A Walk Among the Tombstones
Fans of the hardboiled detective, rejoice. Screenwriter-director Scott Frank and actor Liam Neeson, adapting the splendid work of crime novelist Lawrence Block, have brought a…
I've been a movie and television critic for about 25 years. I've often been asked for advice on how to be a critic. A couple of years ago I distilled my standard spiel into a list of ten points, reproduced below.
I didn't offer too many professional specifics because the industry is changing so fast that whatever I said might have become outdated in a matter of months.This is a general list, aimed at those who wish to write about movies or TV, though I suppose one could easily substitute "music" or "literature" or "plays" for at least some of the items and still have a workable set of marching orders. Of course the style, philosophy, specific interests and general focus are up to the individual writer. If you can think of anything I should have mentioned but did not, or if you disagree with any points I made, let me know in comments.
HOW TO BE A CRITIC
1. Watch a lot of TV and movies. Consume media voraciously, and get outside your national, linguistic, or genre comfort zones regularly.
2. Learn about TV and film history beyond your date of birth. Go back as far as you possibly can. Seek out the past because it informs the present.
3. Write for at least two hours every day, even if you don't publish what you write. Writing is like athletics. The more you do it, the stronger and faster you become. Try to get to the point where you write better than anyone who writes faster than you, and faster than anyone who writes better than you. If two hours a day sounds like too much time, it means you don't really want to do this for a living and should do something else instead.
4. If you have a good idea or observation, write it down immediately. Keep a notebook handy when you watch anything, and if you notice a line or a shot that seems significant for whatever reason, or if you have a thought that seems even remotely promising, write it down so you don't forget it. You might as well just go ahead carry the notebook everywhere, because you never know when a decent idea will hit you, and if you get to the end of the day and can't remember it, you'll be annoyed with yourself. Notebooks are better than electronic devices because they don't run out of battery power and you won't annoy anyone if you use them in the dark.
5. Always make your editor's life easier, not harder. This is a job, not just a pursuit. Your bosses do not exist to make you feel good about yourself. They have to crank shit out, and a lot of them don't care how brilliant it is if it comes in late or has accuracy or structural problems that they have to solve. Journalism isn't filled with just-OK writers because that's what editors want. It's filled with just-OK writers because editors don't want to have to put out fires after regular office hours unless there's a damned good reason. So hit your deadlines. Turn in copy that's as smart and clean and exciting as can be under the circumstances. Take responsibility for your words. If you're not sure about an assertion, don't just leave it in the piece and hope somebody else catches it before publication: research and confirm it, or else delete the assertion and write around it. I lose more sleep over corrections than anything else related to journalism. That most errors are easily preventable only makes the discomfort worse.
6. Read about history and psychology, because so much art draws from those two areas. If you don't have some passing familiarity with history (recent and ancient) and psychology, your inferences about an artist's point-of-view will draw almost entirely upon second- or third-hand attitudes: i.e., you'll be critiquing film and TV based mainly on what film and TV you've seen. This will make your work shallow and prevent you from connecting the art to life.
7. Avoid rhetorical echo chambers. Seek out and converse with people whose views on art and life are diametrically opposed to yours, so that you don't preach to the choir all the time.
8. Write just a little bit about the filmmaking. Movies and TV are stories told via pictures, sound and performance. They are not purely literary media. Don't just write about the characters and themes. Write about how the show makes its points, because sometimes the how is the point. If you didn't go to film school, don't worry. It is not necessary to guess what sort of lens a director used or whether a backdrop is real or created on a computer. I'm talking about the mood or style of the show, the pace, the music or absence of music, whether the camera is making the people seem big and important or small and weak, and the way people and objects are arranged in the frame to convey a particular emotional effect or send a message. Don't worry that you'll compromise your "brand," whatever that might be, by writing about picture, sound and performance in addition to whatever else you've been focusing on. Writing about picture, sound and performance will not detract from any points you wish to make otherwise. It will only make your piece stronger. It will also unlock new levels of enjoyment as you watch.
9. Just write, damn it. I believe that ninety percent of writer's block is not the fault of the writer. It's the fault of the writer's wrongheaded educational conditioning. We're taught to write via a 20th century industrial model that's boringly linear and predictable: What's your topic sentence? What are your sections? What's your conclusion? Nobody wants to read a piece that's structured that way. Even if they did, the form would be more a hindrance than a help to the writing process, because it makes the writer settle on a thesis before he or she has had a chance to wade around in the ideas and inspect them. So to Hell with the outline. Just puke on the page, knowing that you can clean it up and make it structurally sound later. Your mind is a babbling lunatic. It's Dennis Hopper, jumping all over the place, free associating, digressing, doubling back, exploding in profanity and absurdity and nonsense. Stop ordering it to calm down and speak clearly. Listen closely and take dictation. Be a stenographer for your subconscious. Then rewrite and edit.
10. Be the best you that you can be. Learn from other writers, but don't imitate them. Absorb their lessons and then try not to think about them. Don't try to write the way you think you're supposed to write. Don't say the things you think you are supposed to say. Write the truth as you see it. Don't worry about impressing anyone with your erudition, setting an agenda, proving how much research you've done, or anything else. An editor once told me that you should try to take all the stuff you'd say to a friend over coffee after you've filed a piece and put that in the piece. I agree completely. The pieces people still quote to me years or decades later are the ones I wrote in a hurry, when there wasn't time to censor myself or polish the work to death or otherwise worry about how I might be perceived. The more honest, personal and direct your writing is, the more popular it will be. As long as you're not being racist, sexist, needlessly vicious, or thickheaded, as as long as you support your arguments with at least some proof drawn from the "text"—i.e. the movie or the TV show as it appears onscreen—there's no way that you will say the "wrong" thing. Let the reader see that there is a person behind your words, because that's ultimately the point of writing anything: to connect with other people.
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