There's a bit from Herbert Spencer that some of you may know: "There is a principle which is a bar against all information, which is proof against all arguments and which cannot fail to keep a man in everlasting ignorance—that principle is contempt prior to investigation."
Now contempt, while largely and correctly acknowledged as a negative emotion, can also be a powerful weapon in a critic's quiver. It's always a double-edged sword, though. To Pauline Kael's admirers, her contempt was withering, magisterial; to her detractors, it was petty, spiteful. Those diverging perspectives remain pretty constant, almost a decade after her passing.
I'd think we all agree, though, that prior to unleashing one's contempt, a critic ought to do what lawyers call due diligence, and have a pretty thorough understanding of what they're lashing out at.
I certainly have tried to do that throughout my career, and in all my different manifestations as a writer; lay out precisely why I've come to a particular negative conclusion. And sometimes I keep some arguments and evidence in reserve; extra material, as it were, in the event that backup is needed. Which in the give and take of the internet, often is. But then, what's left? Once the contempt has been expressed, the reasons for it articulated, what's in the dregs?
I've had a few people ask me recently what my motivation was for getting more physically fit over the past six months. I sometimes joke that I've discovered that, finally, verbal arguments, rhetoric, and the like are just no good at persuading people to think and behave the way that you'd prefer them to, and that it's possibly more effective to appear as if one is both willing and able to kick the living shit out of them if they tick you off. As I said, I'm joking, but if I were entirely joking I wouldn't be semi-seriously contemplating taking boxing lessons. And then I have to think about the part of myself that's still a roiling welter of anger and resentment.
The film critic Michael Sicinski became aggrieved with me recently; he was upset that I cited a particularly tetchy "tweet" by him, and particularly that I did so after largely ignoring his more serious work. Did he have a right to be aggrieved? Probably; after all, I did preface a prior, similar objection to an observation by Richard Brody by paying Brody a compliment; I might have at least had the common courtesy to acknowledge that Sicinski's tweet was not representative of his larger body of work. On the other hand, as I pointed out, I didn't write Sicinski's tweet; Sicinski wrote it. And I didn't "retweet" it, and bring it to the attention of a larger audience; Karina Longworth did. And that's how Twitter works. And I believe that if one is going to be on Twitter, one ought to understand what's going to happen there. And if you believe that Twitter is now a vital part of the "conversation" about cinema or politics or world events or whatever it is that's your bag, then you ought to get used to a lack of context. In theory, Twitter should work out to being all about context (context within context within context), but in practice—the difficulty in following its various conversations being paramount, but that's just for starters—Twitter is turning out to be the ultimate in the context, as they say, of no context. If that's the currency you're going to deal in, then... I am not trying to pile on Michael here; what I mean, finally, it that Twitter is a dangerous place.
But, as DeNiro says in Raging Bull, "What are we arguing about for?" Why don't we put the larger question to Lester Bangs? "'The main thing is money, power, and ego,' I said, quoting an old Ralph J. Gleason column for some reason. I was getting a little dazed." No, that's no help.
But since I'm here, let me lay a few cards on the table. Yes, at the moment I do hold indieWire's Eric Kohn in contempt. I'm not a big fan of his writing, and I like his attitude even less. A friend we have in common reminds me that it's not Kohn's fault that the "new media economy" makes something like stars out of his ilk, and that's correct, but by the same token Kohn doesn't have to gloat about it. And his whole pose of being the voice of young, hip cinephilia; well, I really do hope to live long enough to see it bite him on the ass, because nobody's young forever. But all that aside, what really burns me up about Kohn is something personal, my perception of him high-hatting a person I hold dear who's a hundred times the thinker and writer that Kohn is. And I have to ask myself, does this person actually need me to despise Kohn on his behalf? Or am I just putting up another smokescreen to ennoble my own venality?
Similarly: no, I'm not the biggest fan of Karina Longworth. As a writer, I consider her a humorless pseud with a comically staggering grasp of the obvious. As a journalist, I think she has, as they say, issues. I find her self-regard, which she regularly and ineptly tries to disguise as self-deprecation, practically monstrous. It's all been said. But if I'm gonna be truly honest with myself, and with you, I have to say that what irritates me most about her is that she's taken seriously by people who I think ought to know better. Now as it happens I know that she's taken not at all seriously by some serious people who have had the wisdom not to go on the record about it. And perhaps I ought to solicit their advice, and learn the secrets of how they keep their own counsel. Because there really is no point. I'm not going to make these people stop being who they are, or stop practicing as they do. Just as they're not going to do the same as far as I'm concerned. Except they're not (actively) trying. Which is not to say that I think they've found better things to do. If they were doing better things, I wouldn't be...and so on.
This is not a solicitation for anger management tips, but if you do have any, by all means throw them in the comments section.
UPDATE: In "And The Band Played On..." news, James Wolcott's doubts about the critical acuity of some of the Cinematical crew has excited much feisty youthful ire among the Twitterific You-Know-Whats™, and of such a high creative caliber, too. "like watching grandpa try to figure out the XBox 360," yuks Erik Davis, who has the baseball cap to prove his feistiness. Oooh, snap, as someone says. Also: hey, that's not funny, man, my grandfather's dead. Etcetera. That Davis is unlikely to possess the talent that Wolcott has in either of his pinkies is completely beside the point, man; XBOX 360, muthafucka!!!!! It's so enlightening. Really.
I have no doubt that Richard Brody's admiration for the nouveau cinema jeunesse (I just made that up, do you like it?) is absolutely sincere, but even he has to admit that it's also kind of convenient. It means that none of these ninnies is ever gonna call him out for being, you know, old.