The Movie Assassin
September 30, 2018 12:18 PM   Subscribe

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?
posted by chappell, ambrose (133 comments total) 114 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was very good.
posted by PMdixon at 12:44 PM on September 30, 2018 [16 favorites]


Thank you so much for sharing. This made my whole weekend.
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:51 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Great read. This part is so true.

“Lying is not hard. All it requires is the nerve to say things that aren’t true, while remembering that even the people who know us best are rarely paying attention.”

Thanks for posting.
posted by Don.Kinsayder at 12:52 PM on September 30, 2018 [14 favorites]


It featured the word aubergine where purple would have done, and went on like this.

Yes. This encapsulates everything wrong with a particular sub genre of literature.

As for the movie, I was really confused why there was such hoopla about it. The B story, with Kip and the nurse, was far more interesting to me. And in the climactic A story moment as he emerges from the cave carrying his lover in his arms, I remember just sighing and being unimpressed.
posted by rmd1023 at 12:57 PM on September 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I went into this expecting something infuriatingly reductive based on the pull-quote, but no, this is great, this is really great.
posted by Greg Nog at 12:58 PM on September 30, 2018 [15 favorites]


if every movie reviewer who claimed to like that movie was lying then the world would make so much more sense to me
posted by kyrademon at 1:00 PM on September 30, 2018 [12 favorites]


I mean, Elaine on Seinfeld agreed with her first review."Just die already!"

I never saw it because, eh. Nothing about it looked compelling.

The whole semi-meditation on the nature of being a paid writer (successful and non) makes me appreciate my early choice not to travel that road.
posted by emjaybee at 1:01 PM on September 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


Arrgh. All this time I thought it was just me! What a waste of time.
posted by KneeDeep at 1:02 PM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


I decided not to see Cold Mountain based on how insufferable I found The English Patient.
posted by under_petticoat_rule at 1:04 PM on September 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


Very very good. Made my weekend too. I’m quitting my bullshit job this week and this is inspiring, although maybe that’s the wrong message.

God, World War II stuff in the 90s was just fucking insufferable. This movie was just a part of that Greatest Generation bullshit.

Sometimes there are movies I’m embarrassed to have liked, because I didn’t actually like them but everyone else did and they were the biggest movie events ever, so I convinced myself I had good taste and liked them too (looking at you, all three Lord of the Rings movies). It’s not about whether the movies were objectively bad, but about not having the confidence to say I didn’t like them, even to myself.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:06 PM on September 30, 2018 [19 favorites]


This was great, thank you.
posted by kjh at 1:10 PM on September 30, 2018


I read this this morning! And my first reaction was to like it immensely - it's very well-written and there's a ton of truth in it, especially with regards to her hard-earned lessons about her career arc/path, as well as about how much The English Patient was smart-sounding but hollow and that whole genre of pretentious literature actually mostly all sucks - but something about it made me kind of ambivalent almost as soon as I'd finished it, and I've been trying to identify what, exactly, didn't sit right with me about it basically all afternoon. I think, at root, it's that in my early twenties I was, and hung out with a lot of other people who were, basically, "movie assassins" in our right, trashing on whatever parts of culture were popular with the masses and feeling righteously edgy and smart for it (although we never got paid for it). It's hard for me to get fully on board with her sort of nostalgia for that younger version of herself, because if I could go back in time and address that younger version of myself, I'd just end up re-enacting this webcomic.

I recognize that these feelings aren't totally applicable to someone working as a professional movie critic, but: I guess it's that I feel like she's halfway there. If she had been open and true to herself about the fact that she thought the English Patient was utter garbage, she would've been far happier. But, to answer her hypothetical, if we'd all turned to each other and agreed it was garbage and had a massive riot, there'd be...the aftermath of a riot to clean up. And then the next month, there would've been another, different movie that was hugely popular despite being hot garbage.** Maybe it would've been slightly less garbage-y garbage, but garbage nonetheless. Eventually, there would be something she liked that everyone else thought was garbage. (In fact, that is not a hypothetical.) And that process - that process of trying to get that consensus, trying to get everyone to agree that the thing you think sucked really definitely, Officially Sucked - that process adds a lot of misery to the world, makes a lot of people feel bad about themselves, and so for it to be worth it, the piece of culture you're trying to destroy needs to be a lot worse than The English Patient. Mein Kampf? Yeah, okay, maybe don't let people just enjoy it. But otherwise? Just...let people enjoy the things they enjoy, and the world, overall, will be a better place. If you want art to be better, make or support the art that you think is better, instead of trying to take a one-person stand against Sturgeon's Law and tear down everything that you think is bad. (Again: not perfectly applicable to professional movie critics, I do realize.)

**unless she got the world to reach that consensus about The English Patient by waving a magic wand and creating some kind of unbreakable monocultural groupthink, which would be its own kind of creepy-ass dystopia.
posted by mstokes650 at 1:14 PM on September 30, 2018 [37 favorites]


God, World War II stuff in the 90s was just fucking insufferable.

Not any better now. I'm sure The Nightingale and All the Light We Cannot See will be mediocre Oscar-bait soon enough. Anyway, The English Patient, both book and film, are good in parts.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:17 PM on September 30, 2018


It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit.

Nice. I don't like bullshit movies either, and this was a great read, by the way.
posted by kozad at 1:26 PM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


This was incredible, thank you.
posted by schadenfrau at 1:30 PM on September 30, 2018


Like mstokes650, I feel like this essay was a younger version of myself writing -- and writing very well. I reviewed books for my local newspaper for many years, and righteously trashed some of the most highly regarded novels and writers of our time. I also cleverly demolished plenty of first novels and earnest but poorly written fiction and non-fiction by little known authors. I regret these latter reviews most heartily, now.

I realize now my reviews were so mean because I was frustrated about my own writing, and I hated the fact that these mediocre writers were getting published, and i wasn't even getting anything finished enough to even submit. It was all about the, and I'm so sorry now.
posted by Modest House at 1:38 PM on September 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


She starts the piece believing she has all the answers, is then convinced she doesn't, then does again, but after further experience finds her previous belief was wrong, but know she knows better.

I used to think I thought the right way, like, who cares if everyone does bad things, because bad things are just what important people have to do. Who cares if Barack Obama bombs people and doesn’t even try to prosecute bankers, because that’s all just his job, and he loves gay people and yells at bigots and his wife is smart and has great arms. Who cares if Hillary Clinton is best friends with Henry Kissinger, because she is a woman and so am I, and she stands up to men, and isn’t that what feminism is all about, finally getting into the rooms, finally getting to be the one to kill the people who don’t matter? Since my life was a fantasy, I had no trouble inhabiting a larger one.

She's a very reductive thinker, trying to constantly pare everything down to a simple answer. Maybe it should be that way, but recognizing it isn't and there are competing interests doesn't make you opposed to either reality or hope of improvement. Life is more complex than that. One can both hope to hold Obamas or Clintons to high standards and still see them as vast improvements over competing alternatives. Wanting fairness and truth to win out has to recognize that perception does matter, not everything will be The English Patient, where the claims of value are, to the writer, so easy to define. Were one to try that same tactic on any number of works here on Metafilter, you'd find lots of pushback about the works themselves and the values behind the assessment.
posted by gusottertrout at 1:41 PM on September 30, 2018 [34 favorites]


Yeah, I was a little uneasy about the movie assassin stuff, but I don't know if that's really the point of the essay anyway. I thought the point was that we all keep ourselves quiet about stuff because we don't want to go against the consensus, so we believe widely-accepted bullshit, like how it's OK to bomb families because presidents have to make hard decisions. The little lies we tell ourselves so we can be OK with stuff we would otherwise have a hard time accepting.

I'm as big a defender of public tastes as anyone, but I don't think that's necessarily important here. The issue with The English Patient is that she had made it her job to give this totally frank opinion on stuff, no matter what people thought of it. Then this movie came along and instead of giving her frank opinion, she found herself bending to pressure to hedge and say maybe it's OK. And she saw that as personal growth. It's not that the movie is bad, it's that she didn't have the guts to say she hated it, and that sent her down a path of doing other stuff because it was the safer choice, which also ended up being the less honest choice. Not everyone is in a position to live so boldly, but she is, or was, and she's saying she should have. The takeaway I got is that for all of us, there's probably something (or some things) we've accepted as OK, despite maybe having the capacity to think otherwise.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 1:48 PM on September 30, 2018 [21 favorites]


This is the first time I've ever seen someone try to explain the weird protective urge -- not maternal, not romantic, not even particularly sororal -- one gets around a Delicate Pretty Friend. I spent a year with a woman like this, one who looked remarkably like a young Alyssa Milano. I was used to male attention (in the way most young women quickly get used to low-grade harassment). But...there are no words to describe the intensity with which some men fixate on doe-eyed, vulnerable-looking young women. You'd be surprised how quickly you find yourself sliding into a Secret Service mentality, because the focus on them is constant and creepy beyond words.
posted by grandiloquiet at 2:02 PM on September 30, 2018 [27 favorites]


I liked this essay a lot even though I almost 100% disagree with the middle. The end I agree with. (I've never seen or read The English Patient.)

She's a bit older than me, but we're more or less of the same generation and I've got several friends who spent a lot of time in the alt-weekly trenches. I also recognize her nineties fashions - not quite the same as my own nineties fashions but relatively similar.

It mainly reminded me, though, of what a premium my generation put on being an asshole. Like, the whole point of being a fashionably smart person was to go write for some alt weekly about how terrible and mainstream and boring and basic all the normies were, and at the same time to be in uncomfortable competition with everyone else at the alt weekly about who could be the most uncaringly asshole-ish. I look back at so much of what was produced in the nineties by people of more or less my age and type and it's all garbage. It doesn't tell you anything except that we thought that we were a whole fuck of a lot smarter than everyone else - older people were boring and generic, younger people were naive.

And we all thought we were so very clever. I've never seen The English Patient. You know why? Because I was too punk rock to see normie movies like that. (I have seen The Buddha of Suburbia, because I love Hanif Kureishi movies.) Now, on the one hand, this meant that I missed out on a lot of crummy movies. On the other, well, I missed out on those movies because I was too far up my own ass to be any good at being a human, and because I was too self-impressed to bother to try to understand what someone else might see in something I didn't like. My entire life was pretty much organized around never doing regular-person stuff and being terrified that I would accidentally enjoy a normie film or record and someone would find out.

I don't think that the problem with my generation is that we learned to fake our affection for terrible movies, etc etc so much as it is that we have been self-absorbed and uninterested in others' wellbeing from the get-go.
posted by Frowner at 2:06 PM on September 30, 2018 [95 favorites]


I never saw it because, eh. Nothing about it looked compelling.

same here, but then I was getting pretty good at spotting popular-serious movies I knew I'd probably hate as the 90s rolled along, mainly based on certain individuals who'd get all evangelical about them. Bullshit detection is an art, I guess.
posted by philip-random at 2:11 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Then this movie came along and instead of giving her frank opinion, she found herself bending to pressure to hedge and say maybe it's OK.

It's hard to know when I'm bending to pressure or actually reacting to my own natural tendency to reconsider my own opinion when it's strongly contradicted. My life is full of experiences that I hated at first but came to appreciate. But -- and this is especially true for a young person and/or a woman -- there isn't always a lot of choice about what you can do if you keep your opinion.

What I remember about The English Patient is, in fact, largely hair-based, specifically the sight of Naveen Andrews unwinding his turban and washing his long black hair. That commanded my attention, which was subsequently let go again. I was watching the movie with my mother, who was almost in tears, and IIRC I was thinking of something else most of the time. I was just young enough to accept that it was something for grownups, not for me. Now I think I was wrong to have accepted that, although the movie is neither interesting nor offensive enough to make me want to review it.

Her pictures of sunny fall '90s days and her final words appeal too much to my half-in-love-with-easeful-Death feelings about things, and I hope she has been able to find some stability now.
posted by Countess Elena at 2:13 PM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


...I was just a checking account with shoes and bookshelves.

If that's what you mean by "reductive", sign me up for more
posted by thelonius at 2:15 PM on September 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


For a time maybe 10 years ago, I was paid to professionally hate movies for the now-defunct site Mr. Cranky. I was, in effect, hired to be Mr. Cranky. It was relatively fun and easy to do, because most films are fairly terrible, and it's usually possible to make what's bad about a movie funny to the reader.

The hardest films to write about were the ones that were right in the middle, and which had nothing concrete to grab on to and make fun of. I would be forced to head off on a tangent, or focus on something on the film's periphery with enough meat on it to mock.

Having come from, and later returning to, writing straight movie reviews, I discovered there wasn't much difference between that and Mr. Cranky other than the emphasis on being mean.
posted by jordantwodelta at 2:28 PM on September 30, 2018 [13 favorites]


My recollection is that The English Patient had a fairly substantial backlash at the time saying it was overrated and had somehow built momentum out of bullshit. I was quite pleasantly surprised to actually enjoy it, even more so since it was one of those times when I was forced into watching it at a family event. Cold Mountain was also a pretty decent film. As for WW2 films of the 1990s, The Thin Red Line is clearly outstanding.
posted by biffa at 2:31 PM on September 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


When I was a student I wrote theater reviews for the local weekly. I well remember writing a bad review of a play whose author later won a Nobel Prize for Literature. It's not that I was wrong; it's that I didn't know nearly enough about world theater or world history to be writing that review. That's what makes it hard to be a young critic, and why we need to read lots of critics and appreciate them for their individual points of view, not on how well they agree with each other. Thank to Metafilter, I recently bought a collection of George Orwell's essays on books and culture, and saw how incredibly illuminating criticism by someone who has a broad world view can be. I sympathize with the author (and also hated "The English Patient") but good, useful criticism is hard to do.
posted by acrasis at 2:32 PM on September 30, 2018 [13 favorites]


I thought the point was that we all keep ourselves quiet about stuff because we don't want to go against the consensus, so we believe widely-accepted bullshit, like how it's OK to bomb families because presidents have to make hard decisions. The little lies we tell ourselves so we can be OK with stuff we would otherwise have a hard time accepting.

Yeah, I think that was the point the essay was moving towards, and it is something worth thinking about. Miller seems like an idealist, which is nothing to be ashamed of at all. Idealists are needed to help keep things in check to not slide towards ease alone as a determining factor in taking action. But, as others have pointed out, it's easy to just hate movies or pretty much anything in life that doesn't live up to some ideal.

The question that needs to be asked is more in how true or far reaching my own beliefs are and what other perspectives or complicating factors may be involved. Criticism shouldn't just be pointing out the bad, especially not when that becomes the pleasure of the effort, but in also looking to see the work as broadly as possible to provide a deeper understanding of it and the various ways it might be received. Taking one's own taste or immediate reaction alone as the determining factor isn't enough, you need to examine the larger picture as well. Which is something I didn't get a good feel for from the essay.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:42 PM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


Sarah Miller previously and previouslier.
posted by stevil at 3:19 PM on September 30, 2018 [3 favorites]


The other thing is that if I hate something that everyone else loves, I try not to just assume that this is because I'm smarter and more perceptive - even though hating something that everyone else loves was how people of my age and type proved our worth back in the day.

I've had so many conversations with my fellow white people, for instance, where people just hate some movie or book or album by an artist of color and it's obvious that they don't have any context for their opinion and/or are misreading the thing entirely. On that note, some time around 1994 I told an actual living, breathing adult human (who, in his favor, rebuked me for being a dumbass) that I liked all music...except country and rap. At this point in my life, if I hate something that a lot of other people - especially people whose opinions I generally respect - think is great, I assume that the issue is that I'm reading it wrong.
posted by Frowner at 3:21 PM on September 30, 2018 [21 favorites]


It sounds like you need to be one sort of idealist to love The English Patient, and another sort of idealist to hate it.

[arches eyebrows]
posted by clawsoon at 3:21 PM on September 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


Not sure I would make fun of the Greatest Generation right now - they did defeat fascism, and here we are a human lifespan later, with our own global battle against fascism on our hands. I hope we win, and I will then - years later - look forward to reading overwrought fiction describing our pink pussy hats with more ornate adjectives...
posted by PhineasGage at 3:31 PM on September 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


The part about Obama and Clinton makes me think that the author's thesis is that access to power and money - even the modest power and money that comes with writing a sex column in New York - inevitably makes you false to your ideals.
posted by clawsoon at 3:44 PM on September 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


excuse me but can we focus on the most spectacular and astonishing part of the article, aka her ability to function financially as an adult off of a writing career

I think I made about $1400 a month, or $1600 if I was very lucky, but I didn’t mind.

christ this is like 5k a week in 2018
posted by poffin boffin at 3:44 PM on September 30, 2018 [18 favorites]


her rent was $350 im having a fuckign breakdown
posted by poffin boffin at 3:48 PM on September 30, 2018 [18 favorites]


I think I made about $1400 a month, or $1600 if I was very lucky, but I didn’t mind.

christ this is like 5k a week in 2018


Mmm, not really.
posted by Halloween Jack at 4:04 PM on September 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


yes i'm shocked, SHOCKED i tell you, that my hysterical exaggeration isn't in any way accurate.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:10 PM on September 30, 2018 [28 favorites]


I wonder if the point is that we shouldn't have to try and balance things. A lot of the "good" stuff people point to when confronted with their leaders/hereos/culture doing bad things is in fact just those people doing the right thing. You shouldn't be able to weigh them against each other.
posted by maxwelton at 4:21 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


I've never seen The English Patient. You know why? Because

Because to me, a long-term caregiver for a couple men, seeing caregiving in movies just doesn't do it for me, even if it's the flashbacks that are supposed to be sexy or whatever. I can't get into it with that framing. I love romantic travel movies, and this one keeps coming up on lists, but no, I won't, you can't make me. I watch movies for escape. Also I'm not very into Ralph Fiennes, though yes always to Naveen Andrews.
posted by limeonaire at 4:22 PM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


One of the subtexts here is obvious: the financial necessity of the artist to betray her principles or violate her artistic inclinations for money. Few artists escape this in their lives. We all deal with it differently.

It's funny, though, as much as I hated Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," I started to enjoy it after playing it for four or five weddings. However, playing "My Way" six nights a week in Nagoya (I have no idea why the Japanese are so fond of that song) only made me hate it more. But I still played it with a smile, because the money was good.
posted by kozad at 4:30 PM on September 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


I was surprised she didn't like toy story tbh.
posted by Carillon at 4:41 PM on September 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


I loved this essay. I’ve never been one to feel like “the normies are wrong for liking their basic shit” because there are just so many of them and their basic shit is so popular that I just know I’m the one out of step with the larger culture.

That said, I remember liking the English Patient when I saw it in the theater, but this essay made me realize I liked it in a self-congratulatory way—look at young me, watching this serious adult movie! But the movies I was actually excited to see in 1996 were the likes of Mars Attacks, Independence Day, and Trainspotting. (Which were popular movies, don’t misunderstand, just without pretention to seriousness or adultness.)
posted by ejs at 4:45 PM on September 30, 2018


I remember I really liked the airplane scenes. Burn patient gratuitishnes, but nice airplanes.
posted by sammyo at 4:46 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


What I remember about The English Patient is, in fact, largely hair-based, specifically the sight of Naveen Andrews unwinding his turban and washing his long black hair.

Ha, me too!

Middlebrow. The word everyone is looking for here is middlebrow.
posted by praemunire at 4:50 PM on September 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


I think a lot of people liked The English Patient because it was a colonialist fantasy, and they admired Obama for indiscriminate bombing in the middle East, and they don't see anything wrong with Kissinger.

I don't know, I liked Miller's argument that you are what you pretend to be. But that doesn't mean everyone is pretending.
posted by muddgirl at 4:51 PM on September 30, 2018 [9 favorites]


yes i'm shocked, SHOCKED i tell you, that my hysterical exaggeration isn't in any way accurate.
posted by poffin boffin at 4:10 PM on September 30 [6 favorites −] Favorite added! [!]


poffin boffin's latest driveby bons mots were met by restrained, fact-checking disapproval on MetaFilter this evening, while the avian-handled artist responded with gestures of dismissive disinterest. Fan reaction remains to be seen.*

I worked as a movie critic, back when you could make something approaching minimum wage. It was (and remains) my favorite work, the things I have written that I think are the best, most closely observed pictures of the inside of my head. I don't think I ever wrote a pro piece for a movie that I thought sucked. Only occasionally did I go all out anti (The Punisher, feat. Thomas Jane and Rebecca Romijn).

I don't think I ever really felt like I was appealing to become a part of a community of critics - certainly some local critics that I would run into a lot here did have a sense of community, and I think I was invited to join that community - but the ethos of slamming stuff was pretty much not my bag. I'd rather write about how and why this amateurish VHS thing was good than why that blockbuster was bad, and I was able to fool a couple editors into following my lead for a while. But in entertainment journalism, the bread is buttered by the blockbuster, and access is limited if you opt for dry toast.

*I chuckled
posted by mwhybark at 4:54 PM on September 30, 2018 [8 favorites]


It's funny, though, as much as I hated Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline," I started to enjoy it after playing it for four or five weddings. However, playing "My Way" six nights a week in Nagoya (I have no idea why the Japanese are so fond of that song) only made me hate it more. But I still played it with a smile, because the money was good.

I feel like there's an important difference between playing a song you hate with a smile on your face and lying about whether you like it or not.
posted by straight at 4:57 PM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


even though you hated playing it, how did you feel about the audience enjoying it?
posted by kokaku at 5:08 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


Like watching someone wakening into existentialism.

She’d added extra money because I had read the book. I wept, but at this point, it was because I was actually proud of myself. I felt I had learned something about how adults take care of themselves.
A few weeks later ...she said. “They are never, ever going to give you a job here.”


Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means.

It is just a heart, it is not special, and when yours stops beating, you will die.

And Sartre smiled.
posted by Twang at 5:12 PM on September 30, 2018 [4 favorites]


I'm going to be honest, I like this essay because I'm quitting my bullshit job tomorrow and I'm terrified to do it. I keep convincing myself that I'm the one who's wrong, that I should be accepting the bullshit because I need the money, and that the mature thing to do is to just put up with bullshit and learn to be OK with it. They're treating me badly, and literally everyone I know is telling me I should quit immediately. I'm having panic attacks in the car on my way to the office, but I'm still convincing myself that it's my problem, because mature people don't run away from their problems.

I needed this essay so badly, because I can easily see myself just accepting things as they are, and I think it would be unhealthy to do that.

I don't give a shit about The English Patient. I think it's one part Greatest Generation bullshit, one part overwrought nonsense, and also one part escapist love fantasy for millions of tired, overworked people like me who aren't too cynical to just enjoy a couple hours of entertainment. I don't care what it says about her having it in her heart to trash it, because I honestly just can't be bothered to care about that kind of thing at a time like this.

I think some of us are reading this differently because it speaks to different aspects of ourselves or our lives that we might regret or be frustrated with. Some people are seeing the tendency for shitty asshole snark, the "I'm just blunt" bullshit we hate (one of my biggest pet peeves, personally). Some are seeing the snobbery, being too good for it all (I was a video store guy, and I've been guilty of this on too many occasions). And so on. I get that. Personally, I'm seeing the part where you convince yourself you want something because you think you're supposed to be OK with it.

And man I need that message, because I'm at a crossroads. I needed the reminder that I could wind up very depressed if I do what I've convinced myself is the "mature" thing (just shut up and deal, like everyone else does), instead of sticking to what I actually want for myself.

And I'm not OK with bombing funerals and weddings, and I get that you evaluate people as a package, but no part of me is OK with this, and I can't be just because other stuff is OK. I don't want to tacitly approve of bad stuff. I'm going to quit my job tomorrow knowing that they'll tell me I'm letting them down, and I'll probably believe them, but I don't want to let that guide me into a future I don't want.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 5:25 PM on September 30, 2018 [23 favorites]


Sarah Miller makes some very good points there. On the other hand, she admits to not appreciating Godard either, and I'd get to see Kristin Scott Thomas having some "stunning" hair. Sorry if this contributes to the collapse of America somehow, but I am feeling slightly tempted now to try "English Patient" next time I'm stuck for something else to type when staring at the search field for a pirate movie streaming site.
posted by sfenders at 5:29 PM on September 30, 2018


Terrific article, but here's where it went a little off-track:

Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient. What if we had all turned to each other and said, “This garbage is our idea of rave-worthy cinema? Anyone else see a big problem here?”, and then there had been a massive riot?

"Hey man, I was there, man. I was in the theater when the Hipster Riots started."

"The English Patient, right."

"More like The English Patient Zero, if you ask me. From there, it spread like wildfire. I mean - my God - we even re-evaluated Breaking the Waves. It was like a thousand Holden Caulfields raising their voices at once to declare modern cinema 'phony' and 'pretentious.'"

This is the part of the essay where the author felt obliged to find some greater social significance to her personal struggle. It is a distraction from an otherwise great story. Bullshit wasn't invented, or even culminating, in 1996. For what it's worth, I don't think she's shed much of her 90's snarkiness at all, but that didn't hurt the story.
posted by Edgewise at 5:29 PM on September 30, 2018 [22 favorites]


I know that the point is not to examine The English Patient, but...

I worked at a movie theater during the time that this movie came out and I saw nearly everything that was released, just because. I saw The English Patient alone, in a pretty empty theater; and I bawled my eyes out. Who knows what combination of story, cinematography, personal stuff, the day itself, all led to being so moved by that film. But I ended up buying it on VHS (2 tapes!) and me and my college roommates watched it over and over.

So maybe I have terrible taste in movies, and didn't pick up on the colonialist apologia and I haven't watched the movie in the better part of 20 years-who knows if it still holds up.

But wow, did it turn me on to Ralf Fiennes.
posted by JennyJupiter at 6:04 PM on September 30, 2018 [5 favorites]


This is the part of the essay where the author felt obliged to find some greater social significance to her personal struggle.

And, who knows, maybe there was some sort of social significance for the movie reviewer of the second-string alt-weekly in Philadelphia being part of the chorus praising an overpraised movie, even if her choosing to do otherwise wouldn't have been the spark for the revolution. Sometimes, for some people, believing that you could have made a difference is worth the accompanying regret.
posted by Halloween Jack at 6:18 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


This is what being a Gen X slacker was all about.
posted by furtive at 6:27 PM on September 30, 2018 [10 favorites]


I'm having panic attacks in the car on my way to the office

Quit now, quit today, don't go back.
posted by mwhybark at 7:00 PM on September 30, 2018 [6 favorites]


To those of you quitting your job because it sucks (there are at least 2 of you in this thread), one piece of advice I learned a few years ago being a similar situation after talking to an employment lawyer: if you quit, you sacrifice your claim to some important benefits including unemployment. On the other hand if they fire you without cause -- and being an outspoken jerk to your prick boss after biting your tongue for 6 months or even totally sucking at your job interestingly enough is not cause in the sense that word cause matters in this context -- you don't give up these rights. (What is cause? As I understand it, this is serious stuff like embezzling money or sexually harassing others.)

So my advice is not necessarily to cop a fuck-it-all attitude, keep your job, and wait for them to walk you out of the building, although that ended up working out ok for me. It would be, if you can swing it, to spend a couple hundred dollars for a consult with a decent employment lawyer to better understand your rights and options. I am not a lawyer, so I'm not even sure what I said above is totally accurate and probably varies by state (and country). But for me, talking with a legal professional on the subject turned out to be a real life lesson and money well spent.
posted by bunbury at 8:40 PM on September 30, 2018 [7 favorites]


Saving Private Ryan is 20 minutes of technical cinematic brilliance followed by two hours of utter, utter mediocrity.

I have wanted to say that for so long.

Thanks for posting this article.
posted by tzikeh at 8:59 PM on September 30, 2018 [11 favorites]


What a great essay!

I agree with some others here that her whole ~eye opening revelation~ about the necessity political purism is.... ehhh. (probably because I'm not a political purist in her sense, and will stomp anyone who disses Hillary to my face omg)

But it's so well written! And blimey I am a sucker for manifestos about Owning Our Crazy at the Altar of Authenticity and Earnestness. Yesssssss. This.
posted by MiraK at 9:40 PM on September 30, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm certain I read some of Miller's online work in the 2000s -- the stuff she describes with regret in this piece.

It reminded me of the Suck.com days of the late 90s, and how Ana Marie Cox and especially Heather Havrilesky got their writing breaks in that snark alembic, went on to different things, and only now are (thankfully) doing work and getting the acclaim they deserve.

In relentless 2018, to read something where the prose style is bang-on late-90s is like catching a whiff of cK one in the air. It's sufficiently past ubiquitous to be really quite nice.
posted by holgate at 10:16 PM on September 30, 2018 [13 favorites]


I feel so vindicated. I was the standout in my circle of friends; they adored TEP and I really, really didn't. It's been a while since I've seen in (since 1996 in fact) but I just remember thinking that it had no center, no gravity to it. It was as fluffy and shallow as a film could be. But with all the trappings of An Important Film, and it really fooled everyone.

And I remember half-yelling to my roommate something like "Ok, in twenty years rewatch it and see if you still like it then!" Of course, he'd probably claim to like it out of spite.
posted by zardoz at 11:20 PM on September 30, 2018 [2 favorites]


I had a friend at university who was obsessed with TEP. For some reason I was under the impression that there were two versions of it, as if a European studio had put out the original and Hollywood had immediately re-made it to sell to a US audience. That doesn't seem to have been the case as far as I can tell, but I wonder why I had that idea in my head for so long.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 12:29 AM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


It was pull quoted elsewhere, but

I hope it’s not too late for me to tell you the truth. The heart is not an organ of fire. It is just a heart, it is not special, and when yours stops beating, you will die.

And

If you hear anything else in that saying, you’ve never wished you could just die because you couldn’t figure out how to make money.

are both either exactly what I needed to hear right now, or the absolutely worst possible thing for me to read at the moment. I really don't know which, but either way, they hit me at just the right moment that, until time dulls it and I return to equilibrium, they've knocked me a bit ascatter, and at the moment, I can point to two separate versions of myself, the one who read this, and the one who hadn't read it yet. The one that read it can't really imagine having been the person who didn't realize that obvious truth.

It'll fade. These things do. But for a little bit I've got something to cling to, that someone, somewhere wrote words that broke through, and someone, somewhere has shown me that I wasn't alone in struggling.
posted by Ghidorah at 2:52 AM on October 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


I am surprised no one in this thread has mentioned the real Movie Assassin, Pauline Kael...
posted by PhineasGage at 3:44 AM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


I had a friend at university who was obsessed with TEP. For some reason I was under the impression that there were two versions of it, as if a European studio had put out the original and Hollywood had immediately re-made it to sell to a US audience. That doesn't seem to have been the case as far as I can tell, but I wonder why I had that idea in my head for so long.

It was distributed by Miramax, so that would have been a good bet. Before he became a household name for worse reasons, Harvey Weinstein was known among film buffs as “Harvey Scissorhands,” philistine and vandal. He was notorious for cutting everything to ribbons before releasing it, which was of course most noticeable on foreign films that had already been released to great acclaim in their home markets. If you see any foreign film with a Miramax label on the DVD, there’s definitely a different cut of it. The English Patient was an American film though, and AFAIK Miramax its sole distributor. If another cut exists, it’s a single print on a shelf somewhere covered in the director’s tears.
posted by Sys Rq at 3:50 AM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Edgewise: "we even re-evaluated Breaking the Waves"

I never saw that movie but for a month or so there the trailer preceded every single movie I did see, leading to an overwhelming need to interject "He's from the rig!" into casual conversation.
posted by chavenet at 4:19 AM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


There is a certain irony of a writer declaiming her own personal voice in, if not purple then idiosyncratic personal, prose dissing another writer quoting a famous writers metaphor ( “The heart is an organ of fire,” she reads. She smiles wistfully and says, “I believe that too.”).
posted by sammyo at 4:34 AM on October 1, 2018




There is a certain irony of a writer declaiming her own personal voice in, if not purple then idiosyncratic personal, prose



ah yes, if not one particular thing, than another totally different thing. everything's a thing, when you really think about it, isn't it. ironic!
posted by queenofbithynia at 6:20 AM on October 1, 2018 [11 favorites]


I can’t get over half these posts being about the fucking movie that is, essentially, the crappy MacGuffin of an otherwise very personal yet universal essay.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:36 AM on October 1, 2018 [20 favorites]


This was so powerful.

I can name reasons I found it powerful. I happen to agree with her final analysis. I happen to long for the day we rise up and say "This is garbage", and we riot. I long also for being younger, not knowing things, breaking things. I mourn also for the ways I failed. I also sensed instantly that The English Patient would be worthless garbage (in my narrow little aesthetic world). And while I agree meanness is a terrible cancer, I don't especially need to learn that lesson (I already agree) so that part didn't poke at me, but I do also feel that growing up Gen X-ish, there was indeed a lot that sucked, and a lot to find fault with, as clumsy and ineffectual as we may have been finding that fault.

But even listing the ways I connect with this essay, I can't say why I found it so good. I mean, these are just words - same old words I read every day. For the most part, she did not put them together in an especially flowery or even seemingly unusual way. But she put them together in a way that magically unlocked my feelings.I kept thinking as I read how impressed I was with her craftsmanship, and at moments fantasizing I could write that, and then being reminded she's been writing for 20 years or more. You have to write and write and WRITE to be that good.

I loved this essay. I don't know who it's for or every one of the the things it's about but yet but I loved it.
posted by latkes at 7:10 AM on October 1, 2018 [8 favorites]


A mid-90s alt-weekly didn't have the guts to go against the consensus for something as trifling as a movie review. In other words, exactly like the rest of the Fourth Estate in 2018.
posted by whuppy at 7:17 AM on October 1, 2018


Not sure I would make fun of the Greatest Generation right now - they did defeat fascism, and here we are a human lifespan later, with our own global battle against fascism on our hands.

They defeated Germany. They did not defeat fascism. It lived on, as you point out.
posted by mpbx at 7:51 AM on October 1, 2018 [8 favorites]


I haven’t seen The English Patient but the article reminded me that I did see Legends of the Fall. Christ, was that movie terrible.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 9:28 AM on October 1, 2018


There are so many people in this thread aggressively missing the point you’d think the article was about feminism.
posted by schadenfrau at 9:41 AM on October 1, 2018 [16 favorites]


I haven't seen the movie so I won't defend it, but I think the novel is perfectly fine and I like the word "aubergine." Is it so bad to like language to be pretty and ornamented? Isn't that part of what makes books exciting, having fun with words? I just hate how everyone here loves to reflexively shit all over literary fiction.
posted by zeusianfog at 9:46 AM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


see Legends of the Fall. Christ, was that movie terrible.

Excuse me, that is the movie where Aidan Quinn (who admittedly has not aged all that well) was the less hot brother. Small victories.
posted by praemunire at 10:07 AM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Normies didn't like The English patient. Pretentious normies liked the English Patient. Normies like Independence Day and The Nutty Professor and The Rock and Mission: Impossible.

I liked this essay, and I suspect I would have liked her criticism back in the day, because film criticism is so often terrible and at least somebody who gets aesthetically angry about bullshit is going to be interesting. She's still interesting.
posted by maxsparber at 10:27 AM on October 1, 2018


Seeing The English Patient was an incredibly uncomfortable experience for me in a life filled with uncomfortable experiences. I went with a group of 5 or 6 other women, which was unusual for me because I mostly saw movies with only my sister, or a boyfriend, and all of my socializing was done in mixed groups and while I did hang with women friends in small groups and felt fine, I always felt like an odd person out in specific "girls night" experiences for whatever reason.

I found the movie to be excruciatingly boring and kept wishing I could just fall asleep until it was over but as we left the theater, it seemed like everyone else in my group had loved it and was raving so I just kept my mouth shut and felt like a weirdo, as usual.

Sarah Miller and I are almost the same age. Good old gen x. So bitter, so alienated. I know the special truth that a lot of stuff is actually garbage, but it hasn't made me any happier. It's a painful way to live.
posted by Squeak Attack at 11:05 AM on October 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


Middlebrow. The word everyone is looking for here is middlebrow.

Even better: upper-middlebrow. (Friends made me mad by calling The New Yorker upper middlebrow but...they are not incorrect.)

I read this piece blearily last night and found it slightly aggravating I think maybe because it felt so unrepentant in the aggrandizement of....well, see frowner's comment really. But probably if she had gone off on a movie I had felt more strongly too-good-for, instead of one that didn't make much of an impression, I'd have been on board. Like The Piano for fuck's sake.

Another relevant web comic.
posted by Smearcase at 11:08 AM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I can’t get over half these posts being about the fucking movie that is, essentially, the crappy MacGuffin of an otherwise very personal yet universal essay.

A piece of writing can be about more than one thing. If everyone is responding to the part about a movie, maybe that interested people?
posted by Smearcase at 11:13 AM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


I agree with those who say that this totally nails 90s "whatever" Gen-X culture. I too have come to terms with having aspired to be a nihilistic, arrogant asshole in the 90s.

That said, I side with the editor here. Yes, it's ok to dislike something. But if you're going to review a movie, you have to do it the courtesy of taking it seriously first. Her big mistake (which she admits) is taking utter delight (out loud) at the prospect of going to see what she was sure would be a thoroughly shitty movie. That practically guarantees that she would see the movie in a way that aligned with her expectations, and that makes for a completely useless review.

There appear to be a lot of writers out there (still) who are more concerned with showing their audience how good a writer they are than actually communicating anything of substance about the alleged subject of the piece of writing.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 11:23 AM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


I loved The English Patient, but in my defense, I was a child of sixteen when I finally saw it on VHS, and it seemed a bit more grown up than Titanic-- you saw the lady's nipples!!!!!!-- and people sobbing over lost love still seemed fancy.

In the years since, I have become more skeptical about the movie, but I maintain that a big reason people took it so seriously is not just the trappings of an art house film, but the soundtrack/score which is PHENOMENAL. Play that music behind even the most terrible tripe, and you will be swept away with pathos and what-could-have-beens.

Regarding the actual topic of the essay, and related to my age when the movie came out-- I remember being a tween/teen ten-to-five-ish years younger than Miller's age group, as the eternally and prematurely world-weary Gen X kids wrote about how everything was horrible and dumb and people were tragically suburban and naive for liking things, and it was a very intimidating sort of discourse to look up to and dread. I didn't really want to be world weary, but it seemed like anything else was treated as a joke. Being enthusiastic and liking things and saying "oh this show is sort of silly but it makes me feel better when I watch it" just weren't allowed in any of the social or print spaces I encountered. When my friends and I liked things, we would whisper about them so the seniors couldn't hear us and tell us we were wrong (and write articles in the student newspapers about how stupid we were, a thing that often happened).

Happy endings were embarrassing. Liking a character who tried to do the right thing was usually embarrassing. Goofy jokes that weren't told at someone else's expense was embarrassing. Valuing kindness over cleverness was embarrassing. Speaking truth to power was admired, as long as you did it with a sneer.

By the time I got to college myself, I was totally over what I perceived to be the Gen X requirement of eternally being "over it"-- I had embraced liking things, and listening to music people thought wasn't cool or indie enough, and avoiding people who seemed to hate everything on principle.

(to be clear this is not meant as a blanket condemnation of Gen X as an entire cohort, who were absolutely the cool kids who shaped my adolescence and media landscape-- but the ones I knew personally and a lot of the media properties aimed at them left a really crushing impression on me, as someone who usually felt like a kid sister who would never be blasé enough to measure up.)
posted by a fiendish thingy at 11:35 AM on October 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


I found the writing impressive, but in service to a stupendously adolescent, solipsist whinge.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 11:43 AM on October 1, 2018


Having read it over again, honestly, she doesn't read to me like a "too cool for everything" type. She talks about movies she liked. She clearly enjoyed trashing bad films, but I would submit that's more common than uncommon. She wasn't awfully passionate about film as an art-form, but is that a crime?

This article reminds me of the feeling I've had as a lawyer that's always pushed me away from the kinds of jobs where I would have to write a great deal that I didn't believe in. It's not good for you. Especially when you get paid a lot for doing it. You do build up a sort of unreal self, and that self is a highly unattractive one. Manufacturing an upper-middle-class persona so you can get a good lawyer job at all is hard and dangerous enough work.

(Aesthetically, though, I've always been too principled/stubborn/arrogant/foolish [take your pick] to compromise.)

Also, like others, I'm super-nostalgic for the sort of quasi-marginal arts-based lifestyle you could sort of eke out in the 1980s and 1990s right after college.
posted by praemunire at 12:01 PM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


It’s possible you’ve never been in the position of having to twist and contort yourself in ways big and small in order to survive in a world that is not meant for you and does not love you, and for that you should be...not congratulated, surely, and certainly not indulged, but something.

Isn't that everyone? Certainly everyone I know.

I mean, maybe that's extra-Gen-X of me, but learning that you sometimes have to compromise your ideals just to get by.

Manufacturing an upper-middle-class persona so you can get a good lawyer job at all is hard and dangerous enough work.

Yes, very much this.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:04 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


I mean, maybe that's extra-Gen-X of me, but learning that you sometimes have to compromise your ideals just to get by.

Somehow I neglected to finish that sentence. It should continue "...is part of growing up."
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:05 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Yes, it's ok to dislike something. But if you're going to review a movie, you have to do it the courtesy of taking it seriously first.

I've been a professional arts critic for a quarter century and there is no such courtesy.
posted by maxsparber at 12:09 PM on October 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


Somehow I neglected to finish that sentence. It should continue "...is part of growing up."

Isn't that almost exactly what she's questioning, in the end?
posted by atoxyl at 12:10 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


But if you're going to review a movie, you have to do it the courtesy of taking it seriously first. Her big mistake (which she admits) is taking utter delight (out loud) at the prospect of going to see what she was sure would be a thoroughly shitty movie. That practically guarantees that she would see the movie in a way that aligned with her expectations, and that makes for a completely useless review.

I totally disagree on this - in fact the most useful reviews, to my mind, are the ones that dispense quickly and forthrightly with the notion that a review is really anything other than the articulation of the emotional reaction produced by mixing a piece of art with one's individual biases and preconceptions. pretending to be going into a movie cold and "objective" is just a different, and far less human, pre-alignment of expectations. (tangentially, insistent humanism is a large part of why I will love Roger Ebert's writing always and dearly)

anyway, I thought the essay was lovely and not nearly as simple or reductive as many in this thread seem to be suggesting
posted by Kybard at 12:15 PM on October 1, 2018 [9 favorites]


She’s questioning the cost of that trade off, at the very least. It should not be a surprise to anyone who is a regular at MetaFilter that those costs will vary considerably, depending on who you are. It’s one thing to compromise “ideals”; it’s another to compromise yourself.

This woman came to the conclusion that it was profoundly not worth it for her. It was a bad trade, one that made her life worse, and for which she has almost nothing to show, all because of external forces outside her control. That could happen to anyone here, just the same.

Imagine how much worse it is when it wasn’t just “ideals” that you had to give up.
posted by schadenfrau at 12:16 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think it's almost inevitable that in your late 40s (?) or so you end up looking back at where you compromised and where you didn't and wondering if you made the right call. This woman obviously believes that this film review was the start of a long series of compromises that left her hollowed out. You don't have to go that far to think you gave up too early at some points in the name of "growing up" or "getting by." I certainly feel that many of the concessions and polite fictions I was willing to entertain politically turned out to be a bad idea--all those conservative dudes really were racist/sexist/homophobic/Islamophobic/etc. underneath, and tolerating their bullshit cover stories only made matters worse in the end.
posted by praemunire at 12:26 PM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


But the conversation about criticism is also interesting, on some fronts:

There appear to be a lot of writers out there (still) who are more concerned with showing their audience how good a writer they are than actually communicating anything of substance about the alleged subject of the piece of writing.

This is often the more memorable sort of critic, though. Roger Ebert is my usual example - not that he could be accused of not taking movies seriously, but he not infrequently failed even to accurately recollect the events of one. Didn't matter though, because he was a great writer who cared about the medium, and on the strength of that he became one of the most popular critics ever. I think this has only gotten more true now that we don't really need critics to tell us whether we're likely to enjoy a movie. Maybe this is because I grew up with the 2000s, Internet version of cultural snark, but what I learned from that is that is doesn't really matter whether you say The English Patient sucks, because it's going to make $200 million anyway. There are ways to use that pulpit that are mean-spirited - don't go after the small fish - but much of the time one might as well use it to scaffold personal expression or social insight.

(For example one could use a movie as a framing device to talk about the compromises one makes in life and regrets making.)
posted by atoxyl at 12:28 PM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


I totally disagree on this - in fact the most useful reviews, to my mind, are the ones that dispense quickly and forthrightly with the notion that a review is really anything other than the articulation of the emotional reaction produced by mixing a piece of art with one's individual biases and preconceptions. pretending to be going into a movie cold and "objective" is just a different, and far less human, pre-alignment of expectations. (tangentially, insistent humanism is a large part of why I will love Roger Ebert's writing always and dearly)

I'm not suggesting going in entirely objective. I agree with you that the author's humanity is part of what makes an interesting and useful movie review. I just don't think it's particularly helpful to go into a movie expecting to dislike it, if you're supposed to review it. Here, it's not just that she thought it wouldn't be good, it was that she was relishing with delight the idea of going to see a movie she was certain would be laughably bad. And that just seems like a bad predicate to writing a review (which the author seems to acknowledge at least in part).

Isn't that almost exactly what she's questioning, in the end?

She’s questioning the cost of that trade off, at the very least. It should not be a surprise to anyone who is a regular at MetaFilter that those costs will vary considerably, depending on who you are. It’s one thing to compromise “ideals”; it’s another to compromise yourself.

Yup, and it sucks. But I'm not sure what the alternative is, frankly. I left a freelance career because the instability was anxiety-producing and terrifying. It was ultimately the right choice, but it came with a cost and I often wonder if I should have done things differently.
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


insistent humanism is a large part of why I will love Roger Ebert's writing always and dearly

oh, hey
posted by atoxyl at 12:29 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


Apropos of nothing, Roger Ebert seemed to really like The English Patient. :)
posted by Ben Trismegistus at 12:31 PM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


This is often the more memorable sort of critic, though.

Virtually any reviewer who is read past the sell-by date of the underlying work does this. Orwell's review of No Orchids for Miss Blandish is only intermittently concerned with the actual work (though one senses he loathed it); it's worth reading for what it has to say about the psychology of fascism.
posted by praemunire at 12:35 PM on October 1, 2018


I'd have said I always prefer reviews that set out to interest/entertain (I think of the ur-reviewer of this kind as Dorothy Parker but possibly she's just an apex and not a point of origin) because I can make up my own mind, but I do sometimes get crabby with Anthony Lane for seeming to make the entire point of his reviews a good zinger at the end. And really, the other school, the "I will tell you if this is good" school is useless if you don't fully know and trust the tastes of the reviewer and usually a bit of a bore. I guess earlier in my opera-listening years I used to like reviewers like Tommasini who just run down a list of what's good and what's bad, but now my eyes glaze over. Not to slag on his writing, which is always good; it's just not what I need.
posted by Smearcase at 1:02 PM on October 1, 2018


In my Toronto highschool, Ondaatje was an assigned reading and so I always considered The English Patient to be a less engaging sequel to the otherwise poignant and beautiful In The Skin of a Lion, a winding tale of immigrants making do (& labour strife) that was very alive for me at the time.

I also recall the The Collected Works of Billy the Kid being one of the only books of poems I ever cared about.
posted by pmv at 1:42 PM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


I found the writing impressive, but in service to a stupendously adolescent, solipsist whinge.

The writer makes several references to her belief in other minds.
posted by thelonius at 2:06 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


It's very Gen X to believe that your whole life goes off the rails once you start compromising your movie reviews, and that compromising little things inexorably means compromising the large.

The thing about people my age - we grew up in a generous time. It didn't feel that way if you remember Temp Slave and Downsize This! But the economy really came back after the Bush recession and then there was the boom. When I was temping full time at a relatively skilled but pink collar gig in the late nineties, I was making $1800 a month. Of course, I had no benefits so part of that was because there wasn't any bite for health insurance or retirement, but I know people who would be thrilled to make $1800 a month now. And I didn't have to work up to that job, either - I signed up, got a couple of low grade temp gigs from the company, did reliably on those and got a long-running temp to perm gig. It wasn't the world's funnest job, but it paid just fine and I worked a regular schedule with weekends off. Even now, when the economy is supposedly doing so well, it's far, far harder to get your forty hours a week than in the nineties.

So it was pretty easy to think, "hey, if I'm just really true to myself and never compromise my beliefs about anything, including whether some high productions values historical is Real Art, then I'll be happy with myself and I'll help change the world. And being true to myself is relatively easy - it might mean giving up the high paying jobs but it doesn't mean giving up, like, eating, so if you're not true to yourself you must be some materialist jerk."

But I don't think that compromising your opinions on pop culture is the steady slide downhill to a ruined life and a ruined nation. Consider all the people all through human history who've had to keep their heads well down while trying to organize or save themselves from a rapacious state. Compromising to get by isn't some kind of route to ruin; it's what people do to get by, and it's often how people preserve a realm of freedom in some other part of their life.
posted by Frowner at 2:21 PM on October 1, 2018 [9 favorites]


I just don't think it's particularly helpful to go into a movie expecting to dislike it, if you're supposed to review it. Here, it's not just that she thought it wouldn't be good, it was that she was relishing with delight the idea of going to see a movie she was certain would be laughably bad.

Yes, the problem I have with the essay is that Miller doesn't really consider responsibility to others to be a particularly meaningful issue throughout the essay. She not only admits to not knowing much of anything about movies, something one might think would be a requirement for the job were it taken seriously, which she doesn't really do other than make an article saying it is. She lied to get a chance to review The English Patient purely because she was looking forward to it and had already made up her mind the movie would be bad. Wrote a review that didn't talk about the movie beyond the hair because she wanted to do that.

She gripes about Sam who knew more about movies and his opinions that accompany that as if that knowledge was an active detriment to how a movie should be enjoyed, which she informs us in asides. She says she's protective of Jennifer, but doesn't show it, instead insinuating her "adult" taste too is faulty. Then there's the Obama/Clinton paragraph suggesting how she weighs the importance of voting now. Being genuine only seems to be something that only applies to her, Jennifer and Sam or the many people who liked The English Patient don't rate concern along those lines, so their expectations or values don't really matter much if Miller feels put out.

The irony in the end is that when, by her measure, she started lying and feeling good about writing things that weren't really important or true as long as they made money she didn't really care much about others struggling to make a living, then she lost her ability to make money writing and turned inward deciding other people's opinions don't matter as long as you stay true to yourself. The lies she once believed to her benefit, she no longer does still to her benefit. The other people not in her situation were weak and "idiots" now the others, those who are where she was, are liars. I don't think it's a stretch to say there are other possibilities Miller doesn't really consider. Being able to see things from perspectives other than your own is a skill a good critic should develop as that is a key element of the job.
posted by gusottertrout at 2:34 PM on October 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


Compromising to get by isn't some kind of route to ruin; it's what people do to get by

Can we think it could be either?

Biglaw is stuffed with people compromising their dreams of using their law-school educations to make the world better. A particularly bloody-minded segment of that population takes the money (to pay off the loans) and the training and actually fucks off to make the world better at some nonprofit or public sector job. A whole, whole, whole lot of them don't, and, especially if they are talented, end up spending their careers in jobs that actually make the world worse.
posted by praemunire at 2:37 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


"To get by" is what does the work in the sentence. "Getting by" isn't "making tons of money in Big Law", it's "keeping your sorta precarious freelance writing gig".

"Doing whatever the fuck and making as much money as possible even though you sometimes think about how you once believed in something else" isn't compromising your values, it's traducing them. "Not dying on every anthill at work because if you do you'll be unemployable, broke and mooching off your aged parents if not homeless" is compromising.
posted by Frowner at 2:48 PM on October 1, 2018 [4 favorites]


There are so many people in this thread aggressively missing the point you’d think the article was about feminism.

it's written by a woman who's self-aware and smart enough to understand and examine her own past and present faults without either rewriting them into virtues or weeping and groveling all over the page about them. also, without anyone clumsily explaining them back to her, which infuriates all the people who live to do just that. or try to, without any of her skill or perception.

so, same difference and close enough.

or: it's as much about feminism as it is about The English Patient. i.e. not exclusively, not primarily, but it helps a lot to know what both of those things are.

another popular criticism seems to be: it's funny that she thinks art and integrity are important, doesn't she know she isn't very famous. what can you say to this
posted by queenofbithynia at 3:08 PM on October 1, 2018 [9 favorites]


No, this piece was not about a movie review. It also wasn't about the self-betrayals into which women, in particular, are coerced.

Rather, it's about someone who never made it past the developmental stage of understanding virtue solely as a question of social conformity. It's about someone who believes they are the measure of all things.

She first affirms her own genius as proven by her honesty and independence; then, when faced with a significant obstacle, she replaces it with a smug pragmatism.

Miller sketches an admiring portrait of her editor, Jennifer, a woman she describes as overcoming adversity beyond what she has known; yet at the critical moment she was unable to learn anything whatsoever from Jennifer because Jennifer had never been anything more than a mirror for Miller's self-regard. If she were writing about the sacrifices women make to be taken seriously, if this were in any real sense a feminist essay, she would have interrogated her evaluation of Jennifer's response to her review.

Later, when opportunities and rewards dry up, she decides that the true problem is not that the world fails to reward her iconclastic brilliance, nor that the world is fickle in favoring her mercenary compromises, but that everyone else has the temerity to disagree with her or the dishonesty to pretend that they do.

If this had been an essay about navigating the structural barriers of the patriarchy, about the ways in which the kyriarchy compromises the self, it would have been cognizant of the extraordinary amount of relative privilege implied by a framing of the question of virtue within the context of writerly integrity.

Miller compares abiding the callous murder of innocents to accommodating the public elevation of middlebrow fodder. Oh! If only everyone else had the courage to see The English Patient for the fraud it so obviously was, why, those children would still be alive.

This essay includes not one, not two, but three photos of the writer. Everyone else, all the rest of us, exist only in relationship to Miller: to be pleasing to her eye, to help her feel adult, to evoke a protective desire, to validate her brilliance and wit, to mock. When we collide with or soothe the ragged edges of her ego only then do we exist.

I don't begrudge a memoirist centering the compromises they've made with their editors and audience. Nor that the question of social conformity is intertwined with ethics.

I do begrudge her this facile and self-serving indulgence in its masquerade as something far more insightful than it actually is. There is no generosity, no empathy, in her portraits of other people; she has learned nothing from anyone else.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 3:30 PM on October 1, 2018 [2 favorites]


"Getting by" isn't "making tons of money in Big Law", it's "keeping your sorta precarious freelance writing gig".

There are also a fuckton of unemployed or severely underemployed young lawyers. The gap between them and a junior associate in Biglaw has proven terrifyingly thin. It's the miracle of the U-shaped salary distribution.
posted by praemunire at 3:51 PM on October 1, 2018


yet at the critical moment she was unable to learn anything whatsoever from Jennifer because Jennifer had never been anything more than a mirror for Miller's self-regard

It is worth noting that Jennifer's response is actually a bullshit response from which there is nothing to learn. She hasn't seen the movie herself; she's just heard that it's good. And why would there be any reason whatsoever to believe that the commercial success of the alt-weekly would hinge on whether it ran a positive or negative review of The English Patient? Jennifer's refusal to run the first review simply on the grounds that it was negative about a film a lot of people seemed to be liking was indeed pure conformism and intellectual cowardice. There are so many versions of this narrative in which the piece getting spiked would indeed threaten the viability of the forum/be commercially catastrophic in some way that it's kind of easy to miss, but this is not actually one of those stories.
posted by praemunire at 3:56 PM on October 1, 2018 [7 favorites]


Frowner: So it was pretty easy to think, "hey, if I'm just really true to myself and never compromise my beliefs about anything, including whether some high productions values historical is Real Art, then I'll be happy with myself and I'll help change the world. And being true to myself is relatively easy - it might mean giving up the high paying jobs but it doesn't mean giving up, like, eating, so if you're not true to yourself you must be some materialist jerk."

The ideology of Rent.
posted by clawsoon at 4:07 PM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Everyone talks about the country falling apart in November 2016, but maybe it fell apart in November 1996, when America went to see The English Patient.

How can you read that and not realize she's being facetious

Seriously, some of the replies in this thread are actually making me angry because they're like re-enactments of that Twitter thread where women talked about getting their own jokes mansplained back to them.
posted by airmail at 4:08 PM on October 1, 2018 [17 favorites]


Huh. I didn't read her as saying her mean movie reviews were correct. I read an understanding that she was very young and immature. Not every essay about youth has to spell out that we understand how shitty we used to be. I guess it just seemed self evident if not explicit that she acted like a jerky naive young person who totally lacked contextual understanding but also that she admired the honest, no bullshit person she had been and regretted the bullshit she later embraced.

This essay felt personal, not like an instruction manual for life. And I loved the specificity of it in the ways it differed and overlapped with my own feelings.

Different strokes though.
posted by latkes at 5:12 PM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


When I read this, it caught me in the same way as Goodbye To All That did, when I came across it at the end of Slouching Towards Bethlehem. A physical smack. Someone baring a personal truth, plus the clarity and force of the writing, plus the wit. "The Movie Assassin" really was the best thing that I could remember reading for a long time, and like others upthread, it made my weekend.

Despite the fact that it was a little clickbaity and didn't really represent the piece very well, I chose the pullquote because the extra beat at the end about having a riot made me bark out a surprised little guffaw to an empty room, something that hasn't happened since my heart went black and shrivelled up like a prune, lo these many years ago.

So I'm sort of surprised by those that had a viscerally negative reaction to the essay (or to Miller herself) but, fair enough. Things speak to people in different ways. [Also, I'm an elderly millennial, not a gen-Xer, so, while recognising the 90s that's described, I was wrestling with puberty and didn't live through it as a young adult. And it probably helps that I'm in sympathy with her re: The English Patient (both book and film), which makes it easier to enjoy the lengthy anecdote that makes up much of the piece.]

Oh hey, and let me tell you someone else who disliked it, enough to mention it to his 130k twitter followers: John Podhoretz!
posted by chappell, ambrose at 5:15 PM on October 1, 2018 [6 favorites]


I was thinking about this essay all day, because I failed to quit my job like I wanted to. And I left my damn ergonomic mouse there, so I can't quit over the phone tomorrow, which would be so much easier. It's come to this: I care more about my $100 Microsoft ergonomic keyboard/mouse combo than about my stupid job. Gen X entitlement lives on in the next generation, my dudes.

I think this author is a lot more self-aware than people are giving her credit for.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 6:10 PM on October 1, 2018 [5 favorites]


One other way it evokes the late 90s and early 00s is that alt-weekly film reviews (and record/concert reviews) weren't viewed on a flat, broad digital surface, and certainly weren't aggregated and given quantitative values at Rotten Tomatoes or Metacritic. They were relatively discrete (and discreet) spaces for young writers to find a voice, file on deadline, work with editors (even if they resented being edited) while doing fun stuff. Nowadays even staffers at online publications are in the SEO- and metrics-driven regurgitation business.
posted by holgate at 6:17 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think this author is a lot more self-aware than people are giving her credit for.

The responses to this fit a certain pattern remarkably well, and that pattern is “a woman wrote something that made me uncomfortable in some way, shape, or form.”

They’re sort of astonishing unless you view them in that light? Like this is, among other things, an essay about how the wisdom of compromise assumes good faith on the part of the entity you’re compromising with, even when that entity is “the world.” That the immediate universe is, in the ways that matter, generally knowable and predictable and not an arbitrary and capricious thing. Only our world is arbitrary and capricious, so what the fuck are you doing? and even the people in it have an abundance of bad faith that they don’t know what to do with.

And lo and behold
posted by schadenfrau at 6:35 PM on October 1, 2018 [9 favorites]


I think this author is a lot more self-aware than people are giving her credit for.

Indeed, the second-to-last paragraph:

I should mention that I realized long ago that the whole drama around getting on staff was completely one-sided. Ron and Julie weren’t actively refusing to notice me. As for Jennifer, I have no doubt we were real friends, but she was never going to sit up and realize that I was indispensable. None of it had anything to do with me. The publication didn’t have any cash. Everyone was worried about their own jobs. They cared about the reviews I struggled over probably about as much as they cared whether the toilets worked. Actually, no. They definitely cared more if the toilets worked. Wouldn’t you?
posted by atoxyl at 6:38 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


I mean, there are feminist women reacting negatively to the piece too.
posted by latkes at 6:38 PM on October 1, 2018 [1 favorite]


I think, at root, it's that in my early twenties I was, and hung out with a lot of other people who were, basically, "movie assassins" in our right, trashing on whatever parts of culture were popular with the masses and feeling righteously edgy and smart for it (although we never got paid for it). It's hard for me to get fully on board with her sort of nostalgia for that younger version of herself

Agreed, although I am trying to give her the benefit of the doubt, and presume that her nostalgia is for her own honesty to herself before she feels like she sold out, rather than for the particular output that her "honesty" took at the time, which—if we're being real blunt here—was probably sophomoric, as most edgily-negative reviews are. My strong suspicion is that her earlier oh-so-hip Movie Assassin stuff was just as much a product of its time as The English Patient was.

As an aside, one thing I've realized whenever I've gone to write a negative review of something that's popular, is that while cathartic, it's generally not really that interesting. Castigating something popular is a cheap thrill; it's a good way to make yourself feel better than the unwashed masses, and your readers get to share vicariously in that thrill, which ensures its popularity as a format. But it's typically lacking in substance beyond that.

The better move, if you find yourself in the position of reviewing something you think truly sucks but is nonetheless very popular—whether it's reviewing the latest Michael Bay CGI tour de force or writing a one-star Amazon review for next year's answer to the Shakeweight—is to focus on why the thing is popular, not on why you think it sucks. Because there's almost always something interesting going on in the gap between the two. Why did so many people think that The English Patient was a good movie, or at least tell each other it was? What about it, at the time that it was released, struck such a chord despite the actual act of watching the thing being such a slog? I'm honestly not sure, and it's probably hard to tell from this many years removed. But if her review had focused on that, it might have still been an interesting review, and it would have been more true to her own judgement of the movie qua movie.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:57 PM on October 1, 2018 [3 favorites]


Geeze, I've gotten really old over the past year! 'Cause all I kept thinking was "GET. TO. THE FUCKING. POINT. INSTEAD. OF. WALLOWING. IN. THE PAST."

Well written piece indeed, but ironically about as fluffy as The English Patient, but it didn't even have Kristin Scott's hair.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 4:19 AM on October 2, 2018


"The responses to this fit a certain pattern remarkably well, and that pattern is 'a woman wrote something that made me uncomfortable in some way, shape, or form.'"

I can see how that would inevitably be true. A subtext of this piece is women being disagreeable, how that plays out, and Miller reclaiming that part of herself. I can't know that perspective from personal experience, but it's been attested many times here, as well as by women I've known. I take it as given that this truth strongly influences what this story means to Miller, certainly what it means to many women who read and respond positively to it, and also certainly what it means to many of the men who respond negatively.

I think, though, that the argument that this is what the essay is essentially about is weak. Miller presents two other models of women's behavior in Sheila and Jennifer, quite distinct from each other, but doesn't at all explore these implications with regard to them. In particular, Jennifer is an admired mentor, the kind of person often very important in a woman's professional life, but Miller then and now failed to explore or even consider Jennifer's experience with these issues.

Granted, Miller assumed at the time -- and her inclusion of this in her essay is surely deliberate -- than it was men who were the "smart people" Jennifer admired who liked the film, that it would be a man who would write the replacement review, and I agree that's significant. Likewise her complicated feelings about Sam, as well as his dislike of the film. Although, given his negative opinion, it was salient whether Sam was allowed to pan the film in his review, and we don't learn this. The evidence on all this is mixed.

It should be noted that although Jennifer worried that other people admired the film, she also makes it clear that she couldn't run a review of a major film "that does not even attempt to discuss [it]".

Miller herself tweeted that the final portion of the essay is its raison d'etre -- she insists that being aggressively genuine and resisting the "pseudo-intellectual" posturing of the sheep would liberate us all. If written by a man, this would self-evidently be the product of an entitled edgelord asshole.

Women's gender roles do lurk somewhere in the subtext of this essay because, given the writer is a woman and given the topic, how could it not? But women, particularly white women, can also act entitled; they can fail to progress beyond the adolescent genuine/phony axis of self-esteem; they can make it all about them.

Were I a woman, I do feel certain I would have been more generous in my reading because this issue of pleasing others versus being seen as a "bitch" looms very large. I would never presume to question the validity of that response -- it's clear that this essay speaks to some women here in this way.

But I took it at face value. She makes a clear universal argument about the ethics of non-conforming, of not compromising. As mentioned in a previous comment, "[then] the other people not in her situation were weak and 'idiots' [while] now the others, those who are where she was, are liars." Her narrative is shallow and self-serving; I think what I found most telling and infuriating is how ungenerous she is to everyone else, particularly Jennifer, and how she seems completely oblivious that for many others with much less privilege, the consequences for nonconformance are far more dire.

Having said all that, upon a reread, I think there are signs that portions of this essay should be understood as irony. Certainly her inclusion of her lie about reading the book, and her exclamation to her editor that her review was "better than anything that’s been in this paper, ever" are very unflattering. So she does recognize her past immaturity -- but concludes, in the end, she was right.

As a memoir, I think this is a very good piece. She paints a vivid picture of herself and some important aspects of her life. That the writing is so good doesn't require that the reader like her. Obviously I don't. As an argument about ethics, however, this is facile and self-serving, and the reader's judgement of her character quite germane. And as an exploration of the compromises women are forced to make, her disinterest in Jennifer's experience and perspective is undermining.

That this is a woman's experience, not a man's, is very relevant to the topic and it should, and does, influence my interpretation positively. That it especially resonates with many women, that many people really like the essay for those reasons, is surely true and justified. I have not and would not assert that it's wrong to like or love this.

However, I believe this essay presents itself as essentially, emphatically about virtue and nonconformity (without regard to gender) and on that basis I have a strong negative response to it. Also on that basis it is quite relevant that many of us, independent of gender, have struggled with these issues, that our perspectives have been marginalized, that we've been punished for our dissent. Miller prescribes a corrective for everyone, but she seems to see so little beyond herself.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 6:14 AM on October 2, 2018 [4 favorites]


It's amazing that this work is seen as ambiguous enough to prompt some of these reactions. Miller's story is an autobiography, about having an adult job and becoming an adult. Presented in three acts, it neatly bridges this moment with that 90's era of the local culture alt-weekly. It didn't matter then, nor now, that she "didn’t know shit about film". It just happened to be the English Patient, and it's fiery organs, to anchor these events.

So revising her take on the English Patient and getting paid extra leads her to concludes that "I felt I had learned something about how adults take care of themselves." It only looks like pablum out of context. Its about her struggle to come to terms with everything, everywhere, all at once, and she sorts it out on her own. She becomes a different person. She quickly moves from torching the "best thing" she has ever written to knowing that "there were people who made money saying things they thought were actually true, or important, but I figured I wasn’t good enough to do that, because otherwise, people wouldn’t keep asking me to write stupid stuff." Ouch.

That second period ends and Miller, talking in the third person, fixated on suicide as her lifestyle came crashing down. It's just a brief statement, but it feels like people are missing it's weight. About how she "used to think I thought the right way, like, who cares if everyone does bad things, because bad things are just what important people have to do." This transition was a much greater crisis, but it isn't anchored in a pop culture movie, just financial ruin and terrible self doubt.

Miller started the story about herself as an ironic detached 90's self loathing film critic that becomes a hardened capital r Realist cashing out sex columnist, but this article itself is written from a completely different viewpoint. It's not just a binary between her jaded idealism or complete cynicism. Perhaps she should have presented her previous selves in a more sympathetic light, turned up the nostalgia or scoffed more at the idealism, but she didn't. She even calls her current hardships a small price for clarity, and she seems most disappointed in her own 'dumbness'.

How does Miller finish the piece? She calls for riots, but is now terrified of death. That heart, the symbol she carried from the English Patient? It's not special, and will just stop one day. Nothing fiery. And finally a picture of herself, perhaps at a writing camp, pre-professional, pre-adult. Before writing for a cool alt weekly dismissing cultural garbage and way before doing a sex column in the city creating that cultural flotsam (which are both common enough to be stereotypes). Back when she was just writing for herself, a few peers, and an imaginary audience.
posted by zenon at 2:28 PM on October 2, 2018 [7 favorites]


This Metafilter thread feels like a perfect encapsulation of THIS moment in time: the sharply different interpretations of so many issues in the original article, the disagreements about whether/how much the author's sex plays a role in these different reactions, the overall fervency of so many commenters. We live in such a contested era right now... Looking forward to revisiting this thread in two decades, with a mix of nostalgia and 'we're older/wiser now' judgement.
posted by PhineasGage at 2:50 PM on October 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


This thread has been a good reminder that I should probably just like stuff privately, and not contribute to or read the comments.
posted by shapes that haunt the dusk at 3:03 PM on October 2, 2018 [1 favorite]


Even though I am deeply ambivalent about the underpinnings of this essay, something occurred to me that does not thrill me:

Leaving its logic aside, this is a really vulnerable essay - she's basically saying, "I feel like I wasted a huge chunk of my life and now I'm left with nothing, not money or a house or anything I created that I take pride in, and neither I nor the world is getting any younger". Isn't that one of your biggest dreads? It's one of my biggest dreads!

Because I'm a big believer in "there is no true truth inside you to articulate, just a churning mess of impulses and history", I kinda sorta wonder if some of the really strong negative response to this essay is about fearing and moving to attack vulnerability - we're not responding with true truths, we're moved to hostility because we fear what she's saying.

"Geez, Gen X people valued being assholes and never approached things sympathetically, what jerks they were," said Tom without self-awareness.
posted by Frowner at 3:15 PM on October 2, 2018 [14 favorites]


Yes, she's basically saying "I wasted this huge fucking chunk of my life and I didn't even do well out of it financially." Bracing stuff.

(Kind of reminds me of Charles Ryder's painting career post-the picture of Brideshead House, and Antony Blanche's lousing it up.)
posted by praemunire at 6:41 PM on October 2, 2018


Leaving its logic aside, this is a really vulnerable essay

It is, and I think Zenon summed that part of it up well. The point of disagreement here seems to be between appreciating that subjective accounting for what it is and accepting the worldview it represents. While the majority of the essay is recounting events and the effect those events had on Miller, the end of the essay broadens that to a a view on life, directly asking the reader to validate it at one point near the end.

They cared about the reviews I struggled over probably about as much as they cared whether the toilets worked. Actually, no. They definitely cared more if the toilets worked. Wouldn’t you?

It's that perspective on the world that I can't co-sign. I don't believe that is a universal truth or even seems true within the context of the events described. Miller's descriptions of her relationship with Jennifer don't suggest that would fit her view, especially after Miller says she doesn't doubt Jennifer was a real friend. Even the "was" in the statement seems harsh. The question can't be easily answered because the framing of it is already skewed. The comparison of care over her writing to toilets poses is unreasonable on its face for likening an occurrence to a relationship. Relationships exist over time, occurrences are of the moment. The latter may be the more compelling need in any given moment, but the former has lasting importance.

If the question is meant to suggest that no one else will feel the same intensity of concern over our interests as we do, that is obviously true, but banal as we all live our own lives with competing interests of varying importance as we move through our lives. Jennifer will never feel exactly as Miller does, just as Miller won't ever feel as Jennifer does, but friendship and empathy can help build connection and concern despite that. The essay suggests ample reason for Jennifer turning down the first review Miller submitted that doesn't deny care over Miller's writing, which can be attested to by Jennifer both having Miller submit a second review and by paying her extra for it. Miller discounts those actions by attributing motives to Jennifer that serve to fit Miller's worldview, but there is no express reason to believe those reasons are the only possibilities, seeming less likely than a more generous take in some significant ways.

Jennifer's care for Miller's writing, to whatever extent it exists, wouldn't make her care for the paper less or demand she accept whatever Miller writes as being appropriate just because Miller wrote it and liked it herself. That isn't how a relationship should or does normally work. There is a give and take, where both Miller and Jennifer show care for the concerns of each other. Assuming Jennifer doesn't care because Miller doesn't express concern over Jennifer's worries doesn't necessarily follow. Sometimes we miss the worries of others over concerns of our own, but also can become hurt when that same weakness shows itself in those we have relationships with. That doesn't therefore make a worldview that there is no care between people then valid.

I can appreciate the desire to tell oneself that you aren't important, that what you do means nothing. It can be a perverse comfort in thinking yourself lacking meaning to the world. In times of stress over one's actions it can be a life saver, making regrets seem more manageable for lack of weight. At the same time though carrying that belief beyond that can be unhealthy, asking for it to be verified, to prove lack of care or meaning in the world can lead to cycles of despair.

I wouldn't begin to speak for Miller or pretend to know exactly what she believes, but the essay as I read it strongly suggested a view of relationships and the world I find constricted, too narrow to match the broader possibilities of existence people live where care does still exist and matter a great deal to most people, even as opposing interests can still lead to conflict at times. Judging the world from the worst instances or only one's own subjective feeling is too narrow a perspective. It can make the world seem unbearable. That isn't the entirety of it and striving to understand and care about others can help put one's own existence into a better light.

Miller seems to be asking for the reader to not just understand her history, which she relates well, but to also agree that there is something representative about her life that explains something about the world. I can't accept that because it isn't true and it isn't healthy. Yet I can fully understand the desire to want to believe it as I've felt that way myself often. It's only in trying to see the world from perspectives that aren't our own that we can grow in our understanding. Miller has ability as a writer, but, judging from the essay, needs to expand her reach and find better comfort with life. I hope she finds it.
posted by gusottertrout at 12:16 AM on October 3, 2018 [4 favorites]


I should have been up-front with my strong, negative personal reactions to the whole authenticity/phoniness/conformity/nonconformity stuff. Early in my development, even before middle school, I deliberately choose to (attempt to) secede from this whole construct and -- significantly and with painful self-criticism here -- a sense that I was better than everyone by not being beholden to these issues.

And there is a fear involved -- my own experience is that some of my strongest negative personal judgements of others are really about my own insecurities. Almost nothing evokes contempt in me so strong as the performative "you're just going along with everyone else" -- not because I'm certain that's not true, but because I feel there's an hypocrisy in performative nonconformity. And how the contempt is driven by fear is that, deep down, I feel constantly pulled into this paradigm against my will. If I'm painfully honest, I've always been proud of the wild inconsistency of my conformance and radical nonconformance. I suppose I think that proves how truly independent I am. *rolls eyes at self*

There's a family history behind this. My dad, for example, deliberately did not put family photographs on his desk because he thought people who did that were being phony. Even as an executive (though rising through the ranks of programmers) he refused to wear a suit until the CEO made an ultimatum. He once told me the difference between him and me was that "he talked to people on their level". The condescension of this seemed to me to make relatively insignificant whatever arrogance others found in me. He was abusive to me and my mom. Somehow, all this created a psychology in me where I deeply distrust both conforming and nonconforming. Maybe, deep down, I decided everyone was a phony in one way or the other and became desperate to not be.

This also has -- as the author is making clear -- everything to do with how one goes about making their way through life, and how they feel about it, and with politics. Dad used to always say, in sort of a half-helpful, half-smug tone, "life isn't fair" -- always as a rebuke, as if he were sure that I naively desperately wanted or expected it to be. The funny thing is, I can never recalling a time, even in early childhood, when I thought this was true. After all, his rage was certainly rarely fair and was often capricious. I took for granted life was ... life. Independent of our expectations.

I recall a moment as a young adult, looking for work, and considering that whole "I won't wear a suit" thing of his. And it seemed obvious to me that nothing at all about my new suit said I would be better at a job than otherwise, but that I was entirely willing to take advantage of some idiot's preconceptions. I remember thinking that my dad had built his own kind of social prison without knowing it.

Nevertheless, it's absolutely not the case that I'm so pragmatic. I've been fired from multiple jobs because of my inability to refrain from telling a boss they're an idiot. In this way, too, her essay cuts close to the bone.

I am absolutely certain that pragmatism is how to actually get things done. I worry about both extremes: that I will be willing to go too far in the "ends justify the means", but also that my pride will self-sabotage.

And, in the end, my strongest intuition is that paying attention to other people is where true virtue lies, but that I'm doing a shitty job of this because I'm still too inwardly-directed. There, too, arises my hostility to Miller as she presents herself in this essay. I criticize what I see there because I fear that in myself.

I feel, though, that despite her age she's still so very early into this process. I agree she's reductive, she's still demanding simple answers. She's mostly reacting, and that's not going to help -- certainly it's not going to increase her own sense of agency.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 12:28 AM on October 3, 2018 [2 favorites]


My strong suspicion is that her earlier oh-so-hip Movie Assassin stuff was just as much a product of its time as The English Patient was.

Yeah, kinda. This Longreads piece is a good companion:
The early webzines were like Jordan Baker’s idea of a large party in The Great Gatsby: purportedly huge in their ability to reach the entire world, but really so intimate — the absolute perfect venue for talking shit. For in their intimacy, a sort of safeness germinated — a safeness to punch up at celebrities, political adversaries, and rich people (I considered Wendy Shalit all three). These were people who would never have any occasion to see said shit-talk, so it was effectively harmless, and I wasn’t the only propagator of this opinion.
posted by holgate at 9:03 AM on October 3, 2018


These were people who would never have any occasion to see said shit-talk, so it was effectively harmless, and I wasn’t the only propagator of this opinion

The OP brings back a lot of bad memories for me. While Miller was feeling her most authentic self, I was feeling my self getting crushed in a very similar milieu. It took me a long, long time to find something resembling a self that wasn't based on conformity and fear.

That milieu - the constant shit-talking, the constant punching "up" - wasn't harmless. It was macho, for one thing, since having feelings or being sincere or liking something for the wrong reason (or liking your parents!) made you a loser who was acceptable as a target. And since men gain and women lose credit in the straight world, as it were, for being mean, "being mean helps you win" always favored men.

Two characteristic incidents that I remember from that period, both perpetrated by the most fashionable straight man of my acquaintance:

River Phoenix overdosed. Our little gang was sitting around saying some truly cruel and disgusting stuff about how they were glad he was dead, he deserved it because celebrities were so tacky, if only more famous people would overdose, etc etc. It was really ghoulish and it gave me the creeps, so I was like "I don't agree with that".

Now, I have seen 1.5 River Phoenix movies. I am a natural nerd, have very little interest in mainstream cinema and tend to confuse River Phoenix and Christian Slater. But you see, I was a girl (or AFAB, anyway) who said something about how it was kind of ghoulish to be cheering the death of River Phoenix, so that meant I had a crush on River Phoenix, which meant that I was super super lame (which our crowd knew anyway, they kept me around mostly to pick on, borrow money from and grope when the mood struck) and found a mainstream celebrity attractive, also I had asked them to stop doing something because I had a feeling. Which meant that I was the target for the evening - and people weren't just kidding or giving me shit, and nothing I said could shut them up. And it was lead by the popular guy.

And these were adults.

The other thing I remember was that the popular guy's band was playing and our little gang was going along. They had amps and things and I asked if I could help carry anything. So I got handed a fairly bulky, heavy amp - while the popular guy carried nothing. When we got to the venue, he started laughing at me and saying how dumb I was to have carried it when I should have given it back to him - he'd only handed it to me, he said, to see if I was enough of a doormat to carry it.

A lot of other stuff happened which was also pretty shitty, and it was definitely in that hipster indie art-bro everything-sucks we're-better-than-the-normies setting.

I left that group of assholes cold eventually and the popular guy had the fucking gall to come around and whine at me about how sad my departure had made one of the popular girls and how she felt so rejected and I was just so mean.

The point of all that being - this essay brought up some strong feelings, mostly bad.
posted by Frowner at 9:44 AM on October 3, 2018 [12 favorites]


Finally, the thing you really need to know about the English Patient is that he's Hungarian. No thanks necessary pub quiz fans.
posted by biffa at 3:29 AM on October 4, 2018


Not directly related to this post's original essay, but noted book critic Mark Athitakis devoted part of his most recent weekly newsletter to a discussion Michelle Dean’s Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, which offers biographical sketches of 20th century American women critics:
[Dean is] mindful of the fact that, for women writers, adhering to standards often meant working in a room that didn’t want them there, prohibiting them from saying things that they felt ought to be said. Dean’s comments on Pauline Kael, for instance, dwells less on the defining qualities of her criticism than those who challenged her right to express it, from grudge-bearing Andrew Sarris to fusty old William Shawn,. Dean spends a lot of time on the evolution of these critics because she believes a writer finding her voice is as interesting a process as what she has to say.
posted by PhineasGage at 9:28 AM on October 4, 2018


I used to think I thought the right way, like, who cares if everyone does bad things, because bad things are just what important people have to do. Who cares if Barack Obama bombs people and doesn’t even try to prosecute bankers, because that’s all just his job, and he loves gay people and yells at bigots and his wife is smart and has great arms. Who cares if Hillary Clinton is best friends with Henry Kissinger, because she is a woman and so am I, and she stands up to men, and isn’t that what feminism is all about, finally getting into the rooms, finally getting to be the one to kill the people who don’t matter? Since my life was a fantasy, I had no trouble inhabiting a larger one.

It often strikes me that it is considered immature to be unable to believe bullshit. Think about the word globalization. It doesn’t mean cultures mixing, fusion cuisine, or a fun wedding of a rich Sri Lankan to a poor Swede. It doesn’t even mean free markets. It means access to new markets and especially access to cheap labor so rich people can make more money. That is all it means. If you happen to gain from side effects (see fusion cuisine, above) you might want to notice what everyone else, including you, is losing. But try saying that at a dinner party. Everyone would just feel sorry for you.
While Miller's criticism of prominent Democrats may be reductive, and while it may not mention the hellish alternative, it's not hard to find examples of people not merely swallowing down the bad with the good, but claiming the bad tastes just as fine as the good and reproving anyone who grimaces. That's not altogether different from the critical conformism that wins awards for movies like The English Patient, though the consequences of political conformism are much greater. It's true that children killed by America would be just as dead even if Miller's paper had published her real review of The English Patient, but I don't think she writes otherwise, and would think much less of the piece if she had.

I liked this memoir. Thanks for posting it!
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 9:29 AM on October 5, 2018 [1 favorite]


Brilliant.
posted by turbid dahlia at 8:48 PM on October 7, 2018


This piece was really beautiful.

I sincerely doubt she’s defending the ACTUAL opinions she held on films in her 20s; she’s defending the vulnerable, curious, honest part of herself she learned to repress in order to be perceived as a sophisticate.

Having sincere opinions about why something is essentially vapid or unethical is not, uh, immature. Refusing to have any opinion that isn’t “ok, that’s fine” about culture is actually kind of weird.
posted by stoneandstar at 8:54 PM on October 7, 2018 [1 favorite]


it's funny that she thinks art and integrity are important, doesn't she know she isn't very famous. what can you say to this

It’s literally the sad disingenuous opinion she cops to in the last act; that believing you’re only entitled to an opinion if you have status and the most important part of opining is preserving the status quo... ugh!
posted by stoneandstar at 8:56 PM on October 7, 2018


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