“As a Younger Person, You are Also Closer to the Social Moment”: Emily Buder on Film Criticism
I spent months complaining about the drug dealers on my doorstep. I didn’t like dodging their transactions or how they’d hover or call after me. But when one of them offered to help adjust my bike seat, witness to my prolonged and embarrassing struggle, an alliance was formed, and over the course of a few weeks, a friendship. Despite the language barrier — I speak poor German, and he, worse — I learned how he fled Senegal on a crowded boat of sick and dying refugees, and how he arrived in Italy without knowing a soul, the language, or an idea about his future. I feel presumptuous to say I can relate or empathize with his experience. I’m privileged with the title “expat” while he’s labeled “immigrant.” I didn’t risk my life to move to Berlin, and I’ve the safety net to return to my home country at any time. And yet, his isolation and sense of alienation felt familiar to me. So when he disappeared after a few weeks of daily conversation, I was disappointed. But this is also a familiar experience for an expat or an immigrant. Our lives can feel transient or impermanent so we learn to accept the fluid movement of people in and out of our new and changing realities. But the sense of fleeting relationships does not mean there’s a sense of lost connection.
Emily Buder and I went to the same college at the same time and have many mutual friends in life and on Facebook, but we hadn’t met until our recent Skype date. With commonalities for comfort, we hit it off effortlessly, in spite of the interview pretense. As a writer and film journalist herself, Buder says that to “go in, get someone to open up, extract information, and formulate it into a product for other people to ingest” can feel manufactured. And when an interview is truly organic or even intimate, it’s still condensed, packaged and consumed. Sometimes you may never speak again to the person with whom you once shared this intimate interview. The whole process is about immediate connection but often feels more like immediate disconnection. Buder says that the impulse to open up quickly but detach just as fast is a uniquely 21st-century situation, well beyond the challenges of journalism. I think of Tinder — two hours of life swapping followed by an evasive text or two until digitally flat-lining. But you remain Facebook friends because unfriending is reserved only for the most severe intentions to disengage. Otherwise, people remain relatively, if not insufficiently, connected.
So in thinking about fleeting relationships, I don’t think Buder should feel guilty or unsatisfied about an intimate connection that ends with the interview. I’d rather the fleeting moment of intimacy than the hollowness of an indefinite Facebook connection.
After all, it isn’t always the long-term connections that leave the lasting imprints, but the fleeting interactions along the way — a candid interview, a Senegalese bike hero, even a discarded Tinder date. And however momentary the relationship, if you leave an imprint on a writer, you will live somewhere on a page forever.
Buder worked in development at Paper Street Films and marketing at SnagFilms until landing her current position writing and handling social media at Indiewire. She’s a film critic who reads Italo Calivo rather than screenplays and has literary aspirations of her own. When I asked the San Francisco native about her book on cyber bullying published by Harper Collins in 2008, Buder was quick to comment on her ambition to write a “book book, which is something in my future I have yet to earn and claim.” She is a graduate of New York University.
Why did you go to film school?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five-years-old. When I was young, I was always writing and reading voraciously. When I was a teenager I discovered the power of film; I was attracted to it because it’s more emotionally moving, more visceral than writing. So I thought I’d write screenplays. At film school, my screenplays were so dialogue-heavy that they probably should have been plays. I still want to write screenplays and make some films in my lifetime, but I’ve decided to take a more academic approach to writing for a career and make films on my own time.
How did you land at Indiewire?
I had been an avid reader for many years. After I left a job working as a creative executive developing smaller indie films, I was working at the company that owned Indiewire, and I expressed my interest in writing for them. People often say that career paths may seem meandering but make sense in retrospect. I already feel that way with where I am now. I started out wanting to be a writer, then became interested in film, and am now marrying the two together in the most kinetic way. Working at Indiewire keeps me interacting with the film world, meeting fascinating people, and analyzing industry trends while maintaining academic rigor in writing.
What trends interest you?
I’m very passionate about women’s stories in film. And it’s the right time to be interested because commercial projects helmed by women are now viable. There are entire reserves of women’s stories that haven’t been told, and finally people are stepping up to the plate. I’m interested in this untapped potential for women in media, in helping the stories be told, and eventually telling one of them myself.
Having gone to film school, are you more reluctant to write negative reviews?
I know how hard it is to make a film and how much of your life goes into the process, how deeply personal it becomes. In having to write a bad review, I’m basically confronting the filmmaker’s biggest fears and insecurities. I’d much rather take a supportive role and help uplift people and their work. This is a big moral quandary because, as a critic, you have the responsibility to be honest and raise the really good movies to the top. In order to do that, you have to ensure the market isn’t oversaturated with mediocre material. You owe it to the good movies to help them gain visibility.
And having filmmakers as peers and friends must further complicate the moral quandary.
The responsibility of a filmmaker is to effectively communicate. If the intentions aren’t communicated to the audience, the filmmaker needs to take responsibility for polarizing interpretations and maybe confront the fact that some elements didn’t work. I’m just starting out, so I have no idea what it will be like to review my friends’ work. I can’t imagine how intimately fraught that will be or what kind of conflicts will emerge. I hope I will be gracious but also honest.
Roger Ebert could write a review in 20 minutes. What is your process?
With some films, you are developing your conception and your relationship to them as you are watching, and you can pour a review onto the page right away. But some films need time to burrow under your skin; you need to live with them and let them permeate your consciousness. Ideally, I think critics should take time to let a film to sink in, rather than feel pressured to churn something out before another outlet. But that’s not realistic.
Whose reviews do you read and trust most?
My favorite publication to read critically is The Dissolve because they give themselves a lot of room to explore the themes of film in a broader context. They are incredible cinephiles and not too concerned about how a film will play to an audience commercially. They are more interested in looking at films purely emotionally and culturally. I also read Stephanie Zacharek at the Village Voice. She’s incisive and does a great job of bringing the female subjectivity to a traditionally male-dominated field. Yeah, Roger Ebert too. There’s no one like him. He wrote from an audience perspective the way no one else has since. He wrote as if he were just anyone coming out of a theater and pouring his emotional life onto the page.
He was personal but also global.
Right. Today, I don’t think critics write enough about the bigger social implications of film. They speak of film as a product in terms of its strengths and weaknesses and seal it in this vacuum. But film is a very powerful social tool and as critics, I think our responsibility is to incorporate the social fabric of the world into our reviews.
Maybe this is a tired question, but is proper film criticism dead?
I don’t think this is a tired question. Criticism is changing. Rather than deferring to a few authoritative voices whose sensibilities you align with, you are getting a lot of information, compressing it, and deciding how to interact with the film yourself. The Rotten Tomatoes model. I think there’s a marriage of both forms of criticism today, and I hope they can continue to exist in tandem.
But has the abundance of reviews compromised the quality?
The biggest problem I tend to have with reviews today is that they are more synopsis than analysis. There may be a line or two about what worked and what didn’t, but there’s more emphasis on summarizing the story. There isn’t always the analytical thought and emotional response that’s the hallmark of good film criticism.
What is most challenging about writing for you?
Part of the challenge is distilling my overactive mind into something coherent. Some writers can get overwhelmed by the pressure of this and give up. But I believe that if you are a born writer, you have to do it, and you’ll do it no matter what. The question is not whether you are writing every day but whether or not you decide to incorporate writing into your career. Even when I wasn’t writing for work, I was writing short stories and mini articles that I’d never publish anywhere, so for me, I’m going to write either way. In terms of the challenge, it’s – and this is going to sound so pompous so I’m afraid to say it – but I think writing is the highest form of thinking. You have to commit to your thoughts and be willing to communicate them to an audience, so it’s authoritative and permanent in a way that speaking isn’t.
How much are your articles collaborative efforts? Do you brainstorm pieces and articles with your colleagues?
We have one office in L.A. and one in New York, and we are incredibly collaborative. We all sit in one room together, constantly bouncing ideas off each other. We are always interfacing, which is really important for a publication that strives to have a comprehensive and cohesive voice.
How much are you edited?
Not too much. It’s more about editing for brevity and cohesion’s sake, not usually the material. There’s not a lot of restructuring, which is nice because sometimes writers fear that editors will misconstrue their voice. But that’s never been a fear for me at Indiewire.
You are also Indiewire’s Community Manager. What does that mean?
It’s a whole different thing. I run all the social media properties so I’m speaking to our fan base and trying to entice them into reading articles. I try to read everything we publish and think of the best way our audience can engage with it. As a former Indiewire reader, I know what caught my eye, which images or keywords I wanted to click, which articles I found worth reading, so I can apply that knowledge to the way I speak to the fan base now.
Do you interview on the phone, over email, or in person?
In person is always better. There’s nothing like looking at someone’s countenance and seeing the way the person responds. On the phone it’s more of a question/answer transaction, which I don’t like as much. Interviews should feel more like conversations because people open up when they don’t feel like they’re supposed to be on a soapbox projecting their thoughts and ideas.
Do you ever feel held back as a 25-year-old female in film?
Inherently people take you less seriously if you are younger because they value experience and it’s something you lack just by virtue of being young. But as a younger person, you are also closer to the social moment — you’re more privy to contemporary values and trends. That’s an advantage. In terms of being a young female writer, people have asked me if I get hit on during interviews. People have insinuated that I might be taken less seriously because I’m a blonde 25-year-old girl. I don’t even know how to respond when someone imposes my sexuality onto a professional situation. Would you ask that to a 60-year-old man? This is the world we live in.