Discover more from The Hot Button
THB #380: What Becomes A Film Writer, 2023?
I got into a thing about all this on Twitter and figured I should go a little deeper here.
The conversation was spurred by the following exchange…
My initial response…
Now… before going any further, I should be clear… I have little respect for Clayton Davis as far as movies go. He seems to be well-liked amongst his colleagues. He doesn’t show signs of actually being dumb. But he reads like a fanboy who had an awards website and somehow lucked into his Variety gig by being picked from a group of amateurs when none of the small group of experienced journalists in that area were available or interested. This has become the norm, actually. Some people have run with the ball and figured it out. Others less so.
And that is really what I want to write about today. This is not a piece about kicking the mediocre or not-yet-professional. It’s about the process of becoming a quality critic or an analyst in forums that allege to be journalistic outlets.
I, obviously, have my opinions about many individuals. But my opinion doesn’t really matter. This job - and the jobs I am writing about - about at their core opinions. This piece is loaded with opinion.
I am not interested in devaluing opinions that do not match my own. I love a good disagreement, not just winning easy fights. I am interested in discussing what standards are reasonable for people who get paid money by the top tier of outlets to offer their opinions to consumers and the industry.
I am moved by Clayton’s mockery of the expectation that a person who opines for a major trade about film should reasonably be expected to have seen (to simplify) 1 of the 20 most discussed feature films from before the year 2000… which won Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay… which has been re-released in theaters domestically SIX times and is the progenitor of some of the most repeated lines in movie history.
Would anyone be shocked to find that he - or others - had not see Going My Way or The Best Years of Our Lives or Gentlemen’s Agreement or even Olivier’s Hamlet (Oscar winners following Casablanca)? Not so much, though the aspiration of having seen all of them seems pretty basic… maybe more for a film critic than someone who sees their job as “the ability to talk about movies.”
For me, between Oscar winner Casablanca and the 1980 Oscar winner, Kramer vs Kramer, there are a bunch of Oscar winners that a current film writer might have been able to skip and not be embarrassed.
But, if you want to be respected in the job and haven’t seen All The King’s Men, All About Eve, An American in Paris, From Here To Eternity, On The Waterfront, The Bridge Over The River Kwai, The Apartment, West Side Story, Lawrence of Arabia, In The Heat of The Night, Midnight Cowboy, Patton, The French Connection, The Godfathers, The Sting, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Rocky, Annie Hall, The Deer Hunter, and Kramer vs Kramer, you are mistaken about the fundamental basis for being worthy of being taken seriously when it comes to contextualizing films. (And that is the very short list of the foundational viewing.)
It’s not just seeing the movies. The job claims, inherently, that you have the ability to deliver on context. If you don’t have the knowledge of history, you can’t do that.
You don’t need to memorize everything about these films. But again, if you don’t know about the writers and directors of these specific films - whether you know the imdb page by heart or not - you don’t know the history of cinema. (Again, just scratching the surface.) If you don’t know the history of cinema - and these are just Oscar-winning Best Picture American films - you are seriously handicapped in putting current movies in proper context.
Bad news… if you haven’t watched a bunch of documentaries and road movies, you didn’t know how to contextualize Nomadland. You are free to hate/like/love it. But you are only experiencing part of the work.
How many movies do you think The Daniels watched before they birthed Everything Everywhere All at Once? Or rather, how many thousands of movies do you think they watched before they had the first discussion about the idea and how many more did they revisit before making the film?
You want to Oscar prognosticate with your opinion about Tár? Have you seen Todd Field’s other 2 films… just 2. Do you have a working understanding of Kubrick?
Thing is, your feeling about Tár is your feeling about Tár. I can’t argue that. Your opinion is not mine to change. But if you are a pro who expects to be taken seriously, do the work. Getting the job doesn’t vest you in a real way, except on Rotten Tomatoes.
Now I will get a little personal… probably saying too much. But it’s Friday.
When Gene Siskel took ill, Roger Ebert had guest critics on the show for over a year. When the producers and I hung out at Roger’s Overlooked Film Festival, which I attended because Roger had been very kind to me online and it sounded cool, they thought I would make a good guest co-host. But the rule at that time was “critics only.” Roger had asked me how I saw myself and I had said, “industry analyst.” So Roger said, “No… he is an industry analyst.”
So what did I do? I started doing full-length film reviews on roughcut.com. I got myself on Rotten Tomatoes. I started calling myself a critic AND an industry analyst.
We are all self-proclaimed critics or analysts or feature writers or whatever in this business. Roger started at his high school, then university newspapers… but a self-proclaimed expert of whatever sort. I don’t discount you because you are new.
When A.O. Scott got the co-lead-film-critic job at The New York Times, coming from the book review, he quickly established that he wasn’t some guy they moved in from another department without much thought. He did the work. He was already thick with expertise. But he got better and better, quickly, and before his first year was up, no one was questioning his qualifications.
So I got past Roger’s rule and got on the show… 4 or 5 times. Then I had to learn how to be on TV in that format, with that man. Work. I tried to push some of the things that I really wanted to focus on… nope. Okay, he’s the king.
When ABC and Roger made the choice on Gene Siskel’s replacement, I was still in the mix… but just barely. My objection to Richard Roeper was not that he wasn’t me. (I would have loved to have gotten that job… but I really didn’t expect to.) It was down to 2 people who had been on the show a lot and Richard, who was local (whoever did it had to live in Chicago… Roger’s rule), had some TV experience, and had done one show. The other 2, essentially, disqualified themselves in different ways. Richard was anointed.
My issue with Richard was that, knowing the context, he was not committed to film in anything close to the way Roger was. And in my eyes, the opportunity to sit next to Roger, whether for a year or 10 or whatever, was hugely important. Brief reviews on TV was not the best criticism in the world. Roger was always better and far more complex on the page and passionately wrote EVERY review in the Sun-Times until he was seriously ill. But it was the most seen and discussed position in film criticism… instantly. And I knew, from the time of that choice, that Richard would never be a proponent for film the way that Roger was… or would care to do so. And he hasn’t.
As critics, my tastes was usually more in line with Richard than Roger. Richard was pretty good on TV. Richard didn’t compete with Roger much, which I think is what Roger preferred after all those years of bickering.
Would I or anyone else have had better chemistry with Roger or made for a more entertaining show? No way of knowing. But likely not. Recreating Roger and Gene was pretty much impossible. (Manohla Dargis was the best choice that Roger could never convince to go on camera… she might have been truly great.)
But what I most cared about most was that the opportunity to love and support film and criticism and cinemas was used on someone who didn’t want that responsibility. I don’t really dislike Richard. But no one else was likely to have that opportunity again. And no one has.
When Roger couldn’t speak anymore, Disney tried what became the A.O. Scott and Michael Phillips show. Didn’t really work. They were too similar. They were too nice to one another. The show was watchable and they were both good on TV. But it wasn’t magic.
Roger and Chaz (his powerhouse spouse) tried a PBS/online reboot of the show with the high-minded Ignatiy Vishnevetsky and the smart and endlessly charming Christy Lemire as a pairing… didn’t take. Again, the magic of what that show was just can’t be recreated. It was a magical fluke. (The Eberts also leaned on a production leader for their show who was not the right person to get it done… but they are the most loyal, generous people.)
The idea of a paired criticism show comes up often and I remain stumped… aside from stealing ESPN formats. People often suggest that I team with Jeffrey Wells… but while it might be fun to watch the car wreck, that would be a bitter show… I would end up hating myself more than Jeff (who I haven’t engaged or read for 20 years now and who I don’t have any current feelings about, thanks).
Anyway… week after week, I prayed that the show would find its legs… become more compelling… a must watch for film lovers. Yes, for the sake of The Eberts, who so wanted it… but more so because it was a last hope for a platform that would not likely be seen again anytime soon if it did not survive.
When the show ended (I contributed a few tape pieces over the year), I wrote that the two critics should have called each other out on their show if they wanted an audience. I think they both thought that the hyper-insulting stereotypes I suggested as on-camera fodder was what I really thought of them. It wasn’t. Christy hasn’t spoken to me since and I feel presumptuous assuming a misunderstanding about that column was why… I’m obnoxious in so many ways… but it probably was.
Everyone is trying all kinds of stuff. Manohla and Tony really have the only really great film critic jobs left in America. They are allowed, at least 90% of the time, to just be film critics… with all the benefits of working for an outlet that truly values what they do. (I wish NYT was so focused on their industry coverage.)
Whatever you write, I might agree or disagree. That is the gig.
I guess what I am trying to say in all of this is that however any of us got into the positions we are in, our positions are sacred. The more support you have… the bigger the audience you have… the more people trust what you write… the more sacred.
Some jobs are replaceable. Some are not. Some are more scalable than others. Some are more consistent than others.
When Nikki Finke was doing the LA Weekly print column, I took her seriously. I was higher on the food chain than her at the time. And people asked me why I gave her any air to grow her fire. My fear of what she was doing, what she was capable of doing was real. We never were in any kind of real competition. We were not motivated by the same things. But I knew that truth was just part of her palette and that people love shit-throwing, so long as its not at them.
Clayton is one of those people who are part of the machine… the Penske machine… the awards machine. I’m sure he is a nice enough guy when he isn’t baring his teeth or floating on a cloud of his unearned arrogance. Does what he writes really mean anything? I don’t know. There are 3 trades. Clayton, Pete, and Scott all have their strengths and weaknesses. They serve the machines. They work hard.
Honestly, I mostly avoid their work. It doesn’t often add anything that I value. Pete doesn’t ever really disrespect his role. Scott has built some good things and one of the worst things to ever hit the industry, the anonymous voter crap. Disaster. But The Academy looks away. Not his fault. And Clayton really doesn’t have much of a footprint yet… aside from making most things about race, whether they are or are not.
But when I see something like this comment on Twitter, it just makes me want to scream, “Respect what you have! Respect what role you have! Don’t spread lazy disinterest in film just because someone called you out for saying something dumb on Twitter. Don’t double down. Watch Casablanca right away and ADD to the conversation.”
It’s a little like medicine. First, do no harm.
Getting a job that puts you on third base doesn’t mean you hit a triple.
The Hot Button has said too much today already.