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the film criticism aspect of cyber | by maryann johanson

more about criticism as a full-time job

Apparently my QOTD yesterday about the state of film criticism caused a few ripples around the Web. I found a long post at a blog called Conversation | Film in response to it, a few points in which I feel merit a response in return.

(The blog’s author appears to be one Matt Schneider, though it takes a bit of digging around to discover that. I’m always astonished at how many bloggers who clearly aren’t attempting to remain anonymous nevertheless do not byline their posts or otherwise readily identify themselves at their blogs.)

I wrote:

I don’t think this is the kind of job that can be done well if it’s not done full time… at least, I cannot imagine doing this if I were seeing only one movie a week and reviewing just that one movie. A film critic needs to be immersed in film… and since my overarching thesis is looking at why these movies now, I need to see as many new movies as possible in order to even try to put it all into some context.

To which Schneider replies:

Part of the problem might be that her thesis is tied so inextricably to zeitgeist. Here’s a fact: a film critic cannot ever catch up. There are simply too many movies and media events coming out on a daily basis for any one person to know all there is to know. Scratch that — there are too many for any one person to know what they need to know about even specialized interest areas.

First of all, I don’t think it’s a “problem” that my mission is tied to the zeitgeist. I think it’s part of what makes my criticism stand out in the sea of film writing online, and you need to have an original voice and something original to say if you’ve got any hope of garnering a significant audience on the Web absent a huge marketing and advertising budget. It frustrates me no end to read criticism that appears not to exist in any larger context… or not in any larger context than film history. Of course film history is important, but I’m much more interested in figuring out why, say, some stupid melodrama is appealing to a mass audience who’s never even heard of, I dunno, Douglas Sirk than I am in analyzing how said melodrama would have made Sirk turn over in his grave. Of course there’s a place for critics who want to do that. But it’s not what I want to do.

Also: Just because I want to see more than one movie per week doesn’t mean I feel I need to see everything that’s being released. That would be impossible… and it’s not necessary for my thesis. Part of the reason why I don’t review as many very small indies and foreign films as I’d like to — because I personally enjoy those kinds of movies as much as I love any kind of movie — is that they don’t fit as easily into that thesis, which is inherently about what’s popular (or what Hollywood thinks will be popular).

I don’t expect to ever “catch up.” I know that I can be obsessive about some things, but a desire to “catch up” isn’t part of my “problem.”

Schneider continues:

I agree wholeheartedly that a good film critic needs to be immersed in film, but film draws from so many other sources that a critic needs to be on a friendly basis with those sources as well. That’s why good critics watch television programs, read classic and contemporary literature, listen to a wide variety of music, keep an eye on world events, etc. To be so completely immersed as to have a working knowledge of everything would require spending all one’s time watching movies and spending virtually no time writing about them. Granted, a person who exclusively divides her time between media consumption and writing about media will have a far more informed viewpoint on media than someone who must divide her time between a full-time job completely unrelated to film on top of consuming and writing about film. But this notion that there is a level at which a critic can try to contextualize everything correctly… I’m not entirely sure that it’s any more possible to keep up as a professional critic than it is as a dedicated amateur.

I would have thought that it went without saying that a critic cannot be isolated from everything other than film… especially a critic who has expressly stated that she’s trying to fit movies into a larger cultural context. Perhaps I’m misreading Schneider here, but of course I watch television — some, not all! — and read books and listen to music and go to museums and travel (I wish I could do more traveling) and keep up with current events.

But all that takes time, too.

More Schneider:

I definitely hope that there will always be professional film critics. But it’s not a particular failing to have to pay the rent with one job while pursuing a passion on the side.

No, it’s not a failing to have to work two jobs. Lots of creative people do it. But it is exhausting. Schneider suggests that he’s 28 years old. That’s how old I was when I started Flick Filosopher in 1997. Now I’m 40, and this site has been a full-time job (without full-time pay, which has necessitated doing other work, often full-time itself) for at least the last 10 years. I’m tired. I don’t know if I can keep this up for another 10 years. You have to actual live — you know, get away from the computer once in a while, talk to other people, experience life — in order to be a good artist, whatever your art is. But all of that is hard to do when you’ve got no money, you’ve got no time, and you’re worn out.

We’re getting to a point — perhaps we’ve already passed it — where the only people who will have the emotional and financial wherewithal to make any kind of art will be the independently wealthy, or passionate amateurs, for as long as they can manage to keep up their enthusiasm. Much of that energy will be expended in the early days of making their art, when they’re still figuring out how to do it and what they have to say. But the time they reach any kind of maturity — which is when they’ll begin to say some really interesting things really well — will they be too burnt out to continue?

That’s where I feel I am now. I don’t know how good I am — and I’m not fishing for compliments, I’m just telling you how it feels on my end — but I do know that the more I think about movies and the more I write about them, the more I learn and the more I have to say. However good I am now, I know I’m better than I was when I started, and I know I’ll be better 10 years from now. If I can keep it up.

I know I’ve said a lot of stuff like this before, and I’m frankly tired of hearing myself bitch. So I’ll shut up about it now.



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  • nyjm

    MAJ, as a college professor who specializes in (French) film studies, I sympathize with you in all regards: to do your job like you really feel you should is exhausting. But it’s also immensely rewarding when you get those few moments to breathe, step back and think about everything you’ve accomplished – or helped others to accomplish.

    I, for one, visit your site at least once a day. I value your insight and find that you are one of the keenest media critics out there – film, TV or otherwise. It helps that you and have similar predilections – science fiction, feminism, independent and foreign films – but what I really appreciate is your candor about the subjective and rhetorical art that is criticism.

    To make a long story short (“Too late!”): you’re doing a fantastic job. Keep it up.

  • I feel the same way when people tell me to:

    1: keep current with what is being written in my field

    2: read the old classics to figure out why they’re good

    3: read blockbusters to figure why the sell

    4: Read about the marketplace, literary criticism of our field, and books by writers on how to write.

    5: Most recently: find as many editor/agent blogs as possible and follow them (as if half of them aren’t just writing about their cats half the time anyway).

  • tweeks

    We’re getting to a point — perhaps we’ve already passed it — where the only people who will have the emotional and financial wherewithal to make any kind of art will be the independently wealthy, or passionate amateurs, for as long as they can manage to keep up their enthusiasm. Much of that energy will be expended in the early days of making their art, when they’re still figuring out how to do it and what they have to say. But the time they reach any kind of maturity — which is when they’ll begin to say some really interesting things really well — will they be too burnt out to continue?

    I can see where you’re coming from, but I thought the Internet Age meant anybody can become famous, and fame = wealth. Look at Fred at Megatokyo.com: he got famous enough with his little online web comic to quite his job as an architect and just do his art full time! But he’s married, and I think his wife works to supplement their income. It’s not easy to go it alone! Maybe you can team up with some other artists? Form a critic circle or something?

    Sorry, just trying to help. It makes me sad to see you so depressed. :-( You bring such a fresh perspective and express it so cleverly, I just love reading what you have to say, even about movies I have no intention of seeing. I’m totally hooked! I can tell you love what you do here, and I feel sad that you can’t keep doing it as long as you like, but I know nothing lasts forever. It’s still sad, though.

    I do know that the more I think about movies and the more I write about them, the more I learn and the more I have to say. However good I am now, I know I’m better than I was when I started, and I know I’ll be better 10 years from now. If I can keep it up.

    What’s making you better: watching movies, or living life?

    I guess it’s a silly question, because movies are part of our lives. Even someone who was locked in a theatre all their life would have an interesting perspective just from all the movies they’d seen.

  • Paul

    Anyone can become famous on the Internet the way anyone can win the lottery. One takes more work, but it’s long odds either way. I think it worked better when there were fewer people trying to get attention, but back then I wasn’t paying attention so I’m not sure.

  • MaryAnn

    What’s making you better: watching movies, or living life?

    Both, of course.

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