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.