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Advice to a Would-Be Film Critic

Lisa Nesselson, a Variety critic based in Paris, shared with us this "reply to a Northwestern roommate of mine in search of words of wisdom about our chosen profession."

The friend wrote to her: "I am teaching a class in Forms of Journalistic Writing... and the form I plan to discuss Monday is "criticism." And for this purpose I am contacting a handful of cherished critic friends with this request: Pen me, please, a pithy sentence or two that reflects your thinking about what you do. It could be a point of advice to a would-be film critic, or the thing you like most or hate most about it, or a statement of principle you adhere to, just something pertinent that would be worth sharing with upper-level college journalism students."

Nesselson replied:

Your request comes at an interesting juncture.

I met for coffee yesterday morning with a very nice 29-year-old American who lives in NY and writes, rather well, freelance, about film for the Village Voice. People his age and younger who envy my position (such as it is) want to know whether they'll ever be able to make a living as film critics. This fellow's degree is in computer systems and he says "Young people want to go where the energy is and the truly energetic field in American journalism is writing about business." This depresses him because he wants to continue writing about film.

I actually assumed I was pretty much part of the last generation of "serious" film critics (not to be confused -- I hope! -- with "pretentious"). But lately, like clockwork, I've been approached by bright eyed and bushy tailed Americans who claim they want to be me when they grow up. Some of them can write and some of them can merely hustle. In my experience, those who hustle make headway.

When people find out what I do, the reaction tends to divide up between, "What a totally cool job!" and "Yeah, okay, but what do you really do, to make money?"

The answer is: This is what I really do to really not make money.

My definition of a good critic is somebody who communicates their enthusiasm for work they find of merit, without ruining the option of you, the reader, also discovering the film's merits. I like to think there's a certain range between "Totally awesome -- it rocks!" and "It sucks."

What one does or doesn't say about a film depends on why you're writing about it. When I'm supposed to be assessing the commercial prospects of a film for Variety, a TRADE paper, I'm wearing a different hat than for other outlets. Because for a trade paper, in the crudest possible terms, a "good" movie is one that makes money and a "bad" movie is one that doesn't.

(Apply that to people, and you have a rough but not completely inaccurate capsule description of Life in America....)

If you're reviewing movies in an everyday life context (as opposed to for posterity), then what people want to know is: Is it worth my time and money to make a special trip to see this movie, this week? What I've never been able to reconcile is that when a movie is about some topics it's "only a movie" but if it has a character or line of dialogue that some group objects to, then it allegedly becomes an incredibly powerful medium freighted with deeper and possibly harmful meaning.

I teach American students from SMU in Dallas, many of whom have never seen a film in black and white before they take my course on the French New Wave or 'Paris in the Movies.' Their reactions and assumptions tend to educate ME more than I'm educating them.

And, as of January, I've been asked to teach the English conversation class for students in Exhibition and Distribution at France's film academy, La FEMIS. Although they are deeply committed to running theaters and distributing films, they all disregard the Academy Awards and their French equivalent, the Cesars, as irrelevant. That seems to be a completely healthy attitide. The reason? Informed cynicism. They simply assume that the people in a position to vote have only seen a handful of the films in the running and that, if they vote at all, they just vote for friends or what they've heard is good or like the sound of. For them the results are arbitrary and meaningless.

Try telling the editor of any entertainment section in America that the Oscars are arbitrary and meaningless... (That said, of COURSE I'm thrilled when MY favorites get an award and the recognition that goes with it).

I'm afraid I've failed your assignment and gone way over my two sentences.

In closing, I'd say the privilege of being a critic really kicks in when I get to write "the Variety review" of an important film and I feel like I really, truly, am the "right" person for the job. I'm enormously proud of my reviews of "Bowling for Columbine" and "Irreversible" (both written on tight deadlines in the pressure cooker of Cannes) and I've been told that my review of "Memento" has helped other people understand the film.

But I have colleagues who just crank out copy, figure one word is as good as another and everything they write will be glanced at at best and then discarded, so why knock yourself out? Variety always wants to know what's "hot" (a word I would retire, if I had the power...). But why would anybody who aspires to make movies or act in them for the long haul ever want to be "hot?"

Now if you'll excuse me, I have to go lurk outside Brad and Angelina's apt. since that's where the money is...


Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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