Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: So you want to be a movie critic?

A little while back, I got to spend a chunk of a day being “shadowed” by a young lady named Emily as part of a school project (hers, not mine). Seems the students were asked to pick a profession they were interested in and the school then tried to match them with someone in that field. Somehow or other, Emily evidenced an interest in being a movie critic, and things went from there. I was a little surprised to find an 11-year-old who harbored any such desire. And as it turned out, movie critic was her second choice, but it’s easier to dredge up a critic than her first choice (Broadway star). That kind of put me in my place.

This wasn’t the first time I’d been asked to do something on the topic. Usually it’s just speaking to a class. And I always start the same way, which is to say that my first word of advice is, “If you’re thinking about becoming a film critic, don’t do it.” It’s a foolhardy proposition under the best of circumstances, and in this modern age when print critics are being unceremoniously cut back by a lot of papers and magazines (something at least slightly exaggerated by the media itself), it’s less wise still. But even without that factor, movie critics are a fairly inert breed, who tend to hang on to their reviewing jobs once they’re established. As a result, you almost have to wait for somebody to go to the Great Screening Room in the Sky to land a job. (Note to self: consider hiring food-taster when dining with co-reviewer Justin Souther.)

Writing about movies is one of those things that sane people — or even people looking to make a good living — should avoid at all costs. It sounds pretty enticing. I mean, we get to see movies for free. Pause for a minute and realize that this also means we not only get to see movies for free, but we have to see them. Getting to see Bratz or Alvin and the Chipmunks for free not only isn’t a bargain, it precludes the possibility of asking to get your money back. And since no one’s ever come up with a way to give you your time back, you’re screwed.

Of course, we do get paid, and that’s a plus, though it precludes your ability to say, “You couldn’t pay me to sit through that,” because quite obviously you can. I do think some kind of sliding scale could be instituted. I mean, sitting through almost four hours of Gods and Generals (2003) is more soul-destroying than sitting through 70 minutes of Pootie Tang (2001) — slightly more than three times in fact. Oughtn’t Gods and Generals count as at least two movies? What about hazard pay? Consider tonight or tomorrow: I’ll be sitting through the creationist “documentary” Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed. I haven’t seen this yet, but I have a hunch that a three day bender might knock off fewer brain cells.

I’m not actually complaining, mind you. I like what I’m doing. I’m merely pointing out some of the pitfalls. It’s not enough to just like movies, you have to be close to obsessed with them in a general sense. By that I mean you have to love the art form itself — not just certain parts of it. I know film historians whose interests are so specialized that they’ve almost no sense of anything outside one single area of filmmaking. That makes it impossible for them to put a film into the broader context of when it was made.

No one is without his or her hobby horse, but if your idea of the film event of, say, 1939 is Charlie Chan at Treasure Island, there’s a problem. If your whole concept of 1977 is that it was the year Star Wars was made, there’s a problem. But if all 1977 means to you is the year that Annie Hall came out, you have the same problem in a different suit of clothes. Sure, you’re allowed to be more passionate about one than the other, but a certain working knowledge of both — among others — is essential. (You say 1977 to me and my mind immediately goes to Ken Russell’s Valentino or John Boorman’s Exorcist II: The Heretic, but I know the neither one defines the year — though the former damn near killed Russell’s career and the latter was a box office disaster of cosmic proportions, and as such both are important.)

There’s also the question of deadlines — something that most people don’t factor in. I didn’t factor it in till I did it. Until you’ve had to see and write about anywhere from three to ten (I think that’s the record) movies between Thursday and Sunday night, you can’t really understand what that means. Before I started doing this on a weekly basis, I was as hard as anyone on movie critics. I’m a lot more respectful of what they accomplish now. I used to be one of the people who wrote to newspapers complaining about this or that review. Karma has willed it that I am now one of the people who people write to newspapers to complain about.

Volume is another issue. While I’d been writing about movies professionally for nearly 20 years when I undertook the Xpress column, I never even briefly imagined seeing the sheer number of new movies a year that came with the territory. The year before I started I think the only films I saw theatrically were Bill Condon’s Gods and Monsters and Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate. Going from two new movies a year to several new movies a week was culture shock. Eight years later, I’ve almost recovered. In fact, I now have a hard time imagining not seeing virtually everything that comes out.

The whole idea of being a movie critic is a good bit like the exchange in Ronald Neame’s The Horse’s Mouth (1958) where Mike Morgan tells Alec Guinness that he wants to be an artist and is told in return, “Of course, you want to be an artist. Everybody does once — but they get over it like measles or chicken pox.” Now, I’m not making a claim that being a movie critic is on a par with being an artist (I’d argue that there’s some artistry — or at least knack — to it). But the dynamic is the same in that you do it because you can’t not do it. It’s all grounded in the love of film and the need to convey that. If that’s not the guiding reason for doing it, then you shouldn’t do it. You won’t like it.

In retrospect, I realize that I really had no choice in the matter. Thinking back I can remember being 10 years old and writing — in longhand — a “review” of Ford Beebe’s Night Monster (1942) on the porch of my grandmother’s house in Concord, N.C. I’d seen the film on TV the night before and somehow it seemed perfectly natural to write about it, and then to foist the results on anyone I ran into. I’m sure it was dreadful and probably amounted to little more than recounting the plot of the film. I doubt that the irony of it being the only Universal horror picture other than Dracula (1931) to afford Bela Lugosi top billing — only to waste him in the thankless role of a butler — even occurred to me then. But the idea of writing about movies was planted early on and never really went away.

I’m probably the only person in the history of Lake Wales High School who ever bamboozled a teacher into being allowed to do his senior term paper on Edmund Goulding’s Grand Hotel (1932). We won’t even discuss my college era papers, but they were pretty much in that same vein. Granted, it took a friend of mine pushing me into writing a book on Ken Russell that finally got me into doing this sort of thing professionally. In all honesty, I think his idea was that if I wrote about Ken Russell’s films, I’d stop talking about them. Well, that didn’t happen, but it did mark the point from which there was no turning back.

So really, if you think you want to be a movie critic, I’d suggest you think about it long and hard — and then think twice at least once more. But if it’s something you just have to do, you’ll do it anyway, and that’s as it should be.

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About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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20 thoughts on “Cranky Hanke’s Screening Room: So you want to be a movie critic?

  1. Justin Souther

    “If you’re thinking about becoming a film critic, don’t do it.”

    Oh, now you tell me.

  2. Ken Hanke

    Well, I certainly wasn’t going to tell you before. I’m no fool.

  3. ken russell

    Glad to be of service in guiding what would surely have otherwise been a misspent youth. – Ken Russell

  4. ohforshame

    The ability to express your ideas about film in a concise, yet somewhat entertaining and accessible way seems like no small part of it either. My boyfriend is the biggest movie buff I know. From just the movies he’s kept track of he’s watched over 4,500 (he’s just over 30). But though he’s otherwise an exceedingly cogent writer, when it comes to discussing film he has little to say. To the point I don’t bother asking him what a movie I’m considering watching is about. And though he can rattle off an actor’s or director’s filmography with robotic precision, making the sometimes ancillary connections better reviews make just doesn’t seem like something he’d do. I think any kind of an art is like that for some people; something to be experienced but not put into words. He watches movies purely for the love of them and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I imagine for him and many others having to write about them would take something away from the enjoyment.

    Related only tangentially maybe, but on the topic of art for art’s sake, this is a good article:

    http://fish.blogs.nytimes.com/2008/01/06/will-the-humanities-save-us/

  5. Todd

    What about the prestige? The solumn hush that falls over the snack bar when folks realize that Ken Hanke (or, ok, Justin Souther) is in the theatre? Fess up–once you’ve secured your box of Whoppers and/or sack of Twizzlers, the snack bar people always always ask: “And will there be anything else, Mr. Hanke?”

    That’s the sort of thing that just doesn’t happen to bank tellers.

  6. Ken Hanke

    “Glad to be of service in guiding what would surely have otherwise been a misspent youth.”

    I’d already misspent my youth before I discovered the world of Ken Russell. Well, I was 20 anyway.

  7. Ken Hanke

    “The ability to express your ideas about film in a concise, yet somewhat entertaining and accessible way seems like no small part of it either. My boyfriend is the biggest movie buff I know. From just the movies he’s kept track of he’s watched over 4,500 (he’s just over 30). But though he’s otherwise an exceedingly cogent writer, when it comes to discussing film he has little to say.”

    Yes, the ability to express the ideas is a key part of it, though it’s a part I guess I take for granted in anyone who wants to write on the topic (and I know the internet can prove me wrong on that assumption). That said, there are times when I think all of us reach a point where we feel like shouting, “This is great stuff and if you can’t see that nothing I say is going to make a difference.” Of course, then you calm down and try to explain it anyway.

    “I think any kind of an art is like that for some people; something to be experienced but not put into words. He watches movies purely for the love of them and there’s nothing wrong with that. In fact, I imagine for him and many others having to write about them would take something away from the enjoyment.”

    Oh, I think that’s very true. It’s just a different sort of mindset. I know a lot of people who find the demystification of a thing spoils it for them. There are people who won’t watch any of the special features on a DVD because they don’t want to know how this or that is done. I’ll confess that I rarely watch them — especially if I had anything to do with the content — partly because I’d generally rather read about these things than listen to someone talk about them. And it’s partly because most of the time I have a pretty good working knowledge of how a thing was done. (Not that I’m infallible in that regard. There was a sequence in one of short films at the 2005 Asheville Film Festival that I still don’t know how it was done — and, in fact, Ken Russell and I puzzled over it for some time.) But film is a fairly conscious thing for me and I can be just as charmed by, say, model work even when I know that’s what it is and how it was done. In fact, I may like it better that way. But I do understand the desire to leave the magic untouched.

    I’m that way with music. I have an encyclopedic knowledge of some areas of music and a good general working knowledge of even more, but I’m technically pig-ignorant when it comes to technical matters and music theory. (OK, so someone did teach me to play Queen’s “Good Company” on the ukulele when I was in my early 20s, but I couldn’t do it now.) I understand basic symphonic form and can spot 4/4, 3/4 and 5/4 time. But that’s about it. It’s purely a visceral, emotional response for me when all is said and done. I love the matching of music to image in movies (anyone who’s seen any of my own little filmmaking attempts will attest to that), but I have an inherent fear that too much technical knowledge would spoil it for me.

    And that’s a very interesting article you linked to, even if I don’t think I agree with it much.

  8. Ken Hanke

    “What about the prestige? The solumn hush that falls over the snack bar when folks realize that Ken Hanke (or, ok, Justin Souther) is in the theatre? Fess up–once you’ve secured your box of Whoppers and/or sack of Twizzlers, the snack bar people always always ask: ‘And will there be anything else, Mr. Hanke?'”

    Well, first of all, no one calls me Mr. Hanke and oddly enough I almost never eat anything at the movies. I will say, however, that the entire staff at the Fine Arts tends to have coffee for me by the time I get in the building, which is a nice thing. Well, once when I was sick and had no business being up much less at the movies, Neal insisted on my drinking orange juice.

    In all honesty, I’m still surprised when people even recognize me.

  9. Justin Souther

    “The solumn hush that falls over the snack bar when folks realize that Ken Hanke (or, ok, Justin Souther) is in the theatre? Fess up–once you’ve secured your box of Whoppers and/or sack of Twizzlers…”

    No hush for me, either, but I don’t expect one since I don’t have near the profile as Ken. I’m just happy at this point when people actually notice there is another critic. So I guess a thank you is in order. And for the record, I will purchase the occasional Kit-Kat.

  10. Justin Souther

    “Well, first of all, no one calls me Mr. Hanke…”

    Well that’s not true, since we both know someone who does just that. But I understand why you might not want to bring him up in public.

  11. Ken Hanke

    “I understand why you might not want to bring him up”

    I believe the doctor who delivered him said something very like that to his mother.

  12. Ken Hanke

    By the way, in case anyone is curious, that really was a visit from Ken Russell on here.

  13. Ken Hanke

    “I’m looking forward to seeing EXPELLED.”

    The movie or the review?

  14. craig

    I work at a newspaper and I’ve witnessed (and continue to witness) the effects of budget cuts on the newsroom staff. Up until last year, we had a full-time film critic in the features department. Unfortunately, being a component of a public media company means suffering through a measure of belt tightening when times are tough – not just in our market but in the markets of papers and other media outlets owned by our parent corporation. Revenues are down in Florida? The pain is felt in every newsroom that sports our corporate logo. Alas, the film-critic position wasn’t to remain.
    But what impressed me about our film critic was his versatility. In an environment of staff reductions and deadlines, he wrote some great theater reviews and profiles, as well as general features stories. All this on top of his regular job.
    I suspect this talent – this ability to excel under pressure – is evident in the vast majority of film critics. And I’m sure this talent is what allowed our former staffer to stay in the area and continue to write about film.

  15. Ken Hanke

    “Unfortunately, being a component of a public media company means suffering through a measure of belt tightening when times are tough – not just in our market but in the markets of papers and other media outlets owned by our parent corporation. Revenues are down in Florida? The pain is felt in every newsroom that sports our corporate logo.”

    You know, this is something that most people who are not directly affected by such things probably don’t realize. It happens in other areas as well where the stronger markets are being used to keep the weaker markets afloat. I suspect this is less altruism on a corporate level than a desire to be able to list X number of papers or theaters or what have you, combined with having, in many cases, a great many leases they’d be paying for even if they shut a facility down. (I know the latter is the case with at least two theater chains.) It’s also something that makes me wonder whether it isn’t just possible that independent ownership has more of a future than is often thought to be the case.

    You’re, of course, quite right about versatility, though it’s not something that would surprise me in a good movie reviewer. The broader a critic’s range of knowledge, the better critic he tends to be. You’ll note that most of your better reviewers have some kind of grasp on history, theatre, literature, music, etc. It’s not then surprising that other types of reviews, profiles, etc. should be within a critic’s range. There are limitations, however. Few will remember (thank Clapton!) that the first thing I ever wrote for the Xpress was a piece on the 2000 Brewgrass Festival. I was totally unsuited to the topic, but was afraid that if I turned the assignment down I’d never be offered another. The results weren’t pretty, but I guess they also weren’t completely useless, since I did receive further assignments.

  16. Louis

    Greetings Ken,

    Funny you would dispense useful “occupational” advice regarding this career path…I’ve been taking careful steps down it now for the better part of a year–first “Rapid River” (Hmmm?), now online & with the weekly reader “The Guide” in Haywood County. Have even been able to swing nominal compensation–enough to put gas in my car from time to time.

    I’ve an insatiable appetite for constructive feedback with respect to what I believe is an artform unto itself–the professional film review, but am having difficulty finding reciprocation from a equally enthusiastic mentor-like figure (Hmmm?)

  17. Ken Hanke

    “I’ve an insatiable appetite for constructive feedback with respect to what I believe is an artform unto itself–the professional film review, but am having difficulty finding reciprocation from a equally enthusiastic mentor-like figure (Hmmm?)”

    Not sure how effective I’d be as a mentor-like figure, but I’ll certainly be glad to talk to you about it.

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