Letter to a Young Film Critic
Letter to a Young Film Critic

Letter to a Young Film Critic

We don't need another plot summary. We need moviegoing dieticians to teach us discernment without spoiling enjoyment. Prove to us that absurdist comedies, historical epics, and cheesy romances can be relevant to our lives.

March 1 st 2011
Appears in Spring 2011

Dear Joshua,

You want to work as a film critic? Here's the best career advice I have to offer.

I don't have any good career advice.

Like frightened farm animals whose barns have burned down, film critics are staggering forlornly around the country looking for new homes while the newspapers that published them cut costs or go out of business. The Internet has turned everybody and their Ashton Kutcher-loving younger sister into amateur film critics. The old rules no longer apply.

That's okay. I never followed those rules anyway. Instead of campaigning for a job, I wrote about movies because I loved them, and I shared reviews with anybody who would listen. Unlike the newspaper reviews that barely scratched the surface, I wanted to convince people that movies mattered. After a screening, I'd go home and write feverishly all night, images still flickering in my eyes like the afterglow of a camera's flashbulb.

Much to my disbelief, somebody noticed and offered to pay for my reviews. Bizarre, I know. But in retrospect, I believe enthusiasm draws a crowd.

So here's a question: Do you love movies so much that you're already up late composing your thoughts? Film criticism involves—brace yourself—countless hours of writing and revising. A fan once asked Annie Dillard for writing-career advice. She answered, "Do you like sentences?"

The world doesn't need your movie reviews.

We don't need another plot summary. Your Oscar predictions aren't worth the popcorn under your seat. Newspapers and Siskel and Ebert were once our sources for reviews. Now, bazillions scramble to publish opening-day opinions, only to find hundreds of reviews already available. Your voice will be lost in the din. I'm not saying "Don't be a film critic." But you can do better than "reviews." The cineplex is like a grocery store—you'll find feasts there if you get past the popular junk food. We need moviegoing dieticians to teach us discernment without spoiling enjoyment. Prove to us that absurdist comedies, historical epics, and cheesy romances can be relevant to our lives.

Here's your homework . . .

Read great film critics.

Voraciously. Dwell on those who teach and challenge you. I learn from Jonathan Rosenbaum, Roger Ebert, Michael Sicinski, Steven Greydanus, and others who reveal much without spoiling surprises. They consider a film's themes, questions, political implications, uniqueness (or lack of it), and place in movie history. Their articles are often superior to the movies in question.

They're a pleasure to read because they . . .

Write something that's well worth reading.

A review, like a movie, is both a Thing and a Way. As a Thing, your review must stand out for its craftsmanship. Your job is to be a poet disguised as a journalist. Seek out a community of peers and readers who will be brutally honest in their critiques, helping you improve. My favourite critics craft prose that crackles and pops with personality and verve. If I start reading their reviews, I'll finish reading their reviews.

As a Way, your review maps an unpredictable exploration of the film. Equip readers with "flashlight" questions that will enhance their journey, or expose mediocrity and save moviegoers some money. Coax them past "I liked it" or "I hated it."

Remember what Roger Ebert said: "A movie is not about what it is about. It is about how it is about it." Delete "It's powerful," and replace that with a description of how the movie does what it does, and why it matters.

Which reminds me . . .

Avoid superlatives.

Delete all uses of "the best," "the greatest," and "the most _____-ing." When you make authoritative claims, you're inviting the reader to ask, "Who do you think you are?"

Who has seen enough of film history to declare, with any credibility, the "best" of anything?

I'm embarrassed when I revisit my early reviews. They're peppered with superlatives I had no right to employ. I yapped like a young man desperate to sound important. I've just made a list of "my favourite films of 2010," instead of presuming to know "the best films of 2010."

In other words . . .

Stay humble.

Good writers write with conviction, but if I've learned anything in two decades of criticism, it's this: Definitive reviews don't exist.

While writing about Spike Jonze's Adaptation, I morphed from a nay-sayer to a superfan. As I peeled back the movie's layers, I realized its profundity and integrity.

Art is mysterious. On technical matters, we can make defensible claims about excellence. But when it comes to the worth of the whole, while some opinions are stronger than others, there is no "right answer."

Moviegoers have differing interests, memories, and artistic sensibilities. Each artistic encounter is a unique chemical reaction. We should respect each other's experiences. Our arguments about Baz Lurhmann's pizzazz, Oliver Stone's politics, Woody Allen's worldview, Lars Von Trier's treatment of women, and Darren Aronofsky's bombast can teach us as much about each other as the movies themselves.

Oh yeah, by the way . . .

Get used to hate mail.

Whatever you criticize or praise, somebody will call you a jerk.

Gossip, trivia, box office stats, Oscar speculation—these things evaporate. Mainstream media treats movies as an end in themselves, as if art is a competition. Henry Miller said, "Art is only a means to life, to the life more abundant. It is not in itself the life more abundant. It merely points the way."

Show us how a movie is, or isn't, a "means to life more abundant."

Get a second, higher-paying job.

Film criticism is expensive. But . . .

It's worth it.

I haven't paid many bills with criticism cash. But I've gained an education in aesthetics, international affairs, and matters of the heart. I learn what I think by writing; I learn how to think more clearly by revising.

So try your hand at one of the most time-consuming, low-paying vocations on the planet. It might change your life. I don't regret an hour of it.

Jeffrey Overstreet

Topics: Culture Vocation
Jeffrey Overstreet
Jeffrey Overstreet

Jeffrey Overstreet has too many jobs. He's the author of The Auralia Thread, a four-book fantasy series including Auralia's Colors, Cyndere's Midnight, Raven's Ladder, and The Ale Boy's Feast, published by WaterBrook Press.


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