Know Your Critic

Know Your Critic: Manuel Betancourt, Critic and Culture Writer

Betancourt offers a peek into his forthcoming book, The Male Gazed, and talks about the titles that make him laugh, cry, and feel like he’s looking in a mirror.

by | September 27, 2022 | Comments

(Photo by Warner Bros. Pictures; Jeong Park for Searchlight Pictures, Courtesy of Everett Collection; Walt Disney Co., Courtesy of Everett Collection)

Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.

Manuel Betancourt’s criticism feels equally universal as it does personal. That’s because when he’s writing about what moves or unsettles him about a title – what works (or doesn’t) about its execution – he’s reflecting on our collective history, culture, icons, and style.

It’s no surprise, then, that his first book, due to publish next spring, is a reflection not just on the ways that he’s been raised by popular culture to look at men and see (or not see) himself, but the ways we’re all taught to aspire towards masculinity – to earn masculine approval or embody its ideals.

Betancourt says he’s interested in ways that queer desire and queer embodiment are presented in the cracks and crevices of culture, in seeing ourselves through characters that, upon first glance, look nothing like us, but after a double take or pause, encapsulate all the things we want to be: desired, emotional, self-assured, feminine, masculine, and/or something else altogether.

He says the biggest misconception people have about critics is that they’re viewed as “combative.”

“I like to think of myself as someone who is in conversation with a film or in conversation with a filmmaker, who is in conversation with the work that they’re producing – and that can sometimes be combative, and that can sometimes be critical, but that can also be collaborative, and it can also be sort of a genuine care and wanting to really uplift and champion what I’m watching,” he said in an interview with Rotten Tomatoes.

“Even if I’m nitpicking and even if I’m offering critical insights,” Betancourt said, “it always comes from a place of love, and that sometimes gets lost in the way that we are depicted, in the way that we are thought of.

Asked about his favorite thing that’s Rotten on the Tomatometer, Betancourt laughed: “There has to be something Rotten that I love, but I’m such a snob that I’m also really bad at watching things I know I’ll hate!”

He later followed up with the following answer via email: “I knew I’d find one if I looked hard enough! I stand by my adoration of Leslye Headland‘s Bachelorette, not least because it has a pitch-perfect performance from recent Oscar nominee Kirsten Dunst. But also, the chance to see Andrew Rannells play a stripper should also be enough reason to at least give this dark comedy a shot.”

Manuel Betancourt is a freelance critic and culture writer. His recent reviews can be found at Variety and the AV Club. His forthcoming book, The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men, will be released in May 2023. Find Manuel on Twitter: @bmanuel.

What are you watching on television right now?

I’m obsessed with Abbott Elementary, and I’m excited for it to be back. And What We Do in the Shadows.

I find that I’m watching a lot of dour stuff in life, so I find that I’m gravitating to sunnier, funnier things when I sit down to watch television. I say that as I’m re-watching Bojack Horseman as well, which is… not. [laughs]

What’s your preferred seat in a movie theater?

I’m an aisle person, and usually towards the back. I like a quick exit.

I wonder if it’s a critics thing, that we’re just like, “As soon as it’s done, we need to leave!” Especially at film festivals, I’m usually rushing.

Do you have a favorite snack for when you’re watching a movie or TV?

I’m a gummy bears kind of person. I don’t buy them for anything else – I don’t buy them for road trips, I don’t buy them for at home. If I’m going to a movie, that’s my snack: Haribo gummy bears.

What’s the best thing you’ve seen so far this year?

I feel like it’s such a cliche, but Everything Everywhere All at Once.

Michelle Yeoh is a goddess and we should all be prostrated at her altar. I don’t think I’ve seen anything as good as that, and it was a thrilling experience – in a packed theater, after COVID lockdown and watching stuff on screeners on my laptop. It was just bliss.

And what, for you, makes a “good” movie?

The way that I try to assess whether a movie is “good” is whether it lives up to and embodies the very thing that it’s trying to accomplish, which seems very tautological, or seems very sort of intellectual. But I sometimes need to remember that the film that I want to see may not be the film that the filmmaker was trying to make, and I need to meet the film where it’s at. So if the film says, “I am a raunchy comedy that teenage boys are going to love,” I can’t fault it for being that, even if that’s not a thing that I enjoy.

And sometimes those things align – the thing that I want and the thing that the movie is offering is what I enjoy. There are good films that I hate and there are good films that I really don’t care for, I never want to watch again. But if a movie is good, it’s because it accomplished the thing that it set out to, and it elicited the response that it wanted from its audience.

(Photo by ©Walt Disney Co./Courtesy Everett Collection)

Would you please give a quick summary of your forthcoming book and what led you to choose its subject matter?

This is the book that I’ve been, in a way, writing my entire life. It’s called The Male Gazed, and it’s a collection of essays that’s part cultural criticism and part sort of memoir, personal essay, and it’s about all the films and TV shows and media depictions of masculinity that I grew up with and that have helped me, or that helped me at some point, figure out what it is that I wanted and what I wanted to be.

As a queer man, that line between whether I want someone – whether I want him or I want to be him – is a fine line, and trying to figure out where the line between desire and aspiration lies can get a little bit blurry. I basically sat down to unpack that question over and over again with films that I loved as a teenager, with films that I loved as a kid. So whether it’s Disney films, or films like The Fifth Element I was drawn to these very strong, aggressive, masculine men, and then realizing that I wanted something that I could never be. There’s a lot of unpacking of that.

It was a lot of fun to write, and I’m really excited to have it out, finally out in the world next year.

As a sneak peek, I would love it if you would talk about the first time you saw yourself on screen and what you related to about that character or story.

The first chapter of the book is actually a little bit about that.

I was a Disney kid, as a lot of us in my generation are or were, continue to be. It was Sleeping Beauty, the first movie that I really, truly connected with and that I was obsessed with and play-acted at home for myself. And I realized that I wasn’t drawn to play act the Prince – which is the one, the sole male character – but that I was drawn to Maleficent, who was this fabulous horned diva who was captivating, and it’s clear that the movie loves her even as they paint her as a villain.

And I’ve come to look back to that moment as, “Oh, I was seeing myself.” But I was seeing myself in a way that, I wasn’t looking for a mirror image. I wasn’t looking for a little Colombian gay boy who I could aspire to be, or who was showing me exactly who I was.

I could always find myself in difference, and that I could always find myself in someone who was completely unlike me. The way that the movie danced around her, and depicted her, and painted her, and framed her, and voiced her, and colored her – that could be an insight into who I could be, into who I feared I was, and into who I could possibly one day become.

And that has sort of always also guided my criticism, in the sense of when I talk about representation and we talk about inclusion, and when we talk about seeing ourselves onscreen, I always want to make room for those moments where we see ourselves on screen in the bleak, queer, skewed sort of ways that I think can be sometimes even more productive than finding a carbon copy of us staring right back from the screen.

(Photo by Copyright 20th Century-Fox Film Corp. All Rights Reserved/Courtesy Everett Collection)

What is your favorite classic film? And you can define classic however you would like.

This must be such a basic answer, but All About Eve is my all-time favorite.

What about your favorite adaptation?

I love A Streetcar Named Desire also a perfect movie, also about queer desire and masculinity, and also central to me as a person.

If I think of more recent or more contemporary stuff, I continue to be enamored with The Hours. It does something so masterful in the way that it thinks about time and the way that it translates Cunningham’s sort of three-way kind of novel, the way that it creates a fluidity between the three stories and makes it “cinematic,” I think, is fantastic.

Also, everyone should listen to Philip Glass’s score on a daily basis. That’s what I do – it’s the score that I put on when I need to write, and I’ve created a Pavlovian response in my body, so that if I’m listening to that score, I know that I need to be writing and I need to be writing faster, because I have a deadline.

What is the movie or show that you’ve watched more than any other? 

My Best Friend’s Wedding. I love that movie.

The reason I watched it a lot of times, not only because I’m obsessed with Julia Roberts, as every homosexual man should be, but when I was growing up, we had a satellite dish, and for some reason we got a pay-per-view channel, but obviously we couldn’t choose one movie to watch. It just had the same movie on loop! And so, for four months on end we had My Best Friend’s Wedding on loop! I could literally, any moment, I could turn on my television and watch the film, and I did so for an entire few months in 1997, 1998.

Another movie that I probably watched the most, which is also a Julia Roberts film, is Closer, a movie that may be Rotten… Whenever I tell people I love [that movie], they bristle and look at me weird.

It’s pretty close to Rotten, but not quite!

I love that movie to pieces in ways that it’s probably very unhealthy.

(Photo by ©Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy Everett Collection)

Is there an under-the-radar director or screenwriter that you think more people should know about? And you can define “under-the-radar” however you’d like.

I’m obviously going to be mentioning queer filmmakers, because, even right now, when we’re talking about how great a landscape it is for queer filmmakers, I think we still undervalue them. I think someone like Ira Sachs is underrated and under-discussed, and I think part of it is because his films are so quiet, and domestic, and sort of almost unassuming, but I find them so, so devastating.

I’m also excited and I was so happy to see Fire Island, because I thought Andrew Ahn was someone that we should be talking about. I love Spa Night, I love Driveways. And so getting in to see him and Joel sort of get this base with Fire Island and everyone enjoying that, and hopefully seeking out their future work, is very, very exciting.

What is the most recent movie or show that you watched that made you cry?

I recently re-watched Mommy, Xavier Dolan‘s film, on the big screen because it was playing at the Alamo Drafthouse here in LA a few weeks ago, and it destroyed me. It destroyed me when I first saw it back when it came out, because it was one of my favorite movies of that year, and I hadn’t seen it since, and… Yeah, it was visceral kind of, like, uncontrollable crying. And I know that really had less to do with the movie, but that’s the last time that I was actually bawling in a movie theater.

Is there a movie or a show that always makes you laugh?

Bridesmaids and Devil Wears Prada are two movies that I just put on if I just want to feel good, and I know that Kristen Wiig is just going to make me keel over in laughter no matter how many times I’ve seen her do an impression of someone on an airplane. “This is the 90s!” will always destroy me, that scene in particular. I play it over and over again.

Who are some fellow critics that you admire – people who influence your style or your perspective as you write?

Because I’m an academic and I have academic training, the critics that I initially found myself emulating came from that sort of tradition.

I’ve always looked at people like James Baldwin, or Richard Dyer, or Roland Barthes – people who were able to really think critically about mainstream pop culture in a way that was very erudite, in a way that was very lucid and that was very intellectual, which is how I initially started writing.

And then, as I’ve been moving toward doing more mainstream work and doing writing for The New York Times, or for Variety, or for Vulture in ways that require my voice to be a little less “jargony” and a little less academic – which was a struggle for me those first couple of years – I’ve been finding that my contemporaries and my colleagues really inspire me.

I find someone like Richard Lawson at Vanity Fair to be someone who really finds a similar way of talking very loosely about films. And even in film festival dispatches – I still remember his review of Personal Shopper, that was equal parts sort of memoiristic… It’s the kind of review that stayed with me, and the kind of review that I continue to try to find ways of writing.

I find that my point of view and my lived experience can actually be a window into larger conversations about culture, and about form, and about filmmaking, but also about the human condition as a whole.

Is there something that you consider either required reading or required viewing for someone who is aspiring to become a critic?

James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time. Actually, The Devil Finds Work – that’s the one that everyone, every film critic, should read.

Everyone should read Baldwin, full stop, but the way that he writes about Hollywood, and the way he writes about horror films, and the way he writes about Bette Davis and Joan Crawford is just so masterful. I think a lot of us will probably spend our entire careers just reaching towards finding one percentage of the kind of insight and beautiful prose that he manages in talking about a lot of films that we all love, and stars that we admire and continue to think about decades and decades on end.

To me, that’s the true north of what film-criticism can be.

What are you most proud of in your career so far?

Just the fact that I’m still doing this, that I still get paid to do this, and that I have managed to make a career out of it for now almost eight years running – that feels like an accomplishment, and it’s what keeps me going.

Manuel Betancourt is a freelance critic and culture writer. His recent reviews can be found at Variety and the AV Club. His forthcoming book, The Male Gazed: On Hunks, Heartthrobs, and What Pop Culture Taught Me About (Desiring) Men, will be released in May 2023. Find Manuel on Twitter: @bmanuel.