I cannot pinpoint the straw that broke this critic’s back. It might’ve been Anne Helen Petersen’s lengthy study of Armie Hammer’s career, for BuzzFeed, which identifies a legitimate structural problem—the multiple chances white, straight men are given to succeed in Hollywood, while women, people of color and LGBTQ people are under immense pressure to succeed in every outing—and rather unfairly singles out Hammer as that problem’s foremost expression. (For what it’s worth, I’d argue that Armie Hammer “happened” in The Social Network, J. Edgar and The Man from U.N.C.L.E, to say nothing of the attention he’s received for Call Me By Your Name.) It might’ve been Miz Cracker’s Slate essay on Luca Guadagnino’s much-ballyhooed romance, which strains to compare gay men’s often (though not exclusively) effusive reactions to the film to “chasing after straight guys.” More likely, no one piece of writing on Call Me By Your Name, no single tweet, is responsible for my frustration at the film’s interminable rollout, which began with rave reviews at Sundance and will culminate, nearly a year later, in the film’s nationwide release January 19.
Rather, I find myself blaming the process itself, of which Call Me By Your Name may be this year’s exemplar. The collaboration between “the festival circuit” and “awards season” is killing film culture—though not filmgoing—for me: A million pieces I’d prefer not to read by a few dozen critics I’m not sure I trust on a handful of films I haven’t had a chance to see yet.
By “film culture” I mean the conversation that springs up around movies, the arguments and counterarguments and counter-counterarguments that appear in newspapers and magazines, online outlets and social media platforms—not the grist, but the mill. As most critics (and fans) will tell you, this jousting is one of the cinema’s ancillary pleasures; from composing a review to praising a movie on Facebook to battling it out with your friends as you leave the theater, the discussion of films is the filmgoer’s fuel source, the engine of our ardor. Of course, as long as there are movies (and people to see them), there will be a film culture. I use “killing” hyperbolically: The more appropriate term is probably “winnowing,” or “dulling,” or “distancing.” Because something has happened—is happening—to the way we talk about movies, at least of the sort that don’t depend on a $100 million opening weekend or exist within one or another “cinematic universe.” And that something, from my perspective, is the increasing removal of a key constituency from the conversation…
It’s a phenomenon that’s struck me this season, I suspect, because 2017 will be the first year since I started writing for money that I will not file a single movie review. My relationship with the medium has changed: The nature of covering TV—the culture of which has its own drawbacks, as I wrote recently with regard to Transparent—means that I’ve become a casual moviegoer, seeing films not at festivals or press screenings, but when they arrive at the art house in my city, New Orleans. (Still, I’m more fortunate than most: As a member of GALECA, The Society of LGBTQ Entertainment Critics, I’ve received a number of late-breaking titles on DVD.) The result, when it comes to participating in what I’ve labeled “film culture,” has been surprisingly dispiriting. By the time certain titles reach me—and we’re not talking Peoria, as far as its cultural footprint goes—the conversation about Call Me By Your Name, or any of the “awards-caliber” movies that premiered to acclaim at one or another festival and hit New York and L.A. and Chicago and D.C. and San Francisco and Boston four or six or 10 weeks ago, is already as played out as an overlong Oscar speech. Film culture as a whole isn’t dead yet, but it might be dead to me.
I refer to the Academy Awards here purposefully: “Awards season,” which embraces the Golden Globes, “precursor awards” from Hollywood’s most powerful guilds (the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild of America, the Producers Guild of America, etc., and awards from critics’ groups, is really just laying runway for the Oscar nominations, in January, and the Oscar ceremony, in late February or early March. It’s no exaggeration to say that the Oscars are the most powerful force in (art house/independent) film culture: They shape distribution strategies for films, though, as Flavorwire’s Jason Bailey points out, the actual “Oscar effect” is clouded by other factors. They generate web traffic and ad revenue (through lucrative “For Your Consideration” campaigns) for entertainment websites, from the most venerable trades to the cottage industry of Oscar bloggers. They also sustain the handful of film festivals (Sundance, Cannes, Toronto, Telluride, Venice, New York) at which “awards campaigns” now tend to be launched, guaranteeing star power and press coverage and breathless reactions on Twitter to new “contenders,” as if the assembled critics were covering a prize fight.
It’s damaging on its face for a single institution to exert so much influence on the thinking of studios, distributors and exhibitors—especially an institution long notorious for disregarding films by and about women, people of color and LGBTQ people, not to mention one that possesses such a spotty track record when it comes to identifying the films and performances that will stand the test of time. (Don’t get me started on the list of Best Picture winners, or the list of directors, screenwriters and actors who never received a competitive Oscar.) But it’s the knock-on effect of the “awards season” apparatus that concerns me most, in part because it is, or should be, the role of the press to question the Academy’s influence, and perhaps to counteract it; instead, the conversation follows the Academy’s timeline, rather than the audience’s.
Though the same argument surely applies to other films, I’ve decided to focus on Call Me By Your Name here because I haven’t been able to see it—I’ve formed no opinion on it, except that I’m already tired of hearing about it, with six weeks still to go before it comes to a theater near me. It makes me wonder who the conversation is for: It’s certainly not for the average filmgoer, for whom a well-timed consideration of Call Me By Your Name, and the feeling of being able to participate in the discussion thereof, might spur a trip to the movies he wouldn’t have otherwise made. It’s probably not for the passionate fan—not if he happens to live outside one of the largest metropolitan areas and wishes to form his own opinion on the film before engaging others’. It’s not even the genuinely curious or adventurous cinephile, flooded with festival reviews, Oscar analyses and half-cocked thinkpieces focused on Call Me By Your Name while the year’s striking number of worthwhile LGBTQ films (Beach Rats, BPM (Beats Per Minute), The Death and Life of Marsha P. Johnson, God’s Own Country, Princess Cyd, Thelma, to name a few) fly largely under the radar. Perhaps we should read the adoption of political terms to describe “awards season” (its campaigns and races and voters and ballots) as something of a warning: Film culture risks becoming as insular as “Beltway culture,” alienating the general reader by becoming another form of “insider baseball,” made by, for and of the people in its employ.
That the Oscars draw attention to films with a lower profile is undeniable—since the expansion of the Best Picture field, the likes of The Hurt Locker, Winter’s Bone, Amour and Moonlight have benefited from the Academy’s intense spotlight. And lest you label me a scold, let me say that awards speculation, when not taken too seriously, is a blast: My favorite assignment of the year is my (unofficial) Emmy ballot, in which I shill for series and performances I care about even—especially—when I know they have no chance at a nomination. The question is not whether the Oscars, or “awards season,” merit coverage, it’s what shape and volume of coverage actually serves readers, rather than simply doing PR for the studios in order to chase readers’ clicks. (There’s no doubt that the Oscars offer an entree into pointed, in-depth, appropriately skeptical analysis of Hollywood’s self-conception: The gold standard, to my mind, is Mark Harris’ Grantland essay on Birdman and the rise of the franchise film.) At what point do we realize that it might be deleterious to film culture to treat Sundance as the launch of the next Oscar race, before the last one is even finished?
At what point do we ask: Who the fuck is reading this shit?
I suppose someone is, or it wouldn’t be so ubiquitous. (Right?) I often try to imagine this person. An amateur Oscar historian in Dubuque, perhaps. A classic movie buff in Decatur. A film society member in Dayton. But in the end I keep picturing people like me. People with access. With professional experience. With pitches out to editors or an awards column due at the end of the week. People with an interest in sustaining the bubble that now surrounds the Oscar-industrial complex—people for whom spending going on 10 months dissecting a gay romance from a relatively little-known Italian filmmaker that has of this writing appeared for the general public on exactly four screens in America is par for the course, because we’re paid (poorly, in most cases) to do it, and because most of our friends on Twitter have already seen the movie, too.
I don’t have a prescription here. If I could get people to read cultural criticism without slapping the words “best,” “worst,” “Oscar,” “Emmy,” or “Marvel” in the title—and get advertisers to buy ads against it—I would be barking orders from some corner office instead of typing this furiously from my dining room table. But I worry that the apparatus has replaced the conversation, that film culture has become a thin skein wrapped around the Oscars’ stations of the cross. I can now tell you which awards Call Me By Your Name has already won, and predict with some confidence which it will soon win; I can relate the arguments, counterarguments and counter-counterarguments about the film, filed by innumerable commentators, over the course of this very long year.
What I cannot tell you is what I think of it, or what I think of your thoughts on it, or whether there’s enough sex in it, or whether Armie Hammer is any good in it, or whether it’s beautiful, or chaste, or some mixture of both. Because I haven’t seen it, and neither have the vast majority of people who see movies and read about them. They’re the ones we keep pushing further and further from the center of the conversation, simply because they live in Dubuque or Decatur or Dayton, where Call Me By Your Name will arrive, if it even does, sometime after next year’s first “contender” is out of the gate.
What are they reading, and by whom, and why? And when will they finally give up the ghost? When will they accept that jousting with their friends will have to suffice, because those of us who write online are no longer paying them any attention? (That “online” thing is sort of key, by the way: Many of these folks no longer have a film critic at their daily newspaper, who would traditionally have been guided by the rhythms of the local release calendar and not the New York/Los Angeles one.)
I don’t worry about the audience, though—they’ll continue to see movies, and love them, and hate them, and talk about them incessantly. I do, maybe more avidly now than ever before. No, I worry that we seem to have forgotten them, and about what this may portend for the profession I love. I worry that we have less and less to say to our readers because we’re talking to ourselves. And I worry that we’ll wake up one day and we’ll be the ones who are no longer part of the conversation.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.