Active Voice #2: Scout Tafoya

The NYC-based critic/filmmaker discusses his passionate writing style, making video essays, and the importance of defending "Unloved" films.

“Active Voice” is an ongoing interview series with film critics discussing writing as an art form.

True originals are hard to find in the film criticism game. I’m talking about the writers who are unabashedly personal and vulnerable, without ego or pretense. The ones baring their soul each time out, whose work brings their readers closer to understanding the person behind the prose. Two great Bay Area critics - Fernando Croce and Ryland Walker Knight - come to mind as examples of such writers whose sharp, confessional, and deeply curious ruminations on film seamlessly express their passion and empathy toward the medium. I wish both of them would write more often.

Filmmaker, video essayist and critic Scout Tafoya belongs to this ever-shrinking group as well. Part of a robust New York City film critic community that includes many talented writers and editors, Scout stands out for his intense, unflinching dedication to championing works of art that go against the tide of consensus. He’s by no means a grumpy, hateful contrarian like Armond White, but someone whose interests and points-of-view feel unchained from the pressures and expectations of imbedded critical institutions. From the very first paragraph, you can tell his reviews are proud orphans of opinion, striking out on their own, resisting trends perpetuated by the blatant public relations surrogacy of Indiewire or even the exalted auteurist lionizing of scholarly journals like Cinema Scope or Reverse Shot.

Scout is a true freelancer in that he seems free to explore films, filmmakers, and ideas on his own terms, across many different platforms and mediums. He publishes a wonderful video essay series called “The Unloved” at RogerEbert.com and has written extensive long-form reviews for Mubi’s The Notebook and Los Angeles Review of Books. His Patreon page is a hive of freshly produced digital content that has become an invigorating outlet all its own. In addition to being a critic, Scout is a prolific filmmaker, making singular indies at an unmatched pace.

I can honestly say that reading Scout’s work makes me a better writer, which is why I wanted to speak with him at length about his singular style, making video essays, and championing weird, fascinating films that deserve a more thoughtful reception. I hope you enjoy our conversation.

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Glenn Heath Jr: When did you fall in love with writing?

Scout Tafoya: Well, I never had one of those eureka moments. My Dad was the writer in the house. He didn’t become a published author until many, many years later. But I was always aware of writing as this thing that had nothing to do with the rest of your life. There were all these things that I understood as part of our normal family experience. And then there was his writing, which I figured was something you did in secret away from everybody else. But the more that I saw him writing things, the more I became aware that there was some cathartic thing going on.

Later, I went to this very strange private high school that used to be just for hippies. And because they had let in a bunch of poorer kids like me, they needed money in a hurry. So they started admitting the children of extremely wealthy South Korean business owners, or in one case we had a kid that was a prince of a small African province. All this to say, I had unstructured time at school, because they needed you to stay there to do the after school thing. I quickly became aware that writing was something you did with the time that doesn’t belong to anyone else. That this was a personal thing you could lock yourself away and do.

I would write these really strange diary entries, trying out different stuff on my own. I would look back at my work and realize there were certain tendencies I didn’t like, and slowly began figuring out the editing process without realizing it. The parts of my voice that I liked and parts I didn’t like. During this period I would also occasionally do music and film reviews for the school newspaper, and the first piece I ever had published was a review of Darren Aronosky’s Pi (1998), which had just made it to DVD.

So it was a whole process throughout high school, realizing that I loved sitting at a keyboard and writing forever. And whatever came out of it was enough, because the action of writing was itself so engrossing. I wasn’t thinking about other things during writing sessions. I was single-minded in that sense. Every kid my age had some form of ADD, so it was important to know this is a thing that I’m actually enjoying and kept me from being completely distracted all the time. I was a terrible student because of that.

GHJ: Did you continue writing in college?

ST: When I got to college, again I had so much free time. I went to Temple for a semester but I kept seeing evidence of murders and sexual assaults on campus. There were always cops around. I needed to get out of there for my mental health. So I went to Emerson, and they had a rule at the time that you couldn’t live on campus if you were a transfer. I ended up staying with my aunt and uncle for a semester. I wasn’t seeing my friends, and I was living in their spare bedroom in Reading, MA. There wasn’t much to do out there so I literally just watched movies and wrote. I was taking 10 movies from the library at a time and watching everything. I started my first blog at that point and just wrote about movies nonstop. I can’t even look back and read those pieces because they are so bad. But it was an important practice to get that stuff out there. Looking back, I realize how useful it was to work through all of those lazy habits. Joe Swanberg told me once that film school was a place where you go to get all your bad ideas out of your system. That was definitely true for me and my writing during that time period. There’s so little from back then that I stand by.

GHJ: Do you have a favorite piece from that era?

ST: I wrote a piece about Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975) that is pretty good. That was a turning point for me. On first viewing, I was too floored by the idea that it was this forbidden object. I couldn’t interface with it. But watching the film again for a class assignment, actually choosing to go through that experience again and find value in it, made me realize that this isn’t about what you can stomach or tolerate, or even your own political views. It’s what you can get out of a piece. If you can get something out of a movie no matter how hideous it is, then it’s important, and you should gravitate toward movies like that. So again, it was a slow-building up to realize how important the act of writing was to my mental health, and how much I enjoyed it. For all the coping mechanisms that people develop to deal with their brain, writing is some of the least harmful. 

GHJ: Were there any teachers that helped you develop your writing along the way?

ST: I had a couple of extremely good teachers. It wasn’t even that they were specifically interfacing with me about writing, but they were encouraging me to continue to think about things in the odd way that I did. They were willing to have conversations with me like I was not a student.

One teacher that really stands out as hugely important for me personally is a man named Jason Gordon. He had dreadlocks down to his waist and was really honest with us about his experiences as a Black man in America. He would go to the People of Color Conference and would come back with stories of feeling left out there when he would try to suggest that Christianity was the religion of slave owners and that no Black person should pay it mind. These were radical ideas. It was one thing to be a kid at a boarding school thinking about these things. But here was someone who had spent his entire life on the receiving end of passive-aggressive white racism, and still found a way to push back against the boundaries in every one of his communities, hoping to try and find a space for his views to be taken seriously. It was the most brilliant thing I had ever seen and heard.

To this day Jason is still an educator. I’m so thankful he’s out there working with kids trying to make them see what this country actually does to people. He and another history teacher of mine named Peter Ammirati completely opened my eyes to what America was as a thing, as a cultural construct. From there on out I felt the need to question the official version of things and look for the opinions of people who had experienced everything. Not simply writing about things, but to be an active listener and support the people who had suffered and experienced things that I would never understand.

So I wasn’t really having conversations about the craft of writing. That happened sporadically later on, but only at film festivals. But even those conversations about craft are vague. A lot of people are guarded about it. I haven’t gotten feedback on my prose in an extended or conversational way in a long time. I kind of had to develop my voice in a vacuum. Because when you give your writing to people you respect, and they know you respect them, they inevitably try to protect you. 

GHJ: Your writing style has an undeniable pulse to it. It exemplifies a passionate, connection to the material. Can you talk about how you’ve developed that style over the years?

ST: I was just talking to someone about a piece they wrote. During the conversation, they said to me, “I was trying not to be too emotional because you do that.” [Laughs] I’m very aware of it. The state that film criticism is in as an industry, it’s more important than ever to communicate how crucial this work is to me. That film watching and engaging with art is still such a huge piece of my life. This isn’t something I’m doing because I want to, it’s something I need to do. I relate to the world through my writing.

Right now we’re not seeing the people who are important to us, and when we do on Zoom of FaceTime it’s not quite the same. We’re worried about everyone all the time. During an unprecedented health crisis, it’s natural to ask why writing about movies still matters. There’s so much else going on. People are scared for loved ones and their own lives because there’s a huge portion of the public who just don’t see this as a real thing. Or if they do they are choosing not to act like it.

Writing has always been my true north in stressful times. I had a dreadful emotional year in 2019. I had multiple close friends die. It felt like a never-ending headline. I quickly realized that there wouldn’t be any real catharsis or closure to those chapters of your life, except for what I could make in the wake of it. It redoubled my commitment to this stuff. And if it’s this important to me, it has to be important to other people. I want people to feel a little less alone when they are reading my stuff or watching my videos. That was the whole point of my video essay series “The Unloved.”

GHJ: What experiences inspired “The Unloved?”

ST: Really it was seeing Alien³ (1992) on television as a kid and thinking, this is weird and it doesn’t work, but I can’t stop thinking about it. I was constantly going back to it. I learned more about David Fincher and eventually bought the assembled cut on DVD. In college, I watched the film once a day for a month. I was obsessed with it. And I thought to myself, I can’t be the only one who’s this transfixed.

“The Unloved” was born out of this desire to find other works of art that people were afraid to champion because in doing so they would be combatting not only an extremely strong critical tide online or in print but in your lives too. Whether it’s The Lone Ranger (2013) or Mortal Engines (2018), whatever the latest studio “disaster” happens to be, it’s just so much more interesting to find a thing worth talking about rather than shutting the entire enterprise down because the consensus says otherwise. Whatever the film, having this dialogue with people who found similar value in the piece, made the world feel a little less huge and alienating. Films like The Village (2004) or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2007). Whatever the example, I want people to walk away with this feeling that they aren’t alone in having these strong reactions to films that were otherwise dismissed.

Feeling like you’re alone is the single most consistent threat to everyone’s peace of mind in general, especially right now. That’s something I’ve really tried to help people fight. I grew up listening to a lot of Post-punk stuff. Interpol, Joy Division, The Chameleons, New Order - they all seemed to be saying the same thing. Through the production of the music, there are these yawning silences around every instrument. The lyrics are about isolation, and the voices are these howling, booming, haunted things. The songs were a way to both acknowledge how easy it is to feel completely alone, but also to say, here’s someone who channeled those feelings into this very primal sounding, at times distressing and upsetting art. It locked everything into place for me. Creating art that reflected how that made me feel has been a huge guiding principle in my writing and filmmaking.

GHJ: When did you start making video essays?

ST: Many years ago I was talking to Matt Seitz on Twitter about Reality (2012), the Matteo Garrone movie. Because Matt is Matt, he went onto my Twitter bio and found my website. He watched the trailer to my zombie movie, and said, why don’t you pitch me video essays. He had just gotten the gig as Editor-in-Chief at RogerEbert.com. At that point, I didn’t really understand what the point of a video essay was except in the broadest possible terms. So over the next couple of months as I was pitching ideas, he’s telling me really important lessons that I still live by to this day. Don’t send your reader to Wikipedia. Don’t use elements that have nothing to do with the thing you’re looking at. Don’t use pop music if you can. The film will give you most of the tools you’ll need to talk about it.

It was amazing advice to receive early on in my career. There are things you can do to make the piece feel self-contained so that you’re not borrowing someone else’s power. You and the movie have to be in conversation with each other. That was really big because in filmmaking you can cheat so many ways. Hearing that kept me honest. Being reminded of this by the guy who essentially made the form popular was really impactful. Matt and Kevin B. Lee were essentially the people who revolutionized modern video essays. I was so fortunate to be able to work with both of them.

But I didn’t discover the full potential of video essays for a couple of years. I started to have all these ideas that I didn’t necessarily know what to do with. It was really hard to sell video essays, which is why Patreon has been such a blessing. It’s an outlet for my creativity. I realized there was an audience who wanted to see me try new things. Finding the kinship between movies and other art forms allows you to experiment with editing strategies, effects, and composition. It was so freeing.  

GHJ: How do you think video essays have expanded the reach of film criticism? 

ST: I wonder about that to be perfectly honest. I thought by now it would have more of a foothold in the industry. I thought it would be a bigger deal, especially since all those years ago we were promised a pivot toward video that never happened. It has opened up people to make more deliberate points about things, which is a double-edged sword. It’s a matter of what your intentions are, and I think a lot of people saw them as ways to build a following, and also to point out things they knew would garner the attention. Arguments that didn’t require a whole lot of critical thinking.

As with any art form, the temptation to talk about topics everybody already knows about is overwhelming. There are countless YouTube videos about the Coen brothers, Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, and Tarantino. Sure those are rich works of art depending on the movie but it’s also just not interesting. It hints at this inherently limited view of the Western canon that we have, where people don’t really want to look beyond that stuff.

If you want to stay transfixed by the editing of The Shining (1980) you’re talking about 1/24th of a movie that itself a smaller fraction of the Western cinematic tradition, to say nothing of movies elsewhere in places like Sri Lanka, Senegal, and the Phillippines. But often the people who have access to editing software and the time and wherewithal to do it are not always going to be the ones pointing you in new and surprising directions. I like a video essay that is interested in finding the silences, the odd tendencies. Finding connections between a 1976 movie from the Czech Republic and something made today in Chile.

The potential for video essays is enormous. To be a kind of unifier in the art world, and also this great magnifying glass across pieces of culture that don’t always get the attention they deserve. But that potential has been enormous for the last 10 years, and few people have seized upon that. This art form is still in its relative infancy, but with the depressing economics of film criticism, you’re not going to get that many people with the power and passion to take it to the fullest thing it can possibly be.

Right now most people see it as one of a handful of alternatives to traditional criticism. Part of the problem is that everybody still thinks about criticism in a very linear fashion. The video essay format needs the Stan Brackage’s, Curtis Harrington’s, and Kenneth Anger’s of the world to come out of the woodwork and do something cool, aggressive, and confrontational with the form. To my knowledge, we don’t have too many of those.

There are people doing really interesting work. Every year Mubi does a video essay summit, and they encourage people who are new to video essays to be more experimental and that’s really cool. All those people are not American or English-speaking critics which is even better. But there’s no infrastructure that ensures video essays become a viable alternative to written criticism or frankly to be explored as it’s own art form. 

GHJ: Let’s talk about your voice for a second. There’s a level of defiance and heartache in the way you use it as a narrating tool in these video essays.

ST: A kind of Proustian reverie thing for me happened when I was a kid. I was at my grandparent’s house for a weekend vacation. TCM was on, and I heard Martin Scorsese narrating over passages of Rome, Open City (1945), and L’Avventura (1960). I didn’t know what he was talking about. I had never seen these movies. But I thought it was the most compelling thing. I wanted to know more about these films hearing his very flat, yet comforting, readerly voice play over these gorgeous black and white images. I didn’t think about it specifically until years later. The first time I saw his face was in Albert Brooks’ The Muse (1999). But Martin Scorsese’s My Voyage to Italy (1999) stayed in my head as a way to deal with how the voice and image can function as two separate things. Then I saw the doc he made with Kent Jones called Val Lewton: The Man in the Shadows (2007). And I thought to myself, he made these movies a complete textual whole using his voice and Val Lewton’s silences. I knew this was the way forward.

Sound design is so crucial to the video essay’s textual and tonal success. You maybe have 5-10 mins of people’s attention. Making sure your voice is a strong current through the piece as opposed to a counterpart. I want everything to work in tandem, so the experience of watching is as coherent and seamless as possible. I perhaps lean too hard on the glottal thing where my voice is very low, but that’s how I respond to things. As I met more people that I knew from Twitter so many of them would say, “Oh I thought you would speak in your Unloved voice” [laughs].

GHJ: If you could take one genre of films to the afterlife which one would it be?

ST: I’m tempted to say Horror because so many of my favorite movies are in there. It was the first genre I fell in love with. But I have to say Westerns. There’s something poetic and gorgeous about even the bad ones. It’s a genre that gives you everything. The interpersonal stuff is often melodramatic, like Sam Fuller’s Forty Guns (1957). You’ve got landscape studies by John Ford and Hugo Fregonese. And then you’ve got the noir darkness going on with André De Toth’s films. All of his Westerns had this really great edge. The capacity for incredible violence, upset, and unrest in those films makes them so compelling.

Like America, the Western is secretly founded on genocide. So in the fabric of every one of these pieces is this really bloody and awful history about what Americans did to the First Nations. The tension there is fascinating. If in this scenario of yours you’d also get new ones as they happen, then it would definitely be my first choice. As more and more Native filmmakers get to tell their stories, we’re going to get these incredible further revisionist Westerns. I cannot wait for this next generation of First Nations filmmakers to get their hands on studio money so they can rewrite the Western about what really happened.

The stability of the Western really appeals to me, but also because all of its trappings are so appealing as well. Knowing that you get to look out and see forever in any given shot in a John Ford film is so enticing. One of my favorite movies of all time is Black Robe (1991) by Bruce Beresford. That is such an unforgiving and bleak film in so many ways yet still so affecting and beautiful. The idea that there are more movies like it to be made is one of the most optimistic things I can cling to.

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Where to Watch

“The Unloved” video essay series
Alien³
Black Robe

My Voyage to Italy
Scout Tafoya’s films

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Until next time,

GHJ