Oregon Arts Watch

Film review: Transgressing women make good cinema

"Gone Girl" and "Wetlands" make the case for misbehaving women


How did women transgress on screen in 2014?

Jenny Slate refused to feel guilty or haunted about her abortion in Gillian Robespierre’s likable indie The Obvious Child.

Scarlett Johansson turned the predator-prey tables on some very unfortunate Scottish men in Jonathan Glazer’s austere, unnerving Under the Skin.

And the less said about Melissa McCarthy’s Tammy, the better, but you do have to admire her determination to buck comedy’s entrenched gender stereotypes.

In movie circles, 2014 will likely be remembered as the year that Guardians of the Galaxy’s frat-lite humor dominated the multiplex, while the arthouse crowd was captivated by Richard Linklater’s a-young-man-comes-of-age tale Boyhood.But it was also the year of a pair of films that confronted taboos about women.


At the end of yesterday’s missive, I said that today our topic would be the ArtsWatch “business model.” I’m sure you remember those quotes around the central term!

Well, I forgot about something important I wanted to talk about first, just because during the past five years or so, it has caused so much consternation.


Yes, criticism, as in “arts criticism.”

The scowling stereotype: The Critic, Robert Branston

With the decline of the 20th century’s central platforms for popular criticism, newspapers and magazines, and their replacement by a host of online sites and social media, the practicing professional critics of the latter have reacted with a deluge of columns lamenting the deterioration of criticism or aesthetic standards or the culture as a whole, depending on the writer. And things, they frequently tell us, are only going to get worse. (The most recent spate of self-reflection by critics has focused on negative reviews.)

Although we appreciate many of the arguments that critics make along these lines (we would, now wouldn’t we!), especially their evocations of great critics of the past and the knowledgeability they brought to their writing, it’s all a little baffling. The enemy of the critic isn’t the opinion of the non-critic, whether voiced online or on the bus. No, the enemy of the critic is indifference—to the art in question, to the large culture that holds it, to the sweetness of the well-made argument or the deftly told anecdote.

Critics can’t live with indifference, and the multitude of opinions and debates about books and movies, plays and concerts, art and dance, should give them hope. Many people still care about these things!

And ultimately, what the critic offers is hard to find, and with any luck it will continue to be valuable to the culture. Simply put, good critics offer their formal, considered response to a work of art. That requires some knowledge to begin with, some research, some close observation, the glimmer of a thought (teased, tested and expanded) or two, and a deftness with various story and essay forms so that the knowledge, research, observation and thought coheres into some sort of on-the-page logic.

A more congenial critic: Fujiwara no Teika by Kikuchi Yosai

That’s hard to do, and if it doesn’t combine with some sense of how the art and the criticism fit into the culture, how useful they are going to be, then all of that work will be for nothing.

I think that’s what has critics agitated most of all: They aren’t sure their work is useful, because the platforms that have supported them and broadcast that work are crumbling. Believe me, I know what that feels like. You get defensive and depressed and angry and you want to throw up your arms and leave the field.

ArtsWatch is a knot of various experiments, and one of them is about criticism. Our hypothesis is that the good work of critics (and may I say that this word is an irritating one?) is as valuable as it ever was, maybe more valuable. We think it needs to be more conscious of how it affects both individual readers and the culture as a whole, how it “reads” on the most basic level and how it functions from the more macro point of view. But honestly, a lively intelligence engaged with an interesting topic? Surely, that won’t go out of style.

So, we’ve pushed ahead with the practice here at ArtsWatch. Our reviews don’t really provide consumer advice (that is one thing the Internet and the remaining print publications are awash in); instead, we hope they engage you in a different way, a more reflective way. We have to admit that  sometimes (maybe always!) some of you know more (sometimes much more) about any given topic than we do, and we try to act as a catalyst for your own thoughts about Tomas Svoboda or Beethoven, Rembrandt or CS Price, Balanchine or Mary Oslund. And we’d really like to hear those thoughts, too!

One of our favorite critics

From that list, you can tell that the other thing we want to offer is an ongoing encounter with art made in the Northwest, by the artists who live among us, borrow from us and give to us, who create with us in mind. Because, yes, living here, we rightly should have a good acquaintance with CS Price, Tomas Svoboda and Mary Oslund—and dozens of others. They know us so well; we understand them better than anyone else ever could.

One more thing: We are restless here at ArtsWatch. We know we can do better. We can’t wait for the next time to give it a try, when we can bring a little more to bear on our subject and maybe have that thought that makes you smile a little as you read it.

Here’s the thing, though, and why we’re going to talk about business very soon: The other thing that critics see as they survey the landscape is the collapse in the amount of money and number of jobs that the traditional platforms pay for arts writing. ArtsWatch is an experiment along these lines, too, one we hope has a positive conclusion.

Maybe you’re ready to join up already? And pitch in a small amount of money to keep our local criticism going? You can pick the level that suits your pocketbook below, and that would make us very happy!

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…but you can donate ANY amount, and any amount would be most welcome!


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George Carter Needham, The Fortunes of a Street Waif

The ArtsWatch Pitch continues! Yes, we really need you to participate: to join his here at the site, to sign up for our eNewsletter (which will resume later this week!), to meet us at  Facebook and last, but FAR from least, become a paying member. Arts writing as we want and try to practice it takes money—for the knowledge and experience of the writers and for the time it takes to research, write and edit the work.

In my most recent essay-let, having made the case for the importance of art in our culture, I attempted to sketch the role of journalism in the relationship. Just to recap:

 “Journalism is about helping to develop that group narrative, that shared story, that common sense. Journalists are part of the culture they cover. They have the responsibility to help make it better. They do this by doing their best work and then listening to their readers add data, make better sense of the painting (or dance or political decision) than the journalist and make better arguments. And then take all of that into account in their next story. The understanding of journalists has to progress just as the understanding of the culture does. It’s the only way we stay relevant in the least.”

I have had and continue to have my issues with mainstream journalism, even during my long professional encounter with it at The Oregonian (a full 26 years, which makes me light-headed just to type). You know the criticisms of it at least as well as I do: Its narrow definition of “news,” its over-reliance on “experts” and “spokespersons,” the “objective orthodoxy” that serves as its intellectual basis, its reluctance to describe things itself or test the descriptions of other or build new descriptions from new evidence, the limited palette of story forms in employs, its fear of being scooped or getting caught straying from the conventional wisdom. We could go on, couldn’t we?

It’s one thing to make a very long list of practices we’d like to avoid. It’s another thing to replace them with something better. During my time at The Oregonian, I wrote a LOT of memos proposing different subjects, tones, approaches, graphics and products (Internet and otherwise).

Here’s an edited version of the start to one of those memos, which I include because it has so much bearing, ultimately, on what I hope for ArtsWatch.

I spent the shift editing stories by some of our better, mid-career reporters – one was on a sustainability conference, another dealt with the new nominees for the presidency of OSU, I can’t remember the other one offhand. The centerpiece was by one of our senior reporters on the Starlight Parade: we’d talked beforehand about giving it a “cultural” spin to give it a spine. I worked hard on all the stories, sent them back for minor rewrites, which the writers willingly agreed to do. And I left the building that night feeling good about what was going to be in the paper the next day: some competent, informed journalism.

When I got to my car, it was almost midnight, and the streets were still full of people loitering after the parade. As I started the short drive back to Irvington, I noticed groups at every street corner. They were arguing, laughing, canoodling or just watching. Mostly they were young, and occasionally they were loud and a little threatening.

I had to stop by the Convention Center for a light, right next to the Max line. Suddenly, I heard running footsteps, a lot of them, approaching quickly. I immediately rolled up the car windows and looked back, a little nervously. A pack of maybe a half-dozen kids, girls and boys, 13 maybe to 16 or 17, streamed by me. They in turn were stealing backward glances — they looked scared, really scared. I didn’t see anyone behind them, so I’m not sure what had spooked them – a cop? a drug deal gone bad? a tough guy from school? I have no idea.

I continued home. Again, at almost every corner SOMETHING was going on – a love spat, kids from different schools dissing each other, more laughter, something. And then I thought about what I had worked on for the past 9 hours or so. None of the stories I’d edited had a tenth of the life of that short ride home. I wanted to get out and start interviewing – what’s going on? what are you thinking? where will you be spending the night? are there any adults in your life and what are they like?

So the children running in the dark have become a metaphor for me: It’s what I want the stories I edit to have in them – something that makes me a little nervous, something that’s absolutely real, something that surprises me, something that makes me reconsider what I think I know about the world. It’s not easy – our story conventions aren’t as elastic as they might be, our reporters aren’t used to telling actual stories (I call them narratives below), we tend to go to the same places for news every day and so news becomes only what comes out of those places.

Are we relevant, revealing, coherent? Not until we include those kids. Not until the emotions of a June night bubble into our pages. Not until we start writing about a world that is a lot more complicated and messy than the seemingly orderly one we describe day in and day out.

Yes, I know, not the kind of memo that’s likely to convince someone. And that was just the start—a long list of suggestions followed. Some of those suggestions, we’ve taken to heart here at ArtsWatch. Others are waiting for enough money to pay for the reporting and writing time they would take. Tomorrow, I’ll go into them just a bit, just so you know that we didn’t jump into this endeavor without SOME consideration.

But I don’t know, maybe you’re ready to make the leap now? Without reading the rest of the memo? That would make you the best boss ever!

Our memberships start at $35…

Payment suggestions

…. but you can donate ANY amount, and any amount would be welcome!


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