In a world where paid criticism wasn’t in a bad state, I’m certain I would be a superstar critic. I know this as certainly as I know my own name. I was meant to be a professional critic. Fate just didn’t place me in a world where that was a real position for me.
The topic is on my mind since yesterday I watched the brilliant new documentary Life Itself on the life of Roger Ebert. The film is a beautiful, comprehensive tribute to the man. It made me think a lot about film criticism itself inevitably. I’ve lived my life steeped in film and the discussion of such. In writing this, I’m looking at the critics I love reading and my own experiences as a critic.
Ebert might be a polarizing figure in the field but in my mind he was the best there ever was, the Michael Jordan of his game. (1) I don’t say this because Ebert was the best known. I’ve read his reviews ever since I got Compuserve in 1994 and I read his work until he published his final review. Even today I revisit his work and I really won’t ever stop. I owned several compendiums of his work growing up and I memorized every period in them.
Ebert was the best in my eyes because he always understood context. He reviewed each movie in terms of how successful was it at being itself. He got away from the absolutism that the worst critics indulge in, holding every film to the same exacting standards. This is illustrated beautifully in the legendary Benji the Hunted/Full Metal Jacket episode of Siskel and Ebert. (2)
Ebert could also express his thoughts on film in a way that echoes another favorite, Dante. He could convey serious analysis in the language of the common man. His reviews were often clear and concise analyses. Ebert really shone when working on longer pieces like his Great Movies series, a must for any student of film. And of course, there were the slams. I’ve got two books of them.
He wasn’t the only critic to leave an impact on me, though. From the moment I could read, I read the movie section. I read every review I could. Not that I understood them. That took years to really happen. I remember my grandparents had one of those massive review guides with blurbs on films. I love those books as I find them useless.
My first foray into film review writing came in 1996 with a submission on Space Jam to a forum that I was far too nice on. (3) That led in time to my first big outlet: the movies forum on YDRIVE on Compuserve which I moderated. I didn’t do a great job–I was 13–but I moderated it until it closed.
I’ll pause here to note that I started reading several more sources. I really liked the reviews of Chuck Schwartz who went by The Cranky Critic. Schwartz still has a website up and while he’s slowed down, I still like his work. This was the same era I discovered Ain’t It Cool News. One of that site’s alumni, Drew McWeeny, is easily among the best going today. I’ve also got to praise the critics at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety who I started reading in that block of time. (4)
My own experiences with film criticism took real flight with the high school newspaper. I won’t get into too much depth there because I’ve got an entry coming on that era but I’ll say this: I became very good at review writing in this period. I won several awards for my work reviewing films like A Beautiful Mind, Adaptation, and the woeful How The Grinch Stole Christmas. (5) High School was a good time for me.
Then college came and I needed a new outlet so I found myself on the B-Movie Message Board. I wrote a few reviews here and there on the site with my initial entries best lost. My later work was much better. I still pen an entry or two every so often. Time is rarely there but I’m still active. One of the main reviewers on the board really impressed me with his writing, the talented Ryan “Keiichi” Cullen. He’s still writing away like clockwork and I still check his reviews. He’s also become a very close friend of mine who I’m glad to know.
I found another outlet in 2013 when, after a live riff of The Oogieloves with my friend Albert Wiltfong, we decided our hours-long chats on film needed to go on record. So we’re podcasting now which you can find here. (6) I have a blast doing the cast and it’s opened up so many opportunities to me.
I like a lot of critics on the internet. I love Doug Walker’s work though I’m not sure everybody gets how much of it is satire. I like Brad Jones with the same caveat, often preferring his out of character, honest reviews. The crew at Dread Central are awesome and I don’t even like horror. I love the crew at Geek Juice Media too.
Therein lies the reason I’ll never be a professional critic. There are too many reviewers out there doing too much great work. And I’m okay with that. I love writing about film. I really love discussing it. I’ll never make a dime doing it but all I want to do is talk about this subject. I’ll never stop.
(1) Deliberate nod to Chicago which Jordan seemed to visit while Ebert utterly inhabited the city.
(2) The ep can be viewed here. I highly recommend you do so.
(4) Irony: this was the biggest lull in my flogging history.
(5) It’s a coincidence two of those share a director. I like Howard’s work though.
(6) This wasn’t my first cast though. I recorded The Brutal Kind with my friend Lauren Dunn. The cast only faded because of the challenges of recording.