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Rejected Freelance Film Critic Slams Slate

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Who said no one cares about movie critics anymore? N.P. Thompson, a Seattle-based film critic who earned the nickname “notorious” for his predisposition to pan everything, expressed his frustration with Slate‘s reviews section in the post-David Edelstein era — and, specifically, being rejected for publication in Slate — in an e-mail to editors Jacob Weisberg, Bryan Curtis and Meghan O’Rourke last night:

Meghan O’Rourke gives the impression that living in a Manhattan or Brooklyn neighborhood (preferably Brooklyn, and the more gentrified, the better) is pretty much the lone criterion of worth, and that if one lives outside the bubble, then she isn’t going to read what a writer submits, nor will she even consider looking at a writer’s clips, and beyond that, neither she nor Bryan Curtis will have the slightest interest in making a new discovery. What we have at Slate are editors hell-bent on preserving the shittiest, shallowest aspects of the status quo by slamming a door on anyone capable of upstaging their friends and neighbors, or their lovers.

And after Meghan has dodged reading your piece, sent you an absent-minded rejection letter that gives her entire show away, she will, in a week’s time or so, have her assistant Blake Wilson send a second rejection letter in which he announces that the piece you’ve submitted “isn’t write for Slate.”

Whether or not you agree with Thompson’s tact — or relate to his literary rage — this e-mail is a must-read:

From: “N.P. Thompson”
Date: August 16, 2006 9:02:01 PM EDT
To: Bryan Curtis, Meghan O’Rourke, Jacob Weisberg
Subject: Slate’s “essayists” bring to mind the apes from Kubrick’s 2001

Bryan, Jacob, and Meghan (and anyone else who’s reading):

So, is compounding your initial mistake (a smug East Coast liberal mistake) going to be your only response?

Stephen Metcalf and Dana Stevens are two of the worst writers on the face of the planet. They are dull, incompetent, lifeless, and narcissistic. Nathan Lee and Michael Agger are scarcely less so, although Agger manages a self-effacing blandness that in the context of Slate emits the fumes of a virtue. Neither individually nor in aggregate do these canned soup hacks do anything to dispel the post-Edelstein doldrums of your film “coverage.”

Metcalf, the most brazenly untalented and unsubtle in this quartet of sixteenth-wits, writes like an ape that has just discovered a bone will suffice as a murder weapon. Yet no jump cut could ever propel that lackey into the cosmos.

The dyspeptic hipster Lee (who doesn’t write so much as he postures) and the doddering Dana Stevens aren’t far behind.

May I quote my all-time favorite Dana-ism? Terrence Malick “hasn’t given a real press interview in more than 30 years.”

As if critics need press interviews to know how to interpret a work (and as if filmmakers or artists of any stripe have an obligation to give them). Perhaps the full idiocy of Dana’s miffed snit would better emerge if we have a round of fill-in-the blank.

Try this: “Erik Satie hasn’t given a real press interview in more than 30 years.” (Can you imagine the likes of Dana or Metcalf deciphering him if he had?)

Or how about: “Zora Neale Hurston hasn’t given a real press interview in more than 30 years.”

Maybe we need to go even further back: “Aeschylus hasn’t given a real press interview in more than 30 years, or in more than 300 years.”

When Metcalf writes, “Match Point is a solid movie, a good solid movie,” what does that statement mean? It means nothing, and certainly it tells us nothing about the film, tells us nothing about what the reviewer thought or if, in fact, the cloud of a thought darkened his brow at any time in all 125 minutes of Woody Allen‘s preposterous trash.

Almost identically, when Metcalf relates that the painfully unamusing Albert Brooks Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World “delivers solid laughs,” all the so-called critic reveals here is his woefully meager means of description.

I did not bother to sully myself with Metcalf’s recent revisionist assessment of John Ford‘s The Searchers, though I glanced at blogger Clive Davis‘s reaction to it. But I can (and will) tell you this: smearing or otherwise spraying graffiti on an established classic is the easiest and most obvious kind of hackwork to fob off as criticism. This type of piece creates the impression — a false impression — that the critic is daring, that he’s a heavy-hitter, or in the parlance apropos of a Western, a gunslinger, when in fact the opposite is true: the critic is a creampuff. Such an attention-calling denunciation amounts to chest-beating speciousness at its worst, regardless of whether The Searchers or any film from its era holds up in ours.

What takes genuine courage on the part of a critic is to swim against the tide of the highly praised swill of the present, and this, I suspect, is a type of courage unknown to Metcalf. Where are the much-needed voices of dissent against such garbage as Lost in Translation, Capote, Sideways, The Squid and the Whale, and the collected works of Miranda July and Clint Eastwood? On the flip side, do Slate’s “essayists” ever champion or stand up for a film so far off the radar of pre-sanctioned hip that a single fair and honest review might untangle entire ravines of misrepresentation by the rest of the herd?

As Slate will sometimes publish a book review or commentary by Armond White or Stanley Crouch, one gathers that toothlessness in a writer isn’t always a condition of employment. How then to account for the uniform awfulness of Slate’s film section since Edelstein’s departure? How then to account for the myopically prejudicial “old boys’ club” atmosphere that deems who will and who won’t have “room” in an online publication that’s updated daily? (And is losing money anyway.)

Meghan O’Rourke gives the impression that living in a Manhattan or Brooklyn neighborhood (preferably Brooklyn, and the more gentrified, the better) is pretty much the lone criterion of worth, and that if one lives outside the bubble, then she isn’t going to read what a writer submits, nor will she even consider looking at a writer’s clips, and beyond that, neither she nor Bryan Curtis will have the slightest interest in making a new discovery. What we have at Slate are editors hell-bent on preserving the shittiest, shallowest aspects of the status quo by slamming a door on anyone capable of upstaging their friends and neighbors, or their lovers.

And after Meghan has dodged reading your piece, sent you an absent-minded rejection letter that gives her entire show away, she will, in a week’s time or so, have her assistant Blake Wilson send a second rejection letter in which he announces that the piece you’ve submitted “isn’t write for Slate.” That’s w-r-i-t-e when he means r-i-g-h-t.

(Both in content and execution, Meghan and Blake’s notes recall the response of a television executive to director Lindsay Anderson‘s proposed filming of The Cherry Orchard. This was back in the early 90s: “Dear Mr. Chekhov, I am afraid this isn’t quite the kind of thing we like to make, but if you do write anything in the future, please let us see it.” Well, actually, the television executive was quite a bit nicer to his rejectee.)

Meanwhile, the island these people are living on becomes smaller and smaller, in the literal and metaphorical senses. Meghan appears in the current issue of Oprah at Home where, in the interest of supplying some copy, the Slate “Culture” editor squeaks, “A dream home may be where the heart is, but it can also be where you find the state-of-the-art TV,” a reference to her live-in boyfriend’s toting over “his 60-inch.” And then there’s Jacob Weisberg, in the Slate editorial “Dead with Ned,” pooh-poohing Lamont’s breath-of-fresh-air victory over tired mafioso Joe Lieberman. Weisberg never acknowledges what a complete dud Lieberman is: instead, he trots out the same old “We Democrats have got to be centrists” bit that has never worked, unless, of course, stasis can be considered an accomplishment of some sort. Doesn’t it become tougher to believe the vitriolic huffing and puffing of East Coast liberal establishment elites when their appointed flunkies don’t even bother to proofread rejection notes for basic spelling errors?

I’d like to thank Bryan and Meghan for one thing: for proving to me beyond the shadow of a doubt that if H.L. Mencken and Dorothy Parker were young writers just starting out today, or late bloomers just starting out today, they wouldn’t get anywhere. They wouldn’t get published, and they wouldn’t have influence. The bravery of their willingness to offend would be lost in the shuffle of good-mannered, well-positioned no-talents who also have a willingness to offend, not by telling the truth, but by lying.

Sincerely,

N.P. Thompson

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