A colection of thoughts on writing about the movies for a living.

I keep getting these emails where people keep asking me how they can become critics. I wish I had the answer. At least, I wish I had the answer they want me to have, which is “Step 1, do this, Step 2, do that, and voila, you’re a critic.” Instead, I tell them that being a critic is first about being a writer, and to be a writer, you have to read a lot. And then you have to develop a unique relationship with the screen in front of you, having these conversations with the movie that’s playing. And you have to have the ability to translate an intangible experience (feeling) into something tangible (writing). I end up sounding like a New-Age idiot, and they end up, well... unhappy.

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And then I tell them to maintain a blog and create imaginary deadlines. See every film released on Friday and try to write about all of them by Saturday afternoon. It’s one thing to write about a film you really like. But most films are going to be those you’re okayish about or those you downright loathe. Try to see if, after a couple months, you still have the enthusiasm to keep writing about cinema. If you do, you may be on to something.

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If a film has been made with a certain amount of ambition and craft and respect for the art, then it will always leave you with thoughts that you can expand on in a review, even in, in the final analysis, the overall appraisal is negative. A review, after all, isn’t just a tallying-up of plus points and minus points, but also a summation of the (intensely personal) responses the film evoked in you – and the more (intensely personal) responses a film evokes, the more there is to write about.

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Some Fridays are bad news for the critic. The releases are unadulterated junk. And these are the Fridays I get asked, “But how do you manage to sit through such films?” And I say that it’s really not that big a deal. Bad days happen in all lines of work. However bad the film is, you still end up sitting in an air-conditioned theatre for two-and-a-half hours. That isn’t exactly a deal breaker in this profession. At least, you’re not stuck in a cubicle, one in a sea of cubicles...

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Someone once told me, “You’re one of the lucky few who get paid to watch movies. Never forget that.” I’ve never forgotten that.

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Even if the film is dreadful, there may be something in it that's worthwhile. A music director’s debut. A character actor’s work. These tiny epiphanies should never be discounted.

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And yet, you don’t have to write about every aspect of the film. For instance, if an actor is merely going through the motions, there’s no need to acknowledge him. But if the actor is extraordinarily bad or extremely good, then there’s some point talking about the extraordinary badness, the extreme goodness.

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Unless you were on the set or during preproduction or post-production, you know jack squat about who’s responsible for what. If the film’s too long, it may be a function of the screenplay, so stop blaming the editor. If a performance in a scene is bad, it may be because the frames were edited in a certain way that erased the actor’s “continuity,” so stop blaming the actor. Respond, instead, holistically to the scene, toe the moment.

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The access to inexpensive moviemaking equipment has resulted in great freedoms for young filmmakers — and a great problem for critics. The traditional practice has been to review every film that’s released on a Friday. But when these films turn out to be amateur efforts — a lot of enthusiasm and little else — what can you really do?

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The other-end-of-the-spectrum version of this problem arises when you have a film that’s obviously a labour of love, that’s obviously been made with a ton of money and sweat and blood – and the end result isn’t worthwhile. You feel for the creator, but, again, what can you really do? Some critics get around this problem by saying “oh this is still better than the stupid comedies we get every week.” But seen that way, any film that’s not a stupid comedy is automatically going to get a free pass, right? Write for yourself. That is, think of yourself as the audience. Write the kind of reviews that you’d like to read. There are always others to do the consumer report kind of reviews. The acting is good. The writing is okay. The cinematography is bad. That sort of thing, as if a film is a kitchen utensil you hold up against the sun to check for holes. You’re discussing art, for crying out loud. It is going to mean different things to different people. No matter what you write, you’re never going to make everyone happy. So why not write for yourself, and hope that at least a handful like you will end up happy?

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There is no such thing as an objective review. While writing the review, you’ll discover things about yourself — about the baggage you carry, about the biases you have — that you may never have anticipated. And all of this will inform your analysis. That’s why there is no such thing as an objective review.

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Learn to recognise which feedback to take, which to ignore. Not all praise is meaningful. (Of course, it’ll make you feel good for a second. It should. But not longer than that.) And not all censure is valid. There will be those you question your motives, your reasons, your this, your that. Only you know whether what you wrote is what you really felt. And if you’re satisfied, if you can sleep at night, that’s the only thing that matters.

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No one knows anything about these things. You could follow all these rules and flop. You could make up your own rules and really make a breakthrough. The latter is probably the better option.

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