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How to become a film critic (or not)

It's the 30th comment in a "he said, she said" post about the ridiculous Armond White v. J. Hoberman "kerfuffle" (that seems to be the most popular term for describing it) -- a beautiful defense of film criticism itself by the estimable F.X. Feeney:

The whole scrimmage that's been set up between internet critics and print critics operates on a false premise -- the idea that somebody is actually going to win this contest.

Speaking as one who has, at best, eked a marginal living in the racket since 1980 (I have no 401K to defend against the likes of Harry Knowles, and never have) I would like to point out that James Agee sets the standard NOT because he wrote "for print," but because he WROTE, period.

Film Criticism at its best is nothing more or less than the practice of literature. A humble corner of literature, to be sure -- but talent, depth of comprehension and communication are the arbiters of what's good and true. They always were, always will be. The topic is fleeting, and today's insight wraps tomorrow's fish, but the abiding joy comes of saying what you've experienced so truthfully and so well that strangers get your meaning whether they agree or not.

We're in a transitional period, right now. The internet gives us the freedom to write at length, if we need to, and gives our readers the freedom to be merciless and click away if we grow fuzzy, dry or tedious.

Good! That it no longer provides even a marginal living may prove a test of true love, and artistry -- we can only hope.

This is something we've been talking about on this blog since it started in 2005, but more eloquently expressed than usual. And as David Bordwell writes (in response to this) at his blog, film criticism is always dying, never quite dead.

But, David says, criticism takes many forms (reviewing being only the most familiar). What matters is not so much taste, or passion, or even writing style -- but an ability to combine information and ideas:

A critic of lasting value offers a vision of cinema, of the arts more generally, of society or politics or something beyond the individual movie. For Sarris, the key idea was directorial authorship. For Parker Tyler, it was the idea that popular culture spasmodically threw up surrealistic material. For Farber it was the prospect that the studio system nurtured films, or moments, that hinted at speed, harshness, and darkness. Sontag clung to hope that cinema could carry on the program of post-World-War-II modernism. For Ebert, it's centrally the belief that cinema can yield humane wisdom that forms a guide for living. Beyond our shores there were Arnheim, Bazin, Eisenstein (yes, he wrote film criticism), the Cahiers and Positif crews, and many more. Their powerful and provocative ideas yielded new ways to think about any movie.

Last year I moderated an Ebertfest panel consisting of a dozen or so critics. A student from the audience said he wanted to be a critic too. Instead of advising him to get into a more financially rewarding form of endeavor, like selling consumer electronics off the back of a truck, the panelists encouraged him. This form of altruism, in which you help people to become your competitor, is alarmingly common in the arts.

A moderator doesn't get to talk much, so I couldn't respond. What I wanted to say was: Forget about becoming a film critic. Become an intellectual, a person to whom ideas matter. Read in history, science, politics, and the arts generally. Develop your own ideas, and see what sparks they strike in relation to films.

When I started writing about movies, it was because I loved to write and I loved movies. It sure as hell wasn't because I thought it was a career path. I expected to be a writer of some kind -- definitely for newspapers and magazines, and in other literary and dramatic forms, as well. But I didn't set out to be a "film critic," I became one by watching a lot of movies, studying them, and writing about them. Meanwhile, I also studied literature, philosophy, drama, linguistics, journalism, psychology, botany, sociology, history, biology...

For the first seven years of doing it (in alternative weeklies, monthlies and on radio), if I got paid at all it was $10-$20 per review or article. I bring this up only to emphasize what both the writers above are saying: The ideas have to come first, then the writing. Anything after that is gravy. In the past, the biggest problem was how get your stuff to an outlet where it could be published. Now you can publish yourself worldwide on the Internet, and the remaining problems are still the same as they've always been: How to get readers to notice it, and how to make money doing it.

While movies have always been a popular form of entertainment, film criticism has always addressed only a tiny fraction of that audience -- people who want to read about or think about or discuss movies with someone other than their immediate family and friends. That hasn't changed.

(tip: Keith Phipps)

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