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May 30, 2006

Movie Reviewing: Job? Career? Calling?

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

A couple of lifetimes ago I might have become a movie reviewer. I was well-positioned to make a stab at it, anyway. I had movie-reviewer friends, I'd published writing about movies in a variety of legit publications, and I knew some of the arts-and-entertainment editors. During a few stretches I'd worked as a regular movie reviewer for small publications. (Big bucks, lemme tellya -- $50 a column.) So I was on all the screening lists and I was friendly with the publicists. I attended or at least was invited to many of the promising-young-writers-about-the-arts parties. Back then, you didn't just need energy and a Blogger account to start yapping in public about the arts. You needed access.

Almost despite myself -- I never intended to become a reviewer, I just happened to stumble into these circles (a long story) -- I found myself with access. The time was right, the moment had come, and friends and colleagues were urging me on. So I scrunched my face up into a tight little ball and made a few attempts at putting myself on the market. My energy flagged almost instantly. Yikes! Where was my enthusiasm? What could be holding me back? Like Tom Cruise at the beginning of the third act, I confronted myself in the psychic mirror. Unlike Tom Cruise, after a few seconds I shook my head, said "Fuhgeddabout it," and abandoned the attempt.

What I admitted to myself was that I not only didn't want to win the ballgame, I didn't even want to be in it. As the years went on, I wrote and published pieces about movies as the muse and opportunities presented themselves. I seemed to have a knack for moviechat; once in a while it was fun to let it rip in venues the public might run across. But I never gave another thought to taking part in the pro movie-reviewing game.

A recent posting by the movie critic Dave Kehr has me revisiting this particular micro-drama. In his posting, Kehr bemoans the recent semi-firing of the New York Post's movie reviewer Jami Bernard. (CORRECTION: Whoops, make that the Daily News, not the Post.) Kehr wrote an interesting follow-up posting too.

At the time, I wasn't entirely clear about the reasons why I bailed. It simply felt right. I gave one of those sighs of relief whose hugeness indicates that you've made a decision that's a good one for you. Now, though, a couple of decades later, the reasons why my decision felt right have become semi-clear to me.

There were a number of things about "being a movie reviewer" that didn't suit me. One is that that there are no objective standards in the field. What might be a reasonable set of qualifications, beyond "being able to turn in peppy copy on time"? There are no even semi-objective standards. What makes one person a better movie reviewer than another? I know what I think is worthwhile and who I think is good -- but why shouldn't some other reader (or boss) disagree entirely?

There were many aspects to the job as a day-by-day occupation that I wasn't crazy about. I find it unnatural to run around town seeing new art and entertainment, for one thing. Who goes to see new movies, one after another, and nothing but new movies? Who but movie weirdos and movie reviewers, that is? My own love of movies seems to require allowing myself to riffle through odd patches of movie history. I lose interest in the art if I don't permit myself to indulge in, say, a Sam Fuller phase, a Radley Metzger wallow, or a Jean Rollin phase. Though I can certainly enjoy the occasional chase-after-newness, an endless diet of newness makes for what I find to be an odd and depressing life.

For another, I found that chasing around after new movies threw my taste and my equilibrium off, not to mention my judgment. This kind of question cropped up in my mind over and over: "Do I really love this movie, or am I just relieved to see something passable after a couple of weeks of duds?" I also found it peculiar to attend movies as a job. A movie reviewer sees a movie at least in part because he has to, after all -- it's his professional duty. But the civilians the reviewer is writing for almost always attend movies because they want to. Obligation-vs-desire: That's a pretty fundamental attitude-difference that reviewers and civilians walk into a theater with.

Good reviewers will take these factors into account, of course, and will manage them well. But managing these dynamics and demands requires expenses of effort and brainpower too, unless you happen to have been born with a very rare gift. And hats off to the reviewers -- people such as Teachout, Ansen, Ebert, and Dave Kehr -- who remain open, energized, and responsive to the fields they cover year after year. It's less easy than many civilians probably imagine.

More basically, I didn't (and don't) like the idea (or the experience) of peddling my opinion professionally. Like anyone else, I have plenty of them. I also think that reactions and opinions are an important part of the art-experiencing and art-chat life. But making a big deal out of my opinions rubs me the wrong way. I have nothing against people who enjoy the whole putting-forth-opinions-and-then-arguing-about-them behavior-set. It just doesn't suit me.

(For anyone who's interested: Although I'm a pretty good reviewer, so far as artchat goes I'm temperamentally someone who meanders through culture at the behest of my idiosyncratic urgings and whims, musing out loud about what I run across. In conventional writing terms, that makes me more an eccentric columnist than a hard-hitting reviewer. But you don't get to be a real-live columnist without first having Become Somebody, which is something I somehow neglected to do. Oopsie.)

And, believe me, reviewers are people who do make a big deal out of their opinions. They fight over 'em -- and what's the point of that? To my mind, if an opinion doesn't open out onto something far more interesting -- an idea, a perception, an intuition -- then it's just noise. I don't need it, and I resist contributing to it.

Another practical question bugged me as well: As a reviewer, what to make of all those movies (or books, or art shows, or concerts) that you simply don't have a strong reaction to? I've seen a fair number of movies that I liked on Tuesday but that I might have found boring on Wednesday. My reaction to these works is "eh." Yet a "comme ci comme ca" reaction in a movie review tends to turn readers and employers off. BTW, I once asked a pro movie-reviewer chum how he handled this dilemma. "I make up a strong reaction and run with it," he said.

Yet another thing I didn't like about the job: The amount of on-the-job politics involved. Day to day, you wrestle with the fact that movie ads are important to your employer. How is your boss going to feel if you regularly fail to show enthusiasm for the movies whose ads he's making money from? And then there's the whole negotiating-with-celebrities-and-publicists side of things. Editors (and, alas, many readers) love business stories and celebrity profiles. What if your editor has lined up a one-on-one with a hot celeb, yet you dislike that celeb's new movie? A reviewer who's too, too honest risks alienating the publicists, performers, studios, executives, and agents whose good will his boss, his publication, and his business all depend on.

There's also the matter of politics in and among film critics, er, movie reviewers, er, whatever. It's an absurd little profession, if indeed it can be called a profession. There are very few make-a-living-at-it movie-reviewing positions available, and movie reviewing is thought to be a glamorous job. (It's amazing how many people think of "being a movie reviewer" as a big deal.) So people in the field can be ferociously, even viciously, ambitious and territorial. Critic-egos often start off inflated and fragile in the first place -- film nerds, like nerds in every field, I suppose, aren't generally the most stable or trustworthy people. And shit hitting the fan, as it inevitably will, doesn't bring out the best in touchy, overintellectual people, to say the least. Knives make their way into backs on a regular basis. Meanwhile, some of the people in the field (or even on its edges) are amazingly puffed-up individuals. I've known a few who didn't see themselves as lucky bastards getting away with murder by being able to pay the bills writing about movies. They saw themselves as rock stars, or as rogue hero-artists in their own right. Who wants to be around that?

A mushy, anxiety-making field ... populated by geeks and media-besotted nutcases who make too much of their opinions ... Yikes.

But the main reason I opted out of the game was because the field seemed like such an absurd way to make basic life-money. For one thing, as a job it's beyond-flukey. You might be the world's most amusing and insightful reviewer yet lose out professionally to someone who's a complete idiot. It's not as though there's a professional licensing-board you can run to to protest such an action. You can see two career extremes at the New York Times. Manohla Dargis and A.O. Scott, both good movie reviewers, came to their positions from completely different backgrounds. Dargis, a lifer, has always had a reputation as an infighting careerizer, and is said to have clawed her way into her position. (I don't know her, and I don't know the real story of how she got the job, btw. I'm just passing along gossip.) Meanwhile, when he was given his Times position, A.O. Scott had only ever written one piece about movies. Oooo, did that raise the hackles of reviewers who'd invested years and years of serious geekery into their film-knowledge. Yet Scott, like Dargis, has worked out just fine.

Where paying the bills goes, I'm a "job" person, not a "career" person. I also like to feel that there might be a little stability in my salary-earning and preparing-for-retirement life. Here's a question I found especially off-putting when I was thinking about movie-reviewing as a job: What comes after? Let's say you do win/earn/cut-throats-and-grasp a position reviewing movies. Let's say the pay is OK-enough. Nice! You do your job, you figure out ways to have a life and pursue some other interests too ... And then you get canned. It almost always happens, after all. Editors and maybe even readers grow tired of you, or a big advertiser creates a stink about you, or it's felt that a "younger, fresher voice" is needed. And, to be fair, most movie reviewers have only a few years when they're really tuned-in to the culture and a-fizz with perceptions.

What do you do when when your movie-reviewing gig dissolves beneath you? Some reviewers manage to rebound; some even reincarnate in better positions than the ones they were booted from. But many have sad post-movie-reviewing lives. Movie reviewing sure beats digging ditches as a way to pay the bills. But a ditch-digger who is laid off is likely to find further employment digging ditches very quickly. A movie reviewer is often completely stuck. He has had his career moment. What other job is movie-reviewing preparation for, after all? Writing books doesn't pay much money ... An academic position might be a possibility ... Oh, what the hell, maybe Prozac would be the ticket.

The prospects didn't suit me, in other words. Movie reviewing didn't offer what I wanted from a job. Practical, middle-class person that I am, I'll opt for an OK income and the reasonable certainty of steady and longterm employment, and then I'll do my best to make such a post bearable and not-too-exhausting. And, what the hey: On my own time, I'll do what I please, whether that's blogging, messing with art and/or fiction, or maybe just goofing off. God will reward my creative efforts, if I manage any, or maybe He won't. But my 401K plan will remain secure.

I'm sorry to report that -- in part because of the field's flukiness -- some movie reviewers turn the job of movie reviewing into a calling. Hard to believe, but these reviewers don't see themselves as reviewing movies because it's a funner-than-most way of waltzing through the making-money part of life. They do it because, in their own minds, the world needs what they have to say. This is an idea that makes me snicker, to be honest. Faced with it, I find myself developing sympathy for a class of people I normally don't have much time for: editors. After all, why shouldn't editors hire and fire whom they please? Let's all be grateful for humane and appreciative bosses, of course. But really: What are we, children?

Anyway, many movie reviewers are prone to carrying on about how the world, or at least their own publications, owe it to the general welfare of humanity to support first-rate film reviewing, namely their own. Dave Kehr seems to me to express something of this atttiude in the blog posting I'm riffing on. Which is OK and understandable. What an odd and annoying field, after all. But I'm unable to share the indignation or righteousness. I'm sorry that Jami Bernard has lost her position, of course. I have sympathy for her as a person. But such is the nature of the movie-reviewing game. Besides, we all take our knocks. In my own case, I opted for more rather than less stability. And that 401K plan has been growing. But part of the deal I made with life is that, in exchange for stability, I work as a flunky who enjoys zero in the way of glamor and prestige. That's not always easy either.

A small historical note: Many of the most famous and best film reviewers didn't review movies as a career, let alone a calling. They were people whose ambitions lay in other directions, and who were glad to have landed a paying writing gig. IMHO, this kind of casual approach to criticism and reviewing can be a strength. While intense, visionary, and crusading film reviewing can deliver payoffs, perspective, speed, light-heartedness, and worldliness aren't generally among them. As a reader, I like Graham Greene's offhand movie reviews more than I do his novels, which I often find weighty and over-labored. In his own mind, Manny Farber never saw himself as a professional film reviewer. He always took himself to be a painter who wrote about movies because he needed some cash. Filmbuffs and fans may bemoan the fact that Farber hasn't written about movies much in the last 30 years -- but during that time he has been happily making paintings. Once he was financially able to give up movie reviewing, he did so and returned to his real love. I like Farber's paintings a whole lot, by the way. And I like Greene's and Farber's movie reviews far better than I do the work of all but a few of the impassioned-and-crusading crowd.

Times have changed. A famous movie reviewer from a pre-Boomer generation once said to me, "Nobody wants to be a critic." Perhaps, pre-Boomers, that was generally true. Since the '70s, though, it no longer holds. These days, you really gotta want it to be a pro movie reviewer -- either that, or like A.O. Scott, you have to be a lottery winner. Me, I was capable of doing the job, but I didn't really want the job. I didn't draw a lucky lottery ticket either. And thank heavens for both of those facts.

As for writing about culture and the arts? The web has given an opening to anyone who's able to type and to hit a "post now" button. It's no longer necessary to enter the culture of "real writers," editors, and publishing in order to put your opinions, observations, and thoughts before the public. And what a lovely surprise to discover that there are a ton of people who -- even if they lack professional writing skills -- have amusing and insightful things to say about movies, books, art, music, design, etc. Are you looking for anything more from artchat? I don't think that I am. I liked what Anne Thompson wrote on her blog in response to Kehr's posting: "There's plenty of good film writing on the web, including Kehr. It's just a lot harder to get paid for it." Which is an interesting predicament in its own right.



posted by Michael at May 30, 2006


A really interesting piece, Michael. I have nothing much on-topic to add, so what follows are random splotches of thought-mud that happened to stick on the wall.

One small advantage to the old days of near-monopoly media and critics chained to their faithful Underwoods for decades was that readers could get familiar with the reviewer's quirks. My favorite example is Vincent Canby who 20-30 years or so ago was film critic for The New York Times. It took me a while, but I eventually came to realize that movies he thought were funny, I found to be totally un-amusing -- useful info when movie-shopping.

I also suspected (and still do) that critics over-praise movies because they are "different," having cut through the boredom of sitting through film after film after film. The well-crafted, but non-different movie can get short-changed, to the potential viewer's loss.

One critic who survived the experience is Michael Medved, now a talk-radio host. (Full disclosure: he autographed a copy of a book of his that I bought.)

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on May 30, 2006 3:48 PM

That's NY Daily News, Michael, not NY Post.

But give us more gossip on the NYT critics! That Dargis taster is good for starters, but I know you can do better...

Posted by: Felix on May 30, 2006 4:01 PM


Mr. Kehr is pretty entertaining, although I suspect not intentionally. I quote:

During my tenure at the news [sic] – seven years that I keep hoping will disappear down an Ambien hole and never disturb my troubled sleep again – Jami and I suffered unbelievable interference from the editorial higher-ups, all of whom seemed to believe that they were vastly more capable of registering the “populist” perspective on a given film (in DN speak, “populist” is a term of art meaning “barely sentient”) than the people they’d somehow (and clearly, mistakenly) hired as experts on the subject.[Emphasis added]

Well, no doubt anyone so expert can immediately turn to testifying in court cases as a forensic witness...or...wait...go into business as a film producer and make tons of money or at least rack up Oscar after Oscar! That'll show those bastards at the Post!

But what's even better are the comments on the David Kehr piece. The commenters seem upset because they think these skilled workers (i.e., film reviewers) are being canned to appeal to younger readers. And are no doubt being replaced by younger, more poorly paid wordsmiths! Those editors must be twirling their mustaches and uttering "bwah-ha-ha!" laughs as they light their cigars with $100 bills.

Baby boomers are without shame, but I never assumed that movie reviewers would have the nerve to start filing wrongful termination suits over age discrimination. But I guess that's next...

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on May 30, 2006 4:29 PM

It all comes back to the commodification (commode-ification) of darn near everything and this conviction that people in expensive clothes can sit around a table (which they know better than their own homes or most recent families) and try to guess what will make more money. Since they have no experience except for sitting around the table, they have no idea at all what people will pay money to sit through.

Even if they guess right (relying on the best consumer research), they haven't a ghost of a notion how to get the thing made and must hire people who have no respect for them and who make a game of mocking them right there on the screen. (Not that they notice.)

Well, it will die of its own weight in the La Brea tar pits. Meanwhile, where are the small brilliant REAL movies? What do you put into the heading to get Google to find them? Who's writing the really informed movie blogs? Or are we entirely dependent on

How I loved "Black Orpheus," "Wild Strawberries," "The Cranes Are Flying." Whole universes opening up. I could care less what the critics thought. But then, "Last Tango in Paris" -- would I have even dared go see it (I was in college) if Pauline Kael hadn't admired it?

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on May 30, 2006 11:46 PM

Donald -- That was an excellent way to make use of Vincent Canby. His tastes and mine seldom crossed paths either. Looking back, though, he does look a little like a gent and an intellectual giant compared to a lot of what passes for film reviewing today.

Felix -- Thanks for the correction. I wish I had something to offer the gossip queens, but in fact I know nothing about the inner workings of the Times.

FvB -- Hey, if my field were crumbling beneath me, I'd probably try to play the morality or expert card myself. I just don't know if I'd be able to keep a straight face while doing so. Kehr's actually a first-class critic who says tons of smart and insightful things, at least when he talks about movies.

P. Mary -- That was a very different era, wasn't it? Super-fun in its own right too. I suspect that many of the Boomer age reviewers are nostalgic for it ...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on May 31, 2006 12:23 AM

Richard Corliss and Shickel at Time mag are my fave reviewers, yet I think conflicts of interest compromise their articles.

Would it really hurt them (or any Time mag critics) to disclose that they are writing about or reviewing a Time-Warner media property?

You've skipped over talking about the Net and reviewing. I know reviewers who have written hundreds of nice reviews on DVD sites and and imdb (not to mention blogs). I think it's going to be dominated by amateurs, with only a select few getting paid for it.

Posted by: Robert Nagle on May 31, 2006 8:04 AM

Those Dave Kehr posts are very interesting.

Jeez, I used to hate Vincent Canby. Now I don't read any critics any more, except for Yamdallah and the (nameless) critics People, who actually provide informative reviews.

Posted by: jult52 on May 31, 2006 8:28 AM

Keeping up with Hollywood and film and the latest, greatest thing coming out... it's a labor of love. Many "film critics" who do write professionally are journalists who would rather be doing anything else, but someone's got to write the reviews.

Thanks to blogging and the Internet in general, credentials have become "How long have you been doing this?" and "Why should I even care about your opinion?" In addition, sites like and have started proving that the informed opinion still exists, it's just in here with all the others.

As I've told many, not everyone cares enough about movies to look for opinions of it, just "what a friend told them." The average viewer discovers film like this: "Hey, remember that movie with the guy and the contraption that makes people do things? There's a sequel this week... wanna go?"

There is a wealth of great films (and really bad ones) out there, each to everyone's taste. And "selling" criticism has become an artform itself; who wants to go to a plain 'blog' and read Billy's Bangup Review for three entries when you can access a themed website with 500+ reviews alphabetized?

But the modern movie critic who does it for the labor of love has a common enemy: the studio marketers. Hollywood is a business, and negative critic reviews hurt the bottom line, especially now in the all-important opening weekend. It's a tap dance to get access and studio support to an up and coming film only to find out the final product is crap and someone needs to be told. The studio feels betrayed, the fanboys think you're biased, and the hate mail rolls in.

If you're thinking about seeing any film this summer that you're not sure you want to spend the money to see, find a critic and read their opinion. is a good place to start, with only brief quotes and "good/bad" recommendations; you can always click to see more. And if you find a critic to stick with on a regular basis, let them know once in a while you're reading... it means a lot (even if you don't agree) that you care enough to want to form an opinion on a constantly more-commercialized at form.

Posted by: K Ranson on May 31, 2006 1:24 PM

I agree with many of your comments and the piece is really well argued. I think the thing about great films is that they lead you to think about the way that you live or relate to people or the way that people relate(d) in a different way. The best reviews- and they aren't always proffessional- are the ones which make you look again at something that you really love and see thta its saying more even than you thought the first time you saw it. The best film review makes you want to see the film again in order to see the same truth as the reviewer. So few of these proffessional journalists either review good films or go further than x is good or bad- perhaps what we need is more movie essayists and fewer movie reviewers!

Posted by: Henry on June 5, 2006 6:48 AM

A good critic is one who can tell you two things: here's what I'm like, and this is what I thought of the movie/book/show/music. Either of those bits of information without the other is useless. And a great critic is one who can tell you those two things and entertain you at the same time.


Posted by: Jon on June 5, 2006 6:54 AM

Having spent some 40 of my 50 plus years on this planet obsessively watching movies, I will happily account myself an "expert" on the subject, no matter how unpopulist that term may strike Friedrich (sic) von Blowhard. And Michael, your story about Manohla Dargis "clawing her way into her position" could not be further from the truth. She was courted by the NYT for months before she took the job.

And that's the internet for you -- there are no more "experts," only "artchat," and writers routinely post gossip items as fact without the slightest attempt to check them out. Me, I'll take professionalism any time (as well as people who sign their real names).

Posted by: Dave Kehr on June 5, 2006 12:12 PM

Nice piece, Michael, esp. in regards to the skewering of the ridiculous egos of some critics who seem to believe they're owed a living by the public and cringeing respect by PR flacks. Kehr's comments I think were wrongly regarded as similarly egotistical by many, when I think he was simply saying that if we're going to pay people for their writing on film, shouldn't they at least be competent writers well versed in their field?

The question of whether people should be paid for their opinions is, of course, another issue. Speaking as a longtime web reviewer getting paid minor ducats (if at all), I still consider myself lucky to have the gig (and yes, it is only an on-the-side job, no way could you make a living at this) and remain happily baffled by the fact that anybody even cares to read the opinions on someone they don't even know.

Posted by: Chris Barsanti on June 5, 2006 12:41 PM

My experience as a movie reviewer for the radio station where I was an announcer, and later for the weekly rag, in Santa Fe can be summed up as:


1. Almost every film has something in it that's worthwhile, even if it's lousy as a whole. You discover good actors you might never have known about otherwise; you come to appreciate some of the lesser known aspects of the craft, like cinematography, musical scoring, and editing.

2. Now and then you see an excellent movie that you'd never have gone to if not as a reviewer because the description didn't sound like you'd enjoy it.

3. Occasionally -- very occasionally in my case -- you meet actors or the film crew and have a chance to talk with them. I always found that very interesting and revelatory.

4. Being a film reviewer attracts dating partners, who think it's prestigious to be seen with you or like seeing movies for free.


1. You meet people who imagine the job is glamourous and who envy you. But a wise person never courts envy.


1. You've summed up the personal and ethical issues very well; they all resonate with me. I was particularly prone to self-analysis about my evaluations: how much did they depend on my mood or state of alertness? Did values of my peer group skew my judgment? If I hated a particular genre, such as horror films or films about children (same thing to me, pretty much), and panned a film of that description, was it fair to people who like the genre?

2. It takes a hell of a lot of your time, if you include traveling to the theater, sitting through the previews, and the film itself. That may not be a problem for professional full-time reviewers, but it is to the part-time, second-job reviewer who is obliged to see three movies a week.

3. You have to listen to people who care more than you do and want to debate the merits of this or that film, director, actor, etc.

4. You think you'll commit yourself for psychiatric care if you have to see that stupid commercial or preview one more time.

Posted by: Rick Darby on June 5, 2006 2:17 PM

Robert N. -- As the media behemoths grow ever more octopus-like, the webs of influence grow ever more complicated, don't they?

JT -- It's interesting the way these developments affect reading habits, isn't it? I used to love following reviews. These days I seldom bother with them. I blame some of that on Netflix -- now that I'm able to pursue the films I want to, I seldom pay attention to what's new. So when I look for writing about films to read, I'm snooping around online looking for stuff that isn't reviews of new movies.

K Ranson -- No kidding and well-put, tks. And, for some anyway, there's also the thrill of being out there first, of sitting in screening rooms, of having an opinion about a film before anyone else has seen it, etc. Newness per se doesn't mean much to me, but I'm glad it does mean something to some.

Henry -- That's a whole series of really good points, thanks. I can like movie criticism for any number of reasons -- it's fun to read in its own right, it makes me see or notice something I wouldn't have otherwise ... I suppose those are the two best reasons I can think of, come to think of it. I often think that a dream movie section would resemble a good food-and-eating section: informative, pleasure-centric, helpful ... Well, all that plus some fun with controversies.

Jon -- Sign me up as a fan of that kind of good and great critic. Do you find many such around these days? It seems to me that the age of the critic-star is over, having given way to the age of comparing notes and art-chat. For better and/or worse, of course.

Dave -- I enjoy your reviews and your blogging, so I'm sorry to see you turning your nose up at this posting. I do think you're overdoing your schtick about professionalism and movie reviewing -- reviewing movies ain't being a doctor or a lawyer. And I suspect that you're missing part of the point and the fun of online art-chat, which is that the paid-reviewer contributions now occur in a much more rich and public web of yak and comparing-notes. Why you wouldn't see this as a good thing puzzles me. As for Manohla, you'll notice that I specified that I was passing along gossip (and I had heard her spoken about as a ferocious careerizer for years) and that I had no personal knowledge of how she got the Times gig. You come in and add your two cents -- what's irresponsible about any of that? Can't we assume that grownups, when warned they're being given gossip, are capable of taking it as such? Gossip often proves to be wrong, after all. Online art-talk is a conversation, not a lecture -- something I find many traditional critic types have a hard time getting used to. Thanks for stopping by in any case.

Chris -- I liked many of Kehr's points too. Let's hear it for paid reviewers being better rather than less-well informed, and for being good writers too. That said, and leaving aside how things ought to be, it's all really up to the editors, isn't it? As for whether anybody "should" get paid for having opinions, well, if he/she can, why not? At the same time, it's a position I was happy not to have. I hated the whole peddling opinions for money racket. Couldn't agree with you more about how sweet it is that people like swapping and comparing notes and impressions.

Rick -- That's a great series of points! And a super-excellent one about how taxing it is to play backup. Lousy money, lots of time, all of it biting into your own non-work life. Blech to that.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 5, 2006 4:51 PM

Wow, David Kehr seems to have a chip on his shoulder. You said the story about Ms. Dargis was gossip, and you were civil, even deferential, to him. And, yeah, of course he is an expert. I don't see you disputing that. The problem is, as you note, getting paid for it. He has managed to get paid for it, which is an achievement. So, what's his problem? That anyone else writes about this stuff for free?

(And some of us have good reasons for not using our real names.)

Posted by: Lexington Green on June 5, 2006 4:54 PM

Mr. Kehr:

You write:

And that's the internet for you -- there are no more "experts," only "artchat," and writers routinely post gossip items as fact without the slightest attempt to check them out. Me, I'll take professionalism any time (as well as people who sign their real names).

Sorry I can't indulge you with my real name, but I don't see how that makes your own piece any more reasonable in either tone or content.

You seem to be quite intent on being respected as a professional in your field. Perhaps you could define in a little greater detail what "professional" means in this context? Are you accredited by some professional body? Surely you're not suggesting that because somebody gave you a paycheck to review movies that this conferred some particularly elevated status on your opinions.

Alternatively, of course, you could demonstrate a somewhat objective standard of expertise, as I suggested above, by actually making a few movies, particularly of the commercial-variety that I presume you review.

If you think I'm raising an unfair standard here, I would point out that as a small business owner (the reason I'm not sharing my real name, BTW), I bet my own money all the time in my work, and I've done so reasonably successfully for twenty years. So I don't think it's unreasonable to remark that if you're such an expert, why don't you produce a few movies and see how they do, artistically and financially?

I'm not denigrating your work as a critic--which I am not familiar with--but I do that you might take a look in a mirror and ask yourself exactly what you're upset about here.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 5, 2006 5:18 PM

Mr. Kehr:

As for your remark...

no matter how unpopulist that term may strike Friedrich (sic) von Blowhard

...perhaps you should follow your own advice and do a little research. Friedrich is a good German name, good enough for Friedrich Nietzsche, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Friedrich Hayek, Johann Carl Friedrich Gauss, etc., etc.

Moreover, my opinions, such as they are, are usually the opposite of populist, although I don't criticize you for not being aware of them. I was taking exception not to your claims of exalted status per se, but rather to idiocy of deriving that elevated status from a garden variety white collar job--to wit, being a movie reviewer.

It's absolutely fine with me if you think you're smarter, more sensitive, and more religiously inspired than the rest of humanity, and want to write your criticism from that point of view. In fact, many of my favorite authors did exactly that. But I don't recall Nietzsche claiming that he was a great philosopher because he had been a "professional" university professor.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 5, 2006 6:00 PM

A vey interesting chain of comments. I am not clear why film critics are any different from art critics or music critics or literature critics. Most of the same objections could be leveled against all critics. They all serve essentially the same purpose, which is to assist in the understanding or appreciation of various art forms. For some, that will always be unwanted meddling. For others that will enhance their experience in a way that keeps them coming back.

I'm also not clear why the function of a critic is different from the function of the artist he or she criticizes. Both use their creative faculties, their taste, their style, their judgment to evaluate / illuminate something else. With an artist, it's usually something in nature. With a critic, it's usually another work of art (which is of course ultimately another thing in nature). Anyone who has read the best criticism (Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Mencken) will not be so quick to draw distinctions between the critical faculties of the arist and those of the critic.

Finally, I disagree that there is no objective role for the critic. The movie critic for Yahoo!, Nell Minow, always provides a sensible check list of content issues to help families make decisions about what they want their kids to see (substance abuse, divorce, gay issues, etc.) This kind of straight factual reporting was very useful to us when our kids were younger.

One other point: Michael Medved is a narrow minded, fundamentally ignorant ideologue. (Just had to say that!)

Posted by: David on June 6, 2006 1:34 AM

Can you honestly not see what's irresponsible about passing along unfounded, potentially damaging gossip in a public forum? I don't know who you are (since you choose to write behind a shield) and I don't know what your real job is, but apparently it isn't journalism. If it were, you'd know that you have a moral obligation to check out your information before publishing it.

Reviewing movies may not be the equivalent of practicing medicine (though I might argue with you about practicing law), but I'd think you'd want some basic familiarity with the subject before going public with your thoughts. Would you trust a music critic who didn't know what a chord was?
And that, Fred, is what I mean by professionalism. No, I do not think I am smarter, more sensitive, and more religiously inspired than anyone else (nor do I feel your obsessive need to identify myself with Nietzsche), but I do think that studying a subject for a number of decades does give me a basis for offering an informed opinion. I don't claim an "elevated status," as you parodically put it; I do claim to know a little bit about what I am writing about. And just to make you happy, first thing in the morning I'll get up and make a few "commercial variety" movies. Really now, are you that naive about the relationship of art making and art criticism?

Posted by: Dave Kehr on June 6, 2006 10:49 AM

David -- A series of musings I'm very sympathetic to! As far as I'm concerned, criticism is a branch of literature. One may or may not have a taste for it, of course ... As far as the gist of my posting goes, one thing that does distinguish movie reviewers from other kinds of reviewers (in terms of the practicalities of their job) is that movie ads are a very big deal to many publications, as is access to stars, producers, and news. So the pressures on movie reviewers are often different than they are on other kinds of reviewers. The good ones of course handle the pressures well.

Dave -- You're doing a wonderful job of exemplifying many of the reasons why I didn't want to involve myself professionally in the movie-reviewing world: No sense of perspective ... Overvaluing your opinion ... Can dish it out but can't take it ... Unworldliness ... A tendency to carry on like a moral dictator ...

But on to your point. I take it that, where I'm concerned, you're peeved that I ran the sentence about Manohla? Is that right? If so, I admire your gallantry, and I hope Manohla values your friendship. If you'd like to write an item about how great Manohla is, or about how (from your p-o-v) she got her Times post, I'd be happy to run it on the blog. You'll notice that I haven't deleted your comments here. Grandstanding and rude though you've managed to be, your input and your information are valued. Plus: Well, heck: You have a blog of your own, and can always respond there.

That said, I'd also like to ask you to look in the mirror for a sec. What I did was pass along a piece of gossip that I clearly labeled as such. And my gossip-bit was very well-sourced. In a couple of decades of being friendly with some movie reviewers and arts editors, I often heard Manohla discussed as an unstoppable careerizer. Perhaps my acquaintances were wrong, of course. That's why I made it clear I was passing along gossip, and that I have/had no personal experience in the case to report.

Incidentally: there's something wrong with careerizing? That's a new one on me. Every pro film reviewer I've known has done his/her fair share of careerizing, whether enthusiastically or not. It's a job and a field, after all. Careers in film reviewing don't just happen -- except when they do.

I'm tickled that you think that my remark might damage a bigtime-journalism career -- ah, the power of 2Blowhards! Editors and publishers around the world await my every judgment!

And I'm amazed that you think that readers don't know how to take a piece of gossip, especially one that's clearly labeled as such. In your own work, do you always assume that your readers have no idea how to take what you write? That's gotta make communciation tough!

Meanwhile, with no sourcing or shading whatsoever, you've accused me of cowardice, malice, and unprofessionalism. On, so far as I can tell, no basis whatsoever. So remind me again: Who exactly is being the irresponsible and destructive person here? I dunno: I think it's pretty clear that I've taken considerably more care with my remarks than you have with yours. But perhaps you abandon your lofty "professional" standards when you write in the comments on a blogposting? ...

I like your reviewing and criticism, btw. Where pro reviewing is concerned, I certainly prefer better-informed pro reviewers to less-well-informed ones (though I've also known incredibly well-informed buffs and scholars who were lousy reviewers, so it's not as though being well-informed counts for everything). And not that I'm going to make a big deal about it either -- after all, there's a lot of free, insightful, helpful, funny, and well-informed writing about the arts to be found online. All a well-informed person who wants to write about the arts has to do these days is get a Blogger account. I guess you think that's ... tragic, or something. I think it's pretty nifty. Too bad about the getting-paid predicament the pros (and the pro wannabes) are now stuck with, but such is life. It isn't just movie reviewers who are wrestling with the consequences of the digital revolution, after all.

And if you want to use the web to carry on about how superior-to-webchat pro criticism is, it's fine by me, not that it's up to me, of course. I marvel a bit that you don't see the web as cool for enabling you to make these arguments. I marvel also that you apparently don't see yourself -- your blogging, your reading this posting, your comments on it -- as taking part in webchat. But what the heck, you make many good points anyway. As for myself, though, these days I'd rather compare notes with non-pros. The touchy, scolding, high-and-mighty posturing of many in the pro set is something I've grown a little tired of.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 6, 2006 12:53 PM

Film criticism is no different from any other sort of art criticism. You have to know the grammar, the syntax, the history, before you can understand a film (painting, sculpture, etc.) as a work in itself and in context. Trying to do so without the necessary toolkit becomes a fill-in-the-blank excercise of "I liked this movie because...", something I'm not particularly interested in reading.

I'm sure there are dedicated amateurs out there who feel their opinions are every bit as worthy as those of professional critics ('professional' in the neutral sense of 'getting paid for it'). But I'd take the word of the professional 90% of the time for two reasons: 1) Regardless of how levelling the internet is in giving everyone access, it still can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. A dumb opinion is still dumb no matter how many people read it.

Before everyone had access there was a steep climb up on to the soapbox, so the conversation was dominated by the few who made it. You may feel that's elitist, that they only got there by 'careerizing' and 'clawing' their way to the top, but there's a simpler explanation: they got there because they knew what they were talking about better than those who didn't.

This process was also highly selective, in the Darwinian sense, so the wheat was somewhat separated from the chaff. Now the winnowing process is left to us, as we try to Google the wheat out from underneath a deafening roar of chaff.

The second reason is that, being professional, they can afford to spend sixteen hours a day thinking about film. That's something that most of us with day jobs can't compete with.

Posted by: Randy on June 6, 2006 1:52 PM

Mr. Kehr:

You write:

Really now, are you that naive about the relationship of art making and art criticism?

Sorry I was so naive as to try to hand you an even modestly objective basis for your claim of ‘expertise.’ Since you reject that helping hand, however, I'll try another.

What you seem to be lumping together under "art criticism" is generally considered to be at least two different beasts: genuine criticism and reviewing. By genuine criticism I mean a sustained, coherent attempt to link standards in art to something outside of art. This is notoriously difficult to do, but as I recall Winckelmann, Herder, Ruskin, Pater, Adorno, Rosenberg, Alexander, and a few cognitive scientists, among many others, have made reasonable fists at the problem. Reviewing, on the other hand, is essentially a form of entertainment, not entirely dissimilar to stand-up comedy.

So are you suggesting your work has a consistent theoretical structure that would entitle it to be called “criticism”? If so, please let me know where this is laid out. If it would be more accurate to consider what you do reviewing, however, your claims of ‘expertise’ are simply not to the point. I have no disrespect for people who are good reviewers, just as I have no disrespect for good standup comedians. But I would question whether subject matter “expertise” plays any very meaningful role in either. After all, informed opinions are, ahem, at the end of the day, opinions. And you know what they say about opinions: everybody’s got one. Including the undoubtedly unpleasant editors at your former place of employment.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on June 6, 2006 2:19 PM

Randy -- I think you're talking about how criticism ought to be, while my subject is what pro movie reviewing actually is! But thanks for the thoughts, and for stopping by.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 6, 2006 2:27 PM

"Anyone who has read the best criticism (Nietzsche, Mark Twain, Mencken) will not be so quick to draw distinctions between the critical faculties of the arist and those of the critic."

Each of those you cite here are known mainly for their own creative works. The quality of their critical writings is, I think, a result of their ability to look at, in this case, creative writing, from the inside, and also of their talent as creative writers themselves.

Posted by: the patriarch on June 6, 2006 3:00 PM

Honestly your forum -- and I know you take pride in the whole "blowhard" persona -- is no better than Hannity & Colmes or the O'Reilly Factor... Despicable sour grapes whining and baseless slander, followed by sour-grapes, slanderous swipes at those who show up to defend themselves.

You guys need to leave Dave Kehr and Manohla Dargis alone. They know their stuff, they GENUINELY LOVE MOVIES, they've worked in the field of film criticism for ages -- and they have earned their positions; the getting-paid thing shouldn't even be part of the debate. Go pick on somebody else -- a real charlatan who's been sitting on her throne for far too long like Michiko Kakutani, say... or some of your other dingleberry colleagues, yeah those who spend their days trading unwanted EPKs and parsing nutjob misinformation at the Dunkin' Donuts, chuckling over NYT "gossip". Who do you think you are, Gawker? Come on, just be thankful nobody's paying you so you can write whatever the crap you want.

Posted by: Z. Smith on June 6, 2006 5:17 PM

Z. Smith -- Did you ever learn how to read? I describe Kehr as one of the few reviewers who has long-term remained open, alert, and responsive, and Dargis as a good reviewer who has worked out well at the Times. FYI, that's p-r-a-i-s-e, praise. I agree with you about Kakutani, btw.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on June 6, 2006 10:13 PM

And just what is there about movies that is worth all the time and "effort" that critics put into them anyway? It's entertainment, for chrissakes, not the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel! Admittedly, I have extremely low taste (George of the Jungle was a favorite!) but the windiness of the review usually seems to hold a one-on-one match with the tedium of the flick. I think I'll continue to stay home and read a book!

Posted by: Oldsarge on June 7, 2006 5:23 PM

Reviewing movies may not be the equivalent of practicing medicine (though I might argue with you about practicing law)

Lawyers can save entire lives and fortunes. I had no idea MOVIE REVIEWERS had such power as well! What was it Michael said... (scrolls up)... "No sense of perspective ... Overvaluing your opinion ... Can dish it out but can't take it ... Unworldliness ... A tendency to carry on like a moral dictator ..."

Posted by: Allison on June 8, 2006 1:35 AM

Dear friends,
I hope this e-mail finds you well. Every writer-whether is a novice writer or a veteran- fights a constant battle: the battle of the limited promotion budget. Contrary of what most people think, however, restrictions on budget can offer an opportunity to challenge our creativity and generate great ideas.
I want to promote my first published novella, "Tijuana Noir."
Please answer this question, if you were in my shoes, what you will do to promote the book?
All Ideas are welcome.
Flores Campbell

Posted by: Flores Campbell on June 13, 2006 1:37 PM

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