FADE IN-int. movie theatre Amid a cluster of teenaged contest winners sits a group of middle-aged men with pens in hand. They are lined up along the aisle so as not to elbow anyone while they scratch away at notepads.
ZOOM IN-on right side of room Blue light flickers across the men’s faces in a strobe-like effect as they stare up at the screen, transfixed. We can see they are watching a fight scene. Bodies fly across the screen and some audience members wave their arms, excitedly egging on the cinematic rumble. But one tall, shaggy-haired man doesn’t flinch. He sits up straight with his neck flat against the high-backed theatre chair, arms resting at his sides as though preparing for liftoff. Staring blankly at the screen, he jots down a note every now and then.
LIGHTS COME UP The tall man turns to his guest, a diminutive dark-haired woman, who looks at him and shrugs. The man lets out a long sigh as though he’d been holding his breath through the entire movie, hoping it would get better.
EXT. THEATRE The tall, shaggy-haired man, who happens to be a film critic for The Toronto Star, steps out through the theatre doors and slinks quietly through a lobby bursting with the noises of synthesized video games and exploding popcorn kernels. As he walks away, the words “The One,” the name of the new Jet Li action flick, and the movie he’s just seen, glitter on the marquee just above his head. He turns to his guest, the journalism student following behind him.
PETER HOWELL (scowl of disappointment on his face): I’m really surprised at how bad that was.
You’d think film critics would get used to lousy movies. Truth is, most of them go to theatres praying the trip will be worth more than a one-star rating. This is what film critics do for a living: spend their days sitting through a lot of crap, all the while hoping they’ll unearth a few sparkling gems each year to make their jobs worthwhile.
Beyond wading through the muck of mediocre movies, a critic’s job is to examine films and write sharp-eyed explanations of how they fit into our culture. Jay Stone, film critic for the Ottawa Citizen, says his role is all about adding to the reader’s experience. “Reviews are part of a discussion you have with your friends over coffee later, with the critic ideally being the smartest guy at the table,” he says. “After you read a good review, you should be able to say, ‘Yeah, that’s it. That’s the way it was.'”
But that’s not the way it is. In fact, the kind of criticism Stone describes is disappearing from our daily newspapers. While most Canadian critics are giving decent performances, true criticism is taking a supporting role to quick-hit reviews and simple “I liked it” plot summaries. And it’s not necessarily the critics’ fault. With two or three (and sometimes four) papers to scan every morning, readers don’t have the appetite for a lengthy dissertation on the use of sound in the latest David Lynch flick. “You need a lot of space and detail to talk about movies in a critical way,” agrees Scott Feschuk, the National Post‘s irreverent film critic. “If you’re going to do that you’re going to waste a lot of space in the newspaper on something that maybe two percent of people are going to read.” The thinking at dailies seems to be that readers are looking for advice only on whether or not to spend their $12.
Sure, some critics-like Katherine Monk of The Vancouver Sun, Geoff Pevere of the Star, and Rick Groen ofThe Globe and Mail-are doing their damnedest to give this trend the finger and continue to write smart, provocative film columns. But is anybody reading?
Scott’s reign started in 1977, when he started writing for the Globe, and continued until his death in 1993. Bart Testa, a senior lecturer on cinema studies at the University of Toronto, claims that the Globe never recovered from its loss, and many others share his lament. “What he did made the whole country pay attention,” says Geoff Pevere. “He was a considerable stylist and his reviews conveyed the excitement that he felt while watching something.”
Funny to think Scott didn’t discover movies until he was well out of his childhood-his Seventh-Day Adventist parents wouldn’t think of letting him near a theatre. Another funny thing: the man who grew to be known as our country’s best critic wasn’t even from Canada. Scott was actually an American draft-dodger who crossed the border in 1969 and started working at the Calgary Albertan a few years later. This is where Scott’s love of movies flourished, and where he won his first National Newspaper Award for critical writing in 1975.
In 1977, he moved to Toronto and started working at the Globe, where he won two more National Newspaper Awards in the same category. But just what was so great about his writing? “It was playful, it was sexual, it was funny,” answers Liam Lacey, film critic at the Globe and an admitted Jay Scott fan. “So, you read it and you think, ‘This person who has these admirable qualities cares about this film; maybe if I care about that film I’ll gain some of those qualities.'”
But it wasn’t only Scott’s admirable qualities that made him stand out. He wasn’t afraid to let his personality seep through in his writing; in fact, he wanted the world to see Jay Scott-not Jeffery Scott Beaven, the name he was born with but changed periodically through his career. No, a man like Jeffery Scott Beaven needed something a little catchier when he started his high-profile gig at the Globe. Scott was always attracted to stardust and spotlights. In fact, in the book Brave Films, Wild Nights: 25 Years of Festival Fever, Maclean’sfilm critic Brian D. Johnson describes Scott as “a critic who behaved like a star.” Scott’s former Globecolleague, Rick Groen, agrees. “He liked the glitz and the glamour,” he says. “He was perceptive enough to see through it and be critical of it, but at the same time it was an environment I think he enjoyed.”
Anyone with eyes could see this was true from the way Scott acted. One year, when he was covering the Cannes Film Festival, he showed up to a cocktail party wearing a Speedo. Yet his importance didn’t just come from his flamboyance or his tendency to bare his soul, among other things. When Scott wrote a film review, he wasn’t just writing about the film on the screen, he was writing about the world. You could see that he wasn’t living in a film-land bubble; he was putting films into the context of the current culture and showing their importance in a larger landscape. He used his extensive knowledge of film, politics, literature, and history to write informed reviews. In his 1978 review of Superman, Scott wrote: “When Pa Kent dies of a heart attack in the yard of his home, the demise is treated as it would be in Sophocles. When Superman stands in a field and bids Ma Kent farewell, the leave-taking is mythologized; the camera moves back and up from the pair, taking in the field, the horizon, the world. John Williams’s music rises to a crescendo.”
While readers and fellow critics alike continue to put Scott on a pedestal, some feel his work is not the last we’ve seen of good film criticism in Canada. “I think there’s a cult around him that is not entirely deserved,” says the Star‘s Peter Howell. “I don’t want to take away from him because he was a really important voice and he’s definitely missed on the landscape. But I don’t think people should look at it as something they could never aspire to or never exceed.”
The Vancouver Sun‘s Katherine Monk is another critic who is doing something right. Though she admits, half-jokingly, that she tries desperately to be like Scott, her critical voice has a refreshing originality. And her flair for words shines through whether she’s taking on a movie she liked or loathed. In her review of America’s Sweethearts, she wrote: “Satire rides the razor’s edge, farce trips over it and tragedy slices its wrists on the blade. America’s Sweethearts hides it in the centre of a candy apple and asks us to swallow.”
Like Monk, the Star‘s Geoff Pevere isn’t afraid to attack popular culture-he went a step further than Groen and wrote an anti-Harry Potter editorial. He also has the nerve to use his newspaper columns to talk about films in a more academic way. Trained in film studies at Carleton University, Pevere points out the nuances of art direction and cinematography. He doesn’t rush to tell readers what he thinks of a movie. Instead, he puts them inside the film, making them feel the movie before they feel the presence of the reviewer.
While Groen, Monk and Pevere are taking the analytical route, others are more focused on entertaining readers with sardonic reviews. Monk says some critics seem to go to bad movies simply so they can slag them later in their review. She could be talking about the Post‘s Feschuk, who thinks sarcasm is all some movies deserve.
“The ultimate date movie for ugly guys,” wrote Feschuk in his review of Angela’s Ashes. “Gals will be so moved and humbled by Frank McCourt’s torturous tale of abject poverty, alcoholism, and unemployment in Ireland that they’re all but guaranteed to leave the theatre with a sympathetic, charitable mind-set, if you catch my drift.” This appeared in a section on the new movies set for January 2000 release, where Feschuk instructed his audience that January movies are often the worst films of the year. A lot of his writing may be entertaining, but it’s not really saying anything. “You don’t really earn your salary when you say a bad movie’s bad. You earn it when you’re dealing with something that is lukewarm and you try to write excitingly about it,” says Lacey.
Feschuk, of course, disagrees. “Sometimes a sarcastic and flippant reply is what a flippant and thoughtless movie deserves. I’m happily a purveyor of that kind of writing.” Indeed, even Feschuk’s illustrated byline sports the boyish smirk of a class clown. Feschuk has a point. Maybe there are just far more bad movies out there today. Now, films that get a big promotional push in theatres also splash big ads all over the newspapers, making it hard for critics to ignore those movies. It’s just unrealistic to think that critics could write about only the films that inspired and interested them-those aren’t necessarily the movies their readers want to see on a Friday night. That’s why Feschuk takes a populist approach to his stories-he doesn’t think a critic has to be film literate to write good film reviews. He thinks anybody can write about movies because everybody has opinions about movies.
Not only do the critics in our dailies have to deal with the opinion that just about anyone is qualified to do their jobs, they also have to put up with criticism from people who think they don’t know what they’re talking about because they’re Canadian. In November 2001, Canadian filmmaker David Weaver publicly attacked Canadian critics, accusing them of not thinking about films before they review them. In particular, he was referring to the reviews of his own film, Century Hotel, which was called everything from “slow and cliched” to a “dog” of a film. Pevere wrote: “Despite the evident pain of many of these characters you may envy them, for at least they get to leave the Century Hotel when their dramatic business is over. We’ve got to stay.” Though Weaver’s gripe against Canada’s critics sounds more like sour grapes than a critical analysis of his own, he’s not the only one to give the critics a hard time. Lacey says the public tends to get angry when our critics pan a Canadian film if, say, the New York critics praise it. “You get people saying, ‘Canadian critics are always hard on their own,'” says Lacey. “If you think Canadian critics are hard on their own, you’re a good example of that because your assumption is that Canadian critics don’t know what’s right and only the New York critics do.”
Beyond all of these obstacles, perhaps the tallest building critics have to leap over is the limitation of their own imaginations. Watching upward of five movies a week and trying to think of something original to say about each of them is a thankless task. But hey, it keeps the job interesting. And thoughtful film criticism is still worth the work.
“It’s challenging and liberating to know that the battle you’re fighting is with yourself,” says Groen. “You can control that battle. If you succeed, you succeed. If you fail, it’s your own damn fault.”