Zen Mind, Film Critic’s Mind

People say being a movie critic is difficult, but there is a misunderstanding as to why. It is not difficult because it is hard to sit in a dark movie theater and watch a movie, or to go home and write your opinions about that movie. It is difficult because it is hard to keep our mind pure and our criticism pure in its fundamental sense. Film criticism developed in many ways after the advent of the internet, but at the same time, it became more and more impure. But I do not want to talk about Rotten Tomatoes or the blurbing of random Twitter handles. I am interested in helping you keep your criticism from becoming impure.

Okay, I could keep going, rephrasing the first chapter of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, the Buddhist masterpiece by Shunryu Suzuki, to fit into a discussion of film criticism, but I don’t think anybody would get it. I will however keep lifting concepts and ideas from this seminal work, which is mostly about zazen – Zen meditation – but that is also about how to live and create with a beautiful clarity and fluidity by getting back to a beginner’s mind.

Which brings me to the films of John Carpenter.

This seems like a leap. I get it. But hear me out: these days, the films of John Carpenter get big retrospectives at Lincoln Center and are discussed seriously. Some of them, like Halloween, seem to even be in the Great Canon.

And yet the films of John Carpenter were schlock upon release. Some of them, like The Thing, got bad reviews and did poorly, while others were looked at like disposable trash. John Carpenter was a B movie maker whose output was largely ignored by the kind of people who go to Lincoln Center on the regular.

Now, to be fair, Lincoln Center partially did a Carpenter retrospective in order to sell some tickets (this is like Criterion putting out Armageddon), but the fact that nobody cried foul lets us see that Carpenter has now been accepted into the realms of auteurs who get these kinds of mini-festivals.

So what changed? The movies didn’t; it isn’t like Carpenter spent the last few decades tinkering with The Thing. There’s no new cut. We haven’t discovered a missing reel. What has changed is the audience, and the fact that they watched these movies with a different perspective than the critics and audiences who came before. They had beginner’s mind.

Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind’’s title comes from the Japanese concept of “shoshin,” or “beginner’s mind.” The idea here is that there is a quality to the mindset of the newbie that is lovely and open and free; as one becomes an expert in a subject the world of possibilities collapses, like the possible states of Schrodinger’s Cat as you open that box. In Zen, according to master Shunryu Suzuki, it is preferable to cultivate a beginner’s mind.

What does this mean? Does it mean you should be an amateur? Does it mean that you should know nothing about movies in order to talk about movies? It can seem that way, and in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind Suzuki says “There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen.” That sounds strange coming from a Zen Master, who clearly does have a deep understanding of Zen. But he follows that up with this telling sentence: “Even though you read much Zen literature, you must start each sentence with a fresh mind.”

This is the challenge. It isn’t to remain ignorant – Suzuki understands you will read much Zen literature, and we understand that you will see many movies – but rather it is to make sure that the dissolution of your ignorance is not accompanied by a dissolution of your beginner’s mind. Can you maintain the openness of the beginner’s mind while learning much about your chosen topic?

Take The Thing, which critics hated in 1982. They knew what The Thing was – they had expectations of the genre, of the actors, of the way a story is supposed to be told – and so they couldn’t see it with a beginner’s mind. Roger Ebert called it a “barf bag movie” and thought the characters were thin and shallow. Vincent Canby called it “instant junk.” And it wasn’t just the snobby critics; Starlog shit all over the movie, saying “John Carpenter was never meant to direct a science-fiction movie. Here’s some things he’d be better suited to direct: traffic accidents, train wrecks and public floggings.”

The critics weren’t alone – The Thing flopped spectacularly. Nobody liked it. Cinefantastique asked, “Is This The Most Hated Movie Of All Time?,” but the answer seems to be nobody cared enough to really hate it.

I’m talking about John Carpenter a lot here, but this same phenomenon is on display with the Cahiers du Cinema crowd; the French New Wave filmmakers and critics forced everyone to re-evaluate the quality of Hollywood crime films and Westerns. Their auteur theory reframed how filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Ford were seen, transferring ownership of film to the director. Movies that had been disposable junk were, after the French New Wave, seen as classics and touchstones.

“A mind full of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, or habits is not open to things as they are,” says Suzuki. The critics and audiences of the time knew what the Westerns and gangster movies coming out of Hollywood were, and so they looked at them in that way. They didn’t have shoshin, the ability (or interest) to to look at them with fresh eyes and see the brilliance and audacity hiding behind the genre tropes and conventions. The French auteurs, outside of the American culture and watching from a distance, were able to bring shoshin to these films, and as a result our pantheon today looks quite different from what it might have been without them.

Suzuki directly attaches shoshin to the arts, saying that the secret to being a great artist is to always be a beginner – to always be open to possibility, to not know that things are impossible, to not automatically shut down avenues of exploration. I am a film critic, so I apply these things to my art, but these concepts can be applied to all artforms, all disciplines, all creative endeavours. Even if something does turn out to be impossible, the journey you take in discovering that for yourself will be rewarding and may well open up new directions in which to travel.

But for a film critic this is all more complicated. The whole job is to use prior understanding to create writing that is a mixture of judgment (which is a general no-no in Buddhism), analysis and explanation. We have recently seen a wave (that I think has, thankfully receded) of people posting articles/videos along the lines of “My Sister Watched Star Wars For The First Time – This Is What She Thinks!” These articles are always bad, but they don’t have to be. They’re bad because the people involved are always playing to the concept – the sister knows there’s an article being written, so she plays to the finished product. There’s no shoshin there.

More interesting are the reactions of children to movies; there is true beginner’s mind happening, and anyone who has watched a movie with a child will know that they often fixate on stuff that just sailed past us. My niece is very tuned in to people being mean to one another, for instance, and scenes in beloved movies that I thought were funny were, when viewed through her eyes, almost unbearable. That’s shoshin – fresh perspective unhindered by layers and layers of experience, prejudice and preference.

Getting to beginner’s mind is vital for critics of the arts, and not just for their art. Recent years have brought big shifts in how we look at equality and representation in our art, especially the movies, and with that must come a big shift in how we look at the movies themselves. When I dislike a movie it is vital that I understand the personal filters that are making me dislike it – first the immediate ones, everything from my mood on the day to my expectations for the movie to my pacing and editing preferences, and then the cultural ones. Why do I dislike so many romcoms? Is it because many of them are actually bad, or is it because as a man in a patriarchal society I have been trained that certain kinds of stories are frivolous or bad? Am I as blind to the reality of these movies as 1982’s critics were to The Thing? As oldtimers were to Stagecoach?

Shoshin requires us to peel away literally every single one of these layers, to be aware of all our unconscious biases, to unpack all of these things and to examine them, one after another, in the clear light of reality. A critic unwilling to do this is a worthless critic; a critic who just reacts blindly to work is a critic not worth reading. What’s more, a critic like this is actually hindering the discourse and the advancement of humanity.

How to get to shoshin? Suzuki recommends lots of zazen (and I do too, even though I might recommend a different meditation style depending on your interests). But zazen doesn’t just happen on the cushion, it happens all the time, and so zazen should be brought into the very process of watching movies.

I don’t take notes when I am watching movies. Never have, never will. I know many other critics do, but I would invite them to consider whether that’s truly necessary. For me, even before I got into the idea of present time mindfulness, taking notes puts up a barrier between me and the film; I’m not watching the movie, I’m writing the review. In my final few years as a professional critic I found myself sometimes not watching the movie but rather crafting tweets about it, and today I look at other critics’ Twitter feeds and see that they were doing the same thing.

“As soon as you see something, you start to intellectualize it,” Suzuki is quoted as saying*. “As soon as you intellectualize something, it is no longer what you saw.” This is what happens when we’re taking notes or composing tweets while watching a movie – we’re no longer watching the movie, experiencing the movie, having a present moment experience of the movie. We’re polluting the moment. We’re placing our filters of the moment upon the moment, rather than letting the moment be as it is. All of my meditation teachers have had the same advice about having ideas during meditation – don’t stop and write them down, let them float away. If they’re good, they’ll return. This advice goes doubly for watching movies, which operate on conscious and unconscious levels, and which can be easily disrupted by any distraction.

None of this is a call to turn one’s mind off when watching a movie. Ignorance is a near-enemy of shoshin, and it can look like shoshin in the wrong light. Seeing something clearly for what it is, not what you are putting on it, is not the same as ‘strap in for the roller coaster ride,’ especially if the roller coaster ride is not good. There are critics who find something to like in every movie, and that is just as much a product of preconceived ideas, subjective intentions, and habits as is happening in the mind of the critic who hates everything. Neither are seeing the film for what it is, and are trapped behind curtains of their own delusion.

Another way that critics can get closer to shoshin is to remove themselves from the hype, the marketing and the discussion in advance of a movie’s release, or at least their viewing of it. Too many critics (myself included; almost all critiques of critics here are equally self-directed) walk into theaters with loads of expectations. This is why critics flip for movies at Sundance – they walk into movies about which they know nothing, from filmmakers and actors who have no baggage, and so they are forced into something close to a state of beginner’s mind. This is why by the time you see these movies they do not stand up to the hype – because you’ve had layers of preconceptions slathered on them.

All of this is truly obvious, but like all spiritual principles there’s a big difference between ‘knowing’ this stuff and acting on this stuff. I don’t watch as many movies as I once did (maybe this helps me get to beginner’s mind?), but when I do I try to keep my focus on the present moment experience of watching the film. When I have reactions I try to interrogate them (afterwards, if possible) to understand why I felt that way.

But the biggest thing that focusing on beginner’s mind has taught me is that I have never written a review of a film. I have only ever written reviews of myself watching a film. And that’s okay; it’s part of the artform. It’s why we don’t have Motor Trend-like stats for movies that we use to judge. It is all subjective, and unless I become fully enlightened (which, the Buddha might argue, would involve no longer watching movies), I will never really get to beginner’s mind when watching movies. Hopefully what this means, though, is that my understanding of the truly subjective nature of this artform is improved, and with it my writing can improve (this is a judgment). I can never tell you whether a movie is good or bad, but only what it was like to be me, on this one day, at this one time, watching this one movie. Perhaps you will find that illuminating.

*I can’t find the source of this quote, but I quite like it, and for the time being we will attribute it to Suzuki as it fits within the ZEN MIND scope of this piece.