West’s writing has long reflected her keen interest in cinema, building on her work as film editor for Seattle’s alternative newspaper, the Stranger. She returns to those roots with “S---, Actually,” a collection of 23 short essays in which West “rewatch[es] successful movies from the past to see how they hold up to our shifting modern sensibilities.” The answer, predictably, is not well, although this may have something to do with the movies West chooses. She doesn’t revisit forgotten classics or art house gems but instead treats “successful” filmmaking in largely financial terms, looking to blockbusters of the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s: overhyped, middle-of-the-road movies whose popularity was always destined to confound future generations.
West isn’t trying to uncover deep truths about American prejudices through these movies, even though calling out bigotry is central to her brand. Instead, she identifies and catalogues various filmic failings, from plot holes to bad acting and cringeworthy dialogue. West is at her best when she links these weaknesses to her life experiences, as when she compares the challenges of her marriage to those depicted in “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids.” She also occasionally provides broader insights, many of which appear in her entertaining and incisive takedown of “Top Gun.” According to her analysis, Maverick (Tom Cruise) is the film’s real villain, because his self-righteous exceptionalism repeatedly endangers his partners. West draws a direct line from the film’s lesson that “safety is for dweebs” to Americans’ present aversion to protecting themselves from the coronavirus. In such moments, West’s essay collection feels funny, fresh and incredibly timely.
The problem — and it’s a significant one — is that the movies West focuses on affirm the very White male hegemony she typically critiques. Of the 23 films West addresses, only one, John Woo’s “Face/Off,” is directed by a person of color. Only one is directed by a woman: “Twilight.” And only a few — most notably “Bad Boys II,” “Rush Hour” and “The Shawshank Redemption” — feature actors of color in leading roles. In her introduction, West explains that she “selected movies that fit at least one of three categories: 1) cultural phenomena that took over the Earth, 2) movies I was personally obsessed with, or 3) movies I picked because it seemed like someone should talk about them.” Evidently no films by African Americans fit these categories — not “Do the Right Thing,” not “Moonlight,” not “Black Panther.” West likewise never analyzes any films by or about queer people. She points out homophobia in films by and about straight White men — most notably “American Pie” — but in so doing, she keeps her reader focused on films by and about White men. Granted, most Hollywood films are by and about straight White men, but authors like West have a lot of leeway to decide which movies they want to consider. No one forced her to take a second peek at “The Santa Clause” or to organize her book around Hollywood pablum. There are jokes to be made about the overwrought melodrama of “Brokeback Mountain” and “Like Water for Chocolate,” too, but West doesn’t go there. Instead, she literally holds up “The Fugitive” — a film about a White man chasing a White man who’s racing to expose a conspiracy among White men — as the standard against which all other movies should be judged, rating them on a scale of one to 10 DVDs of “The Fugitive.”
This metric is a joke, of course, but marginalizing movies by women, people of color and queer folk within popular film criticism isn’t funny. It’s what feminist film critics have been fighting since the 1970s. And before you dismiss me as a feminist killjoy, recall that West herself identifies as such. Pointing out ways that White feminists can — indeed must — combat and counter racism and homophobia isn’t anti-feminist; it’s part of the work of creating a better, more equitable society.
To be sure, feminist film critics have long called out the misogyny endemic to Hollywood cinema, but that isn’t exactly what “S---, Actually” does. With one exception — that hilarious takedown of “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids” — West’s essays are little more than plot summaries sprinkled with snark. Like many critics before her, she notes when women are presented poorly in a film and when dialogue becomes egregiously racist. Such affronts occur quite frequently in the kind of pedestrian Hollywood movies West favors, which again makes one wonder why she chose them. Nevertheless, her sketches largely recount who did what to whom and whether it’s still funny, moving or suspenseful, as if she were simply reviewing these often decades-old movies. Here’s the thing about old movies, though: The audience mostly already knows what happens. It’s not criticism to tell us that Arnold Schwarzenegger’s T-800 requests destruction at the end of “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.” Criticism might entail thinking about why some feminists passionately embraced Sarah Connor as a maternal action heroine or explaining how this sequel tries to compensate for the paternalism of its predecessor. But there’s nothing of the kind here.
I wish I could recommend this book, because I take no pleasure in criticizing it. At last count, male film critics still outnumbered female film critics by nearly 2 to 1. Like West, I love Hollywood cinema and resent its demeaning depictions of women and minorities. But I also believe that film critics need to reflect on which films they decide to write about and which issues they address. West might not agree. On the second page of her introduction, when summarizing her criteria for choosing movies for the book, West commands her reader, “Don’t think about it too hard.” Really? “Shrill” and “The Witches Are Coming” both feature thoughtful, funny essays that demonstrate how important it is to think hard about popular culture. I would never have expected the author of those essays to ask readers not to reflect seriously on her work. Let’s hope she demands more from her readers — and herself — in the future.
The Definitive, 100% Objective Guide to Modern Cinema
272 pp. $27