Help Me Help You
Career advice and self-help evangelism at SXSW
In a rapidly deteriorating economic situation, every citizen is bound to every other by a common anxiety. These days, everyone knows the feeling of deep-seated, peptic financial concern, not just clerical workers, waitresses, and factory men but CEOs as well. And don't forget film critics. The Salt Lake Tribune's Sean P. Means has been running an ongoing eighty-sixed list of the more than 30 film critics who have lost their jobs in the past year. In a time when people are desperate for health insurance, I worry that film criticism has taken on the air of unjustifiable luxury, a relic from the roaring 1990s. And then I worry that my days of eating food are over.
This past Saturday morning, I went to a South by Southwest Film Conference panel titled the Incredible Shrinking (Expanding?) Film Critic Profession to listen to some of my fellow film critics discuss the future of our craft. On the dais, separated by moderator and Boston Phoenix columnist Gerald Peary (who directed SXSW doc For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism), sat four critics, two of whom – The Oregonian's Shawn Levy and my editor at the Chronicle, Marjorie Baumgarten – spoke for print media (and were repeatedly and ominously referred to throughout the discussion as "the old guard"). The other two, representing the brave new world of online criticism, were Karina Longworth of Spout.com and Scott Weinberg, the managing editor of Cinematical.com.
Despite my gloom, I found the conversation heartening. Baumgarten and Levy defended with vigor the importance of print criticism; they spoke of the joy of "tactile" reading, of holding a paper rather than staring at a screen. The new guard, though, hadn't flown hundreds of miles just to sit back and take punches, so Weinberg, full of sass and vinegar, joked to Levy that his reviews "will be lining a bird cage tomorrow," a point that's both clever and true and that temporarily set the old guard back on its heels.
I can't speak for everyone – I know there are those who value quiet agreeability above all else – but I like seeing intelligent people drawing blood. Watching the four critics bob and weave before letting go with quick combinations, I was entertained enough to forget that their topic was my future and that the inevitable conclusion of their discussion was going to be that newspapers will soon be as relevant as vaudeville. When the final bell rang, I had already begun thinking about a new career.
Figuring this new career had to be more practical and more stable than my current one, I settled on acting. After looking through the SXSW program, I decided Jeffrey Tambor's Acting Workshop would be the perfect place to start.
If the film critics' panel was a donnybrook, the workshop was more like a self-help love-in. When I arrived, there was a palpable sense of anticipation in the conference room. A woman three rows ahead of me grabbed her friend and squealed: "I saw Jeffrey Tambor! I just walked right by him!"
Tambor – a character actor who's been in two of the finest situation comedies to ever appear on television, The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development – took the stage in a fedora and proceeded to guide two actors – Jess Weixler, who headlines SXSW world premiere Alexander the Last, and Mark Reeb, who co-stars in competition film The Overbrook Brothers – through a short scene. Having no acting experience, I wasn't sure what to expect from an acting workshop. Would we all be asked to pretend we were soup ladles being used for the last time by an elderly short-order cook in Weimar Germany?
"It all begins with confidence," Tambor declared, and after watching the scene a few times, he tried to coax Weixler out of her comfort zone. "Play it like a good girl!" he bellowed. So she scooped all the sexuality out of her voice and played it like a good girl. "Now play it like a good girl who has a bad girl inside her!" So she dropped a little bit of the sexuality back into her voice and started teasing Reeb. "Now play it like your father!" The audience didn't see anything odd about an acting teacher telling an actress to play a young girl as if she were playing her own father, and for her part, Weixler turned in a convincing performance. I can't say for sure if it was her father she was playing, but it had the air of fatherliness about it. "Now play it like your mother!"
Tambor is a recovering alcoholic, so it was probably inevitable that his public workshop would eventually work its way around to territory more suited to private therapy. Poor Reeb. He couldn't have known when he signed up to be Tambor's clay that he would be stretched out on a therapist's couch in front of 100 strangers. Or maybe he could. I don't know. What I do know, what I began to realize when Tambor started using Reeb's troubled relationship with his brother Bill to, as he said, "get rid of his glibness and accept his fears," was that acting was not for me. I need my glibness. It distinguishes me from the animals and from people who listen to self-help tapes.
But the therapy bug had been caught by nearly everyone in the room. People asked Tambor questions as if he were a guru rather than an acting coach: How do I get more confidence? Where can I find inspiration? Can you help me get over my fear? To one confused man, Tambor said, "Live life fully and happily," then lifted his hand like he was blessing an acolyte and asked, "Are you better now?" The man nodded. "Good. May you never be the same."
Looking to shake off this messianic residue and convinced I needed to introduce myself to a career path that was slightly more cutting-edge than acting, I next attended a seminar on video blogging on Sunday. I had never heard of the panel's featured speaker, the hyperkinetic Gary Vaynerchuk, but I was the only one there who hadn't. To many of those attending, Vaynerchuk, the director of operations at a wine store in New Jersey who hit the big time with his video blog, Wine Library TV, is an inspiration. He overwhelms skeptics with his brassy confidence, indefatigable motormouth, business acumen, and easily digestible slogans. To watch his daily episodes, during which he rants with a verbal brashness and barrier-breaking populism that belies his sophisticated palate, is to get a crash course in modern entrepreneurial media strategy: Combine knowledge with a larger-than-life personality, grab a computer, and watch the money pile up.
To the assembled masses, Vaynerchuk dished out advice that fell somewhere between self-help seminar and corporate PowerPoint presentation. He loves words like "hustle" and "monetize," as in monetize your talent and your love. In his world – a Manichaean universe split between winning and losing – every moment is a chance to sell yourself, and every moment you aren't selling yourself is a moment wasted. He advised us to be who we are, to love ourselves, to embrace ourselves. Like a kid who's just discovered a new favorite toy, Vaynerchuk could barely contain himself. "The truth is undefeated," he said, though I couldn't decide if he was attempting to be cryptic or if the sentence had just come pouring out of his mouth before he'd had a chance to think about what he was saying. But Vaynerchuk couldn't go back and correct himself even if he had misspoken. He seemed forever pointed toward the future.
The crowd was enthralled. I lost track of the number of people who stood at the microphone to praise Vaynerchuk for his wisdom and his passion. One man turned around and told the crowd to stand up if they'd been inspired by Vaynerchuk. At least 100 people rose to their feet.
That old evangelical feeling had crept back in the Convention Center, and once again it was giving me the creeps. Newspaper film criticism may be a sinking ship, I decided, but it's also one of the last bastions of cultured skepticism, critical thought, and stubborn individualism in a world desperate for pie-eyed inspiration and hero worship.
I knew it was time to leave the Convention Center when a young woman nearly burst into tears while telling Vaynerchuk how much she'd been wanting to meet him. He responded by calling her up onstage, and while applause filled the room, the two hugged like long-lost friends. As the young girl walked back to her seat, beaming from ear to ear, Vaynerchuk spread his arms and looked down at her.
"Was it as awesome as you thought it was going to be?"
Alexander the Last
Thursday, March 19, 11am, Alamo South Lamar
Saturday, March 21, 11:30am, Austin Convention Center
For the Love of Movies: The Story of American Film Criticism
Wednesday, March 18, noon, Alamo Ritz
Saturday, March 21, 4pm, Alamo South Lamar
The Overbrook Brothers
Saturday, March 21, 10pm, Paramount