After a critic panned his movie, and cruelly joked about his looks, Justin Long derided her on national television. But when the critic wrote back, Long left her what must be the kindest, humblest comment in an Internet fight, ever.
Michelle Orange's essay about this discomfiting experience is thought-provoking. For the record, she has not changed her opinion of the Long/Drew Barrymore vehicle she so hated, Going The Distance. But she is highly self-critical and thoughtful in her examination of the practice of contemporary criticism, the nature of flamewars, and the problems with what it was that she wrote. Part of Orange's problem was that she wasn't quite able, in the 18 hours she had to file her review for Movieline, to really articulate her problems with Going The Distance. It's a movie she found lacking mainly because, she writes, it aims to communicate "relatability" rather than actual truth. Relatability, in addition to its inherent solipsism, has other drawbacks:
As a concept it grew valuable, and could be attached to modes of engagement — whether artistic, socio-cultural, or political — that were previously uninterested in relating to their audience in any conscious way. The memoir boom was built on this idea, as is much of chick lit, reality TV and of course the blogoscenti. With the dawn of the internet and its attendant traffic in user-generated, confessional minutiae — and I'll comment on yours if you comment on mine — an ascendant cultural irregularity found the medium to turn its message into a malignancy. Romantic comedies often engender the worst of the phenomenon: Instead of telling a story, in the name of relatability they hit notes, make references, and present punchline-based characters in the effort to elicit one of our laziest, sub-trash responses, which in full goes something like this: I was exposed to something, and it reminded me of me.
But in her review of Going The Distance, Orange didn't write about the memoir boom or the modes of thought that underpin paint-by-numbers rom-coms. Orange writes within the perpetual deadline machine of the Internet, and so her published criticisms were more attenuated and less articulate, more punch-y and less considered, than the thoughts she was able to present in this essay. As these things go, "REVIEW: You'll Hate Going the Distance Long Before You Relate to It" was entertaining, and very likely broadly accurate, but not ambitious. Orange made quippy remarks like, "Only Drew Barrymore's eye make-up, firing on all four Cover Girl quadrants in every scene, amuses the palate" and called the film "the latest ‘x' in the 'con' column of Drew Barrymore's exasperating career ledger." She saved her harshest words for Justin Long's performance — and his face. "How a milky, affectless mook with half-formed features and a first day of kindergarten haircut might punch several classes above his weight is a mystery, as my colleague pointed out in her review of Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World, we are increasingly asked to accept on screen."
Orange says writing and posting that one review — which she calls a pan "studded with snarky jibes" — kept her up that night. Part of the problem, she says, is that there is today an uncomfortable, growing, and largely unacknowledged, closeness between critics and their subjects. Whatever etiquette may have once surrounded the dishing and taking of critical punches, it used to be that actors, writers, designers, etc., were not exposed to the critical opinions of all and sundry — you probably read the local papers and a few magazines, and that was it. The existence of the Internet has changed both the nature of the critical discourse, unquestionably favoring more quickly rendered and more extreme points of view, and the Internet makes it possible for all but those superhuman enough to spurn all self-Googling to pull up to their laptops and read everything that's been written about them, ever. "I don't really imagine the person I am writing about seeking out and lingering on my words," writes Orange, "despite the fact that I have sought out and lingered on every word and review pertaining to my work that I have been able to get my hands on."
So Long saw Orange's review, with its nasty dig at his looks. And he read it. And he quoted it on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon. Word for word. Orange was so horrified that she couldn't watch the clip.
Among the contemporary writer's many responsibilities, "vigilance is required," says Orange, "if you want to maintain a sense of identity and purpose uninfected by the internet's constitutional grammar of incivility." And she had not been vigilant.
Orange's piece is a passionate, careful, and refreshingly non-self-justifying examination of what it means to (try to) be a critic in an age where we all to often confuse "critical" with "mean." (Both in the sense that critics are often unfairly derided as meanies, and in the sense that meaningful criticism has in many cases been supplanted by meanness.) She quotes Pauline Kael and Renata Adler, as well as Craig Seligman and Susan Sontag. It's excellent, and you should read it. But most heartening of all, perhaps, is Justin Long's response, which he left as a comment, and which reads in part:
Michelle, I never in my wildest dreams thought I'd get to be in one movie, let alone several over the course of the last ten years – never had any delusions of grandeur. I always wanted to be a theatre actor like my mom, always assuming the movie roles were relegated to the good looking people...Then I started idolizing guys like Dustin Hoffman, Gene Hackman, Sam Rockwell, Woody Allen, and Philip Seymour Hoffman – I found myself relating (I hope you're not wincing at my use of that word now) to them and formulating some wild fantasy of one day pursuing a career in movie acting – if guys that looked like that could do it, I thought, maybe this milky mook could role the dice. So while there's no defense for my performance in the movie (everyone is obviously entitled to their opinion), I have to say, I'm surprised by the amount of stock you seem to invest in my looks. I absolutely agree with you too, I'd be hard-pressed to hold a candle to even a fraction of Drew's beauty – in my humble opinion, she's the most beautiful girl in the world...Maybe you're frustrated because it so rarely works the other way – I don't remember the last time I was asked to accept a female romantic lead who was "punching above her weight class" – though it does happen (I just don't want to name names at the risk of offending – I leave that to the experts)...Regardless, I really meant what I said about your writing – I love film too and I love reading about it – so keep up the good work and I'll try to pick better projects...Take care and hopefully one day our paths will cross so I can compliment you in person. Until then, best wishes and be proud and confident in your role as a film critic – you're a damn good one.
ps I swear to god it's me and I swear (as emphatically) that I'm not being sarcastic.
This is one of the very few times I can think of an argument that has actually improved — in the level of its discourse, in the quality of its background reading, in the kindness and humility of its participants — the longer it has spent in the Internet and cable television. All too often, the echo chamber incentivizes hurt feelings and increasingly strident self-justifications, the issues, whatever they were, recede entirely from view, someone tells someone else to put down the sandwich, and the Internet says scene. This essay, and its response, shows other outcomes are at least possible. You know, when folks are as honest and as willing to listen as Michelle Orange and Justin Long.