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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Mary F. Pols

Mary Farrington Pols is the film critic for the Contra Costa Times.