BEST LAID PLANS
The reasons why I donít want to become a film critic
The assumption is that when you write about films, you eventually want to become a film critic. There is evidence to support this idea because unless you are a published author of books about topical subjects in film, the main platform is film criticism. If you are an amateur writer, criticism is really the only thing you can do if want your pieces published in websites, journals or other publications. Then there is other problem in that criticism takes time to perfect and master so somebody getting into writing about film first has to dedicate themselves to years of writing it. Those years of practice and effort convinces the majority to stick with criticism as a profession.
I write criticism, too, but my progress to this point hasnít been strictly that. When I was a teenager I spent my afternoons listening to music and plotting out what the shots and sets would be for the music video to go along with a song. In the period of two years I believe I did this for over a hundred songs. The drive to focus on shots and production told me at the time I had everything that it would take to become a filmmaker. I believed it. So much so I pushed my high school to offer a course on film and video editing. The first year it was offered I took it with only one other person. We had to be mixed into a different computer class because we were only two people strong. Most people in the class had no clue what we were even doing there.
The hopefulness didnít pan out to much. After that class and another in community college, I started to focus entirely on writing about film. There were many reasons why. The main reason was that I could not afford the equipment to keep me ahead of the curve and two classes on video editing still left me a dunce with computers. So I decided to try to improve my status as a dunce in writing. I had no clue what I was doing, but a few years of reading criticism and books about film helped me a lot. The world of film was starting to become clear to me. I realized I didnít know anything about film because I didnít know the extent of what I didnít know. At the beginning, for me, film had a history that was short and slim. Then it became long and wide with histories and ideas still left to travel. Iím just grateful because I now know it exists.
Next march it will be nine years. Nine years since I first thought big about film and nine years since Stanley Kubrick died. Both incidents coincidentally went hand in hand for me. Kubrick was my gateway into film and his passing is what got me serious. The first two years of my time with film was study of Stanley Kubrick. I was hard pressed to believe in anyone else. But as first loves go, things change and I discovered the world of film around Stanley Kubrick and moved past him. Instead of basing the success of a given year off how much more I knew about Kubrick, I was doing it for film in general. I wanted to learn so much each year that I didnít even know the person of the past year. Sometimes that happened.
Iíve come to a point in my life where I no longer look back and see different ideologies or ideas about the art of film. Iíve normalized certain ideas about film I believe will be constant beliefs. These beliefs will continue to be refined and enhanced, but they will consist of the same basic truths. Every person goes through growing pains to find themselves. Iíve found myself and the pressure of life is forcing me to choose what I want as a career. To my own surprise, the last thing I want to be a film critic.
The main reason lays in the question of whether you want to be a critic or a newspaperman. People study the art of film to be critics, but the path to criticism many times isnít that. Bernard Shaw was asked by a young writer how you become a critic and he said, ďTwenty years of writing for a newspaper and the hope you get promoted when the main critic dies or retires.Ē Examples today also exist. Roger Ebert had no clue his aspirations to become a journalist would lead him to become a lifetime critic of what was only a hobby for him in film. When editors are looking for critics, they are not first looking for experts in the field of film, but manageable writers who know the newspaper business and follow orders.
Then there is the situation of having to appeal to the business interests of the newspaper. It doesnít matter if you are a highly esteemed critic with good senses about quality, the fact is no editor will allow a film critic to attack every mainstream Hollywood film released. Itís not good business because newspapers are advertising those movies for either local theaters or the studio directly. This situation also explains why there is so much analysis of the business of movies as there are about movies themselves. Articles are written about Hollywood so films and movie stars can be named dropped without any critical souring. The emergence of tabloid interest in Hollywood continues to blur lines of what importance film criticism really has in newspapers and magazines.
The other matter about film criticism is that practice and standards forces critics, if they are going to review fluff Hollywood works, to review them with as much care and thoughtfulness as any other review. When I took a class on journalism in the art of criticism, I was told to follow a strict layout of what parts about each film to comment on and in what order. It didnít matter what the movie was. I had to pay equal attention to every part of the very worst films. I wasnít too shocked to see this pattern repeated by most critics around the country. It meant that the same attention to evaluating Transformers should also be given to LíEnfant.
It wasnít always like this. In the 1930s and 40s, film critics would use only a paragraph or two for each movie. Sometimes a description of the plot wasnít even given, but instead just a comment about the general art (or lack of) of the movie. Critics would only write larger pieces on films that inspired them to do so. Film criticism wasnít yet considered a true discipline to have the standards we see today. It was a low tier job for a newspaperman to write criticism about an art that was still just entertainment only for most people. Because of that most newspapers didnít have film critics and only the best newspapers or magazines had quality film critics. Critics like James Agee and Otis Ferguson werenít the standard, but the exceptions.
Today the film critic has to struggle through every bad movie. Anything that they just want to stamp as shit has to be given full attention in the name of ethics and professionalism. The consequences of this is that since so few good films are released; the taste of the critic begins to wither away. An average film will be applauded as good and a good film will be heralded as great. Many times these movies arenít as good as the critic says. It just shows the exhausting task of having to see every movie released. Even the people who like to go to movies arenít forced to dedicate 1000 words to the movies that stupefy and disgust them.
So, I donít know. Film criticism doesnít appeal to me. There only exist a few places out there that give true freedom to the critic. They are in specific magazines. The critic will be allowed time to focus on one film and spend a good amount of time on it since magazine output can be few and far between. The fact is that newspapers represent all kinds of difficulties. I think the hardest job has to be the New York Times theater critic. Since the standards of the paper are so high, he or she has to write an excellent piece in a short amount of time. Sometimes it is less than a day because theater companies will only allow critics to attend opening night performances instead of dress rehearsals and the review would be due the next day. Itís an impossible situation. Film critics have the luxury of a little more time, but numerous more films to review every week.
The current track I am following would see me as a Professor of Film Studies at a college somewhere. It never was my dream to follow this path, but the career represents many luxuries. First I would be able to teach and be surrounded with a continuing education in film. The second is that I could get medical benefits where a career in criticism would have truly humble beginnings that my current health canít afford to go through. The third reason is that I could write books about subjects I am passionate about. I donít care to be just another commentator on the latest academic trend in film. I want to write about people and subjects in film I truly care about and feel people have ignored. I want to personalize my work. Lately Iíve been big into Christopher Hitchens. His ideology aside, he has a wonderful system of writing small books about large subjects but always done with a personal context or approach. He has issues and people he cares about. I feel the same way in film.
There is also the likelihood I wouldnít have been a good critic anyways. I must give critics their due respect because they can analyze different filmmakers and cinemas and have a good general comment about everything. I donít think Iíll ever be able to do that. Part of me will always be ignorant to something so thatís why I want to stick close to personal subjects. My favorite film professor endeared me to him when he admitted he knew little about Korean Cinema to comment on it. Other professors around him wouldnít give into that submission and instead would be horribly wrong about many things.
Do I still want to make original films? I donít know. Iím beginning an original script right now but I do know my drive and passion is currently in writing about films. Though I think I could write a good original script, I could be wrong and my best form of writing could be in the discussion of films instead of creation of them. I donít know. George Orwell is known as an author, but his reputation as an essayist is much better than as a novelist. I think he knew he was limited in the latter field even though he really wanted to excel at it. Iíll find out my fate soon enough. But for now Iím still trying. It may end up that Iíll always be trying.