Joyce Carol Oates has decided she should be a film critic. Not professionally, of course. At 84, she still publishes a novel almost every year, with her latest, 48 Clues into the Disappearance of My Sister, arriving in March. No, instead Oates has become a pro bono critic on Twitter, where tastemakers and trolls flaunt themselves in perfect disharmony. People are hustling to earn a living in this line of work, but she’s giving away her brainpower for free.
A small sample of the movie-related takes Oates is doling out to her 224,000 followers: She recently called Hitchcock “overrated” because his films feel too artificial. Everything Everywhere All at Once is the “most tedious” and “worst pretentious film” she has ever seen. She accused Nicole Kidman and Tom Cruise of being “miscast” in the “labored, strained” Eyes Wide Shut. Kill Bill is “very silly,” Johnny Guitar is “just plain awful,” the end of Taxi Driver is “raggedy,” Empire of Light features Olivia Colman’s best role, and Nope is uninspired.
These opinions are just that: opinions. They are valid and sometimes elegantly expressed, which is admirable given she’s as prolific a tweeter as she is a novelist. But over the last few weeks, Oates seems to have taken her contrarianism to another level over one specific film. Since Christmas, she has tweeted at least a dozen times about her distaste for Steven Spielberg’s The Fabelmans. Plenty of Twitter addicts agree that saying something once simply won’t do, but this is an unusual volume even for her.
In fact, Oates has implicated Spielberg’s entire filmography, saying he “nudge[s] you in the ribs repeatedly, to make sure you can’t have missed the point.” (A rich argument coming from the author of Blonde, a semi-fictionalized account of Marilyn Monroe that emphasizes, with excruciating bluntness, how troubled and relatively joyless the Hollywood legend’s life may have been.)
Does Oates have some vendetta against Spielberg, whose film is competing against Andrew Dominik’s polarizing adaptation of Blonde in the ongoing Oscars race? (Some prognosticators thought Ana de Armas might dislodge The Fabelmans’ Michelle Williams from the nomination shortlist, but they were wrong: Both women made the cut on Tuesday. Oates retweeted someone demanding she congratulate de Armas.) Or has Oates just been Twitter-pilled like so many of us, convinced that her thoughts must be heard all day and every day?
Puck, a website that covers Hollywood and other institutions of power, called Oates’s apparent grudge “the biggest Oscar eyebrow-raiser this season.” I asked a Netflix awards strategist whether anyone associated with Blonde encouraged Oates to tweet about The Fabelmans, but he didn’t respond. When I asked her publicist at HarperCollins whether Oates would elaborate on her Spielberg sentiments and whether her tweets were meant to draw attention to Blonde’s Oscars bid, he said she wasn’t available to comment.
Oates’s anti-Fabelmans crusade began on December 26 when she wrote, “The Fabelmans is certainly a surprising film … not much like reviews indicate. It is almost aggressively slow-moving & irresolute; serious themes resolved as in situation comedy. ugliness of antisemitism tidily resolved. determined to be a ‘feel-good’ movie for the holidays (?).” All right, sure. She may be in the minority, but Oates isn’t alone in disliking The Fabelmans, and her assessment is as fair as any other.
But since then, Oates has launched a tirade. She called The Fabelmans “remarkably mediocre” and likened it to “a sequence of made-for-TV scenes w/ exaggerated acting” and “inane dialogue.” The only scene she liked was the one with David Lynch playing John Ford, though at least we can all agree that is the best scene. More than once, she has castigated Spielberg’s choice to have his teenage avatar, Sammy Fabelman (Gabriel LaBelle), humanize (or at least manipulate the perceived humanity of) an antisemitic bully in the senior-skip-day film he makes near The Fabelmans’ end. This is a turning point for Sammy, the crucial moment he realizes a director has the power to reinterpret reality. But instead of seeing it as a complex way for the character — and Spielberg by extension, given the movie’s memoirish backstory — to cope with hardship, Oates said it turned the filmmaker into “slavish flatterer.”
Oates’s Spielberg skepticism didn’t start with The Fabelmans, either. She anticipated “missteps” in his West Side Story remake months before it opened, and in 2018 she said a photo of Spielberg in front of an animatronic dinosaur on the Jurassic Park set was a “barbaric” reflection of how badly the world needs “conservation laws.” She then told Newsweek that the latter was a joke, but how were we to know? Oates’s Twitter feed will tell you she is almost never joking.
All of it has made Oates’s online persona resemble a Film Twitter caricature. Every so often, someone will tweet about how Spielberg (or Hitchcock or Scorsese or Wes Anderson or *insert any acclaimed filmmaker here*) is so overrated, implying that anybody who likes that person’s work is subject to zombified groupthink. If you enjoy the engagement that inflammatory tweets invite, I guess it’s hard to stop making them.
But the author shares plenty of Film Twitter–friendly opinions, too — she loves Andrei Tarkovsky, Luis Buñuel, Blue Velvet, The Piano, and Meryl Streep’s casting in the next season of Only Murders in the Building. Oates doesn’t think of her tweets as “engraved in stone,” as she told Bustle last year. “It’s more like I’m just talking, like you talk to your friend on the telephone. I’m always surprised when anybody cares.”
If only she had been talking to just one friend on the telephone instead of 224,000 strangers on the internet when she tweeted, for instance, that people in Mississippi do not read. As for Oates’s Spielberg commentary, it’s only as self-aggrandizing and ephemeral as anything else on Twitter. But after six decades of dark, bold books that made her a literary lion, a secondary gig as the most banal form of train wreck modern society has to offer — the hyper-online troll — feels like a step down.
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