Meet a Critic: Nathan Lee Weighs in on Leaving the Village Voice, Why Critics are Ineffective, and What's Next

The outspoken young writer on the Voice and how the word "boner" defines the generational divide in criticism.

by | April 23, 2008 | Comments

Meet a Critic - Nathan Lee

One of the more surprising cuts in the recent spate of lay-offs, buy-outs and re-assignments of print critics came last March when the Village Voice fired star staffer Nathan Lee. The 33-year-old writer’s lively and irreverent style seemed to fit right in with the Voice‘s historically bold sensibilities — and his departure would leave the publication with only one full-time critic, J. Hoberman. (The paper, owned since 2005 by the New Times conglomerate, now supplements their film reviews with pieces pooled from sister publications LA Weekly and OC Weekly.)

Since his abrupt exit from the Voice, Lee has been relatively quiet amidst public discussion of the “disappearing critic.” But as he told RT in a phone interview, he has no regrets about his year and a half stint. “In some sense, getting fired from the Voice was maybe the best thing to happen in my career,” he reflected. While he will continue to contribute to Film Comment, Lee also shares the news that he has accepted a steady freelance position at a major American newspaper to begin soon.

In Part II of our conversation with Nathan Lee (click here for Part I, in which he answers the Meet a Critic questionnaire) we delve deeper into his recent public break with the Voice and get his thoughts on the future of film criticism.

What have you been doing since leaving the Voice in March?

Nathan Lee: Work-wise, I’ve been fielding a lot of offers for freelancing, one of which I am accepting and you’ll see my byline popping up, probably in early May. So in some sense, getting fired from the Voice was maybe the best thing to happen in my career. Before I wrote for the Voice, a certain number of people were familiar with my work, from either the New York Sun or the New York Times or Film Comment or various places. But I think having been able to write at the Voice for about a year and a half, I got to show a lot of people what I could really do. Because you can write at length and it’s very unfettered; you can sort of say whatever you want, and I did. There’s not a lot of places — certainly there are online, but not in print — where a) you can use whatever language you want, profanity, slang, and so forth; and b) have the kind of very specific, very intense personal point of view that you can at the Voice.

I get to be the poster boy for the death of film criticism for 15 minutes!

So that was great. I don’t regret being there at all. It gave me a chance to write some really great pieces that I’m really proud of, and having left…having been let go at a time when all these other critics were being fired, and there were a lot of stories generated, it was kind of like sending my resume off to the entire world. I get to be the poster boy for the death of film criticism for 15 minutes! So yes, it’s sad; I would really have liked to continue writing at the Voice because there’s not a lot of places you can write where you have this sort of freedom to write in your own voice — no pun intended — as you were there. It’s too bad, but I understand the state of things, and they’re not very good.

Does the Voice allow for considerably freer writing compared to other outlets?

NL: I come out of daily newspapers; I came out of the New York Sun, the New York Times, and the first thing I did when I got to the Voice was write a column that was like, “F—, f—, f—, f—, f—.” I would let the language fly. In daily papers, you were restricted more to certain journalistic conventions, and you have infrastructure in place that, for better and for worse, is helping shape the copy. Copy editors, fact-checkers…at the Voice there is almost none of that. [Laughs] But on the other hand, the Voice traditionally is a place where very strong, idiosyncratic, biased, unapologetically partisan, advocate voices made a home. People at the Voice have an agenda; it’s part of what the Voice is. And when you’re at a general publication, you’re writing for a general audience. The Voice until very recently was writing to a very specific audience, which was downtown New York — downtown being more of a state of mind than a geographical location. With the changeover to New Times and becoming part of a larger national chain, that changed.

At the same time, my writing was never interfered with. I was never told you can’t say this, you shouldn’t talk like that, you should not be so New York-centric; but the fact was that my reviews were being sent across the country to all these different papers. And I, like a lot of my associates at the Voice, took the opportunity to write at this paper to talk to a local audience. To have a set of references and a type of attitude that would appeal to New York. And I don’t know how well that translates to other markets.

Next: The public’s reaction and the problems with modern criticism…

Meet a Critic - Nathan Lee

Since you left the Voice and David Ansen got bought out, a lot more people have been discussing the trend. Have you followed along?

NL: I’ll admit, it was nice to see a certain amount of critical support around my being let go and the state of film criticism. It was also highly amusing to read some of the more hostile comments, like, “This is what you get for liking Southland Tales” — that was my favorite. “This is what you deserve for picking Southland Tales as your favorite movie of the year!”

David Carr from the [New York] Times got in touch with me for a comment about a story he was writing. I couldn’t at the time…I didn’t decline to comment because I didn’t want to say anything to him; it was just a delicate moment. At the same time, what is there to say? Newspapers are going to hell, there’s no money, and we’re in a recession. Things are going to get cut, and film critics are at the front of that line. Arts writing in general is considered dispensable. So I don’t know if there is really much of a story to it.

At this point it seems people have identified the problem, but what’s missing from the discussion are any solutions. Do you have any to offer?

NL: As many people have pointed out, there’s no lack of film writing going on right now. There’s more than there has ever been. The Internet has opened up huge areas of new writing, some of which is quite good, the majority of which is quite bad — which I think is the same of print. I mean, it’s really sad that all these film critics are losing their jobs, but I think most film criticism is terrible. And not useful. And frankly, really boring. I read very little of it, and find very little of it to be useful. So it’s a shame that my colleagues are losing their jobs, but on the other hand I don’t read many of them.

One of the underlying issues in all of this is…people are losing their jobs because of economic reasons, for the most part, but also film criticism – at least mainstream print criticism – is dominated by the Baby Boom generation and older. There’s almost no one my age writing on a professional level at a major outlet. There’s Scott Foundas in LA Weekly, there’s Wesley Morris at the Boston Globe, very few. Very, very few. I think that’s a little bit problematic.

There’s almost no one my age writing on a professional level at a major outlet…I think that’s a little bit problematic.

Do you think that older critics are out of touch with most readers?

NL: I’m hesitant to make assumptions about the readers and what they’re responding to. I just know that movies are going through a radical change, with the crossover from film to digital. And I don’t know that the generation that dominates film writing can bring the same perspective and sensibility to bear.

Some people seem to think that the technological gap between older critics and younger audiences means they’re out of touch with one another.

NL: They are out of touch; the flip side is I don’t know how in touch the younger generation is. I was shocked at the hostility, for instance, at Southland Tales, which is a movie made by a director exactly my age, who’s already made a classic of my generation — the Rebel Without a Cause of my generation, Donnie Darko. He made this film that, you know, isn’t perfect, but I think in a lot of ways speaks very directly to a generational sensibility — and critics my age hated it, completely directed a hostility to it that I found shocking, so I don’t know that there’s necessarily a younger generation who ‘gets it’ better.

There are a lot of young writers who are committed to really serious cinema and write about it with a lot of passion, but also very little sense of humor, and sense of liveliness. There’s this ardent righteousness to it, and this kind of old fashioned, auteurist bent to it. On the one hand you either have dry, serious cinephilia, or you have glib, snarky philistines. There seems to be no middle ground.

One of the things I tried to do in my writing was take movies very seriously, but have fun with it. Let it be lively, let it be jokey. Find a combination of that. So I don’t know, I don’t think the younger generation is the answer, either. We’re doomed!

Next: On using the word “boner” in a review, and what he thinks of Anthony Lane and Ed Gonzales

Meet a Critic - Nathan Lee

What I like about your writing, which seems to typify the alt-weekly style, is that the writing is fast and loose and you’re not afraid or ashamed of using “bad” words.

NL: Let me give you an example. I wrote a review of The Duchess of Langeais, the Jacques Rivette film. It was an 800-word feature review in the Voice; it was not a review I tossed off, it’s one I thought about quite a bit, I was analyzing Rivette’s mise-en-scene, and re-reading his criticism, and taking the film quite seriously. Within this, in a sentence, I use the word “boner.” And I had an older critic on his blog write this huge attack on my review because of this word, because I was supposedly being childish. And I thought, do we really have no sense of humor? That this one word, out of 800, which were clearly impassioned and well thought out. Really, I can’t use the word “boner?” Will people just chill the f— out? If I can’t throw off a bit of fireworks, what’s the point? So there’s this [idea] that you have to be serious, but you can’t have any fun…it’s very strange.

It seems more critics could be more entertaining and original as writers, and still know what they’re talking about.

NL: Well that’s a hard combination. Anyone can turn a sassy phrase, but do they have anything to back it up? Anthony Lane is a very witty, very funny writer — and he doesn’t know shit about movies. No one who takes movies seriously takes him remotely seriously. I read him because it’s very funny; he’s a good writer. But I don’t listen to anything he has to say; he has no authority because he doesn’t take what he’s doing seriously.

I find most film writing almost…unreadable. And the longer I write, the less of it I try to read. I think that keeps me a better writer. I’m reading all the time, but I can learn more about the movies I’m seeing this week from reading a great 19th century novel than I can from whatever XYZ critic has to say this week about whatever. I think another problem with movie writing is that it’s insular, especially Internet writing. It’s so narrow and insular and just about movies, and I think to be a really good writer and film critic you need a range. You need to know what’s going on in painting, you need to know what’s going on in music, you need to read books, and get laid, and go to restaurants, you know what I mean? A lot of movie writing is very impassioned but it’s very limited, very narrow. And I think good critics can put movies into a larger cultural and social perspective.

Anthony Lane is a very witty, very funny writer — and he doesn’t know shit about movies.

And that’s what a good critic should be. I definitely think there’s a difference between a film critic and a film reviewer.

NL: But even the critics, even the ones that do real criticism, I find oftentimes very cut off from the rest of the world. One of the young critics who I think is really good is Ed Gonzalez, who writes for Slant, because when you read him, agree with him or not, he’s someone who is clearly paying attention to politics, clearly paying attention to pop culture, knows movies really well, and brings all this to bear. In a way that is lively and interesting.

Maybe there are too many film critics and/or reviewers out there right now.

NL: There’s too many and they’re not good enough. This is partly a generational thing, but it’s hard to pin it down — and I don’t want to say, like, “Down with Grandpa” across the board — but I have found it always frustrating as a young critic that the older generation dominates the discourse. Again, I don’t know that there’s a younger generation that’s either smart or prepared enough to move into that place.

The sad thing is that critics, we’re expendable because the people making the money don’t need us — the studios and the papers. Critics are one of the few points of resistance between multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and their audience. But hey, welcome to late capitalism.

What’s your background as a critic? How did you get to where you are at such a young age?

NL: I have what I call a self-inflicted education. Didn’t study journalism, didn’t study film… I have a mysterious past. [Laughs] Let’s leave it shrouded in mystery. My first love was literature; modern literature, poetry. I’ve always been into film but my first real love was literature, and also painting and fine art. But I’ve been a pretty passionate cinephile since my teens, when I really started watching art house and foreign films, and people like David Lynch and David Cronenberg.

Do you remember the first movie that you loved?

NL: I was a Star Wars baby. The interesting thing for me is that my real first love was horror films. I was a real horror film fanatic as a teenager. Rented every tawdry slasher film, I was really into it. And this passion for that kind of genre film — sci-fi, horror — led me to David Cronenberg, to movies like Dead Ringers and Videodrome. And Cronenberg was, above anyone else, a figure that merged a kind of genre enthusiasm with a greater sense of a cinema of ideas. Specifically, Videodrome and Dead Ringers were movies that opened up new vistas for me and I’ve been a really passionate devotee of his ever since. If you were to ask me who my favorite director is, I think the one closest to my heart is Cronenberg, who I’ve been watching and re-watching — almost every film every year since I was fifteen. I think he has the most inexhaustible body of work in modern movies.

To read Nathan Lee’s reviews for the Village Voice, check out his author page here.