Meet a Critic: Nathan Lee Weighs in on Leaving the Village Voice, Why Critics are Ineffective, and What's Next
The outspoken young writer on the Voice and how the word "boner" defines the generational divide in criticism.
Since you left the Voice and David Ansen got bought out, a lot more people have been discussing the trend. Have you followed along?
NL: I'll admit, it was nice to see a certain amount of critical support around my being let go and the state of film criticism. It was also highly amusing to read some of the more hostile comments, like, "This is what you get for liking Southland Tales" -- that was my favorite. "This is what you deserve for picking Southland Tales as your favorite movie of the year!"
David Carr from the [New York] Times got in touch with me for a comment about a story he was writing. I couldn't at the time...I didn't decline to comment because I didn't want to say anything to him; it was just a delicate moment. At the same time, what is there to say? Newspapers are going to hell, there's no money, and we're in a recession. Things are going to get cut, and film critics are at the front of that line. Arts writing in general is considered dispensable. So I don't know if there is really much of a story to it.
At this point it seems people have identified the problem, but what's missing from the discussion are any solutions. Do you have any to offer?
NL: As many people have pointed out, there's no lack of film writing going on right now. There's more than there has ever been. The Internet has opened up huge areas of new writing, some of which is quite good, the majority of which is quite bad -- which I think is the same of print. I mean, it's really sad that all these film critics are losing their jobs, but I think most film criticism is terrible. And not useful. And frankly, really boring. I read very little of it, and find very little of it to be useful. So it's a shame that my colleagues are losing their jobs, but on the other hand I don't read many of them.
One of the underlying issues in all of this is...people are losing their jobs because of economic reasons, for the most part, but also film criticism - at least mainstream print criticism - is dominated by the Baby Boom generation and older. There's almost no one my age writing on a professional level at a major outlet. There's Scott Foundas in LA Weekly, there's Wesley Morris at the Boston Globe, very few. Very, very few. I think that's a little bit problematic.
Do you think that older critics are out of touch with most readers?
NL: I'm hesitant to make assumptions about the readers and what they're responding to. I just know that movies are going through a radical change, with the crossover from film to digital. And I don't know that the generation that dominates film writing can bring the same perspective and sensibility to bear.
Some people seem to think that the technological gap between older critics and younger audiences means they're out of touch with one another.
NL: They are out of touch; the flip side is I don't know how in touch the younger generation is. I was shocked at the hostility, for instance, at Southland Tales, which is a movie made by a director exactly my age, who's already made a classic of my generation -- the Rebel Without a Cause of my generation, Donnie Darko. He made this film that, you know, isn't perfect, but I think in a lot of ways speaks very directly to a generational sensibility -- and critics my age hated it, completely directed a hostility to it that I found shocking, so I don't know that there's necessarily a younger generation who 'gets it' better.
There are a lot of young writers who are committed to really serious cinema and write about it with a lot of passion, but also very little sense of humor, and sense of liveliness. There's this ardent righteousness to it, and this kind of old fashioned, auteurist bent to it. On the one hand you either have dry, serious cinephilia, or you have glib, snarky philistines. There seems to be no middle ground.
One of the things I tried to do in my writing was take movies very seriously, but have fun with it. Let it be lively, let it be jokey. Find a combination of that. So I don't know, I don't think the younger generation is the answer, either. We're doomed!
Next: On using the word "boner" in a review, and what he thinks of Anthony Lane and Ed Gonzales