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Film Theory Vérité: Introduction – On Lewis Hyde’s ‘The Gift’

“It is what we make of it.” –Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property

That’s been my personal motto entering this rocky, politically and emotionally strange year. As both writer and artist, critic and maker, I’m especially tuned into the climate surrounding criticism, which is also rocky, increasing political and always emotionally strange. It’s enough to make one turn inward and stay silent for a long while. Or turn around screaming for fear of never being truly heard.

I see an increasing number of artists and creatives with hostility toward criticism. Directors and writers are seemingly open and available on Twitter to receive the views of their audience at any time — a nightmare inducing thought if you’ve ever had a bad critique of your own work. Meanwhile, a new type of media critic is being born out of social media, as access to artists and the arts becomes seemingly freer than ever before. It would be easy to feel threatened or resentful as an artist — easy to feel out of place as a traditionally trained critic. Yet, I’ll admit I’m feeling renewed, energized, awake — people are watching, giving and responding. And responding is a gift.

I picked up a copy of Lewis Hyde’s The Gift collecting some dust; a used paperback I picked up when I first left film school and landed in Connecticut. It was a good read and always a good resource when you need to talk about the exchange of ideas. It also, as I started flipping through the pages again, offered me some new validation; whether silent or screaming, each is a response.

The Gift is first and foremost a piece of research; an assemblage of practices across the world, from centuries prior, as they relate to the giving and receiving of things of value. On its own, if you’re interested in any element of human relations (economics, political science, sociology, etc.), it’s a necessary read. For my artistic and creative intentions, I hone in on the definition of “gift,” which is somehow both flexible in application and demanding in what it asks of the recipient:

“A gift is a thing we do not get by our own efforts… it is bestowed upon us.”

When I watch a film, I have always felt I am looking at an object. This could easily be dismissed as critical delusion — filmmakers know that a film is the product of an army’s worth of craftsman and disciplines at work. But the end result is still a singular product, and — by Hyde’s definition — a thing given to an audience. To make it a proper gift then, the only thing left is to make a return.

“The spirit of a gift is kept alive by its constant donation.”

The average film viewer will not return a film with a film — though in the spirit of Vague Visages and the Nouvelle Vague, we cannot forget filmmakers like Jean-Luc Godard and François Truffaut, who critiqued and responded to each other in text (within the pages of Cahiers du cinéma) and on screen, building an evolving visual language and an entire cinematic movement in the process. But if the true gift is not relegated to object, but the thought, inspiratio and possible action it stirs, then the reception itself is a means for gift exchange.

Maybe it’s a podcast, a piece of fan art, a video essay, a tweet — all these responses become an essential part of the gift community. What you feel, and how you choose to express that feeling, counts.

In regards to negative criticism, there’s a natural question that arises about how negativity reflects on the overall health of that gift community. Is a bad review toxic? Or is a tough response healing? Where do you draw the line between well-crafted responses and the mean-spirited garbage that’s bound to make its way in? To revisit my new motto, “it is what we make of it.” No matter what, it is essential to keep the gift in motion. Our response — silent or screaming — is imperative; a gift in itself.

When I initially encountered famous critical pieces like The Gift, I was a critic only —  a critic in training at that. I sat in classes and dutifully highlighted passages, wrote required journal entries, and I did what I thought was my job: read, watch and apply the two. Suddenly, a decade later, I’m not just a critic but a filmmaker, a playwright and a painter. I still read, and watch, but the methods and perspectives of my responses have deepened. I find myself needing to open books and essays I read in film studies and apply myself, my new self, all over again.

The central mission of this column is two-fold: one, to re-examine what criticism is and how it relates to the art that’s being made now; to reintroduce myself and readers to old works and breathe some life into them, if possible. And two, to prove to myself and to you, that criticism in this rocky, political and strange time is more crucial than ever. Even when it sparks anger, fear, silence or screams, the response is a gift, and what we do with that gift is integral to the future of criticism and filmmaking in general. It’s deeply important. As consumers of content, it’s the least we can do.

And if that’s not reason enough for you, just remember: “in folk tales,” Lewis Hyde tells us, “the person who tries to hold on to a gift usually dies.”

Alex Landers (@1CriticalBitch) is a critic and playwright writing about women, feminism and truly tasteless horror movies. She received her B.A. in cinema studies from the University of Illinois and an M.F.A. in dramatic writing from Florida State University, believing that great filmmaking is always entwined with great criticism. Also a visual artist, Alex spends time working and painting in Chicago and the east coast of Connecticut. You can read her film criticism weekly at onecriticalbitch.com and get to know the full scope of her work at alexandralanders.com.

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