A Gathering of Reelists: Chicago Film Critics Talk About Their
by Linda Heacox, Vice President, Membership
Are film critics columnists or reporters? What are the qualifications for the job? Is diversity important? What kind of professional standards should prevail? These were the questions posed to IWPA's panel of Chicago film critics on February 19th. The panel was organized and moderated by IWPA's Jan Lisa Huttner, online film critic and managing editor of Films for Two.
Joining IWPA members at the Chicago Athletic Association were panelists Shelley Cameron, online reviewer for reelmoviecritic.com, and Michael Miner, "Hot Type" columnist for the Chicago Reader. Bill Stamets, whose column "Art House Films" appears in the Chicago Sun-Times, was in the audience.
Huttner primed the panel in advance with four questions. What is the film critic's job? (e.g., Are film critics columnists or reporters?) What are the qualifications for the job? Is diversity important? What kind of professional standards should prevail?
Miner kicked off the commentary suggesting that maybe the job is a practical one. "There are people who feel reviewers are consumer advocates. I know that [legendary Chicago Tribune reviewer] Gene Siskel used to say his job was to help 100,000 people decide what movie to go see," he said.
How important is it for a critic to have a point of view?
"First, you should be true to your honest reaction to a film," said Cameron. "So point of view IS important.
But when I see a film, I want to know as little as possible. It should be evaluated on the elements, directing, writing, acting, production values and so forth. Over time, your readers should know you and how you judge a movie."
Miner agreed. "I think point of view is very important. Since the death of Siskel, the Chicago Tribune has been looking for a movie reviewer. They're very interested over there in doing the politically correct thing.
"It was down to three finalists and then they had to put it on hold because of money considerations. But I think when they do make the hire, it is extremely likely they will hire a woman. And, I think that's a good idea," he said.
Miner remembered that when he came to Chicago 35 years ago, there were few women working in journalism. "In my opinion, women are better journalists in general because they are more sympathetic."
He added that, since today most Hollywood movies are made for two audiences, teenaged boys and women, the female perspective may be even more valuable.
How does your perspective differ?
Cameron explained that it was important for her to overcome the "woman's perspective." She said, "It's a boy's game. Otherwise, you wouldn't see Kathy Bates in only one joke role a year."
But as a woman, she said she doesn't want to harp on the ubiquity of the male perspective in most Hollywood films because "I don't want to come across as a shrieking woman."
Huttner interjected from the moderator's seat that she feels most women are
more interested in seeing films about relationships and people. "Films
with lots of violence and explosions, the films my husband calls 'macho treats,'
are pitched at teen boys," Huttner said.
What is the difference between a critic and a reviewer?
Cameron suggested that a reviewer is a consumer guide by default. "A critic is a cultural analyst of a film that has been seen," she said.
Miner agreed. "Yeah, somebody once said a review is what you write when the film opens. Criticism is what you write a month later."
What should the standards be for critics?
The panel was uniform in its disdain for any kind of oversight. "I don't believe there should be any kind of guilds or overseers," said Miner.
"I think you should just put yourself out there. Over time, the public gets to know you and what movies you like and then decides what it thinks of your opinions. You should do your job well or get fired," he said.
Cameron concurred. "It must be a self-imposed standard. I don't think you should have to have a membership in a critics' organization. I do this because I care about overlooked films."
How can the audience find the smaller, independent films?
The panel agreed that it can be done. Chicago theaters that screen small independent or art movies like Facets and the Music Box invite people to advance screenings. According to Cameron, it's easy to get on their invitation lists. She advised people interested in independent or art films to pay attention to what's coming to town.
But Bill Stamets expressed frustration that it's hard to find the leeway to review such movies. "Editors think there's no point in searching out small films," he said.
However, Stamets felt an exception occurred if a film had been made by a local film maker or one with Chicago ties. That story might be pursued. "It kicks you into another category," he said referring to the editor's perspective.
What about neighborhoods where we can't even find art films?
"There's more of a market than the papers might think," said Cameron. "[For example], in a town like LaGrange, you never would have seen a subtitled movie years ago. Now, that's changing."
What do you think about that market?
Miner joked, "We have an obligation to have something to say about everything in town."
What other resources for small movies are there than Amazon?
The panelists suggested the Internet Movie Database, the biggest resource for movies in the world, also Movie Review Query Engine, and the Rotten Tomatoes site, which reviews everything and annually presents its own awards.
What was your reaction to the film Million Dollar Baby?
Huttner said that Miner had written a controversial "Hot Type" column about the film and asked him to elaborate.
"I was disappointed when I saw it," he said. "Everyone kept saying the movie had this surprise twist and that no one should reveal it. So what happened was I sat there knowing there was going to be this twist and thinking of that. Then when it happened, about two thirds of the way through the film, I was disappointed. I envied Roger Ebert for getting to review it in a pristine state."
As you are trying to describe a film, how do you avoid giving too much away?
Cameron said, "A synopsis is about 20% of your review. "If you're good at your job, you can do it without
giving anything away."
The panel suggested seeing Million Dollar Baby, Dogville, Vera Drake, Maria Full of Grace. Cameron named Bon Voyage and Before Sunset as movies to seek out.
Don't producers invite controversy to sell their films?
Miner: "Doesn't every movie do that? Most movies are pretty schlocky. They're aimed at 17 year-olds on dates."
And, predictions for the Oscars?
Wry laughter from everyone was the answer.
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