Saturday, September 02, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 7: Why I'd Like To Be a Film Writer

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - For some reason, in recent weeks there has been a bit of discussion on the web about the relevancy of film critics in the face of financially successfully big-budget smashes like Pirates of the Caribbean 2. So many people went to see a movie that many film critics met with indifference or hostility (with a few, of course, that at least gave it credit for being a nice-enough thrill ride): wow, maybe the critics don't really matter anymore.

A few days ago I noticed this article from Erik Lundegaard, a film critic and contributor to MSNBC. I think it's a pretty good defense of film criticism; I especially like the way he suggests that it's the argument that's important in a film review, not just whether a critic liked it or not. (Anyone can say that, really.) But it hasn't been the only article about film criticism I've read this summer. In his blog "Scanners," Jim Emerson devoted two entries (here and here) to not only respond to a Los Angeles Times trend piece attempting to make the case for the demise of film criticism in America, but to also explore the way people respond to film criticism in general. "...[F]ilm criticism is whatever a particular reader likes," Emerson writes at the end of the second entry, "and is not what that reader does not like. That hasn't changed, and never will." And earlier in the summer, A.O. Scott of the New York Times---a critic I respect and enjoy reading---weighed in with his own take on the value of film criticism, especially when people seem to complain about film critics taking the fun out of summer movies by taking it too dang seriously. Here's his last paragraph:
"So why review [popcorn movies]? Why not let the market do its work, let the audience have its fun and occupy ourselves with the arcana — the art — we critics ostensibly prefer? The obvious answer is that art, or at least the kind of pleasure, wonder and surprise we associate with art, often pops out of commerce, and we want to be around to celebrate when it does and to complain when it doesn’t. But the deeper answer is that our love of movies is sometimes expressed as a mistrust of the people who make and sell them, and even of the people who see them. We take entertainment very seriously, which is to say that we don’t go to the movies for fun. Or for money. We do it for you."
(Well, I assume that last sentence is meant to be tongue-in-cheek.)

I bring all this up because today---as I moved some of my stuff into Rockoff Hall to get ready for the start of my fourth year at Rutgers---I began reflecting a little bit on why exactly I've decided that I'd like to seriously write about film. (Some of this ruminating was spurred on by my mother once again trying to preach to me the virtues of going to law school in order to make good money coming out of college. Unbelievable: I thought we'd been past this two years ago when I dropped out of the Rutgers Business School; instead, now she's focusing on law and not accounting. Has she really accepted my action, as she claims? Hard to believe she has.)

I suppose I could try to come up with some noble public-service justification for my interest in writing about film. Sure, it'd be nice to see regular moviegoers start looking at their movie entertainment more closely and critically because of a film critic's review. Sure, it'd be heartening to see a small movie championed by critics become a hit. In short, yes, it'd certainly be cool to see us making a difference in the film world.

I'd like to say the same thing A.O. Scott says at the end of his article: I do it for you (whoever "you" are). But I suppose the truth is much simpler and personal (or problematic, depending on who you are---in other words, if you're my mother): I love to write about film. I love watching movies; I love watching them critically and trying to form original opinions on them. And I love the challenge of putting all the complex thoughts swirling in my head down on paper. (Yeah, sometimes it can take a while for a piece to happen, and it can be frustrating: but, more often than not, that struggle leads to much more satisfaction when a piece is finally done.)

Yep, love. That's basically it. Writing about film is something I've always felt comfortable with---certainly much more comfortable than writing about, say, politics.

Now, of course I'd like to know that I'm reaching a lot of people. I'd like to think that a great many people out there will actually read my stuff and engage with it. I'd like to know for sure that I'm making some kind of difference in the way some reader out there looks at movies. I can't necessarily be sure of either of those things all the time, though, especially if I'm writing for some specialized film magazine (Film Comment or something like that). That kind of gratification may come much easier for, say, an accountant or a lawyer, but not so easily for journalists. So something else has to motivate someone to become a film critic or journalist other than a yearning to be widely read and popular. It seems logical to me, thus, that that other reason would be love. (In the journalism field, it certainly isn't about the money.)

Maybe I'm just naive at 20 years old, but what's so wrong with trying to pursue what you love, especially if you think you're good at it and can really offer something fresh to the world, like a fresh viewpoint?

At least, I hope I have a fresh viewpoint to offer anyway. I'd like to think that, with maturity and experience and more knowledge, I'll be able to develop a viewpoint that might make me stand out among film critics or something. Some of my favorite critics seem to have different approaches to looking at films, be they political, formal, or just as a more-intelligent-than-usual moviegoing Joe who likes to be entertained. Sometimes I feel more like one of those moviegoing Joes---one of the people who come out of a movie and simply say "That was good" and leave it at that, since sometimes I feel stuttery whenever I try to elaborate---when I know intellectually that the criticism that really matters---the ones that will last---probably rests in other approaches. I mean, everybody likes to be entertained; but what a particular film might mean in a particular social context is something not everyone thinks about. (That social context is what I appreciate about, say, Armond White's criticism.) And, if nothing else, I'd certainly like to be thought-provoking in some way.

Gosh, there are so many films I've yet to see! No it's not like I'm trying to see every movie ever made or anything, but it sometimes seems like there are so many movies and movie directors I haven't really explored in depth, even among the major ones. For instance, I've seen a few Brian De Palma films, to be sure, but probably not enough to get a real good sense of him so I could discuss his work with any authority if I was to review his upcoming Black Dahlia. Well, I suppose I have a whole lifetime to catch up on movies (but I want to have great deal of knowledge now ::stamps feet on ground like a little kid::)...

Uh-oh, I'm rambling. Guess the ultimate point of this entry is: while passion is pretty much the force driving my college path right now, I'm not blind to the challenges that lay ahead in deciding to go for the less-than-sure career bet. I just hope that passion will sustain me even in the more difficult times.

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