MAKING GOD LAUGH: THE UNAFFILIATED CRITIC'S PLAN FOR 2021

"Announcing your plans is a good way to hear God laugh," Deadwood's Al Swearengen warns us. (Al was paraphrasing an old Yiddish expression, of course, but I firmly believe you can learn everything you need to know about life directly from Al himself.)

And it does indeed feel like comic hubris for me to announce any sort of ambitious schedule for the new year, considering that 2020 was my least productive year ever, and given how many divine chuckles I have inadvertently inspired in the past. (My track record in this area is not good. One of the projects I'm undertaking in 2021 was originally scheduled for the Summer of 2011. Another, more ambitious project was announced in 2013, and really should have been completed mid-decade at the latest. As it turns out, making plans is not the same thing as bringing them to fruition. Who knew?) 

Nonetheless, I have been giving a good deal of thought lately to what I'd like to do with The Unaffiliated Critic in 2021. Obviously, the year now in its death throes was, by any accounting, a strange and terrible year all around, in ways it feels flippant to even discuss in this context. But, coming off of ten months of seclusion indoors—my wife and I have scarcely left the house since the end of February—and looking forward to at least another six months of the same, has inspired me to think a little more consciously than usual about how I want to spend my productive hours.

The general guiding principles I've settled on can be summarized quickly: I want to produce more content; I want to produce content more regularly; and I want to only write about things I love. (This last revelation—one of those "that's so crazy it just might work" ideas—feels like the sanest decision I've made in years.)

So, with those simple, overarching goals in mind, here is the five-point plan I've come up with for 2021.

1. IN 2021, THIS BLOG WILL DOUBLE AS A NEWSLETTER

Several people have suggested to me that I should have a weekly newsletter. I confess, I can't really wrap my head around the idea of creating a separate weekly newsletter when I already have a website where I can write whatever I want. I do, however, like the idea of writing less formal pieces on a regular basis, where I can talk about what I've been watching, what I've been writing, what's coming up that I'm excited about, and any occasional other thoughts that seem worth sharing. (I've experimented with this sort of thing before, with my short-lived "What I'm Watching" series, and it was actually really nice to have a place where I could just say "I'm enjoying this show" without needing to write 5,000 words about it.)

So my plan for 2021 is to make this underutilized corner of my website double as a weekly newsletter. Every Monday I'll have a new blog post, where I'll discuss what I've been writing, what movies and TV shows I'm watching that I haven't written about, what's coming up in the near future, and anything else that seems like a good opportunity to procrastinate. The first of these posts (this one doesn't count, really) will appear December 28.

(If you subscribe to the site through the "Stay Unaffiliated" box below—or if you send your email address to subscribe@unaffiliatedcritic.com—you'll get email notifications of all new posts on the website, including these blog posts. If you would like to receive only these weekly blog posts as an email—just as if it were a real newsletter!—just shoot an email to newsletter@unaffiliatedcritic.com, and I'll only send you the once-a-week roundup. I really do want to make this as easy and user-friendly as possible. )

2. IN 2021, I WILL WRITE ABOUT A LOT OF REALLY OLD FOREIGN-LANGUAGE MOVIES

In 2013, I came to a sudden realization that I knew too little about film history in general, and that I specifically hadn't seen enough classic movies that weren't in English. So I brazenly announced my plan to work through a chronological list of arbitrarily selected films, calling it my "Independent Study in World Cinema." The original "syllabus" had about 40 films on it, and I planned to bang out one essay a week, so I figured it would take me about a year. (I was so young and naive, then.)

As of today—nearly eight years later—I have written exactly 11 of these posts, while the list—to which I keep adding things—has swollen to about 80 movies. These essays turned out to be much longer and much more labor-intensive than I'd planned, and at the time I didn't think anyone was reading them: I ended up setting the project aside for other endeavors.

But I still wanted to watch and write about all those movies, so I never really gave it up, either. A few years later I started it back up again—and then set it aside again, for similar reasons.

Now, I'm committed to moving forward with this project. There are several reasons for this renewed drive, including the fact that those posts have proven to have much longer legs than I ever suspected. In fact, my top-three posts of all time are now Nosferatu, Battleship Potemkinand Metropolis, and on any given day there's a steady stream of readers for most of the Independent Study pieces. (I assume at least some of that traffic comes from film-school students cribbing my work, but hey, someone is appreciating them.)

Mostly, however, I want to return to this project because I like digging deep on these movies, because I learn so much every time I do one, and because my "syllabus" has now become a frustrating list of 80-odd great movies that I am not allowed to watch yet. (I keep coming across movies on cable that are on my list, and thinking, "I'm 17 movies away from being able to watch that." It's ridiculous.)

The resurrected Independent Study in World Cinema already resumed this month, with my long-overdue essay on Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion(Proving the validity of the project, it instantly became one of my favorite movies of all time.) Next up, on December 31, is Renoir's The Rules of the Game. My plan is write slightly shorter essays than I've been attempting so far, and to publish a new piece every two weeks throughout 2021, around the 15th and 30th of every month. At that pace, the entire project becomes a three-year plan, and I should get through to the early 1960s by the end of the year, including films by such masters as Rossellini, Cocteau, Kurosawa, Bergman, Ozu, Bresson, Truffaut, Godard, Fellini, and Varda. I can't wait.

3. IN 2021, I'M DETERMINED TO WRITE ABOUT TV SHOWS I LOVE

Writing about television has long been my favorite thing to do, but it's tricky. To start with, a show has to have a certain, peculiar combination of qualities for me to even want to write about it at length. (It's indefinable, so don't ask me, but I know it when I see it.) I tend to write very long pieces on each episode—often 5,000–10,000 words (or more)—so committing to write about 10 or 12 episodes of something is like committing to write a book about a show while the show it is still airing. I love it, but it's a lot of work, and even if this were my full-time job (which, to be clear, it isn't), it would be impossible for me to do it with every series I enjoy. I have to pick the shows carefully.

And sometimes, when I decide I do want to write about a new series, I discover that doesn't mean anyone wants to hear what I have to say about it. I had a very dedicated following for my Game of Thrones reviews, but since that went off the air, in May 2019, I've struggled to build the same sort of audience. I am very proud of the pieces I wrote on the next two shows I covered—Watchmen and Lovecraft Countrybut I think there was a lot of stuff out there about those shows, and a fairly small audience for the sort of long-form stuff I do. The readership and engagement on those pieces never quite grew large enough to justify the work I was putting into them, and—in both cases—I eventually stopped.

Once in a while, too, I get a few reviews into a show, and discover I've said more or less everything I have to say about it. (Many years ago, I wrote about The Walking Dead for a while, but I eventually felt like the show and I were both hitting the same themes week after week, to diminishing returns. I stopped writing about the show, and then—not soon enough, really—I stopped watching it.) And, occasionally, a show that used to have all those indefinable qualities I look for, turns into a show that no longer does. (Doctor Who, for example, used to be one of my favorite things to write about, and one of my strongest readerships. However, under its latest showrunner it has become a series about which I have nothing to say. I still watch it, and I like the cast, but until there's a new head writer I don't see myself writing about it again.)

So it's tricky, is my point, and I sometimes go a long time between finding the right show to cover. But the conclusion I've come to now is that the writing is its own reward, and I should just write about shows I love, regardless of timeliness or apparent interest. After all, the reality of watching television in the streaming age is that people discover series at different times, so good writing about TV should have an indefinite shelf life. (I know this because people still find reviews of shows that are long off the air—Jessica Jones, Orphan Black, Watchmen, etc.—and ask me if I'm ever going to finish writing about them.) I've always been absolutely horrendous at predicting what would be "timely" or "popular" anyway, so I figure I might as well just write about stuff I like.

So that's what I'm planning to do in 2021. It's going to be a weird year for TV anyway—because of what the pandemic has done to production schedules—but there are several shows I love returning (or hopefully returning) in 2021, including (off the top of my head) Atlanta, Better Things, Dickinson, and Gentleman Jack: I may write about some of those. I may also go back and write about a few recent things I need to catch up on, like I May Destroy You. And there may even be—we can always hope—new shows to fall in love with.

But, in the meantime, I've decided to write about some things I already know I love. One of the very first shows I started to write about, way back in 2011, was David Milch's Deadwood (2004–2006). It is probably my favorite series of all time, and I loved writing about it, but I foolishly abandoned those posts in order to write about things that were still on the air. Now, however, Milch finally finished the series last year—with Deadwood: The Movie—and it's way past time that I did the same. I'll be writing about one episode a week—picking up right where I left off—beginning the first week in January.

I am also planning to write about another of my all-time favorites (albeit a very different one): Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997–2003). Almost a quarter century after it premiered, Buffy remains one of the most important, influential, and groundbreaking shows of its era, one that was incredibly ahead-of-the-curve in predicting what narrative television would become in the 21st century. And yet, doing a partial rewatch recently, I discovered there really aren't a lot of good episode-by-episode analyses out there. I found myself longing to dig into what made that show work (and even what made it, sometimes, not work). Besides, it's fun as hell, and I could use something lighter to discuss for a change. I'm planning to write about two or three episodes a week, and I'm not yet sure when I'll start: I'm going to see how I do with all this other stuff before I decide whether I can realistically fit it in early in the year; otherwise, I'll start those reviews mid-summer, after I finish Deadwood.

4. IN 2021, I'M RETHINKING MY WHOLE APPROACH TO "MOVIE REVIEWS"

It is hard to remember now that I originally launched The Unaffiliated Critic as a film-review site. Over the years, my reviews of new movies have consistently been my least read pieces, by far. (This is part of the reason why I have been so very inconsistent in producing them.) In fact, if I took a hard, cold look at my stats, I'd inevitably come to the conclusion that there is little point in my ever writing about a new release again.

I suspect there are several explanations for this, including the fact that—being unaffiliated, as I am—I don't get to see movies before they open. By necessity, my reviews are all written and published after a film has opened, by which point anyone who cares has already seen dozens of other reviews.

The real problem, however, may be that reviewing new releases—in the traditional format—is neither my passion nor my strength. Reviews of that sort are usually written after one viewing: They are first-reactions, and they are largely spoiler-free, because their primary purpose is to help people decide whether or not they want to see the film. There are plenty of wonderful film critics who are adept at the form, and who manage to write intelligent, insightful criticism around these limitations, but I don't think I'm one of them. I like watching interesting movies multiple times, and thinking about them at length, and discussing them as a whole in obsessive detail. Writing short(ish), spoiler-free reviews based on a single viewing always feels like writing with one hand tied behind my back.

So—to make a long explanation short—I don't think I'm going to do that anymore. I do want to write about new movies in 2021, but I'm going to think of these pieces—as I do my TV stuff—as essays, not reviews. I'm going to write for people who have seen the movie and want to think about it at length, and if that means I'm not first out of the gate, so be it. (I never am anyway.) I'm also planning to write about some recent and older movies the same way, perhaps taking the opportunity to discuss some favorites that I've never written about otherwise. (For the "this new movie is good and you should see it" level of review, I'm going to save that for short blurbs in the aforementioned weekly blog posts.)

5. IN 2021, MY HEART—AND THE UNENTHUSIASTIC CRITIC PODCAST—WILL GO ON

The Unenthusiastic Critic Podcast is coming up on its 100th episode, and—much to the chagrin of my beloved wife—we plan to continue it well beyond this milestone. Nakea's very busy work schedule, however, and my new writing agenda, means we will be cutting back on the frequency a tad. We should have two more "Christmas adjacent" episodes coming in December 2020—starting with Alfonso Cuaron's dystopian nativity story Children of Men (2006) this week—and then we're planning to go to a bi-weekly schedule beginning in January. Subscribe to the show here so you don't miss anything.

IN CONCLUSION…

…that's the general plan, and it is subject, as always, to revision based on whim and circumstance. For regular updates, you can subscribe to the site or to the "newsletter" by email, and/or follow me on Twitter. (I have a Facebook page too, but Facebook is evil. I don't use it much anymore, nor do I encourage anyone else to do so.) I also have a Letterboxd account that I'm planning to actually use in 2021.

Thanks for listening, and thanks to all of you who have supported this small, obscure, incredibly erratic site over the years. (I think of you—affectionately, and quoting William Hurt in The Big Chill—as my "small, deeply disturbed following.") Your words of support (and occasional donations) are probably the only reason I'm still doing this, and I hope to hear from more of you in 2021.

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