Between Reviews: Wondering about Work…

Posted on April 17, 2010


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A casual question from the editor-in-chief throws this film critic into a heavily bearded existential funk.

APR 18, 2010 – THIS SEEMS TO BE THE SEASON for eloquent waxing about the waning importance of film criticism – as a profession with a dubious future, as an occupation founded on even more dubious skills, as a formal art form whose sacred turf is increasingly being encroached by blogger-philistines, or as simply a section of the newspaper whose correspondents are quietly but firmly being ushered out of the premises, sad cardboard box in hand, rudderless future in the mind’s eye. (In the United States, especially, a week doesn’t pass when the cultural landscape doesn’t quake from the thundering threnodies accompanying a film critic’s dismissal.) And then something happened to trigger my own epiphanic contribution to this ever-increasing pile of publication. My boss (who doesn’t like to be called “boss,” because it makes him imagine he’s part of the blingy underworld once populated by the likes of the Mona-darlinged Ajit) looked me in the eye and delivered this most dreaded of questions: What is your (average) workday like?

How does one not blush while replying, “Well, to tell you the truth, I watch movies, and then I watch more movies, and then, to cap it off, I watch even more movies!” Fridays typically require sitting through at least two screenings, for the Sunday reviews. Then there are days like the one where I watched, in succession, Angadi Theru, The Lovely Bones, and Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief, in anticipation of the Between Reviews thoughts these films might engender. (Whenever possible, I strive to view movies on the big screen, the way they’re meant to be seen, because I’m a film critic, not a DVD critic whose reviews target the home-video market.) And there are the days that go by grappling with arduous art cinema (for my Part of the Picture column), films that need to be seen at least twice, and then supplemented with related literature (either from my personal collection of film books, or from the Web.)

That’s the other thing. Apart from the seeing of cinema, there’s the reading about it – reading interviews with older filmmakers about craft and creation, reading features about the latest and the greatest in foreign films, or reading books about cinema. (My wrists are presently weighted by J Hoberman’s The Dream Life: Movies, Media, and the Mythology of the Sixties, which a generous brother-in-law gifted me with the inscription, “For days when you need to feel erudite.”) And then there’s keeping up with other critics of other arms of popular culture, those who review dance and music and theatre and books and (yes) film for those marvellous American and British publications, in the hope of finding fresher and finer ways to say the same things, with authority and anecdotal wit and, only occasionally, snark. Because in my estimation, what you write is only half the story – the rest is how you write it, how you blueprint your review or article, how you build your flow of thoughts and buttress your contentions, how you spit-polish your words and your sentences, and how you individualise your story, to the extent that it cannot, will not be mistaken for a story by anyone else.

Am I making it sound like it’s the most onerous of occupations, writing about music and movies? That, I assure you, isn’t the intent. (And besides, even if it is hard work, there’s nothing quite like the quiet afterglow you experience after the all-too-rare happening of perfectly encapsulating something as abstract as an experience. Trust me, it isn’t as easy as it looks. Try to capture, in words, the essence of a great riff or an incandescent piece of acting or the almost-subconscious-level feel of a movie moment, and you’ll see what I mean.) Also, I don’t want to make my work sound as important as that of, say, a doctor, who too submits himself to reams of reading just so he’s not rendered redundant. I know I’m not curing cancer. But being a critic is looked upon as something so glamorous, so enviably fun, that it’s worth noting how, once an obsession becomes an occupation, it almost always stops being fun.

Yes, the film critic may spend hours watching films, and the music critic may do nothing all day but loll about in dirty underwear with an iPod, while you slave away in starched shirts, chained to your desk as perky co-workers inflict you with insignificant updates of their unremarkable lives. But the difference is that, while to you, music and movies are a way to get away from that life, a way to relax and find pleasure, for us, it’s chained-to-the-desk work. There’s no putting the feet up and closing the eyes to a great tune, or gorging on popcorn during a great movie. We’re always taking mental notes – how this scene harks back to that, how that tradition is invoked here, how this song is a close cousin of that other song, or even worse, how this scene or that riff will make for the perfect, rimshot-ready opening paragraph. You’re rarely in the moment, you’re mostly outside it, the pleasures of the heart almost always giving way to pontifications of the head.

At cocktail conversations, you don’t just say “yes, that concert was fun” or “oh, that’s a good film!” You find yourself viewing, with dismay, the rope-bridge that precariously links the way you process art versus how the rest of the world does (and you know the bridge has to be crossed, because that’s your job, to communicate your experience to the rest of the world). And you try to smile and say – as normally as possible (so you’re not regarded a freak, or worse, a bore; my boss once asked me about a film, and when I wouldn’t shut up about it for five minutes, he dubbed me a “documentary”) – what you thought about the work in question, without delving into history or details that bear little interest to people to whom movies are simply a matter of go-and-see or stay-at-home-and-do-something-else. This isn’t to say that movies and music are, to the critic, a chore – just that the primordial joy of losing oneself in the pleasures of pop-culture is irrevocably lost. And that, sometimes, is what my workday entails, wondering whether I wouldn’t rather give it all back just to be able to view movies and music as pure-and-simple entertainment again.

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