Spring 2007

The Care and Feeding of Critics

The critic for Entertainment Weekly offers some helpful hints on how the species thinks.


Early in my career as a critic, I watched a movie in which the plucky, rebellious heroine steps into the restroom at a bus station, spontaneously chops off her long hair with kitchen shears, and emerges with the kind of chic, short coif it takes my downtown stylist two hours and 200 bucks to achieve. I had taken my sister-in-law with me to the screening, and in the elevator on the way out, I mentioned the transformation to her as one of those distracting details in the name of movie-star glamour that undermines authenticity of character. I didn’t recognize the other woman with us in the elevator and she didn’t know me. But when her review appeared in an estimable publication some days before mine, she reported overhearing my observation in support of her own review.

Well, I’ve never spoken a word in an elevator car of descending critics since. I laugh and cry freely in the dark regardless of who is around me—colleagues or civilians—but when the lights come up, I keep my own counsel; I don’t want to talk, or hear other critics talk. And while I’m happy enough to entertain the reactions of any non-pro companion I might have brought with me, I’m even happier when we’re off the subject of the movie and on to the subject of dinner, about which I’m full of voluble opinions.

When I talk to students these days about my job—whether in grade school or graduate school—they’re full of good questions about professional etiquette (Write with a lighted pen? Never. Read the analyses of fellow critics? Only after I’ve written my own), and I’m happy to share what I’ve learned of the Critics’ Code. But why stop there?

I know there are times when I’d give anything for a primer, from a reliable insider, on the behavior of directors in their habitats. So on the assumption that you’d like the same, I’ve put together a guide to the needs, preferences, and proclivities of movie critics. How we critics navigate our world does not and should not, of course, affect how you directors navigate yours. But who would turn down the gift of a cheat sheet in the study of our species? You can absolutely trust the information that follows, because it’s based on personal experience, field observation, and sophisticated statistical analysis of the number of times the publicist at the screening-room door is asked, “What’s the running time?” before the lights go down.

So for starters, size matters, or at least length: On a practical level, we ask about running times because we’ve got appointments to keep, or writing deadlines looming, or a meal waiting, or often another screening to follow. But running time affects us on a psychological level, too, and it’s better for all concerned when we’re prepared for a two-hour enterprise (or even more unnerving, for a two-plus-production) than when we’re surprised. I wouldn’t begrudge Titanic, The Departed, or The Death of Mr. Lazarescu one minute of footage, but I also won’t deny that critics experience an endorphin rush upon hearing the words “89 minutes”—or any other two-digit configuration—and often that rush is followed by a glow of goodwill toward whatever it is we are about to see.

In related news, we like to sit in aisle seats—and not just for quick exit when the credits roll. (As it happens, I’m an enthusiastic credit reader, and I’m always reassured by the participation—in every movie ever made, apparently—of Mo Henry, Negative Cutter.) Aisle positions, especially with an empty seat on the other side (no matter how near and dear the person adjacent) bolster our fragile sense of autonomy. And privacy. And freedom to jiggle our legs when a movie runs 143 minutes (yes, I mean Blood Diamond). There are few sights at a film festival more cheering than spotting the redoubtable Roger Ebert on the aisle, with his swell wife Chaz similarly situated in front or behind her husband. In a pinch at a theater screening with a “regular” audience, I’ve been known to choose a seat that hugs the wall.

And speaking of time passing and the theory of relativity, we love when time flies by because we’re engrossed. But we’re also grateful for our Timex Indiglo watches, or the phosphorescent clock functions on phones and text devices, because when a movie is dragging, we feel much more secure knowing how much dragging is left. We don’t want movies to drag! We love to be surprised, smitten, and we live for that moment (it could be five minutes in, or maybe it’s 50) when we realize we’re hooked. Honestly, we want the movies we see to enthrall us; we’re saps for thrall!

Conversely, we hate to hate something; really, we’re quite polite. It takes a lot to launch that initial cough of restlessness or first bark of dissident laughter in a screening room full of attentive professionals. But when impatience does take over, those guffaws of exasperation are not pretty sounds.

It is true that occasionally one critic or another does fall asleep at a screening. Some snore—it’s a fact.

Because we are human, we are prone to crushes, to favorites, and to least-favorites, too, in both directors and actors. (It would be foolish not to admit the obvious; directors are crush-prone, too, aren’t you?) But most of us know our soft spots and weaknesses, and strive for honesty and self-awareness in confronting our own biases. We also know each other’s soft spots, and to pass the time before or after a movie, when not saying what we really think, we can have a good old time busting each other on our pet causes. (Manohla Dargis loves David Lynch; Armond White hearts Steven Spielberg; Dave Kehr is an old-school auteurist; I’m not James Toback’s favorite lady.)

The sane among us cower when asked for “reactions” by publicists in anticipation of our reviews, and we find ways to demur. Oh, and the experienced among us know not to even think about mentioning a movie he hasn’t seen yet in front of the Los Angeles Times' Kenny Turan. He’ll turn and walk out of the room as if you’ve said Skull and Bones, so unbiased does he strive to be.

We’re romantics, which is why we like to sit a lot in the dark. And we’re shy about blurring our critical work with the soft focus of personal familiarity, or at least I am, which is why I hold back from meeting directors and actors. See, we don’t think we can do what you do. Or that you can do what we do.

Other than that, we’re exactly alike—prone to dry lips when the humidity’s low, and in love with the movies.

Lisa Schwarzbaum is a movie critic for Entertainment Weekly.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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