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Culture » Film Reviews

20 Years as a Film Critic

Reflecting on 2 decades of reviewing



If you want to get an ironic dose of contemplating the passage of time, consider this: Feb. 12 marked the 20th anniversary of the release of Groundhog Day in 1993. While that occasion warrants celebration for its own sake, it also marks a personal milestone: A review I wrote of Groundhog Day has become my anniversary as a film critic.

The selection of that date is, admittedly, an arbitrary one. It wasn’t the first review I ever wrote, since my job in a local movie theater got me started writing reviews for my high school newspaper. I certainly didn’t get paid for my little rave about Groundhog Day, nor did more than a handful of people ever see it. They were all college friends on a private email list, back in the days when email was still a novelty. But one of those friends was an early adopter of the bulletin-board network called Usenet, and as I began to send more reviews to the list in early 1993, he eventually pointed me in the direction of a moderated group called rec.arts.movies.reviews. It became a place to hone skills that ultimately landed me my first paying assignment in 1995 (although a full-time gig wouldn’t come until 1999).

Those early Usenet reviews are still floating out there for those who choose to hunt them down, though shame at my youthful folly forces me to ask that you please don’t. But it’s hard to overstate how essential it was to have a forum that encouraged me, that gave me a reason to write thousands of words a week in the practice-practice-practice demanded of any craft before one is even remotely competent at it. It’s equally hard to overstate the influence those fellow Usenet travelers had in introducing me to filmmakers I’d never heard of before, challenging my assumptions and teaching me what it looked like to have a defensible argument—and how to contend with the frothing-at-the-mouth rantings of those unable to process a difference of a opinion.

In those early years, online film writers had to fight and claw to be taken seriously by publicists and print-publication peers—and, in fairness, we didn’t always deserve to be taken seriously. Still, the notion that only a print outlet made a critic “legitimate” lingered for years, even with a figure as influential as Roger Ebert touting and supporting his favorite Internet-based critics throughout the late 1990s. It gave rise to the perception that the online world meant “anyone could be a critic,” ignoring the way savvy readers have always been able to decide whether someone did or didn’t deserve an audience.

It’s hard to be self-effacing yet still be forthright about the impact those wild-west days of the rec.arts.movies hierarchy had on film writing for a generation to come. A cohort that spent an absurd amount of time arguing about movies online grew into some of the most talented writers of film criticism around, including eventual pro critics like Mike D’Angelo, Bilge Ebiri and Noel Murray. A dust-up in one of rec.arts.movies’ forums indirectly led a young Harry Knowles to create Ain’t It Cool News. Aspiring cinephiles in big cities and backwaters were able to bounce ideas off of one another. There’s no way I’d be doing what I do now for a living had the world been different in 1993.

It’s also true that in many ways, that world made the prospects for professional film criticism bleak in the long run. “Old media” companies that saw profitability ravaged by the migration online of both readers and advertising dollars began cutting editorial staff, and film critics—deemed expendable in a world where readers could find multiple voices easily—have often been among the first to go. Comment threads and the use of social-media comments as “blurbs” in movie advertising have blurred the line between having an opinion and having a point, making it feel at times that being the loudest voice is more important than being the most insightful writer.

If film criticism matters at all anymore—and you’ll hear plenty of people argue that it doesn’t—it’s only because the love of movies is still a powerful thing. The love of movies moves us to want to share the experience, whether that experience was joyful or wretched. That love continues for me, long after my affection for Groundhog Day first made me want to write about it. Every day since then for 20 years, it’s like I’ve been living that experience over and over and over again.

Twitter: @ScottRenshaw