in blogging, entertainment, movies

When it is time to leave film criticism

The other day, I saw a tweet from film writer Chris Webster that got me intrigued:

As someone who recently tried to direct a film, I felt like I understood what Webster was talking about. When you try to go through the process of making a film (even a tiny indie film), it changes your perception of movies altogether. It makes the great ones seem even more miraculous, and the terrible ones feel more tragic.

I contacted Webster to see if I could get him to talk more about his decision to leave film criticism. He agreed to answer a few questions via email. You can follow Chris on Twitter or at places like Screen Anarchy and Quiet Earth.

David: How long have you been reviewing movies (in print or on the internet)?

Chris: The first time I was paid to review a film was in 2005 when Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker (aka. A Fistful of Dynamite) was re-released through the arthouse circuit. I was writing a film news column for a local weekly called SEE Magazine and lobbied to be allowed to review it as I was a big spaghetti western buff and was desperate to see the film on the big screen.

I remember the photo that was published along with the review was from a completely different film, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon as I recall, and for some reason I was crushed when I opened the paper the following Tuesday morning on my way to University, thoroughly convinced that readers would assume I was responsible for the gaff and my days as a cineaste would end prematurely.

That weekly paper folded two years later which is when I started investigating the online world, reading sites like Ain’t it Cool News, Twitch Film (now ScreenAnarchy), First Showing, Slashfilm, Bloody Disgusting and others. I was immediately impressed by the relentless pace and scope of the coverage that was possible when you assembled a team internationally and hit most of the major festivals. It was clear that you didn’t need to expend a lot of travel costs for instance, just ensure you made connections with contributors in crucial locations.

I threw myself in and joined the founder of Quiet Earth on a mission to emulate that model. And for a few years we did a decent job growing the team and readership as well as making some great friends in the community along the way. I also have the pleasure to be writing at many of those sites now.

Why did you decide to get into movie writing in the first place?

Look, everyone loves movies, but there’s a limit to how long your friends and family will sit and talk with you about them. I’m sure most of us who have gravitated to blogging about film have faced this and it’s pushed us to find other ways to keep the conversation going. Writing about movies, podcasting, that’s what we’re doing, keeping the conversation going ad infinitum.

Do you make money from writing reviews? What portion of your personal income does it contribute to? Do you have a full-time/day job?

The money I make from writing about movies fluctuates as it’s based on various revenue streams including affiliate partnerships, advertising and commission work. If you’re not staffed full time at a big site, the trick seems to be writing for multiple sites. Since the monthly figure is generally in the hundreds of dollars it doesn’t make up a significant portion of my income. For that I rely on a full-time job in marketing/communications.

Is there a movie review or a moment in your writing career you’re particularly proud of?

As you know, there’s nothing more important than being FIRST! in the online world, so I would say my firsts have been my some of my proudest moments.

For example, I had the opportunity to publish the first English review of Switzerland’s first science fiction film, Cargo. With my permission, Io9 ended up re-publishing the review, which was a nice surprise and I was glad to have been able to help that film get some exposure. It’s very ambitious and beautiful and the director is a really cool guy.

Reviews where I have been extremely positive on a film also seem to stand out as well. My review of Kevin Smith’s Red State for example sticks out because I was able to attend one of the director’s roadshow screenings and the film completely rocked the house. I was floored by that movie and that whole experience definitely helps the review I subsequently wrote stand out in my mind.

I could go on, but I’ll stop at two.

What made you decide to stop writing reviews?

In 2010 I made the choice to try writing a screenplay, just to see if I could. Finishing that 100 page script was incredibly challenging, but also insightful. I sent it around and managed to attract an established director and a producer of movie video game tie-ins. Development hell, as they say, ensued and that project eventually fell apart. But I had caught the bug, so I wrote another one which lead to some time working with an Australian producer, which in tern lead to working on another project with a well known Canadian director. Most recently, I’ve worked on the upcoming series, Dark/Web, from the producers of last year’s Circle.

Once I had gone through development on a number of feature film projects that experience started to warp my process of reviewing films until it became a totally unrecognizable endeavor.

Knowing how the sausage was made on a creative level alerted me to the fact that there was some investigation missing when it came to truly understanding the intention and considerations of a writer and his/her collaborators, which debilitated discussing a film completely. I began losing my ability to write about movies from an emotional perspective, while at the same time, I became frustrated by how I saw others writing about films.

Everywhere I looked, critics seemed willfully unwilling to explore how movies were made in any significant way to enhance their writing. And I started to think, ‘In a world where VICE will go live with terrorists in Iran, or whatever, to bring a level of authenticity to their reporting, I don’t see any movie critics really willing to gain a rich understanding of what it’s like to produce a film from script to screen.’

I believe if more film critics went down this investigative path, tried to write a film or work on a set, it would radically change the profession and the discourse. Because what I see in the space now are critics proclaiming reasons a film isn’t working with very little content to back it up. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, the script was terrible, some of that dialog was on the nose,” which you read all the time, because what are you even talking about exactly? Did you read the screenplay? A screenplay isn’t just the dialog; it’s everything from what we hear on the soundtrack to how the characters are costumed to the tone and pacing. It’s a thousand considerations, each of which will go on to be compromised in some small way by each person who comes along after it’s written to help bring it to the screen. Nobody sets out to make a bad film. For that reason, I think great films are miracles and the idea of reducing this rich and collaborative art form to 500 snarky words seems preposterous to me.

And look, what I am suggesting happens in the film industry as well. I just realized that watching a lot of movies doesn’t necessarily equip you with a robust enough understanding of how films work, or should work, and I realized I was likely doing more disservice to filmmakers than good by bringing more uninformed criticism into the world.

I’ve noticed that many of our critic colleagues who have gotten into producing have quietly moved away from reviewing films altogether. I won’t name names — people can do their research — but I suspect it’s because writing reviews began to feel like a strangely disingenuous exercise for them. Now that I’ve discussed my own decision here, I think I’ll ask them about it. And who knows, maybe they’re just too busy.

Which brings up another reason: it takes a lot of time to write about the work of others when I could be focusing on my own work. Ben Wheatley’s recent comments about not understanding the desire to criticize rather than create hit me right in the gut. It made me consider all the time I had invested in writing bout other people’s creativity and how I wished I had some of that time back to invest in my own endeavors. A very intelligent filmmaker friend of mine takes issue with Wheatley’s sentiments and has suggested that criticism is a critic’s art. After about a year of mulling his opinion, I have decided to respectfully disagree. It’s okay though, we’re still friends.

The final reason I’ve lost interest in reviewing films is that I believe criticism is moving in a very toxic direction where films are being used as political lightning rods to discuss identity politics by some people I would suggest have little interest in movies. I think the market has dictated this. Conflict has always generated clicks, but what this preoccupation with whether or not La La Land is racist [Editor’s note: Um…] has done is drown out those discussing the movie and movies. And I miss that.

On a recent episode of The Canon podcast, critics MTV’s Amy Nicholson and indie Wire’s David Ehrlich discussed the 1998 Academy Award winner Shakespeare in Love. Both of them marveled at how, when going back to read through criticism of it from the time of its release, there was barely any talk of how the film represents gender. They went on to imagine how the film would be put through the think-piece meat grinder if it were released today which struck me as incredibly sad. Gender is a topic worth considering in the film, no question, it’s not that, but it reminded me that we used to sit on films, let history do its thing before assessing their place and relevance in the culture, using context and perspective as an important ally. Now we sort of speed date with movies, savage them with judgment and move on to the next table.

  • eean

    Well he is completely confused regarding the purpose of critical reviews so good that he isn’t reviewing I guess. A Vice like exploration of movie creation sounds like a NDA breaking fun exercise but it isn’t a movie review.

  • John

    I certainly understand why the process of making films would diminish anyone’s desire to continue to play critic. Creation is so hard and criticism is comparatively so easy, and if go down the road thinking about how well meaning and hard working any given filmmakers almost certainly were, it necessarily changes your perspective on their output.

    Still, I think criticism, even ignorant of process, can be valuable. I do think it adds to the social discourse on art, and I think that it can be a gateway for casual viewers to more deeply consider what they’ve watched, and that is something all creators should crave.

    I also at least partially agree with his thoughts on the politics of media criticism. The pieces I’ve seen on “The Big Sick” (at least one of which Dave posted) confuse me. This idea of constantly attacking films for lacking the representations that we want to see, especially when they’re already giving us a minority perspective is baffling to me. Certainly we should be conscious of the politics of the art we consume, and I do think that collectively we should demand and support art created by and about groups poorly represented, but those considerations shouldn’t necessarily be the overwhelming prism through which all art is viewed.

    Lastly, I do think that there is more about the actual filmmaking that I’d like to see critics discuss. Story and plot are of paramount importance, certainly, but unless the filmmaking stands out like it does in Birdman, it often goes undiscussed in most criticism. I know I’m personally guilty of this, and I’d very much benefit from the critics I respect diving deeper into the nuts and bolts of a film.

    • Christopher Webster

      A very thoughtful reply. Thank you.

  • Abhishek Chaudhary

    I loved Christopher’s explanation for quitting criticism. I am not as sophisticated as Christopher or David when it comes to writing or criticism in general, but the piece perfectly encapsulates why as a reader i find film criticism quite grating often. Christopher’s explanation perfectly explains the problems i too have with film criticism. Specifically the premium placed on quick snarky dismissal in online writing which is quite annoying especially when you’re dealing with art that has been mulled thoughtfully over years by the artist. That along with Film Twitter’s incessant indigence at wider/different opinion following the narrative initially set by the premium film twitterati.

  • Sorenastrianism

    This was a fascinating exchange. I’ve felt for a while now that criticism has gotten a lot more ideologically driven, almost to a point of nonsense. A lot of the podcasts/articles I consume tear apart a film for what it’s lacking rather then celebrating what it’s accomplished. Obviously there will be biases and political leanings present in the thoughts of writers or hosts as that’s what happens when truthful reaction to art occurs. That’s a good thing! Our reaction to art can inspire parts of ourselves that are deeply personal, nobody should have the power to tell us our viewing experiences were not the correct ones. However, in the current political climate, I’m noticing movies that probably had very little to do with making a statement being thrown out due to an ideological motive. For example, almost every article I’ve read on “The Bad Batch” makes reference to the director’s reaction to an audience member’s question at a Q&A towards a particular event in the film which could be taken as racist. While I certainly think the audience member should ask those questions if they come from a place of honesty, I’m not sure why the plethora of think pieces afterwards should have this back and forth cloud the thesis of their review. This was a unique film with a lot of personality by a female director, a perspective I agree we should see more of! It was awesome to see the reception Patty Jenkins received for WW, but you could make the argument that other films by females this year are equally deserving. Movies like Raw, Band Aid, Rough Night are all films I really enjoyed seeing the unique viewpoints taken by the director. However, again with Sophia Coppola’s The Beguiled, which boasts a female dominated cast, is taken down a peg for it’s perceived “whitewashing of The South”. Sometimes it feels like movie makers can never get it right in the minds of these critics.

    I like Chris’ thoughts on focusing on creativity over criticism, as it requires a lot more time spent on personal development (new knowledge in fields you had no idea on, your writing improves), instead of always being focused outward. I hope I don’t get too much flack for this, but I think Jesus put it best in Mathew 7:3-4- “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye?” There will always be a place for honest criticism in art, but at what point are we only using criticism as a tool to place our own perceptions on morality on to the artists we demand to be unique, individual voices in the midst of an industry of franchises and cinematic universes? To what extent does this type of commentary become something that enhances the readers viewing of the film or just another soapbox people stop walking by?

    Those are just some thoughts I’ve been having for the last little while. Maybe I’m out to lunch, but sometimes it feels like as a culture we say we want to bridge the divide between the expanding chasm of viewpoints and what comes out serves more to deepen that divide. I’ve been personally challenged by this interview to examine more closely how I assess the output of other’s creativity. Thanks Dave and Christopher for taking the time to hash this out!

  • Caleb McCandless

    1) Just because something is hard to do doesn’t mean it’s automatically worthwhile.

    2) While I understand and agree (to an extent) on Webster’s point about modern film criticism’s tendency to be hyper “of-the-moment” and snarky, what good is criticism if it doesn’t question the very thing it’s critiquing? If we accept everything at face value/the way the filmmakers’ intended, are we truly engaging with that work of art?

    3) Webster seems to give a lot of credence to authorial intent. While that certainly plays a major role in one’s perception and interpretation of any given work of art, your opinion and experience is ultimately your own, fuck the artist.