How many movies do you see every week?"
It's one of the questions I'm most often asked about my work as a film critic. And it's one I can't answer ... because I've never dared calculate the number!
I think of myself as averaging about a movie a day, and a little more if you count old pictures I revisit to research an article. But this doesn't count the film festivals I attend, where four-movie days aren't unusual. And when a festival is over, lots of regular releases have piled up while I was away. And if I teach a film course, speak at a cinema club, lecture at a museum, or do a guest shot on television, more viewing may come with the job.
So naturally I don't dare add this all up! It probably comes to some ridiculously high number that would prompt some questions of my own: Is this a good life?
Is it a life at all? Have we critics pulled the ultimate scam - getting paid for going to the movies - or have we hoodwinked ourselves by turning a delightful pastime into a tiring, time-consuming chore?
These are more things I don't want to think about, so let's move to the other question I'm most frequently asked: Where do critics see movies? In regular theaters or in cozy, crowd-free screening rooms like the one Roger Ebert inhabits on his TV show?
The answer is: both. Preview screenings come in two varieties, depending on the type of movie and the company that's releasing it.
Many films are previewed in screening rooms - small, comfortable auditoriums with a few rows of seats and a total absence of concession stands, which means nobody will be munching popcorn or crinkling wrappers during the picture. Critics like these minitheaters because they're clean, quiet, and dignified. You can almost feel like a grown-up watching the latest horror flick, action yarn, or gross-out comedy in such genteel surroundings.
Distributors aren't interested in making us feel like grown-ups, though, at least when they're peddling big-budget entertainment fare. Quite the opposite, they want critics to "ooh" and "aah" as uncritically as possible. So screening-room previews are usually reserved for intimate dramas, subtle comedies, and "art movies" from distant countries or little-known directors.
Expensive studio movies - or "audience pictures," as they're called in the trade - are often unveiled in "cattle-call screenings" designed to encircle critics with "regular people."
These previews take place in ordinary theaters with a few rows roped off for reviewers. The rest of the seats are filled with regular people who aren't regular at all, but invited guests who didn't pay for their seats any more than the critics did. They aren't chosen at random, either. Most are employees of the studio that's releasing the picture - extremely cheerful because they've gotten a freebie - or members of the movie's target audience, e.g., teenagers, if it's a youthful romance, or minority-group members, if it's an ethnic comedy. The theory behind these events is that the rollicking enjoyment of the regular people will induce the grumpy critics to lighten up and have a good time.
Most critics are less than fond of these crowded, sometimes noisy screenings. But they do have some legitimate value. As much as we like to think we're as regular as the next moviegoer, the fact is that no reviewer can anticipate all the tastes of the enormously diverse public that Hollywood movies aim for.
So watching a picture surrounded by members of its target audience can be helpful, revealing layers of entertainment value that the critic might not otherwise perceive. I vividly remember seeing the 1975 comedy "Let's Do It Again," starring Bill Cosby and Sidney Poitier, at a jampacked preview with a largely African-American audience. I would have enjoyed the movie under any circumstances - it's a funny and underrated film - but the people around me were laughing at details of speech, gesture, and costume that I might not have noticed on my own. It was a valuable experience, reminding me that my personal responses aren't the only measure of a movie's worth.
Then again, those studios can be awfully cagey. A critic I know recalls a screening of "Top Gun" he attended in 1986 - enjoying the calm and quiet of the private screening room until a few minutes before the lights went down, when a busload of adolescent girls suddenly arrived, clearly calculated to influence my colleague with their extroverted appreciation of Tom Cruise's manly charms. I suspect he wouldn't have liked the picture anyway, but in this case the studio's manipulations probably backfired.
So far I've been focusing on the movie-watching aspect of my job, but there's another part of the critic's life that people tend to forget: sitting at the keyboard and actually writing reviews. This is when the other activities of the profession - viewing films, talking with industry figures, trading information with other critics, and so on - must coalesce into an article that will convey not only my opinion of a film but also the competence of its craftsmanship, the soundness of its morality, its relevance to our busy lives, and whether it's likely to appeal to the reader perusing today's paper, whose views on life may be very different from my own.
There's just so much you can squeeze into a 600-word story, of course, but an ideal review accomplishes all of that and more. This brings to mind another question that's often just below the surface when people talk about movie critics. Are we real professionals with a useful trade? Or are we just wannabe directors, screenwriters, and stars, banging out reviews because we don't have the skill or savvy to make it in Hollywood ourselves?
It's likely that critics dream of showbiz success as frequently as other folks do - but no more frequently, and possibly even a tad less. One reason is we're in steady contact with Hollywood's products, so we don't have to work there to breathe its heady atmosphere.
Another reason is that we're not a gang of unemployable louts who've failed at filmmaking, but active writers whose line of work is a time-honored branch of journalism. I'm sure many of my colleagues would zip to Hollywood in a flash if they sold a screenplay, aced an audition, or persuaded a producer to part with a few million dollars. But just as many struggling filmmakers would happily zip into movie reviewing for its steady paychecks, interested readers, and freedom from the box-office blues!
I don't have a screenplay sitting in my drawer or a nifty "high concept" just waiting for the right producer. But with more than 30 years of reviewing behind me, I also have few illusions about the glitz and glamour of the critic's life. The day-to-day grind is full of mediocre movies that are little fun to watch or write about, and film festivals can be positively exhausting.
True, a masterpiece comes my way from time to time, and I have the twin pleasures of discovering it and conveying the agreeable news to my readers. But to find those I have to sit through a daunting number of dull, disappointing, or downright terrible films. And sit through them I do, right through the closing credits! While other critics may walk out in a mid-screening huff, I prefer to let my disdain grow with every awful scene, savoring the revenge I'll take when I get back to my keyboard.
Which brings me to one more question I'm occasionally asked: What keeps me going after all this time? The answer is simple, and I think many of my colleagues would say something similar. It's partly the pleasure of writing, and partly the pleasure of following an art and entertainment form that has a profound influence on our society.
But mostly it's a deep-down affection for the movies, coupled with a sort of idiot optimism that keeps me hoping for good cinema even after all the trash and gibberish I've been bombarded with over the years. Every time the lights go down there's a part of me that whispers, "Maybe it'll be good." I should know better by now. But I'm glad I don't.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society