Film criticism has long been criticized for being the province of wannabes who couldn’t hack doing it. Generally speaking, this is a myth. Having had the pleasure working alongside Toronto’s crack team of film scribblers, I can say with some authority that the vast majority of them had no interest in making movies, and devote themselves with missionary zeal to the role of critic which the chose and now cherish. There are always exceptions, of course: it’s easy to see how someone could use the craft as a surrogate, as a way of doing movies without actually doing them. It’s especially easy for me to see that, actually. Because I’m one of them.
This has not been for lack of dreaming, wishing and vague attempting. I did, of course, get into film school, in the hopes of becoming the junior Martin Scorsese that my high-school mind saw as the end-all/be-all for film geekery. That somehow didn’t work out. At the time, I blamed it on my classmates, whom I heartily despised for what I saw as their epic ignorance and casual anti-intellectualism. But as my general alienation extended to most sectors of society (minus the lusty hatred), it was obvious that that couldn’t be it. My inability to compromise, my paranoid fear of everything that I couldn’t master immediately (like those machines we were supposed to be learning how to use) and my complete inability to talk about anything BEYOND movies was a big problem. Something else was wrong, the thing that had been wrong my whole life and which I couldn’t explain.
Eventually, it all fell apart. I dropped out of the production stream and went into theory, and almost didn’t graduate after failing to turn in one essay that I somehow couldn’t bring myself to write. After that, I drifted, gripped by a vast, sweeping depression that knocked me flat and filled me with fear and passivity. I got myself a shrink- a quack who never treated me beyond filling me up with drugs- and I got myself on disability, which solved the problem of dealing with getting a job. In my immediate vicinity, I had one friend whom I trusted enough to let into my life, and almost everyone else I experienced with either surface courtesy or simply shunned. I was an empty shell, and without a shred of insight into where it all went wrong or why I was the way I was.
One of the exceptions to this rule of alienation was our fearless leader, Bill Chambers. He matched me geek-for-geek in passion, commitment and disdain for the rabble who went to school with us; we had many a pub-set discussion about movies that gave me the shreds of respect I needed to get by. When we graduated, and he set up in elsewhere (He was in Oshawa, I was in the Big Smoke), he encouraged me to set up my own website just as he was setting up his. I limped along with mine, unwilling to put myself out there to the degree that it would take to grab some attention. Bill, as you know, was not like that at all. He hammered away at getting exposure for Film Freak Central, and built it into the internet empire that it is today; and he absorbed me into the fold, so that I might have a broad venue for my writing instead of the apologetic shrug with which I had put into mine.
Without FFC, I wouldn’t have had the opportunities that I had or the confidence to grab them: my work for Exclaim would be unthinkable, as would my forays into Reverse Shot and The House Next Door and wherever else I might have found my words. Bill single-handedly held me by the scruff of the neck as I hung over the abyss, and wasn’t letting go. I would like to say that I was always grateful for the help, but I wasn’t. The thing about powerlessness is that it tends to make you an asshole. A life of total denial makes every disagreement into a vicious affront, and every disappointment into a crushing blow; it also engenders a wicked sense of entitlement that only someone held back from participating in life can justify to oneself. Plus, film criticism was a substitute that could never give me the full gratification of saying that I was doing what I wanted to do on my own terms; and my dependency on help from the government didn’t exactly improve my outlook. Very often, I took people for what I could get, unwilling to believe I could get anything more fleeting immediate satisfactions, and this happened with Bill as it did with anyone else. I don’t know if that was self-criticism or self-exoneration, but whatever: I could be a prick.
Ten years of unsalaried work pass. My uber-quack finally does me the honour of retiring, where it’s revealed that he had diagnosed me with schizoaffective disorder without telling me. This meant that I was referred to a clinic that specialized in schizophrenia- a place of dedicated, caring professionals who were uniformly puzzled by my diagnosis. Half a year goes by with the doctors trying to figure out why the hell I had been sent there, with me half-wishing I was schizophrenic just so I’d have a name for the unnamable thing that had gripped me. And after ten years on the dole, and thirty-four years of stunned incomprehension at the world around me, It was finally decreed: Travis Mackenzie Hoover has Asperger’s syndrome.
Plunk. The pieces finally fall into place. My narrow obsession with one subject, my series of fidgety mannerisms and “stims”, my inability to decipher social situations, my tendency to blurt things out without considering the consequences, my problems with empathy in situations that really demand it, my difficulty, my alienation: there was name, a face, and an assurance that none of this was my motherfucking fault. The syndrome wasn’t bad news, it was the key to understanding my behaviour and the behaviour of everyone around me, which before had been humiliating mysteries and which now revealed themselves to be the neurochemical luck of the draw. I wasn’t a victim of Asperger’s syndrome, I was a victim of not being told I had Asperger’s syndrome, and the information lifted my depression and shredded my fear and gave me the first proof that maybe this once-nightmarish world might not be such a bad place after all.
But recovering from 34 years of dazed uncomprehension doesn’t happen overnight. For about six months, I just sort of thought: Well. This is GREAT. Everything’s gonna be JUST FINE and I’m gonna just SIT BACK and LET IT HAPPEN without doing ANY DAMN THING at all. It was sufficient, for that first little while, just to have the burden of self-hatred lifted from me, to enjoy the idea of not judging yourself for playing with your hair until you have an embarrassing horn on your head and not doing the things everybody else does. But then I sat down with that other friend I mentioned earlier, and we talked about our relationship- part of which was the terrible burden I had placed on him as my only very close friend, using him as a conduit in social sitiations and needing his help more than could be reasonably expect. There was more to it than that, things on his side of the relationship, but it was clear that this couldn’t go on- and it was clear that I had to take the same attitude to the rest of my life. I had to expect more of myself, I had to expect more of others, and I had to be pro-active about what I wanted.
By some strange serendipity, I inherited a small amount of money recently. Not enough to change my life, but enough to get me a DV camera and a computer powerful enough to edit the footage, and it’s here that the next chapter of my life begins. I’m going to try and make something about my experience, and maybe some stuff totally unrelated- in any event, the diagnosis has finally given me the sense of emotional cause-and-effect I need to write convincingly. (As a side issue, my passionate vendetta against Canadian cinema now seems to me a resentful reaction to a film culture that took my self-hatred and powerlessness and held them up as a shining example for everyone to emulate). I’m going to put my theories into practice, and I’m going to see if I can claw my way out of the ghetto and put Aspie culture on the map. And that means I have to clear out certain distractions.
By the end of ten years criticism had sort of become a soporific drug to numb the pain. My absurd output for Exclaim- in which I signed up for some of the very worst movies ever made for lack of any better way of occupying my time- had become a convenient way of avoiding doing something substantial with my time, to give myself the illusion of activity while furiously avoiding my life. That was fine pre-diagnosis, but now it’s just getting in the way. Criticism isn’t going to stop with me- not at first, anyway- but it’s got to be curtailed. I can now only do the stuff I want to see and write about, to make room for the other things I need to do; and it has to be more occasional, meaning I have to stop anything that keeps me on a grind, that has me doing soul-deadening things I don’t want to see on a treadmill. And that means, after ten years running down that road, I am hanging up my typewriter at Film Freak Central.
There are things I’ve done here of which I’m immensely proud; there is also hackwork I’ve done half-asleep while stunned by depression. Thank you for reading and considering it all. May all of us who drink from the chalice of cinema have a long and happy life in this stupid, beautiful world, and I hope you will wish me the best. As I wish it for you. Good night, film freaks.