william steig drawing

December 2, 2011
Kartina Richardson

This is the Problem: Writing About Film

marlene

How can I communicate the importance of a film without one dimensionalizing it and destroying its magic? I don’t know.

I never want to discuss cinema in a leaden and academic way, but what other way is taken seriously? Emotional discussion of film is often dismissed as juvenile, and this is unfortunate, but also strange. I have no interest in seeking objectivity through art, and since our idea of the objective in regards to art criticism means “from a white, male perspective”, it has no interest in me either.

Now, let me make this very clear, because there seems to be a little confusion:

This is not a blog about race, and it is not a blog about gender. It is a blog about film.

But because I am a woman, and because I am a woman of color, it will of course be about those things in the same way that a white male writing about a film, whether he knows it or not, cannot divorce his experience as a white male from any essay. Since “white male” is the world’s (and Hollywood’s) default setting, he believes that he moves through life race-less and gender-less, and so quite naturally, many of his reviews will not include mentions of gender or race. So deeply rooted is the white-male default viewpoint, even I find it hard to escape this thinking. When I think about script ideas, very often times I realize that the character I’ve been imagining is unconsciously a white man. From the moment he is born the way a white male sees the world, the way he forms sentences, the angles that catch his eye, will be different from a woman’s or a person of color’s. Of course this is the case for every person, but race and gender, along with class, are the largest dictators of how the world interacts with us, yet speaking explicitly from these experiences (as opposed to the implicit white male speech) has long been diminished or dismissed as a niche. When you write about a film, you write about yourself, and if you are not, it is bullshit.

My ideas, the things that move me inside and out of film, are always to some degree, informed by gender and race. This is the case with everyone. We are shaped by the way the world interacts with us. Trying to escape the confines of those interactions is key. If you are a woman or person of color, this involves asserting the legitimacy of your ideas. Ideas and ways of thinking that may be (because of your experience in the world) radically different from those already in place. So deeply entrenched is racism and sexism that too frequently we don’t even allow ourselves to think, to give weight to our own questions and observations. We know who the people are that have worthwhile thoughts, and we know what they look like. Those that do not experience sexism and racism regularly might consider this discussion wholly unnecessary as the strange idea that the “isms” are no longer an issue is pervasive. But those that do experience this, overtly or off-hand, will understand. It is a daily struggle, to not only prove your legitimacy to the rest of the world, but to yourself, because you will forget, and you will want to fall.

Perhaps worst of all, you may decide the easier path is to shape your ideas and way of being in the world to conform to the templates built from the white male perspective. By striving to stay personal in my reactions to film, I believe, I hope, I stay truer and perhaps even reach a more “objective” articulation of how the film feels and lives inside me and others.

My two major bugbears are the poetic and the intellectual. Unfortunately they rule the world and drive out the winged world that the poet occasionally succeeds in ensnaring. When I was young I used to sign my drawings and writings Jean l’Oiseleur – Jean the Bird-Catcher.

It was Jean l’Oiseleur who made Le Testament d’Orphee in the hope of touching a few fraternal souls in this sad world. Goethe said: ‘It is when we hug ourselves that we may encounter our soul-brothers.’ This is a dangerous slogan in an age when people are governed by depersonalization, which tries to abolish the differences and contrasts which used to give the universe a human face and succeeded in crushing monotony and automatism.

Here is my wish and my oracle: ‘In the long term, depersonalization will fill people’s souls with such gloom that there will be a new victory of the singular over the plural, that the majority will cease to consider itself the supreme authority, that the sheep will no longer take the place of the shepard and that minorities, abandoning their dream of becoming the majority, will once more become like the priests who guarded the secrets of the temple; in short, the creative spirit, the highest form of the spirit of contradiction, will obliterate the modern “do-as-you-wish” – the false freedom of action that is taught to American children, which deprives children, young people, heroes and artists of their essential motivation: disobedience.’

Jean Cocteau

*I wrote an intro post for Mirror when it began in May ’10. I’ve re-written it a bit here to address certain questions and criticisms*


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45 Comments

  1. Great post and screw whoever is trying to undermine you.

    Reply
  2. Amen!!! I need to rewrite my own similar piece and post it. I got chewed out so much for saying “post-racial America” meant that “we all have to become White.” I love hearing about everyone else’s culture and how it shapes what they say. But if you have your own opinion, you are a “contrarian” or worse. I really think this scares writers, and that’s why we have such dull, theoretical nonsense posiing as film criticism. As a man of science, let me tell you arts majors something: You can’t put theories on something subjective. All those rules are bullshit. Get over it.

    I absorb and interpret film as a Black man, and this is the ONLY way I will. As I once wrote at Big Media Vandalism: “Who the fuck else am I going to interpret them as? Andrew Sarris?”

    If people can’t accept your gaze, to hell with ’em.

    Reply
  3. “When you write about a film, you write about yourself, and if you are not, it is bullshit.” – I absolutely agree. As a white male, I fortunately learned to introspectively articulate my experiences and emotions as an adolescent/young adult more through Tupac Shakur’s music and Spike Lee’s films than I ever did from my own culture, as you might imagine. And as I have said before (Holy Cinema!), your personal style (and unique perspective) of reviewing and understanding films is overwhelming preferred in contrast to the purely objective and academic perspectives. Not to mention, your video reviews add a completely new and outstanding cinematic dynamic to the possibilities of what film review and criticism can aspire to become. I hope to see more of those whether or not “Ebert Presents” remains on the air in 2012.

    Reply
  4. You make me so proud my Sister. Keep on doing what you are doing. We need your voice.

    Reply
    • Thank you for your support to my sister. We all keep speaking but it is even better when we are heard and listened to.

      Reply
  5. I once convinced a rube (that’s a species of rural honky, genus redneck) that I was a black man simply by usin’ apostrophes an’ other Huck Finn dialect conventions in the letter I wrote him.

    Now y’all got soul. It can’t hurt that you’re prettier than all get out, too. The real problem is that you’ve got an original bent of mind. God knows I have to deal with that myself.

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  6. Hear Hear! 😉

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  7. Max Oblivion

    Whenever I find that I’ve lost my true self in post-racial delusion I wander back to Kartina’s blog to get set straight. Could it be she is right? Can we never escape the constricting muck that is race and gender identity? Are we never more than the color of our skin and the nature of our genitalia? Can we have no hope of achieving genuine transcendence? Are we condemned to the eternal smallness of “I”m a black man”, I’m a woman of color”, “I”m a white male”. If so then I must slit my wrists now and be done with it because I would suffocate in the world of racial, gender and cultural determinism within which Kartina dwells.

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  8. I’ve been writing about film while female since 1997, and I’ve had years of pushback from (some) readers who get very angry about having their delusions about what is “normal” and what is “objective” challenged. Just trying to get some people — male *and* female — to see that the male gaze does not have to be the default, and that the straight-white-middle-class-male perspective is far from unbiased continues to be a real challenge. It’s even harder to do when, like you, I have no interest in being dry and academic and merely want to express my deep and abiding and geeky love of movies.

    Anyway: Good luck, Kartina. :-> Don’t let the bastards get you down.

    Reply
  9. Bravo! You are giving a voice to many through your exoression of truth. Thank you.

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  10. Love it. I taught a college course that focussed on the influence of film in education–Films capitalize on stereotypes in order to build a believable character as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, this only bolsters our belief in these misconceived stereotypes; even those who have been demoralized will internalize the stereotype of inferiority, and believe it to be true about themselves and those like them. Media is EXTREMELY powerful in its ability to shape society!

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  11. I totally agree with you Max Oblivion. Without giving away gender or race, I can tell you I feel the same. I grew up with pure eyes, seeing people as, well, people. I honestly did not see colour, or gender. As I’ve matured I understand that men and women do have a tendency to think slighty differently, but only in a way that compliments each other. The genetalia is different, theirfore their biology is slighty different. As for race, that is moot. Your either a woman or man, thats it.
    I have recently come across different groups of people, all of whom have very inflexible and rooted thoughts on race, if your one thing that means this and if your the other it means that. You can attatch watever euphamism you want, but when it comes down to it, that’s stereotyping. That IS racsim. Its true, if you hail from a certain a region, your likely to have specific cultural practices. For example, if your born and raised in the amazon jungle, you probably have better outdoor skills than a Parisian or New Yorker. But thats where it ends. Your experience, your character, your personality defines you. Nothing else.
    If the world says because your a woman of colour, your somehow limited, then I’m with Max. I will slit my wrists. Whats the point in surviving in such a small minded society. I’m holding on tightly to my belief that no matter what race, or gender you are, you can be a prick or a really interesting person. I’m hoping my most recent experiences with people whose views have inadvertantly tried to shake me out of my belief (some may call hopeful, I call rational and well reasoned), end here. I’m sick of the shit. We as a species should have evolved past that primitive way of thinking. I will not be pigeon holed, I will not think I’m at a certain advantage or limited because of the colour of my skin or my gender. If thats not being ‘realistic’, then I’m out.

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  12. Gary Oldman

    I agree that it’s important to recognize the default status of the white male in American cinema. But I also think it’s curious that several times when white filmmakers have shown themselves to be color blind by wanting to make serious, heartfelt films from an African-American perspective, they’ve been met by controversy and an attitude that since they don’t know what it’s like growing up black, they shouldn’t be allowed to make a film about it. I’m talking about filmmakers like Eastwood and Micael Mann, who found resistance when they tackled Bird and Ali, respectively. I know there were issues with a white director on Malcolm X as well, before Spike Lee was attached.

    I’m not saying this to be negative. Just something to think about.

    Reply
    • Max Oblivion

      I guess my question would be, did Eastwood make “Bird” from an African-American, or a human perspective. Our humanity is what we all share and hopefully identify with in each other. Although I spent 10 years of my early life as a white boy living in a black ghetto, I would never pretend to fully understand what it is to be a black man but I can venture an opinion as to what it means to be human. If I was a filmmaker, that is the perspective I would bring to any film.

      Reply
    • Max Oblivion

      Do you suppose this was THE Gary Oldman? I sort of regret not assuming that he was.

      Reply
  13. Very insightful piece. I’ve found that writing about film from an “objective” perspective is impossible. Everyone is bringing their own backgrounds and personal experiences into the mix, even if they don’t realize it. That’s part of what makes our reactions to films so intriguing and makes for such interesting discussions. The predominant themes of a film (or any work of art) will vary dramatically based on everyone’s perspective. You’ve hit the nail on the head with this well-written post.

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    • Max Oblivion

      “From the moment he is born the way a white male sees the world, the way he forms sentences, the angles that catch his eye, will be different from a woman’s or a person of color’s.” — Kartina

      As a white male, should I then reject post-racial delusion and embrace my white maleness fully? It seems I must because the lines have been drawn. I cannot break free, it is my nature, my destiny. The people of color and those with vaginas do surely seek my end. I must not deny what I am and must be. I am oppressor, racist, rapist and the “death of us all”. God forgive me, but I am what you made me.

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  14. I am not Kartina Richardson therefore I cannot speak for hear but I feel like responding to Max Oblivion (who I think is well meaning, kinda). The way I understand it, Kartina is talking about the way of the world AS IT IS. You seem to be talking about the that you think the world should be or could be. I don’t think Ms. Richardson drew the line, she’s just reminding us of the lines that have always been there and probably won’t disappear in the immediate future.

    Also, I’m fairly certain that she that as a white male you are “oppressor, racist, rapist and the “death of us all”. Just sayin

    Reply
    • Max Oblivion

      Thanks for your comments David. If you could restate the slightly incoherent second paragraph I would understand your meaning better.

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    • Max Oblivion

      You know David, all of these comments, responses and reactions are really quite pointless. Kartina’s essay is her art and requires no critique or defense. That’s why she never responds to comments about it. Her views, her art are beyond reproach.

      Reply
  15. Jamal Clemence

    My God, I had to stop reading halfway through your anti white-male diatribe. Most racist article about film I’ve ever read!

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  16. To me the first problem is writing about film in such a way that as you say, you don’t destroy the magic.

    As far as who we are and how that influences how we see the world and films, I have to answer yes and no. Having grown up Jewish, there’s been a bit of an outsider status that to some extent has been cemented by my conversion to Buddhism. Also, some of us film bloggers do cast a critical eye on the “whiteness” of Hollywood, as well as other views that may be in need of challenge. Knowledge and respect for other cultures comes into play as well.

    Anyways, you’re invited when time and inclination permit to visit my joint. And if you feel you need to call me out on anything, feel free. I can take it.

    Reply
  17. Well, at least Max’s name is appropriate.

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    • Max Oblivion

      In case you were wondering Andrew, Max Oblivion isn’t my real name. It’s derived from the names of two characters in the ’80s classic,”Videodrome”. It is one of my all time favorites and was probably one of the first movies I rented after buying my first VCR. Take a look if you haven’t seen it yet.

      http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0086541/

      Reply
  18. This is a thoughtful analysis that raises insightful and important points.

    But… “From the moment he is born the way a white male sees the world, the way he forms sentences, the angles that catch his eye, will be different from a woman’s or a person of color’s.” Really? Newborns are are innately conscious of race and gender and view the world entirely differently from female and non-white infants? Hardly. These are concepts we aquire, and they vary (often widely) from culture to culture. This statement comes dangerously close to saying that racism and sexism are inherent in every white male — which would be racist and sexist in its own way.

    Reply
  19. Kartina Richardson

    @Max

    I wish I could interact in comments sections, and I’m very envious of those that do, but I don’t reply to comments for two reasons:

    1) I would obsess over each reply and never leave the computer.

    and the larger reason

    2) As absurd as it sounds, I’m extremely shy and interacting in comment sections makes me very, very socially anxious.

    Reply
    • Max Oblivion

      Apparently some people (you) have a life. If you could answer one question for me though I would be eternally grateful. What is your favorite espresso beverage? I’ve tried many different variations but keep coming back to a simple cafe mocha served in a ceramic cup. Do you have a go-to favorite?

      Reply
      • Max Oblivion

        KARTINA: Well Max, thank you for asking. I can’t say that I have a favorite beverage since I like to enjoy the seasonal flavors as often as possible. For instance, lately I’ve been doing a lot of Pumpkin Spice, Gingerbread and Peppermint Mocha. Whichever way I go, there’s nothing quite like a bit of espresso to make my day complete.

        MAX: My beverage habits are very similar. When I take my 87 year old mother to Starbuck’s, she likes to do the seasonals as well and I usually order what she’s having. When I order for myself though I usually go with the Mocha.

        You see Kartina, you and I have a lot more in common than you might think. Thanks for sharing your preferences with me. I really do appreciate it.

        Reply
  20. I enjoy all perspectives on certain films, as long as they’re tasteful. For example, if you were to write an article about Citizen Kane or The Wizard of Oz, I’d be fascinated to read what a black woman has to say about a 70-year-old classic film.

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  21. Great essay & you were equally fluent on EBERT last nite! Kudos Miss!

    Reply
  22. Donovan Barbara

    I will say that this is very well observed and interpreted when only the typical modes of experience of the typical human being are taken into account, but I will also insist that it betrays the ultimately ideal state of mind for any human, which is to appreciate the universality of human perceptive inherencies.

    Epistemologically, we all have the same basic mental context as members of the human species. It is rarely convenient in most societies to spend any time evaluating the nature of circumstances evolved and developed as a result of inherited cultural trends which are grafted onto our conditioning, and therefore it would be correct to state that such an evaluation rarely occurs, but it is plainly false to state that this sort of appreciation can never be reached. The human mind is forced to adapt and assimilate the context of its individual circumstances, but it is also inherently capable of doing so for members of the human species with disparate circumstantial contexts.

    While your observations are very involved and instructive as to the dangers of ignoring the nature of context, your conclusions are closed minded and isolationist, and preclude the most important function of presenting such warnings, which is to reach a state of mutual respect and sober empathy informed by an understanding of our shared fundamental humanity. Your implication that such a thing is impossible is a rather bleak one, and I am glad you are slightly misguided in it.

    You are right that when you write about film you write about yourself, and that everybody has a unique set of circumstances, but the degree to which you insist everything must be subjective certainly dictates the degree to which you can appreciate anything. I am sorry that you feel the need to insist that humans are essentially incapable of empathy; such is a very unproductive and regressive perspective to maintain.

    I promise you, I am just as offended and depressed by the homogenous nature of perspective in American films, and by the degree of poverty of culturally enlightened and sociologically conscious sensibilities contained within those responsible for them throughout the years.

    I am constantly made to make a particular distinction. People say that opinions are your own. That is obvious, because opinions are the product of incrementally accumulated personal experience. But they also insist that all opinions are equal. This is where I make a distinction. All opinions would only be equal if they were all informed by identical experiences. If your level of searching study and reflection didn’t factor into your level of appreciation and understanding, then there would be entirely no reason to be either searching or reflective. “Is this a good film?” and “Do I enjoy this film?” thankfully, are two entirely different matters, and the same can be said for all matters of human behaviour. Whether a person likes something is not the same as whether a thing is good. Ideally, these things should match, and to be sure they are capable of being matched, but in most cases they do not.

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  23. Awesome essay, Katrina.

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  24. You talk about the importance of subjective individual experience, but then you talk as though your experience reflects every “Asian” “female.” Or did you mean to categorize yourself as an “Asian” “American” “female”? Or did you mean “Asian” “American” “liberal” “female”? lol. Maybe your indvidual experience is closer to many “white” “males” than it is to many “Asian” “females.” Try opening your mind before broadly categorizing people as you claim others do.

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  25. The same can be said regarding religion, socioeconomic status, nationality, sexual orientation, regional upbringing, and family situation, among other factors that make us who we are. We are born into a specific circumstance that is different than everyone else on the planet, yet to us, that is “normal,” and that affects our outlook on life. Yet, movies throughout history have primarily been seen through the eyes of white men. How do viewers who are different than the typical protagonist relate to these films? When screenwriters approach a film and try to figure out who their main character is, they need to question all aspect of that person’s life in order to build that character, but far too often they resort to the “default setting” rather than putting any effort into it. Some of the most memorable movies have been when the main character has some different, unexpected aspect of them that makes them stand out from the traditional Hollywood hero.

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  26. @Anonymous

    Um how about none of the above. Not only is your point stupid, but she’s said many times in her posts that she’s Black & Asian, and identifies as mixed and specifically not as asian. What an idiot. lol

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  27. @ Cinebeats. lol. You missed the point. I do not care what her race or sex is. I would not have even known the author was a female “person of color” if she had not pointed it out. She could be a transsexual for all I know or care.

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  28. @anonymous

    You obviously havent read anything except this post then, because I think it’s obvious in all her writing (which i mean is a good thing)

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  29. @Max Oblivion oh, dear. let us count to 3, and draw a few deep breaths. you seem to feel betrayed and I am not sure why. you are not under attack. no one has called you evil, or single-minded, or any of the things you seem to feel accused of. every *person* views the world through the lens shaped by their personality/disposition, preferences, environment, beliefs, experiences, etc. and that of course includes a great many universal experiences–perhaps an unrequited love, nervousness on the first day of school, the joy of making a new friend, the light in the room during our favorite time of day etc. oh, so many of things affect what we are later drawn to, & how we feel about it. a shy person will be drawn to one element of a thing while an extrovert will pick out another. & this is neither a negative or positive thing, the fact of these inclinations. it is part of the business of being human, no? so then, we might as well not pretend that our views exist in a vacuum. & we shouldn’t feel somehow less authentic or objective for simply acknowledging our patchwork of influences. it IS a patchwork; we are large, we contain multitudes & no one part defines us. why should it be painful, or shameful, or somehow less progressive, to simply acknowledge a mere few of the parts that make up our tapestry, while having the larger conversation of life (or film or art)? the tapestry is there anyway. it feels more honest & real (to me) to be able to speak of it without anyone feeling threatened in any way. it should not be a threatening or even surprising thing.

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    • Max Oblivion

      Lena, I agree with most of what you said though I don’t get the “betrayed” angle at all. I agree with you that:

      “we are large, we contain multitudes & no one part defines us. why should it be painful, or shameful, or somehow less progressive, to simply acknowledge a mere few of the parts that make up our tapestry, while having the larger conversation of life (or film or art)?”

      That is pretty much my view. I’ve reacted to Kartina’s emphasis on the role that race and gender must play in the creation of that tapestry and her use of certain racial and gender stereotypes in her essays about film. I don’t object to her position that she is most authentic when she embraces subjectivity when writing about film. I think it’s silly for any writer to pretend to be objective when commenting on film or anything else. I think it can become problematic though when writers express their personal perspectives through their art and then within the context of the personal, form sweeping generalizations about race and gender as if those assertions were grounded in an objective reality. If you read more of Kartina’s essays, particularly the one on “The Tree of Life” I think you will see what I’m talking about.

      The truth is I like Kartina’s writing style a lot and I think she has a lot to offer as a film historian and critic. I wouldn’t post here if I didn’t. I don’t completely share Kartina’s worldview but that’s OK. She has a talent I can appreciate and that’s what’s important. Take a look at her “Badlands” review, it’s magical.

      Reply
  30. is it possible? might we be kindred spirits – at least as far as film and filmmaking go?

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  31. Max Oblivion

    When does subjectivity become self-indulgence? Is self-indulgence integral to great art?

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  32. Kartina Richardson

    Also, to those that have commented and don’t see your comments here, it’s because you only had dumb shit to offer.

    (If you think I only allow positive feedback, see all of Mr. Oblivion’s comments above).

    Reply

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