I am constantly getting asked the question, “How do you get to be a movie critic?” which, in a majority of the cases, is actually the thinly veiled plea, “Please tell me how I can be a movie critic too.”
Obviously, if you clicked on the hyperlink that brought you here, you too might be searching out the answer to such a question, without anyone being the wiser that an editor wasn’t forced to stop and take a shot of Wild Turkey after reading your myspace blog before coming back and emailing you, begging you to do him or her the honor of gracing such-and-such a publication with your omniscient insight into the human predicament by way of your flawless, Joycian prose.
Agreed, the title “movie critic” does sound cool, but there’s a lot to it. Thus beginning . . .
So You Want to Be a Movie Critic, Eh?
Before we get the ball rolling, let’s get a few things out out into the open. You would be well-advised to stay with your Primetime sitcoms if you:
don’t know the difference between a “film” and “movie.” Please, save the world the time and trouble.
refuse to watch anything that was made before you were born. I beg you, don’t bother. If this is the case, then you cannot, under any circumstances, expect your child to watch your favorite film, now can you? The little tike will merely say it is too old, thus implying it isn’t worth his or her time and, by way of your cinematic legislation, kiddo’d be right.
think that watching a remake counts for watching the original or, better yet, that the former is inherently better because it houses more realistic special effects with actors whom you’re familiar. I have a new bridge I’d like to sell you. It’s named Ad Novitam and yes, there is no need for it–the one you’re using now is just fine–and, truth be told, my bridge is less stable but, damn, it does look a lot prettier than the old one and isn’t that all that matters? But, as I was saying, you’re going to have a heck of a time backtracking once the film is remade a third time (and a forth, and a fifth . . . )
believe a black-and-white production is a senseless, outdated waste of time. I assure you that your diametric view of the cinema will be justly reflected in your limited interpretation of a film in much the same manner that you believe such productions are restricted.
are willing to argue that there is no difference between a made-for-television movie and a film. Obviously you more than likely the same type of person who always watches a DVD in standard frame, complaining that widescreen doesn’t fill up the monitor.
are under the illusion that the job entails going to the theater on somebody else’s nickel and watching only the titles which sound like they might be fun and, afterward, spending all of a quarter-of-an-hour jotting something down just under your deadline. If this is the case, you’d be better off watching Old School for the umpteeth time, because your reader would be equally better off.
respond “I liked it” or “It sucked” after someone asks you your opinion about a particular film and have no idea what “appreciation” means. I would urge you to enroll in an introductory film course. Otherwise, the world trembles at the thought of your reason for liking Mike Newell’s Pushing Tin being solely dependent upon “You get to see Brad Pitt’s girlfriend naked in it.”
adhere to the notion that the sole purpose of film is to serve as a welcome escape after a hard day’s work. I would suggest that you keep it that way.
will only watch features whose subject matter agrees with you. Though you may be a self-professed redneck, you will be hard pressed to convince anyone outside your stepmother/sister that Jay Chandrasekhar’s The Dukes of Hazzard was a cinematic masterpiece. This also goes for anyone who equates cinematic greatness with a particular performer’s presence. Need I remind anyone that Laurence Olivier appeared in Terence Young’s Inchon?
immediately respond with titles after being asked “What’s a good movie?” You are more than likely the same person who found it odd that when you asked the same question to someone who’d been in the industry for longer than a day, the person answered the inquiry with the question, “What films do you like?” Let me point it to you another way, unless you’re a psychic, your ready-made response presumes that everyone shares your taste in cinema.
don’t like the idea of using a flashlight pen unless you are in possession of an elephantine memory. Sorry, this is just a tool of the trade. You don’t meet too many mechanics who have an aversion to wrenches. Shorthand would be a serious advantage here as well so that you don’t miss too many of the juicy bits while you’re attempting to frantically scribble notes at the speed of light. Otherwise, your editor will find it rather suspicious that you missed your deadline because you had to go back and rewatch the latest Paris Hilton outing.
Now, if you’re still in tow, it’s time for
The Cold, Hard Reality
People just don’t wake up one morning and declare, “I’m going to be a movie critic today” and, whammo–after the person puts down his or her crack pipe–is instantaneously turned into a full-fledged movie critic. Truth be told, being a movie critic is hard work, just like any profession. (Don’t scoff, hear me out.) The thing that most people oftentimes take for granted is that to be a successful critic, the position requires not only ability, but–as with most jobs where you get to sit down for long periods of time and get paid for it–it requires a large quantity of education. This being said, being a movie critic is equal parts background, acumen, and writing ability.
It is essential to know most, if not all, of cinema. Seriously. And this doesn’t mean only American films, this means all of world cinema. Hence, if you don’t like subtitles (unless you are fluent in all of the major languages and most of the minor ones), you are knocking on the wrong door. The reason a critic must be well-versed in cinema hinges on something as minute as catching a very subtle allusion or noting the slightest of similarities between two films, which can mean the difference between understanding a work and making a complete and utter fool of yourself on the written page. As such, you better know–inside and out–the works of the big names without batting an eye. Thus, the films of D. W. Griffith, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Howard Hawks, John Ford, George Cukor, Woody Allen, Federico Fellini, Charlie Chaplin, Orson Welles, Sergei Eisenstein, the Coen Brothers, David Fincher, Milos Forman, George Romero, Steven Spielberg, Ingmar Bergman, Fritz Lang, Francis Ford Coppola, Akira Kurosawa, Robert Altman, Michael Curtiz, F.W. Murnau, Martin Scorsese, Ridley Scott, George Lucas, Oliver Stone, James Whale, Quentin Tarantino, and Billy Wilder best be able to roll off your tongue or you have little ammunition to work with, otherwise you’re about as useful as a doctor who doesn’t know what a tendon is.
Tall bill, I know, but no one’s requiring that you love or even like any or all of the films that these directors have produced. (Yet if something doesn’t manage to tickle your fancy on the list, considering many contained therein are classics for a reason, then I suggest you place two fingers upon your wrist because you might very well be missing a cinematic pulse.) Fact of the matter is, you’re working within a field in which the aesthetic perimeters were set long before you were even thought of. If you didn’t particularly care for George Cukor’s The Philadelphia Story, I doubt that anyone will hold a gun to your head in offense. (Though this critic will give ample consideration to loading an ivory-handled pistol if anyone has any unkind remarks concerning Franklin Schaffner’s Patton.) However, you best be able to provide a valid claim why you think the film’s a stinker, otherwise your reader will be forced to assume that your litmus for greatness doesn’t extend beyond Finding Nemo.
What’s that? You don’t agree with the restrictive limitations that the fascist establishment decrees comprise a good film and screw me and the horse I rode in on? Whoa now. Slow down there partner. Breathe. It’s okay. Only problem here is that if you don’t know your enemy’s position, it’s rather hard to hit the target, don’t you think?
Yes, there’s a catch. It’s not enough to merely watch all the great films, but you must study them. There are countless books and articles that have been written on directors, actors, specific films, and film theory, but don’t content yourself with the thought that you’ve read just one thing about a film or actor. Scholarship is the key word here. Also, I can assure you that the Internet Movie Database is bookmarked on every critic’s favorites list.
You’ll have a very novice background after having watched all of the films listed on American Film Institute’s 100 Years . . . 100 Movies. From there, if you’ve done your readings, you’ll know you have a lot more to watch (and that there were 400 films nominated, thus 300 remaining to be seen). Keep in mind that Roger Ebert has seen over 10,000 films thus far and James Berardinelli is up to 6,000.
As a rough estimate, I’d guess that unless you’ve seen at least 500 notable works, you don’t have the necessary tools to begin constructing the sketchiest of critical frameworks regarding a film. If you can chat film with someone–cross-referencing actors, films, plots, quotations, characters, directors, dates, and the like (much like Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon)–and not brake pace in under three hours (yes, film aficionados do this quite often–voluntarily!), then you are off to a good start. With this in mind, a typical critic is responsible for watching, researching, and writing upon four films a week. Thus, a minimum of a little under 200 a year is required to keep your job as a film critic. For anyone considering becoming a critic, I’d strongly suggest setting up this tentative schedule to test yourself and your devotion to the trade.
For the beginning serious film viewer, “genre” can be a dirty word. However, if you plan to be in this for the long haul, it will quickly not matter whether what you are about to watch is a western, silent production, musical, thriller, horror film, animated work, war film, comedy, or piece of science fiction cinema. All of the styles in which a film can be made possess the capacity to do so successfully. It is your job as a soon-to-be reviewer to watch, learn, think, and consider what has been conveyed and whether or not it is worth your reader’s time.
Lastly, don’t fall under the misconception that if you are intending to be a genre critic–that is, only review a particular type of film, such as horror–that you can get away with only watching the history of that specific field. Thinking that filmmakers are limiting themselves to the genre in which they are working is a good way to tell on yourself. For instance, to not know Robert Fuest’s black comedy, The Abominable Dr. Phibes, is to not understand David Fincher’s noir masterpiece, Se7en. To get Tim Burton’s dramatic epic, Edward Scissorhands, you have to go back at least two films: James Whale’s gothic tour-de-force, Frankenstein, and before that–in order to have a handle on Whale’s classic–you’ll need Carl Boese and Paul Wegener’s silent German classic, The Golem: How He Came Into the World under your belt. Sure, Keenen Ivory Wayans’s Scary Movie is funny even if you haven’t seen Wes Craven’s Scream, but not hilarious because you’d be missing as many of the in-jokes as you would if you hadn’t familiarized yourself with Hollywood’s Golden Age of Horror, specifically the Frankenstein films, before sitting down to Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein. To truly appreciate the Coen Brother’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, you have to know the cinematic heritage from which the film is derived: Stuart Rosenberg’s Cool Hand Luke. In order to realize just how much, in his early comedies, Jim Carrey repackaged and sold us something we already owned, one need only to have seen his slapstick forerunners: Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Harold Lloyd.
But before we leave this section, the question might be floating around, “How do I know what I need to see to understand so-and-so?” Again, research, research, research. History is as important in cinema as it is in any of the other arts. Thus, if you want to be a celluloid Puritan and save yourself a lot of time rewatching films, I’d suggest starting at the beginning and moving forward. However, due to availability and cost, this is by no means the most feasible approach to film study. The other, more scenic route to take would be the “cinema web” approach, that it, after you finish watching one film and begin boning up on it, no doubt (if you are reading and consulting quality sources), the critics will make reference to other works by comparison thus, use your veteran cineophiles as your guide.
By acumen I mean the ability to understand a film. This means being able to access and assimilate how the acting, direction, cinematography, soundtrack, lighting, dialogue–basically every component of the film–functions separately, as a whole, and in relation to other films. The thing to remember is that the world of cinema is a world of ideas, just like any other art form. However, film is arguably the most complex medium in the expression of ideas next to opera for it posits language–as does a novel, images–as does a painting, acting–as does a play, and sound–as does a symphony. Obviously, these modes of artistic expression encompass enough in and of themselves to merit lifelong study, thus, with film being comprised of all of these facets, a critic has his or her hands full from the opening frame.
However, to put it simply, some people just don’t have the cognitive ability to understand what is going on onscreen. That’s just a plain and simple fact of life. These people can watch and watch and watch films day-in and day-out but never understand what they’re watching. This is where the old adage, “Some people just aren’t cut out for the job” comes in and, as such, some people aren’t film critic material. So it goes.
In short, if you haven’t taken a philosophy course, do so. If you don’t like it or aren’t intrigued by what philosophy contains, film criticism isn’t going to be your cup of tea. Yet, by no means does this decree that film only encompasses the ideas that are to be found within a philosophy classroom. Film shares a symbiotic relationship with its viewer. Arthur Schopenhauer declares, “Books are like a mirror. If an ass looks in, you can’t expect an angel to look out.” Cinema is much the same in this regard. The more knowledge–not only of philosophy, but of all areas of thought and of life–a person brings to the screen, the greater the rewards will be in return. Case in point, if a person is unfamiliar with psychoanalysis, the individual will indeed become acquainted with Freud’s theories by the finale of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. However, if the viewer comes equipped with a working knowledge of such psychological concepts, he or she will be able to actively engage in the film.
Also, I all-too-often come across a beginning film student, when asked if the person has seen a particular production, nonchalantly state, “Oh yeah. I watched that when I was twelve.” Of course, the sin here is that the individual didn’t know how to watch the film at that age, thus needs to go back and view the title again for the first time, only this go-around using his or her burgeoning cinematic prowess in order to actually see what is occurring onscreen.
As far as the writing goes, first and foremost, you are producing a product. If the reader doesn’t like your style (he or she needn’t necessarily agree with your opinion, but the person has to at least respect it or, in today’s commercial market, at least find it interesting), then you have no audience and you will quickly be out of a job.
Perhaps the most important thing to remember at this venture is that a film critic is a professional writer, which is no small feat considering such people typically compose ninety percent more than they ever publish. That means for every page of criticism you read, there lies dormant, stagnant, or deleted nine other pages which came before.
The manner in which you are going to convey your thoughts upon a film is going to be through the written word. Thus, if you are not well read and/or aren’t very comfortable with language, you are not going to hold out very long as a critic because–mark my words here–you’re going to lapse into redundancy shortly after beginning your first review, that is if you haven’t already thrown in the towel due to being unable to find a way to aptly express your thoughts. In the learn’d words of Ludwig Wittgenstein, “The limits of my language are the limits of my mind. All I know is what I have words for.” In layman’s terms, a dictionary is a writer’s best friend. A well-worn dictionary is the signature of a professional writer.
This doesn’t necessarily imply that you need a writing degree to be a critic, but it doesn’t hurt anymore than a degree in film would detract from your skills. However, this being said, if you aren’t one who already writes on a regular basis, to expect to purge solid-gold prose right off the bat is as naive as volunteering to go under the needle of a first-time tattoo artist.
Furthermore, a film review is not a stream-of-conscious transcription of your thoughts and opinions upon a work of cinema. Just as an essay is organized into primary and secondary points of interest, a review is a professional piece of writing that houses an organization by which the reader is guided through your views. Nothing will steer a would-be interested audience away quicker than a mishmash of ideas which the reader has to struggle with in order to ascertain the point (if there is one).
As previously mentioned, to think that you are only going to spend fifteen minutes scribbling down your thoughts as they come to you, then you have another thing coming. Aside from the 400 hours of your life a year you will spend watching your films as a critic (200 films x 2 hours per film approximately), you will spent as much, if not more, time researching, writing, and revising your reviews. To think that you are omniscient in your understanding of a film is ever-so-modest because as soon as you state that such-and-such in a film didn’t work for whatever reason, you’ve just made yourself a liability because, sure as a world, another critic would have already addressed and refuted this preconception, thereby making you look like an idiot in the process. As such, not only do you have to allot ample amounts of time to research the ideas which you came across during the film, you have to allocate even more time to read what others have already said about the production before even beginning to account for composition and revision periods.
Of course, this says nothing about the time you should spend thinking about what you’ve seen.
Hold It. Stop. Wait. Now is All This Necessary? Really!
Good question, thus implying, “Aren’t you being a tad anal-retentive about the whole film critic thing? I mean, how many movie critics really do all of this?” Once again, good question. Truth be told, you are less-than-subtly addressing the question of quality in film criticism with this concern. There are indeed a slew of critics who don’t have the background or apply themselves as they should, but do you want to be that guy? (And aren’t you pissed that Mr. Smith, Film Critic, has been wasting your time with sophomoric commentary which says nothing and doesn’t give you anything you hadn’t already thought of?) Granted, a graduating class of doctors are ranked and we all hope that our M.D. was at the top of his or her class, but didn’t Number 101 nonetheless receive a medical degree? So the choice is yours: You can be a half-assed critic who offers zilch and, more than fifty-one percent of the time, makes a fool of him or herself in the process, or the phrase “The Next Ebert” can be attached to chatroom conversations involving your masterful cinematic insight. Your call.
Okay. Been There, Done That–Now What?
Alrighty then, if you think you have what it takes to be a movie critic, the question now stands, “How do I get someone to publish my stuff?” Much like finding a publisher in any other field of writing, no one will hire you on mere good faith–the publishing establishment, though it oftentimes houses lofty ideals, is nonetheless part of the real world. Have something ready for an editor to read. Many publishers will not consider you unless you have at least 50 reviews in hand. I’d strongly suggest picking some heavy-hitters due to discrepancies in taste, remembering that, at this point–considering you are getting to choose what you watch–the films you select will serve as an indicator of what you deem to be worthwhile. It might be helpful to note that the Online Film Critics Society will not consider anyone who does not posit “professional level quality, comprehension, meaningful contributions to film criticism, and outstanding features.” Which means that you have to have a sharp pen (writing skills), know what you are talking about (a comprehensive background and understanding of the field), give us something we haven’t seen or thought of before (contribution), and offer something different (a distinctive style).
One thing to keep in mind, however, is the fact that you will be required to watch anything and everything that the job demands. Granted, you will get to see some films that you really like without having to shell out the cash, but the time and effort you will spend writing about them will far outweigh the money you saved. Also, and this I can assure you, you will undoubtedly watch many a movie which wasn’t worth the celluloid it was processed on. Ope, but the torture’s not over yet. You now have to revisit the feature again as you compose your little diatribe as to why all those involved in the cinematic tripe’s production should be shot point-blank. Such is life. Whoever heard of a job which a person liked every aspect of?
With this, enjoy, I look forward to your comments upon the next cinematic masterpiece and, as always, keep watching.
-Egregious Gurnow, Film Critic, The Horror Review
- Interview with Director David DeFalco (Chaos) - January 22, 2015
- Interview with Actor Nathan Baesel (Behind the Mask: ROLV) - January 22, 2015
- An Interview with Bentley Little - January 22, 2015
- So You Want to Be a Movie Critic, Heh? - January 22, 2015
- Fearful Meditations: An Annotated Bibliography of Studies in Horror Cinema - January 22, 2015
- I Can’t Discuss Glen Morgan’s New Film, [Censored] [Censored], Because Liberty Counsel Says It’s Rude: Race, Religious Tolerance, Ethics, and Aesthetics and the 21st Century Holiday Horror Film - January 22, 2015
- Roger Ebert’s Bloody Ax: An Examination of the Film Critic’s Elitist Dismissal of the Horror Film by Michael “Egregious” Gurnow - January 22, 2015
- Defending the King: An Examination of Academia’s Reaction to Stephen King Being Awarded the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters - January 22, 2015
- Zarathustra . . . Cthulhu . Meursault: Existential Futility in H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Call of Cthulhu” - January 22, 2015
- The Evil - January 18, 2015