The Incredibly Mild Horror Of Screener Season

By  · Published on December 7th, 2016

Thoughts from the notebook of a critic… to their therapist.

The following requires the preface that none of it is actual complaint. Being a film critic is a pretty swell deal in many ways, few more than the part where people send you free DVDs and Vimeo links because they sort of semi give a shit what you have to say about them (as long as it’s “The Best Film Of All Time!” “A Masterpiece!” “Boffo!” or similar). It’s totally valid to tell people who complain about free shit that they’re being lame. And what I’m about to talk about may veer dangerously toward sounding like complaint-ish-ness. That is not my intent. Without further ado, the issue: it’s kind of stressful plowing through a huge stack of screeners before awards ballots are due.

The biggest problem is time. Because yelling “FIRST!” is the internet version of scaling Everest, awards-granting bodies have been steadily doing their granting at earlier times in December, to the point now where people are practically calling firsties at Thanksgiving dinner. Scorsese’s new picture, Silence, screened like a day before the New York Film Critics’ Circle had to vote, and most other critics’ organizations aren’t going to have a chance to see it before filing their ballots. It and Denzel’s adaptation of Fences are the two major absences on my own ballots, although I’ll personally have had the chance to see every other major American movie before voting.

Clarification is necessary there because this is the first year I’ve spent as a critic entirely outside the range of available press screenings. This doesn’t affect keeping up with commercial movies at all, because there are movie theaters here. They just don’t show a ton of independent or foreign films, and it’s simply not possible to compile a best-of list without those. When I lived in New York, I was within a subway ride of every movie playing in theaters, with such rare exceptions they seemed like solar eclipses. In Salt Lake City, availability was at nearly that level (shout out to SLC, by the way; great city for restaurants and the arts). Now that I no longer live in the city, keeping up with independent and foreign film is nearly entirely a matter of obtaining screeners.

Which is how, for the first time since I’ve been a critic, I haven’t been able to make sure I see as much as possible at screenings and in theaters, and instead have been working through a fairly massive stack of DVDs for the last month, since they only started arriving in early November. Days off work have been largely spent watching three or four movies a day. This – let me reiterate the earlier about this not being complaining – takes a fair amount of planning, as four documentaries in a row about the evils visited upon humanity can leave even the most hardened critic hooked up to a bourbon IV and whimpering. I’ve been trying to watch heavier movies when it’s light out, for personal psychological reasons, then using the middle slot of the day for something I haven’t many preconceived notions about, and the nightcap for something I’ve been looking forward to after months of festival hype from friends. It’s a system that’s served me fairly well, and will see me through to the finish line.

The screeners themselves, while free and thus free from too much critique, are often on hastily-burned disposable discs with iffy definition, and stamped with enormous obtrusive watermarks to guard against piracy, and thus require a certain degree of focus to watch, and a degree of extrapolation to judge. What ends up happening is that – for me, often though not always – films that benefit from being evaluated intellectually play better than films that are meant to be felt, or whose ideal experience is one where their lush colors and rich sounds benefit from professional projection and top-of-the-line sound systems. I’ve found myself enjoying the sound design more of films I watch on my laptop, and thus listen to through quite decent headphones. Cinematography, obviously, benefits from being seen on a bigger screen, and so DVDs play better in that regard. Even when one aspect or another of the film in question is less than ideal due to the mode of presentation, I’m still able to get a sense of the level of accomplishment. It’s just not as fun as watching in a theater with a friend or two, which is not a complaint because few things in life are that fun.

I hope this has been even the slightest bit illuminating or engaging, because while film criticism is still the best job I’ve ever had – it beats schlepping 50 pound bags of ice around all day, for one example, and ghostwriting weird bullshit for people – it’s a bit nerve-wracking having a whole lot to do and limited time to do it in, no matter how fun the work itself is. It’s like, someone tells you have to eat 12 whole chocolate cakes in a week, by day three or so you’re gonna be saying “fuck, I’m kinda sick of cake.” That’s as close to a complaint as I’ll allow myself.

Related Topics:

Columnist, Film School Rejects. Host, Minor Bowes podcast. Ce n’est pas grave, y’all