Should you learn the history of the industry or focus on your skills as a writer? When it comes to film criticism, the answer to both is yes.
I have a confession to make: I am terrible at making connections between films. I know critics who, if you asked them to chart the history of an element of cinema – a special effect, say, or the use of a particular lighting in a film – would be able to trace it back to its earliest days in cinema like they were auditioning to write a new chapter of Genesis. Me? Not so much. My memory tends to reduce my appreciation of a film down to a few vague emotional settings, which is why the notes I take during a screening often look more like stage directions than academic theory. It’s just something I’m not very good at.
Then again, knowing your weaknesses is half the battle. That’s why I was so confused by yesterday’s Film Twitter argument regarding the need for a deep understanding of film criticism and film history. The debate was kicked off by freelance film critic – and Film School Rejects regular – Kristen Lopez, who described what she felt was “a lack of film history” that happened to be seeping into the new crop of film critics.” Her argument, which simply encouraged people to be intellectually curious about film history, was quickly twisted into a handful of different and more divisive counter-arguments. Truly, nothing inspires more divisiveness on Twitter than the phrase, “film critics should…”
A lack of film history is also seeping into the new crop of film critics. You have no idea how far I roll my eyes when people review movies with no references to any original source material or past history.
— Kristen Lopez (@Journeys_Film) March 19, 2018
Now, I’m not going to rehash the majority of the arguments for you as they’re all there for the reading. Some arguments — that we should be cautious of building exclusionary canons, that not everyone can devote an equal amount of time and money to their pursuit of film knowledge — are well-taken. Others, less so. But almost immediately, people seemed to decide that Kristen’s tweets were a form of gatekeeping about who should and shouldn’t be allowed to write about film, leading to inevitable arguments about writing prowess and historical knowledge. And that’s where I start to get a little fuzzy about what exactly we are outraged about.
Take me. At this point in my film criticism career, I’ve worn pretty much every single hat in the debate. I’ve been the self-taught person writing about movies on the internet for free. I have a fancy MA in Film Studies that I was able to get by working days and studying evenings. I’ve written thousands of words on esoteric films that few people care about, and I’ve written thousands more on the latest Marvel rumors and Star Wars trends. And the one constant in all of it wasn’t that I knew the established canon like the back of my hand, or that I trusted my voice as a writer to see me through the gaps, but that I carried with me a terrifying sense of unease that I wasn’t making the most of my writing career. That I wasn’t reading enough, watching enough, challenging myself enough with voices I didn’t initially agree with.
This is a fear I carry with me to this day, but it’s a pretty good one to have. We live and write in a period where gatekeeping is slowly, thankfully, becoming a thing of the past. New outlets and new writers are popping up from places we never saw before, and cinema from all over the world – and from every time period – has a home somewhere on the internet. I don’t view discussions like the one that Kristen started as detrimental to new voices, but instead a welcome reminder of the options available to all of us. We have FilmStruck. Repertory theaters in every major city. Local libraries with thousands of DVDs. More written words on any film than most of us could hope to read in a lifetime.
There are also more practical reasons to constantly be evolving yourself as a writer. As outlets for film criticism have dried up and budgets have shrunk, even the biggest publications have a hard time providing the kind of editorial feedback that writers should strive for. It’s just not the case anymore that you can turn in an article and receive detailed notes on how to improve your argument, with someone more talented than you helping you plug some of the holes and providing you with opportunities for growth. To establish any kind of a career in this industry, you have to write with a confidence and a clarity that comes with being self-taught on your subject matter. And if that’s not going to come from external sources, you’ve got to be willing to put in that work.
Which leads me to my final thought. We have a tendency in film criticism to sometimes move the goalposts depending on the conversation we’re having. Sometimes we talk about film criticism as a career; sometimes we talk about it as a vocation. It’s great that people are passionate about writing about film — really and truly, it is — but any career of any value comes with an expectation of professional development. No job, with the possible exception of Secretary of Education, would be yours forever if it became clear that you hadn’t advanced your understanding of your company and industry after coming on board. Whether writing is your hobby or your career, you should strive to improve yourself every day that you can.
The good news in all of this? You don’t have to do all of it at once. You can specialize, you can focus on genres or national cinemas or movements of cinema that are of particular interest to you, but this should include the expectation that you’re going to do a little bit of homework into the history, the styles, and the skills of the people that came before. I may never be able to create a causal chain of film theory without spending way too much time looking up points and manually making those connections, but I don’t let that stress me about my career. I’m not in competition with anyone else; I’m just trying to improve myself as a writer, one day at a time, and hope that people continue to accept my pitches along the way. I wish you nothing but the same.