The national shame of college admissions

[Sign up to receive these updates via email]

The college admissions scandal that unfurled this week has become a national obsession, and with good reason: Virtually everyone in this country needs to deal with college admissions at some point in their lives, whether for themselves or for their children, even if it’s just to look at the entire corrupt process and decline to participate in it.

This scandal has everything: wealthy, recognizable people in high positions using their power to get their oblivious children into universities where it would otherwise be a challenge for them to gain admittance. Plus, so many delicious details about how this scam went down. Here’s my recommended reading on the subject:

  • Deadspin has a good summary of the more hilarious details.
  • Slate posits that sports recruiting is the real college admissions scam. They’re right.
  • The Atlantic explains why it’s significant that the parents chose to lie to their children about their actions, and how that perpetuates the feelings of privilege and the notion of “I earned everything I have” that has become so insidious in our culture.
  • As usual, The Daily podcast has a great rundown of the major issues involved. One of the key insights that’s important to remember: Many of these children likely had a decent chance at getting into schools like USC, which are selective but not as much as the upper echelons of the Ivy League. What these parents wanted was a sure thing.
  • The New York Times highlights the racial disparities inherent in the system. Said one student: “We can put in work from fifth grade to 12th grade, every single day, come in early, leave late, and it’s still not enough. What does it take? You work every day, they still find a way.”
  • From August of 2018, Alia Wong at The Atlantic proposes a radical solution to fix elite-college admissions: Lotteries. This will never happen, but it’s interesting to contemplate.
  • Masha Gessen writes for The New Yorker about how she would cover this event as a foreign correspondent, asking, “Why is such a clearly and unabashedly immoral system legal at all?”

What this scandal reminded me of is how unfair the process is to begin with, even without all the illegal bribes. Wealthy people can legally donate buildings to get their kids into school (for now). They can pay for the best test prep classes available. They help their children participate in sports, unavailable to others, that make it more likely they’ll be admitted.

Even with all these advantages, it still wasn’t enough. These parents wanted guarantees, no matter what the legal and ethical cost. Now, to paraphrase Francis X. Hummel, they are reaping the whirlwind.


Netflix canceled the critically beloved sitcom One Day at a Time this week (Disclosure: I currently work at Amazon and have a friend who was a regular on the show). Shows get canceled all the time, but what was remarkable about this one was the tone-deafness of Netflix’s tweet announcement and the ferocity of the backlash to it. A hashtag meant to try to save the show, #saveodaat, was trending worldwide within an hours.

In an era where the streaming giant is trying to cultivate an aura of “wokeness,” we got to see this week what happens when progressive politics meets business reality. Companies presenting themselves as guardians of diversity and representation are now treading on shifting ground.

At the Washington Post, Ric Sanchez explains how important the show was to him, and why Netflix’s tweet was so painful:

The Latin American experience is not monolithic, and the show was careful to illustrate that. There were Cuban in-jokes I was not familiar with, sure — but there were also story lines relatable to anyone who has been threatened by their abuela, shamed for their Spanish proficiency or walked a well-meaning peer through a microaggression.

These are the small moments in which “One Day at a Time” excelled. Whether you’re Latin American, a single parent, a veteran or part of a working-class family, it felt like the show could take an experience you thought was painfully specific to you and present it to a wider audience with charm and empathy. It helped you see yourself in a new context. […]

Netflix certainly is under no obligation to support a show that’s losing money. It’s a business decision, sure. But to cloak a business decision in the language of inclusiveness is tone-deaf at best and condescending at worst. They’re effectively telling us that we matter — we just don’t matter enough.

James Poniewozik has a similar piece at NYTimes, writing:

I am not a mind reader. Maybe the sentiment is sincere, maybe it’s spin, maybe a little of each. Either way, Netflix is trying to throw away its cake and get credit for having baked it.

Poniewozik also provides some good perspective on Netflix’s claim that “simply not enough people watched.”


Other links from the week:

Big Bezos Energy

[Sign up to receive these posts via email]

Last week, the CEO of my employer, Jeff Bezos, published a lengthy blog post in which he described and offered proof of an apparent extortion attempt by American Media Inc. (AMI) whose aim was to cow him into silence. AMI claimed to have compromising photos of him and threatened to release them if Bezos didn’t make false statements about AMI’s motivations for its coverage of Bezos’s affair:

Any personal embarrassment AMI could cause me takes a back seat because there’s a much more important matter involved here. If in my position I can’t stand up to this kind of extortion, how many people can? (On that point, numerous people have contacted our investigation team about their similar experiences with AMI, and how they needed to capitulate because, for example, their livelihoods were at stake.)

In the AMI letters I’m making public, you will see the precise details of their extortionate proposal: They will publish the personal photos unless Gavin de Becker and I make the specific false public statement to the press that we “have no knowledge or basis for suggesting that AMI’s coverage was politically motivated or influenced by political forces.”

If we do not agree to affirmatively publicize that specific lie, they say they’ll publish the photos, and quickly. And there’s an associated threat: They’ll keep the photos on hand and publish them in the future if we ever deviate from that lie.

For obvious reasons, I won’t comment much more on the post except to say that it’s worth reading in its entirety. It’s an excellent piece of writing that has reshaped the narrative on this story and dramatically opened up the scope of what’s happening here. It also portends bad things for AMI going forward [As usual, although I’m an employee of Amazon, all opinions expressed on this blog are my own and don’t represent my company].

There’s also a few supplementary pieces that helped me further understand this story. Bloomberg has a piece describing the history of AMI’s lawyer (he used to work for Amazon). The Daily Beast explains how blackmail has been part of AMI’s business model for awhile now. And finally, Scott Galloway has a smart (and surprisingly poignant) take on a bonus podcast episode of Pivot.


New York magazine did a cover story on The Matrix this week with tons of articles, many of which are worth reading:

But my favorite piece is the interview by Bilge Ebiri with Chad Stahelski, where they talk about The Matrix’s influence on action films. Here’s Stahelski on filming that lobby sequence:

I remember my first time on camera was in the government lobby sequence, when Carrie-Anne does her wall-up. We had rehearsed it a million times. We had squibs that had to go off. It was all practical effects, so you couldn’t have a cell phone within 300 feet of the stage, because at the time, the frequency of cell phones could set off the electronic squibs. They had over a thousand squibs, and they’re blowing off, and we’re seeing them and just going, “Oh my God.” I had to do a thing where I cartwheel over to an M16 rifle, pick it up with one hand, and then Keanu shoots and goes into the fight or whatever. I remember the setup was a day turnover, so you get one take, and it takes a day to reset, and then you do the second take. I had barely met anybody on set at this point. I’m in the getup, and I’m getting ready to go, and I remember producer Joel Silver walking over to me — I had never met the man before in my life — looking me right in the eye and saying, “Don’t fuck this up.” Basically, don’t miss. And he gave me that little stare. He’s a very intense person. And I was like, Okay. Don’t miss gun. They said there’d be a lot of debris, so I just practiced doing the flip with my eyes closed. And I swear to you, as soon as they yelled action, the first squib went off, and I couldn’t see shit. I just threw myself in there and magically found the gun and grabbed it. I was only 25 and I was like, Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. Don’t miss gun. But after that scene finished, I remember calling everybody back in the States and just going, “Yeah, this is gonna be something different. This is real stuff.”

Amazing stuff that makes you remember why this film still retains such immense power.


If you keep up with the news in the podcasting world, you might have heard that Spotify is acquiring Gimlet Media for $230 million! While I’m happy for all the folks at Gimlet who have labored hard for years producing hundreds of hours of entertainment to get to this point, I’m apprehensive about what it means for the state of podcasting. As usual, Nicholas Quah has a smart take on what all of it means:

[T]he major assumption I’ve been seeing around this deal is that in Gimlet, Spotify is primarily getting a show portfolio to use as the cornerstone of their “original podcast programming,” with which they could push more of its users towards consuming podcasts on its platform. That push may or may not take the form of Gimlet’s shows becoming Spotify exclusives, but I’m pretty comfortable betting it will.

But I also think Gimlet Creative, the company’s advertising division, is another key piece to appraise here. Consider that Spotify’s core competency isn’t content, but distribution, engagement, and monetization — and that monetization, in particular, is both a podcast problem a good deal of people are fixated on and the one that established media platforms (like Spotify, but also Pandora) fancy themselves well-positioned to solve with their existing assets.

For decades now, podcasting has been a meritocratic open standard. Essentially, podcasts are just RSS feeds pointing to hosted mp3 files. Anyone with a podcast could rise from a complete unknown to someone with a minimally popular movie podcast (*ahem*). Podcasts could also monetize at will and take a large portion of the profits.

With massive companies like Spotify getting into the content game, absorbing more profits, and pushing more and more for exclusives on its own platform, I see choppy waters up ahead for the wonderful, open world of podcasts. We’ll see how things play out.


I almost quit watching Netflix’s Russian Doll after two episodes, finding it to be an unpleasant warmed over rehash of the “Repeat Your Day” trope. But after a bunch of people urged me to keep going, I finished the series and was richly rewarded. It’s an incredible work, and seems destined to become one of the great shows of 2019.

While Russian Doll owes a lot to Groundhog Day and No Exit, the piece of work that it most closely resembles for me is Makoto Shinkai’s recent film Your Name, which is about two people connected by apparently-supernatural circumstances that help and teach each other what it means to be a better version of themselves (Your Name was one of my favorite films of 2017).

While I’m hoping to make a video essay about the show’s ending in the near future, I did want to point to Matt Zoller Seitz’s piece about the series at Vulture. He has written what I think is the most thorough reading of the film that I can find so far:

What makes this series stand apart from its predecessors is the way it blends parable, psychodrama, and science fiction while maintaining plausible deniability, so that the story doesn’t fall too neatly or obviously into any of those three categories.

Alan Sepinwall also has an interesting interview with Natasha Lyonne about the series. And Jackson McHenry interviewed the production designer who helped make Nadia’s bathroom “reset point” a reality.


That’s it for this week! There was so much news that happened that I tried a different format where I commented a bit more on each story, rather than focus on one main one. As always, feel free to share your feedback in the comments below.

When the bleeding won’t stop

This week saw another massive wave of media layoffs. Vice is cutting 10 percent. McClatchy offered buyouts to 450 employees. And Machinima is shutting down entirely. In all, it’s estimated that over 2,100 people lost their media jobs in the past two weeks.

There are many possible explanations for why digital media is experiencing its moment of reckoning. It’s now a business that is past its growth period and already in retrenchment. Some people blame the big tech companies, which have absorbed the overwhelmingly vast majority of growth in the ad business. Others think it’s the fact that a huge portion of digital media outfits today were launched using venture capital. Still others think it’s vulture capitalists. Most likely it’s some combination of these things. Add into the mix that supply of “things for our eyeballs to look at” has dramatically eclipsed demand and it’s clear that the forces conspiring against digital media are formidable.

Whatever got us here, in a column for The New York Times, Farhad Manjoo argues that the layoffs at Buzzfeed are “devastating for democracy,” writing:

Consider: We are in the midst of a persistent global information war. We live our lives on technologies that sow distrust and fakery, that admit little room for nuance and complication, that slice us up into ignorant and bleating tribes. It is an era that should be ripe for journalists and for the business of journalism — a profession that, though it errs often, is the best way we know of inoculating ourselves against the suffocating deluge of rumor and mendacity. […]

The need for journalism has never been greater, but the economics surrounding it have never been more brutal. For awhile it seemed like folks like Buzzfeed could lead the way, but now that it’s clear that they’re just trying to figure it out too. Manjoo continues:

So where does that leave media? Bereft. It is the rare publication that can survive on subscriptions, and the rarer one that will be saved by billionaires. Digital media needs a way to profitably serve the masses. If even BuzzFeed couldn’t hack that, we are well and truly hosed.

I once dreamed of a career in digital media. The idea of being able to write about what you love and make money doing it is an intoxicating one. But at this moment, it’s looking like the only people who are able to successfully make a living at it will be, more or less, the people who are currently making a living at it. The barriers to entry are growing ever greater and the entry points are shrinking. Margaret Sullivan wrote about this phenomenon awhile back, when another digital media company was announcing layoffs:

With the tragic demise of local newspapers, places like Mic have become the entry point into the craft for a lot of young journalists. What’s more, their newsrooms have been admirably diverse, a diversity that their journalism has admirably reflected. As they go under, such entry points disappear. And the journalists who have been through this ugly process — sometimes more than once — burn out.

As a society, I hope we’re able to figure out how to make this work. We need the accountability.


Nightline’s post-mortem of Theranos

Nightline has a new two-part post-mortem of the Theranos scandal that’s worth watching. Of note: they were able to obtain deposition footage of disgraced CEO Elizabeth Holmes acknowledging some of her deceptions, plus an interview with the COO’s defense lawyer. I also appreciated that they got in touch with a Theranos customer to allow people to understand the human misery and wasted resources that this company was capable of causing.

I read reporter John Carreyrou’s Bad Blood last year and found it to be thoroughly engrossing, but almost a year later I’m still really shaken by what the Theranos case says about our culture. Here was a CEO that was making claims about her product that were, on their face, medically impossible. Through some really skillful self-hype and through a corporate culture that prized silence and complicity (and punished anyone who stepped out of line), she was able to convince the world she was right to the tune of a $4 billion valuation.

It says a lot about a culture that we allowed this to happen, and that our only bulwark against it was a lone journalist willing to risk his own livelihood to find the truth.

Don’t rush

The news cycle runs at hyper speed now. About one week ago, a group of students from Covington High School Catholic High School were filmed at the Lincoln Memorial behaving in a rowdy fashion in front of Native American activist Nathan Phillips.

A video of the incident received near-universal condemnation on Twitter, most of it coming from liberal online personalities. This was followed by a conservative backlash that came with more video showing further context and insisting that the situation was perceived unfairly. A counter-backlash followed, plus an apology tour by the teen in the video, Nicholas Sandmann, in which he claims that nothing untoward occurred. All of this took place in less than a fortnight.

[If you’re looking for an even-handed assessment of what actually happened at the event, I’d recommend this piece by Josh Marshall, who assessed each piece of evidence and links out to more so you can make some decisions yourself.]

I recently read Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, in which he runs down a number of situations where the internet tried to destroy someone’s life. A terrible joke about AIDS in Africa became an international meme and blew up a woman’s life. A woman took a jokey photo at Arlington National Cemetary and lost her job helping people with learning disabilities. Time after time, the internet mob has shown that it is willing to annihilate people, seemingly randomly, if they step out of line in a way that strikes the right nerve.

Ronson’s thesis in the book is that shaming lessens us all. It can leave the subject irrevocably scarred, and it changes the mob doing the shaming too. It reshapes our values in ways that are troubling and make us less compassionate and more violent.

As a result of the book, I’ve tried to publicly shame people less often these days. But it can be a challenge because Twitter makes it so easy. Have a thought? Want to ruin someone who’s offended you? Fire off a tweet! It’s all very tempting and sad.

That said, I don’t think my approach is for everyone. I’ve tried not to condemn people for shaming, because one of the weaknesses of Ronson’s book is that it doesn’t delve into all the times that internet shaming has actually been unequivocally beneficial, such as when it is done in the name of justice, and the last recourse for people with no other options.

But one thing I have concluded I can do and recommend: Wait before tweeting. Think before tweeting. Deliberate before posting. Mull it over before blogging.

The Phillips-Sandmann video felt like it was genetically engineered to tap into all the sensitivities of our day. A group of white kids stood around a Native American war vet, seeming to mock him. The video is the video; the response to it revealed our sensitivities and anxieties. To one side, public shaming felt like it was necessary, because what other response could there be? This might be the only way to make this child pay for his insolence! If you’re on the other side, there’s a need to defend this innocent child from a liberal mob that’s ignoring the facts.

No matter what your assessment, I think it’s safe to say that all sides were bloodied in the fiasco. But to me, one thing remains clear: the rush to judgment benefits no one. I really appreciated Casey Newton’s take on the situation, in which he shares lessons from this incident.

I do think there was value in watching more video of the protests as it emerged before offering up a take. The more angles of the conflict that I watched, the more unsettled I was by the teens’ behavior — and by their chaperons’ inaction. Not everyone has the luxury of waiting until day four of a story to have a take. But a lot of members of the media … do? And if you do, you might consider holding your tongue, at least for 24 hours or so. It’s here that Twitter’s incentive system deserves criticism — the earlier you tweeted the first video, and the more incendiary your view, the likelier you were to have it shot into the algorithmic stratosphere. (One Vulture contributor was fired over the weekend after saying that he wished the teens were dead.)

Don’t rush. If it’s not a time-sensitive situation, the target of your outrage will still be there in a day or two. Plus, you’ll probably have a lot more information from which to craft your position.


Some more news and links from the week:

What is clickbait, anyway?

Over the weekend, a Twitter user named Dakota Lopez posted a list of the websites that were most frequently called out by a Twitter account called FilmClickbait:

FilmClickbait quote tweets out headlines from film news websites and blogs, usually revealing the information that is teased. Here’s an example:

I have some thoughts on all this, but here are a few caveats before I proceed:

    Coming in sixth on that list is slashfilm.com, a site I used to write for regularly and that I currently still host a weekly podcast for.
    I have not verified Lopez’s methodology or his final counts, but nothing about the list strikes me as implausible.
    I can’t comment on whether there’s anything “disproportionately malicious” happening, but it seems possible that the sites that rank highest simply traffic more frequently in what FilmClickbait deems clickbait.

Here is the problem with FilmClickbait’s entire modus operandi: There is no widely understood definition of clickbait, and if there is one, it’s not one that seems to match FilmClickbait’s.

In 2014, Ben Smith wrote a piece for Buzzfeed (a site that would know or thing or two about clickbait) explaining why the site no longer used “clickbait.” In it, he defines clickbait as headlines that fundamentally mislead the reader about what the article is about. When Buzzfeed used to do this, they’d generate short term engagement, but they’d destroy user trust. So they stopped:

If your goal — as is ours at BuzzFeed — is to deliver the reader something so new, funny, revelatory, or delightful that they feel compelled to share it, you have to do work that delivers on the headline’s promise, and more. This is a very high bar. It’s one thing to enjoy reading something, and quite another to make the active choice to share it with your friends. This is a core fact of sharing and the social web of Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and other platforms.

The best way to ensure your readers won’t choose to share a story or a post is to trick them. Anyone who has spent the last 20 years online knows the specific disgust that comes with a headline that doesn’t deliver on its promise. It’s the kind of taste you get in your mouth from a glistening but spoiled peach. The publisher got the page view, and ComScore doesn’t record your flash of anger. But you’re hardly going to subject your friends to this experience. (Maybe your enemies.)

Smith even went on to provide tips on how to write good headlines:

Great headlines, meanwhile, tell you a lot about what you’re going to read, and persuade you to click because you know you’ll find a story that will satisfy your interest. The lists that BuzzFeed has long been known for are, as list titles tend to be, extremely direct; “31 Genius Hacks For Your Elementary School Art Class” is just that. As my colleague Ryan Broderick puts it, the goal is often, in fact, to “blow away the curiosity gap.” One of his recent headlines: “A 5-Year-Old Girl Raised Enough Money To Take Her Father Who Has Terminal Cancer To Disney World.”

When you look over Filmclickbait’s targets, there are certainly pieces that fall within the standard definition of clickbait. But there are at least as many pieces that simply don’t adhere to Filmclickbait’s version of a good headline.

Take today as an example. Many websites are writing about Game of Thrones final season premiere date:

Nothing in the headline that is being linked to is misleading. It simply doesn’t include the most crucial piece of information that is teased. And while some (many?) might find it annoying to click through to the actual article, it’s important to ask other questions beyond whether that info is in the tweet/headline itself: Does the article provide important context? Does it provide insights and information that you might not otherwise have known?

If no, then eventually readers will decide on their own that your website is not worth reading or sharing, and the laws of Darwin will eliminate the publication from the pool of going concerns. But if yes, then value is still being delivered to the reader. I don’t understand how that could be called clickbait, or if it can be, I don’t understand why that distinction is important because literally every publication does it.

Here’s a screenshot from today’s New York Times about U.S. tensions with Iran. It reads: “Pentagon Officials Fear Bolton’s Actions Increase Risk of Clash with Iran”

It would be ludicrous for a clickbait-like account to simply quote tweet this article and flippantly write, “He asked for military options to strike Iran!” Why? Because the article itself might contain other information that is important to know about! Simply because the headline doesn’t contain all the relevant information doesn’t make it a bad or clickbait-y headline. And sure, pop culture ephemera doesn’t have the weighty importance of national security, but the same concept applies.

I wholeheartedly believe that there are websites that act in bad faith. But by refusing to distinguish between actively misleading headlines and headlines that simply don’t (can’t?) include all the possible relevant information, FilmClickbait throws the baby out with the bathwater. It provides a skewed perspective on what “clickbait” and bad headline writing even is. That’s arguably an equal disservice to the fan community as the prevalence of actual clickbait.


A few interesting things from the web recently:

My 10 favorite longreads of 2018

Every year for the past few years I’ve put together a list of my 10 favorite longreads, which include lengthy journalistic features and other forms of online writing. This year, I actually feel like I read more than I ever have before, although much of it was shorter form and thus not the best fit for this list. With news moving at the speed it does these days, I found myself engrossed by detailed write-ups of current events, rather than expanding my mind with rich stories of people I’d never heard of before.

Still, there’s plenty of amazing writing to be found online as always. You can go here to read my previous years’ lists. Here are my 10 favorite longreads of 2018, in no particular order:

The Young and the Reckless – Brendan Koerner wrote a great yarn for Wired about what happens when hacking Xboxes goes from being a fun hobby to a life-altering, law-enforcement-provoking activity. As a former Microsoft employee, it was fascinating to read about this case, which I’d heard nothing about when I worked for Xbox.

Too Many Men – In China and India, men outnumber women by 70 million, and we are about to witness how this involuntary social experiment will play out on a massive scale. Simon Denyer and Annie Gowen put together a startling piece for the Washington Post about this vast gender imbalance and what it will mean for society.

Sperm Count Zero – Speaking of ways in which humanity is doomed, Daniel Noah Halpern has a detailed examination for GQ on how fertility is dramatically declining around the world, the possible causes, and what happens next.

What Ever Happened to Brendan Fraser, How Goop’s Haters Made Gwyneth Paltrow’s Company Worth $250 Million and The Trouble with Johnny Depp – Call this a three-way tie for celebrity profiles, but in an age when celebrities can share their inner thoughts instantly with millions of fans via Twitter and Instagram, these profiles creatively brought fascinating details to light. See also: the NYTimes profile of Alfonso Cuarón, and Rolling Stone‘s profile of M. Night Shyamalan.

Everything You Know About Obesity is Wrong – A bold story by Michael Hobbes for HuffPo, that suggests that the way we’ve been treating obesity is not only ineffective, it’s actively damaging.

The Kilogram Is Dead; Long Live the Kilogram – Loved this piece by James Vincent, which makes you rethink how you understand one of the fundamental assumptions you have about the world: how much a kilogram weighs.

How an Ex-Cop Rigged McDonald’s Monoply Game and Stole Millions – This piece by Jeff Maysh for The Daily Beast is by turns fun and disturbing. But perhaps most importantly, it answers the question: why the hell couldn’t I ever find that Boardwalk piece in the McDonald’s Monoply game?

The comforting fictions of dementia care – Larissa MacFarquhar wrote a fascinating piece for the New Yorker that asked one fundamental question: Should we lie to dementia patients to ease their pain? The answer is more complicated than it seems.

The Impossible Job: Inside Facebook’s Struggle to Moderate Two Billion Users – This exceptional feature by Jason Koebler and Joseph Cox for Motherboard challenges the popular notion that Facebook isn’t trying to moderate hate speech and other objectionable content on its website. But it also makes clear that while the task of moderation is noble, it’s also likely impossible. See also: This Radiolab episode about the same topic.

I’m broke and mostly friendless, and I’ve wasted my whole life – I make it a yearly tradition to link to a Heather Havrilesky piece. This year, it’s a column that displays Havrilesky’s characteristic style of humor combined with insight and compassion.

Alan Scherstuhl’s do’s and don’ts of film writing

Film writer Alan Scherstuhl has published his writing advice for film reviewers. I don’t necessarily advocate for every single thing here, but it’s all valuable and it’s all worth considering. With Alan’s permission, I’ve reproduced his entire list below. My favorite bit:

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some enthusiastic context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up rather than think “Fuck off, you snob.”

Always good to remember where you came from and how you got started.

Alan is one of the smartest, most astute film writers I know. Follow him on Twitter and check out his wrap up of 2018 in movies. And one last thing that Alan wanted me to share: a good writer can break any of these rules at any time. 

***

My advice on reviews is simple. First, the don’ts:

Do not open with plot summary

Do not write a paragraph of plot summary

Do not ever write this sentence: “CHARACTER’s NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) is an L.A. architect suffering from ennui in the years since her professional chef husband CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME) had to close his dream restaurant and bury their child CHARACTER’S NAME (ACTOR’S NAME, adorable in sad flashbacks to a happier time)”

Do not forget that it is your job to highlight what is important and memorable and unique, whether good or bad, and to dash the rest to the rocks

Do not only characterize performances in parentheses

Do not laundry list, meaning don’t give us a paragraph of intro, one on the story, one on the actors, one on the direction, and then one of opinion

Do not just rely on adjectives to characterize a performance or a scene or a feeling. Instead, draw upon every bit of descriptive power within you to capture exactly you are attempting to capture. Summon up the moment itself rather than just how you feel about the moment.

Do not despair that the above is hard.

Do not put scare quotes around “wacky” or “zany” or other words. That asks the reader to guess what you think the word usually means and then what you intend it to mean this time and whether you’re putting it in someone else’s mouth.

Do not presume that your understanding of/tolerance for wackiness or zaniness or pretension is the universal standard. These words mean little on their own and demand you clearly characterize whatever strikes you as wacky/zany/pretentious rather than trust that tossing the word in there is enough.

Do not be all, “I don’t know, there were some decent action scenes.”

Do not rely on adverbs that merely add emphasis: “very” or “really” or “wonderfully” in front of an adjective characterize that adjective only in degree, not in character, and more than anything else they suggest that the adjective you’ve chosen is inexact and needs some help. “Stunningly” is just “very” with its eyes bugged out; “profoundly” is just “really” with a beard and its voice lowered an octave.

Do not use “titular” or “myriad” or “gleefully” or “iconic” or any of those godawful Variety terms like “actioner” or “laugher.”

Do not write sentences where the reader could start skimming halfway through and still know what you were going to say.

Do not ignore the real world and the film’s social/political context

Even if you’re exercised about that context, do not ignore the formal choices the filmmakers have made
— how is this film shot and edited, and why? Is it effective? If someone reading your review had never heard of the movie, would it be clear from the review that this was, in fact, a movie and not a play or a TV show?

Do not tut down at regular folks who might not ever see the challenging movie you’re savoring.

Do not write, “In a perfect world, [INSERT MOVIE YOU LOVE HERE] would be a huge hit.” You’re not the Commissariat of Enlightened Taste. Argue for what you love — don’t whine that it’s not as loved as you’d like it to be.

Do not assume that people who do not love what you are championing – or who love what you’re panning – are doing so in bad faith.

Do not forget that some 14 year-old version of you might happen into reading your piece, and that that 14 year-old wants to be invited into the world of culture and ideas, not shamed away from it for not knowing who Jafar Panahi is, so when you mention Jafar Panahi provide some engaging context that might make that 14 year old look Panahi up.

Do not think of your review as just one of the many reviews this film will get, as just a datapoint for the Tomatometer, as just some piece of consumer advice only likely to interest people already engaged with whatever you’re reviewing. Instead, think of your review as an event itself, as something that needs to win people over and get them to care.

Do not think that reviewing simply means setting down your subjective opinion. Key to it is to marshal as much objective evidence and memorable detail as you can to a) make your case, b) give readers a feeling of the experience of actually watching this movie, c) participate in the art yourself, as recording what you witnessed is immortalizing the work in another medium, and d) prevent you from spinning your wheels with dull-ass plot summary.

Again: DON’T WRITE PLOT SUMMARIES ANY LONGER THAN A LINE OR TWO. If you would skim it in other people’s reviews, they’re sure as hell gonna skim it in yours.

Do not worry much of what other critics have said except in the rare revisionist piece where you are proving everybody else wrong a month or so later.

Do not forget that Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael panned 2001. Their reviews of it are persuasive.

And here’s a do:

Engage with the art, open yourself to the art, process the art, and respond to the art. If you ever sit down to watch something and think “Jesus, I don’t want to do this” the same way so many of those sad bastards we all see in the screening rooms seem to, ask me to re-assign because, seriously, there’s someone else who *does* want to do it.

And a Word on Profiles and Interviews:
I prefer our pieces be about how we “get” someone — as in offer rare context and insight — rather than how we “got” someone, as in put some famous person in the paper.

And here’s words I will always cut from reviews so don’t try to sneak them in:
titular, palpable, triptych, myriad, “pokes fun at”, groan- or chuckle-worthy, astonishing, stunning, iconic, painterly, veritable, fever dream, gleefully, plethora, laugher, actioner, most uses of “very,” and the very idea of the setting as a character which it just isn’t, ever. (Note the acceptable use of “very” in the preceding line, rather than the usual “very pretty” or “very funny,” where “very” is less a descriptor
than it is an admission that the adjective it’s paired with is insufficient.)