Is it funny how you end up reading the right books and watching the right films at exactly the right time, or is it freaky? William T. Vollmann's semi-fictional travelogue The Atlasjust happened to be splayed next to my bed when I first watched Michael Glawogger's docu-triptych on third world prostitution, Whores' Glory. Had I not encountered Vollmann prior to watching Glawogger, I probably wouldn't have realized how kindred they are, and I might not have been as profoundly disturbed by their work.
If you had to boil Glawogger's films or Vollmann's books down to one word, "prostitution" could work for either of them.
Vollmann is much more prolific, churning out thousand-page books on violence, San Francisco prostitution rings, the John Smith legend and California desert counties seemingly every few months while Glawogger took thirteen years to finish a trilogy on globalization. But both share an obsession with prostitutes and everything that they represent about the cruelty of desire, the exploitation of the developing world and sexual/economic/political/cultural domination.
Lately, like a bunch of scrawny preteens pathetically slap-fighting in the middle school parking lot, critics have been bickering with other critics about how to be a critic. "You're a wimp!" someone shouts. "Yeah? Well you're a meanie!" another retorts. "Fight! Fight! Fight!" others cheer from the sidelines. Problem is, the model of criticism at the center of all this mudslinging—a model based on binaries like nice/mean, good/bad, recommended/not recommended—is a paradigm that serious critics have long outgrown. If all you have to say about a film is that you liked it, or alternately that you hated it, you're perpetuating a very dull and hackneyed form of criticism. I hope Roger Ebert will forgive me for saying this, but readers who only want the thumb verdict on a film are better off relying on sites like IMDb, Rotten Tomatoes or Netflix than flesh-and-blood critics.
Now I'm not saying that critics are useless. I mean, I consider myself a critic, so I sincerely hope we're not useless. What I'm saying is we have to go beyond the subjective act of pronouncing our assessment of a film's worth. We have to enrich our readers' experience of a film somehow. We have to justify ourselves as worthwhile voices apart from the film we're reviewing. Of course we'll always be leeching off another's artistic labor, as Richard Brody argues. But in doing so, we're still capable of creating something that retains value on its own.