The other day I tweeted this: “Somebody smarter than me needs to write an essay about auteurs who are oblivious to the current cultural conversation.”
Well, no one volunteered, so here goes nothing.
I should probably clarify that when I referred to the “current cultural conversation” I was specifically talking about Twitter, the headquarters, if you will, of the Take Industrial Complex.
If you spend a lot of time on Twitter you know that it’s an ecosystem, with its own unique language, short-hands, rules, rituals, obsessions, and inside jokes. A few days ago, for example, most of the people I follow were preoccupied with an essay in The Washington Post called “I am Tired of Being a Jewish Man’s Rebellion.” We all agreed that the essay was bad—narcissistic, shallow, and almost certainly anti-Semitic. The article was so widely discussed that one needed only to tweet: “I read the thing” and people knew exactly what you were talking about. And within hours, there were satirical responses to the essay that were also circulating.
But here’s the thing you need to remember. Off Twitter, most people hadn’t read the article. If you said, “I read the thing” they’d have no idea what thing you were talking about. And of those who did read it, many didn’t give it a lot of thought. I can even imagine a world where someone might read that article and not be offended by it, or think it warranted little more than a chuckle and a shrug. On Twitter, however, some people were literally calling for the firing of the story’s editor. (Which was crazy talk, by the way.)
The point of this example is not to defend that particular essay, which was, indeed, trash, but to remind you that Twitter obsessions are not always real world obsessions. Likewise, Twitter speak is not always real world speak. On Twitter, everyone knows that captioning a GIF or photo with “It me” means you seriously identify with the image at hand. Post that same phrase on Facebook and people would assume that you left off an apostrophe.
On top of all the great and horrible things that it is, Twitter has become ground zero for the most up-to-the-moment conversation about race, pop culture, media, identity, gender, and sexuality.
We lefties on Twitter tend to agree on a lot of things. For example, we agree that white men have held the pop culture reins too long and that it’s time for women and POC to take charge. We agree that representation matters, both in front of and behind the camera. We know that it’s more polite to describe yourself as “cisgender”—as opposed to just male or female—and what it means when someone says they’d like to be referred to as “they” and “them.” We don’t think the #MeToo movement has “gone too far” and we deride those who do. We think that, in an attempt to appease “both sides,” the New York Times editorial page has become almost unreadable. We liked Jesus Christ Superstar—yeah, that was good. But Roseanne? Not so much. And so on.
But when everyone in your online ecosystem feels the same way—or claims to feel the same way—it’s easy to fall into the trap of assuming those beliefs are more widely held and understood than they actually are. And I guess that’s why I’m pretty sympathetic to people who aren’t part of the Twitter conversation.
A couple of years ago, Matt Damon got into some hot water for some ill-advised remarks he made on his show Project Greenlight. One of the producers on the show, Effie Brown, who is black, was advocating for a more diverse behind the scenes crew.
“When we’re talking about diversity, you do it in the casting of the film, not in the casting of the show,” Damon said to her.
It was a dreadful moment: Mansplaining, interrupt-y, white privilege-y. And as I watched it, I thought: Damon is clearly not on Twitter. Enlightened dudes on Twitter are so afraid of coming across as “mansplaining” they will actually apologize before answering a question that you asked. As for a white man explaining diversity to a black woman—time to fire up that Betty Gabriel “no no no” GIF from Get Out. (Cue the blank faces from those who aren’t on Twitter.)
Damon’s brand of paternalistic “liberalism” felt square, old-fashioned, out of it. The conversation had passed him by and he didn’t even know it.
He more than proved that point a few months ago when he stepped in it again, this time discussing the #MeToo movement. Damon tried to point out that there was a spectrum of misbehavior and that it was dangerous to lump, say, Louis CK and Harvey Weinstein in the same category. He also “helpfully” noted that lots of men hadn’t been accused of sexual harassment. It was a classic #NotAllMen moment, an unnecessary and unwanted addition to the conversation. But would Damon even know what a #NotAllMen moment is? Those of us on Twitter understand that it’s a form of defensiveness, usually expressed by guilty white people and, in particular, men. (“Not all white people are racist!” “Not all men are jerks!” etc.) Twitter, in its evolved understanding of how important it is to shut up and give the once-marginalized the floor, has created useful rules: Don’t argue. Don’t get defensive. Just listen. This isn’t about you.
But Damon doesn’t know those rules and I’m sure he thought he was being perfectly reasonable. (He subsequently apologized for his statement, noting: “I wish I’d listened a lot more before I’d weighed in on this.” At this point, he’s run out of excuses.)
No, I’m not going to go on to defend Terry Gilliam, who said that the #MeToo movement has devolved into “mob rule,” because he just seems like a jerk. But needless to say, Twitter wasn’t having it.
All of this leads to the question that I posed above: How attuned to the politics of Twitter does a filmmaker need to be? I ask this because in the last month, two great auteurs have put out films that suggest that they are not on top of the cultural zeitgeist—which is to say, they’re not on Twitter.
The first is Steven Spielberg’s Ready Player One, based on the divisive Ernest Cline bestseller of the same name. The book, about a dystopian world where people retreat into a virtual reality and a young man who saves the day by being more obsessed with 80s pop culture than anyone else, has gotten a lot of backlash for elevating a gamer to godlike status, especially in the wake of something called the GamerGate scandal. Now before I continue, I want you all to do something. Ask your parents. Ask your neighbors. Ask some random dudes on the street if they even know what a GamerGate scandal is. I’m guessing they don’t. (For the record, and this is an oversimplification: It was a grim period that presaged a lot of the bullying techniques of the #MAGA and alt-right movement where online gaming fans harassed and doxed female gamers and journalists who dared to call out the sexism of video games and gamer culture.)
I’d argue that, as an artist, Spielberg certainly doesn’t need to know what GamerGate is. But I’d also argue that, if he’s going to make a film out of a book that was the subject of a GamerGate controversy, well, it sure wouldn’t hurt. And having seen Ready Player One, which I mostly liked, it’s clear to me that Spielberg wasn’t thoughtful about his gamer guy saving the day and getting the girl and being rewarded for his mastery of arcane trivia. And he doesn’t really grapple with the fact that film’s Wonka-esque hero is another dude. So, basically, one god-like male savior taking over for another one.
The other out-of-touch auteur is Wes Anderson, whose Isle of Dogs has gotten a fair share of backlash for its “Orientalism” and “cultural tourism.” I like the idea of Anderson being this mad genius who works in a place that is adjacent to our world, but not quite of our world. I honestly don’t want him being overly influenced by pop culture trends or the latest correct way of seeing things. That being said, these criticisms have been leveled at him before. At some point, to not respond to them in a thoughtful way is a kind of willful ostriching. Because despite all his fussy nostalgia, Wes Anderson does live in the real world, and in the real world, issues of inclusion and racial sensitivity matter. In my review, I whacked Anderson for exoticizing Japanese culture, but I particularly criticized his use of a white female savior. As I noted to some friends on Facebook, even if Anderson is completely oblivious to the current conversation about race and inclusion, surely he must know that the white savior trope is tired and offensive. I mean we were talking about this shit in 1989 with Kevin Kline fixing apartheid in Cry Freedom.
I don’t know where I ultimately land on all this, except to say this: We should all have a little patience for those who aren’t versed in the latest, most nuanced understanding of every conversation on representation, race, and gender. Remember, it wasn’t that long ago that heroes in movies were reflexively male or white—and usually both. We’re evolving, slowly but surely. I want filmmakers to catch up, but I also want them to be driven by their own creative impulses, their own muses. A film that parrots the current “correct” way of thinking is, in some ways, just as bad as one that seems oblivious to it. My experience with Twitter is that it’s often ahead of the curve—what was an exclusive conversation on Twitter becomes a mainstream way of looking at things two or three years later. But sometimes, Twitter—yes, even progressive twitter—gets it wrong. Sometimes it over-compensates, bandwagons, and silences opposing views. I’d hate to think that singular artists like Spielberg and Anderson were beholden to today’s group thought. Somewhere, there’s a compromise. Because an artist who doesn’t pay attention to the world around him or her is no artist at all.