Andrew Horbal of the blog No More Marriages has launched a "Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon," lasting from today, December 1, through Sunday, December 3. Since I've already blogged about my own process of reviewing films, I thought I might contribute to the party by writing about film criticism from the standpoint of career, and how I've seen my identity as a critic develop in fits and starts over the course of my own.
I've been reviewing films since the age of 14 or 15, when I sent three reviews on spec to Fred Clarke at CINEFANTASTIQUE: a longish review of A CLOCKWORK ORANGE and capsule reviews of HORROR ON SNAPE ISLAND and GODZILLA VS. THE SMOG MONSTER. The SNAPE ISLAND review was accepted and published, while the other two were turned down -- reluctantly, I was told, in the case of the CLOCKWORK review, which had been promised to reviewer Dale Winogura. My own review of the film never appeared anywhere, but I still have a copy on file, typewritten on yellow paper, and plan to include it in the collection of my criticism I am planning.
Some might consider it the height of good fortune that I embarked on my career so early, and it's true that I never suffered, as so many do, from career indecision. However, because I started so early, my work had appeared in an internationally circulated magazine before I started publishing my own first fanzines, even before I started reviewing films for my high school newspaper in my freshman year. This means that I started out with nothing more than a grade school education -- which I find incredible now that I have nieces and nephews -- and my own audacity. I also started publishing before I had read anything substantial in the field of published film criticism, which is surely impossible today for anyone attempting to pursue this line of work. In the early 1970s, I had never read James Agee, Pauline Kael, or John Simon, though I had seen Simon's cross-legged, cold-blooded aestheticism in action on THE DICK CAVETT SHOW. My reading of film criticism at that time was limited to the CASTLE OF FRANKENSTEIN Movie Guide and the industry-minded reviews I had read in a stack of old BOXOFFICE magazines given to me by a branch office manager of a local independent distribution company. I was much too green to know anything about movies, but I knew a lot about horror movies and therein lay my saving grace. I somehow accured a body of work before anyone knew that I was too young to have done so, and breaking this fundamental rule in some ways saved my life. Had I known what I was doing, I might never have attempted it -- but I've always had an autodidactic nature. Even now, I prefer to play the bass rather than learn how to play the bass.
My first year was timid and restricted to short pieces. It was not until Fred Clarke assigned me a feature article on Robert Fuest's THE FINAL PROGRAMME (aka THE LAST DAYS OF MAN ON EARTH), to write about the film at length and to incorporate some interview quotes provided by a pair of British journalists, that I first embarked on a larger canvas. To this day, I can remember the pressure and exhilaration of pushing into new territory with that piece, which resulted in my first large font byline and "About the Author" sidebar. Over the next ten years, my tenure at CFQ allowed me to develop as a more in-depth writer and also as a film journalist, visiting film sets, interviewing cast and crew people, and assimilating the various pieces into solid reportage.
The experience of being on a film set and gaining insights to the actual process of making films is invaluable to anyone who writes about films. Of course, the critic is writing about the end result, but it is important to know that (for example) performance often has less to do with what is accomplished on-set than shaped in the editing room, and the extent to which budget can restrict the fulfillment of what is on the page. Too many critics blame faults on the writer, director or actors that would be more correctly laid at the door of the producer, the editor, or even the cinematographer. (I won't go into details, but I know of one occasion where I was less than impressed by a certain actress in a certain role, and I later realized that my response had more to do with the way she was photographed than her actual performance. I later heard gossip from the set about how the actress and the cameraman had not gotten along, which just goes to support the maxim that it is a wise actress who stays on the good side of her cameraman.) Thus, one of the great dangers of writing film criticism is saying the right things while innocently giving the wrong account of them, which turns the positive into a negative. One of my own key definitions of a good critic is anyone capable of making such fine distinctions.
Another definition is a critic who is not confined by genre, which has become more of a problem in recent years, as film coverage has become more specialized. After CFQ, I spent two years writing for VIDEO TIMES, which subsequently became VIDEO MOVIES, and it was there that I learned to break through my own genre barriers, and also how to write about films in a less scholarly and more entertaining manner -- even a personal manner when the subject matter called for it. I can remember (I'm doing it now) permitting a certain degree of first-person reminiscence to enter into two reviews I wrote in the space of one month, and my editors later referred to the issue in which they appeared as their "Tim Lucas Confessional Issue." I was taken aback when I heard that phrase, but no... they liked it, otherwise they wouldn't have run the reviews or edited out the personal stuff. Learning how to infuse my criticism with personality and confession was an important leap in my professional development, not only for the sake of my criticism but because these elements were useful to my later development as a novelist. It was also during my time at VIDEO MOVIES that the "Video Watchdog" concept was born, which would naturally have a vast impact on my future.
Filming the "Video Watchdog" segment for the first issue of Michael Nesmith's OVERVIEW in 1986 gave me camera experience and more insight, and writing the "Video Watchdog" column for GOREZONE helped to cultivate the audience for the spin-off magazine to come. This latter experience confirmed for me that the most valuable assets for anyone writing criticism is a reliable and personable homebase where one can attract a constant readership and, if at all possible, a unique angle. To this end, most film bloggers probably have an advantage over the young critics who are trying to make their names in magazines today, and print critics of any station would probably be wise to blog -- to have a place to work and a place to promote oneself. Too many current magazines feature interchangeable criticism or, worse, flavor-of-the-moment froth of no permanent consequence; even if I read something in a magazine today that I like, I can have a hard time remembering where I read it. Likewise, if a magazine's personality is distinct, it's often easier to remember that one read something in, say, SIGHT & SOUND or FILM COMMENT rather than the name of the writer responsible.
Seventeen years ago, as the first issue of VIDEO WATCHDOG was taking shape, I set about writing material for that first issue and the issues to come -- and none of it would have been considered acceptable anywhere else. I was writing at unacceptable length about subjects that would not have been countenanced by any other editor. It was Fred Clarke who had instilled in me (and all the CFQ contributors) the ideal of "definitive" coverage, but even he would have thrown something like my three-part "The Trouble With Titian" article (about how an obscure Yuoslavian film called OPERATION TITIAN was acquired by Roger Corman and turned into three different movies stateside: PORTRAIT IN TERROR, BLOOD BATH and TRACK OF THE VAMPIRE) back in my face. There is risk in breaking ground like that, and a certain arrogance may be necessary in the act. With projects like this, one risks exceeding the interest of even interested readers, but I told myself that, if I was interested, others would be as well. Obsession invites obsession, as long as the writing can communicate that obsession vividly; so, to an extent, it doesn't matter if the reader is actually interested in the subject at hand. The level of obsession shown by the writer makes the material interesting and all the more identifiable with the writer. Over the years, we've received a number of letters from readers telling us that "I have no interest in most of the films you cover, but you write about them in such interesting ways, I never miss an issue!" -- and I can't imagine higher praise. Without question, VIDEO WATCHDOG has been the most important chapter in my writing career, from a personal viewpoint, because it has offered me a livelihood as well as a byline; it's well-nigh impossible for a freelancing critic to undertake such work as anything more than a hobby. Even now, it's my work as a publisher and editor that makes my work as a critic -- and novelist, and screenwriter, and most certainly blogger -- financially feasible.
As my writing in this area matures, the less I find myself less concerned with the banalities of identifying good performances. This has its place in writing an essay on the worth of a specific performer, where the ups and downs of their individual craft must be noted, but in terms of film criticism, a good performance has as much right to invisibility as good editing. Making a point of such things is the very hallmark of the most basic, entry-level film criticism, and therefore to be moved beyond. Absolutes in general become more and more meaningless, and I find myself no longer particularly interested in the question of whether a film is "good" or not. No one ever sets out to make a bad film, and part of the challenge of writing quality criticism is to find the good, or at least the conviction, in whatever you're writing about. For the same reason, I am against the ideas of star ratings and thumbs-up/thumbs-down shorthand because these discourage the consideration of a film's worth at a glance.
People want a lot of different things from film criticism: suggestions of what to see, confirmation of their own opinions, infuriation, education, diversion, literary pleasure. Likewise, critics surely write about films for any number of reasons, ranging from the desire to see free movies or get free DVDs, to the wish to be recognized for the value of their opinions. My own reasons have more to do with the autodidactic impulse I referenced earlier. When I started out, I reviewed films as a matter of asserting (indeed solidifying) my own personal taste; but, as time has gone on, it's developed into something else entirely. Now, unless I write about a film I have seen -- and soon, before another replaces it in my thoughts -- the time I spent viewing it might just as well be chalked up to wasteful pleasure, because criticism is the means by which I arrive at a better understanding what I have seen. It's akin to keeping a diary to make sense of the events of one's life. In short, I now write criticism primarily to educate myself, to better know myself, and it's been my good luck that a select group of others seem to get something out of eavesdropping on the process.