Monday, May 31, 2021

Emilio Carrero writing as The Malcontent: Who's Afraid of MALCOLM & MARIE?


The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. You know: puppies, nature, Montaigne, Didion, Baldwin, Seneca, even love itself. In our private, cranky hearts, we wonder how much good universal praise does anyone. 

As Edward Abbey puts it in Desert Solitaire: “Nobody particularly enjoys the role of troublemaker. But when most writers are unwilling to take chances, afraid to stick their necks out on any issue, then a few have to take on the burden of all and do more than their share.” 

The film Malcolm & Marie ends inside the eponymous couple's bedroom. Through the window, you can see the couple standing outside together, backs turned to the camera, worn out from a hellish, movie-long night of arguing. They are staring out at a morning fog that has settled around the house as the song "Liberation" by Outkast starts to play. The opening lines of the song are synced up with the film so that as the lyrics start, the film cuts to black just as Andre 3000 says: "And there's a fine line between love and hate." A fine line is right, and what those lines get drawn for the sake of and for whom—whether its romantic or professional relationships—turns out to say as much about film criticism as it does about the film Malcolm & Marie. After all, lines not only draw boundaries but also seek to establish and affirm what lies inside them as much as what lies outside of them. For film criticism, a movie like Malcolm & Marie that breaches that line is as well-deserving of love as it is hate.
     A few days after watching the film, I mentioned how much I loved it to a friend. "Oh, no. Not that film,'' they said and rubbed their forehead. Though I knew the film was combative and incendiary, I still didn't exactly know what "that" referred to at the time. A quick search on the internet changed that. A quick search, which turned into a long search, revealed a wildfire of anger surrounding the film. And it's strange to stumble upon rage after-the-fact, to step outside the world of a film and see that the discourse surrounding a film has been doused in indignation and dismissal, as if the film needed to be warded off, enclosed and sequestered, a controlled burn meant to save what exactly? Whom exactly? 
     Negative reviews come and go, so it wasn't this aspect that felt especially noxious about the mainstream reviews of Malcolm & Marie, but rather how incensed and contemptuous the reviews were, how deadset they seemed on dismissing and obliterating the film as quickly as possible. But anxiety, like fear, leaves a residue. And the residue of rage from many mainstream reviews of Malcolm & Marie was clear. When traced, the rage pointed to a specific, professional anxiety about film criticism that the movie had breached, a line overstepped. To my mind, this professional anxiety boils down to a specific question: is film criticism legitimate in an exploitative, consumer-driven society?
     I have always been skeptical, if not annoyed, by film reviews, because although there are many mainstream critics who are capable of nuanced and thoughtful opinions on films, let's be honest, so many reviews deliver a product for their readership—that is, a distilled evaluation of a film—a review-as-ideology—that tells their readership "what the message is," and, as a result, whether the film is any good, worth watching, worth spending money on, or, most disturbingly, whether it aligns with unexamined moral values. (Not surprisingly, Malcolm & Marie's director and lead actress discussed our culture's ideological needs in an interview). And I'll happily argue that the U.S's exploitative, consumer-driven society plays a major role in all this, if not the prevailing one.
     But even though mainstream criticism has often struck me as overly evaluative and narrow-minded, the undercurrent of emotions from many reviews I read of Malcolm & Marie weren't. And this is exactly my point: it is not the negativity from these reviews that was disappointing, but rather how anxiety and rage overtakes so many reviews of the film, blindly steering them past the opportunity to write openly and honestly about the volatile nature of romantic and professional relationships in American society. And although this anxiety and rage is disappointing, dismissive, blinding, even vitriolic, it is not uncomplicated. In many ways, these emotions are rooted in the same questions that Malcolm & Marie is exploring. 
     Take these concluding lines from a New York Times review: "Beneath the film’s Old-Hollywood gleam and self-conscious sniping, serious questions [my emphasis] are raised, only to lie fallow…'I promise you, nothing productive is going to be said tonight,' Marie says near the beginning of the movie. Sadly, she’s telling the truth." The review briefly alludes to  the "serious questions" that the film raises about the volatile nature of race and gender and neoliberalism within professional and romantic relationships, but ultimately the review steers past these questions and dismisses the movie. It is fitting that the review does so by implying that the movie achieves nothing resembling "productivity." It's a rhetorical move that many reviewers made, one meant to undercut the film's legitimacy, its artistic worth and value, and in doing so, tries to lessen the validity of the questions the film raises about film criticism's legitimacy. In short, it's a rhetorical how-dare-you. 
     If we look at this disappointed and snarky review from Rolling Stone, we get this: "Turn the movie off at the 20-minute mark and you can ultimately still say you’ve seen the entire thing...You’ll have missed out some accomplished lighting and camera-work, some good jazz, and a pleasing tour of a pretty incredible house. But despite the actors’ efforts, you won’t have learned much more about either of these people." Here, the review clearly wants you to know that the movie is not worth your time because it was, at least to this reviewers' eyes, a pointless, tortured thesis statement of a movie. Right or wrong, what's interesting is that by calling the film a "thesis statement," it points to the belief that the entire film (and the many people who worked on it) was made purely to deliver an incendiary argument. To whom was this argument developed and made for we might ask? To whom was the film created to incense and attack? Much like the main character Malcolm, reviewers seem to be plagued by a paranoia of legitimacy.  
     And from The Atlantic: "What ensues is a series of monologues, diatribes that go nowhere. He rants about her flaws, and then it’s her turn to tear him apart. On and on it goes, with the actors’ rapid-fire delivery producing nothing fiery in substance. This is not a reckoning. It’s a waste of talented stars..." Apparently, the film promises a reckoning—romantically? professionally? culturally?—and ended up "wasting" the talent of its stars and "producing" nothing substantive as a result. I can't help but wonder if the perceived failed reckoning is not so much about Malcolm and Marie's personal relationship as it is between the professional relationship of filmmaking and film criticism? 
     I could keep going, but the point is not whether these critiques have merit or not. (I even agree with some points these reviews, as well others, have made about the film.) The point is to underscore the trend of anxiety and rage that spills out when mainstream critics talk about this film. In his Big Picture Podcast, Sean Fennessey summed up the context for this anxiety and rage about the film by saying

Critics have really come hard at this movie. I haven't seen a pan-fest, a fuck-you to a movie like this in a while, and that is an interesting reaction… Criticism [is] a profession that in many cases is very imperiled by the state of the way that culture is consumed, the rise of fan culture relative to the merits of criticism, the way that the media has been completely distorted and somewhat destroyed over the course of the last twenty years, the way that the internet has, y'know, annihilated people's ideas of what is and isn't good, what is and is not quality thinking. Critics obviously are under fire in a meaningful way so a movie like [Malcolm & Marie] feels like an even stronger attack than it might have ten or fifteen years ago. 

     With this context in mind, anxiety and rage makes sense. It makes sense to feel this way if you understand the film as an attack on your profession, a razored-edge pointed at the neck of your profession, and it is even more understandable to feel this way when taking into account the self-conscious, personal snipes that the film takes at a real-life critic. These autobiographical snipes are regrettable and shitty, and whether they are vindictive or not, they come off as petty and incendiary rather than doing the hard work of being genuinely thought-provoking. All that being said, the origins of critics' feelings are not purely a reaction or retaliation to a personal attack. The origins of these feelings—the crux of their anxiety and rage—is about legitimacy.
     Because anxiety is about dissonance, and professional anxiety is the dissonant feeling that comes from being made to feel that what you do is not actually legitimate: that your contributions are not worthwhile, necessary contributions to cultural discourse as a result of the many ways that culture has changed as Sean Fennessey mentions. And rage is the feeling that comes when a privileged, white-male director pokes, prods, winks, and attacks this anxiety. What results is the reviews we got. 
     You can call these resulting reviews many things—reviewing in bad faith, fuck-yous to Levinson, a refusal to dignify trolling/white-male angst, an archive of paranoia—but whatever the term that's used, I'm ultimately left wondering, what happens to a profession when it is unable to grapple with the discomforting aspects of itself? What happens when a profession gets consumed by a crisis of legitimacy, and in doing so, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy of reductive, evaluative, willfully dismissive criticism?


The most infuriating consequence of all this—what eats at me especially as I read "positive" reviews of subsequent films—is that the brilliance and ingenuity of the film's black artists (Zendaya and John David Washington) was ignored, dismissed, barely acknowledged because critics felt incensed and/or attacked by the provocative aims of the film. (Of course, we could get into our culture's obsession with self-authorship that critics (and artists!) internalize, and how this idea gets latched onto in so many reviews, and how that is partly to blame for the obsession with the white director of film (the self-author), which ignores the obvious collaboration that films have always required, a collaborative effort that Zendaya, Washington, and Levinson have talked about and championed, but we'll leave that for another time.))
     Take these two sentences that appear in The New Yorker's review of the film: "The actors’ skill is in the foreground, and it’s impressive—it’s the one thing worth watching the movie for (remarkably, this is Zendaya’s first major dramatic-movie role)." As someone who appreciates Richard Brody's work and also loves films, it would be nice if the "one thing worth watching" in the movie was given more than a few sentences in a review. 
     The irony of all this is that while anxiety and rage fuel so much criticism of the film, these emotions are also what fuel the film itself. Something that, even to my amateur eyes, seemed abundantly obvious and yet glaringly neglected in so many reviews. 
     Anxiety and rage are a volatile mixture in Malcolm & Marie, a mixture that alchemizes into simmering and deadening silences; loving and mean-spirited back-and-forths; exhausting and enlivening monologues, and even fun, surprising, bodily gyrations. Some parts of the film feel rushed and nascent, as many critics have observed, unsatisfying despite their ambitions and can end up feeling like undeveloped thesis statements. And yet there are other moments in the film that are deeply poignant, funny, sensual, and, ultimately, devastating. Anxiety and rage can be this way sometimes, difficult to manage and control, and so the film, in all its beauty and flaws, is a testament to the difficult and beautiful artistry made possible by channeling volatile emotions like these. 

     Take, for instance, the memorable knife scene that happens toward the end of the film. It's a stark and stunning example of how anxiety and rage can be channeled into a scene, because we see how these emotions don't become black holes that the characters get sucked into, but rather they are the generative foregrounds for Macolm and Marie's exchanges. Instead of these emotions merely consuming, they are harnessed into a beautifully volatile moment of poignancy, philosophy, humor, anger, violence, and love. 
     The couple has been arguing about why Malcolm didn't cast Marie in his debut film, which leads into a philosophical argument about whether authenticity matters in filmmaking. Malcolm throws one of his many barbs at the ways in which critics (and people in general) try to talk about art by resorting to ambiguous terms such as "authenticity." (Malcolm does this several times in the film—obfuscate the issues at hand by abstracting the conversation into disembodied questions of artmaking, a byproduct, some might argue, of the film's white-male angst, which isn't a "problem" so much as it is something that feels underdeveloped/neglected in the film). Regardless, the film brings us into an uncomfortable and poignant moment in which the couple is confronting their unresolved issues about the casting process for Malcolm's film. They accuse one another of narcissism, self-harm and sabotage, debate the purpose of filmmaking, and ignore the uncomfortable truths of their relationship. Finally, at a loss for words, they scream at one another. They separate and retreat into different parts of the house.

     But it doesn't end. Their anxieties and rage are inexhaustible. 
     Marie grabs a knife from the kitchen and confronts Malcolm who is lying on the floor listening to music. She squats down to the ground and confesses to him that she is not doing well, that she has done horrible things during their relationship:

Do you remember those antidepressants I was on? I’m not on them anymore. I’m not doing well. I’m really, really not doing well. I’ve never been clean. And I don’t plan on getting clean. I’m a piece of shit. I’m a liar… I cheated on you. I fucked your friends. God, I feel like I’m crazy… I’ve stolen from your mother. And you know what the fucked up thing is? I don’t even care. I don’t mind. Because I deserve it. Tell me where the fucking pills are. Tell me where the pills are.

     Malcolm is afraid, genuinely afraid for the first time in the film, and it's clear that he's rethinking all of his rhetoric up until now—in part out of worry for he and Marie's physical safety, and in part because the consequences of his words and ideas, his blind theories about the world, are now being embodied, made real vis-a-vis a real-life confrontation with the woman he loves. 
     However, just as the scene has drawn us into this deeply uncomfortable and threatening moment, wherein the camera is ground-level with the actors talking on the carpet, it makes a turn. Marie sets the knife down. She tells Malcolm that she was just acting. She was just performing to make a point about authenticity: "And that, Malcolm, is what authenticity buys you." 
     This admission gives us one of the more hilarious moments from Malcolm in the film: "Well, damn! Why didn’t you do that in the audition?"
     There are many incredible things about this knife scene. But what's worth talking about especially is Marie, who as a character was ignored, dismissed, and/or neglected in so many reviews, which is infuriating but also not surprising.  First, I'll mention Zendaya's acting, in which she displays what seems to be a signature of her characters—simmering melancholy. Her handling of Marie's maelstrom of emotions is unapologetically direct and refreshing—never disingenuously understated nor ambitiously hyperbolic. But moreover, this scene truly brings to a head the power dynamics of Marie’s position as the black female muse in the film. 
     This position is a fraught role for any actress to take on, and this coupled with the Old-Hollywood feel of the film, and we have some giant histories looming in every scene—the most palpable being the hyper-masculine ways in which women have historically been used and talked about in filmmaking and the ways that black bodies have been (and continue to be) appropriated and pushed to the periphery in the film industry (which filmmaking and film criticism are both complicit in). The power dynamics that stem from these histories are complex and worth talking about (both in terms of the film and in the real-life film industry), though sadly no reviews I read attempted to sift through these power dynamics, especially in regards to how filmmaking and film criticism are both complicit in these histories, which to this amateur's eyes and mind seemed to be one of the major "points" of the entire film. Well, fine, I'll do it. 
     The power dynamics between the couple are deeply fraught in this knife scene, mainly because what they are arguing about—artistic license, the politics of ownership and authenticity, the shortcomings of artists and critics—truly have life and death consequences, especially for marginalized people working in the film industry (both in terms of financial security as well as physical and mental wellbeing). And so the knife Marie holds is not just a threat but also a way of confronting (both seriously and playfully) the fact that Malcolm has been able to successfully convert Marie's suffering (her drug addiction as well as the shit she's dealt with as a black woman in America) into capital through his filmmaking (the acclaim of critics, money and a privileged lifestyle, future job opportunities like The Lego Movie! etc.). Marie, on the other hand, seems deeply ambivalent about the whole enterprise of filmmaking (which makes sense given her experiences) while at the same time wishes she could have been a part of the film, which interestingly seems to be just as much (if not more) about the fact that she and Malcolm didn't make the film together as it is about her being famous. But Malcolm, throughout the film, is blind to Marie's feelings because of his rampant anxiety about legitimacy, about critics taking him seriously as a director rather than as a black director, a wish to be ahistorical, to be praised and validated through some kind of lens of artistic purity, (which, again, filmmaking and film criticism are both complicit in perpetuating) and some might argue that this notion of artistic purity is a white-male notion of purity, and so this is what makes their conversations fascinating—Malcolm's blindness to the forces that are torturing Marie are also the forces that are torturing him—race, class, gender, the politics of phenotype. In short, these power dynamics are as deeply woven into the lives of Malcolm and Marie as well as they are the critics they are talking about, and the film captures this messiness beautifully at times, as in this knife scene. 
     With that all being said, a shortcoming in the film, at least to me, is that Marie is essentially one step ahead of Malcolm throughout, mainly due to her acute awareness that the politics of phenotype are inextricably tied to the hard realities of our neoliberal society. I am thinking now of the way she dresses down Malcolm's neoliberal obsession with self-authorship and personal genius:
You say the film is about shame and guilt...Correct? Your words, not mine. All right. Well, I have a question for you, Malcolm. Whose fucking shame? Whose guilt? What the fuck do you know about shame and guilt? You have two parents, no bad habits other than being a fucking prick, and a college education. Your mother is a therapist. Your father is a professor. Your sister works for a think tank in D.C. But out here, on these streets, these smiling fucking rich people, they think you know what it’s like to scrap. Think you fucking lived it. Give me a break. You’re more privileged than the white girl who works for the LA Times, who thinks she’s doing a public service by lifting up your mediocre ass.
     Beyond that hilarious last line, this moment underscores how much further ahead intellectually Marie is than Malcolm. Which only feels shaky in the world of the film because of how Malcolm is framed in the movie as a highly-educated, critically-acclaimed, budding auteur, and yet he seems clueless to very obvious things about the politics of filmmaking, and so through the couples' exchanges we're left genuinely questioning the nature of Malcolm's "brilliance" and "auteurship."Perhaps this is intentional, perhaps it is an added layer to the film in which we see how "auteurship" and "intelligence" can be just as much a capitalist invention as anything else (which, for the last time, is an invention that filmmaking and film criticism are both complicit in). But if Malcolm is indeed a great-though-ignorant director, then his obvious and glaring shortcomings serve to only further prove that trying to essentialize the purpose of films is always a failing proposition that filmmakers and critics need to have a more honest and genuine conversation about. Is this not what the film was getting at? What do I know? I'm no critic. 
     This is why film criticism's anxiety and rage is so unfortunate when it comes to Malcolm & Marie. Because they miss out on beauty. They miss out on serious questions. They miss out on important conversations. Overtaken by anxiety and rage, the reviews come off as more interested in preserving the legitimacy of their profession than acknowledging and grappling with the issues the film portrays about the terrorizing effects of legitimacy in the film industry that are entrenched by the politics of race and gender and class. In neglecting these forces, the crisis of legitimacy for critics doesn't go away but rather is put-off for another day and time, for another future movie that explores these questions in ways deemed "productive" and "worthwhile." 
     Maybe Marie is right when she tells Malcolm: "All of y’all are a bunch of hookers and hoes." The conversation takes place a little more than halfway into the film. It's a lovely moment—not only because it is a much-needed pallet cleanse from the exhausting, rage-filled (and physically impressive) soliloquy that Malcolm has just delivered about the shortsightedness of critics—but because Marie's line is arguably long overdue, halfway into film. Given the context of their conversation—in which actors, actresses, filmmakers, and critics are all mentioned—her blunt barb, both declarative and funny, cuts through the bullshit. Her statement lays bare the uncomfortable, consumer-driven truth about filmmaking in U.S. culture—one in which, as Marie says, "all of you are guilty." 

Emilio Carrero is a recent postdoctoral fellow in English from the University of Arizona. His work has been published on, Brevity's Nonfiction Blog, and Guernica, and is forthcoming in Kenyon Review Online. He was a 2020 recipient of the Richard Salinas Scholarship from the Aspen Words Institute, and is a 2021 recipient of the Tennessee Williams Scholarship in Nonfiction from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is currently working on a memoir. 

The Malcontent is a pseudonymous Essay Daily feature in which we invite writers to put on their black hats and write against the things that we all seem to love. 

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