This critic’s life

This critic’s life

Your friendly neighborhood film critic dishes on covering the screen scene

By T.T. Stern-Enzi

Photo: Isabella Rossellini as Dorothy Vallens in “Blue Velvet”

Can the job of the modern film critic be considered a vocation?

It is at once something more and, sadly, something much less than gainful employment. There are fewer and fewer full-time film critics/reviewers working in the newspaper/magazine business today. I have seen and lived through the razing of the field, back in the early- to mid-2000s, when, during a semester while I was teaching an advanced reporting topics course for the University of Cincinnati’s journalism department, each week I delivered the late-breaking news of one to, sometimes, several papers scaling back by axing local arts criticism/coverage. We were being downsized as if our reclaimed salaries were going to keep the newspaper industry’s bottom line in the black for decades to come. As if the loss of our voices was a small price to pay to prevent the news from flat-lining.

Business was bad, but the film industry – our precious beat – was in no less dire straits. There was a writer’s strike, a critic’s gate scandal (thanks to a studio creating a fake critic and posting reviews under the fraudulent identity), legitimate concern over a decline in tickets sold – a question of butts in seats versus more box office dollars resulting from higher ticket prices – and the usual questions of quality versus quantity when it comes to studio product.

Additionally, looming over both industries was the very real threat of the Internet, which was largely to blame for the downturn of newspapers – free and instantly available coverage was going to beat out a model that expected ad revenue and a readership eager to wait and pay for daily editions that couldn’t keep up – and was starting to scare film studios, distributors and exhibitors who saw content migrating to a system that would provide greater access and availability for audiences, potentially for less.

To be honest though, I believe the Internet scared critics, too. Speaking from experience, I fought the idea of it tooth and nail. I believed in the old model. Of course, I was old school all the way. I wanted the inky stain of newsprint on my fingers after paging through the news that, for me, was gospel. I couldn’t imagine watching a film on anything other than a big screen alongside a communal audience of freakishly devoted fellow film fanatics; anything less wouldn’t be proper cinema. Am I right?

Well, maybe I wasn’t. Time and tide wait for no man or critic. Thank goodness. I hope the more attentive and attuned readers of the film section here will note I’ve been documenting my gradual conversion, my acceptance of the modernization of my critical life, which has spurred on the real sense of this field as a passionate vocation. I desire to find more ways to expose myself to as much filmed content as possible, whether that means traveling to more film festivals or plugging into streaming services, because with more films out there and greater access, audiences demand – and should expect – their critics remain actively engaged with the latest reports.

The stories continue to matter most, and that is what I aim to give readers: Stories about the movies. Stories in the form of criticism that capture and share my experiences with this art form I love so dearly.

I’ve said it before, but it bears repeating: Film, once watched, becomes akin to memory. It is incorporated into my life in a way I imagine means it will be with me to the end. I would be proud, on my deathbed, to have clips from “Blue Velvet” or Krzysztof Kieslowski’s “Blue” – that intimate and epic score hauntingly plays in my head right now as I type these words – unspooling alongside flashbacks of joyous time with family and friends. I live as much in those frames as I do in my daily interactions. This is my life, the life I share with you.

 

Reach DCP film critic T.T. Stern-Enzi at
Film@DaytonCityPaper.com

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