The smart filet noir, “Blow the Man Down,” and a never-to-be published takedown of “Ella Fitzgerald: Just One of Those Things,” the latest in a long line of flaccid documentaries apparently inspired by World Book entries, were the last in-depth movie reviews I wrote before the pandemic unfurled. They will probably be the last ones I ever write.
Do not mourn my departure. I was never really here.
I’ve written critically about movies — or at least have attempted to do so — since 1993, when my high school classmates shrugged at my review of “The Point of No Return” in The Huskieview. No matter. Writing reviews quickly felt like playing in a sandbox, a chance to steer moviegoers toward the overlooked and away from the manipulative and derivative. For a kid who kept a journal of handwritten short movie reviews and who considered Roger Ebert a poet, devoting 500 to 1,000 words to spread love felt like a gift.
The forced break from reviewing movies at ICON — the jaunty Philadelphia-area arts and entertainment monthly I’ve written for since 2006 — was the final chapter of a sprawling, bleak reality punctuated by $6 reviews and weekend mornings devoted to “Frankenstein Unbound.” When I got serious about my writing career, I got slapped in the face by math: I was making less than $3 an hour for movie writing, a fortune in frustration.
As I raced toward deadlines and fumed at how Radha Mitchell got a raw deal, I realized that nobody needed a 500-word review of “Frozen.” Nearly a week after its release. With zero space for nuance and reflection. ICON was the final remnant of a never-to-return youth, leather pants dangling forlornly in the closet, a chin-up bar in an unopened box. A taunt.
We were born too late. There once was a game plan to succeed in film criticism. Excellent critics wrote for local newspapers — I grew up with two in suburban New Jersey: Eleanor O’Sullivan at the Asbury Park Press and Stephen Whitty at The Star-Ledger — and crossed to bigger outlets or maybe television.
Then the Internet arrived and obliterated opportunities by providing too many. It became difficult to be the big fish in a small pond, and close to impossible when Rotten Tomatoes reduced eloquence to two colors, a snappy blurb, and percentages.
Three groups of critics exist now: the top-tier, the up-and-comers, and the great beige whose members compete for the few sparkling jobs or freelance gigs that provide a platform and compensation beyond exposure and screening links. This is a grueling career — even if you succeed. “You’d be surprised how many film critics have full-time jobs,” a member of the first group told me a few years ago. Yes, they had a full-time job, too.
I was never a great movie critic. I never will be. More than a quarter-century of scribbling in the dark has illuminated that the middle is as far as I will go.
It’s a relief to accept that realization. I can enjoy movies as a hobby and not coursework where I am forever behind. Films will always inform how I see the world. They will shape my writing as much as books do. Ebert will not cease to be relevant because I’m not aspiring to be him. His compact eloquence informs every piece of writing I tackle. The real value of film criticism has emerged as I have ceased pursuing it. Seeing movies was fun, yes; the chance to use those films to explore larger ideas while developing my voice was integral. Taking those skills into essays, interviews, and, most recently, a book kept me sane and solvent.
I’m not proclaiming the death of film criticism or admonishing those who want to pursue it as a career. Hell, I work as a freelance journalist, which is a longer and steeper rope bridge. You’re better off seeking career advice from a blacksmith.
I can say this: You don’t get a halo because you’re a film critic. You aren’t bestowed with a deeper appreciation of films because you’re paid to have an opinion. Curiosity and love don’t need a title. You’ll do.