Remember the Alamo — and a new wave of female film critics
Call it the revenge of the revenge of the nerds.
You may not be aware of the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema in Austin, Texas, or the annual cult-movie celebration known as Fantastic Fest that started unspooling there in September 2005 and now draws a national crowd. But if you’ve been paying attention to film world social media, you know there’s a sea change underway in who gets to write about movies and how they get to write about them.
This new generation of movie lovers — those in their 20s and 30s — has been the first to come of age not via newspapers and magazines but on the Web and through social media. Online is where their articles are published and their conversations happen, often among people who only physically meet, if at all, at gatherings like Fantastic Fest. And where the field used to consist primarily of men — and a certain kind of man, proudly geeky, passionate in his likes and loathings, not necessarily inclined to social niceties — there now seem to be as many, if not more, women writing smartly and strongly about film.
The backstory: Drafthouse, a highly regarded independent chain of theaters with 17 locations in Texas and 11 in other parts of the United States, also owns a popular movie website called Birth.Movies.Death. The latter is enthusiastic in its love of genre films, midnight movies, horror flicks, and general cinematic psychotronica. Devin Faraci, the founding editor in chief of B.M.D. and a highly divisive figure in the world of alt-film coverage, stepped down from his post in October 2016 after sexual assault allegations against him surfaced online . A lot of people felt it was karma.
Two weeks ago, during the run-up to this year’s Fantastic Fest, it was discovered that Alamo CEO and cofounder Tim League had quietly rehired Faraci, first as a general copywriter and then to contribute to the festival’s program. The Twitter-sphere exploded with anger, and Todd Brown, the Fest’s international programmer for more than a decade, quit in disgust, posting a lengthy online farewell note that said, in part, “Anyone who has ever suggested that Fantastic Fest and the Drafthouse is just the geek friendly equivalent of the classic Old Boys Club, you have just been proven correct.”
League apologized and Faraci resigned again, but by then another scandal was coming off the back burner, this one involving the ur-Movie Geek himself, Harry Knowles, an Austin-ite and cofounder of the Fantastic Fest.
Knowles’s star has fallen in recent years, but as the proprietor of the pioneering website Ain’t It Cool News, he made the Internet a home for fan-boy film culture at the turn of the millennium; in 2000, Knowles was listed at No. 95 on the Forbes Celebrity 100. As the news of Faraci 2.0 swirled last week, one woman went on the record to movie-news site Indiewire to charge that Knowles repeatedly groped her at a Drafthouse event in 2000, that she told League and his wife about it, and that their advice was to “just avoid him.”
More allegations against him quickly surfaced. Knowles has called the initial accusations “100 percent untrue” but two of Ain’t It Cool News’s longstanding writers quit the site in response to the stories, and by Wednesday, Knowles had announced he was skipping this year’s festival and stepping down from the site he built.
On top of that, this year’s Fest, which concluded Thursday, featured a few programming choices that seemed downright boneheaded in context, including a “Secret Screening” that turned out to be a long-lost Ed Wood porn film from 1970.
The Alamo Drafthouse chain continues to stand for the kind of irreverent, down-and-dirty adventurousness that puts the fun and the community back into moviegoing. And Fantastic Fest remains a yearly pilgrimage for young audiences around the country primed to love Weird Cinema in all its permutations. But the events of the past few weeks have proved, decisively, that those audiences have changed over 12 years, and that they’ve changed in accordance with how a new generation of cinemaniacs talks about, thinks about, and writes about film.
The new voices are varied, the genres being obsessed over even more so, but if you follow enough participants in the unofficial cloud formation known as Film Twitter — the several hundred (or more) men and women on that social media platform who talk about cinema, professionally or otherwise — you’ll learn that criticism, and criticism by women writers, is undergoing a vibrant renaissance, in both the areas of film and TV.
There’s Monica Castillo and Teo Bugbee, one a former BU student of mine and the other a Wesleyan graduate, both now covering film for The New York Times. There’s Farran Nehme, a.k.a “the Self-Styled Siren,” who leapt from a terrific old-movie blog to the New York Post. Dede Crimmins, who recently left Boston for Cleveland, covers horror and other genres for a variety of online publications. Lauren Wilford writes invaluable essays on film culture at the online subscription magazine Bright Wall/Dark Room.
Angelica Jade Bastién is pushing into fresh territory with her fiercely personal essays on film and TV at Vulture, Slate, The Atlantic, and other venues. Karen Han waxes thoughtful on SlashFilm (and elsewhere) and funny on Twitter. Rebecca Pahle, an editor at Film Journal, also writes reviews for pop culture site Pajiba.
There’s Alissa Wilkinson at Vox, Lindsey Bahr of the Associated Press, and Amy Nicholson of Variety, MTV News, and Uproxx; Inkoo Kang of The Wrap, Alison Willmore of BuzzFeed, and Abbey Bender of the Village Voice; Angie Han at Mashable, Sheila O’Malley at Rogerebert.com, and Nel Dahl all over the place.
I haven’t even mentioned established reviewers like Dana Stevens at Slate or Ann Hornaday of the Washington Post — and you can find plenty more by following aggregated Twitter accounts like @femalefilmcritics, maintained by critic Diana Drumm. Nor does this take into account the dozens of smart, articulate men talking and writing about film and pop culture. (That’s another list for another time, I promise.)
The point is that Film Geek culture, a label embraced by some and rejected by others, has over two decades matured to the point where it’s finally beginning to reflect a whole society rather than just part of it. The events surrounding this year’s Fantastic Fest have just sealed the deal. The party’s over, boys, and a better one’s well underway.