Tag Archives: empathy

Notes on a Critic — Going Nuts, Not Falling Over

by Gabriel Valdez

I’ve had a number of people over the last several months ask me about writing or criticism – how to, advice, that sort of thing. I don’t want to pretend I’m any sort of guru in a field that’s becoming increasingly freelance, but I suppose I’ve assembled a team of writers and developed a reputation for being very critical of mainstream criticism. I also write more than most, and that’s what a lot of the questions are about – how to stay fresh without burning out.

So after some pushing, I thought it wouldn’t hurt (probably) to compile some notes – not on “how to be a critic” or “how to write” but just on what’s important to me as a critic and a writer, how I go about things.

The Tetons and the Snake River by Ansel Adams


I don’t want this to come off as self-help, because: bleughch! Maybe I’ve just had unlucky experiences, but all the people I’ve seen regularly push self-help have turned out to be, not to put too fine a point on it, sociopaths. It’s not bad to read self-help, not at all, but if you base your entire worldview on it…oh dear. Do not base your worldview on me. Please. That’s more burden than I want. A little altar in the corner of your room is fine. You don’t even have to pray to it every day.

The point of advice is to only take around half of it. Take too little, and you’re probably ignoring some important voices. Take too much and you’re not trusting your own ability to take risks.

So please, don’t treat this as self-help or how to. If I write something you connect with – AMAZING! If I write something you think is stupid and doesn’t fit you – SPECTACULAR! The best advice I’ve ever gotten is the kind I can tear down, retrofit, stick some afterburners on, spin it upside down, and go, “Thanks, that really helped.”

The most important thing to have as a writer is your own opinion, so treat these notes as something far more innocuous: my manifesto. Nobody evil ever wrote a manifesto, right? All kidding aside, it’s a set of theories – my set of theories – on the direction I’d like to see criticism take. They’re the rules I write by, which means it’s important for me to sometimes break them, too.

Who am I to say film (and music, and art, and theatre) criticism needs to change? I’m a critic. If you love what you do, you have opinions on it. You have a way that you want to do it that’s important to you personally. (And if you don’t love what you do, why are you doing it?)

So let’s start with the piece of advice every critic will give you:

A Clockwork Orange TV torture


The things you like, the things other critics recommend, crazy shitty 80s movies, your friends’ experimental mumblecore, even that weird-ass movie where Charles Bronson is a pissed off watermelon farmer out for revenge because gangsters shot his watermelons (seriously, it exists and it’s not half bad). You never know what you’re going to like for what reasons, or where you’re going to get that article no one else ever thought to write.

You also don’t know what you’re going to fall in love with until it’s staring you in the face. Everyone can write about how they love Jurassic Park or Star Wars, but you might be the only critic that connects with that crazy SubReddit audience that LOVES watermelon-based vengeance flicks.

It does two things – 1) it builds your taste and it makes your specific stable of knowledge more particular to you; 2) it makes your writing stand out to audiences as something different. Believe me, if you write regularly, it won’t be hard to find yourself being thirtieth in line to repeat a specific opinion. Embrace the times you’re the one crazy person in the crowd babbling about something unique.

When do I break this? Like in any other job, you can burn out. If you’re watching 15 movies a week, you’ve probably lost perspective. Go feed some ducks in the park or yell at neocons on Facebook. Shoot some watermelons even, whatever shakes you loose.


This is essentially a compulsion for me. I’m wary of writing articles that already exist. If I find someone else has already made the point I want to make, I’ll ask myself a question: did they do it better than I will?

Sometimes the answer is no, so I’ll cite them and write my own take.

Sometimes the answer is yes, so I’ll cite them, and take it as a challenge to extrapolate even further and find a place in the writing they didn’t.

And sometimes the answer is yes and I’ll just share what they wrote. I never want to waste my time writing something that’s already been written when I can simply tell others, “Go read this other person!”

When do I break this? Pretty much never. I’m a little OCD about it and I really, honestly believe echoing someone else’s opinion when I can just feature and link them is a waste of my time as a writer. Which brings me to my next point:

NC Falling Over


If you love something, share it. Don’t steal someone else’s opinion as your own original thought. If you need to steal opinions, you won’t last long anyway. You can stand on other writers’ opinions, reference them and use them as the basis for further arguments, but if they’re not yours, they’re not yours.

Similarly, don’t hide someone else’s good work away because you’re afraid of sending your audience elsewhere. You may feel bad you didn’t write that article yourself, but the conversations that grow around what you share will be the ones that lead you to your best articles.

You also never know who you’ll get to talk to because you share. I enjoyed conversations with Vivian Kubrick and Anand Ghandi this last year because I shared others’ work, and one of the articles I shared sparked a back and forth series between Indiewire‘s Sam Adams, An Historian Goes to the Movies‘ A.E. Larsen, Threat Quality Press‘s Chris Braak, and myself. It even broadened my perspective as a critic.

When do I break this? All the time. There are only so many hours in a day and I always want to write my own articles first. This means I’ve got dozens upon dozens of articles and videos bookmarked to share, but by the time I write my own pieces and share one or two of someone else’s, it’s dinnertime, and dinner has food in it and I probably missed lunch, so it’s either that or fall over. So share as much as you can, but make sure you don’t fall over. It never hurts to have a backlog, and keep those bookmarks so that you can cite others when you need to. Never steal an opinion, though. You can make your argument just as well (even better, actually) with a citation as you can without it.



Ha, you were going to skip this part but then I put up a picture of a monkey and a pigeon or whatever the hell’s going on there. You’re stuck in now.

If you read me, you know I love collaborative criticism. I believe a critic never has “the right opinion,” they just have “an opinion.” I’ve said it before and I’ll repeat it here: what I say as a critic will never be as important as what your friend sitting next to you in the theater says, and that holds true for every critic.

In an age of social networking, where we can have friends sitting in the theater next to us half the world away, a critic’s responsibility isn’t to tell you what opinion to hold, it’s to open you up to more opinions, to ask you to consider perspectives you wouldn’t have before. On my best day, I haven’t convinced someone I’m right, I’ve convinced someone to be more empathetic or to look at a movie in a way they hadn’t considered. To do that, a critic has to practice it, too. A critic has to break down some of the things they’re sure of and rebuild their perspective further out, and they ought to do this regularly. To me, that’s often synonymous with the act of watching a movie. You have to be willing to let art break you down, or you’re not a critic, you’re a cynic.

Criticism has an opportunity to be a constantly evolving reflection on art, not just an obsolete rating system. Critics need to begin looking at themselves as artists of empathy, not as expert judges.

When do I break this? It’s OK to have opinions. It’s OK to fully believe in and fight for them. It’s OK to debate and argue. Just don’t end the day thinking you have sole ownership of being right, because you don’t, and learn to value what’s worth having the fight over and what isn’t.

Don’t worry whether your own voice will always be the most important one to you or whether it will come through enough. You’re kind of stuck with it. Trust that and go nuts.

There’ll be more entries in this feature down the road, especially if people are into it.

Immortality in Empathy — “Unbroken”

Unbroken train

by Gabriel Valdez

Unbroken is a film of tremendous beauty and rare elegance. It’s based on the life of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), an Olympian who became a bombardier in the United States Army Air Forces during World War II. His bomber crashed in the Pacific and, after being lost at sea for more than a month, he became a Japanese prisoner of war, subject to a warden who was later sought for war crimes due to his brutality.

None of these details are spoilers – they’re all part of an historical account. I’m not sure one could spoil director Angelina Jolie’s movie either. Its profound effect isn’t simply due to the facts of its story. In fact, Jolie overcomes a surprisingly unremarkable script written in part by the Coen brothers, auteurs from whom I usually expect more.

What Jolie finds as a director are the details that shape a moment, that take a cinematic scene and turn it into a peek inside someone else’s memory. We see the sweeping wind across Louis’s hometown, seeming to echo his sense of being a loner. We hear the rustle of the palms in the tropical Pacific wind as Louis runs a time trial before a mission. We watch the glitter of the stars as Louis tries to sleep after a month in a lifeboat at sea.

Unbroken prayer

Few of us lead epic lives, but we all have epic memories, the kind where we can still see and smell and even taste the moment. Jolie uses the astounding cinematography of Roger Deakins to evoke a sense of texture that is both artful and personal. Much in Unbroken is left unsaid – themes aren’t debated in dialogue so much as hinted at in passing details. You get a sense how influenced Jolie’s been by directors she’s worked with as an actress, particularly the wry, spare, and evocative style of Clint Eastwood, where the most important words are always left unspoken.

Many critics have taken Unbroken to task for not being grand enough or for focusing on the brutal, wartime aspects of Louis’s life. Jolie’s aim here is to communicate a message of forgiveness and, rather than show a pained veteran dramatically learning how to offer it to those who wronged him, she focuses on Louis’s time as a prisoner-of-war. She tallies the moments that are unforgivable in order to build up how insurmountable a task forgiveness can be. In showing us Louis’s will to overcome life-or-death moments, she displays how understanding and forgiving your enemies is a similarly noble act of inner strength.

Unbroken camp

That can’t be communicated by dialogue or by beautiful cinematography. It’s communicated through empathy, and in Jolie’s hands that means finding the precise visuals and storytelling moments that create a memory: the shadows that fill the room while a father disciplines a child and the mother holds another. The look that mother gives when she knows her son is watching her cook from scratch, the simple, private pride of a humble moment. A photograph of Louis’s captor as a young boy, with his own strict father and impossible expectations. The glitter of bombers and fighters on the Tokyo horizon, signaling a war that’s drawing to a close. Jolie is not a perfect filmmaker here. She’s something more important – a storyteller who communicates with a powerful empathy that I believe audiences are understanding more than critics. The packed house I watched with gave the film a standing ovation. How rare is that?

If the goal of this movie is to inspire, Unbroken does that in spades. I walked out feeling uplifted and more determined in my own goals than when I’d went in. If the goal of the movie is to make me contemplate the brutality of war and torture, and to better ennoble and idealize the values in forgiveness, it does that, too.

Unbroken doesn’t set out to overwhelm you the way so many big-budget war films do. It doesn’t seek to redefine what makes a film either, instead choosing a very classic approach to storytelling. The effect it has is quiet, philosophical, and spiritual, but it’s not without its compelling moments and tense sequences. This is an old-fashioned crowd-pleaser. There are cliché moments, but you’re allowed to be cliché when you do it this well. O’Connell’s is a fully inhabited performance. You don’t get the sense that he’s acting, so much as living and breathing the hours of another man.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Unbroken have more than one woman in it?

No. Louis has both a mother and sisters, and a few women cheer him on from the stands during his races, but blink and you’ll miss all but his mother. She’s the only woman of any consequence in the film.

Questions 2 (Do they talk to each other?) and 3 (About something other than a man?) are void without passing Question 1.

This presents an interesting situation: one of the few women greenlit to direct a big-budget film makes one that doesn’t feature any female characters. Since our viewpoint is restricted to Louis’s own and the film focuses on his time spent in the military and as a prisoner of war, I can understand the choice. There aren’t many scenes here that would logically or historically include women. That said, including more women in any film isn’t difficult.

There’s something more important here, though, and that is – as a male critic – am I qualified to dictate to a female director how to better tell stories including women? One of the things that needs to change in criticism is for critics ourselves to recognize and admit when we don’t know something or are not qualified to critique a certain aspect of a film. There’s a terrible fear that if we ever admit something like this on any front, we’ll lose the trust of our audience, as if that audience expects us to know everything all the time. That feeds into the notion that a critic’s opinion is somehow more valuable or important than that of the person next to you. It isn’t. It never will be. At best, a critic is someone who can foster conversation and new understandings about a film, not someone who will tell you how to think.

The Bechdel section we’ve included functions so well because more than 90% of the major films out there are directed by men. Close to half the films that are made don’t pass the Bechdel Test, even though its qualifications are incredibly simple to meet. The argument has never been that all films need to pass it, or that we shouldn’t be allowed to tell stories that don’t pass it. The argument is simply to apply pressure that encourages more films to pass it.

The Bechdel Test is a tool. It’s informational. It helps, but it doesn’t define. Unbroken tells a male story from what many would refer to as a female perspective – one of emotion and memory. There’s an argument to be made that its empathy isn’t something you’ll find in most films because most films are directed from what we think of as a male perspective – one of facts and story. The delineation between these two perspectives is culturally ingrained – men are just as capable of empathy, women are just as capable of logic. The storytelling culture we live in reinforces a false separation that trains us to believe that this isn’t true. Women are trained to value different aspects in a story than men are. While those boundaries are weakening in some parts of American culture, they are still very present and they are still very ingrained.

Criticism is a male-driven industry and, no matter how much any individual male critic might like to think he exists outside that cultural training, he really doesn’t. That includes me. Now, I value empathy in storytelling, and I’m willing to forget the traditional landmarks of plot in favor of an empathetic connection. Might that allow me to prioritize aspects of a story differently from other critics? Yeah, absolutely. (I think that’s why many critics bounce off Unbroken. The industry values a more academic perspective on film, which is not how audiences watch movies. Audiences value emotional reaction.) Every critic values some particular aspect of storytelling more than the next one, and every critic is going to be able to speak to you about that aspect with more nuance and consideration than the next.

Simply because I value what we’re inaccurately trained to think of as a female value in storytelling does not, however, make me suddenly qualified to tell a woman how to direct better for women. One is a matter of perspective. The other is a matter of reality. They ultimately have nothing to do with each other. I’m qualified to discuss the empathy in Unbroken because it’s not a perspective exclusive to women, and it’s an aspect in storytelling I deeply value. I am not qualified to tell a woman how to change or not change her storytelling when it comes to including women. That may be an aspect of storytelling I value, but as a male critic, I don’t believe I have the right to take possession of that argument.

The Movie That Reminds Me of the Time I Betrayed Who I Am — “Nightcrawler”

Nightcrawler lead

by Gabriel Valdez

There’s nothing wrong with this review. It describes the film, it praises what works, it delves into its meaning, and it wraps up with a larger message about how Nightcrawler can inform a viewer’s perspective.

But…to be completely honest, I think it lacks a certain artistry I seek to incorporate in my reviews. Here’s the problem with Nightcrawler for me – it hits way too close to home. I’m deeply proud of my reviews, from turning my own experiences inside out for Gravity and Fury to waxing loquacious about why American Hustle and The Monuments Men are testaments to art itself.

If there’s a quality I feel makes me unique as a critic, however, it’s empathy – not that other critics don’t have it, but other critics might not consider it the single most crucial factor of the job. When I face a truly great film about sociopathy, it can get under my skin. I have a habit of briefly adopting little nuances from main characters, of walking out of the theater like a film’s protagonist would walk out, of absorbing a character’s perspective, because it’s one of the biggest ways to truly empathize with a film.

Films about sociopathy I hold at arm’s length as a defense. Nightcrawler isn’t exactly like There Will Be Blood, an art horror centered on a sociopath. There was nothing admirable about Daniel Plainview, nothing which won you over. That’s not the case with Nightcrawler‘s Lou Bloom. As strange and devoid of moral fiber as he is, there’s something hauntingly childlike in him. You’ll want to care for him, listen to him, despite all your better judgments. It’s a testament to Jake Gyllenhaal’s performance that I hold him at such a distance from myself.

I’ve worked jobs where I’ve had to dissociate myself from my own moral core, particularly last year. It was hell, and I changed as a person while I was in that job. I was surrounded by practiced sociopaths, whose entire livelihood was based on manipulating – their customers, their employees, each other, their families, themselves. Every morning, we met and trained in a new, precise tactic of manipulation.

It doesn’t matter how good a person you are if every day you’re trained to be otherwise; I allowed myself to begin operating in increasingly morally gray areas. I’d never cross a certain line, but that line moved from one day to the next. I quickly hit a self-destructive wall of near-constant anger about it. Thankfully, you become pretty bad at manipulating people when you’re angry all the time. The job dried up; I left. And yet it showed me a part of myself I believed I was beyond giving into. It illustrated a potential in me that I had thought I was above.

It was deeply frightening, and because Nightcrawler so specifically echoes that experience for me, I have no empathy for it. In a movie like Fury, I can understand those pressures to be a man through hate, and to teach others to be men through hate. I can empathize with the struggle of viewing the world that way because it’s a struggle that I feel I’ve faced down in myself. But Nightcrawler, that lack of empathy, that morally gray existence, that unfeeling quality of viewing others as nothing more than functions toward success or pleasure – that’s my nightmare. That’s always been what’s scared me the most.

Nightcrawler is not terrifying because of anything inside the film. It’s terrifying because of something inside me. Maybe it’s in all of us and I was just unlucky enough to glimpse it. Maybe everyone glimpses it and just doesn’t talk about it. I don’t know, I just know that I briefly, briefly recognized a capacity that’s always been there, that can always be trained, that I don’t value or like. I care so much because my adult life has been a reaction toward refuting that little bit of me, and here it was in Jake Gyllenhaal’s face, staring me down.

So my review? It gets the job done, it’s good analysis, but it lacks the one thing I try to put into everything I write and everything I do – empathy. Because I can not have empathy for this. I can never have empathy for this. I have only the sheer fright that’s driven me to be who I am instead, and that Nietzsche quote stuck in my head: “For when you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you.”

The Review

You know those rags-to-riches movies where the hero starts off from nothing and works his way to the top? He puts in more effort and longer hours than everyone else just because he wants success so badly. Now what if that hero weren’t a hero? What if we followed a sociopath instead, but he still puts in more effort and longer hours and all that dedication we’re meant to cheer ahead?

That’s the quandary we’re given in Nightcrawler. Lou Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is a young man who bounces from gig to gig (mostly petty thievery) until he gets it in his head to become a freelance cameraman. He roves the L.A. streets at night to get the best shots of car crashes and shootings and sell the footage to morning news programs. He’s also a self-help addict, quoting mantras for success and even designing some choice personal ones.

His lack of moral codes help him get ahead quickly, and he develops an exclusive sales relationship with a struggling news producer, Nina (Rene Russo). He ingratiates himself with her crew and hires a homeless man to be his assistant. Why a struggling producer? Why a homeless man? Because he can manipulate and control them more easily.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal

It’s to Gyllenhaal’s credit that he gives us a character so good at being evil (the Iago effect, so to speak) that we can’t help but marvel at him. As writer-director Dan Gilroy has said of Lou as a character, “he understands people the way a lion understands a gazelle.” Lou maneuvers those around him into small compromises of their ethics, until he has them backed into a corner where it’s either his way or their job, or their safety, or their life.

It’s astonishing that Gilroy and Gyllenhaal can create such a misanthropic character, yet present him in a way that elicits a hint of jealousy in his audience. A part of us admires his efficacy at getting what he wants, and understands when others concede more and more to him. Appealing to that part of us is the true horror of Nightcrawler, because we understand how easy it is for anyone to negotiate his or her moral codes little by little until they’ve given too much.

Gyllenhaal is vastly overlooked as one of our best actors working today, and Lou Bloom may just be the single best screen villain since Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. While Gyllenhaal eats up the role, Gilroy provides a movie in which there is no wasted motion or excess dialogue.

Nightcrawler increasingly suggests that in an economy where you can no longer rely on employer loyalty and a solid retirement package, where you bounce from gig to gig and the next quarter is more important than long-term stability, it’s the unfeeling sociopaths who do best, the ones who prioritize material success over helping the human being next to him.

Nightcrawler Gyllenhaal Russo

It’s also a salient look into the news industry. 24-hour news networks (and not just one; they’re all guilty of it) regularly cut information and context from their stories, preferring instead to write and edit their own narratives. (This is one reason why I tend to support independent news over national networks.) Even when police are reporting new information, networks will hold off on it when it undermines a narrative that might earn higher ratings.

There’s a simultaneously dramatic and comic scene (and yes, for all its cynicism, Nightcrawler is deeply, darkly funny) in which news anchors riff over fresh footage of a home shooting. Their speculations run rampant as they sway wildly between stating the obvious – “that appears to be a shotgun” as we pan up to see a shotgun – and the baseless – neighbors are told to be worried whether “they’ll be next.” Even as they narrate the footage, Nina reminds her anchors over earpieces to repeat words like “terror,” “fear,” and “violent.” In many ways, Lou’s manipulation of those around him is no different from the newsroom’s manipulation of its viewers.

In essence, this is a movie about a character who doesn’t develop, but instead bends the world around himself. His successes are celebrated and the clear facts that he’s dangerous, a threat, and a liar are consciously overlooked and excused by everyone around him. His victims even begin to adopt his worldviews, repeat the mantras he’s crafted for himself, and increasingly justify his immoral actions as being part of “the right idea.”

Nightcrawler is dangerous filmmaking centered around two of the best performances of the year by Gyllenhaal and Russo.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does Nightcrawler have more than one woman in it?

Yes, in additon to Russo’s Nina, it also stars Michael Hyatt as Detective Fronteiri, Ann Cusack as producer Linda, Holly Hannula as a news anchor, and Carolyn Gilroy as a production assistant. Russo and Hyatt get a lot of screen time.

2. Do they talk to each other?


3. About something other than a man?

Yes. They discuss news production and confront each other over legal issues.

Nightcrawler is an excellent example of a film with limited perspective (we never leave Lou Bloom’s side) that nonetheless incorporates great female characters interacting with each other as professionals. Russo has a heated scene opposite Hyatt and an insanely good scene with Cusack. Russo also orders her newsroom about, women and men included.

Considering the small size of its core cast, Nightcrawler is one of the best films I’ve seen for involving women despite following a male character exclusively. There are issues of victimization, but Bloom’s pretty equal opportunity about ruining lives. How he delineates what he wants from different people falls along sexual lines, but this has more to do with social definitions of success and mastery over others. This is where Nightcrawler is at its most bitingly satirical.

David Fincher, who has nothing to do with Nightcrawler but directed this year’s Gone Girl, is fond of saying he likes to make movies that scar. Nightcrawler is a tragedy in comic form that doesn’t just scar, it damages. It sits on a tonal knife-edge, and from an acting perspective, only Gyllenhaal could have delivered this performance.

It’s brilliant. I’m not sure I’ll ever want to visit it again.