Advice for Young Film Critics from the Greats

(And from me, too)

Lady in the Water, 2006, M. Knight Shyamalon

Earlier this week some heavy hitter media-types gave the latest master class in 21st century journalism on Twitter: #AdviceForYoungJournalists.

I saw the hashtag snarkily enter my timeline and didn’t make much of it. The whole thing apparently started with Felix Salmon’s blog post at Fusion followed by Ezra Klein’s response at Vox.

I haven’t read these (still haven’t, may not), but I came across them thanks to an excellent post on Medium by Will Butler titled “Actual Advice for Young Journalists.” Butler’s piece is useful and insightful, even if it chafes a bit. On why you should go to a good college, for example:

You will make friends with smart people who go on to do big things; and if you’re a good friend, they will help you out once they get settled. Even if you’re not white, privileged, and/or career-minded, many of your friends will be, and they will be good people to know.

Butler’s advice may not be perfect, but it sure as hell is honest. That may have something to do with his being “three beers in, and feeling nervous” at 11:30 on a Monday night when he wrote it. But hey, the work is out there and I’m thankful for it.

Superman Returns, 2006, Bryan Singer

Advice on being a journalist (or anything) is about as useful as advice on, oh, I don’t know, let’s go with driving. You can read it, internalize it and recall it as needed, but you’re going to want to spend some time behind the wheel.

#AdviceForYoungJournalists is easy fodder for mockery because it’s such an ever-changing field. The olds are telling the youngs things that may not be relevant by the time it hits their ears.

And yet, here I am! More kindling for the bonfire. Sort of.

My entrée to writing was film criticism. I do not write to pay rent and my list of accomplishments is short, but I know where to find the best advice about it.

I’ve put together a little master list of advice for aspiring or current film critics and writers from people much more qualified than me to give it. And, for good measure, I’ve fattened it all out with some bits of what I’ve learned over the years.

Roger’s Little Rule Book

If you want to read one thing on how to be a film critic, please let it be Roger Ebert’s 2008 “Roger’s Little Rule Book.” This is by far the piece of writing on writing that I revisit the most. It is not a religious document, but it comes damn near close.

Ebert’s advice is sometimes wordy but he was smart enough to know you would just skim for the goodies. Here are some of his bold-faced rules with their explanations excised (and reprinted in no particular order):

Advise the readers well.
Provide a sense of the experience.
Respect the reader’s time.
Be wary of freebies.

These are helpful for all journalists, but he also goes into critic-specific needs. Here are some of my favorites that are in my mind before I write anything:

Keep track of your praise. If you call a movie “one of the greatest movies ever made,” you are honor-bound to include it in your annual Top Ten list. Likewise, for example, if you describe a film as “the most unique movie-going experience of a generation,” and “one of the best films of 2007, and of the last 25 years,” it’s your duty to put it in the Top Ten of 2007. […]
Be prepared to give a negative review. If you give one to the work of a friend, and they’re not your friend any more, they weren’t ever your friend. […]
Sit down, shut up, and pay attention. No cellphone use. No texting during the movie. No talking out loud. No sucking up the last Coke out of the Kidney-Buster. It is permitted to laugh, or to scream when a movie scares the crap out of you.

These seem simple enough, but Roger’s rules get ever sprawling and strict. No posing for photos with celebrities, for example, and no autographs. Ebert’s justification:

Remember, you are a professional. You are not a friend. You diminish yourself by asking for a snapshot. I so firmly believe this, I have a sad lack of movie star photos co-starring me.

This is not the advice a young person who loves movies wants to hear. He’s right though.

I covered a roundtable interview with Joan Rivers once, and had this advice ringing in my head as the dozen or so other journalists in the room crowded around to take cell phone pictures with her. I said a kind word to her on my way out, but I’ll never have a photo with Joan Rivers. The experience, though, duly documented, is something I cherish. So who cares?

Wait, but That’s Writing Advice

Citizen Kane, 1941, Orson Welles

Oh, um, hmm. Well, let me offer this.

If you ask for advice on how to be a writer and the first bits you get aren’t about writing, run the other way.

To write you must write. Constantly. Religiously. You will never be a better writer without writing. Hell, you won’t be a writer without writing.

This should seem obvious, but this darned #AdviceForYoungJournalists seems to eschew the point in favor of how to break into the biz platitudes.

As to film criticism, that brings us to some more advice:

“Take lots of English and writing courses, go to all the good movies, and write-write-write for anyplace that will print your stuff.” –Roger Ebert

This comes from a letter Roger Ebert sent to a young Dana Stevens, the current film critic at Slate. Perhaps it’s overly simplified and maybe even a bit cryptic (which ones are the “good movies?”), but it’s as sound advice as any.

Advice to Young Critics, 2014 Edition

Matt Zoller Seitz, the Editor-in-Chief of the site carrying Ebert’s namesake, tackled this issue last April. Where’s his hashtag parade?!

Seitz is one of the finest writers in the business, notable not for his position or influence (both are impressive), but for his words. Here is perhaps the best advice from his piece:

Learn about TV and film history beyond your date of birth. Go back as far as you possibly can. Seek out the past because it informs the present.

Again, it seems so simple, but it’s not at all obvious to many. This advice may sound like bullshit, especially to a young writer. What use other than “sounding smart” could one have for a pile of knowledge from a bygone era?

First off, don’t discount sounding smart, stupid. Second, wielding knowledge and experience poorly will still make you sound dumb.

This is not about sounding smart or having reference points to boost your word count. It’s about learning what your chosen medium is and how to express it in a way that makes sense to others. The critic is first and foremost a writer. That knowledge will catch up with you.

Seitz (naturally) puts it better:

Read about history and psychology, because so much art draws from those two areas. If you don’t have some passing familiarity with history (recent and ancient) and psychology, your inferences about an artist’s point-of-view will draw almost entirely upon second- or third-hand attitudes: i.e., you’ll be critiquing film and TV based mainly on what film and TV you’ve seen. This will make your work shallow and prevent you from connecting the art to life.

For brevity I’ll put it like this:

Know more than movies.

And for good measure, as Seitz notes, know about how movies are made too.

Write just a little bit about the filmmaking. Movies and TV are stories told via pictures, sound and performance. They are not purely literary media. Don’t just write about the characters and themes. Write about how the show makes its points, because sometimes the how is the point.

In 2013 Ignatiy Vishnivetsky took a deep dive on this with his piece, “What is the 21st Century?: Revising the Dictionary.” I didn’t fully agree with him at the time (nor fully now; read his piece though), but I think it’s true that those who write about film should know a thing or two about the process.

This knowledge requires some elbow grease and commitment, but it also comes about organically from seeing and writing about lots of movies (see: advice above) and having a curious mind. “Computers” is no longer a viable answer to the question, “How did they do that?”

Some Not Great But Potentially Useful Advice

History of the World: Part I, 1981, Mel Brooks

I don’t know Michael Pattison or his work (here’s his site), but when you do a web search for “Advice for Young Critics” his piece from last fall, “In the balance: OK for everyone or not OK at all,” rates highly. He’s younger and more successful than I am, so his thoughts are valuable to the conversation. He displays an energy and enthusiasm that I have a lot of respect for.

But his advice is, well, not for everyone. It’s very nose-to-the-grindstone put-up-or-shut-up, which isn’t necessarily bad advice. His presentation of it, though, is needlessly abrasive. Take this:

If you can not write 500 excellently watertight words in 40 minutes flat about a film you have just finished watching and analyzing, then you are shit at what you do, and you should resign yourself to sitting there like some flaccid lump of flesh sponging up the pretty colours and lovely, fluffy sounds that bedazzle your waste of a layperson’s mind.

His wordiness belies his youth (and energy!), but so too does his strange, sprinter’s bravado. I can agree that 500 words in 40 minutes sets the bar low, but “excellently watertight words is nonsense. Even writers lucky enough to have an editor can edit themselves. Hell, shitty writers can do it too.

There is no gold medal for speed criticism. There is no speed to it all. It’s pronouncements like this that make the tent smaller, that serve only to keep people away by setting impossible goals. Take the time to think about your work. Pattison, for my money, should have taken a few minutes to edit the above sentence.

I find most of his piece grating but sincere. He is clear that, being based in England, he has access to a cinematic world others don’t.

To my knowledge, Locarno never covers flights, and so it becomes immediately understandable why I, flying in on an easyJet plane from London to Milan, was there this year, while Critics Academy graduates from Toronto, California, or Mumbai were not.

That positions him well, but is it advice others can take? You can, as Pattison puts it, “step up or step off,” all you like. But access is sometimes everything. I don’t want to say it’s dumb luck he lives in Gateshead, yet naturally not everyone can.

All that said, I can’t help but be impressed by Pattison. He is living his dream and sharing thoughts on how he got there. Maybe take his advice with a grain of salt, but do take some of it. He’s right that you do have to work your ass off. If his brand of motivation does it for you, go with it.

For a much better column of his, see “Take Note(s): accessing, surviving and making the most out of film festivals” from last June. It’s a much more nuts and bolts of how to attend a film festival as press. I wish I could have read something like it when I covered my first festival in 2009.

Some Advice From Your Author

The 400 Blows, 1959 François Truffaut

Now that you’ve heard from a few accomplished critics, it’s time to hear from me. A few things I’ve learned over the years.

Be Human

I cannot stress this enough. If you are not sure of the journalistic implications of what you are doing, look it up or ask someone. If something feels wrong (“Am I being mean by panning this film?” “Should I review my college roommate’s film?”) it probably is. That’s not necessarily true and there are exceptions galore. But this is where just plain being human comes in. Do what feels right and take advantage of the community around you for help.

Where does that community come from? Read other critics. Interact with them on Twitter (or wherever). If you know answers to someone else’s question, give them out freely. You will forge relationships of mutual respect. You will build a community.

I’m not saying be nice to people because you never know when you might need their help. That’s true (and you hear it all the time about how to succeed in any discipline) but it’s overly cynical. Don’t collect favor’s like Don Corleone; just be a human. Enjoy yourself.

Go to Film Festivals

In 2010 I applied for a SXSW press pass for my site, the candler blog. Having recently covered Deadcenter in Oklahoma City, I figured I’d go to the another festival in a town where I had a place to crash.

To my surprise, SXSW offered me a press pass with a catch: I had to buy a badge at a heavily discounted rate. Though it was the largest expense I had up to then put into my writing, I decided to go through with it. I bought the pass and a plane ticket. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

By going to that festival, I was able to start writing for other sites who wanted SXSW coverage. I made lasting friendships, both personal and professional, there. Even though I lived in New York at the time, SXSW is where I met so many New York based critics and filmmakers. Here’s another way to put this advice in big, bold letters:

Go where film people go.

Festivals, it turns out, is where cinema happens these days. As I pointed out last week, an overwhelming number of today’s great films premiere at festivals. You don’t have to heed this advice, but I highly recommend you attend any festival you can get to. If you live within driving distance of a festival (and in the US, at this point, the odds are very good that you do) then go see what happens there. Even if you only pick one film to check out, you’ll come away with something valuable.

Read About Film

Read other critics. Read filmmakers. Not just from today but from all eras. Here are some suggestions of current websites if you don’t know where to start, in no particular order.

That list is woefully incomplete, but it’s a start.

Here are some books I recommend:

Okay, that’s enough of a reading list. There are so many more things to read. You’ll notice that few of the books above are criticism compilations. That’s only because I haven’t read many of them, but I know I should! We should all read books by Pauline Kael, Manny Farber, Andrew Sarris, J. Hoberman, Roger Ebert and so many others.

(Note: Those book links point to Amazon and are affiliate links. A guy’s gotta eat. I thank you in advance if you use them. If not then keep these titles in mind the next time you find yourself in a used book shop, which I believe is where I picked most of them up. Oh, and patronize used book shops. There’s another piece of advice.)

You Cannot Follow in Anyone’s Footsteps

And now I will close out this compilation of advice from others and myself by saying this: much of it may end up being worthless to you. There are a million tiny decisions that make up a life, and what we’re talking about is not a career but a life, a future. It should go without saying that there is no one way to live one.

I remember reading Nicholas Jarecki’s Breaking In: How 20 Film Directors Got Their Start (Jarecki is now a filmmaker in his own right, and Roger Ebert penned an excellent introduction for the book) in high school. The book warns that stories contained within are by no means the “right” way to break into filmmaking. They are simply portraits of some very interesting people. That extends to any craft.

The usefulness of that book that sticks with me to this day was how different each filmmaker’s path turned out to be. That’s show business. That’s life. There are no guarantees.

So just write. Write as much as you can. Write in notebooks or on your laptop. Write on your phone or in the margins of books. Before you know it you’ll have a body of work. It may not turn out to be a career, but it will be something. It will be yours.

“The Critic,” 1963, Ernest Pintoff & Mel Brooks