It's also a time when working professional critics (mostly in print) become more self-important and petty than usual, exploiting the popularity of the Golden Globes telecast by making derisive, left-handed comments about the Hollywood Foreign Press, questioning the group's "integrity" (or lack thereof) and identifying its members as mere "journalists" (or, worse yet, glorified "fans"), not bona fide critics like the snarky group on the attack.
But wait... A professional movie critic is as much a "mere journalist" as an HFP member from Norway and, the fact is, your average movie critic is no more qualified to comment on film than that HFP writer or, for that matter, some nerdy film buff pontificating on a computer in his parents' basement.
I use the gender identification "his" because most nerdy movie buffs are usually guys.
In a case of misplaced pride, a print movie critic thinks that he/she is somehow genetically superior to everyone else - the Hollywood Foreign Press, bloggers, the average moviegoer or anyone who dares to have an opinion on films - when the fact is, the only real difference is that someone (a newspaper or magazine editor) was smart (or stupid) enough to hire that person to cover the movie beat specifically and pay them. That's all.
But, of course, there's also a difference between an educated opinion and a casual one - and an educated opinion is invaluable and is what a good critic has to offer. I've met and become friends with dozens of movie critics during my years reviewing films and I can say with confidence that most of the ones whose work I admire (if not all of them) had no formal training in film or critical analysis of any sort. We all came from different scholastic backgrounds, we had different majors in college but we shared a passion for film that's been lifelong. We each started life as movie buffs and were blessed that someone was smart (or stupid) enough to hire us.
Our "educated opinions" on film were the result of obsessive moviegoing, repeat moviegoing (way before it became acceptable), reading reviews and books on movies, and "reading" movies themselves rather than just sitting there, passively, watching them. Nope, no "formal training" here.
It was self-education, pure and simple, and it continued on the job as one refined one's writing style and continually (and with much excitement) discovered elements in movies that one's readers might otherwise miss.
Anyone with a deep interest in film (and with the luck of the draw) could accomplish this. Timing is important (and, again, luck). I've known several writers, committed to film, who have dreamed for years - nay, decades - about becoming professional movie critics, a dream that's been evasive.
On the other hand, I've known more than a few newspaper writers who have landed the gig accidentally - plucked from somewhere else in the newsroom (the rewrite desk or sports section) to fill in occasionally and review a film or two - and who ended up with the title, "movie critic."
The good ones may already have had an interest in film or developed one while on the beat. The bad ones simply string adjectives around a movie synopsis - easy, lazy reviewing - and the reader learns ... nothing.
The idea of who or what is a "movie critic" has morphed over the years, first with the advent of the home computer and then with the social-media blitz. Amateur movie critics who churn out opinions (sometimes educated, but mostly casual) on their sites can attract a following and think they're on par with professionals (sometimes they are, but mostly they aren't).
The movie-rating site, Rotten Tomatoes, provides exposure to what seems like thousands of "critics" (I've never had the patience or the time to count) and a wide majority of them are nobodies sharing the same stage as the somebodies, who are clearly in the minority. But there's a chance that some of these nobodies are better reviewers than the somebodies.
Suddenly, everyone was an expert on movies and, with the internet providing a bottomless pit of resources, people who were limited previously to verbal opinions were now documenting them on-line as self-described "movie critics" or "film historians," titles never truly earned.
Because of the limited number of movie-reviewing positions, there have always been few opportunities for a newcomer to gain entry, largely because the people who held these positions stayed in them until they literally keeled over. Case in point: Roger Ebert, who was at the Chicago Sun-Times for 40-plus years and was still writing days before he passed.
Now, it's almost impossible. There have been no fresh faces among movie critics for a long time, only the usual suspects who have been at it for decades now and will remain in place (until they start keeling over one by one). So, perhaps, their snarkiness towards the HFP is understandable.
Movie critics - cognizant of the rarity of their jobs and the presence of those more than eager to replace them (often frenemies) - have always been insecure creatures. Only it's worse now, with critics having to:
- feign enthusiasm about the latest unreviewable franchise drivel,
- keep negativity in check (or run the risk of being accused of not really "liking" movies),
- exhibit to editors one's "connection" with the readership,
- demonstrate that connection with examples of hefty reader feedback/emails.
- or pray for a myriad of clicks via the paper's tracking, and
- prove that no one else could possibly do the job as well as you, certainly no fraud with a blog or that unctuous new copy boy.
Note in Passing: The title of this essay is a used one. On my first day as a movie critic - back in the late 1960s when I was in my early 20s - my editor handed me a slim volume titled "Critical Quackery (Why Critics Are Guilty of It and How to See Through It)" by Theodore L. Shaw. Which was, at once, intimidating and demoralizing, given that Shaw accused all critics of "humbug," but also inspiring. It leveled me. High from being hired for my dream job, and at such a young age, it was promptly sobering.
Thanks to that editor, Al, and to Shaw.
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~The critic Pauline Kael
~Anton Ego in "Ratatouille"
~photography: Pixar/Disney 2007©