Friday, April 23, 2010

Is Film Criticism Dead? #3

I wasn't going to weigh into this issue for a couple of reasons. First, both Susan and Kevin had done such a good job here taking the mickey out of Andrew O'Hehir's ridiculous Salon column "Movie Critics: Shut Up Already." Secondly, I've not been a film critic for over 20 years, so I didn't think what I had to say would be timely. But then I read Kevin's piece and it brought to mind why I decided to quit film criticism as a profession in 1989. I guess I saw the writing on the wall for both what the profession was becoming and what I was becoming within that profession -- neither of which I particularly liked.

It all began with a long-forgotten Weird Al Yankovic flick called UHF (1989). Never saw it; never wanted to. One afternoon, I was attending a concert at the Ontario Place Forum (now the Molson Amphitheatre), when a film-critic acquaintance of mine sat down beside me. He will remain nameless to protect the guilty. We shot the breeze about what we were up to for a bit and then he told me a story. He was working for a free newspaper (it no longer exists) writing film reviews. He'd been assigned the aforementioned Yankovic 'classic' which he told me he hated, and wrote a review that basically indicated same. After he handed the assignment in he got a phone call from his editor. It seemed the film's production company was buying a big ad for this film in that week's paper. The editor asked this critic if he'd mind changing his review to something "more positive". And he did.

Let me repeat that: And he did.

I was absolutely floored. "First," I said to him. "How could you do that? And secondly, if I was ever dumb enough to do something like that, I'd sure as hell would never tell somebody like me, or anybody, I'd done it." I don't remember his lame excuse, but needless to say our conversation ended shortly after that. I don't know about him, but I had and have something called integrity and ethics. What he'd done was something I'd never think of doing (But what do I know. Kevin told me recently this "writer" continues to thrive in the profession.) Flashforward to that fall. As film critic gigs were drying up, and I found myself scrambling, something began to happen to me that Kevin wrote about yesterday:

"Many editors and producers, with their concern for numbers (or advertising dollars), therefore fear the possibility of losing portions of their audience. In that climate, if you’re a critic, you can begin to fear your own instincts. Instead of standing up for your insights, you might worry more about what the reaction to your piece might be – and what the fallout of that opinion might bring." I found myself in that self-same trap. As I saw my last steady film critic gig vanish, I began to question my opinions and my insights. I began to second guess everything I was trying to do. My writing suffered and I was no longer having any fun in a profession I fell in love with when I wrote my first piece of published criticism in 1978 (it was about The Deer Hunter). I attempted to write for a few weeks more, but I knew in my heart it was over, so I quit. Why? Because I didn't want to become like that critic who changed his opinion about UHF because he was told to. I couldn't work in a profession where that sort of behaviour was condoned and encouraged, and I worried that I might become like that.

I walked away. I don't regret it. And guess what? Twenty years later I'm having a lot of fun again writing about film, music, books and TV here.

-- David Churchill is a film critic and author. He is putting the finishing touches on his first novel, The Empire of Death.

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