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An Interview With Michelle Orange on Her Book of Essays and the State of Film Criticism

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by Matt Singer
February 15, 2013 10:03 AM
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"This Is Running For Your Life."
"This Is Running For Your Life."
Sometimes it's hard to predict whether someone will become successful in a given field. And sometimes it's very, very easy.

I remember sitting in a seminar with Michelle Orange almost a decade ago at New York University. It was a class on film criticism, and it involved a lot of peer review. And it was pretty clear to me then, in a why-is-she-even-bothering-taking-this-class-she's-already-got-this sort of way, that she was going places. When Michelle started writing for all kinds of outlets after graduation -- The New York Times, The Village Voice, McSweeney's, Movieline -- it wasn't surprising at all. I could have predicted it.

So while I can't say I expected Michelle to publish a book of essays, I wasn't exactly caught off guard either. Nor was I staggered by just how good "This Is Running For Your Life" is. I could have seen that coming too.

This collection of ten essays showcases the stylish prose and impressive insights of one of the best critics I've ever had the pleasure to know. When Michelle told me about the book a few months ago, I made her promise me we'd do an interview about it on Criticwire. It was kind of strange, I admit, to interview a friend. But we still had a fun conversation about the origins of this project, the small role I unwittingly played in part of it, and how easily a freelance critic can get burned out in the working environment we're all subjected to these days.

Of all the things you could write, why a book of essays?

I think it came out of some writing I've been doing for a while on the side for places like The Rumpus that felt sort of interesting and fresh to me. I just wanted the chance to think and write about at greater length a lot of the things that had been preoccupying me.

In one of these essays, "The San Diego of My Mind," you write that "where criticism first seemed a natural and happy extension of my love of movies and writing, lately I have started to feel that there's something unnatural about habituating -- that is making a career of -- a certain level of stimuli." Is it fair to say the film criticism beat had you feeling burned out?

At that time, yes, I did feel burned out. I had gotten to the point where I was writing six or more substantial reviews a week and it was starting to get to me. Film criticism is something I kind of backed into -- and I was so grateful for that. But it's one of those things where you put your head down for a few years and you can make a living and things seem to be going well, but I just got to the point where I was taking in so much and a lot of it felt really bad and almost damaging. I did start to feel tired and burned out on a certain kind of movie. So, yes, that was written from a point of despair -- although I tried not to let it get the best of me.

In a way, the book was an attempt to broaden the things that I could do and think about, because I was starting to feel a little... claustrophobic? I'm not sure what the word is. I knew I wanted to open up my my writing life somehow. And I also knew I was not going to be able to sustain that level of input or output, in terms of film watching and film writing. I've been trying to engineer things so I can write more about the movies I want to write about, because of course there are loads and loads of them.

What do you mean you "backed into" film criticism?

I was working in Toronto and I had a decent job at a television station as a writer, but I wanted to overhaul my life, and I'd been doing a bunch of different kinds of writing at that point but I felt like I needed to make a big change. And I what I really wanted to do was move to New York but I didn't know how to get here. As a Canadian, your options are relatively few in that regard, and so I decided on the student route. I'd studied film as an undergraduate, but it was really just a matter of interest for me, it wasn't a matter of ambition.

I knew that I loved studying film and thinking about film. I'd wanted to go NYU as an undergraduate, so when I was trying to think about how I could facilitate this plan to get to New York, school seemed like the best option, NYU was the obvious option, and film was the thing I most wanted to study. But I didn't do it with the ambition of becoming a film critic. That just wasn't my ambition, I guess. Do you think everyone in the program wanted to be an academic or a critic?

Maybe not everyone, but most of them, definitely.

Really? 

Yeah, definitely. What did you want to do with your degree after you got it?

I didn't really know!

[laughs]

I thought I would figure that out when I got here. But it really was probably 95% just getting to New York.

I can relate to that burned out feeling though. As you said, you can make a living doing this, but it's not easy. The amount of work you have to take on to make ends meet can get overwhelming. If you could write less stuff, you could write better stuff. But that's not the way it works.

Yeah, it wears you down, right? That feeling that you're not doing anything as well as you could be doing it, that's a terrible feeling.

That's one of the reasons this book is interesting. Maybe this is something more critics need to try as a model. Would you recommend critics consider getting out of the weekly grind and into longer pieces and collections of essays?

There are critics who don't feel this way -- who are good at, and completely satisfied being a working critic and all the things that that entails. And I salute them. I've often felt like I'm not able to work at the rate that it seems like we need to be able to work at. My ultimate advice is to try to find a way to write about what you want to write about and see what happens. Remember that panel we were both at with Philip Lopate and Stephanie Zacharek?

Yes.

He made these comments about how the essay was, in a way, the ideal form for film criticism. And I really agree with that. The world doesn't seem to agree with it in terms of what the shape and form of a lot of publications have or are willing to give for reviews, but that's sort of the Platonic ideal: to find out for yourself how you want to write about film and what you want to write, and then to follow it.

My favorite essay in the book is the one about this company that is doing "neuromarketing" using an fMRI machine to read our brains' reactions to popular culture as a kind of evolution of test screenings and focus groups. How did you find these guys?

I'd heard about the phenomenon. So I just started looking into it, searching online, searching out the firms or clinics. I came across these guys who were working more in films, and had this crazy story of being these ex-Hollywood guys. So I got in touch and said, can I come see what you're doing?

I read that essay the morning of the press screening of "A Good Day to Die Hard." And I kept thinking while I was watching it how the film felt like it had been written by marketers instead of screenwriters. How did researching this field change the way you looked at movies?

What it did was it made sense of a lot of previous experiences like the ones you just described that were disorienting and dispiriting in this way that I couldn't quite put my finger on. I actually thought about you when I was writing that essay because around that time, we were both at a screening of "Zookeeper" and I remember you turning to me at one point -- I don't remember what bit of business prompted it -- but you turned to me and said "This is a movie!" Not with a question mark, with an exclamation point.

I don't remember saying that, but I believe you. I was pretty shocked by what I was seeing.

And that was the feeling that went into that piece: this is a movie now! Somehow, this thing in front of me is what we're calling a movie.

How prevalent is this practice of neuromarketing? Are these guys and these sorts of practices controlling everything that comes out of Hollywood now?

I don't actually know. From what I understand, the studios don't want people to know that they're doing this. They have all kinds of tight non-disclosure agreements. So I'm not sure how much we would know. I know they were just starting up at the time when I was there in 2011. 

There's also a really beautiful essay about your grandmother, who had a difficult life at times, but who loved movies. Did she spark your own love of film?

Looking back, she did in a way that I wasn't entirely aware of. It wasn't until I started thinking about it that I realized -- yeah, actually, she took me to these movies like "Night Shift" and "Arthur." I think "Night Shift" is rated R, and she took me to that movie and we agreed that I wouldn't tell my mom and dad [laughs]. She would only take me to grown-up movies when I was six or seven or eight years old. We became movie partners in a way. But she was relatively remote otherwise -- I remember those moments because they were the only time we spent alone together. 

You also write about this event that I apparently witnessed, although I have to admit I don't remember it. While you were at NYU your grandmother would mail you her ticket stubs from the movies, which she would cover in these brief movie reviews. And you brought a few into our film criticism seminar to share with the class. What fascinated you about those ticket stubs?

First of all, it was the fact that she initiated this correspondence with me when I first moved to New York and joined the film studies program. And these ticket stubs with these jotted reviews, she was sending them to me unsolicited -- she knew I was here studying film and it was really touching and curious. And she kept doing it until I wound up with almost 80 of them over a couple of years. She went to the movies every week or more than once a week.

Because she had been such a bit of an enigmatic figure in my life, it felt meaningful that she was trying to connect with me in this way. And I also loved the sort of genius of them as little objects. Her observations were always incredibly crisp and precise. They struck me as these little economic miracle movie reviews.

Her reviews are so pithy and sharp, they look like they belong on Twitter.

[laughs] She was ahead of her time.

She was Twitter before Twitter.

I did not think of that, but it's true.

Is there anything about your grandmother's approach to film that you've tried to apply to your own writing?

Yeah. She was an omnivore. She would see anything and everything. She had no prejudices. I aspire to that and I feel like that's very important. And her frankness, too: she didn't have a lot of pretension. Her responses were so pure. Going over them again it just reminded, that's the core of it. You just need a couple of sentences of what your pure thoughts are about a film and then you can build around them.

Well, in spite of the "A Good Day to Die Hard"s and "Zookeeper"s of the world, you're still at it, and not just with these essays. Why keep writing about movies?

Because I love them. There are so many incredible filmmakers and incredible films coming out, and they inspire me. I've always been drawn to movies and always, in a way, been drawn to my own response and connection to movies. And that will never change. Writing about them and helping myself figure out, in a way, how I feel is one of the most rewarding experiences that I can have.

"This Is Running For Your Life" is available now.

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