Only the strong survive in film criticism. Here’s why I didn’t.
The sleek black net, “Blow the Man Down,” and an unpublished teardown of “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of These Things,” the latest in a long series of flabby documentaries seemingly inspired by World Book entries, have were the last in-depth movie reviews I wrote before the outbreak of the pandemic. These will probably be the last I write.
Don’t mourn my departure. I was never really there.
I’ve been writing movie reviews – or at least I’ve tried to – since 1993, when my high school mates shrugged their shoulders at my review of “The Point of No Return” in The Huskieview. It doesn’t matter. Writing reviews quickly felt like playing in a sandbox, a chance to steer moviegoers into oblivion and move away from manipulative and derivative. For a child who kept a journal of handwritten short film reviews and who considered Roger Ebert a poet, devoting 500 to 1,000 words to spreading love was a gift.
The forced hiatus from film reviews at ICON – the Philadelphia-area art and entertainment monthly for which I have written since 2006 – was the final chapter in a sprawling, grim reality punctuated by $ 6 reviews and of weekend mornings devoted to “Frankenstein Unbound”. When I took my writing career seriously, I was slapped by the math: I was making less than $ 3 an hour writing movies, a fortune in frustration.
As I rushed to the deadlines and got pissed off about how Radha Mitchell had gotten a rough deal, I realized that no one needed a 500-word review of “Frozen.” Almost a week after its release. With zero space for nuance and reflection. ICON was the last vestige of a youth that never returned, leather pants that hung sadly in the closet, a pull-up bar in an unopened box. A mockery.
We were born too late. Once upon a time there was a game plan for success in film criticism. Excellent reviewers wrote for local newspapers – I grew up with two in suburban New Jersey: Eleanor O’Sullivan at Asbury Park Press and Stephen Whitty at The Star-Ledger – and joined larger media. or maybe the television.
Then the Internet came along and erased the opportunities by offering too much. It became difficult to be the big fish in a small pond, and nearly impossible when Rotten Tomatoes reduced eloquence to two colors, eye-catching blurb and percentages.
Three groups of critics now exist: the high-end, the newcomers and the big beige whose members vie for the few sparkling jobs or freelance gigs that offer platform and compensation beyond exposure ties and filtering. It is a grueling career, even if you are successful. “You’d be surprised how many movie critics work full time,” a member of the first group told me a few years ago. Yes, they also had a full time job.
I have never been a great movie critic. I never will be. Over a quarter of a century of doodling in the dark has brought to light that the middle is as far as I’ll go.
It is a relief to accept this realization. I can enjoy movies as a hobby, not classes where I’m forever late. Movies will always illuminate my way of seeing the world. They will shape my writing as much as the books. Ebert won’t cease to be relevant because I don’t aspire to be him. Its compact eloquence informs every piece of writing I approach. The real value of film criticism emerged when I stopped pursuing it. Watching movies was fun, yes; the chance to use these films to explore larger ideas while developing my voice was integral. Putting those skills into essays, interviews, and most recently a book has kept me sane and solvent.
I am not proclaiming the death of film criticism or berating those who want to make a career out of it. Hell, I work as a freelance journalist which is a longer, steeper rope bridge. You’d better ask a blacksmith for career advice.
I can say this: you don’t get a halo because you’re a movie critic. You don’t have a deeper appreciation for movies because you get paid to have an opinion. Curiosity and love don’t need a title. You will do it.