conservatively called, “all the god damn black people in the program.” I got the email, presumably, because I’m light-skinned and racially ambiguous, depending on the person doing the interpreting.

Some other things of note. The language of the email traffics in the same kind of racial ignorance as the blackface parties that are so ubiquitous on college campuses. We might call this a blackface party without the shoe polish. One of the defining elements of those parties is the focus on things that might denote blackness, and we have some of them here! Look: hooch, watermillyums, straw hats, and other Darkeyisms. Another feature of these parties: unabashed racism! The student tells us that she might yell racist things at the TV (later, when questioned, she will say she didn’t know what she meant by this. Reminder, she’s an English PhD student in a prestigious program. If you don’t know what you’re writing, what are you doing here?)

But we’re not done. Before I’d figured out how to respond, a student from the class responded for me:

I am all in favor of this shindig.  However… I
unfortunately already RSVPd to Bill’s thing because I am a sucker for movies.  (I guess am also a sucker for Bill, awkward as the evening might indeed turn out…)  If y’all don’t want to move your Song of the South screening, I can try to come after The Help gets out.

The original email writer is disappointed in the lack of interest:

Wow, so only Laura is interested?

I guess I am the only ragtime/minstrel-loving fool in the bunch😦

Another student appears:

What? Did my inattention contribute to this NOT happening? I’m actually more offended with myself for that than I could be by anything a 1940s Disney celebration of all things grotesquely racist is likely to muster.

Well, fine. Keep me in the loop if it happens anyway. If I’m still in New Brunswick (and haven’t caved and RSVP’d at a rudely late point for The Help), I’m in.

Junie replies two more times. She just can’t help herself.

I’ll give everyone until noonish tomorrow to make their choice between Bill and me. But the obvious choice is me.
I’m still going to watch it tomorrow at 8ish with my straw hat on head and my Jack Daniels in hand, but I won’t call it a party anymore so much as what?  An experience? A communion with my shamefully preferred era of Disney? An excuse for alcoholism?

Okay: apparently Bill wins…. This time. He might make a fun and harmless imaginary nemesis come to think of it.

Anyway, no party. Just me and the movie and the watermelon.

Enjoy your respective days!

The original email itself is bad, but these replies pile it on. Look at the enthusiasm. Look at the pride: “I’m actually more offended with myself for that than I could be by anything a 1940s Disney celebration of all things grotesquely racist is likely to muster.” Not only do these students see nothing wrong with the email, they’re excited to go. They’re scared it might not happen!

What’s possibly more alarming is the silence from the three other people who were invited. I can only speculate on the reasons for their silence; some of those reasons I understand, and some of them, to this day, break my heart.

The party doesn’t happen. That’s worth making clear. There’s not enough interest. People are otherwise occupied. I sometimes fantasize about having gone to the party myself, straw hat on my head and hooch in hand. What would I have seen? I suspect it would’ve just been sad.

Some people might be heartened by the fact that the party never took place. Goodness won out, right? This student was, at least in some way, shown that her stupid, stupid racism wasn’t actually funny or interesting. I sort of get that. But we also have the two students who responded enthusiastically. More than that, though, I’m deeply disturbed by the academic environment that could produce an email such as this one. What is rotten in Denmark? What must this program be like, that a student could write an email like this, and think it was ok?

I fretted over what to do with it for about 24 hours. You name a cliché, I felt it. I was speechless. My jaw hung open. My eyes popped out, cartoon-style. I flirted with the idea of saying nothing at all, letting it slip away completely. But doing that would’ve been such a betrayal. It would’ve meant going back on everything I’d said, on the work that I’d done to get myself into the PhD program in the first place. What sealed it was showing the email to my then-girlfriend, who looked at me straight-on and said, “You’re going to do something about this, right?” And that was it. I was off.

I had no idea what to do.

After a talk with my friend Dan, I decided to email the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS). I’m embarrassed, now, that I didn’t think to go to the black professors. Later, I would be scolded for that decision. But at that point I barely knew them. I was also scolded, somewhat, for not going directly to the professor in charge of the class. Look, I’m not going to try to disguise my naiveté in this situation. I could’ve handled this with a lot more finesse. One thing I know for sure, though: no matter what I’d done, the department would’ve tried its best to keep this quiet and make it go away.

And that’s exactly what happened. I won’t quote the emails between the DGS and myself here, because they’re ultimately uninteresting. I was shamefully deferential (I was scared of getting anyone in trouble. It was only my third week), and she said I’d done the right thing. She wanted to address the matter with the student directly, and with Bill. I agreed to let her share the emails with him. She met with the student privately, and the student was directed to apologize to me and to the class as a whole.

I fear that this is the point where I might lose a lot of folks. They will ask, “Why wasn’t this enough?” That seems like a fair question, and it’s one that I often entertain. But that question only works if you view this issue entirely as an interpersonal squabble between two students. One student said something mean and the other was offended by it. But being offended by something is cheap. Being “offended” doesn’t express the depth and breadth of what we’re dealing with here. From the beginning, I’d always seen the email as a problem for two reasons:

1) It was casually dismissive and derisive of black people and black experience
2) It was indicative of a larger callousness toward race in the department

And all of my experiences henceforth bore these assumptions out. I spent weeks feeling like I was crazy, lost. I’d wandered into some situation for which I’d had little-to-no preparation. In class, after the student’s non-apology (pretty much, “I’m sorry you were offended by my racism.”), I tried to explain the problem. I’d tried to, I thought, delicately and sincerely explain the volatility of the language the student used. I suggested that maybe using this material for “comedy” or “irony” was best left to black folks. This was later interpreted, and used against me, as “only black people can talk about racism.” But I don’t believe that at all. Plenty of white people talk about racism. Some do it well. That’s irrelevant to the point. You’ve read the email. I trust you to understand that this student was no Louis CK. This student had nothing funny or interesting to say about race. This student was just being a racist jerk. For god’s sakes, she flat-out says she’s going to yell racist things at the TV.

Everything at Rutgers felt upside-down, off. In a meeting with the black faculty, they offered two suggestions: forget it, or throw a party where the black students would invite the white students and stage a race dialogue. Just, like, over a few beers, say, “Hey, do you know what you did was racist? What do you think about that?” A beer summit. That was the suggestion. Grad school is apparently supposed to be isolating, but in that moment, I felt well and truly alone.

And it’s impossible for me, really, to describe the space of that loneliness, to map out its contours. I felt a lot of abject fear— fear that I was already known as the sensitive/hostile black person, a dichotomy that would follow me for the rest of my time at Rutgers. I deeply feared the other white students in the program. Not one of them, even those in the class who had received the email, or knew of it through the apology, approached me to say something like, “Hey, that was pretty messed up. What’s going on?” Outside of the class, narratives of “blown out of proportion,” “too sensitive,” “doesn’t like white people,” etc. had already begun to reach me. As a result, I felt more alone, and thoroughly unwelcome. At this point I assumed it would all fade away, that the white student’s non-apology would be the last word on the subject.

Dan and I came into contact with another first-year student. She became the first to express, upfront, any sort of real discomfort and anger at the email and how it’d been handled. One of the big problems here is how hard the DGS tried to keep this thing contained; in doing so, she created a hostile environment that allowed skewed narratives to spread. She left the new black students feeling awkward and left out. Junie was a second-year. She already had a foothold in the program. She was vice president of the Graduate English Student Association (GESA). In a lot of ways, she and her friends were able to drive the opinion of how this email was regarded.

All of this eventually led to the idea that we should organize a forum to address what had happened. It would come to be known as the “Civility Forum,” though its official name would be “Facing Race in the Academy.” During conversation with the DGS, the event turned toward the topic of “professionalism,” which was the departmental buzzword at the time, but also emblematic of the clumsy kind of abstraction white folks are capable of when it comes to race.

From the beginning, it was all sort of doomed. Most conversations about race in America are always already doomed. White people tend to want to name the terms of these conversations, and that’s exactly what happened here. We were forbidden from speaking about the email itself. This, we were told, would not be a reckoning with the event that had led to the forum in the first place. We were instead supposed to sort of blandly address how one navigates race in academia. The idea that the email was racist, or in some way represented racism, was simply anathema. We weren’t allowed the touch it. We weren’t allowed to call the thing what it was. Students from other departments weren’t allowed to be invited. Faculty would later be disinvited, and then invited again, despite the fact that the students who organized the forum had always expressed the desire for faculty to attend.

The emails that were sent about this forum have taken on a kind of legendary status among my friends. They are phenomenally, powerfully awful. We have entire folders for them in our personal Gmail accounts. As organizers of the forum, my friends and I sought out the cooperation and support of GESA and the Graduate Executive Committee student reps (GEC). In our first meeting about the forum, one of the the GEC reps, Clara (close friend of Junie) flat-out demanded that we send a message to Junie indicating that we were not dissatisfied with her apology, and that the forum itself was not a personal attack. Never mind that this had already been assured by the limits put on the forum itself. She would later reiterate this demand in an email:

Perhaps you guys have already done this and it’s a moot point now, but I wanted to stress the importance of having someone besides Mike or I contact Junie directly and attempt to include her in the conversation in some capacity and (attempt to) convey the degree to which this is not meant to indicate dissatisfaction with her apology and is in no way intended as a personal attack. I am, as I indicated in the meeting yesterday, concerned that this has/had not yet happened, and, to be perfectly frank (and I hope you accept this as sincere concern, not only for my friend but also for a general sense of fairness and for the success of this project) I will not feel comfortable participating further in this project until such a gesture has been made.

This all seemed patently unfair at the time, and strangely corrupt for a small intradepartmental student organization. Now the memory of it pierces even more. Rightly, what role should the student who composed the racist email take in guiding a conversation about race? Moreover, in what universe should we be expected to console and, in so many words, apologize to the student who’d done something wrong, who’d made people so uncomfortable? In the meeting, the DGS looked at me, and said I’d be the natural person to write this apology. My voice curled up and died in my throat.

Later I was able to find the words to express just how much this sucked in an email to my co-organizers. Clara eventually backed off. This resulted in a follow-up email from her, accusing me of being dishonest and lying to her face. Strictly speaking, I guess that’s true. I was in the middle of processing all of it. It took some time for me to get it together. Ironically, after all of this, we still sent the email to Junie. So even when we won something, we really ended up losing, which is as close as I can get to the basic point of this story.

The forum happened on December 7th, around three months after the email. I decided not to speak, but to sit on the panel anyway. There were five of us, myself included. This is the point where I demonstrate my gratitude for two groups of people. First, to my co-panelists and organizers, whose graciousness was infinite, professional, and completely undeserved. Secondly, to the white and black students from other departments who made a show of support at the forum. My friends and I were able to tell people where and when the forum was, and they showed up. These students prevented the forum from being a one-sided bloodbath; instead, it was just a simple curb-stomping.

You can probably sense from my tone that the forum was bad. It was a disaster, a truly awful experience. But it needed to happen. I believe it was scheduled to be something like an hour, or an hour and a half, but it went on for three. It was miserable. I can only remember snippets of it. A black female student talking about what it felt like to be black on campus. A white English PhD student yelling, sarcastically, “What books?” when it was suggested that they educate themselves on racism. Another English PhD student attempted to mount a defense of the racist email using the idea of queer irony (essentially, a complex and academic way of saying, “It was just a joke.”) There was only one white student from the English department who stood up to speak out against racism, at length. There was a lot of crying. I cried. A bunch of white students cried, some out of genuine sympathy, and some because they were forced to contend with their own racism for the first time. Above all, I’ll never forget what it felt like to sit in front of all of the white students in that department. There was such a sense of defensiveness, of open anger and hostility toward the very idea of the forum itself.

All of the hurt feelings that the forum brought out forced the department to take the email seriously for the first time. A meeting was scheduled with the Chair, the DGS, a black professor, and the organizers of the forum. In retrospect, it felt like a formality, like a real, you know, “hush hush, children” kind of thing. I suspect what really ended up forcing their hand was a piece that got published in the The Daily Targum, the campus newspaper, a few days after the forum:

This letter sets off a chain reaction that leads to a number of other stories:

It was legitimately a thing for a couple of days. What ended up killing it was, I think, how much Jezebel got wrong in its initial reporting. I mean, they got so many things wrong. Part of it is that the Targum letter is easy to misread, but the details in the Targum letter are on point. I know, because I edited and fact-checked it for the students that wrote it. But Jezebel fumbles the story kind of hard, and so when the Chair responds, it shuts things down quickly.

However, the Chair’s response was duplicitous and inaccurate. She writes that the department organized the forum. That’s not true. As I’ve demonstrated, the students affected and disturbed by the email organized the forum. The department, in fact, attempted to contain the email and to control the forum as much as possible. She also claims that the department publicly responded to the email, but they only did so when they were forced to by the events of the forum and the Targum letter, nearly three months later. It must be made clear: they would have done nothing had the forum never taken place. In fact, the DGS only told the faculty about the email *moments before the forum itself,* framing it as an email that “contained some dialect,” which is like saying Irreversible “contains some violence.”

From here, a couple of things happened. The department set up a kind of diversity training, which was my idea. I wanted people to at least be introduced to some basic ideas about race to just head off any more of this darkie watermillyums stuff in the future. This ended up being a terrible idea. Once again, the department attempted to avoid the problem altogether. Can you guess the first thing the DGS said at the start of the session? If you guessed, “you can’t talk about the email here,” you’d be correct. Though I can see how constantly replaying the event (even though it never got replayed in any real, substantive way) might be unhelpful, the department went a step further by making the event about how we, as TAs, should deal with racism when it’s spoken or done by our students. My head felt like it was spinning. I couldn’t understand how they were still getting things so completely, utterly wrong. I couldn’t understand the obstinance, the willful ignorance. To top it all off, during the training Clara, the GEC rep, referred to students as “colored.” We’re talking next-level, Twilight Zone-type racism and stupidity here.

At the end of the event, when I’d summoned the fortitude to speak, I said that we were avoiding the problem. I said the problem wasn’t with our students, but with us. In response, one of the Deans leading the event said that he used to have a student who would “wait until the end of class, drop a bomb, and then take the bus.” Let me interpret this for you: by waiting until the end to speak, I was avoiding taking responsibility for my words. In return, I pointed out that I reported the email in the first place, and that his comment was insensitive. I actually used the word “insensitive,” which I thought was one of the calmest things I could have possibly said.  This moment would later prompt the DGS to call me “hostile” and “ungrateful” to a professor who asked her how the diversity training had gone.

The narrative tops out here. There was a student-organized gathering, but that was still mostly white defensive posturing. Even at that point, most of the white students who claimed to be allies were unwilling to speak out publicly and definitively against the email. There are lots of small, funny things that I’ve left out, such as the student who claimed she couldn’t be racist because she loved Langston Hughes. Or the professor who, when describing her own subconscious racism, talked about being surprised by seeing black people at Whole Foods because they only eat potato chips. P.S.: They sell potato chips at Whole Foods.

One best friend left the program due to the racism, but I remained for two more years, struggling against the anxiety and depression caused by that first year. Aside from a core group of friends, I kept my distance. Stopped talking in class. I mostly fell out of engaging with coursework. I gave the department more or less everything it needed to make pushing me out possible. When I received an Incomplete, I was told, in so many words, that if I had been any other student I would have been asked to leave. They wanted to give me a “chance,” but pushed back my exams and revoked my fourth-year fellowship. I decided to leave at the end of my third year, which was its own ball of drama. The sense of discord between the department and myself was, and is, readily apparent.

The feeling I recall most intensely from those following years was that of feeling unwanted and unwelcome, like I’d crashed a party. I was a nagging infection that just wouldn’t go away. And that’s often how it feels to be a person of color in white spaces who has anything to say about race. You become the introducer of bad feelings, though in reality those feelings are already there, silent and unchallenged, but present. Junie never faced any discipline, because of course she didn’t. She couldn’t even be forced out of her position on GESA. As far as I know, she’s still in the program, along with all of the other white students who helped perpetrate this mess. That’s the other lesson here, though black folks have known it for centuries, on scales both large and small: white people do the racism, and black people deal with the consequences. How screwed are we if we can’t even get it together on an email?

I don’t know what I expect to get out of writing this, other than some brief, fleeting relief. I finally got to tell my side, four years later. At the beginning, I said I wanted to break the awful cycle of remembering that these years represent in my life. They’ve left me feeling empty, used up.  In truth, I don’t know if it’s possible to break the cycle yet, if it is at all. I hope it is. I look forward to a time when I won’t, on some normal day, in the middle of some unrelated thought, be seized by these memories, reliving them over and over for hours at a time. I look forward to the day when I don’t blame myself for everything that happened. I left Rutgers, but in lots of ways I’ve only begun to wrest my soul free of the place. I’m still stuck there, alone.

It Follows: Gorgeous, thought-provoking horror


Rarely does a slasher film manage to so defiantly throw off the trappings and constraints of the genre in order to actually be about something other than the machinations of its own plot. Scream came close; some might argue, convincingly, that it even succeeded. It did so by being a slasher film about slasher films. For arguably the first time, the characters and the audience had the shared experience of having seen the same films. Together, they anticipated how the narrative would develop, and the movie commented on that anticipation. It brought every bit of subtext, every cliché and trope, to the fore.

It Follows is not that kind of movie, or if it is, it only seems to be in the visual sense (as in, “hey, this scene looks exactly like a scene from a different movie!). In It Follows, the film casts it central monster as a villain that seems to unambiguously serve as metaphor. If you know anything about the film at all, you’ve probably heard people say, “it’s about STDs!” a thousand times. This might be true in some sense, but to let it stand in for actual thought is glib and unsatisfying. It’s an excellent pitch line, but it’s not analysis.

That said, as an explanation it seems to work at first. Jay, our heroine, has sex with a new guy she’s seeing, only to be chloroformed and taken to some desolate area where he explains the rules to her*. To wit: there’s now a monster following her; it can look like anyone; the only way to pass it on is through (apparently exclusively hetero) sexual intercourse; and if it kills her, it will immediately go back to the person who gave it to her, and so on down the line. It lingers always, somehow, for anyone who has had it. I guess this makes it a kind of mishmash of herpes/AIDS in the slasher world.

This is compelling, though not exactly novel. Sex = death has been part of slasher subtext from perhaps the genre’s very beginnings. If we agree that Scream brought that subtext to the fore, and thereby into the popular consciousness, then all It Follows really does is make the subtext into text. Again, it’s a great pitch line, but it sells the film so, so short.

It Follows feels as if it has quite a bit on its mind. I’d argue that part of the joy of the film is in tracking, at any given moment, what the monster is meant to represent, what it’s bringing out in the characters, and what it illuminates about their surroundings. All of these things seem to shift and morph as the film goes on.

While the film gets quite a bit of mileage out of the conceit of the sexually transmitted curse, the movie plants the seeds of its larger concerns early on. In a monologue before she’s chloroformed, Jay remembers some thoughts she’d had when she was younger, when she imagined what it’d be like to be older, to have a car and some freedom. Now that she has these things, she wonders where she’s actually supposed to go. In a scene before that, her date thinks about being a kid again, about having his whole life ahead of him.

What seems operative here is not a fear of sexually transmitted diseases or monsters, but a basic grappling with adulthood and mortality. In this way, sex acts as a sort of coming-of-age mechanism where the monster itself marks them as having come into adulthood. And being an adult, the film seems to say, is having an acute sense of the certainty of your own death. Jay sinks to all sorts of lows to get rid of her mark, but it never works. She runs away from the monster, but it always finds her. Indeed, by the film’s penultimate scene, a recitation of Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot that is literally about the certainty of death, the movie has solidly moved past the idea of STDs**.

But the movie lays out other possibilities elsewhere. It Follows is a film set and shot in Detroit, full of gorgeous, dreamlike imagery. A lot of the action happens in the suburbs. In the context of all of this imagery falls these also-beautiful shots of the city proper, rundown and deserted. In one scene, the buildings seem to become monstrous themselves, looming imposingly on either side of the characters. One character remembers how they almost weren’t able to go to the state fair because it was on the bad side of town, and how the idea that there’s a bad side, a side they should stay out of, seemed so wrong to them. Earlier, we learn that Jay’s suitor rented a place in the “bad” part as a kind of base of operations, presumably a place he lived while trying to pass on his curse.

Later in the movie, one of the characters goes to the city to attempt to pass on the curse to some prostitutes. It’s here that the two scenes I’ve just mentioned appear to come into sharp focus. The moment feels like a devastating critique of both the kids’ actions and the larger system of white privilege and liberalism in which they operate. They’re conscious enough to recognize a sense of inequality, but they’re also more than willing to prey on that inequality, to wield it to their own ends. In these moments the movie seems to acknowledge that there’s a parasitic relationship here — that, in some way, the apparent flourishing of the suburbs relies on, and even necessitates, the inequality that happens elsewhere.

None of this is to say that It Follows is a perfect movie. It has some serious pacing and structural issues. At some point, the film devolves into a bunch of near-misses and clumsily staged set pieces. The monster doesn’t come close to landing a hand on Jay until what feels like halfway through the film. The scene is briefly terrifying, but overall the film lacks a lot of scariness — part of it is just that being very slowly chased down by random, sometimes normal-looking people doesn’t feel all that scary. But the headiness of what the film accomplishes alleviates a lot of these concerns. To put a twist on one of the best moments of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, It Follows seems to suggest that the scariest thing about this world is simply living in it.

*The way this movie deals with what is, essentially, a kind of sexual assault, is a little weird. There’s a scene where Jay talks to the police and acknowledges that the sex was consensual, but it also exists in that grey area where the sex only happened through deceit. There’s a lot going on here that I’m not quite able to unpack.

**Gotta say, I love the horror trope of literature as stand-in for explication of the film’s ideas. It Follows has THREE of these scenes, and one is an almost direct recreation of a similar scene from Halloween. Everything about it makes me happy.

The Specter Returns: Gone Girl and the Critics


My tiny blog is currently experiencing something like an 800% increase in traffic due to “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism,” which has been linked to on a number of sites, including the blog and The Guardian. I’m extremely proud of that piece, so it’s quite gratifying that so many other people have found it useful. I hope that continues to be the case.

That said, “Gone Girl and the Specter of Feminism” was pretty much the only serious feminist critique of Gone Girl for at least a year, and has consistently gotten the most hits/comments on my dumb little blog. What I’m saying is: Hey media outlets, Gawker, etc. My name is Robert Palmer. I’m totally available to write feminist stuff for you. Call me. Please.

Anyway, it seemed only natural to supplement the initial novel review with a review of the film that was released this past Friday. If you’ve read the novel, my initial review, and you’ve seen the movie, you’ll notice that there’s not much that’s different. I stand by that review, and I think the critiques apply equally well to the film. Everything that was so troubling about the novel (the multiple false rape accusations, the pregnancy-as-trap plotline) is still there and still draws from grossly misogynistic stereotypes.

One thing that intrigued me is that the script has been scrubbed of references to feminism. There are no jabs at “post-feminist” men, and Amy doesn’t sarcastically label her parents as feminist while describing how they exploited her childhood. I know Flynn has been besieged by feminist critique, so I wonder if she opted to leave out the word altogether, or if it was something that just didn’t make the cut.

I think Gone Girl is a spectacular film, probably one of the best of the year. This shouldn’t be surprising, because despite all of my problems with the novel, I really enjoyed parts of it, which I pointed out in the original review. I say this only to highlight that it’s important to understand that folks are capable of being deeply critical of a thing, while also really enjoying or even loving that thing. It’s a simple point, but it’s one that a lot of folks miss.

Over at Jezebel, Jessica Coen argues that “Movie Amy pales in comparison,” and this fact “does make the film feel a lot more misogynistic than the novel.” I think there is something to this — Book Amy is sometimes inscrutable and often full of contradictions; those moments are (predictably) somewhat lost in translation. This makes some of Amy’s decisions feel more bizarre in the movie (though I’m not sure how much more). If Coen’s problem is that Amy feels like a “crazy fucking bitch” in the movie, I think 99% of that is coming right from the novel, honestly.

Overall, I’d actually argue that the movie improves on Amy. This improvement has a lot to do with the difference between the mediums. In film, you’re interpreting through a lot of layers, including the script, actors’ performances, and the direction, among other things. This is basically my way of saying that Rosamund Pike’s performance is magnificent, and it totally elevates Amy to another level. One of the things that struck me most about Pike’s performance was the voice she chose; it feels, at times, utterly ethereal, going a long way to support the idea that Amy lives on some other fucked up plane of existence. At the same time, that otherworldliness is backed up by a kind of sternness, the whisper of a threat. In my review of the novel, I said that Amy wasn’t “an interesting or compelling villain,” but Pike’s performance brings so much life to Amy that she finally becomes that great villain.

But Pike is doing great work in a movie filled with exceptional performances. Affleck hasn’t been allowed to be this interesting in a while, though I was never a detractor. He has to do some complicated bits of acting here — working through several emotions at once, or displaying emotion even as he’s trying to suppress it. Affleck’s best moments are when he gets to reveal how awful Nick actually is; his sleazy smile at the initial press conference is a highlight. Carrie Coons makes Margo feel absolutely essential in a way the character didn’t feel at all in the novel, while Tyler Perry gives a great turn as sleazy smart attorney, Tanner Bolt. And finally, Kim Dickens delivers a charming and smart performance as the film’s lead detective.

As I said, the film and the novel are not all that different. This is a remarkably faithful adaptation — something that doesn’t always work, but it works perfectly here. I don’t have a lot negative to say about it. The bits that were gross in the novel are still gross here, softened a bit by my distance from the novel and by the general strength of the filmmaking.

Most of the negative things I have to say concern the response the film has received from various critics. There’s been a real rush to label the movie as “trash” or “trashy” (in a complimentary way), or to note that it’s pulpy, or that it’s an adaptation of a “beach read.” I’ve really been trying to make sense of this over the last few days. What is so trashy about Gone Girl that we can end up with a headline like this?

I’m being serious here. Would we ever get a headline like that about other films, like The Avengers, or Guardians of the Galaxy, or Captain America: The Winter Soldier? I’m zeroing in on Marvel, because their movies are pretty much at the height of pop cultural relevance, but despite the fact that they’re often silly, meaningless, and relatively hollow, no one ever really acknowledges that, and no one really ever calls them trash.

But I think they are trash, especially if we’re taking “trash” to mean “silly or excessive spectacle/genre material done exceptionally well.” The Marvel movies might be the height of pop culture trash. They follow the same factory-line formula, and despite some compelling performances and strong character interactions, they’re often really empty experiences that are just building to bigger spectacles. What do they have to say about anything, other than, like, selflessness is important? In fact, they often studiously avoid saying anything at all, like in The Winter Soldier*. It might seem like I’m being a bit hyperbolic and unfair here, and I am, but no more so than the folks who rushed to dump this label on Gone Girl.

I think this reaction is tainted by a kind of privilege, particularly because most of these critics are men. The impulse to, for example, call Gone Girl a “trash masterpiece,” while completely avoiding terms like that for almost every other pop culture experience, has to stem from a kind of sexism. All of these male-centered properties get a pass, but the “beach read,” the book and movie that have a large female audience, have to be immediately qualified. Our enjoyment of them has to be explained and rationalized.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. I will say it again: Despite its gross misogyny, Gone Girl is exceedingly well-written and has insightful things to say about marriage and relationships. They may not be original observations, but “original” is a pretty high bar to clear. What matters to me is that those observations are thoughtful and the manner in which they are presented is compelling. You might think that the misogyny, or the increasingly silly second half of the novel, detracts from all of that. And that’s fine. So do I, to some extent. But not enough to ignore the parts that really work.

And they do really work. Much of what is substantive in the film — the insights into how people hurt each other, the critique of the media, the idea that things become true if you just say them well enough and at the right time— all of that is in the novel. I love Fincher’s work, but I imagine the strength of Flynn’s novel, as well as her screenwriting credit, are what prevented this movie from being another blue-grey, emotionally cold disaster like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

Gone Girl is really the perfect post-feminist novel. It uses and restates feminism, only to devour it and vomit it back up as some kind of gross distortion of itself. In that way, the novel only underlines how important feminist critique is. It seems like the critical reaction to the film also underlines that importance. While there have been pieces on the film’s misogyny (as if the book isn’t really popular and also 2+ years old), still other pieces have ignored gender altogether, or have been uncritically condescending. In these moments, it seems as if strong, thoughtful feminist critique is as important as ever.

*The Winter Soldier builds a critique of surveillance and extrajudicial government powers only to end with “Fantasy Nazis did it.”

*Another bothersome thing about some of the reactions to the film: the bizarre laughing at Tyler Perry, divorced from any actual critique of him. Look, we all know Tyler Perry is gross, and his films play uncomfortably on racist and sexist stereotypes, but it doesn’t feel like that’s what people are laughing at. It feels like they (white critics) are laughing at the silly black guy who makes movies with black people that they don’t understand.

Veronica Mars makes the case against fan-financed filmmaking


I don’t know, guys. This movie seems kind of… bad?

I’ve been a big Veronica Mars fan since the first season. The series had many of the things that I prize in pop culture: a compelling female protagonist, a commitment to diversity, witty dialogue, and some clever race/gender/class analysis. The show, despite its weak third season, is way up there in quality. It demands to be experienced.

But the movie is a different beast altogether. While it retains a lot of the Veronica Mars charm, particularly in Rob Thomas’s tight, funny dialogue, it may ultimately be the perfect example for why shows shouldn’t try to make the jump to film. Even more surprisingly, it may make a compelling case against fan-financed filmmaking. Both of these faults are so densely intertwined that it’s difficult to separate them.

This is a movie that never feels like a movie. On a basic level, the direction and the cinematography are strikingly uninspired. This is a straight up ugly film — flat, boring, and horribly lit. You have to wonder where those millions of dollars went. I just rewatched You’re Next, a film that was made for under a million dollars, and it’s gorgeous in comparison. There’s just no cinematic vision here. If the look and feel of the film doesn’t make that clear enough, then the script really hammers it home.

I’m not sure what people wanted from their Veronica Mars film. If this movie is any indication, they wanted: a roll call of every major and minor character from the series, an overwhelming number of references to that series, and the rekindling of the Veronica/Logan romance. Those things are fine, I suppose. But as a movie, this really needed to separate itself from the series, and to move boldly forward in a more interesting direction. It needed a bigger scope.

One of the things I always loved about the show was its ability to lay out a twisty, compelling mystery. It’s a basic part of the show’s appeal. But the movie fails at even that. The mystery that “drives” the film (and I put drive in scare quotes because I really think it’s the Veronica/Logan romance that is the film’s center) feels like a sad after-thought. Logan is implicated in the murder, but ultimately comes out unscathed. The mystery revolves around relatively minor characters, and the murderer and victims themselves are entirely new characters. When the truth comes to the surface, it’s hard to avoid some questions, like: Who cares? What are the stakes here? How does this change anything? How does it further the characters at all, other than to return Veronica to a comfortable status quo? Is this just an excuse to get Veronica and Logan back together?

The movie is so close to that larger scope, too. There’s an interesting B-plot revolving around Veronica’s father, Keith, and the growing class tensions/corruption in Neptune. This is something that seems to have actual stakes, something that gets at a major theme that was developed in the show. But Veronica is on the periphery of it. Bizarrely, it’s mostly resolved by the end of the film by discrediting the Sheriff, and implying that Keith will return to the position. Again, it’s the restoration of the status quo. Colantoni’s performance is wonderful and subtle–his sadness, his disappointment with seeing Veronica return to Neptune and the mess it represents is one of the best parts of the film. But it’s all pretty much wasted.

Look, I’m not saying that I wanted Veronica to marry Piz and return to New York to be a corporate lawyer. God no. That would’ve been terrible. It would’ve been a betrayal of the series and of Veronica as a character. But the movie needed a little more self-awareness. The way Veronica casts off Piz is heartless, and the movie seems to miss that. It’s in such a rush to get Veronica and Logan back together that even Keith is rooting for them by the end, more or less. And it’s worth noting that throughout the film Veronica often questions herself. Why is she doing this? Why is she considering getting back with Logan? That introspection and conflict is compelling, and it’s real. It’s just too bad that the movie ultimately brushes it aside.

Again, I’m not sure what people wanted out of their Veronica Mars movie. Judging by many other fan responses, this is exactly what they wanted. And that’s fine. Thomas clearly felt a need to give those fans what they wanted, and he definitely succeeded. However, I think the outcome shows that this is no way to make a movie. And if it’s the case that this really is just a love-letter to fans, then I think it’s fair to say this isn’t a movie. At best, it’s an extended episode. A bad one, at that. It isn’t even as good as a minor-great episode of the show, like “Ain’t No Magic Mountain High Enough.” At worst, it’s a pandering mess. I wanted Veronica to move forward, but, like her fans, she seems stuck in the past.