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Remember when you were watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Adam Driver took off his mask, and you thought you were looking at some kind of advanced alien? You don’t? That’s strange, because it says you did, right here in Anthony Lane’s review in The New Yorker:
So well is Driver cast against type here that evil may turn out to be his type, and so extraordinary are his features, long and quiveringly gaunt, that even when he removes his headpiece you still believe that you’re gazing at some form of advanced alien.
I’m picking on Lane a little here, because the use of the second person is so common in movie reviews and other types of criticism—including this blog—that we hardly notice it, any more than we notice the “we” in this very sentence. Film criticism, like any form of writing, evolves its own language, and using that insinuating “you,” as if your impressions had melded seamlessly with the critic’s, is one of its favorite conventions. (For instance, in Manohla Dargis’s New York Times review of the same film, she says: “It also has appealingly imperfect men and women whose blunders and victories, decency and goofiness remind you that a pop mythology like Star Wars needs more than old gods to sustain it.”) But who is this “you,” exactly? And why has it started to irk me so much?
The second person has been used by critics for a long time, but in its current form, it almost certainly goes back to Pauline Kael, who employed it in the service of images or insights that could have occurred to no other brain on the planet, as when she wrote of Madeline Kahn in Young Frankenstein: “When you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature.” This tic of Kael’s has been noted and derided for almost four decades, going back to Renata Adler’s memorable takedown in the early eighties, in which she called it “the intrusive ‘you'” and noted shrewdly: “But ‘you’ is most often Ms. Kael’s ‘I,’ or a member or prospective member of her ‘we.'” Adam Gopnik later said: “It wasn’t her making all those judgments. It was the Pop Audience there beside her.” And “the second-person address” clearly bugged Louis Menand, too, although his dislike of it was somewhat undermined by the fact that he internalized it so completely:
James Agee, in his brief service as movie critic of The Nation, reviewed many nondescript and now long-forgotten pictures; but as soon as you finish reading one of his pieces, you want to read it again, just to see how he did it…You know what you think about Bonnie and Clyde by now, though, and so [Kael’s] insights have lost their freshness. On the other hand, she is a large part of the reason you think as you do.
Kael’s style was so influential—I hear echoes of it in almost everything I write—that it’s no surprise that her intrusive “you” has been unconsciously absorbed by the generations of film critics that followed. If it bothers you as it does me, you can quietly replace it throughout with “I” without losing much in the way of meaning. But that’s part of the problem. The “you” of film criticism conceals a neurotic distrust of the first person that prevents critics from honoring their opinions as their own. Kael said that she used “you” because she didn’t like “one,” which is fair enough, but there’s also nothing wrong with “I,” which she wasn’t shy about using elsewhere. To a large extent, Kael was forging her own language, and I’m willing to forgive that “you,” along with so much else, because of the oceanic force of the sensibilities to which it was attached. But separating the second person from Kael’s unique voice and turning it into a crutch to be indiscriminately employed by critics everywhere yields a more troubling result. It becomes a tactic that distances the writer slightly from his or her own judgments, creating an impression of objectivity and paradoxical intimacy that has no business in a serious review. Frame these observations in “I,” and the critic would feel more of an obligation to own them and make sense of them; stick them in a convenient “you,” and they’re just one more insight to be tossed off, as if the critic happened to observe it unfolding in your brain and can record it here without comment.
Obviously, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to avoid the first person in certain kinds of writing. It rarely has a place in serious reportage, for instance, despite the efforts of countless aspiring gonzo journalists who try to do what Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and only a handful of others have ever done well. (It can even plague otherwise gifted writers: I was looking forward to Ben Lerner’s recent New Yorker piece about art conservation, but I couldn’t get past his insistent use of the first person.) But that “I” absolutely belongs in criticism, which is fundamentally a record of a specific viewer, listener, or reader’s impressions of his or her encounter with a piece of art. All great critics, whether they use that “you” or not, are aware of this, and it can be painful to read a review by an inexperienced writer that labors hard to seem “objective.” But if our best critics so often fall into the “you” trap, it’s a sign that even they aren’t entirely comfortable with giving us all of themselves, and I’ve started to see it as a tiny betrayal—meaningful or not—of what ought to be the critic’s intensely personal engagement with the work. And if it’s only a tic or a trick, then we sacrifice nothing by losing it. Replace that “you” with “I” throughout, making whatever other adjustments seem necessary, and the result is heightened and clarified, with a much better sense of who was really sitting there in the dark, feeling emotions that no other human being would ever feel in quite the same way.