An Ear for Film: A Perfect Circle Jerk

The three best movie-related podcast episodes of the week.

Movies Lists
An Ear for Film: A Perfect Circle Jerk

Each week, Dom plumbs the depths of podcast nation to bring you the best in cinema-related chats and programs. If writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then writing about movie podcasts is like listening to someone describe someone dancing about architecture.

Have a suggestion for a good movie podcast? Slide into Dom’s DMs on Twitter.

In case it wasn’t painfully obvious, last week’s column featured podcasts I completely made up—and yes, I know that saying something is a joke ruins that joke, but either no one thought it was funny, or no one cared to determine whether those podcasts were real; probably both—so this week’s column should make up for some lost time. It has to.

But it won’t. The burden of most film podcasts—or of critical media in general—is to be authoritative, to be comprehensive, or at least to appear to be that, which often means that most critical outlets cover most of the same material (or in this case, most of the same films), and so inevitably, through the sheer, unseen, malignant forces of saturation, share most of the same thoughts and opinions. We each want to have unique opinions and hot takes and well-thought-out pieces of think, but we are all far too connected to be able to forge such finely crafted, individual ideas within the clusterfuck of a crucible that is the Internet.

Which is why we now turn to the latest episode of Elvis Mitchell’s The Treatment. Interviewing former Entertainment Weekly film critic Owen Gleiberman (now with the BBC), Mitchell talks about Gleiberman’s new book, Movie Freak, with the kind of respect a guy like Gleiberman deserves from a guy like Mitchell: As one elder to another, the two speak with an experience that spans one cultural, and therefore critical, seachange after another. But at some point in their interview, Gleiberman shifts from talking about his origins in film criticism to championing the institution of film criticism itself, namedropping Pauline Kael—I mean, who wouldn’t?—as a roundabout (or, as the kids would say, “lowkey”) way of chastising, then shaming, the current (i.e., blog-based) critical establishment, eventually dadsplaining what it truly means to be a capital-“C” Critic.

Admittedly, I’m exactly the type Gleiberman’s side-eying, and what he seems to want to get at beneath all of his thinly veiled ego-stroking is a return to respecting criticism as an art unto itself, as a way to use one medium to encapsulate, read and engage with another medium in order to bridge to and then reach some sort of emotionally resonant end. In an environment where everyone can, and usually does, have an opinion about a piece of art, then opinions—all opinions, whether they’re researched and enlightening or short-sighted and disparaging—become diluted, to the detriment of any progressiveness in what constitutes the accessibility and definition of pop art.

…I think. He doesn’t say as much, though he does seem to bemoan the accessibility of being a critic, positioning himself as a person born to criticize, in near direct opposition to people who take the easy way toward notoriety through starting their own blog and working tirelessly on pieces written for no audience with little to no hope for pay, or even for the chance to go to the many festivals and screenings Gleiberman takes for granted. In fact, he takes such a position for granted so much that he devotes a whole portion in the book—I haven’t read it, but this point encompasses part of his discussion with Mitchell—to advice for festival etiquette. It’s interesting only if you’ve ever been to a festival, and the reality is that most film festivals cater to the press and industry people only, rarely paying mind to film buffs who are simply looking to get the chance to see a lot of movies they may not otherwise get a chance to see. Not that a rule about seeing only three of four movies per day couldn’t apply to someone who paid to get in, but Gleiberman’s “advice” comes ready-packaged with the anecdotal implications of someone who acts as if they no longer have any idea what it’s like to watch a movie without attaching to it a fine-tuned critical appraisal. Fine enough, a job is a job is a job, but isn’t the whole point of film criticism to write to an audience without that access? If you constantly distance yourself from those to whom you’re supposed to be writing, what’s the point?

Seriously: what’s the fucking point of having a podcast that “previews” the films at Sundance, for example, when the majority of listeners will get to see these films a year later—if they’re lucky? Eventually so many podcasts run by film critics take that route, talking about things that only other film critics will be able to see or even know. Which is why Gleiberman’s vitiating of a kind of blue collar criticism makes him sound like such a wank-off: These supposedly authoritative voices simply rattle around inside of a vacuum, rarely if ever reaching the audience who bestowed them that authority in the first place. Like niche corners of Twitter, too often film criticism becomes little more than a circle jerk, a round-robin of insecure people with useless Bachelor’s degrees talking over each other while simultaneously seeking the validation of being allowed into the circle at all. I’m part of it; I want that validation. But my god is it insufferable.

Which is why I probably dig shows like The Important Cinema Club, We Hate Movies and The Flop House—they approach fandom not far from the madding crowd, but from within the midst of it—three podcasts which had great episodes this week. The former invited nascent fan Mallory Andrews from cléo to wax on all things John Carpenter, while We Hate Movies rightfully zeroed in on the phallic fixation of Dungeons & Dragons and The Flop House, in recapping Bruce Willis’s latest example of his waning relevance, Vice, brought up a good point about how so many shitty sci-fi movies are set in impossibly dystopic sci-fi futures intended to teach us, modern humans, about how we should start avoiding these dystopic futures now, even though these dystopic futures would never happen. It’s like The Purge taping on a moral lesson about how it’s a bad thing to have 12 hours out of every year when people can freely rape and kill each other, because of course that’s a bad thing, because of course no one would ever let that happen.

Anyway, make sure you’ve registered as a Democrat because every vote counts in The Purge: Election Year, and then check out my picks for the three best film-related podcast episodes of the week:

ear-film-blank-check.jpgBlank Check with Griffin & David
“Pod Night Shyamacast – Episode Ten – The Visit w/ Louis Peitman”

Though Blank Check categorically falls into the realm of a “bad movie podcast,” Griffin Newman and David Sims are so apt to give into tangents based solely on their deeply trivial film knowledge that half the fun in tuning in is hearing them struggle to stay on track. There is no fact that will go un-Googled, no distraction left untread, to the point that when their engineer turns on his mic to ask them to get back to the subject at hand—talking about a movie in the filmography of a director who, based on an early success, was basically given a “blank check” to do whatever he or she wanted from then on—you know you’re in for some subsequently serious, hilarious antagonism.

In they’re (probably) final episode of their Pod Night Shyamacast series, the hosts welcome Louis Peitman from Buzzfeed to talk about Shyamalan’s most recent film, the not-universally-despised The Visit, and how smart it was for Shymalan to follow-up five or six critical failures with a small-budget Blumhouse feature. This mostly means they gush about the inimitable talents of Kathryn Hahn and then later gush in a completely different way about all the movie’s poopy diapers. From there proceeds a too-long series of revelations about how the three panel members typically approach feces in film, as well as a surprisingly agile argument about how, via shitty rapping and unearned film pretention, it turns out that Shyamalan actually knows how to write believable young teenage characters. After weeks of struggling through a litany of abominable movies, the levity of The Visit is an almost refreshing return to whatever it was that earned Shyamalan that blank check in the first place. You can hear it in the voices of the hosts, who seem functionally sad to leave the director behind on such a weirdly high note.

ear-film-canon.jpgThe Canon

Immediately conversation is off to an excellent start when Devin Faraci expresses his love for Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!, to which co-host Amy Nicholson replies with an annoyed summary of why she thinks the movie is “minor” Linklater. I’ve said it many times before, but the best episodes of The Canon are those when the hosts asymptotically approach pure hate for one another, and their discussion of Linklater’s first (actually second) film, Slacker, seems as if it might become fully derailed by their opposing views on the director’s latest. Both critics are able to collect themselves in order to move on to a movie they both really like (and which will undoubtedly make it into the Canon), which seems to entail a Herculean effort, and from there the episode is a cursory run-through of what makes Linklater such a special filmmaker, a discussion I honestly appreciated, being pretty neutral on most Linklater films myself. But up until their unspoken truce, this episode of The Canon becomes an utterly fascinating glimpse of the critic’s psyche, as both Nicholson and Faraci fiercely defend their opinions as objectively as possible, but ultimately can’t talk about how they feel without really talking about how they feel.

One highlight in particular is when Faraci calls out Nicholson for always thinking she’s smarter than some movies; the room responds by allowing all air to be sucked completely out of it. As much as they claim they want to openly discuss what qualifies the films inducted into their Canon—because, by defining an objective standard as they go along, which in itself is a troubling endeavor, the podcast is as much about the vocation of criticism as it is about the movies themselves—and as self-aware and as they both obviously are, the duo rarely digs down to such personal bedrock without couching it in anecdote or namedropping. So it’s times like these that lay bare the truth, so rarely admitted, behind criticism: We’re supposed to take this stuff personally.

(Side note: Marc Maron interviewed Linklater on this week’s WTF, and while it’s an interesting, genial interview, and Linklater’s as natural a conversationalist as his host, Maron doesn’t push Linklater to get into his filmmaking enough to touch on anything particularly insightful.)

Ear-for-Film-Someone-Else.jpgSomeone Else’s Movie
“Sean Garrity on Naked Lunch

Us Americans sometimes forget just how important David Cronenberg is to Canadian cinema—or so we tell ourselves, because honestly most of us know next to nothing about Canadian cinema—so it’s always worthwhile to hear a Canadian expound on the director, especially if that Canadian is Norm Wilner. Though it’s director Sean Garrity who brings Cronenberg’s Naked Lunch to Wilner’s ’cast, there comes a point, stealing into the latter half of the episode like a thief in the night, or like a giant typewriter-insect talking out of its butthole, when you realize Garrity has been contentedly listening to Wilner talk about Cronenberg for a seemingly interminable amount of time. Which isn’t a bad thing by any means: Hearing Wilner praise Peter Weller’s microgestures, or speculate on how incredibly Cronenberg can pull indelible performances out of actors, or remininisce about the first time he saw Naked Lunch, or muse over how the film marked a major turning point in the director’s career—all of it feels like listening to a dear friend go on for hours about something he loves, only to look up to realize the sun’s rising and you’ve been listening intently all night. And within the context of Naked Lunch, Wilner’s building enthusiasm makes sense, as the excessive weirdness of the film is somehow never jarring, never questioned, just simply acceptable. By the time Peter Weller’s sucking viscous juice out of a mugwump, you’re all in. Cronenberg’s so lovingly, purposefully brought you to this point, the absurdity of what you’re witnessing barely registers.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Portland-based writer. Like everyone on this planet, he co-hosts his own podcast, Pretty Little Grown Men, which is sometimes about movies but mostly about Pretty Little Liars. You can follow him on Twitter.

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