Editorial – The State Of Things To Come?

Before we were so rudely interrupted last week by the collective voice of the angry internet boo-hoo-ing in tandem I promised a capping piece on a strain of discourse on the act and art of film criticism that has driven the shape and tone of this Summer’s Editorial articles. You can see the earlier articles here and here. While by no means an expert, and but a small fry in the world of what we do, I do feel as though I have something to offer up concerning the state of contemporary film criticism.

Watch films. Sounds obvious, but it’s amazing just how few actually do. And I mean actually watch a film, without distractions. If you’re streaming a flick with one eye on Twitter then you’re doing it wrong.

Watch old films. A specific note tying in to the above advice. Know your history. It’s an often rolled out truism that so many film critics know very little about the cinema from before the late 70s.

Watch new films. Again, an addendum to the first point. Remain contemporaneously aware of the ongoing film culture. It’s at times fairly depressing, but necessary to gain an understanding of the bigger picture.

Read. Were the first three points not so glaringly obvious then this would stand firm and centre at the top of this list. Reading on film is an increasingly underappreciated act. There’s nary a better way of developing as a writer than to read other peoples writing, nor there a better way of digesting bigger ideas that might need contextualising further than a film itself allows. Contextualisation is key, and you’ll notice it’s something that applies to all of these points so far.

Communication. While I’m all for the idea of a writer taking the responsibility for his work, I can understand why some websites choose not to have an open comment section. I’ve toyed with the idea myself in the past. Since the dawn of the micro-blog, Twitter has essentially taken over the role of the humble comments section. I’ve found Twitter to be an invaluable took, but there’s a certain decorum to be had there too. As is often shown, it’s very easy for a situation to spiral, and for anyone to come across poorly.

Education. As regular readers will no doubt be aware, I’m a stickler for formal education. Not only does one learn how to write on a technical, but it affords them the opportunity to spend a couple of years dwelling on what a former lecturer of mine referred to as “dream time”; it gives the opportunity to seek out and indulge on purely approaching their subject sans distraction. This isn’t to say that it’s the only route, but it’s my preferred option, especially if one is seeking a career in a particular area of film criticism. Education also serves as an career bedfellow for anyone keen to make a living from film criticism, as both areas are suffering from cuts at the moment, meaning one draw a healthy sum from doing both part-time.

Don’t fall in to the PR trap. It’s nice to he sent free stuff, but don’t let that influence your work. Not only does the PR circle distractingly dictate the discourse in many ways, it also raises a bunch of ethical issues that can be easily avoided.

Always say something you can back up. It sounds simple, but this is the sort of thing that always leads to trouble. The recent Total Film Top 50 Films That Are Too Long circus was a great example of someone typing something they didn’t necessarily mean or have first hand experience of, and attempting to pass off a controversial opinion on (see, the writer’s response to Andy Warhol’s Empire). It’s the sort of approach that attracts vocal dissent (note how the crux of the gossip columnist’s argument rested on that one point).

Register with a professional agency. Admittedly this is easier for those in a big city, but the OFCS exists for those of us outside of them. It helps to cement ones legitimacy, and brings with it valuable perks and access opportunities that one otherwise might not have, or would have to beg a PR team for. Even Rotten Tomatoes acts as a neat approach towards legitimacy (though is not for the faint of heart) as is, linking your work to the IMDB, via the “external reviews” tab on each films page; both are great for drawing in an audience.

Know when to stop writing for free. I was quite lucky in that there was a steep, noticeable spike in the rise of Hope Lies. This is more difficult if one doesn’t have their own website, granted. Which neatly leads me on to…

Have your own website/blog/outlet. Think of it as a CV. Write about what you’re most passionate about. You don’t have to worry about filling someone else’s remit and you might even be successful in your own right. It also makes for a handy back-up home for pitches and ideas that are rejected from other sites.

Try new things. The digital age has brought with it all manner of opportunities for experimentation and innovation. Technology is amazing, use it to inspire. Within moments of playing around with the iPad early last Spring a whole raft of ideas as to how that technology could be adapted for use within my own work (eventually Periodical was borne). The same goes with other similar areas, with podcasting and video-essaying just two very popular forms of technologically-driven communication.

Embrace rejection. It happens to all of us, don’t let it get you down. The vast majority of pitches are rejected. (That being said, if it does happen often it might be best to seek out external advice. As awful as this may sound, it could be that you’re just not very good).

Adam Batty – Editor-In-Chief

Further Reading

Rohmer And Contemporary Cinema. A brief piece exploring the recent renaissance in Rohmer-ing.

Also

The CriticWire Survey. On binge-watching.

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6 Comments

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  1. Interesting piece – these are issues I’ve reflected on as well, although at this point my own blogging has branched off in a different direction (I am not interested in “professionally” blogging, though I once was). At the moment I’m not writing reviews at all – mostly using my blog as a visual diary (beats letting it lie dormant). When I return to doing so (hopefully soon) the pieces will be selective reflections on films I want to discuss, rather than analyses of films I force myself or am forced to discuss. Both approaches have their virtues, the latter being a good way to sharpen the mind and widen one’s appeal though I’m no longer very interested in it nor the keeping-tabs-on-new-releases mentality it requires (all year long, I’ve been pushing myself to attend new movies and re-engage with contemporary cinema, albeit at the cheaper second-run theater rather than right when they come out; well, I finally saw Great Gatsby a few weeks ago – my first 2013 release – and immediately lost interest in the endeavor, haha).

    Anyway, I agree with almost all of these points, particularly the first four, although personally I fail astoundingly at #3 to the point where I find I might as well take a perverse pride in it, since it seems unlikely to change any time soon. Totally agreed on a subpoint to #5 – that Twitter has taken over the social aspect of blogging. That’s been my experience – although traffic was far lower for me 5 years ago, I received a lot more comments. And yeah, Twitter discussions can get ugly real fast although I’ve seen that unfold more with political than aesthetic discussions. Unfortunately, the format seems to encourage a kind of perverse pride in glib closed-mindedness, at least among many tweeters (one person angrily informed me that they were most certainly NOT on Twitter to learn about other people’s opinions).

    I do disagree strongly with #6, but admittedly from a visceral more than an intellectual standpoint. I’ll concede that having a disciplined overseer is a boon in terms of writing craft (I let myself slide too often, but I’d do so even more if I hadn’t had whips cracked over me in the past) – although personally I got that a lot more in high school than I did in college. The other side of university instruction, the spirit rather than the mechanics, makes me uneasy. I’m eternally grateful that I “studied” cinema classics as a teenager instead of being introduced to them in a formal classroom setting as a young adult, which in my personal experience tends to quash rather than provoke enthusiasm and inculcate a kind of slavish this-is-how-these-things-ARE mentality. I find it notable the the great theories and approaches of cinephilia developed initially outside of academia. But anyway, that’s me and my prejudices and I’m stickin’ to ’em.

    The last few points are interesting to me because, as noted, my last fling with the idea of “professional” blogging (in the sense of getting paid, possibly writing for other sites, and establishing a kind of “official” and consistent internet presence) occurred a few years ago. For a few reasons: I lost interest in strictly being a critic (moving more toward free-form essays, visual tributes, video pieces, and other approaches which eschewed strictly-structured reviews), I did not see much return from my initial forays, and I came to prize blogging as an outlet for my own voice rather than an attempt to reach an audience (though in the process my audience grew).

    But I wonder how many of these points would apply toward pursuing filmMAKING within the wild-west world of the internet? That’s an area I AM interested in exploring, although I find it’s a lot tougher to get people watching than reading your online content. Anyway, sorry if this comment was pointless; I guess I just felt like seizing the opportunity to “think out loud”. I guess that’s what blogging is for anyway ;).

  2. This is really useful advice Adam! Also think it’s so important to consider context when writing about film, a great point to highlight.

  3. I agree with a lot of this Adam. It certainly helps to understand film criticism if you read reviews from the likes of Time Out and Halliwells, who will pull apart a film and point out why exactly a good film isn’t a great film.

    Formal education may help if the course and the lecturers are of good enough quality, but that’s an expensive game of hit’n’miss.

  4. The first three points: Watch, watch, watch. Yes many times over. This is why I rarely watch films at home or on television without some impetus for doing so. It’s just not as enjoyable as sitting in a theater with others and experiencing a movie with all of your attentions.

    Read – This is certainly true that it is an under appreciated part of film going. Of course, one of the downsides to this is that you need to be able to find books and other writings about the genre you love. If you love horror and read up on mostly art film, you’ll find some interesting intersections, but you’ll likely end up feeling like you’ve wasted your time.

    Communication – A challenging part of the modern film writer’s work. Anonymity brings out the absolute most grotesque vitriol from people over things that simply don’t really deserve the time and energy necessary to generate that vitriol. If you find yourself cultivating a few good conversations online, consider yourself lucky. Harry at AICN receives mostly vitriol and trolling and just a spewing litany of ad hominem attacks, but he keeps pushing forward and he insist on leaving comment sections open (although he recently moved it all over to Disqus in hopes of bringing at least a little more civil behavior to the site). But if you find yourself in a real-life conversation with people interested in film, especially in events or genres you both have in common and love, there’s nothing more exciting and gratifying than that conversation.

    Education – I’ve worked in education institutions for over 20 years. I find it almost impossible to take the members of academia seriously anymore. The sense of self-importance, self-inflation and downright denigrating behavior from them makes is extraordinarily difficult to think that formal higher education is a worthwhile, respectable pursuit in the 21st century. If education is in decline, educational institutions and their members have only themselves to blame.

    Educating one’s self in film is certainly a challenging endeavor, especially now that we’re basically entering a second age of scarcity amid abundance when it comes to the availability of classic cinema media. But it can be done, and it is a worthwhile personal pursuit to delve into all film and to seek out and discover authors writing about the type of film that you are interested in. Moreover, write about film yourself, or start talking about film and recording it and listening to it. Create you own ideas about film and capture them. Write or talk. Or make your own films about films. Create to educate.

    Don’t Fall Into The PR Trap – Only a remote possibility if you end up getting paid to write about film or if you’re paid then you’ve garnered some sort of influence that maybe not even you know about yet.

    Always Say Something You Can Back Up – Hell yes. I’ll say that if you’re writing about film and you’re writing more Top X lists than actual interviews or articles or reviews, then you’re not really writing. You’re doing nothing more than “creating content” to bring in the least interested readers. Say things not that you can just back up, but that mean something to you.

    That said, frankly, I can’t speak to registering with a professional agency as I am not a film writer, only a fan of many film writers and talkers. I know which ones I like and which ones I don’t. The higher up the professional tree that most of them are, the less depth their writing seems to contain (at least or US film writers) and the less personal it is, which makes it feels shallow and meaningless. (For the absolute best example of this terribleness, check out the San Francisco Chronicle’s Mick LaSalle is you want a lesson in exactly what type of film writer NOT to end up as.)

    Know When To Stop Writing For Free – Agreed! If you write well enough and regularly enough (both are critical), then you will get an audience, and if it’s big enough you’ll end up getting paid in one way or another, be it through other outlets or making your own make money.

    Try New Things – Yes! Especially when it comes to new types of presentation, new types of film making and new types of film events. If you’ve never been to a film festival, go. If you’ve been to one you love, find one that’s similar in another city and go there to get a feel for how other places watch movies and talk about cinema. Be broad and flexible with your festival going and go to smaller festivals where the best movies you’ll never see anywhere else will inevitably sneak up on you and make you fall in love with them.

    Embrace Rejection – Hey, the film makers you love are where they are because most of them did exactly this. If you love film, realize that it’s an industry and art form built on rejection.

  5. Wanted to extend a belated thanks for this much-needed advice editorial. Since I’m a new follower, I wanted to go back and read the other two related entries before writing. As for this last one, it is a great guideline and wouldn’t hesitate to pass it along to anyone I know it applies to. I come to this from a different angle. Having done film, music and book reviewing for a number of years, the checklist you offer was mostly second nature to me. Where I have difficulties is swiming in the same waters as uncounted millions of others writing about film online. I have written a book that’s a viewer’s guide to documentaries that has almost 350 reviews and is unique in format as far as I know (though the BFI released a Top 100 doc book a few years back). But getting the word out on in is daunting on the web given the critical mass of content. There is a temptation try and bait others into an “online discussion” (sucession of rants) instead of offering the kind of thoughtful analysis of your site. Anyway, I look forward to your future posts and expect to so spend some time honing my online skills as I had spent so long honing my writing skills. I’d rather be watching more films!

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