Reflections of a Former (and Future) Film Critic – Mary Pols comments

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This March I left my job as a film critic for the Bay Area-based Contra Costa Times, Oakland Tribune and San Jose Mercury News. Along with 101 colleagues, I took a buyout. It was a clear and obvious choice. If I hadn’t leapt then, with at least a small landing pad of cash, I have little doubt I would have been pushed this month, when Media News laid off 29 of my former newsroom colleagues, all of them deemed unnecessary by the company.

Yet four months later, I still wake every Tuesday with that familiar expectation that my day will end, as it did for nearly eight years, and as it does for most film critics, with a drive home from a screening, the fresh material of a new movie dancing in my head, with both the dread and adrenaline rush of Wednesday morning’s deadline ahead of me. If it’s Tuesday, this must be the multiplex. The job may be gone, but those circadian rhythms linger.

It’s not that different from my September sweater cravings. I grew up in a place with clearly demarcated seasons, so around Labor Day, I still get that craving for preppy sweaters, leather boots and other items of clothing one might wear while horseback riding on a crisp day. I don’t actually need these things. For one thing, I don’t ride horses. And, for another, the California climate tends to be a fall full of Indian summer days.

The question before me now is, do I need to be a movie critic? Enough to buck the enormous odds against me? Against all of us?

From the time I was 10 years old, being a film critic was my dream job. But I was 10 in the 1970s, the blossoming days of Pauline Kael, a far different time from the scorched landscape of 2008, when we’re all far less shocked by more lay-off news than we are to hear someone still has their job. Anyone want to take bets on how long it will be before some editor at the New York Times says, “Holden can go for sure, since he’s all about the esoteric. And are we sure we need Tony and Manohla?”

**

I published a book in June, a memoir. This was a major contributor to the freedom I’d felt to take the buyout; I knew I had some income on the way, as well as a lot of book publicity to do in the spring (aka, reading to small groups of assembled friends in various West Coast cities and groveling to all my gainfully employed journalist friends for coverage).

I wasn’t naïve enough to think my life would change overnight, but when the first reviews came in I saw that–in one simple way–it had. I was consistently referred to as a “former film critic.” I suppose if I’d taken a buyout from the waste management department, they’d have been just as likely to refer to me as a former garbage woman. Because I’d never thought of my job as merely a job – it felt more like a calling – it was strange to watch the title recede along with the pay check.

It is stranger still to realize I’m not sure I should claim the title anymore. Because the truth is almost embarrassing; I’ve only seen five movies in the last four months. When I was working, I’d see about 80 within the same time period.

I’m not sure why I’ve seen so few. I might be in recovery from the horror of that last year (“The news hole shrunk, so we need that review to be no more than 200 words”). I might be hibernating. I might be working on my next book (umm, not so much). Or I might be in the acceptance phase of the Five Stages of Grief for a career I loved like no other.

At a press screening yesterday, for “The Dark Knight”– I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to see Heath Ledger’s Joker – several colleagues asked me if I missed the job. “I’ll always miss it,” I said. A true statement, as heartfelt and deep as “I’ll always miss seasons.” But global warming notwithstanding, all I have to do is move back to New England to reclaim the latter.

Whereas I’m not sure the film critic’s life, at least as I knew it — mid-level, respectable — is attainable anymore. It took me until the age of 36 to get where I wanted to be. I’m not sure that boat I built for myself, equal parts voice, craft and hard times spent in the salt mines of Metro, can still float in today’s choppy media waters.

Certainly local critics are an endangered species. The same week I took that buyout, both the movie and television critics for the Mercury News were reassigned to different beats. The chipping away at print criticism has been terrifyingly steady in the last two years. Fellow AWFJ member Eleanor Ringel Gillespie from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution took a buyout last year, the Village Voice laid off Dennis Lim and Michael Atkinson, Terry Lawson of the Detroit Free Press was bought out.

Sean Means at the Salt Lake City Tribune has been tracking movie critic buyouts/retirements and layoffs at his blog

And no one is being replaced. Because movie reviews can be found on the wire after all, right? You don’t have to live within a community in order to review movies for that community. Technically, that’s true. But it won’t be long before all those wire reviews are written by the same five over-worked, over-stretched, creatively-drained people.

Cut loose from a newspaper, I could continue to write about film, at least on the lower end of the pay scale (forget the high end, there are too many of us and not enough jobs). I could blog or write for one of the innumerable websites out there. The options are there, if you want to live without a reliable income, probably without health insurance, while writing for an audience plagued by cultural attention deficit disorder (I’m not being superior here; I’ve given myself ADD with too many hours at the laptop).

I’ve been despairing over the future of print journalism for at least two years. To continue to do so any longer feels akin to fretting about the addict in your life, the one that hasn’t reformed and doesn’t care to, the one that just keeps selling off possessions to get another fix (in this case is of course, profit). So at this point, I’m more sad than bitter. Personally, it’s a big investment to put aside. On a larger scope, it’s a cultural loss to see the ranks of professional film critics diminish. The film industry may not always enjoy being viewed with a critical eye, and it may take box office success far more seriously than it does good or bad reviews, but I believe it needs that level of scrutiny to drive it to be better.

Moreover, any filmmaker who puts out a “small” good film without much of a marketing budget is desperately in need of a critic to pass on the word about it. (As a first-time author who probably has a snowball’s chance in hell of being reviewed in a national publication, I feel well qualified to make this judgment.) I’m also a believer in the philosophy that newspapers must create and maintain a dialogue with readers in order to survive, and there is no better, easier way to do that than to employ a movie critic. Movies are the common denominator in our shared cultural conversation, in life and on the page. To ignore that is foolish. Each critic is only one voice, but we serve as a filter for a society pummeled every day by an onslaught of new releases, whether they be movies, music recordings or books.

**

I keep circling back to something that the Mexican director Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu (“Babel,” “Amores Perros”) said in the midst of a talk he was giving to a group of my students at UC Berkeley. “Critics see too many movies.” I could have said to him, but we need to see all these movies in order to know how to hold them up against each other, not just for ourselves, but for our readers. Or: We can’t lose control of the rapidly moving vector of pop culture, or we will be lost, out of touch, left behind. I did not say these things, because I knew he was right. Reach a certain point in your education about what is good, bad and indifferent, in any of the arts, and you no longer need to see what is indifferent in order to know that it is indifferent. Most of today’s movies are ultimately, after the flush of marketing has faded, indifferent.

Since I left the beat, I have relished the break from the onslaught of crap. I looked at the posters for “Meet Dave” and thought, thank God. I have been to the following movies: “Smart People,” (girl-date); “Indiana Jones and the Whatever,” (best benefit of quitting: no more obligation to retain the absurdities that spring forth from George Lucas’s mind); “Sex and the City”; and finally the great “Wall-E.” Of those, I only wanted to write about the last two, “Sex and the City” because it was so interesting from a cultural standpoint and “Wall-E” because it was so damn good.

But mostly what I thought about, when the lights went up at the end of “Wall-E,“ was, is there someone at Pixar who wouldn’t mind having a bought-out movie critic bringing them coffee for a smallish salary? Because to participate, even on some small level, in consistent greatness, is a great enticement for someone who has just left a world of consistent mediocrity.

**

Which brings me back to Tuesday nights and that rhythm of movie going I was so used to. Those screenings were almost always of the “big” movie, the movie we thought readers had to hear about. Why? Because they had the biggest stars, or best marketing budget, or we thought these were the movies people would probably be going to see–no matter what opinion we were offering about them.

There were exceptions to this rule; not every movie that screens for a critic on Tuesday night is skip-able. But more often than not, our choices were led by commerce, rather than a sense of discovery. We should have been leaders, not followers, sending readers to what we thought they simply shouldn’t miss, even if it wasn’t playing on three screens at the multiplex. The better magazines, on-line and in print, do this every week. They take a stance on which films deserve the real estate.

I don’t think this lack of awareness for what matters in the long run is the reason for the steady decline in the amount of locally generated criticism in daily newspapers. I blame the toxic blend of a George Bush economy and the corporate greed and short-sightedness of newspaper companies for that. But I do think on an editorial management level, we devalued our own real estate. That is part of what has made it easy for the corporate suits who own say, a half dozen papers, to hold up the arts and entertainment sections of all of them, notice that each contains writing about the same three movies a week and figure, eh, we only need one of these people to do this job.

There’s a relatively new publishing model in the book industry, Twelve Books, which puts out just one book a month. The theory is that the company can throw all its muscle behind that one book and make it really matter. There’s an elegance to that premise, quality over quantity. There are 52 weekends in a year, and I’d hazard, about 52 new films a year really worth writing about. They tantalize me, reminding me of how hard it is to kill off a lifelong dream. So my plan is to write about them for awfj.org. Or as many of them as I can squeeze in around my floor sweeping schedule at Pixar.

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  • http://www.businessmanagementabcs.com Sue Massey

    Well said… Great information, keep up the great work!

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com MaryAnn Johanson

    The options are there, if you want to live without a reliable income, probably without health insurance, while writing for an audience plagued by cultural attention deficit disorder

    Welcome to the only life as a film critic I’ve ever known.

    I’m not saying it doesn’t suck. I’m saying it’s the reality at the moment. I don’t know how we change it, though.

  • Jay Carr

    Lovely, melancholy, piece of a becoming directness, aptness and the power of truth. Glad you wrote it, glad I reasd it, glad to hear you’re going to keep going on AWFJ’s website.

  • Joan

    Eh. I’m in the movie business. And why do we – along with newspaper owners – think reviewers are irrelevant, and deserve to be cut? Simple answer: You’ve all forgotten that in newspaper, it’s service journalism. The only thing that matters is your opinion as to whether the film is worth seeing or not. But, no. You all spend 1200 words contextualizing it; framing this disposable piece of entertainment in terms of the culture, or the war — and for the average reader, Tony Scott, Dhargis, and (especially) Chicano at the LA Times, simply blathers on, filling countless column inches with linguistic theatrics, without serving the basic need of the reader: Should I pay $12.00 to see this, or not?

    Moreover, Innaritu was dead right: You see too many movies, and lower the bar for your definition of what’s good. Because so many films are so bad, you generally tend to overpraise things that are mediocre at best.

    A friend of mine who writes big summer tent pole films explains the uselessness of reviewers like this: You guys expend all sorts of energy writing about this week’s roller coaster ride, thinking it’s something other than a roller coaster ride. These things are built, designed, and marketed as efficiently as the next Whoop-De-Do Cyclone Thriller at Magic Mountain. And that’s all they are: They have the same plot points, the same over-the-top action beats, the same reality-defying stuns, and the same general pointlessness – but you keep seeing them as Cinema, whereas the audience, and the people who make them know that they’re just amusement park rides, designed to sell toys and spin offs, and set up the sequel. But again, the daily critics think they’re writing about Art, in the Days of Paulene Kael.

    Sorry, but the simple truth is that all these poor out of work reviewers could have saved their jobs – and helped their newspapers – by writing 300 word reviews, with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. This would have been a hell of a lot more useful for the readers.

    If you want to write about Cinema, or Film, get a job in the film theory department of a local college. Or get yourself a slot at a glossy magazine.

    For me, the plight of the now out of work film reviewers are all self inflicted wounds.

  • Tom Long

    Very nice piece and personally relevant for obvious reasons. One small correction: My friend Terry Lawson worked for the Detroit Free Press and did take the buyout there. I am the critic for the Detroit News, and I’m still doing the Tuesday (as well as Monday, Wednesday and sometimes Thursdays) thing.

  • http://documentaries.about.com Jennifer Merin

    Thanks, Tom, for pointing out our error, and apologies for it. We’ve corrected the text. And, we’re very glad to know that you’re still going strong at that Tuesday (and sometimes 24/7) thing at the Detroit News. Excelsor! Jennifer Merin

  • eleanor Ringel Cater

    Hi. Thought it was a lovely reflective piece (to echo one of my heroes, Jay Carr). Now that my June 30 anniversary has passed, I may have more to say about the situation down here in Atlanta. Or maybe not. I’ve actually, reader/reviewer-wise landed in clover, so to speak.

    And who is Joan? She seems to know so much I’d love to know more about her background.

  • Joan

    PS: There was one last thing I wanted to point out, from your piece. As you wrote:

    “I don’t think this lack of awareness for what matters in the long run is the reason for the steady decline in the amount of locally generated criticism in daily newspapers. I blame the toxic blend of a George Bush economy and the corporate greed and short-sightedness of newspaper companies for that.”

    For me this sums up the problem in toto: It wasn’t the internet that commodified criticism; things like Craigslist, Google, or broadband connections had nothing to do with the downward spiraling fortunes of newspapers.

    No. According to you, it’s George Bush’s fault, along with Rupert Murdoch. It had absolutely NOTHING to do with the content you were publishing, perceived bias on the part of readers, or the sheer “usefulness” of the product.

    Sorry, but I have to call b.s. on this. There’s no question Bush is an awful president. But connecting him to the cutting of local movie reviewers is a little specious, at best.

  • Afi

    Well Joan, who are you? Your comments are as articulate and provocative as Mary Pols’ column.

    I do disagree with this comment of yours:

    “Sorry, but the simple truth is that all these poor out of work reviewers could have saved their jobs – and helped their newspapers – by writing 300 word reviews, with a simple thumbs up or thumbs down. This would have been a hell of a lot more useful for the readers.

    If you want to write about Cinema, or Film, get a job in the film theory department of a local college. Or get yourself a slot at a glossy magazine.”

    I love knowing about the cultural references and influences of the films I might go see. It makes me an educated viewer,and more appreciative – or dismissive -of the medium. And I don’t think it’s superfluous to have that kind of intelligent,intellectual writing in a newspaper.

    BTW, I’m not a film critic. I do,however, like reading about fmil.

  • Joan

    Afi: I work in the production and development side of the movie business, for a studio.

    And I’ll concede that you may have a point that I was being a little too simplistic about 300 word reviews, simply reducing them to thumbs up and thumbs down.

    But on the other hand, maybe not. And for Exhibit A in my defense, I’ll point to the lead of Ken Turan’s review of The Dark Night in today’s LA Times:

    “GIVEN THE success of “Batman Begins” three years ago, adventurous, eclectic director Christopher Nolan could have gone anywhere and done anything with his next film. So why did he elect to return to the mythical city of Gotham, to the confines of a superhero movie and the narrow world of a caped crusader imprisoned by the secret of who he really is?”

    Now, I’m a fan of Turan’s. And the writing here isn’t bad. But it’s oblique, and even in the hometown of the movie business, I’d venture to guess that 85% of the newspaper reading audience doesn’t know who Christopher Nolan is. So almost from the get-go, we’re down into a tunnel that doesn’t serve the readers, most of whom do not have the IMDB bookmarked, and simply want to know “Is it any good?”

    So I ask the question: What percentage of readers of the ever-diminishing circulation of the LA Times read past that first paragraph? This isn’t Film Comment. It’s a daily, mass-circulation newspaper, with comics, sports scores and soduku puzzles. (And I’ll confess: Even working in the film business, I didn’t get past that first paragraph, simply because to us, the answer is self evident: If you have a hit, the studio invites you back for the sequel. And you do it. Why did Nolan return to Gotham City? Because they offered him 10 million dollars and a piece of the gross. I mean, give me a break. Even the knuckle-draggers who watch Access Hollywood understand this. So the whole lead is coy, pedantic, and exactly what I described in an earlier post as writing for writing’s sake.)

    Yes, I do like reading about film. I thought Tony Lane’s review of Wanted was brilliant. But please don’t call something like Turan’s newsprint-chewing musings on Dark Night interesting, informed, or unique.

    Again, I come back to my main point, with regard to the failure of newspaper reviewers to serve their papers, and their audiences. How useful was the Turan review, and how would it have fared (in terms of readership) as compared to a MetaCritic or Rotten Tomatoes box?

    Me thinks the readership would find more use – and more value – and more reason for continuing to subscribe – with the box.

  • David Julian Gray

    Mary – left CA years ago – pointed to this article by friends and colleagues – great piece of writing, great piece of thinking – and, HEY – if you love movies, why don’t you apply for that job at Pixar getting coffee for someone.

    I would love to read your reviews based on this essay, but you should follow your heart (that’s strangely worked out for me, now 55 and happy of heart) – I happen to know they appreciate coffee at Pixar, and they appreciate people, too.

  • http://maryfpols.com Mary Pols

    Okay Joan, I’ll stop licking my self-inflicted wounds and bite. Here’s my review of the Dark Knight, tailored to you. And by the way, about 95 percent of us wish we had Anthony Lane’s brain, while most of us just wish we had Kenneth Turan’s job.

    Heath Ledger’s performance is all that matters in “The Dark Knight,” writer/director Christopher Nolan’s latest foray into the “Batman” series.

    You might not know who Nolan is, although critics, and some consumers, drooled over his “Memento,” his deliberately confusing break-through film. Nor may you care to know anything more about Nolan, but the slim standards of film criticism require us to include the name of a film’s “author,” just as book reviews tend to include, in a prominent position, the name of the person who wrote the book.

    Still, let’s not dwell on the minutiae, because this is a roller coaster! Just pay the $12 and get on! Will you like it? Well, my thumb is squirrelly on this one. On the downside, Batman himself is a dreary, almost comical figure, largely because Christian Bale, rasping his way through all his scenes as the Caped Crusader, appears to be auditioning for the Most Important Cold Remedy Commercial of all time. As Bruce Wayne, he’s just a dick. Which is kind of brave. Thumb back up!

    The film – sorry! MOVIE — is over-stuffed with set pieces that ensure plenty of big bangs, but are picked up and tossed aside with the same level of attention and urgency a toddler uses to investigate a toy chest. Individually, they are cool and provocative, but collectively, they serve mostly to exhaust any human being who has spent even an afternoon navigating a city as populated as Gotham, let alone planting massive amounts of incendiary devices in roughly a dozen locations in anticipation of any and all outcomes for the previous boom-boom. Thumb down.

    But up again! As the Joker, Ledger is thrillingly magnetic, even if we don’t see nearly enough of him and never will again. (He died. Don’t dwell. That’s for People Magazine, not roller coaster riders.) He looks like a cross between a painting by Francis Bacon (creepy artist guy) and Alex from “A Clockwork Orange” (seminal film by Stanley Kubrick, also, a horrifying book by Anthony…oh hell, who still reads?). He’s very spooky, especially in drag (what a waistline!) although not quite as disconcerting as Gary Oldman, once again masquerading as noble cop Lt. Jim Gordon when everyone knows Oldman has to be the real psycho killer. Stay tuned for the next chapter. I’d write more, but Joan would spank me. Again.

    -Back to working on my resume. Got to move the waitressing stuff back to the top.

  • Joan

    Hi Mary —

    You’re going to hate me, but your first paragraph – before you got into the sarcasm in the next paragraph – was a lot more cogent and useful than 90% of what I’ve read about this film.

    I apologize for picking on you, but you opened up the subject, and a lot of what I’ve written doesn’t specifically apply to your writing.

    Once again, to illustrate what I’ve been talking about, look at the way Tony Scott begins his review of Mama Mia this morning:

    “Even those of us who habitually favor serious, austere, aesthetically correct drinks — single-malt Scotch, green tea, pomegranate juice, whatever — may occasionally indulge in a frivolous cocktail bedecked with fruit and umbrellas and served in a bulbous, sugar-rimmed glass. The next morning’s headache seems a small price to pay for the rush of cheap liquor and uninhibited conviviality. As long as you don’t operate heavy machinery or wake up in the wrong bed, or operate heavy machinery in the wrong bed, what’s the harm?”

    Cute? Sure. Interesting? Insightful? Eh. Could he have said the same thing with approximately half the words? Definitely.

    Truly, I’m not advocating writing in bullet points. But it’s a newspaper. I want information, quick, clean, precise. For me, the Scott review is a perfect example of what I’ve referred to as writing for writings’ sake. It’s verbose, noise, and chatter. And the real problem (for you, and readers) isn’t just this one tiny example, but rather, the cumulative effect of several years worth of this that makes me react “Just get to the point and tell me what you think of the film.” Which is why most of my peers in the film business rarely read a review anymore, and just go for the consensus on Rotten Tomatoes or MetaCritic. (And, by the way, I didn’t finish the Mama Mia review. I got to the second paragraph where he described it as a flawed but guilty pleasure, and then stopped reading.)

  • http://maryfpols.com Mary Pols

    Joan, You’ve got me, I can’t disagree with your position on Scott’s Mama Mia review, which I read last night thinking is this 1200 words? It certainly feels like 1200. Is that grumpy, critic-loathing Joan reading it too? Because if she is…(Although I did read all the way to the end. Also, pomegranate juice seems as frivolous as any silly cocktail, doesn’t it?).

    But 2 things: I wrote maybe a handful of 1,200 word reviews in my entire career (most of them related to Peter Jackson). Quickly, I learned to live with the restrictions of 900 for the biggest movie of the week. Then I accepted 700. Fine. It worked.

    Then we slipping down to 500. That was really depressing, but part of me thought, less brain for work, more for creative writing. And thinking about what to make for dinner!. THAT, let me tell you, is not the sign of a good and happy newspaper employee, it is the beginning of a woman hoping, not for great things in her newspaper career, but for a buyout.

    The second thing is this. Count the words in the next Anthony Lane review you love. I bet they come to 1,200. Or close. And some of them will be “self-indulgent,” in that they are from a man showing off a superior wit, sometimes at the cost of the film in question — I think his job description is actually “entertainer,” and I don’t fault him for that because he is divine. But you read all of them, right? And maybe you go see “Wanted,” or maybe you don’t (I haven’t yet). But you feel as though you’ve had a sort of conversation with someone who really knows what they are talking about and is, in the end, a better storyteller than many working filmmakers. That’s what I always aspired to. But few have it. Look at poor old Denby, sincere, serious and dull, having to share a duplex with Lane.

    You’re fun. Let’s have a single-malt scotch together some time. That’s is, apparently, what the big thinkers do.

  • http://www.flickfilosopher.com MaryAnn Johanson

    The only thing that matters is your opinion as to whether the film is worth seeing or not. But, no. You all spend 1200 words contextualizing it; framing this disposable piece of entertainment in terms of the culture, or the war

    I find this a fascinatingly mysterious comment, Joan. How do you divorce whether a movie is “worth seeing” from the context in which we see it? Movies don’t exist in a vacuum, and there is absolutely no way to see *some* movies — like *The Dark Knight,* for instance — without seeing the context in which it was created and in which it is presented to us. I don’t mean this to sound sarcastic, but do you live in the world with the rest of us?

    Moreover, Innaritu was dead right: You see too many movies, and lower the bar for your definition of what’s good. Because so many films are so bad, you generally tend to overpraise things that are mediocre at best.

    So you think critics should see fewer films? How would that work? How would a critic choose which few films to see, and how would that critic know s/he was choosing only those films worth seeing?

    And how does critics overpraising mediocre films (which I don’t think happens, actually) differ in any way from a moviegoer who sees only five movies per year and so doesn’t realize that they’re as crappy as the other five hundred that were released that year, and so loves those five films because they represent the totality of his moviegoing experience? Because that’s *my* experience a critic: that the average moviegoer is far more lenient on movies than professional critics are because the average moviegoer has no damn idea how much crap is out there.

    And one more thing: If you don’t know where a critic is coming from — which is part of what you learn in all those “self-indulgent” 1200 word reviews — how do you learn whether a critic’s opinion is generally in line with yours? I mean, just because a critic gives a film a thumbs-up or -down in a 300 words “review” doesn’t mean that’s the last or only word on a film, or that you will agree with it. Or do you honestly believe there is only one “objective” response to a film, and that everyone must automatically agree with it?

  • http://documentaries.about.com Jennifer Merin

    Joan,

    I agree with Mary: you are fun!

    So I’m sure you’ll take with good humor what might seem to be a snarky editor’s question: Are you referencing the current Batman outing as “Dark Night” as a pun (as in “Dark Night, and Good Luck”) or is “Night” as opposed to “Knight” just a repeated typo?

    I know that isn’t a thumbs up/thumbs down issue, but film critics and their editors do tend to wonder, worry about and address such things.

    So?

  • Joan

    Sorry about that. Sloppy mistake. Dark Knight.

  • http://chutry.wordherders.net/wp/ Chuck

    Jennifer alerted me to this conversation via email, and I’m glad I had the chance to check it out. I’ve been thinking about many of these issues lately for a book I’m writing, specifically a chapter on film blogging and its relationship to the decline in newspaper reviews.

    Joan’s comments about the issue of contexts for film reviews are interesting, especially the suggestion that readers aren’t interested in social context, background, etc. I think she may be right to a degree; however, I’d like to hope that it’s possible to expect more from readers. Yeah, it might not make a lot of sense to treat Dark Knight as some deep expression of Chris Nolan’s soul when it’s really a job well done for a $10 million paycheck, but it is disappointing to see so many newspapers refusing to challenge readers to some extent. Yes, some reviews are excessively verbose (Scott’s MM review is good example), but I’d like to see a more critically engaged culture, not one that caters to the lowest common denominator.

    I also agree with Mary’s comment that reviews should strive in part for a form of advocacy, for pointing readers to films they might not otherwise encounter, and I do think that’s something that many web critics, including many at AWFJ, do very well.

  • http://themovieminute.com Joanna Langfield

    I love this conversation!

    Sadly, I must also point out that print critics aren’t the only ones losing their jobs: broadcasters are just as vulnerable.

    What I find particularly ironic is that, when I was a kid, I would never miss an issue of Time Magazine. It wasn’t that I was so concerned about the news: I opened directly to the Jay Cocks’s movie reviews. The man, who wrote so beautifully about Bergman and the Beatles, would also dismiss pieces he didn’t like with a vengeance that drove me crazy. I was addicted. And that kept me subscribing for years.

    As audiences are spreading themselves thin, isn’t it worth considering that we critics add to the loyalty factor with distinctive voices, even if it’s just because we can tick people off?

  • http://documentaries.about.com Jennifer Merin

    That’s cool, Joan. Everyone needs an editor, and I’m very glad you owned up. You’ve got a correction due, too, on “Mamma Mia!” Check it out.

    But that’s not really the issue in this conversation, so let’s not get sidetracked into a discussion about typos and syntax and other such niggling details that occupy the minds of those of us who’ve been allotted 300 words and know that we’ve got to make each and every one of them work overtime to deliver the message.

    Actually, I agree with you that brevity in reviewing can be a good thing. But brevity entails economy of expression as much as it does space limitations. And, economy of expression requires discipline–which, in my opinion, is also a good thing.

    What do you object to in the Turan and Scott reviews you’ve referenced as examples? It’s not the reviews’ length, but what you consider to be overly extravagant or wasteful use of words. Without supporting or condemning your opinion about these reviews (and the work of Turan and Scott, in general), I’d say that I, too, find excessive, self-indulgent word bloat extremely aggravating. And, it occurs almost as frequently in 300 worders as it does in longer pieces. But, writers are human, and not everyone is 100 percent 100 percent of the time. And, to be honest, some readers suck up that bloat that nauseates me.

    So, who’s right? Everyone and nobody. Should those bloaters be allowed to keep their platforms? Absolutely. Should we be allowed to use their published work as birdcage liner? Of course.

    That said, I wonder whether–while you’ve been visiting http://www.awfj.org to comment on Mary’s essay–you’ve noticed that we aggregate our members’ reviews on our site, and currently have five reviews of “The Dark Knight” posted (in addition to Mary‘s wonderful retort/review), and four of “Mamma Mia!” Have you read them?

    These reviews are all written by women critics–we are, after all, the Alliance of Women Journalists and, while we’re not a chauvinistic organization, one of our primary objectives is to focus attention on the perspectives of women critics (an even more endangered subset of the endangered movie critics species). We are selective about our membership, and one of our requirements is skillful writing.

    Additionally, since I assume you’re LA-based, you must have regular access to the reviews of Carina Chocano, Ella Taylor and other fine female film critics featured in LA newspapers. Have you read their reviews of “Mamma Mia!“ and/or “The Dark Knight?”

    How, in your opinion, do these fem-penned reviews stack up?

  • http://www.moviemom.com Nell Minow

    What an engaging exchange! It makes me think that what might be more illuminating and provocative than traditional movie reviews would be a conversation or point/counterpoint on each one, the way Ebert and Siskel used to be. But in a way that’s what we get online from aggregators like Rotten Tomatoes.

    As this exchange suggests, no one is stopping you from writing the kinds of reviews you want to write about the movies you want to see. But making a living at it is a different story, and one that is impossible to separate from what is going on throughout the field of journalism, especially print journalism. Budgets and coverage are being slashed across the board. Be glad you’re not a book critic or a classical music critic or a foreign correspondent, all slots going the way of the dodo. Look at the way bloggers are stealing the thunder — and the stories — from the MSM.

    With regard to film critics, I think we are close to the point at which there are more people who want to write movie reviews than there are people who want to read them. But the best — like Dana Stevens, who went from her own website to freelancing for the NY Times to being Slate’s critic in a remarkably short time — will always be sought after.

    Joan, I like a lot of what you have to say. But you are not the audience for most movie reviews. They are not intended for people who work in the field and know a lot about film and film-makers and see tons of movies. Most reviews are intended for the “is anything good playing that we both want to see” folks, and it is critics who bring non-blockbusters to their attention.

    I don’t think being local is all that important. What is important is a range of voices — male, female, young, old, gay, straight, married, single, parents, non-parents, every color and ethnicity, cineastes and people who are suckers for glossy romantic comedies or slasher zombie films or who only like arty indies. And there’s even a place for people who are the movie equivalent of a TV weatherman — not the one who tells you the barometric pressure, the one who tells you if you need a sweater.

    People who are passionate about writing about film will find their outlets and people who are passionate about reading about film will continue to read them. Making a living from it — that’s still the tricky part.

  • http://www.susangranger.com Susan Granger

    Wonderful essay!

    Thank you for articulating so much of what I have felt for months now…as I approach more than 30 years of writing movie reviews.

    Only, as a broadcast journalist who also writes for newspapers and the internet, I have always had the 300-word limit. Rather than chafing at the restriction, I’ve found it makes one choose words more carefully and cultivate a more precise vocabulary.

    Or, as Blaise Pascal (1632-1662) said, “I have made this letter longer because I lack the time to make it shorter.”

  • http://www.lvrj.com Carol Cling

    Light, not heat. That’s my goal whenever I review a movie. Alas, not that many people seem interested in what I consider enlightened moviegoing these days. They buy their ticket and they take the ride. Which is fine —- for them.

    As a movie critic, I’m required to do more than sit there. It’s my job to watch every movie I see with an open mind and an open heart, then report my reaction fully and honestly. I don’t expect everyone to agree with my opinion. I do expert everyone who reads one of my reviews to understand my conclusions and how and why I have reached them.

    It’s a sign of the times — and not a good one, in my view — when people are e not only indifferent, but downright hostile, to perspectives other than their own. Many seem interested in hearing their opinions confirmed or echoed — but entirely uninterested in what others have to say. This attitude seems to hold true whether the topic is movies or politics — and it’s unhealthy either way. In my humble opinion, of course.

  • Benet Pols

    (No relation……HA!)

    “Simplify, simplify.”

  • RvB

    The “should I see it or shouldn’t I see the movie” question is impossible to answer if I don’t know who you are. Thing was, when Mary was getting published, you knew who SHE was, and you could read and decide whether or not her feelings on the matter were the kind of feelings you shared. That’s what the good film critics do: they use their personality when they’re writing so you can judge whether or not you might like a film.

    As a long time critic, I have to feel that complaints about thumbless criticism is a bit of a smokescreen. Some people are going to see some movies no matter who warns them away; it’s afterward that the real discussion begins.

  • Andrew

    You don’t know whay you’ve lost ’til it’s gone. As a still working colleague, I miss Mary’s point of view, with which i rarely agreed. Here,she has in her grasp the essence of this discussion:

    She references Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu: “’Critics see too many movies.’ … I knew he was right. Reach a certain point in your education about what is good, bad and indifferent, in any of the arts, and you no longer need to see what is indifferent in order to know that it is indifferent.”

    a respondent agrees: … “I do think on an editorial management level, we devalued our own real estate. That is part of what has made it easy for the corporate suits who own say, a half dozen papers, to hold up the arts and entertainment sections of all of them, notice that each contains writing about the same three movies a week and figure, eh, we only need one of these people to do this job.

    “There’s an elegance to that premise, quality over quantity.”

    This is the nature of the devaluation: Shallow corporate efficiency dictates assembly line efficiency against the underlying premise of knowing your audience, even while touting “local local local”. In theory, a writer of Mary’s caliber — and how she outgrew metro confines — is what, multiplied, holds readers. In theory, a stable of such informed, educated, talented writers, egaging readers with what readers want to know about, creates successful reader vehicles. At the back of every editor’s mind is the thought, if only we had four or five more like (the one or two remaining). If that’s all we had and they brought to the daily pages such incisive reporting and reflection and sheerly entertaining, INCISIVE, writing, we would have no difficulty maintaining circulation. Some publications achieve this critical mass for a time.

    It is a sweet dream and will remain so as long as we have an audience capable of reading.

  • Jason

    Basically, what Joan is calling for is a dumbing down of film criticism. She doesn’t want an attempt at thoughtfulness or introspection, she wants to be directed.

    Ironically, it took me about 30 words to say the same thing it took her 1,200 words to say…

  • Jen

    I’m sorry it took me so long to find this conversation (and Mary’s piece), because it’s a fascinating read. I agree at times with both Mary and with Joan; I understand the desire of a film critic to write reviews bursting with detail and observations and references and analysis, but I also see Joan’s point about the useage of a newpaper review to the average reader (or the not-so-average industry insider). I think many critics overwrite; Joan’s examples could understandably make readers lose interest within the first paragraph. That is indeed a problem, because people don’t seem to read as much anymore as they used to — which makes it much easier for newspapers to cut staff writers. Many critics seem to write for themselves more than they write for their readers , although that does seem a natural inclination. Both reader and critic must somehow meet in the middle, but where we’re at these days it seems both sides are on opposite ends of the room.

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  • http://www,twitteradder.info twitter adder

    Well you have me a little worried, I’m due to start working as a film critic in the next couple of months for an online company. It looks like a dream job, but I have to give up everything for a meagre salary and what could be an uncertain future :(

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