Reflections on Teaching and Regional Criticism

This spring quarter I’ve been teaching what is a new class for me: an upper-division course on “Film Criticism.” For the first assignment, I asked the students to collaborate on a review of the second annual Cascadia International Women’s Film Festival, which took place in early April in Bellingham. The review is now online at the Pacific Northwest Media Research Consortium. (The rest of the students’ work during the quarter can be seen here.)

For the review, the students divvied up the festival so that at least one of them attended every screening and event. Cascadia’s executive director also visited our class a week before the festival began. The students wrote individual reviews of the portion of the festival each of them attended and then collaborated to create one collective review. The final piece documents the events and screenings of the festival, praises if for its successes and valuable contributions to the community, and critiques the things the students found troubling or unsuccessful. Cascadia is one of the only festivals in the U.S. to present exclusively films made by women directors. April’s festival made an important stand against stark and long-standing gender inequality in the film industry, and at a time when supporting women filmmakers has become even more important in the context of the Trump Presidency and the #metoo movement. At the same time, the festival reflected some of the ongoing problems of Bellingham, which is a disproportionately white, midsized city near the Canadian border. There was a clear class and racial bias to the programming, even as it sought to foreground diversity, as well as an unwillingness to make space for real political discussion. Cascadia’s organizers are even shy about using the term “feminist.” These are all things the students picked up on in their review.

Had the Cascadia festival not fallen right at the start of spring quarter, I would have stuck to my original plan for the first assignment: individually written pieces of media criticism, on an open topic, from each student. (The second assignment was a piece of creative critical writing, which for most of the students took the form of a hybrid work of media criticism and personal essay, and the third assignment is a work of videographic criticism.) Certainly, individually written pieces would have been less of a bear logistically. I sacrificed a lot of class time to group work, including much of the time I had set aside to discuss classics of criticism by such greats as Bazin, Sontag, Kael, Sarris, and Farber. But I found the students needed more time than I had anticipated to trim and merge their individual reviews into something coherent, and that they needed to do it face to face. A Google doc with twenty-one editors wasn’t cutting it.

In addition to the difficulty of getting students to chop up and edit each other’s writing, there was the challenge of how to create one document they would all be comfortable signing their names to. There was, naturally, a range of responses to the festival among them. For example, a number of students attended the Indigenous Filmmaker Program on the last day of the festival, and they did not reach consensus in their assessment of either the films or the festival’s handling of them. The solution was to make this diversity and non-alignment of critical responses explicit at that point in the writing. It’s clear the collective review came out differently than it would have if written by any one individual in the class. But then, no one individual would have been able to attend everything and get the full picture in the way we were able to when we worked together.

The logistical challenges of the assignment tempt me to go back to my original plan of individual pieces of criticism on an open topic the next time I teach the class. But I know that assignment wouldn’t have gotten us, myself included, thinking so deeply about the relationship between criticism and local media cultures. Many of the students had never been to a festival before. A lot of them seemed comfortable snarking out over the latest Marvel or Star Wars movie but hadn’t thought before about the ethics and potential impact of writing criticism that local filmmakers and festival organizers might actually read.

The challenges one faces as a regionally-engaged critic are similar to the challenges one faces as a teacher (and the latter is something I’ve been reflecting upon a lot lately in relation to a longer essay I’m working on). How does one give “constructive criticism” to a student or a filmmaker or a cultural organizer that will lead to further construction instead of to wall-building or demolition? I know some things about the fragility of the creative process from having made videos in the past and still today from being a writer who is branching from academic prose into more creative terrain. As a teacher, I recognize that I am under far less critical scrutiny than my students; likewise, though I write and publish fairly regularly, I do not submit assignments on an almost weekly basis within an institutional context for point-system evaluation as they do. Writing criticism can often feel as out of balance: I criticize; the filmmaker (or creative writer, or festival organizer) takes it.

My fear when I write criticism is that, far worse than defensiveness or lack of receptivity to the criticism, the recipient may take it all in and stop producing. Sometimes the most important thing to do is simply to encourage writers and artists and students to keep making work: not getting them to fix their first project with painful awareness of its flaws, but getting them to move with joy and confidence to the second project, and then the third, and then the fourth.

In this respect, I sympathize with Malcolm Gladwell’s claim that 10,000 hours of practice is what matters most to becoming great at something, as well with photographer Linn Underhill’s advice to young artists that the most important thing is: “Finding out what you want to do and doing that. Just stick with it. Everyone has to struggle, people who stick with it are the ones who succeed. It’s more important than talent, just stick with it.” I agree too with Beth Pickens’s insistence in her new book, Your Art Will Save Your Life, that artists “need to be active creatively in order to be alive, processing the world and other people… Making art is an essential form of self-care in their lives.” These are three different emphases—craft-building, persistence, and quality of life—but they all suggest that the best thing we can do to support artists, filmmakers, and writers is to get them back into their studios, behind the camera, and at their desks making work.

At the same time, criticism is valuable. It can stimulate an evolutionary leap in the quality of an artist’s work. It can be a third term toward growth, alongside Gladwell’s time and practice. More than that, writing and reading criticism can sharpen and heighten the quality of a spectator’s engagement with art, and, in the case of film, move us out of the passive form of media consumption we’ve been trained into by corporations. Criticism, at its best, helps to democratize culture. And, despite everything I said in the previous paragraph, it breaks us out of overly individualistic understandings of the creative process and protects us from the danger of reducing art to art therapy.

When my students had completed their review of the Cascadia festival, I searched high and low for a suitable place to publish it. I discovered (or, more honestly, confirmed what I already suspected) that there is a dearth of venues for this kind of media criticism in the area, which is to say writing that goes beyond the thumbs-up/thumbs-down movie review or the press release disguised as journalism. I ended up contacting one of my colleagues where I teach, Professor Mary Erickson in the Communications department, about the possibility of reviving the Pacific Northwest Media Research Consortium, which is a site she founded in 2014 as a space to showcase and archive scholarship, criticism, and interviews pertaining to the region’s media. The site had lain dormant for a couple of years after a few of the founding members left for jobs on the East Coast. I’m thrilled to see it back in action. I hope for the site the same thing I hope for the Cascadia Festival: that it will thrive, grow, and change, and enter into a productive feedback loop with the community it’s a part of.

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