The Short and Merry Life of a Movie Critic
In August 2001, I became the movie critic for the Las Vegas Sun daily newspaper. I took the job without asking myself if I possessed the tools I needed to do it: I didn’t know from German Expressionism; had never languished in USC’s film program (or even attended the school); and had no special love for “Citizen Kane” (though I do now). All I had going in was a few years’ professional experience as a feature writer and an arrogantly-held belief that most any idiot could successfully articulate their reaction to a piece of art. I don’t believe that any more.
My first clue that I was in over my head came at the end of my first month, when I bumped another Sun staffer out of the free critics’ screenings. This staffer was older than me, and possessed a hauteur that I did not; he believed that his was the most educated voice in the room, and for all I know, it might have been. But he wasn’t the movie critic for the Sun, and after a PR rep asked me “Who’s going to be reviewing this movie for the paper, you or (redacted)?”, I made a call to the Sun’s managing editor and had the staffer removed from the screenings for good.
The staffer confronted me in the hallway a hour later. “Congratulations, Geoff,” he snarled. “All you need to do now is to get an actual education in film criticism and you might even be able to do this job.”
I walked around him without saying a word. I got the message. I wouldn’t be respected by my peers any more than I would by the readers who wanted me nailed to a millstone for my withering take on Lars Von Trier. I was not joining a nurturing community of fellow cineastes, but climbing into a tank of hungry sharks.
Over the six months that followed I kept my head down and did my job as best I could. I would screen and review between four and seven films each week, sometimes watching as many as three movies per day. It wasn’t uncommon for me to watch a French-language sex movie in the morning and a Disney fart-joke family comedy in the afternoon, and the movies kept coming whether or not I was ready to see them. (On the morning of 9/11, I watched “Ghost World.” Wouldn’t have been my first choice.)
Early morning screenings were best. It was just me and the other regulars of Las Vegas’ film critic community, a little more than a dozen people all told. It was a regular social occasion — one writer even brought a full tea set, with china and spoons. And I managed to befriend some of them. I’ll always be grateful to the AP writer who told me that I’d already done the hard work by getting the job.
“You got this far,” she told me. “so now, you can learn. Everybody in here is learning. A.O. Scott, Ebert, (Anthony) Lane — every one of them is still learning this job. But lesson one is not copping to the fact that you’re still learning.”
Evening screenings were an ordeal. They were usually sponsored by radio stations and filled with people who’d called in to win tickets; this had the twin effect of making the screenings too loud and rambunctious to actually hear the film (I had to watch M. Night Shyamalan’s “Signs” twice for this reason), and making bad films appear beloved. The Britney Spears movie “Crossroads” probably never had a more appreciative audience than the mob of screaming girls who sat in a perfect circle around me at one such screening, and confronted me once the credits began rolling: “What did you think? Wasn’t it the best movie ever? Or are you, like, too old to understand it?”
I interviewed a handful of celebrities, usually with disastrous results. I wrote out a series of informed questions for Dennis Quaid (he was promoting “The Rookie”), but on the day I interviewed him I had two screenings, and I left my notepad at one of them. I remembered most of my questions but not how I’d worded them, which is how I came to tell Quaid that his latest character was “less rakish” than some he’d previously played.
“Rakish?” he spat. “Rakish?” Well, yes, I told him; I was thinking of the nickel-plated smoothies he’d played in “The Big Easy” and “Innerspace” — he’d played Jerry Lee Lewis, for chrissakes! — and surely playing an all-American baseball player and family man felt a bit different to him. But I’d used the word “rakish,” which wasn’t in my original notes and was probably not what I’d meant to say, and the phrase obviously hit him as some kind of ad hominem attack, a payback for divorcing Meg Ryan or something. The next ten minutes of the interview were unusable, as Quaid used the word “rakish” to answer as many questions as he could, even the yes/no questions.
The Quaid interview took place in March 2002, by which time I’d decided to quit the Sun and move to Seattle. I mostly did so for a change of pace, and because I’d met a Midwestern girl whose pale Nordic skin would probably disintegrate in the heat and light of a Vegas summer. But I also knew then that I didn’t want to be a movie critic any longer. I knew that if I were to stick it out I could eventually earn some respect from readers and peers, could develop a dab hand for the celebrity interview and could even become accustomed to the evening screenings, maybe. What I couldn’t do, though, was get past the feeling that I wasn’t getting my point across in a way that I was comfortable with. I was the rare idiot who couldn’t articulate his reaction to a film.
Strangely, after I quit being a film critic, the community made an effort to draw me back. I met Harry Knowles and Elvis Mitchell in quick succession; they both expressed an interest in my work, though I think only Mitchell actually read it. And the week after I moved to Seattle, my former editor John Katsilometes called to tell me that my criticism had won a national award. First place in its category.
To this day, my confidence in my ability to actually write about film remains shattered. I’ll do one or two freelance movie reviews a year, but I feel the need to put a big, fat asterisk at the end of each one. I’m still learning about film, and I’ll continue to learn about it. Someday, perhaps, I’ll be able to tell you what I think of German Expressionism, Lars Von Trier and “Crossroads.” But not today.*
*Haven’t seen “Antichrist” yet.