Compost of the Soul
Film critic Melissa Anderson talks about the correlation between smoldering internal rage and a lighthearted use of exclamation marks.
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Melissa Anderson is the film editor of 4Columns and a regular contributor to Artforum and Bookforum.
Film critic Melissa Anderson talks about the correlation between smoldering internal rage and a lighthearted use of exclamation marks.
NEIL GOLDBERG.: Hello, I’m Neil Goldberg, and this is SHE’S A TALKER, coming to you today from the Lower East Side. Today’s guest is film critic Melissa Anderson, but first I’m going to find someone here on the street to talk to.
We’re doing a podcast, and we just need people to know… Oh, okay. Sorry to bother you.
Would you have a minute for a podcast, just to read this card into a microphone?
REMY: Why not?
NEIL: Thank you. I love the “why not?”
REMY: What podcast?
NEIL: It’s called SHE’S A TALKER. It’s built off a collection of thousands of these index cards doing interviews with people. Uh, but now we’re playing around with having people on the street read them. Would you mind?
REMY: Okay. When people sing out loud to themselves with headphones, wanting to be heard.
NEIL: It’s often a cutesy thing. You know, someone’s on the subway. They got their headphones in. They’re singing. They’re pretending like they don’t know they can be heard, but they can be heard. Do you know what I’m talking about there?
REMY: I have absolutely done that. It was another version of me years ago, if that helps.
NEIL: Tell me about that version of you.
REMY: A version that was, really wanted to be heard, man. I mean, everyone really wants to be heard, but especially like I had just moved to New York. Like when you find those little secret ways where you don’t even admit to yourself that you are reaching out. It’s, it’s a little bit of a lifeline.
NEIL: Can I ask what your name is?
NEIL: Remy. Would you do one more card or no? This, okay, great. Hang on. I’m going to find another one.
REMY: I feel a type of violence when someone marks a file as final.
NEIL: Do you know that experience? Like do you ever work with electronic files and like?
REMY: Yes. Completely. Yeah.
NEIL: Are you someone who is, uh, who marks things as final?
REMY: I try not to because then you end up with another final and final two and final seven, and yeah, it is a lot. Um, so I try and keep it organized, but never final. Nothing’s final.
NEIL: I’m so happy to have as my guest, film critic Melissa Anderson. Melissa is the Film Editor for the unique art criticism site 4Columns, and frequently contributes to Book Forum and Art Forum, and before that was the Senior Film Critic for The Village Voice of blessed memory. Non-professionally, Melissa has a longstanding practice of emailing me abuses she encounters of the word ‘journey’, which she describes as the COVID-19 of nouns. We spoke just after the new year at a recording studio at The New School near Union Square in New York City.
NEIL: Melissa Anderson.
MELISSA ANDERSON: Yes. Neil Goldberg.
NEIL: Welcome to SHE’S A TALKER. I’m so happy to have you here. This is your first podcast.
NEIL: Wow. How does it feel?
MELISSA: I feel that I’m in the best of hands. I’m with a creative conversationalist of the highest order. And I’m, I’m ready to talk.
NEIL: Um, what is the elevator pitch for what you do?
MELISSA: Oh, it’s very simple. I’m, I’m a film critic. I’m the world’s preeminent lesbian film critic. There’s my elevator pitch. Elevator to the stars.
NEIL: I love the lack of ambiguity about that.
MELISSA: I mean, of course. I’m a film critic. That would be my elevator pitch. I don’t, I don’t want to get too grandiose so early on in our conversation.
NEIL: Well, hopefully there’ll be time later. You know, I’m, I’m thinking of criticism as its own literary form. So I would say, Melissa Anderson is truly a critic of film whose criticism rises and surpasses the attributes that we apply to the other literary arts. Or it rises to the level of literature. Would you agree with that? Is that an intention?
MELISSA: You are putting a woman in a very precarious position. I mean, if I agree with you, “Oh yes. All those wonderful things you said, oh of course, I am the best.” But I also don’t want to go into some display of false modesty.
I will just say that, yes, I practice the dark art of film criticism. I’ve done it for several years now. I always feel that my writing could be so much better. That’s always the goal: to not just coast, to really play with language, have some ideas, say outrageous things. Yes. And, and not just rely on plot synopsis, because that is, is really the, the dullest form of cultural criticism, especially film criticism.
I think it’s inevitable. You have to give the reader just some sense of what happens in terms of, you know, action or just the, the, the barest plot synopsis. And from there you can branch out and talk about the really interesting things, like Brad Pitt’s face or what French actress I may have a very big crush on. You know?
NEIL: Do you get a lot of followup? Like what kind of followup does one get?
MELISSA: Yes. I do get the follow up question quite a lot, which is what kinds of films do you write about? In fact, this came up just the other day. I was meeting somebody for the first time, and I said, you know, I really try to cover anything.
And then the person I was talking to said, Oh, would you review the new Star Wars movie? And that’s when I realized, actually, I do not cover the waterfront because I have not seen a Star Wars movie since 1983. And I almost never write about anything in the Marvel Comics Universe or DC Comics, simply because, I mean, I have, I, I have made a very concerted effort to see these films to keep up. But, and I’m not exaggerating, I found them so depleting. I remember watching Guardians of the Galaxy. And while I was watching it, I thought, this is like watching a toaster being assembled. It, it just, it simply seemed like nothing but a product where Tab A goes with Tab B, or this part slots into this part, and I thought this, this cinema is just simply not for me.
NEIL: Yes. Well, you use the word depleted, which is interesting, which I think of depleted as being like, something is taken from you. So what is taken?
MELISSA: Uh, well in those instances, my love of going to the movies. I mean it still really seems like an adventure to me. Anytime I go to a screening room, you know, anytime I’m, I’m, I’m there to review something, I’m there with my, with my uni-ball pen and my MUJI line notebook and I enter the screening room really as an act of good faith. And so these movies I’m describing, like Guardians of the Galaxy, or Thor, or whatever, those I saw as a civilian because I also think it’s very important that as a film critic you, you see more than the movies that you are assigned to write about.
And so I went to see these superhero movies, comic book movies, intellectual property movies on my own, you know, just to keep up. And with these films, that sense of adventurousness – that ended. Then it just, it felt like a chore just to remain in my seat until the film’s completion.
NEIL: Out of family obligation, I will be seeing a lot of the franchise movies or whatever they’re called. I just saw Star Wars over the holidays. And, uh, it, it does feel a little bit like a tour. But you know, my approach to the movies and this sounds so snobby, but, uh, I really do feel like sleeping during a movie is a form of interactivity. You know what I mean?
MELISSA: Andy Warhol certainly thought that, and have your fact checking department vet this, but the great Amos Vogel, who was a crucial person in New York City film culture, one of the founders of the New York Film Festival, I believe, he also said that sleeping during a film is an absolutely legitimate response to, to what you’re seeing on screen.
NEIL: Absolutely. You know, you’re doing a little re-edit, you know, by, by sleeping and –
MELISSA: De tournage, you’re detourning the moving image.
NEIL: Exactly. What is, what is a recurring thought you have? What’s a thought you keep returning to?
MELISSA: Can I turn the oven off? No. Well, that is sadly… Uh. Well. It’s a recurring concern, and I mentioned it earlier, which is, how am I going to make my writing better? Just yesterday, in fact, I looked at something that I wrote last year that when I completed it and filed it and went through the editing process, I thought, Oh, this piece is all right. Yesterday, while revisiting this year-old piece, I thought, how was I not run out of town? This is a colossal embarrassment.
Yeah. I don’t know if, how you approach your previous works. Do you revisit older stuff that you have done or do you just, do you operate under the assumption that no, never, never look back? Just keep moving ahead.
NEIL: Revisit it to, to revise it or just to look at it?
MELISSA: Just to look at it.
NEIL: It’s something, it’s – one of the things I truly dislike the most is, as part of the whole artist shtick, one has to do artist talks and show past work, and I, I don’t like doing it at all, primarily because it just feels so dead. Like, and I do feel like a work for me is not finished until the point that I have stopped really having feeling for it. You know what I mean? One becomes detached to it, and maybe there’s a value to becoming detached from it in that, um, it allows one more flexibility, fewer feelings of darlings that are being killed and stuff. But I’d love never to look at it. For sure. But you, it sounds like you do kind of consciously revisit your past work.
MELISSA: Well, sometimes, you know, invariably, I will be writing about an actor, a performer who I may have written about in another film five years ago, and I’m curious to see what I wrote then, just so that I don’t repeat myself. I’m revisiting stuff just to make sure I’m not saying the same thing over again, or I’m curious to gauge my different responses if indeed there is a difference.
NEIL: Let’s go to the cards, shall we?
MELISSA: I’d love to.
NEIL: Excellent. Okay, so the first card is the correlation between smoldering internal rage, and the lighthearted use of exclamation marks.
MELISSA: I, when I see an abuse of exclamation marks, particularly in email correspondence, I feel nothing but a red-hot smoldering rage. Not even smoldering, just full-on Mount Vesuvius-level Krakatoa explosion. I have been told this is generational, that those younger than this elderess, and that is now billions of people, prefer the exclamation mark. And the period, which I think is a very fine mark of punctuation, is considered by millennials and younger to be somewhat passive-aggressive.
NEIL: Oh, that’s interesting. I feel like exclamation marks aren’t necessarily passive-aggressive, but they’re meant to.
MELISSA: No, no, no. The period is passive-aggressive.
NEIL: Right. No, I get that. But I feel like there’s a similar kind of belying or something happening with the exclamation mark, but it’s about rage. Like, um. Well, I guess passive-aggressive typically means, uh, that you have aggressive feelings that you’re masking. I think of it as a more diffuse, the, the exclamation mark, as more – it’s not trying to communicate anger at someone, but a free-floating anger that is perfumed by way of the exclamation mark.
MELISSA: Right. Because the exclamation mark perfumes it with a cheerfulness or an excitement. It just exhausts me.
NEIL: Oh, absolutely. It asks so much of you. You always have to ask, what does it mean?
NEIL: And when was the last time you used one?
MELISSA: Just yesterday, in fact, wishing someone a happy 2020.
NEIL: Oh yeah. You got to do that. A period there is, is slightly hostile.
MELISSA: That seems very dour and grim.
NEIL: Next card: that bring-down moment, after you’ve watched a transcendent performance, when you first go to look at your phone. And perhaps this applies to movies.
MELISSA: Well, after I’ve seen something really terrific, whether it be a live performance or a motion picture – to maintain that feeling, I will defer looking at the phone for quite some time. I just like to replay it in my mind.
NEIL: Yeah. How do you feel right after a show if you’re with someone and they’re, like, wanting to analyze it?
MELISSA: This drives me crazy. Of the many billions of things that I appreciate about my fantastic lady, one of them is that, in the many years that we’ve been together, in the many thousands of movies that we’ve seen together, we will leave the theater, and neither one of us feels this compulsion to say, so what did you think? What did you think? Which really sends me into murderous rage. And, uh, there was a time when I was going to film festivals fairly regularly. And for seven years I went to Le Festival de Cannes, where, talk about depleting. Press screenings at the Cannes Film Festival begin at eight-thirty in the morning.
MELISSA: So one is rushing to see, you know, the latest Lars von Trier or whatever. You come stumbling out into the bright Mediterranean sun, and you are just surrounded by all of these film critics who are just assaulting, assaulting you with a quote. What did you think? What did you think? And I. This really, so many times, really put me over the edge. You just need time to simply let the images or the live performance, whatever you’ve just seen, let it wash over you. Sink in. So I find the question an assault.
NEIL: Next card, Melissa. Looking in my apartment’s compost container is sort of like gossip. I find I enjoy looking in the compost.
MELISSA: You know, I also enjoy it somewhat, and I will also say that I feel that now one-fourth to one-third of my waking hours are spent taking the compost down to the compost bins. Yeah, it is, it is something of a time investment. But when I look at it, forgive me, I must say it – I’m overcome with a sense of virtue because my lady and I, we like to do a lot of cooking at home, and I make, uh, at least one, sometimes two cups, very strong French-pressed coffee. So all of my coffee grounds around there. And so, yes, in fact, before leaving the house, I took the compost out, and I thought, Oh look. Greens and coffee grounds and brown eggs. We’re doing great.
NEIL: This is your own compost you’re talking about.
MELISSA: My co- the compost of the soul.
NEIL: I hear that. It is deeply virtuous. I feel very embraced by compost. Like I like that compost, within its parameters will accept everything, and you don’t have to tell food scraps how to become compost. I know that there’s some work involved. It just feels embracing. It takes. Compost takes.
MELISSA: You know, one feels really in tune with the spirit of the first Earth Day in 1970.
NEIL: That feeling when the plane lands and they dramatically reverse the engines to slow it down.
MELISSA: Well, if it, particularly if I’m coming back to New York, I’m, I’m spirally thinking, will I be able to make it to the air train in time? Will I be able to make it to the LIRR to pull into the Atlantic Terminal, which is a convenient 10-minute walk from my house. One would hope that the slow brain would kick in. The slow brain being, Oh, how great. One has landed safely, although now that I mentioned that, should one be feeling grateful that one has landed, or should one be filled with what my Shero Greta Thunberg has us thinking about, which is Flygskam, or shame of flying.
Yeah. So I think the next time I fly, and I’m not sure when that will be, yeah. I, when the plane lands, maybe I’ll just be feeling filled with shame.
NEIL: Yeah. I feel a variation on that because when it goes in reverse, you feel how much force is required to, to stop the plane, you know, which suggests how much, how much energy is going into propelling the plane forward, and you’re burning fuel to send it in reverse. So it is a moment of –
MELISSA: And killing Mother Earth. You think, how big is my carbon footprint?
NEIL: Oh God.
MELISSA: Sorry, Greta.
NEIL: Yeah. I just watched Greta’s um, speech, finally, um, over, yeah, over the vacation, because, I don’t know how I hadn’t seen it before, but –
MELISSA: I still haven’t seen it.
NEIL: It’s prophetic. A lot of it is like, You, meaning people of – I’m 56, like my generation. “How dare you” is the refrain, which, I think, I would have reworked that. Um.
MELISSA: You’re going to copy edit Greta.
NEIL: Yes, exactly.
MELISSA: Take a red pen to Greta.
NEIL: But a lot of it… I can imagine 20 years, something down the line, I do feel like there’s going to be a generational justified wrath, um, hitting us, hitting people of my age, you know.
And she speaks that.
MELISSA: I find her incredibly inspiring. I mean, yes, in all seriousness, I really am. I’m not someone who flies a tremendous amount. I’d say I’d average two to three flights a year. But this whole concept of the Flygskam, it has really made me think, thanks to this 16-year-old prophetess that, yeah, this is really, um, a great harm that I am perpetuating by flying so I can have a vacation in Paris or go visit friends in Los Angeles. So I have tremendous respect for this fiery, oracular, young person.
NEIL: Melissa, when you put your arm around a friend or hold their hand, but then the discomfort of when to disconnect emerges.
MELISSA: Um, I think of myself as a pretty physically-affectionate person with friends. I’m really not a hand-holder.
NEIL: Uh huh.
MELISSA: Even with my lover, and we’ve had some discussions about this. Because she, when we first began our love journey so many years ago, she would often like to take my hand out in public. And I thought, this kind of bugs me. But, and I, you know, I wanted to check in with myself. Why? Is it internalized homophobia? And then I realized, I, I, I landed upon what bothered me about it. There was something about my hand being held. It made me feel infantilized. Her arm around my shoulder, or even better, her arm around my waist – that I was into. Cause that felt more like a PG-13 type of public display of affection.
MELISSA: And also with the hand-holding, you know, I try to be very conscientious about taking up public space. And when you’re walking around a couple holding hands, it’s an impasse.
NEIL: It is like a blockade.
MELISSA: If there’s a way that one could have a public display of affection while walking single file, that is, that’s the challenge of 2020.
Lovers, lovers of New York City. Think of how this can be done. The piggy-back ride. Will that be the way to show somebody you’re really sweet on them in 2020?
NEIL: You do see the occasional piggy-back ride, but it doesn’t make me feel good.
MELISSA: Not so sexy, right? You know, we’re surrounded by an army of lovers.
NEIL: That’s true. Taking up space. Um, you know, I feel the same thing about holding hands in public. It’s not about the physical infantilizing thing, but it is a type of intern – I don’t know if it’s internalized homophobia. It’s like, yikes. Are we gonna get a bottle thrown at us?
NEIL: I’m sure there’s internalized homophobia in there too.
MELISSA: But again, I don’t, it’s, it’s not that, it’s just… Okay, well actually now I’m thinking about this more. I’m fact-checking myself, holding hands in the movies is okay. Because you’re – one’s parents, or certainly my parents, wouldn’t hold my hand during the movie.
MELISSA: But holding, holding one’s hand in public. That is something your parents did to you as a child.
NEIL: We’ve nailed it. You’ve nailed it. That’s it. Yeah.
MELISSA: I’d like to thank all of the years of psychotherapy I’ve had on the couch of, well, should I name my psychotherapist?
NEIL: If you want to give a shout-out.
MELISSA: Well, she’s a… She knows who she is.
NEIL: Yes, exactly. That. Let’s hope. Let’s hope one’s therapist knows who they are. I’ve never name-checked my, my therapist either. Um, and yet all my years in therapy, I never came to the conclusion about the hand-holding.
NEIL: What’s a bad ex you’d take over a good Y?
MELISSA: Me, who considers herself to be really one a gift of the gab – I’m stumped. I would take, I would take a bad movie that’s not in the Marvel Comics Universe or a Star Wars movie – I would take a bad movie any day over a good television show. There’s no romance to watching television.
NEIL: Is it context?
MELISSA: There’s no sense of adventure in staying home and watching television. When you commit to seeing a movie, you have to leave the house. And it seems that, increasingly, even in New York City, this great, dynamic, incredible place, the messages we keep receiving are: stay at home, stay at home, cocoon. You never have to leave the house. Everything will come to you. You’ll have your content delivered to you. You’ll have your food delivered to you. Stay home, stay home.
No, leave the house, people. It’s very exciting to go to the movies, even if it’s a stinker. There’s so much that could happen, so much that’s beyond your control. It’s terrifying, but it’s exciting. Leave the house. Leave it. Leave your house.
NEIL: On that note, Melissa Anderson, thank you for being on – that didn’t sound genuine. I have to do it again.
MELISSA: Yeah. Talk about passive-aggressive. Speaking nothing but periods.
NEIL: On that note, Melissa, thank you so much for being on SHE’S A TALKER.
MELISSA: It was a great honor, Neil Goldberg. I thank you.
That was my conversation with Melissa Anderson. Thank you for listening.
Before we get to the credits, there’s a listener response I’d love to share with you. In my conversation with Jon Wan, in response to learning that they studied jazz saxophone in high school, I said, “I’m going to make a controversial generalization: I don’t think jazz is gay.” Jon and I then talked about the way jazz offered a model of cool and casualness that didn’t feel available to us as awkward, closeted high-schoolers. Steven Winter emailed saying, “Jazz is self-expression within yourself being rendered into outer sensation. There are so many ways to cut the cake of the music called jazz, but three key essentials are: one, freedom; two, swing; and three, improvisation. Can these elements not also be used to describe the fundamental pillars of LGBTQ survival in the 20th century up till now? Jazz is about describing and finding yourself as an individual. That’s why you can hear a dozen jazz versions of the same tune, and each will hit you in a different way. Can the same thing be said of the gay movement? Yes, it can.” Thank you, Steven.
If you have something you’d like to share about a card or anything else you’ve heard on the podcast, email us or send us a voice memo at email@example.com or message us on Instagram at shesatalker. And also, as always, we’d love it if you’d rate and review us on Apple Podcasts or share this episode with a friend.
This series is made possible with generous support from Stillpoint Fund. Devon Guinn produced this episode. Andrew Litton mixed it. Molly Donahue and Aaron Dalton are our consulting producers. Justine Lee handle social media. Our interns are Alara Degirmenci, Jonathan Jalbert, and Jesse Kimotho. Our card-flip beats come from Josh Graver, and my husband, Jeff Hiller, sings the theme song you are about to hear. Thanks to all of them, and to my guest, Melissa Anderson, and to you for listening.
JEFF HILLER: She’s a talker with Neil Goldberg. She’s a talker with fabulous guests. She’s a talker, it’s better than it sounds, yeah!