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The Mind-Reading Style In Film Criticism (Unlocked)
Maaaaaaaaan are these two reviews in The New Yorker something else
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Back in February, I criticized what I called “The Mind-Reading Style In American Journalism.” I’d noticed what felt like a trend toward rather far-out interpretations of other people’s statements and writing that just weren’t fair or rational. As one example, I mentioned an article in Vox about Liam Neeson’s frank public reckoning with racist moments in his life from 40 years earlier. It read, in part: “Despite Neeson also saying that he worked to get rid of his racist feelings, his reminder that decades have passed since this incident might be interpreted as a declaration that racism and bias are problems that go away with time. If that were true, racism wouldn’t exist today.”
This nicely sums up the style, because it takes what Neeson really said — that over time, with work, he was able to overcome his racism — and replaces it with a much more ridiculous claim that he didn’t make and no reasonable person would read into his quote: that over time, racism and bias in society drop to zero. That’s the mind-reading style.
In this and other cases, what’s being said is often, basically, “What this person said or wrote could be seen as implying this other thing they didn’t say or write.” I think this style is on the rise because it’s so low-effort and so amenable to outrage content: If you get into the habit of interpreting stuff in the least charitable light possible, you’ll never run out of things to write about indignantly.
There’s a really impressive (in a sense) example of this style in action in two recent film reviews by The New Yorker’s film critic, Richard Brody: one of Joker (a film I liked), and one of Jojo Rabbit (a film I loved).
Let’s just jump right in so you can see what I mean. I can’t really avoid spoilers here, since to understand why Brody’s interpretations are so far-fetched requires knowing a bit about the plots. But I’ll put each section under its own heading so you can avoid spoilers for one film, the other, or both if you so choose. (I do recommend both of them, but Jojo Rabbit especially.)
The first dramatic scene in “Joker,” which is set in a grungy and turbulent New Yor— I mean, Gotham City, seemingly around 1980 (judging from details of décor), shows a clown, Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), on a busy street in midtown, working as a sign twirler for a music store. A group of teen-agers of color hassle him and steal his sign. He chases them into a garbage-strewn alley (the city is in the midst of an apocalyptic garbage strike), where one kid hits Arthur in the face with the sign and knocks him down. Then the whole group swarms him, pummels him, kicks him, and leaves him bruised and bleeding and sobbing, alone, in the filthy alley. The crime alluded to is the attack wrongly attributed to five young men mislabelled as the Central Park Five—an attack on an isolated and vulnerable white person by a group of young people of color. The scene waves away history and says, in effect, that it may not have been those five, but there was another group out there wreaking havoc; they’re not figments of a demagogue’s hate-filled imagination—here they are, and they’re the spark of all the gory action that follows.
It is unclear why Brody is so confident that this is an allusion to the Central Park attack wrongly blamed on those horribly wronged kids. That was a sexual assault on a woman in a park; this was a bunch of kids stealing a sign, with things only turning physical after the victim chased them to get the sign back (not that that justifies the violence, of course). So right off the bat, Brody is making a really questionable interpretive claim.
Then, he proceeds to argue that “in effect” — which is a phrase that does similar work to “could be seen as saying” — the film is telling its viewers “that it may not have been those five, but there was another group out there wreaking havoc.” What does this mean? Is the claim that viewers who entered Joker sympathetic to the plight of the Central Park Five will grow more racially conservative, on the issue of urban crime at least, as a result of the sign-stealing scene? Realistically, how many viewers have extracted exactly that message from the multiple layers at work here? And if the answer is close to zero, then what are we to make of Brody’s claim in the first place?
Maybe I’m taking things too literally, but if it isn’t the case that Brody is saying “Joker will have this effect on its audience,” then what is he saying, actually? And how realistic is it to imagine that, upon watching a scene bearing almost no resemblance to the crime at the center of the Central Park Five case, someone in the theater will find their mind yanked in that direction?
What follows, soon thereafter, is another scene of brutality: Arthur, whose beating is the talk of the locker room at the clown agency for which he works, is handed a gun by a blustery colleague named Randall (Glenn Fleshler). When Arthur is assaulted on the subway by three young men (whites, in suits), he pulls out the gun and fires—and even pursues one of the men onto the platform in order to shoot him dead. It’s an evocation of the shooting, in 1984, by Bernhard Goetz, of four teen-agers in a subway who, Goetz believed, were about to rob him. They were four black teen-agers, and Goetz, after his arrest, made racist remarks. In “Joker,” the director, Todd Phillips (who wrote the script with Scott Silver), whitewashes Goetz’s attack, eliminating any racial motive and turning it into an act of self-defense gone out of control.
Wait, hold on. Because Joker includes a fictional scene in which white men who are aggressors on the subway are met with (admittedly disproportionate) retaliatory violence, the film is ‘whitewashing’ a real-world incident in which innocent black teenagers were met with totally unjustified violence? How does this work? Who is the person who watches this scene and says, “Ah, what the filmmakers are saying here is that while that shooting by Goetz was unfortunate, it was fundamentally understandable, at root”? If that person doesn’t exist, or barely exists, then what is Brody’s claim here?
This is what I mean by mind-reading: Is the one subway shooting evocative of the other? Sure, in certain senses. But you can evoke the memory of an incident in a piece of art without making any particular revisionist claim about the incident itself! Plus, keep in mind that as a result of age or geography or both, 95% of viewers (that’s of course a rough estimate) didn’t get the reference at all. I certainly didn’t!
Okay, one more from Joker:
“Joker” is an intensely racialized movie, a drama awash in racial iconography that is so prevalent in the film, so provocative, and so unexamined as to be bewildering. What it seems to be saying is utterly incoherent, beyond the suggestion that Arthur, who is mentally ill, becomes violent after being assaulted by a group of people of color—and he suffers callous behavior from one black woman, and believes that he’s being ignored by another, and reacts with jubilation at the idea of being a glamorous white star amid a supporting cast of cheerful black laborers.
This is just such an insanely strained reading — to the point where it’s arguably dishonest. The “callous behavior” in question is from a black social worker who informs Arthur that his access to mental-health care is being eliminated due to budget cuts. “They don't give a shit about people like you, Arthur,” she tells him. “And they don't give a shit about people like me either.” They’re in the same boat, being batted around by the powers that be. The movie could not have telegraphed that clearer if the social worker had been wearing a tee shirt with ARTHUR’S SPIRALING MADNESS AND VIOLENCE IS NOT A RESPONSE TO HIS INTERACTIONS WITH ME BUT RATHER TO A FAILED AND FAILING SYSTEM BEFORE WHICH BOTH HE AND I ARE HELPLESS emblazoned on it. Also, there’s a subtle act of slipperiness above — suddenly, Arthur’s assault at the hands of whites is absent, because that would detract from the idea that this is an “intensely racialized” film.
Absent, too, from this analysis, are the film’s pivotal scenes of wealthy fatcats, either entirely or almost entirely white, glamming it up at a fancypants benefit concern while the much more diverse broader city teeters on the brink (I can’t remember if there were no people of color in that crowd, but I remember being struck by its caucasity as compared to the rest of the film). Because, again, that would complicate Brody’s claim that there’s some simple, straightforward, racially problematic thread running through the film. Which there isn’t.
Unfortunately, Brody’s Jojo Rabbit review is similarly weird. Let’s just jump right in:
Although “Jojo Rabbit” is set during the Second World War, the target of the movie’s derision is self-evident: it goes beyond the particulars of its drama to mock people who hate on the basis of ethnicity, to expose the power of propaganda and adult manipulators to inculcate such hatred in children, and to suggest an eventual cure for such hatred—namely, personal relationships that prove the humanity of the persecuted minority. Put aside the historical matter of how German Jews were deeply integrated into German society, and the likelihood that many Germans, many Nazis, knew their Jewish neighbors well. [...] In “Jojo Rabbit,” the Nazis, as the iconic extreme of genocidal hatred, stand in for current-day haters.
In Jojo Rabbit, as anyone reading Brody’s review knows by this point in it, it is revealed that the Jewish girl the main character helps to hide was friends with his late sister. Presumably, she had other non-Jewish German friends, too. Those personal connections did her no good — now she has to hide, in the very town where she was until recently a normal resident, because if she is found her countrymen will gladly turn her in and have her murdered. Again, I’m not sure what else the film could have done to telegraph that it is not claiming that mere personal exposure to Jews is an “eventual cure” to hatred on the insane, genocidal level of the Nazis’.
Moreover, the film also goes out of its way to show that Jojo’s enthusiasm for Nazism is of the very simpleminded, enthusiastic-young-boy-who-has-no-clue-what-he’s-doing variety. He’s 10! He is easily convinced that Jews sleep upside-down from the ceiling! Saying “A 10-year-old befriending a Jewish girl could soften his anti-Semitism” is a very different claim from saying “personal relationships that prove the humanity of the persecuted minority” can cure as evil a force as Nazism. (It’s also worth pointing out that in some places, Europeans really did go out of their way to protect Jews precisely because they had close ties to them — I haven’t read Countrymen: The Untold Story of How Denmark's Jews Escaped the Nazis, of the Courage of Their Fellow Danes — and of the Extraordinary Role of the SS, but I really want to. Though based on what I’ve read and heard about it there were other forces at work there that made it arguably easier for Danish gentiles to help than it was for gentiles elsewhere, so I don’t want to oversimplify a storyline I’m unfamiliar with.)
As for “In ‘Jojo Rabbit,’ the Nazis, as the iconic extreme of genocidal hatred, stand in for current-day haters” — um, why? Based on what? Maybe it’s just a unique film about Nazis? This is more mind-reading.
Yet Nazis are easy targets; Hitler and his cronies need little satirizing. (They needed it in their era, and got it, not least, in Hollywood, from the German-Jewish director Ernst Lubitsch, in the film “To Be or Not to Be.”) Today, making fun of Hitler and his minions is both easy and pointless, because he poses no threat; Waititi is kicking a dead bull. The haters who need satirizing are in power, starting at the top, with members of the Administration and high-ranking advisers, and including participants in the deadly Charlottesville rally. But to make a feature film that openly mocks the President, his aides, and some of his supporters would be taking a risk that’s unlikely from a mainstream filmmaker and studio—at least, until that leader leaves office (see “Vice,” which isn’t even much of a satire).
Of course Hitler, the man himself, is dead and can’t literally hurt anyone. But I don’t even know how to respond to the claim that Hitler, as a force for anti-Semitism, is so irrelevant at this point that it renders any ridicule of him somehow pointless. Right-wing extremism and anti-Semitism are rising forces in Europe right now! More broadly, the critique here seems to be “The film I am reviewing is not a different film that doesn’t exist that I would prefer to see.”
While this isn’t quite so clear-cut, I’m also skeptical of Brody’s claim that it’s unlikely Hollywood would make an anti-Trump feature film. For one thing, a huge number of Hollywood figures have come out ardently against Trump, and sometimes against MAGAism more broadly. For another, it takes a long time to make a film! From the time a script is optioned — meaning it has already been written — to when it is released takes about two and a half years, on average. Add writing a screenplay from scratch, and the process obviously takes longer, and we just passed the three-year anniversary of Trump’s election. But again, I don’t want to overstretch — I do broadly agree Hollywood is cowardly and risk-averse, even if individual actors, who often don’t have much direct control over which films get made, are politically active.
“Jojo Rabbit” puts forward, with its blend of antics and sentimentality, something like a vision of daily life in Nazi Germany that makes conspicuous not only its terrors and oppressions but also a vision of widespread resistance. It shows, even in comedic form, the regime’s efforts to force citizens into open conformity and practical complicity with its genocidal ideology and practice. But the movie is centered on, so to speak, the good Germans—those, such as Rosie and other so-called traitors, who were active resisters, and also the blatant acts of resistance by individual Nazis who hold public office but nonetheless display risky and self-sacrificing bravery, more than once, in decisive actions that provide the movie with its crucial plot points. “Jojo Rabbit” is conspicuously a movie about the presence of good Nazis who, at critical moments, conducted their own forms of resistance from inside the institutions of power.
In this way, “Jojo Rabbit,” although set in the past, puts forward a political idea in the present tense. The film is being marketed as “an anti-hate satire,” not as “an anti-Nazi satire,” and for once, advertising is truthful. The movie is not substantially about Nazi Germany but uses it as an allegory for current-day expressions and politics of hatred. In showing Jojo’s family story—which includes his mildness and clumsiness, the absence of his father, and that absent father’s past brutality (which is presented solely as heavy yelling, not physical abuse, because the movie has no room for any complicated emotional conflict), Waititi displays a sort of wan humanism in which Jojo’s fanatical Nazism seems excusable, or at least understandable, because it responds to his own personal psychological issues. No less than “Joker,” “Jojo Rabbit” is another contrivance on the theme of “hurt people hurt people.”
Brody seems to be uncomfortable with the fact that someone would ‘excuse’ a 10-year-old’s fanatical Nazism. This is silly. I, Jesse Singal, King of the Jews, give everyone credit to forgive 10-year-old Nazis. 10-year-olds are dumb, suggestible creatures. Of course if they are raised amidst fanatical propaganda, some of them will become fanatics themselves. And even setting aside the fact that in my opinion, Jojo’s past trauma and psychological issues don’t actually figure as heavily in the plot as Brody suggests they do, even if they did, it’s unclear what would be wrong with this. Of course certain types of personal vulnerability, particularly those which elicit a sense of not belonging, make people more susceptible to joining radical movements — ask anyone who studies ISIS recruits. Brody seems offended by ideas that are plainly true — 10-year-olds aren’t fully responsible moral agents, and psychological trauma can make people more susceptible to radicalization — and that most people would agree with.
Let’s wrap this up:
Above all, the subject of “Jojo Rabbit” is, in effect, “Don’t judge a Nazi by its cover”— don’t judge Nazis by their uniforms or their allegiances or their declarations or even their actions. First, acknowledge the extreme danger of offering any resistance to such a tyrannical regime, and have sympathy for ordinary people who are just trying to get by with their heads down and who instead get drawn into the bureaucracy of evil, where, despite their true feelings, they have to feign commitment while doing their jobs or following orders. Second, try to understand the pain that drove them to support or identify with the rule of a bloodthirsty dictator, that motivates them to espouse and advance a deadly hatred of another ethnic group, or that caused a naïve and damaged person to imagine Hitler as a good guy. Third, have confidence—or, rather, to borrow the Hollywood catchword that Steven Soderbergh has definitively satirized, “hope”—that, when push comes to shove, a Nazi’s essential decency and humanity will come to the fore and save the day.
In much the same way Brody conjures a fantasy version of Joker in which Arthur is driven mad by his treatment at the hands of people of color, because that fantasy version supports his idea that the film is fundamentally reactionary when it comes to race, here he conjures a fantasy version of Jojo Rabbit in which the take-home message is that Nazis will save the day by deciding to not be so evil, after all. But in the actual film as it actually exists, it’s made deadly clear that the only real hope for those resisting the Nazis in the town in which the film takes place is the Allied invasion of Germany. Again, there’s that unwarranted jump from specific plot points to the broader, sillier messages the film is supposedly promoting — or that it “could be seen as” promoting.
You see this stuff on Twitter all the time — there’s just wild mindreading and misunderstanding and over-extrapolation. It’s all very bad-faith. And Twitter, along with some outrage-heavy sites, was the source of a lot of pre-release Sturm und Drang over how Joker supposedly glorifies white incel mass-murderer types, which it definitely doesn’t. These ideas seemed to be promoted mostly by people who hadn’t seen the film, and/or who were determined to read very simple, negative messages into it, often for opportunistic purposes. (Jojo Rabbit was able to escape this sort of stupidity, at least from my vantage point, and I’m not sure why.)
Reading these reviews of Brody’s, it felt like he walked into both films determined to view them through the eyes of the least sophisticated, most outraged people spouting off on social media. There’s so much mind-reading! It’s frustrating to see this style spread, especially in an outlet like The New Yorker