An Ear for Film: BEE v SJW: Dawn of the Birth of a Nation

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An Ear for Film: BEE v SJW: Dawn of the Birth of a Nation

Each week or so, 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.

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As a person who listens to a lot of podcasts and a person who also semi-regularly writes a column about my idea of what constitutes a podcast I’ll want to listen to, I usually gravitate toward conversations that don’t tacitly shut me out. Which has little to do with validation, and everything to do with the way in which a good podcast can have a dialogue with the listener without functionally doing so.

And yet, I’m an inveterate listener to Bret Easton Ellis’s podcast even though I find him mostly insufferable: Despite glaring inaccuracies or regular contradictions in his supposedly authoritative opinions, there rarely feels in a podcast like Ellis’s that hosts leave room for interpretation, or argument, or mental space for the listener to question, let alone implicitly argue with, the opinions being offered. The one-sidedness of podcast listening is taken for granted—rolled around in; licked—rather than toyed with as an obstacle to healthy discourse.

I bring this up because on last week’s B.E.E. podcast, Ellis began his episode as he usually does, with a diatribe often lambasting what he sees as the downfall of American free speech and the championing of pathetic neo-liberalism or whatever, this time namechecking Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation in order to unleash his soft-spoken tirade against “victimization” and his claim that all of us SJWs are just sucking that shit up like sweet milk. Whether or not you think that Nate Parker’s rape allegations and the subsequent suicide of the woman involved should affect your opinion and support of the film, there’s no denying that these are issues worth considering when consuming any art. Only ideally can we divorce the art from the artist. The reality of the idea of “support” is so much more complicated.

“If you define yourself through a trauma that happened to you and it defines a part of you, then you are sick and probably need help,” Ellis said. Of course, when Ellis talks you can practically hear him holding out a carrot and hoping that ultra-liberals will bite, but there’s something so much more sinister to his words than just the idea that people who let trauma swallow them are people who objectively need help. There’s something so much more troubling to Ellis’s belief that decrying Parker’s actions (or the deplorable actions of any artist, proven or otherwise) a decade and a half after a court found him not guilty, prevents the thriving of truly subversive, and thus progressive, art.

Ellis emphasizes the fact that Parker was acquitted of rape charges, almost as if he believes blindly in the American legal system as an unparalleled, immutable standard—but that’s beside the point. What Ellis is really perpetuating (or at least totally ignoring) is the cold fact that we live in an economy of silence. Victims stay victims because they have no salient means to overcome that deeply rooted feeling of victimization, especially when the consequences of saying anything, let alone just stating that it happened without making a specific accusation, are typically greeted by the exact response Ellis is offering up so stupidly: Forget whether or not we believe you, just get the fuck over it.

That Ellis then attempts to shove these comments into the realm of free speech, which he uses as a parlay into an interview with director Larry Clark, is about as deftly handled as Ellis’s script to The Curse of Downer’s Grove. Clark doesn’t bite, and obviously has no idea what Ellis might be trying to get at, probably because Ellis is conflating provocation with cinematic realism with free speech with neo-liberalism with victimization with being an “adult.” Eventually, as do most of Ellis’s arguments, the whole thing just stops making much sense, slamming dick-first into a logical wall.

But I get it, actually: As soon as we deprive artists of their ability to make art the way they want to make art, we are suffocating the voice in which meaningful art gestates. The problem is that art is useless if it doesn’t consider—or at least acknowledge—the audience who may be consuming it. Which doesn’t mean that an audience need to agree with the art, or even like it, let alone that an artist should create for an audience, but that an artist mustn’t denigrate an audience member’s experience or opinions by simply assuming that such things are obstacles to overcome or feelings to push aside when those are the venues by which most people find inroads to life-changing connections with piece of art. To assign illness to trauma and then prescribe “help” as if the institutions which typically service people in such dire situations aren’t fundamentally broken seems pretty fucking naive for an artist. The fact that said artist also writes all the fucking time about the malaise of rich people who typically don’t need to depend on such broken institutions just makes him sound like a royal douchebag.

And if Bret Easton Ellis isn’t denigrating the experiences of those who have suffered trauma—as well as those whose trauma continues to hold sway in the ways they are able to consume and talk about art—then he should probably overexplain otherwise.

Speaking of overexplaining, here are my picks for the three best podcast episodes of the week.

Ear-for-Film-Denzel.jpgDenzel Washington is the Greatest Actor of All Time Period
“Chris Chalk of Gotham

The unflagging rapport between W. Kamau Bell, Kevin Avery and guest Chris Chalk offers up a lot to love with this week’s episode of DWITGAOATP, most of all in the ease in which the three plow through one topic after another, but the episode slows to a serenely contemplative pace once talk of Oscar contenders leads ineluctably into the controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation. No one has anything conclusive to offer, but that handwringing is the point: Avery attempts to bring up the debate regarding art vs. artist only to have his high-level concerns subsumed. Earlier in the episode, the three talk about Fences, Denzel Washington’s new film premiering in theaters on Christmas day, and how the excitement of going to see the movie is inherently coupled with feelings of responsibility some African Americans harbor in supporting important Black films. How does that responsibility translate to a film that, were it not loaded with controversy, would be undeniably important, regardless of its cinematic quality? Bell and Avery and Chalk have very little idea how to answer that, because it is loaded with controversy—so instead they insist on it being a very personal question: Can you separate the art from the artist? Rather than lose sight of up or down by becoming tangled in an answerless argument that will undoubtedly end up eating its own tail, the hosts cut to the quick: Can you?

Ear-for-Film-Someone-Else.jpgSomeone Else’s Movie
“Hugh Gibson on Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country

Documentary director Hugh Gibson doesn’t care one bit for J.J. Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek films, and it’s up to Norm Wilner to try to understand why. When Gibson can’t offer much in the way of a defense besides that he finds them to be fundamentally lacking in many of the qualities that fueled his love for The Next Generation and Star Trek in general, Wilner accepts, even though Gibson doesn’t push much further than that. Instead, Wilner offers up some of his own takes on the new iterations of the classic franchise—going so far as to articulate a convincing explanation for why the introduction of Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) in Into Darkness was actually handled brilliantly—and, in turn, allows Gibson the comfortable space to explore that line between emotional fandom and the rigorous, objective goals of approaching such films critically. It’s a weirdly refreshing episode, not only because Gibson isn’t interested whatsoever in academically dissecting Star Trek VI, but also because Gibson picked Star Trek VI at all, avoiding less obvious choices to sort of carelessly stay true to that ineffable love that Wilner brings out in practically every one of his guests. At its core, Someone Else’s Movie isn’t about film—though of course it’s about film—as much as it is about trying to put words to the kind of weird love someone has for something, some piece of art, rarely shared by someone else.

ear-film-fc.jpgThe Film Comment Podcast
“Social Media and Criticism”

Four people with way more Twitter followers than you gather under the banner of a prestigious film institute to bemoan the death of long-form criticism in the Golden Age of the Hot Take. But really: On this week’s episode of Film Comment’s podcast, host Violet Lucca welcomes Kameron Collins of The Ringer and Mark Harris of Vulture to talk about what social media is doing to film criticism, spurred on by Nick Pinkerton’s recent piece in the magazine. Pinkerton is also there to elaborate, which he does more than enough, eventually drawing the others into a winding discussion about what constitutes responsible critical argument, and what exactly any publication should cover or not cover when it comes to putting forth valid opinions despite the expectations of a content-first culture. Though the episode is ostensibly about social media, it’s really about Twitter, as well as about what kind of space a culture writer should stake out on a service that prizes bite-sized brain-bytes over informed discourse. Should you embrace the format? Or should you struggle against it forever? What’s so awesome about this podcast in particular is that most non-culture-writers would have no fucking clue what these people are talking about, especially Pinkerton, who comes off like a stuffy ivory tower academic with good intentions an an impressive thesaurus, but that by the end of it you’ll be questioning what exactly it is that you’re looking for in Internet Culture Content. Rarely anymore is consumption about quality, it’s about quantity—and just like chugging a gallon of milk in under an hour, what you consume is a matter of time and space rather than one of taste.

Dom Sinacola is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and didn’t think Batman v Superman was all that bad. 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 find it on Twitter.

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