Is it cool for a filmmaker to fight back?
I know there are film critics who genuinely enjoy writing bad reviews. Hell, I’ve met film critics (and music critics and TV critics and book critics) who seem to live for that moment when they get to roll something over, find the soft spot, and tear the stomach out completely. The taste of blood is the thing that keeps them going, the thing that really turns them on as a writer.
I would not say I enjoy writing a bad review. I certainly don’t walk into films looking to hate them. I will say that when a film is particularly hard to sit through, there is a satisfaction that comes from drawing a little blood in return, and some films seem to have such naked contempt for the audience that I don’t mind returning some of the same to them. And while there is something about the relationship between critics and filmmakers that has to be contentious, just by its nature, should it ever reach the point where Joe Swanberg or Uwe Boll are climbing into a boxing ring eager to actually hurt a critic because of something that was written?
At the end of this year’s Sundance Film Festival, I was asked (along with all the other critics who were there as part of our team this year) to contribute both my favorite and my least favorite titles from the fest for a gallery that we publish each year. At the time I submitted it, I had not written a formal review yet for Calvin Lee Reeder’s “The Rambler,” one of the midnight titles, but there was no doubt in my mind that it was my least favorite film from the fest this year, and I included it in the two picks that I sent. I still planned to write a review, and when it got added to the line-up for SXSW Midnighter, I made short mention of it. I certainly didn’t take a big pointed shot at it. I think it’s better to explain yourself fully when you really didn’t like something, especially when it’s something personal like the work of Reeder so far. Like it or dislike it, I can appreciate that there is something very specific he’s trying to do.
However, Reeder decided that he wanted to let me know how much he dislikes what I’ve published about the film so far. He posted a link to my SXSW Midnighters piece from a few days ago and wrote the following:
“Very proud and excited to already be an outsider in the wildly talented Drew McWeeny’s SXSW midnighters forecast. He already dubbed The Rambler an “embarrassment” and one of Sundance’s worst. Look him up, he would know.”
Okay. Zing, I guess? His friends quickly pile on and seem intent on repeating the phrase “dick sandwich” about my last name as many times as possible. Reeder takes some shots at “Cigarette Burns,” and seems to have decided that I should be embarrassed for some reason by the films I made with John Carpenter. Also predictably, his friends set up some straw man version of me in attacking what I wrote. “Why can’t you just make a nice normal movie with nice normal people doing things that everyone can understand? That’s what the people like!” Never mind that no one asked for that, nor do any of my issues with Reeder’s work have anything to do with how “normal” it is.
I like that Jarod Neece of SXSW shows up in the thread to repeat that he likes the film and is excited to show it. That’s the only thing that ultimately matters about the SXSW engagement, and keep in mind… here’s the entire text that I published in the SXSW preview about Reeder’s film:
“Saw this at Sundance. Was not a fan. I’m going to wait, though, and publish my review once it’s played SXSW as well. At that point, it’ll be a conversation worth having.”
Wow, I can see how that would make Reeder overreact wildly. I mean, the naked hostility in that. I’m surprised he didn’t get a restraining order out of fear for his life.
Yes, it’s easy to be sarcastic and crappy, and I could easily just turn this article into a one-sided attack on Reeder from the comfort of my bully pulpit. But I’m curious if you, the people who actively consume this online film conversation, see any value in a director firing back from an emotional place to defend their film. In general, when you create a piece of work and release it and agree to have it play a public festival, do you lose the right to be upset because people are discussing your work? Is there any advantage in firing back at critics?
One of the things that I’ve started to realize as I get older is that there is a vast world of film out there, and no matter how hard I try, I can’t review everything. I can’t even get close. There’s no point in trying. I have to pick and choose what I write about, what I choose to engage. I try to cover a majority of major studio releases and I also see a ton of festival fare each year. I try to write about most of what I see, good or bad. I think I spend a fair amount of time trying to advocate for smaller movies that might otherwise not get a break. I used to feel like I had to weigh in on everything, but after the “Red State” incident at Sundance, I realized I don’t actually have to see anything. I don’t have to see the films of Kevin Smith if I don’t want to, and I don’t have to write about his movies if I don’t want to. I’m not calling for a boycott of him, but I’m choosing to sit out the conversation entirely, and I’m happier for it. Twenty minutes into a Blu-ray screening of “The Paperboy,” I decided that I don’t need to see Lee Daniels films anymore. I just don’t like anything about his aesthetic choices or his taste in material. I find “Shadowboxer” repellant. I thought “Precious” was sort of phony. And “The Paperboy” went right back to repellant, and in a way I just don’t want to see again. So I add his name to that list and that’s that.
After seeing “The Rambler,” I told the rest of Team HitFix that I was hanging it up for Calvin Lee Reeder films as well. I don’t plan to spend tons of time writing about a dislike for what he does because it’s another full-system recoils, another case where I don’t like anything about what he does or how he does it, and recognizing that is better for me and, ultimately, better for him. I think there’s something self-serving about intentionally punishing yourself with films that you aren’t interested in or that you are actively unhappy about seeing just so you can write a bad review. I went into “The Rambler” hoping I would like it more than I liked “The Oregonian,” and the opposite happened. It just reinforced everything I didn’t like about that movie, and it found all sorts of new ways to be actively unpleasant. I thought the script was a total stiff, and Reeder’s got no sense of tone, no sense of how to sustain any mood or idea for more than one scene. Surrealism is hard, harder than straight narrative in many ways. When you see someone who is comfortable with the absurd, the results can be sublime like my favorite film of last year, “Holy Motors,” or preposterous, as in “Rubber” and “Wrong,” or beautiful and authentic like “Escape From Tomorrow.” But when someone pushes too hard or tries to make a “crazy” film in a calculated way, I genuinely find that to be embarrassing. I find it hard to watch. “The Rambler” is a case where the low-rent “Carnival Of Souls” premise and the studiously “weird” environment that Reeder builds from scene to scene both seem wrong from the start. I don’t buy Dermot Mulroney. I don’t think any of the absurdity is funny, nor do I think it has any sense of thematic weight. Reeder’s philosophy seems to be “When in doubt, do something gross and silly,” and it’s numbing after a while. There’s only so much goop you can ladle on before it’s a bore.
I don’t begrudge it playing at SXSW, though. I know there are people who didn’t like the first “V/H/S,” who have no interest in a second one, and who are actively irritated at the idea that anyone would recommend either part in the series. Even so, I would hope they don’t begrudge “S-VHS” its spot in the line-up. If you liked “The Oregonian” or “Jerkbeast” or the original short film that inspired “The Rambler,” then you should feel confident booking your ticket during SXSW for this new one. It is, in every way, a Calvin Reeder movie.
Being a film critic isn’t about “winning” anything. I don’t “win” if I give Reeder’s film a bad review. I don’t “lose” if his movie gets picked up for distribution. All I can do is review a wide array of types and titles so that you can get a sense of how you feel about the things I like and use that to gauge your own reactions. More than that, I can describe “The Rambler” and set it into a context in a way that makes my opinion about it irrelevant. I’ve read plenty of negative reviews that made it crystal clear that I would like the film being described, and I don’t feel the need to be a giant asshole to the critic when that happens.
When I reviewed Joseph Kahn’s “Torque,” I was just plain rude about it. Kahn took offense, and rightly so. It took him years to make a follow-up, and when I went to see “Detention” at SXSW, I did not expect much from it. I ended up really enjoying the film, particularly ironic since there’s a line in the film that would indicate that Kahn not only remembered my slam of “Torque” but that he expected more of the same time time out. Since my review went up, I’ve been somewhat chatty with him on Twitter, but I’ve seen him go head-to-head and get personal with critics who didn’t like “Detention,” like Scott Weinberg. With Kahn, I think it’s clear that I walked into his follow-up and gave it a fair shot, than I didn’t just coast on my feelings about his earlier work. With Reeder, I gave him a try, and it’s clear it’s not for me. Now that he’s gone out of his way to make things personal, though, hasn’t he somewhat bulletproofed himself? After all, if I write a negative review now, then I’m just trying to “get him back,” right? Now that it’s personal, anything I write is suspect, never mind the actual order of events.
Kevin Smith spent almost a year working through his reactions to what I wrote about “Red State,” and it was fascinating to watch the evolution. On the night of the screening, he and his close circle of friends went nuts attacking me about certain points in the review. Then for the next few months, there were repeated comments that Smith made on his podcasts in which he twisted the facts of what was written, including a particularly breathtaking episode in which he called me mentally ill for not liking his film. Finally, he modified the story further, and the way he now tells it, he only read part of one positive review, and then he decided to never read anything else. He took almost a year to work himself around to “no comment,” but before he got there, he got as ugly-personal as anyone I’ve ever seen respond to a critic, and watching it happen from the other side, the one thing that seemed very clear is that I really, really, really, deeply upset him, and the only way he could handle it was eventually pretending that he never read what I wrote. He had to go through attack mode and slander to get there, but he got there.
Ultimately, the reason criticism can cause such strong personal responses is because what we are writing about tends to be personal in nature. Say what you will about Calvin Reeder’s work, but it’s not “The Avengers.” He’s not spending a ton of money, and his work was never meant to appease the broadest possible audience with ease. I would think a filmmaker like that would be even more attuned to the broad reactions his work might generate. After all, I saw well over 30 people walk out of the movie at Sundance, so I’m certainly not the only person to have a strongly negative reaction to his aesthetic. And while I may have zinged him back on Facebook because, after all, I am human and it’s never a great feeling to wake up and have yourself dragged into a “conversation” that consists of a handful of people doing their best to negate any value any work you’ve ever created might have, the solution for me is the same as the solution for him. He should say what he has to say with his films, I should say what I have to say with my reviews, and everything else should be tabled as needless noise that detracts from us both.
Tell me what you think… should filmmakers hold their reactions for friends and family only, or in an age where everyone is interacting with their audience more, should they feel free to jump in and have their say? I’m genuinely interested in your take on this.
Even if your name is Calvin Lee Reeder.
SXSW kicks off on March 8th, and I can’t wait.