How Film Criticism Has Shaped Me

In a world where paid criticism wasn’t in a bad state, I’m certain I would be a superstar critic. I know this as certainly as I know my own name. I was meant to be a professional critic. Fate just didn’t place me in a world where that was a real position for me. 

The topic is on my mind since yesterday I watched the brilliant new documentary Life Itself on the life of Roger Ebert. The film is a beautiful, comprehensive tribute to the man. It made me think a lot about film criticism itself inevitably. I’ve lived my life steeped in film and the discussion of such. In writing this, I’m looking at the critics I love reading and my own experiences as a critic.

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Imagine a constant noise in your head. Not necessarily a siren though it can be similar. It’s just constant. Sometimes it jumps up in volume. Sometimes it’s a low hum. But no matter how hard you try, you can never forget it’s there except for brief periods when you make a lot of noise yourself. It doesn’t drone away like white noise. It is there and it is infuriating. That’s life with anxiety.

This is a rare entry where I’m going to discuss my present life. The fact is I suffered a series of violent anxiety attacks over the week before I wrote this entry and I need to talk about this topic. It’s a very difficult subject to even broach in public. Like with everything I discuss, it seems there’s a stigma to it. It’s gauche to keep your meds easily at hand. It’s extremely ill advised to have a panic episode. When you do, you’re accused of seeking attention. When you discuss what you’re anxious about, it often seems ridiculous to outsiders. The sad part is that even you know it. But you’re controlled by the force.

Over the last few months, I’ve faced some trials. I had to look for a new house, the cause of which gave me no end of anxiety. I’ve had some bills hit I’d wish I didn’t have. I had a car accident in October that gave me a dose of PTSD. I had a car accident in June that really did. There was also an incredibly brutal winter that made just getting home a challenge. Just got my credit card stolen. Admittedly there have been great things–wedding–but this isn’t about those. Those are future entries.

You’d think I’d be inoculated by now. The funny thing about anxiety is it works just the opposite. I’ve found that what doesn’t kill you makes you acutely aware next time it could kill you. Rather than growing from my trials, I find myself uneasy almost all the time. During lulls, I’m on edge. There’s a good reason for this. An anxious individual is one who’s aware that at any moment something might go awry. So we look for the next crisis. Little things set us off thinking about the larger issues behind them.

The issue with that, of course, is that life doesn’t work like that. Crises surprise us by their very nature. But for the anxious, there’s the false belief in a pattern. OK, this one got me last time so I’m going to be prepared, we think. The victim of credit card fraud checks his statements zealously. The car owner whose last car broke down repeatedly panics at every ding. The kidney stone victim gets tense at every single ache in his torso. There’s nothing wrong in principle with any of that. In fact all of those things describe me.

But imagine a symphony orchestra. One instrument starts playing. Then another. Then another. What starts simple soon becomes loud and booming. So it is with anxiety. You’re constantly hearing it all at once. Sure one section might dominate but you’re always hearing it. This week I even had an anxiety induced dream!

It all fundamentally stems from a desire for control. I suspect HFAs know this about as well as anybody. After all, we frequently get OCD as another disorder we’re diagnosed with. (1) We want control but we live in a world without it. Anxiety is our way of pretending we have any. The anxious lie to themselves believing that if they’re just vigilant enough. It’s creating control in the universe without.  Our siblings, the paranoid, create the belief that they’re the target of a conspiracy as to make them feel like they matter which is their real issue. So too do we look out for every possible situation that might hurt us to deal with the fact that we know it’s impossible.

This connects to money as well. I’ve been called cheap, a lot. I called my father that too growing up until I understood him. (2) Yes, I am paranoid about money and in this culture that looks bad. But I’m also unapologetic. I’m not carrying any debt beyond a car payment, which is normal. I look at the spend spend world and I see the destruction the financial crisis caused. Here’s the problem: that doesn’t look good for me and worrying about money isn’t very endearing. Ultimately, I wish people understood that my fixation on my finances–and I check my bank statements daily so fixation is right–ties to my anxiety, not to any Scrooge-like tendencies. In fact, I rarely spend any money on myself! I’m just trying to achieve control.

What happens when control is lost? I’ve described the daily hum of anxiety above. Actual loss of control is comparable to an earthquake for the anxious. I’m honest enough to admit I’ve never handled my accidents well. There is usually some degree of meltdown for me. For minor events, expect severe hyperventilation and increased pulse rate. The world is spinning. All of your senses are triggered. It’s fight or flight mode and you want to choose flight but fight is preselected by the world. It’s utterly terrifying. Even in your daily life, expect a measure of intense reactions. I’m acquainted with the sound of my heartbeat. Rapid eye movement and sweating are pretty common too. I’m also pretty aware of my own breathing.

Ultimately it’s exhausting. I have to believe a key cause of depression is anxiety. Worrying that the world will go wrong is painful. It wears us out. I definitely have fought a measure of depression in my life. My health almost certainly is below what it should be. As I get older, I ponder the effect that it will have. I doubt it’ll be good.

Is there a respite for us? Yes. There are medications to take. Therapy is advised. Personally, I love music as a way of blocking it out. To a great degree, you have to lean into what you love. A great or even a bad movie can take my mind off things. (3) There’s also a lot to be said for cognition. The awareness that you’re not thinking straight is weirdly effective. The key is getting there. I also highly recommend pets. My cat is asleep on the table beside me now, snoring.

Ultimately, I’m not concluding this entry with any firm answers because I don’t have any. I’m in midstream on this issue. I don’t know how to conquer anxiety. I just know that I’m not allowed to quit trying to fight it. Life is a struggle. Some fights aren’t as easy as others.

(1) Quick note: stop saying “I’m so OCD” unless you are. Actual OCD is painful.

(2) My father is actually the most generous human being I’ve ever met. Maturity really changes your perspective on the world.

(3) I Am Number Four served as a balm for me one night. Proof of what I’m saying.

Odds and Ends

First off, I want to thank my readership for the enthusiastic response I’ve had over the last few weeks. I love doing this. It makes me happy to share my thoughts and stories with the world. After all, communication is very hard for us. I hope I’m contributing something of value.

I’m not sure yet what my Monday post will be. I’ve spent the last month working in the mid 90s and shifting out of that gear isn’t very easy. Especially since I’m writing at least a short story set in that era. But I’m looking to get SOMETHING up. 

Right now I do have a few more opinion pieces in the offing but I confess I really want these to be better. I’m trying to do a lot of research right now to flesh these out. I realize that puts the focus on my “experiential” pieces and I know those are a bit self serving. Rest assured there are going to be a few experience pieces coming that are going to have a lot to do with the disorder.

I don’t comment much on my present tense life here. In fact my plan is to set a boundary of June 2011 for narrative pieces at least for the moment. But I’m doing quite well. Just got my car back after an accident. My podcast is going well with our newest entry up. Reading a lot.



There was a great article in the Washington Post (link) on why men should stop calling women crazy. I really couldn’t agree more with the article which pointed out how calling women crazy denies them their right to their feelings. Reading the article inflamed me as was the article’s purpose. It also made me think about that nasty word: crazy.

It’s amazing to me how utterly comfortable we are with language concerning mental illness. Crazy, moron, lunatic, insane, mad all get thrown around. We’re starting to lose our comfort with retard but that’s only after a concerted effort by the community to get that one abolished. I still hear it a lot more than I should. Sadly, even autistic has been used as a slur by people who should know better.

And what do these terms generally connote? Nothing good. They’re used to mock behavior. A person who is acting crazy is acting against society and we want to bring them into line. To be called crazy is to be disdained. A crazy person must be corrected and told how to act right. Often calling a person crazy is also used as a way to feel superior to another person. If they’re “crazy” then you’re better than them because you don’t act that way.

It’s frustrating to bear the stigma that mental illness carries. I’ve faced it quite a bit in my own life, as I’ve shown here. Sadly it’s not limited to childhood either. I’m going to get to this in my entry on 2007-2008 but I’ve had nurses fail to understand what it’s like to be in my shoes. To admit that your mind is abnormal is to be seen as an other. This is, on its face, silly and is fading due to increase in diagnosis. But it’s there.

And in point of fact, I don’t truly believe in the cute, funny crazy. I believe in people who need help. Pointing out mental disability for any reason other than to cite a need for help is a terrible thing. What we need is understanding, not mockery. The stigma has to go.

So how do we fight it? I think the best answer is a simple one: by refusing to hide from it and giving it a human face. Look up at the top of this blog and you’ll see my real face and my real name. I don’t use an alias. If you put the pieces together, you can get a pretty clear picture of my current life. I’m not hiding from who I am.

And isn’t that how all stigmas die? It’s harder to be against something when you have a human face to it. A lot of people I’ve known have changed their opinion on homosexuality when they came to know one. Prejudice makes no sense when confronted with our basic humanity.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter if we’re discussing autism or bipolar disorder, it’s time to stop making light of mental illness. It’s not ok to use it as an insult. Mental issues are too serious to mock.

The Magic Of The Movie Theater

The name of this blog is A Flickering Life and so far, I haven’t done much to echo that title, a reference to my love of film. There are references here and there but I’ve focused on HFA and how that’s affected my life. That will continue to be the case, I suspect. But I need to write this entry. To think for a moment on another of my favorite places.

In the discussion of movie theaters versus watching at home, I am a shameless partisan for the theater. To me the discussion is perfectly simple. Home is full of distractions. It overloads my senses. While I can certainly get lost in a great film at home, as I have with Her most recently, the theater will always reign supreme.

I know that that isn’t the case for many of us. I had an enlightening such discussion recently actually.  After all, video is on the order of 10X cheaper at redbox for some films. With a good setup, you can easily replicate the experience, if not “improve” on it. Even 3D isn’t an advantage as I’ve heard countless Bluray 3D advocates praise the format. We can also never forget the pain of other people in the theater. I see the argument for home viewing and it makes perfect sense to me. So I must concede that emotion plays a giant role in my preference. I mean, I’m incredibly cheap. Logic certainly isn’t the key here.

Why? Well, for starters I’m a deeply ritualistic person, as most HFAs are and the stations of the movie theater are some of my favorite. They go in an almost unchanging order. First, purchase your ticket. Second, take notice of everything in the lobby. The scent of popcorn is so intoxicating in this moment, and I don’t even eat it there usually!  The new posters always get examined. I might get a snack but usually don’t. There’s an obligatory bathroom stop. I don’t want to get up after all. Then I find my auditorium and take my seat. There’s usually a check-in on social media. I pay rapt attention to the trailers. If it’s a 3D film, glasses go on at the notice. And then, I get lost.

This experience is the same if it’s a bad movie or a good movie. My attention definitely wanders more at a bad movie but not nearly like it does at home. When I watch a movie in a theater, I give my focus over to it to the best of my ability. That means my phone is off. I’m steadfast in my refusal to text or even check the time during a film. I even try to tell people in advance I’m out of reach.

Weirdly, quality of the theater has very little bearing on the experience. Oh, don’t get me wrong I desperately prefer the nicest possible experience. My preferred theater in Little Rock is The Breckenridge Village 12, a well maintained Regal theater. But I used to live right by the dollar theater in North Little Rock and I went there sometimes as much as twice a weekend. A theater has to have inaudible sound or painful seats to drive me away.

Both of those are sensory of course. As I’ve stated before in my accounts and will state again, we have violent sensory issues. Weirdly enough, going to a theater is a balm on those. It’s dark, temperate. There aren’t a lot of loud competing sounds. Usually just the film and the audience. I’m also not bothered by good loud sound on a film. It just makes the experience that much more complete.

And there’s the audience. I love a great audience!  I love being in a room fully amped up. I saw I Am Legend at a rather depressing moment in my life and the crowd’s passionate reactions made my night. The Avengers was a party with a crowd full of passionate Marvel fans soaking up a perfect reflection of the comics. A great audience responds and reacts to what they see. Maybe my favorite moment at the dollar theater was watching the underseen Sex Drive on its last showing in a crowd full of people that utterly loved it. Even a bad audience is great! There was a crowd full of kids at Kill Bill vol. 1! That was an experience I’ll never forget.

Maybe most importantly, going to the movies is a journey. It requires going out of the house to get lost in a piece of art. There are very few places in the modern world we do that. I love that I get to go through that. I’ve walked across the parking lot to see films and I’ve crossed state lines to see films. But  in both cases I stepped out to go into another world.

I want to pause to once more praise I’ve noted their site before. They  also have a Facebook group that I’ve started discussing in. These guys grab photos of every theater they can and they nail the joys of it. Visiting their site is transporting for me.

But back on topic, I get the virtues of home viewing. However, I’m a fan of the real thing. I love film however I see it. But the real thing, oh it’s amazing.