The Awful Truth: “Portlandia” and How to Succeed in “Journalism”

NSFW.

Do I have your attention? I should warn you, this post may take more than 30 seconds to read.

“Don’t waste my time” — that’s the prevailing attitude for most readers on the Internet. But here’s the thing: If you don’t take time to read, re-read, discuss, and reflect on what you’re reading, then you are wasting your time. I know because I’m guilty of this. I can spend hours perusing the Internet, and the next day I won’t think about any of it. At all. That was time wasted.

For art, or criticism, or writing of any kind to really “make a difference,” it must draw the reader in and give them an experience — aesthetically and intellectually — that the brain will absorb and go on considering. Otherwise, as Tom Waits says: It’s everybody talking at the same time.

And if we don’t take time to consider and discuss what we’re seeing, we turn into a culture of reactionaries who can’t get much farther than “I liked that” or “I didn’t like that.”

Okay, before I lose you, here’s an entertaining video.

And that’s what I’m talking about.

These days, I’m increasingly interested in writing fiction, especially fiction for people who actually read entire books. I’m decreasingly interested in writing about movies for publications that don’t ask for more than three minutes of a reader’s attention. More often than not, I find that editors asking me to write about challenging subjects end up giving me barely enough room to introduce a subject. The substance of the article gets cut in half, then cut in half again, until we end up with something that looks more like a synopsis than an article.

And sometimes, as if to bribe readers into staying on a website, these articles are surrounded by tabloid-level teasers for lurid, gossip-driven links.

I’m told that readers aren’t interested in something that takes more than a couple of minutes. If that’s the case, they’re not the readers I’m looking for. Forgive me if that sounds condescending; I don’t mean it that way at all. I just mean that I want to write something for people who are interesting in thinking instead of just reacting. I want to write words that live longer than the few moments that a reader looks at them. A novel actually has the opportunity to draw readers into an experience that they will remember, that they just might think about, that might actually make a difference.

Along those lines, an internet acquaintance of mine recently asked a community of film enthusiasts what it would take for him to be taken seriously as a film critic.

I’m not the most qualified person to answer such a question, but my fifteen years of film reviewing have taught me a few things. So here’s what I offered in response:

I’d ask first what exactly you mean by “taken seriously as a critic”? Do you aspire just to have readers and responders? Or do are you pursuing criticism as a career, pursuing publication in film journals?

Being “respected” and noticed and read in the world of blogs, as a participant in the grand internet conversation, that’s one thing. Earning credibility and status in the world of professional film criticism (that is, journalists and writers for established film journals, writers who get hired), that is, to an extent, something else.

I can think of plenty of critics who get loads of feedback and responses… but that’s because they’re terrible critics who write for shock value and sensationalism. I can think of several critics I admire who get very little notice whatsoever… but the few who notice them are, themselves, respectable film enthusiasts who are seeking substance.

When it comes to the film criticism I admire, I’d list these characteristics, off the top of my head.

The film criticism I admire comes from…

  • Writers who seem totally immersed in, and in love with, their subject. If they show an eagerness to win attention and status and respect, it hurts their writing, and makes me think about them instead of their subject.
  • Writers who provoke me to new and fruitful thought on their subject. If they’re merely offering another version of thoughts I’ll find in the work of ten other critics, I’m gone by Paragraph Two.
  • Writers who write like they’ve read and studied good writing for more than a year or two. If they ramble much, if they’re redundant, if they use a lot of cliches, if they make claims without backing them up, if they tell a lot and show very little, they’re probably going to lose my attention. They publish work that feels like it has existed for more than an hour before publication, and undergone editing, revision, and concentration.
  • Writers who write with humility about themselves and their opinions. They avoid heavy-handed, ego-boosting terminology that merely brushes off contrary opinions. (I’m particularly allergic to words like “best,” “most,” and “overrated.”) And they eschew demeaning generalizations about artists, critics, and moviegoers.  And they demonstrate patience with, and grace toward, those who disagree with them.
  • Writers who show familiarity with film history and global cinema, and an awareness of the larger conversation about a film.
  • Writers who write with imagination and creativity.
  • Writers who write with a sense of curiosity and interest beyond what is popular, beyond what is financially successful, beyond what is already heavily promoted.
  • Writers who lead me to work that I find rewarding and worthy of my time.

Above all, two things:

  • They write thoughts — not reactions, not feelings, not claims, but reasoning and observations and anecdotes and insights — that are their own, that contribute something new to the conversation.
  • They treat art as something related to the rest of our lives, not as an end in itself.

Now, I would never claim that my own work lives up to these standards. In fact, this list pretty much describes the opposite of what I wrote in the early years. I have a lot of old, bad habits to break. This is a description of what I aspire to write. Hopefully, I’m making progress.

 

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  • The Pachyderminator

    Jeffrey, I’m sorry to say I didn’t watch the video. Who has time for that stuff?


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