In November 2017, a California film critic named Brennan Huff went viral after posting a controversial essay on acclaimed filmmaker Paul Thomas Anderson. Not only did Huff model his piece on Kendrick Lamar’s “DNA” lyrics, but he also posted a profanity-laced video clip to “knock PTA down for an eight-count. A ‘Hard Eight.’” Huff’s essay — “PTA: There Will Be Duds” — explores Anderson’s entire filmography, including his latest, Phantom Thread. Many have pointed out problematic passages in the piece (which consists of iPhone Notes screenshots), most notably that Huff suggests There Will Be Blood’s Daniel Plainview is a real-life oilman, “probably plucked from North Dakota.” Huff also claims that Boogie Nights’ Dirk Diggler “likely doesn’t have an actual penis,” and that Anderson’s entire film can be “properly understood” from that point of view.
Meanwhile, Huff’s stepbrother, Dale Doback, also a film critic, became a trending topic for lashing out against fellow critics on a variety of movie-related topics.
To properly understand the stepbrothers, I met with them to discuss their cinematic influences and digital-age film criticism. When I arrived at their Hollywood apartment, Brennan, wearing a David Foster Wallace-style bandana, greeted me with a question.
“What’s an ‘oeuvre?’”
The high-pitched inflection suggested that I was being tested, and I responded with the correct answer and appropriate tone.
“You’re good,” Brennan replied. “Welcome … welcome to our universe.”
For our interview, Huff suggested we walk down Hollywood Boulevard, but he first welcomed me into his apartment (located across the courtyard from Dale’s), which had clearly been staged with several Roger Ebert books and unopened Criterion Collection Blu-rays. When Dale emerged, he was dressed to impress, seemingly taking inspiration from 808s and Heartbreak-era Kanye West.
“Hey, Fargo, walk with me,” Doback said. (Having learned where I was from, he called me “Fargo” the whole time.) “I got work to do, so we need to make this quick.” And so we hit the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, with Brennan often drifting behind to chat with Japanese tourists.
Hough: Dale, tell me about your writing process. You often tweet about your “Salinger shack.” Is that a real thing?
Huff: It’s his bathroom.
Doback: It’s where I find peace, Brennan. A man needs his space.
Huff: He’s like the Ghost Dog of toilet film criticism.
Doback: Yeah, more like Le Samouraï. But you wouldn’t understand that, would you, Brennan? Look, Fargo, when I’m locked in, I can’t lose focus with all these Hollywood temptations. Just look around. When I’m vibing out — when I’m creating art — I’m in a different world, OK? I’m looking for truth. I’m looking for…
Doback: Yes, Brennan, I get the occasional retweet. But it’s not about that. You know this.
Huff: My mom said it’s only about retweets. And Mr. Dill-bag [Doback] said that, too.
Doback: Super funny, Brennan. That’s fan fiction.
Hough: Speaking of retweets, both of you post iPhone Notes screenshots of your reviews and essays. That’s quite an unorthodox approach. Have you ever considered writing for a traditional film outlet?
Huff: Computers give me headaches. Also, my iMac has a technical glitch at the moment. So—
Doback: His brother Derek spilled an iced caramel macchiato on it at Starbucks while writing his shitty screenplay.
Hough: A screenwriter, huh? Brennan, do you share the same influences with your brother?
Doback: Derek is always under the influence, Fargo, usually at night on Sunset Boulevard. Like Gena Rowlands, except with a pocket full of fifties.
Huff: Classic Jarmusch reference. Bravo.
Huff: To answer your question: Derek, he’s into disaster flicks. Me, I like a little Tyler Perry and the occasional summer blockbuster.
Doback: So, yes. They do share the same influences. They’re both under the influence — under the influence of the Hollywood system. What I’m saying is that they’re Hollywood whores.
Hough: Thanks, Dale. Let’s talk about Film Twitter. You’ve both earned strong followings through your screenshot reviews.
Huff: Hey, can you stop saying “screenshot reviews” like it’s a bad thing?
Hough: To be completely honest, Brennan, you often confuse important details in your screenshot reviews, like when you claimed that Daniel Plainview is a North Dakota oilman. Have you seen There Will Be Blood in its entirety?
Huff: Cinema … cinema is about interpreting the subtext, is it not? Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, right? Leo and Kate, Jack and Rose, in a parallel Titanic universe.
Hough: Wait, what? I don’t think you understand the Iceberg Theory, or Titanic.
Doback: That’s his Mom talking. They don’t know shit about PTA or Cameron. Talk about a woman under the influence. And don’t say “SEE-NEE-MAH” like you’re some European hotshot, Brennan. You’re not.
Huff: That is offensive and hurtful. I love … cinema.
Doback: Yeah, you love mommy’s MoviePass subscription.
Hough: Brennan, you must tell me about the bandana. Based on your social media accounts, it seems to be part of your cinephile image.
Huff: Hmm. Last time I checked, you weren’t following me on Twitter or Instagram. Look, friend, I’m just a guy that wakes up and puts on Fruit of the Loom boxer briefs, and a matching bandana from Target. Why don’t you tell me why you dress like a midwestern lame-ass.
Doback: Whoa, Brennan — what did your mom and my dad say about that kind of talk? No MoviePass for a month.
Huff: I’ll just use Derek’s MoviePass. Enjoy your streaming subscriptions on your iPhone4 while I’m experiencing glorious 3D.
Hough: Back to the bandana: Brennan, you caption many Instagram posts with “Birth. Bandana. Death.” So, it seems like you put some extra thought into your public image. And just like Dale’s “Salinger shack” is obviously inspired by J.D. Salinger, you seem to be inspired by David Foster Wallace, or perhaps James Ponsoldt’s 2015 film The End of the Tour, which is about Wallace. You also recited some of the film’s dialogue, word for word, when I arrived.
Doback: Derek told him that a bandana might get him some ass.
Huff: Maybe I like to keep people guessing, and maybe you’re a pretentious ass.
Hough: Is that directed towards me?
Doback: I got this, Fargo. I’m not the one trying to be someone else, am I, Brennan?
Huff: Really? Look at yourself. You look like a Kanye West, Silver Lake f***.
Hough: Oh, geez. Last question before we hit Buffalo Wild Wings. I know you guys have to work.
Huff: Gotta work for the man: my big bro, a mango-habanero mogul.
Hough: It’s apparent that you spend a lot of time searching your name and feel inclined to respond to online trolls, especially you, Dale. What do you think Film Twitter, and the entire Internet in general, gets wrong about you? Give me one sentence.
Doback: That I’m all style and no substance. That I don’t feel raw emotion like everyone else. That I’ve got nothing serious to say about Film Twitter culture, and that I haven’t contributed to Film Twitter culture. I do this for the culture, ok? We—
Hough: OK, got it. Brennan?
Huff: Only one sentence? That I’m not a passionate content provider.