By Miro Rodriguez
Peter Howell celebrated his 13th birthday at Toronto’s Glendale Cinerama in 1969 watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s still his favourite movie. The next year, he used the money he earned delivering the Toronto Telegram to buy a book called The Making of Kubrick’s 2001. “Whatever early instinct I had to be a movie critic was probably awakened by that because I wanted to really analyze the movie.” He joined the Toronto Star in 1988 and in 1996 he landed his dream job: film critic.
Back then, movie fans relied on print reviews written by professionals; today they increasingly turn to blogs, movie databases and fan sites, mostly written by amateurs. A quick Google search of “film blogs” turns up over 1.2 billion results. For movie fans that means lots of choice—or, as Howell says, “a swirl of opinions.” The difference between the two is not just quality, but approach: amateurs offer summaries and ratings; the pros provide analysis. So, as film critics struggle to keep their jobs in the face of layoffs and buyouts, readers are losing out.
One reviewer moviegoers will miss is Brian D. Johnson. The Maclean’s film critic of 26 years recently announced that he’s retiring this month, but will remain a contributing editor and maintain his personal blog. The president of the Toronto Film Critics Association says he doesn’t just write for people interested in watching the film—he does it as a form of cultural criticism. “Most of us who do this for a living still can’t quite believe we’re getting away with it,” he says. “Watching movies, getting paid for writing about them.” Not that the beat is perfect. When Howell started as a film critic 17 years ago, there were four or five movie openings a week in Toronto. Just a few weeks ago there were 14. “Quite understandably people envy my job, but you live the job,” he says. “You have no life beyond the job.”
But blogger Alexandra Kittle doesn’t even consider it a job. For the master’s student, film reviewing combines her passion for writing with her obsession for movies. She started her blog, Film Forager, in 2008 as a hobby to create a discussion, so she’s content with the 15,000 monthly views it receives. And she doesn’t have to worry about going to five to eight movies a week on average or the 10 a.m. screenings film critics attend. “I wouldn’t want to do it for a living,” she says, “but I love having it as a hobby where I can control all aspects of both movie viewing and writing.”
Like Kittle, Sarah Kelley knows her film blog won’t put money in the bank. She started quietmoviereview.tumblr.com two years ago as a side project because she loves film and intends to work full-time towards a degree in something that will help her pay her debt. “We can’t all afford to pursue what we’re passionate about.”
But being passionate about something isn’t necessarily the same as being good at it. Andrew Parker, film editor at Dork Shelf, an entertainment site, says to be a true critic “you have to really get inside something and really break it down, bit by bit.” Although there are amateurs who can do this, it’s the film critics, who’ve dedicated themselves to the beat and have years of experience, who do it best.
A comparison of reviews of the sci-fi thriller Gravity, released in October, shows the difference. Howell wrote: “The film’s deeper meaning is profound appreciation of just how tiny we are in the vastness of the universe and how connected we are to the Earth’s embrace.” Liam Lacey, The Globe and Mail’s film critic, opened his review with a scene from the movie and ended it with: “Yet Gravity, a weightless ballet and a cold-sweat nightmare, intimates mystery and profundity, with that mixture of beauty and terror that the Romantics called the sublime.” And Jason Anderson, The Grid’s film critic, had this take: “Most striking of all is the vast discrepancy in technological might between the weathered craft deployed by the characters onscreen and the means of the movie’s own creation.”
So while these reviewers tackled the meaning underlying the movie’s theme, Kittle took a lighter approach. Gravity, she wrote, “is about the terrifying, murderous reaches of space and how humans are not meant to be up there and we will be punished for even trying.” After noting that George Clooney is “cute,” she listed her likes and dislikes about the film. Kelley’s approach was similar: “Visually, the film is stunning. The cinematography is wonderful as well as the CGI. The sound editing was probably my favorite part of the film.”
Kittle and Kelley review as if they were telling a friend about the movie. Kittle is purposely conversational because she wants her blog to be “easy to read and entertaining, while also relevant and informative.” Kelley thinks readers can identify with an “average” blog written by an “average” person.
But Howell argues that it’s better for readers when they know the critics. “An unknown critic isn’t very helpful because you won’t really know where that person is coming from.” In addition, Lacey says journalists paid to do nothing but write about film devote themselves to the subject full time. His reviews benefit from his knowledge of film in the context of his “social and political views”—skills gained through experience in specialized reporting. He argues, “There’s a difference between someone doing critical, evaluative review and a fan’s note.”