When The Sopranos ended its six-season run in June 2007, the controversial final sequence — no spoilers here, dear reader — became the stuff of water cooler conversations everywhere. By the time Breaking Bad came to its own conclusion last September, the very nature of such conversations had changed: the water cooler was now the internet — social media, blogs and the countless websites offering instant, blow-by-blow recaps — and the participants spanned the globe. (The rise in television piracy in Australia is no doubt due in part to this fact; the desire to take part in the conversation as it happens means that even a fast-tracked, overnight wait can be too long for some people.) New York Magazine‘s Matt Zoller Seitz (@mattzollerseitz) has experienced this transformation first hand.
“The conversation surrounding television is probably the same size that it was 10 or 20 years ago,” Seitz told Crikey. “But it’s happening online, and people can talk to each other in different parts of the country instantaneously.”
“It feels overwhelming to me. Exciting, but overwhelming. I can’t keep track of everything my peers are writing, and I certainly can’t keep track of what people are saying in the comments sections of various websites. The most I can do is get a little taste of it. I used to interact very actively with readers in the comments sections of my blog, and then later at Salon and Vulture. But now that I’m the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, I just can’t spare the time. Really committing to one conversation online can draw some of your attention away over the course of a day or two. I miss letters to the editor.”
Seitz has long been my go-to guy for recaps of shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Americans and, during its first season at least, Homeland. Episode-by-episode breakdowns are not everybody’s cup of tea, of course, especially those behind the shows themselves. But while Seitz has occasionally experimented with reviews of entire seasons — most notably Treme, whose creator David Simon has slammed episode recaps on the grounds that television “doesn’t mean anything until there’s a beginning, middle and an end” — he nevertheless defends the form.
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“Recaps give you a forum to examine individual episodes in great detail and also to write about the emotional or intellectual experience of watching these television shows week by week. When you get done with a season, and you look back over all of your recaps, what you have is a mix of analysis, stand-up comedy, predictions that proved either right or wrong, and a whole mess of other stuff, a lot of which is digression. It’s sort of like an EKG of the reactions of you and your audience over 10 to 24 weeks.
“I decide what to recap based on how interested I am in a show. Because I’m the lead television critic for New York Magazine, I have that luxury. There are times when I do regret it, though. I wish I hadn’t recapped the second season of Homeland, or the fifth season of Justified, because both were frustrating and disappointing. How many different ways can you say, ‘I’m not really feeling it’?”
Generally, though, he does feel it, at least with television as a medium. Asked to list his favourite shows, he quickly reels off nine, and then adds another two for good measure. “Louie, Mad Men, Girls, Hannibal, Game of Thrones, Archer, The Americans, Bob’s Burgers, True Detective. I’ll put Fargo on there as well, even though it’s only just started, and American Horror Story, even though season three pretty much sucked.” His list of television’s most ambitious artists includes Louis C.K, Hannibal‘s Bryan Fuller (“This is the most visually and atmospherically striking network series since Twin Peaks [and] maybe since Miami Vice,” he wrote in his year-end list of his favourite shows), Mad Men‘s Matthew Weiner and “the entire FX network”.
“I wouldn’t say that television is ‘better than film’ or ‘the new film,'” Seitz said, “but it has definitely taken over in telling stories about reasonably complicated adults.”
“Hollywood movies in particular aren’t interested in anything right now except superheroes, robots, monsters, guys beating the crap out of each other on top of collapsing buildings, and that kind of thing. Once in a while, you’ll get a romantic comedy, a slapstick comedy, or an Oscar-bait movie about a heroic person enduring some unimaginably horrible experience, but television offers more variety. And you are more likely to be surprised when you watch it.”
If there’s an American filmmaker who bucks the trend for Seitz, it’s Wes Anderson, the subject of the critic’s first book, The Wes Anderson Collection, which was released at the end of last year.
As befits a study of the famously fastidious filmmaker, the volume is both handsome and meticulously designed, a large-format, hardcover affair that includes essays about Anderson’s first seven films, lengthy interviews with the filmmaker about each, and hundreds of colour film stills and behind-the-scenes photographs. (The Grand Budapest Hotel, which Seitz described as “terrific, in some ways a departure and an evolution for Wes”, was released after the book and thus isn’t featured in it. “We may include it in a future edition or perhaps in a stand-alone book,” Seitz said.)
“The book is based on a video essay series I did in spring of 2009 called The Substance of Style,” Seitz said. (Like the video series, the book includes fascinating shot-by-shot comparisons of Anderson’s work and that of the filmmakers and artists who influenced him, from Orson Welles to Hal Ashby to Charles Schultz of Peanuts fame.) “At that time, Wes had made The Life Aquatic and The Darjeeling Limited,” he said, “neither of which were big critical or commercial successes. I thought he deserved to have someone make the case for him as a major American filmmaker. Then The Fantastic Mr Fox and Moonrise Kingdom came out as I was writing the book, and opinion began to shift in his favour. So the original mission of sticking up for an underdog was somewhat muted. But his films are so rich they still filled up a book quite comfortably.”
The book has been well received, not least by the filmmaker himself. “I’ve known Wes for 20 years,” Seitz said. “I was the first person to ever review his work: the short film version of Bottle Rocket. He likes the book quite a bit. He’s told me that when he goes out in public, people often come up to him and ask him to autograph their copy.”
Whether writing about film or television, Seitz said, “the basic critical toolkit is the same”: “Or at least, I believe it should be. You’re writing about plot, characters, themes and so forth. You should also be writing about performance, direction and writing, and are hopefully including some details about picture and sound. Maybe you’re getting into the world view or the political dimensions, if there are any.”
At the same time, he says, the mediums are inherently different. “Where films are self-contained entities,” he said, “television series are more like organic things, which grow and change over time. Writing about them is like continually updating a painting of a landscape outside of your window. Television criticism requires an understanding of how television is made. Its organic nature makes writing about it a very strange hybrid of art criticism, social criticism and public speaking.
“Twitter is indispensable because it’s basically an Associated Press wire service for my work and for advertising work by people I find interesting. About six years ago, I paid a designer to create a website that would collect all my writing for various outlets in one place. That website doesn’t exist today, because right around the time the designer was finishing it, I joined Twitter, and it does basically the same thing.”
- PicPedant (@picpedant): obsessed with attribution of photos;
- Greg Ferrara (@cinemastyles): a film critic, and hilarious;
- Linda Holmes (@nprmonkeysee): great pop culture commentary by a writer who teaches me a lot;
- SoulCoffin (@SoulYodeler): nothing but (mostly lowbrow) humour, but maybe a quarter of my RTs come from this account; and
- Jessica Ritchey (@Ruby_Stevens): a writer and movie lover; witty and wise.
Since film is a visual medium, I think that film and television critics ought to spend at least a tiny part of their word count analysing the filmmaking. Maybe try saying something about the form in every 10th sentence and see how it goes.
I’m really not asking for anything extraordinary. I don’t mean doing a detailed analysis of editing patterns or guessing what lens the director used on a shot. I’m talking about discussing how the movie visually represents its characters, situations and themes. Ninety-five per cent of the criticism I read on the internet pays zero attention to the images, the sounds or the music. Some don’t even mention the performances! It’s just a report of where the characters went, what they did, and how the writer personally feels about it: whether they think it’s lame or awesome, or sexist, or left- or right-wing. When I argued in a piece recently that critics should have more respect for cinema and television as storytelling modes that are simply just literary, I encountered some resistance. Also quite a bit of tone policing: “If you’d asked nicely I might not have reacted defensively.” “I might have been more receptive if you didn’t seem like you were personally attacking me.” It was described by many as a manifesto. I saw it as an admittedly forceful reminder of what we’re writing about: a visual medium.
On his career trajectory and the impossibility of young critics following it …
I studied journalism, creative writing and filmmaking in college and got a job at the local alternative paper in Dallas after I graduated. New owners bought the paper and made me a film critic.
I went to the Newark Star-Ledger after The Dallas Observer and wrote for the weekly New York Press at the same time. I did film reviews at the Press and television criticism at the Ledger. I’ve also written for The New York Times, Salon and The New Republic as a freelancer. I’ve been at New York Magazine since January of 2012 and was named editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com in May of last year.
Some of these jobs don’t really exist anymore. And criticism in general seems to be something that the owners of websites want to get very cheaply or for free. As a profession, criticism has been almost destroyed. It seems to be thriving as an avocation, or a calling, but its apparent lack of marketplace value saddens me.
On how he’s managed to stay employed …
I have naked pictures of every publisher I’ve ever worked for.
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