Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
This is a golden age for film criticism. Never before have more critics written more or better words for more readers about more films. But already you are ahead of me, and know this is because of the internet.
Twenty years ago a good-sized city might have contained a dozen people making a living from writing about films, and for half of them the salary might have been adequate to raise a family. Today that city might contain hundreds, although (the Catch-22) not more than one or two are making a living.
Film criticism is still a profession, but it's no longer an occupation. You can't make any money at it. This provides an opportunity for those who care about movies and enjoy expressing themselves. Anyone with access to a computer need only to use free blogware and set up in business.
Countless others write long and often expert posts on such sites as IMDb, Amazon, Rotten Tomatoes and in the comment threads of blogs such as this one.
Sean P. Means, my friend at the Salt Lake Tribune, has been compiling a dreary list of movie critics who have lost their jobs. Does anyone compile a list of first-rank critics now active on the internet? I suspect there are 20 or 30 for every name on Sean's list; some of them in fact, are on Sean's list. I'm discovering new ones every week. The world wide web is an enormous bushel, and you can hide a lot of lights under it.
Long ago, when this transition was first taking shape, I came across a young man named James Berardinelli, who had started reviewing films online from somewhere in New Jersey. We corresponded, and I found he was in his 20s, had a job as an engineer, a passion for film, and long evenings to fill because of a loss in his life. He said he traveled to New York or Philadelphia to see screenings or attend theaters. He was extraordinarily self-disciplined, and wrote more reviews than most "full time" critics. He began to attract attention.
Today, by some measures, Berardinelli is among the half dozen most-read critics in the world. He still works as an engineer. His site doesn't support him. The studios and other industry advertisers don't give a damn about film criticism, preferring to direct most of their online ad budgets to celebrity and gossip sites. Well, Jim has never made a living from his site, so he's used to that. He told me once his Amazon resale commissions helped to offset his out-of-pocket costs.
I knew from finding links on IMDb, MRQE, Metacritic, RT, MRI and other conglomerators that there many were good critics in the world. They were only the tip of the iceberg. When I started this blog two years ago, I decided to personally approve the comments because I didn't want my site to enable the subliterate goon squads infesting so many comment threads. I've received more than 600,000 comments so far, and not even 400 of them have been worthless. Goons don't bother, but intelligent posts abhor a vacuum.
I savored some of the comments. I looked forward to the next posts of their authors. I began to realize they were from all over. Not just America, but dozens of nations. They linked to their blogs, and I discovered a world of film criticism that thrived below the radar. These writers are never linked by the conglomerators, but one of their reviews might be better than anything linked on IMDb--and I include my own work. The conglomerators have little curiosity and limited quality control. I've gone to linked "reviews" on IMDb that consisted of a one-paragraph synopsis written from a trailer.
The sites link mostly to North American sources, with a few reviews from the UK, Australia, Ireland and so on. IMDb to its credit has a few links to France, Italy, Germany, Scandinavia, but in the local languages. Well of course they're in the local languages. But English is a de facto international language, and the writers I found through my blog not only write in English, but in elegant English.
Last fall I finally surrendered and joined Twitter. Ah, that's a story in itself. Sifting and following and unfollowing, I compiled an assortment of other Tweeters who met only one criteria: I considered them worth my time. If I clicked on their avatars, often they linked to blogs. Now I was truly astonished. I found them writing on all possible topics, and they were often more evocative and gripping than the usual mainstream sources. Most of these bloggers wrote for the joy of writing, because they wanted to and had something to say. What more do you want?
Eventually I recruited some of my foreign critics to contribute guest reviews to my site. They became the Far-Flung Correspondents. A week ago at Ebertfest, every single one of them attended (one was delayed by the volcano, but not defeated). They became the defining element of the 12th annual festival, appearing on panels, joining in Q&As, mixing at parties, simply sitting in the audience and chatting with those around them. They were from Egypt, Turkey, the Philippines, Mexico, South Korea. There were Americans of Pakistani and British origins. A Chinese-Canadian. I knew how well they wrote. That's how I found them.
Here's an interesting footnote. They paid for their own transportation. In other words, they had income that didn't depend on movie criticism. I had two lawyers, a city administrator, an I.T. expert, two students, an international marketing consultant, a university teacher. I enjoy Ebertfest beyond all measure, but they made this year's very special. Their transforming presence was possible because of the internet and discoveries I made through my blog.
I am obviously approaching the end of my own career. April 1 was my 42nd anniversary at the Chicago Sun-Times. I wouldn't bet on either one of us making it to 50. But the internet has transformed me and is transforming the Sun-Times. In the vast sea of the internet, readers need brands to help them navigate. The Chicago Sun-Times is a successful brand. I prefer the word "title," or, hey, even "newspaper," but "brand" has replaced "name," just as "market" has replaced "city." When TV people tell me "I came here from the Atlanta market," I keep my thoughts to myself.
Yes, I'm sad that traditional newspapers have come upon hard times, and traditional print venues for film criticism are disappearing. I thank God I got into journalism at 16, that I edited pages over turtles in the print shops of hot lead operations, that I felt the rumble of the building when the presses started to roar, that I worked beside reporters who had a hat on their head, a cigar in their teeth, a bottle in their drawer, and shouted "BOY!" when they needed a copy kid. All that belongs to the past in the same way as horse-mounted cavalry and India clipper ships.
But I'm feeling good these days. I love movies, and I love writing about them and reading about them. I feel like part of a truly World Wide Web (and what a magical term that is--worthy of science fiction). I know good movies are valued everywhere, and good writing. Michael Caine loves to say "Not many people know that." I know secrets not everybody knows, one of which is that a large part of the future of literary English centers on the Indian subcontinent.
Another thing not everybody knows is that some of the best critical writing on the web can found in seemingly specialist sites, devoted to science fiction, film noir, animation, horror, silent films, anime and so on. And video games, whether or not they're Art :). I haven't even mentioned drama, classical music, architecture, dance, photography, painting and on and on. Great critics have been and are being developed. They mostly aren't making money, but now they have limitless outlets, and not long ago there were a handful.
Recently a friend of mine sent an e-mail to several movie critics. He was Jeff Shannon of Seattle, a good critic who has been in a wheelchair since an accident in youth.
"Guys," he said, "I've been asked to provide career advice to a young disabled college student who wants to pursue a career as a film critic. I'm not one to sugar-coat reality, so my immediate advice for him would be to enjoy film criticism/appreciation through blogging and possibly attempting to write books about films, etc. In all sincerity I can't advise the kid to pursue this career under present circumstances. From my perspective as someone who had various highs and lows in the job since 1984, I'd feel like I was doing the kid a disservice if I told him he could make a decent living at it. I just don't see that happening for anyone apart from the upper-echelon critics who've been established for years or decades (and recent cutbacks at Variety prove that even the "A-list" critics are under siege).
"So, in all sincerity and honesty, do you think I should encourage the kid to follow his passion (which is what I would normally do), or give him a hard dose of reality? Maybe he could consider other work in the film-biz that holds more potential?"
The best response to this question came from my hero David Bordwell, who is the most knowledgeable film critic in America. I won't even get an argument about that. David and his wife Kristin Thompson, herself on the topmost shelf, have published many invaluable books, including textbooks few film students fail to use. These textbooks are extraordinary above all because they are books, written in classical English prose and a great pleasure to read. Now David and Kristin have transformed their own careers with the best single movie blog on the web. After distinguished careers as much-published writers, it's as if the internet allowed them to unleash their real energy.
Here's what David wrote back: "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."
Yes! This is the best possible advice. I tell young students: Take film courses, certainly. But cover the liberal arts. Take English literature, drama, art, music, and the areas Bordwell lists. Learn something about science and math. A physical anthropology course was my introduction to the theory of evolution, which is an opening to all of modern science. Don't train for a career--train for a life. The career will take care of itself, and give you more satisfaction than a surrender to corporate or professional bureaucracy. If you make careers in that world, you will be more successful because your education was not narrow.
What the internet is creating is a class of literate, gifted amateur writers, in an old tradition. Like Trollope, who was a British Post official all his working life, they write for love and because they must. Like Rohinton Mistry, a banking executive, or Wallace Stevens, an insurance executive, or Edmund Wilson, who spent his most productive years sitting in his big stone house in upstate New York and writing about what he damned well pleased. Samuel Pepys, who wrote the greatest diary in the language, was a high officials in the British Admiralty. Many people can write well and yearn to, but they are not content, like Pepys, for their work to go unread. A blog on the internet gives them a place to publish. Maybe they don't get a lot of visits, but it's out there. As a young women in San Francisco, Pauline Kael wrote the notes for screenings of great films, and did a little free-lancing. If she'd had a blog, no telling what she might have written during those years.
At this year's Ebertfest, Chaz and I hosted a "meet and greet" for the Correspondents and Ebert Club members. One man in his early 20s looked somehow familiar. I discovered this was Homer, who I met as a kid on an Ebert & Roeper Film Festival at Sea a decade ago. He said he'd just graduated college. We asked him what he had studied.
"English literature," he said, "because that's what you told me to take, instead of locking into a career path."
What are you doing now?
"I'm in law school."
Then Homer said words of the greatest significance: "I'm trying to figure out what I can do with that."
That's what an education is for. That's what life is for. That's the discovery made by these extraordinary writers I've found on the World Wide Web. Find out all you can, and see what you can do with it. The photographs are of internet writers I admire. I mention no names because I would have felt bad forgetting someone. Many of the photos look strange because they're avatars. That's the spirit. I found the comic book cover used at the top at OmniBrain. Where it all began: My entry the Blogs of my Blog.
This message came to me from a reader named Peter Svensland. He and a fr...