Introducing Writers on Writers, a new series where writers and critics sit down to chat about their inspirations, goals and thoughts on the changing industry. This month, Iris editor Lyvie Scott speaks with Rebecca Radillo about film criticism, Shakespeare, and disability representation in superhero flicks.
Rebecca Radillo: I ask everyone this question, because I feel like the answer tells you everything you need to know about a person: What is your favorite Shakespeare play?
Lyvie Scott: I think … that I’m going to say… I’m gonna say A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I did it in college, and I was just like, “I love how bitchy it is.” I want to say certain plays because of the women in it — and because I think of certain adaptations and how certain actresses did certain things. I wanted to say Hamlet because of Ophelia. The way that Ophelia is written is so frustrating [to me] … but the way that someone like Kate Winslet plays Ophelia, I’m like, “That slapped!” [But] I’m not necessarily in love with the play … What’s yours?
RR: Mine is actually Hamlet, but it’s because of Ophelia. Ophelia is my favorite fictional character hands down, like ever written. I think that she’s great, and so it’s really interesting that you find her so frustrating. I actually find her, like, oddly liberating. Also, I think you know this, but I have a really strong aversion to film adaptations of Shakespeare.
LS: Yes, I did know that. Except for that one .. [Julie Taymor’s] Titus, right?
RR: Titus has been slowly creeping up into my top 3, but I’m like, “Is it because it’s actually a good play, or is it because I really just like what Julie Taymor did with everything about it?” So I think that Hamlet is always going to be my favorite because of Ophelia. I always think of her more as a foil to Hamlet than Laertes is, because Ophelia does take action in certain ways — in ways that Hamlet doesn’t. She’s very outspoken. She’s manipulated by the same system that’s manipulating Hamlet, and she actually does take matters into her own hands … of course, she kills herself and that’s how she takes matters into her own hands —
LS: But that’s very Shakespeare.
RR: Yeah! It’s very Shakespeare. And the more that I read medieval literature and Elizabethan drama, the more [I realize] that’s not just the case for women, but for men too. It’s just a feature of the genre and how they approach the kinds of impassible situations they’re in. There’s really no class mobility; there’s no gender mobility for professions or anything. So when the only way out is—
LS: To die?
RR: [Laughs] Yeah! It becomes the standard for men and women, adults and children, even the supernatural and the human.
RR: Knowing that you like Midsummer is making a lot of things make sense, about your personality and your writing style too, actually. You said that everything is so bitchy — and your writing style isn’t bitchy, but you are so, like, “I like something and I know when I like something, and I know when I don’t like something.” And that kind of direct nature of your writing, it definitely comes across in your favorite Shakespeare play to me.
LS: I think that’s one of the reasons why I like Shakespeare. Obviously Midsummer is a direct skewering of something, and a specific type of person, but some of his other plays, because he was writing for Elizabeth’s court, he couldn’t just be like “I hate y’all.” He had to be slick about it! It’s like this killing with kindness that I admire so much. That takes skill.
RR: And even in the plays that he’s writing for these people that are kind of like lauding them in a way, it’s still … there’s some pretty harsh condemnations of what it means to be a king and what it means to have power. I’m just thinking of the M-word play [Macbeth] — I just call it McDonald’s. But in McDonald’s, he’s writing it for James I … James I is a Scottish king [and] McDonald’s is obviously about a Scottish king. In the way that he’s presenting Malcolm as like, this better king, he has to foil him with Lord Macbeth and basically say that what Lord Macbeth is doing — this behind-the-scenes power play where you’re killing everyone — that’s not how you become a king, even though that’s definitely how the Stuarts more or less came to power. So it’s like “Yes, this is for you, but I’m also going to subtly dig at how the Stuarts came to power.” I think it’s so fascinating. This is why I’m a Shakespearean.
LS: When people are like “Oh, Shakespeare’s overrated. This happened hundreds of years ago, why are we still studying it?” It can’t be quantified just how accessible and how relevant it still is. You can’t say it with words. It’s like when you experience it … you can’t follow it cognitively. You can’t sit there and try to hear every word and try to follow every word as you go. You have to literally shut that part of your brain off, and — this is gonna sound so woo-woo — it’s like you have to open your heart.
RR: Yes! I directed Julius Caesar right before the pandemic happened … and I had a lot of people who had never worked with Shakespeare before, or even acted before, ask me, “Rebecca, what does this mean? I’m really lost, I’m really confused.” And I’d say, “Okay, the only person that has to understand it is you.” My personal philosophy is that the audience doesn't really need to know word-for-word what you’re saying. Only the actor does, because you have to approach it from an emotional place. Like you said, you have to open your heart — and I don’t think that’s woo-woo at all, because it’s theater.
RR: I think theater is so important because it allows you to engage with the text in this really ephemeral and emotional way that just surpasses everything. I think that’s why film itself is really great too, and watching things in theaters is obviously important.
LS: So when did you first fall in love with film?
RR: Well, I think I kind of got into this in my Quentin Tarantino article, but it was watching Pulp Fiction. I know it sounds so cheesy, and makes me sound like such a generic film enjoyer. But it really was Pulp Fiction. And like, at that age, I watched a lot of pretty big movies in the film world for the first time. It was [Pulp Fiction], it was American Psycho, Silence of the Lambs, things of that kind of nature and genre. I was about 14, 15. And that was really when I fell in love with those things for the first time. I was watching other stuff at the time too, like that's around the time I got really into Marvel, because The Winter Soldier came out that summer. And obviously that's one of my favorite films of all time.
RR: And then things kind of fell off for me until, I would say … 2019, because then I actually started to go to the movies on my own very regularly. I would go every single week. There was an AMC two blocks away from where I worked, so I would go there after my shift got out at 10 PM. And there I watched It: Chapter 2, four times. I watched The Goldfinch there, I watched [Birds of Prey] there. I watched a lot of stuff, and then obviously the pandemic happened and I couldn't watch anything [in theaters], but then I got really into Letterboxd and started logging everything.
LS: I love what you said about Tarantino shaping you. And I know you have a lot of guilt, a lot of feminist guilt, about Tarantino being such a core memory for you. When you write, can you feel that influence seeping through in your passions? Or is it after the fact when you look back and you’re like, “Oh yeah! This is kind of like his same tone”?
RR: [With] academic papers, I can get pretty snarky. Even in my fiction writing I do tend to favor plots that are a little bit more situationally comedic, but also really just like sarcastic and gory and violent. I [also] think life's too short to have boring academic writing to begin with. So that's why I really do make it a point to have little turns of phrase that you wouldn't necessarily see in an academic paper, in mine. I think it lets my professor know or my peer reviewer know that I do have a personality behind these pages, and the topics I've chosen are very important to me. So yeah, I absolutely think that he's shaped my writing.
LS: Like with Tarantino and you, I don't think that I can extricate [myself from] Star Wars and Marvel and like other genre pieces like that, as frustrating as they are to me now as an adult. That's like, almost my lifeblood as a writer. I come alive when I have to write about Star Wars; when I have to write about Marvel. And sometimes it's just me being a hater…
RR: Sometimes being a hater is fun!
LS: Yes. And that is the topic that makes me be like, “Holy crap. I'm thinking all of these things. My brain is turning into a galaxy. It's firing on all cylinders.” It’s kind of ironic. I feel like you can’t choose what gives you passion.
RR: No! And that’s what makes it a passion … like the thing that gets me so riled up [in] the way that Star Wars gets you so riled up, is disability representation. The first piece I was ever published for was about Doctor Strange and disability … [and] I've written so much about disability and like terminal and chronic illness in Marvel specifically. Comic books themselves hold the narrative capability to tell authentic disability stories. Because you can't kill them off, and you can't cure them, because if you kill or cure the disabled hero, then their superpowers are gone and the story is over — and obviously Marvel and DC have an incentive to make money. And that's why the comic books have been running for like 60 years and they haven't changed or anything. That is what I’m really passionate about.
RR: When you start reviewing a film or whatever, what elements of it are the most important for you to touch on in the course of that review?
LS: Performances. Acting to me is what Shakespeare is to you. [Performance] is in me, and I seek it out in everything. Because it's like, the score can be great, the cinematography can be beautiful, but if I'm not moved, why are we here? I think of the story as well: it doesn't necessarily have to make sense, but it has to give justice to the journey that we've been on. I feel like scripts aren't as important to this new generation of filmmakers. Like I just watched Babylon last night and I … loved it? But also, I can feel like there's not as much reverence for the story. The story was like a means to an end for Chazelle.
RR: I just watched Whiplash for the first time a few weeks ago, and that to me was a movie where the story was just so present the entire time. I haven't seen Babylon yet — after looking at your review on Letterboxd I'm like, “I gotta run to that theater real quick” — but it's really interesting when you say that. Like even over the course of one director's career, the story is becoming less important. I guess my follow up to that is: What is a film where you think that the performances are top notch and the script is like justifying the journey that they're going on?
LS: There are actually quite a few. I think Wong Kar-wai is an absolute master of … getting a good performance out of his actors, first of all. Even though they’re phenomenal; they could probably do it with their eyes closed; they could do it without a director. But bringing something out of his cast and then also writing a story that feels simple or feels like nothing's happening, but there's something so profound that happens in his stories.
RR: It’s like theater a little bit, where it's more about the emotional journey that you're being … dragged on? [Laughs] I don’t know. I feel like [in] every good movie, you should feel like you ran a marathon after watching it because of how it's moved you … But that makes my response for a performance that does the journey right, and a script that does the journey right, almost sound trite. But it was really honestly the film that crept up on me this year … It was Top Gun: Maverick. I don't like the original Top Gun at all.
RR: So the fact that I latched on so hard and so fast to Top Gun: Maverick … I want to live inside that movie. Every time I watch it, it's addictive. It's like, “Yes, I'm there. I'm in the plane. I'm at The Hard Deck. I'm on the tarmac with them.” That movie did something to my brain chemistry that I cannot describe.
LS: I don't think that's trite at all. I think, genuinely, that [Maverick screenwriter] Christopher McQuarrie is elevating action in a way that is just so inherently classical. His understanding of irony, his understanding of tension, and how he uses action to dial that up? But then also he never, ever, ever leaves the characters behind, ever. That first scene at The Hard Deck, I think about that all the freaking time. The way that he introduces every character so flawlessly … like tropes are present, but he's not leaning back on them. He’s like “Bob is a nerd. Bob is used to being overlooked.” But his shock when Phoenix is like, “Rack ‘em”...
RR: Yes, oh my God! I love that scene so much, and this is something that I realized when I was writing some of my own fiction and writing the Top Gun essay for Blossom, but [Phoenix] has to trust [Bob] completely. And if she overlooks him this one time, what if he overlooks her and he doesn't have her back when they're in the air? That scene, that one line, is so instrumental to their entire relationship as co-workers and pilots and friends. I love that you brought up that line.
LS: It's so simple, but it conveys literally everything you need to know about [Phoenix], and about Bob, and about how the rest of those men don't get it. I know that “the female gaze” is on its way out — everyone on Twitter is like, “Oh, you don't really know what you're saying when you're saying ‘the female gaze’” — but Bob is the female gaze.
RR: There's a reason my mother is in love with him.
LS: And there’s a reason he stole the show: all these women are like, “I see him, and he sees me.” Bob is a female character played by a man. I feel like he has, in the scope of an action movie, he has “feminine” qualities. He's meek, you underestimate him, you overlook him. And I feel like that's why Phoenix is like, “I see you, we see each other.”
RR: And they trust each other! They connect! Over a game of pool. It's like, how can you get so much from what is essentially like a 30 second interaction? That, to me, is proof that this film knows what it’s doing and knows the lives each of the characters live, even if we never see it on the screen.
RR: Is this kind of like a natural segue into talking about what genre you have the most fun watching and reviewing?
LS: I think I enjoy action and sci-fi as an audience member — like I relish that, but I think I don't have the vocabulary sometimes to explain what I like in those genres and why I like them. And I don't know why.
RR: I think it's because we kind of … in film criticism and just kind of like writing in general, when it comes to entertainment, we think of those things as “low” culture, even though they're not, in my opinion. We think we can't apply the language you'd use for a drama or a tragedy to an action film or a sci-fi film — even though you should. And you can. The capacity is there.
LS: And I think that they invite that approach. If you look at Top Gun — if you look at even The Woman King too — there's tragedy throughout that. And I think that’s why they’re the best action movies of the year.
RR: I was gonna talk about The Woman King too! [That] is like a Greek tragedy of the highest form ... That's another really great movie from this year where I think that, even though it's so, so long, and I think that all movies should be 90 minutes nowadays…
RR: …The performances do justify the journey you're being taken on, and the script is really decently solid. Fun fact: I missed the first hour and a half because I thought it started later than it was supposed to — so I missed the first hour and a half and I still got everything I needed from the movie.
LS: Because it doesn’t waste a single conversation. That's something that I do like about action: when it's done right, it's so straightforward. Like everything has to serve a purpose so that when the fists start flying, you understand why. You understand what's at stake, you understand what they could lose. And it's like you don't necessarily need text. That's why I love action so much.
RR: I really wanna hear about where you see the direction of film criticism going.
LS: It used to be like, for film criticism, you’d have to go to school. But now, any Joe Schmoe who’s snarky enough can get on Twitter, type out 160 characters being like “This film rules. Have you considered that this film rules?” “I’m a critic! I know what I’m talking about!” But you don’t always know … I feel like the rise of Film Twitter, being on TikTok, and [watching] how social media has really ingratiated itself into something that was so gatekept … I feel like there's this democratization that's happening. And that's great for people like you and me, for underrepresented people who otherwise would never, ever, ever have a shot at this. But there are obviously people who are going to abuse that, and there are people who already have big followings who are gonna be like … it's almost like cult status.
RR: And I think that's part of the reason why film criticism does have to try and speak for people and audiences as much as possible. Like in a very Siskel & Ebert kind of way, which I know is kind of, like, fuddy-duddy for me to say. As much as I'm like you — like I believe that underrepresented voices need to get represented — I find myself returning back to these like, film criticism classic basics about understanding what an audience wants, understanding that your regular Joe Schmoe did not go to school for this, or has not seen all the biggest indie movies and has only ever seen like every Mission: Impossible movie ever. Not to say that those can’t be good movies! Action movies can be good movies, and they are. But it's like … I do think you have to write for an audience that doesn't know every single little detail about the film industry or about the story, you know what I mean?
LS: A big lesson that I learned this year is that your average audience is not keeping up with all the drama. Like not everyone in the world was familiar with the Don't Worry Darling drama, or even like the stuff that's going on with DC. Like your average person does not know, does not care — and that's okay. Context is nice, but I feel like when you get bogged down in all of this drama and all the minutiae, you start hating the stuff that you're writing about.
RR: I try to keep it all in arm's length for the most part. Like it's fun, but I can't let it rule me. I try not to write about it as much as possible just because I don't want to lose my passion for it. I've been so caught up in the mess in the behind-the-scenes and that's just … I don't know how I feel about it.
RR: Maggie and I often call you like the Roger Ebert of film criticism right now…
RR: …Because we think that your voice is just so direct and so razor sharp. You know exactly what you're talking about, and you do it in such an approachable way that people understand. I think that you get your reader to think about it for themselves as well l… But as I Tiktok-stalked you in preparation for this interview, I rewatched the video where you claimed you were not a middle-of-the-road reviewer. So do you see yourself as more of a reviewer like Ebert, who took the film for what it was, or a Gene Siskel, more of a contrarian, “I like what I like and I hate what I don't” reviewer?
LS: At this point in time, I have to really, really hate [a movie]. I think if I hate it, I won't say anything … I'm so mean in my head. But then I have to stop myself and be like, “Well, it takes a lot to make a film, it takes a lot to get this and this and this off the ground.” … When people are so caught up in what they want that they don't consider the audience or what they're communicating, like when they're blinded by like — I don't wanna say hubris, but when they're blinded by their hubris, that's when I get the pitchfork out and I'm like “Listen … I don't like this at all.” But even if I am snarky, I do recognize that art is subjective.
RR: I think that's good to be cognizant of when you're writing.
LS: It's so important, because there are so many people who are like “This is what I like, and if you disagree with me you're wrong and stupid.” There's so many critics who are like that.
RR: I think that's also kind of where the direction of criticism is going, too. That's what I've noticed … the “If you don't like this movie that I like, then you're stupid,” or “If you like this movie that I hate, then you're stupid.” That's not how you're supposed to engage with film. It's not how you’re supposed to engage with anything. And I think that that's where my background in English and academia — as much as I hate academia — it helps, because you have to provide a very specific argument for why you like something or why you don't like something. I think that at the end of the day, I think I am a little bit more middle of the road, taking it for what it is. I'm too gentle on movies sometimes.
LS: [Laughs] I think I’m the same way. I’m learning how to review right now. I’m kind of teaching myself, and I’m kind of realizing that a review is only as good as your personal response to the film. That's something that I really admire in people [like David Ehrlich]. He's presenting you with facts, and he gives his opinion on top of it, and he's never cruel. I think that's the thing that I don't want to be, is cruel.
RR: You just want people to understand why you like something. At the end of the day, that's what writing is for, and that's what entertainment writing is for. I always tell my students: you learn by doing. You can't just tell someone how to do something; you can't just tell them “Review it like this” or “Write like this.” You have to actually say, “No, write how you think it's supposed to be written, based on what you've seen before, and then learn to hone your own voice and your own style and your own tricks.” That's what I've always taken away from writing and teaching it, it's that you really just have to learn by doing.