An aesthetic defense of vegan alerts, from an omnivore

I’m writing out of a lingering sense of dismay over a recent cyberbullying episode on Film Twitter. I am relatively new to Twitter (I joined last April), but I’ve already seen a lot of highs and lows. It is a great way to connect with people and get the word out about one’s own writings, but it’s also a cesspool of fragile egos emboldened by their relative anonymity. My favorite type of Film Twitter user is the person with unconventional taste who just wants to interact with other people who like weird stuff. In my day-to-day life, my film taste stands out as eccentric. A lot of the people I interact with STILL consider it controversial to love Tony Scott. I have been defending Tony Scott against unfair comments from skeptical acquaintances for more than 20 years! But within the first year of joining Twitter I have already constructed a fairly expansive bubble where it’s just taken for granted that Tony Scott is one of the great auteurs. This makes me feel so much less alienated in my aesthetic life!

My least favorite type of Film Twitter user is the person who likes to constantly reinforce their sense of superiority with a running stream of snide comments and lazy takedowns. This person feels an unjustified sense of pride because they dislike lots of things that their perceived inferiors are fond of. The thing is, it’s extremely easy to tear down literally any movie. Just give me a movie and I will compose a condescending tweet about it in less than a minute. Often, this category of Twitter user is just talking complete bullshit and at the same time feeling embarrassingly smug about it, but they have also likely surrounded themselves with lots of people who will shower them with enough back-pats and gold stars to give them the validation they crave.

This is all pretty sad, but mostly innocuous– except when it isn’t. This sort of circle jerk really crosses the line when it starts singling out particular people for ridicule on the basis of their taste. Recently, this happened to one of the most prominent users of the Letterboxd app: Allison M., of vegan alerts fame. Allison was one of the first people to follow me when I joined Letterboxd, and her enormous log (more than 21,000 movies) is one of the most expansive on the site.

Letterboxd is a terrific app. As someone who watches a lot of movies and then writes about them, it would be hard to overstate how convenient is to have an easy way to keep searchable, sortable, exportable records of my viewing activities. But even more importantly, it gives me access to the writings of a huge number of non-professional and semi-professional critics, who (surprise, surprise) are often far more interesting to read than the people trying to make a living off the enterprise. The majority of professional criticism (of new releases) is written in a rush after only seeing a movie once. Letterboxd removes the market demand for timeliness and gives people a venue to share more considered perspectives at their own pace. When people ask me who my favorite critics are on a given movie, the answer is almost certainly not the people who work at the New York Times or Indiewire. It’s more like “well, there’s this guy in Brazil who’s really interesting, and this college student from Vermont, oh, and that one Swedish woman who works at a guitar store– her take is really good.”

A well-curated Letterboxd feed is, in my experience, far more useful than something like Rotten Tomatoes, which I really only pay attention to in order to make sure I see anything that scores below 10%. It’s easy to introduce a division of labor: there are people I follow for their eccentric horror views, people I follow for their expertise in Hong Kong cinema, people I follow because they have seen more precode films than I have, and so on. Some people I follow not because I share their views, but rather because I consistently disagree with them and find their perspective engaging and challenging. Others I follow because their sensibility is so radically different from my own that I find it aesthetically interesting, and Allison is in this category.

She is best known for the “vegan alerts” and (sometimes) “vegan points” that she adds to the end of her reviews. Vegan alerts might include “cheese is shown,” or “Isabelle Huppert wears a leather jacket,” while vegan points might include “Julia Roberts eats a salad” or “Tim Roth pets a goat.” She is also known for her outlying opinions. She has assigned conspicuously low ratings to a large number of well-reviewed films, including a great many titles beloved by film bros. The combination of her unusual approach, outlying views, and abiding sincerity has made her a consistent target for dipshit responses. I always hate to see people leaving mean comments on her reviews, not just because I hate mean people, but also because she is one of the shining lights of the website, and the people attacking her are doing everything they can to pollute the well.

Recently, this was taken to a really unfortunate extreme when some asshole screenshotted her account (in particular highlighting a number of popular movies that she gave low ratings to), and turned it into a mean tweet, which then went viral. I am sorry to say that hundreds of people jumped on this pile, saying stupid, mean, ignorant things about this woman who didn’t do anything but log her honest views about Apocalypse Now and My Neighbor Totoro. Some people who I otherwise respect joined the fray. I hope they manage to summon some remorse about this.

Step back and think for a minute about why someone would respond with this level of contempt and cruelty to someone else’s taste. I wrote a two-part blog post about this sort of phenomenon with Brandon Polite, available here, but I have some more specific thoughts about this incident. Let’s start by thinking about how weird it is to be mean to someone because of which movies they do or don’t like. Do we do this with food? Are people out there posting “this bozo doesn’t even like nacho fries”?

No, because our liking for nacho fries doesn’t characteristically involve the same level of personal investment and identification as the film tastes of people who are interested enough in the medium to participate in Film Twitter. When someone else dislikes nacho fries and we like them, we don’t make that about us. We don’t feel insulted. But when your identity is heavily wrapped up in cinephilia, it’s easy to take others’ judgments of the films you love as judgments of you. But this is projection! Allison isn’t stewing over the fact that you like Blade Runner 2049 better than Last Night in Soho, she’s just out there attending film festivals and writing dope vegan alerts and totally ignoring you. You are easy to ignore, because there are a lot of you and it’s hard to tell you apart. But there’s only one Allison M., and there’s no mistaking her.

I’m an omnivore. I was a vegetarian at one point in the distant past, but I would never even consider going back. I don’t want to argue about it, especially not with ardent vegans! But, the thing is, I still LOVE Allison’s vegan alerts, and not in a mocking way. They are great, and I always look forward to reading them. Sometimes I finish a movie and the first thing I think is “ooooh cannot wait to check out the vegan alerts on that one.”

First of all, her vegan alerts are outstandingly witty. Some of the stuff she notices is hilarious in a really satisfying way– satisfying because it gives us a glimpse into a way of seeing the world that is both idiosyncratic and internally coherent. One of my favorite recent vegan alerts, for instance, is that Sandie plays a milkmaid Last Night in Soho. There’s no milk, there’s no milking, there’s not even an actual milkmaid in the film’s diegetic universe! It’s just that the character as a sexy performance persona dresses up as a milkmaid. This is not the observation of someone who is playing around. This is something you could only possibly think of if you are watching the movie through an extremely refined lens. It’s an achievement to develop this level of vegan goggles, and I admire it as such.

Secondly, Allison’s body of work is particularly thought-provoking with respect to the interaction between moral and aesthetic value. This is a complex topic that philosophers have written a great deal about. I regularly teach it in my upper division aesthetics courses. There are a range of views out there, but most of us agree that artworks with moral faults *can* be aesthetically flawed on this account. For instance, if the suspense of a film depends on us seeing nonwhite people as inherently threatening, that can certainly ruin the film, because it should be very hard for morally well-developed people to even entertain this point of view. But few of us think that *all* moral faults are aesthetic flaws. There’s probably something morally faulty about the way Sniper gets us to sympathize with characters carrying out paramilitary operations in Latin America, but who seriously cares? I know full well that the American government’s interventions in Latin America have been moral atrocities, and I can easily bracket this background stance when I watch Sniper.

It appears that we all have different thresholds that reflect our divergent moral and aesthetic sensibilities and distinctive ways of engaging with art. I am really bothered by the way that Gone, Baby, Gone presents a dichotomy between middle class/attractive/clean/morally restorative and poor/ugly/dirty/morally degenerate. On the other hand, I highly value Wes Craven’s The Last House on the Left and The Hills Have Eyes. Many commentators who are just fine with Gone, Baby, Gone have found Craven’s films repugnant. Often, we think the worst of people when we find out they like something that we abhor for moral reasons. But here’s the thing: the people who abhor Craven and love Gone, Baby, Gone should not assume that I am experiencing the movies the same way they are and I should not assume they are experiencing them the same way I am. I am sure that for these people, watching Last House on the Left is a real bummer. I get it; it’s not for everyone. But it’s not like I had the same miserable experience they did and then pronounced, “that was great!” As a Craven fan and exploitation connoisseur, I approach the movie with a very different context. I think about what’s onscreen in different ways than they do, and I find it valuable in ways that they don’t.

And that’s okay! Aesthetic diversity is a good thing. I sure as hell would not want to live in a world where every single person likes Last House on the Left. Who would there be left to shock? And it would be just unbearably smug of me to assume that every person who likes Gone, Baby, Gone is in the grips of unreflective class ideology. Surely some people are, but I have no doubt that there are many others who approached the movie differently than I did–attending to different elements, asking different questions, and arriving at different answers–and that these peoples’ takes are in many cases compelling on their own terms.

Allison’s body of criticism is so fascinating in part because it is such a vast exploration of the interplay between her moral convictions and her taste in film. The two are certainly interrelated (as they should be!) but it’s not at all straightforward how. Clearly, she does not evaluate movies primarily based on their vegan bona fides. Most of the time, the vegan alerts and the review function separately. She likes plenty of movies with bad vegan score cards and dislikes plenty that are more vegan friendly. Sometimes, however, vegan considerations DO enter into her evaluation, and she is often explicit about this. And so it is extremely interesting from the reader’s point of view to think about what the difference-makers are. What sort of vegan merits actually make the movie better according to her? What sort of vegan demerits make it worse? Why this movie and not that one? No one on the internet who I know of has published a comparable volume of criticism hovering around a particular moral concern, and virtually no one on Letterboxd has seen as many movies as Allison has. Her account is a gift to us all.

What’s the point of reading film criticism in the first place? To help us budget our time? Maybe for some of us, but not for me. I will never skip a movie I want to see because someone else didn’t like it. I read criticism primarily because it gives me a chance to try on someone else’s goggles. Trying to understand someone else’s point of view helps me expand my own. It shows me what I might be missing, and even when I’m not convinced by it, it helps me empathize with people who see things differently than I do. Sometimes it informs my own engagement directly; other times it does so indirectly, by prompting me to articulate my reasons for disagreeing. Some people I like to read because I relate to them so strongly that I feel a sense of kinship and camaraderie. Others I like to read because it is comforting to know there are people out there who are utterly different from me and that the world still has plenty of surprises in store for me.

The worst way to abuse criticism is to treat it as a zero sum game where one side has to win and the other side has to lose. Film Twitter is overrun with this form of abuse. This is no surprise, because of course the platform is prone to attract people whose egos are heavily invested in their film taste. Compare the sort of pathetic bullying that happens when a few critics dissent from the tomato consensus on some fan favorite with a 99% score. It’s so weird to me that people get angry about this. 99% of tomato shills like your dorky movie, and yet you feel the need to harass and abuse the three people who had a different take? What would it add to your life if 100% of tomato critics assented to your view? Would you finally be sure that you are worthy of love? The people who bullied Allison on Twitter are no better. Grow up. Everyone who joined that pile-on needs to do some serious soul-searching. In the meantime, I’ll be reading reading vegan alerts and having a great time doing it.

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