By Lesley | January 15, 2010
Something you should know about me is that when I was eighteen and preparing to leave the enveloping but mundane warmth of my lifelong home in South Florida for the brilliant chilly intellectualism of Boston, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a filmmaker. I had all these stories to tell, you understand, stories both real and imagined, and though I had been writing them down as early as nine years of age I had always resisted the idea of being “just” a writer. Writers were dull grey people sitting at desks in cat-hair-strewn sweater vests, at two in the morning; filmmakers, however, were magicians. They built their imaginary worlds in three dimensions, toured them with a camera, then shared the result with an audience of rapt and eager participants in the fantasy. People are moved by good books, yes, but in a culture that so heavily privileges the visual media, nothing reaches and moves so many people as a compelling film. I wanted, very much, to wield that magic myself.
However, my interest in filmmaking was influenced as much by bad movies as good ones. The bit of media that was most influential to me during my formative years as an adolescent and teenager was Mystery Science Theater 3000. For the unfamiliar: this was a television series—since elevated to cult status but at the time, sadly underappreciated—which featured terrible B-movies being relentlessly made fun of by three cast members. It was sarcastic, and obscure, and bizarre, and it spoke to everything I loved in the world. My darlings, calling me a fan of this show would be an understatement of gargantuan proportions. It also was a driving force behind my desire to make movies, because it had to be understood that even the worst of those films were made by someone who believed in the story, who believed in their ability to make something wonderful, who believed in magic. There is little quite so reassuring as seeing something done badly to make you think you can do it too, and maybe better than that. Thus it happened that MST3K made me want to be a filmmaker.
Of course, like so many film students, by the time I finished my film degree, there was nothing I wanted so much in the world other than to never have to make a film again. Filmmaking, in my opinion, is something done best by those who are besotted with film to the exclusion of nearly everything else in life, and as much as I loved film, even when accepting my degree at 21, I knew I lacked the single-mindedness and momentous ambition that is absolutely necessary to accomplish even moderate success in that world. There were simply too many other things I was interested in, too many other things I wanted to do. The whole world was distracting me from filmmaking; I’d just barely gotten to know Boston and now I was supposed to up and move to Los Angeles? No. So I left filmmaking behind.
I learned a great deal about film and the film industry in those four years, but one of the most particular memories I have is the distinction between a film reviewer and a film critic. It’s funny how sometimes the things that seem most inconsequential in the moment turn into memories that carry you through years to come, and so it was that this line between reviewer and critic was something I remembered all through the many years of graduate school to come, right up til today. According to what I learned in film school, which I’m sure some folks would debate, a reviewer, you see, is someone who simply describes a film (or a book, or a friend’s outfit or a plate of food) and their assessment of it. “I liked the spaghetti.” “The length of that skirt is little frumpy on you.” And so on. It’s an opinion, and if it’s coming from someone whose opinions tend to jibe with yours, it’s definitely useful. A critic, on the other hand, tends to not only assess the criticized work, but also fits it into a broader cultural or historical context, using a range of theoretical approaches, and/or analyzes its symbolic meaning, and/or interrogates its value, and/or suggests how said work speaks to our world, how our world speaks to it. Reviewers recommend. Critics complicate.
Though I may have ticked “filmmaker” off the list of possibilites for what I want to be when I grow up, criticism is a habit I’ve never managed to shake. There was an uneasiness about both critics and reviewers amongst my peers as a film student. Though we were, absolutely, taught to analyze what made great films great, we were, absolutely, not taught to properly criticize them. Because these were great films. Because everyone agreed they were great. How do you criticize Bergman and Persona? (I actually tried, upstart that I was.) You don’t. You just soak up the genius. Obviously, this approach was a little different from what drove me, in part, to film school in the first place, those sardonic attacks from the front-row seats on Mystery Science Theater 3000. But I learned to play along. I learned to sneer at criticism and wonder why, if the critics were so smart, did they not make films themselves? Whether I ever believed it, even for a moment, I can’t say. I’ve since some to believe that critics of all kinds are vastly underappreciated, and I am only partly saying so because I write so much cultural criticism on this blog.
All of this is taking a very long time for me to acknowledge that it took me a long time to learn to appreciate film critics. And by extension, it took me a long time to learn to appreciate Roger Ebert (though his take on last summer’s Transformers 2 went a long way in securing my allegiance, as it gave voice to the wordless, fist-clenching disgust and frustration I was feeling about how so much money is spent on something so artless and depressing). But I’ve since come to believe that Roger Ebert is a national fucking treasure, someone who sees things through a vivid critical lens and who, luckily for us, sees fit to share his observations regularly.
My whole purpose in writing this post, meandering as it is, was to link to something Ebert wrote last week, something I have since read probably six or seven times, and which has nothing to do with film (making my long ruminations above more than a little pointless, but that’s how I roll). It is, instead, about how Ebert’s cancer surgeries have ultimately led to his being unable to drink, eat, or speak, and what he misses about that.
Let me return to the original question: Isn’t it sad to be unable eat or drink? Not as sad as you might imagine. I save an enormous amount of time. I have control of my weight. Everything agrees with me. And so on.
What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They’re the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done — probably most of our recreational talking. That’s what I miss. Because I can’t speak that’s’s another turn of the blade. I can sit at a table and vicariously enjoy the conversation, which is why I enjoy pals like my friend McHugh so much, because he rarely notices if anyone else isn’t speaking. But to attend a “business dinner” is a species of torture. I’m no good at business anyway, but at least if I’m being bad at it at Joe’s Stone Crab there are consolations.
When we drive around town I never look at a trendy new restaurant and wish I could eat there. I peer into little storefront places, diners, ethnic places, and then I feel envy. After a movie we’ll drive past a formica restaurant with only two tables occupied, and I’ll wish I could be at one of them, having ordered something familiar and and reading a book. I never felt alone in a situation like that. I was a soloist.
It’s a visceral piece of writing, and speaks to me of the value of being willing to witness, catalog, and analyze our world, to better understand ourselves—even in a culture where difficult questions, and those who ask them, are often dismissed. Would the sociability of eating together have occurred to me as something to miss? Probably, eventually, but it’s unlikely I’d ever be able to articulate the loss so beautifully, or so clearly. You can read the post in full here.
Have a great weekend, folks.
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