Arts & Entertainment Editor
Manohla Dargis commands the room, even over Zoom. With her salt-and-pepper hair tied back into a neat bun and bright red lipstick reflecting the light behind her camera, she looks as sharp as she speaks. She cuts her seriousness with an edge of humor, helping to break the tension of her presence. “The IRS will always find you. Pay your taxes,” Manohla Dargis mused, starting her talk in Professor Joe Donnelly’s Arts and Culture Writing class on Jan. 8 with a word of wisdom for the students soon to be entering the workforce.
Donnelly met Dargis when he worked at LA Weekly and believes that she “is, arguably, the most consequential film critic of the past 20 years.” Manohla Dargis is currently the lead film critic at the New York Times. However, she explained that it wasn’t her plan to get into journalism. Dargis said that she always choked on finals (she wasn’t a very good test-taker), thus bringing down her grades. It wasn’t until she took a class with Jim Hoberman (an American film critic who worked at The Village Voice) that she started to find her direction, although she always had a passion for film and the movie theater experience.
It may seem that Dargis has it easy, being able to continue the job she loves from the safety of her home. However, movies were a way for her to be independent in her youth while sharing a collective experience with a theater full of strangers; that was her thing. When Donnelly asked how she’s adapting to a distanced, digital COVID world, Manohla said that she hates streaming, and it was apparent by the way she wrinkled her face. “Watching movies is part of who I am,” she said, and the distractions of home made it difficult to respect the movies she watched.
The reason why Dargis enjoys seeing movies in theaters is because they hold you captive; you have to focus all of your attention on the screen. She said that even if the film is terrible, it’s not like you can check Twitter (per the ‘social contract’ of being in a movie theater) or have a cat on your head to distract you. Dargis continued by saying that the pandemic has changed the way she writes film reviews. Before, she didn’t write about the conditions a movie was made in. The movie was isolated and treated as its own object. Now, she has to look at films and think about how COVID-19 protocols influenced the way it was made.
Dargis also noted how going to the movies is a social event, and how severely the pandemic has taken away from that experience. She saw Pixar’s Inside Out in theaters, and she remembers hearing people sniffling at the end of the movie. The people sitting next to her had a particularly emotional response. They were (presumably) a couple, and the girl held her boyfriend in her arms as he sobbed. Movies often invoke such strong emotions, and we allow ourselves to experience that emotion in a theater. Not only was the social aspect of movie-going taken away, but Dargis doesn’t think that streaming is more affordable or accessible, which is something that fourth-year Riley Ramirez asked her about. She adjusted in her seat and responded with, “the economics aren’t cut and dry.” Sometimes, Netflix just sits there. Two months will have passed without her watching a movie or series on Netflix before she realizes, “Oh! That’s right; I’m paying for this.” She thinks that we aren’t watching enough on each platform to make up for the money we’re spending (just another reason why she hates streaming).
An essential part of Dargis’s talk was her sharing her experiences of being a woman film critic. She told the class that her review of Alita Battle Angel will resurface on Twitter and that people will say mean things about her. Dargis’s response? “You [have to] have thick skin.” She also warned us that, as potential critics, not everyone is gonna like us, but we have to be okay with that. It’s important to not care about the opinions on your writing, but it is essential to care about your writing. Sometimes, the hate you get is not even about you or your style of writing. Dargis recalls getting hate mail — which women do tend to receive more frequently than men — that targeted her because readers assumed she was a Black man. Obviously, this was racially-charged hatred, but she, obviously, is not a Black man — rather, a woman raised by bohemian parents in New York City.
Dargis believes it’s important to figure out how much of the voice in your writing is a part of you. She suggests that being present in writing does not require the use of first-person, but a clearer understanding of how your voice influences the narrative. Her best advice to figure this out is to build a strong foundation by reading people who challenge your views. However, she knows the struggles women writers face when attempting to freely voice their opinions. In her case, “Money and these [film] canons were made by white men,” which made it difficult for her, and other women, to gain footing in a traditionally male-dominated field.
“When you’re a woman, especially a woman of color, the world narrows for you with these systems of oppression. We assert ourselves by writing about it.”
Her advice to women writers who want to express their opinions is to interrogate your own politics, and to be fearless. She also believes it’s important to give yourself a break. The world is hard enough on you already; you don’t need to add onto that by being hard on yourself. Given the uncertainty of college students’ futures, Dargis’ decision to be aggressively and unwaveringly herself was like a hopeful glimpse into our lives ahead.
Featured Image: Courtesy of Sage Amdahl/Quaker Campus
Kim Tsuyuki is a third-year English major with a minor in Film Studies. This is her first year working for the QC and is currently writing for the Arts & Entertainment section. When she isn’t working, she can be found playing video games, collecting stickers, and watching the same three movies (over and over, like chill out Kim). She’s kinda sad, but mostly hungry.