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Putting the “I” in film writing.

Putting the “I” in film writing. (photo)

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At a friend’s party on Saturday, I talked to a former rabid cinephile who, four years ago, got rid of almost all of his DVDs and effectively quit watching movies. It wasn’t clear whether this was because his life just got too busy or because he got to feeling too overwhelmed. If it’s the latter, I’d completely understand, because the next day I found myself on the way to Lincoln Center’s Kiyoshi Kurosawa double-feature while reading a book about film festivals, and, after the screening, chatting with five people I regularly (generally only) see at rep cinema.

I once heard Jim Jarmusch say, on a panel at SXSW, that (paraphrased) “I don’t have time to see as many as I’d like. I probably only see three or four a week.” I completely understood what he meant by saying that wasn’t a lot — I see a lot of movies, but my enthusiasm’s effectively peaked. Most don’t make much of a dent — I’m mentally dicing them up as I watch them, tucking aside things to think about later and ignoring the dead air that seeps into all but the best films. I see maybe 20 movies in a good year that really knock me out, which isn’t bad at all, but I don’t get very excited anymore. Given that this is effectively compulsive behavior, I enjoy myself, honestly.

I realize this might strike some people as unnerving. Sometimes I agree. Clearly I’m not the only one: Salon‘s Stephanie Zacharek spends a good chunk of her last Berlinale dispatch worrying about “the importance of having a life outside the movies”: “You sometimes need to step outside of movies in order to find your way into them.”

Most daily film criticism (in English, anyway) is impersonal; even if the writer has a lively voice and is allowed to use the first person, they rarely stray outside the world of film to tell you anything about how they saw the film, what happened before and after or any related anecdotes it dredged up. Film festival reports may be the only time all year they’re allowed to speak directly about themselves. Gleeful party-recapping interjections — or, more commonly, a melancholy tone with vague hostility directed at the festival as an entity — are a standard feature of these essays.

In “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs,” Chuck Klosterman explains that most sportswriters despise sports. “The worst part about being a sportswriter is that no one will ever have a normal conversation with you for the rest of your life. Everyone you meet will either (a) want to talk about sports or (b) assume you want to talk about sports… You may have insightful thoughts on the Middle East, but no one will care.”

02222010_fletch.jpgThis tends not to be as true for film critics in my experience — everyone will think you’re an elitist and weird and avoid the topic (one time I told a roomful of people I liked “Zodiac” and they refused to talk to me for the rest of the evening). I’ve toyed with telling people I work in insurance, which late “Fletch” writer Gregory Mcdonald used to do on planes to avoid conversation. (Unfortunately, I don’t look like someone who plausibly works in insurance.)

So I sympathize with Zacharek’s urges to remind us she has a life outside of film, as with all similar essays — when watching movies becomes a job, inevitably it’s a kick to write about anything else. (A lot of the film writers I know are highly literate people in general; they want to write as much as they want access to the movies they’re writing about.) Of course, once you’re on the career path, it can become hard to remind people that — like most anyone who’s not half-witted — you care about more than one thing. The problem isn’t too many movies, necessarily: it’s too much time writing about the movies and nothing but.

But the personal interjection can be a dangerous device, one which often comes off as unduly self-pitying. Unless you’re blogging (hi!) from inside your head all the time (like Jeffrey Wells) and the interjections are a regular attraction, I think it’s a bad idea. It’s true a lot of daily film writing is rote — synopses and adjectives — but that’s just lazy writing. Best to develop a worldview within the actual criticism rather than stop everything cold to remind people you’re not just a viewing automaton.

[Photos: Kurosawa’s “The Revenge: A Scar That Never Fades,” KSS, 1997; “Fletch,” Universal, 1985]

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The Best Of The Last

Portlandia Goes Out With A Bang

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The end is near. In mere days Portlandia wraps up its final season, and oh what a season it’s been. Lucky for you, you can watch the entire season right now right here and on the IFC app, including this free episode courtesy of Subaru.

But now, let’s take a moment to look back at some of the new classics Fred and Carrie have so thoughtfully bestowed upon us. (We’ll be looking back through tear-blurred eyes, but you do you.)

Couples Dinner

It’s not that being single sucks, it’s that you suck if you’re single.

Cancel it!

A sketch for anyone who has cancelled more appointments than they’ve kept. Which is everyone.

Forgotten America

This one’s a “Serial” killer…everything both right and wrong about true crime podcasts.

Wedding Planners

The only bad wedding is a boring wedding.

Disaster Hut

It’s only the end of the world if your doomsday kit doesn’t include rosé.

Catch up on Portlandia’s final episodes on demand and at

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Your Portlandia Personality Test

The New Portlandia Webseries Is Going Your Way

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Carrie and Fred understand that although we have so much in common, we’re each so beautifully unique and different. To help us navigate those differences, Portlandia has found an easy and honest way to embrace our special selves in the form of a progressive new traffic system: a specific lane for every kind of driver. It’s all in honor of the show’s 8th and final season, and it’s all presented by Subaru.

Ready to find out who you really are? Match your personality to a lane and hop on the expressway to self-understanding.

Lane 10: Trucks Piled With Junk

Your junk is falling out of your trunk. Shake a tail light, people — this lane is for you.

Lane 33: Twins

You’re like a Gemini, but waaaay more pedestrian. Maybe you and a friend just wear the same outfits a lot. Who cares, it’s just twinning enough to make you feel special.

Lane 27: Broken Windows

Bad luck follows you around and everyone knows it. Your proverbial seat is always damp from proverbial rain. Is this the universe telling you to swallow your pride? Yes.

Lane 69: Filthy Cars

You’re all about convenience. Getting your car washed while you drive is a no-brainer.

Lane 43: Newly Divorced Singles

It’s been a while since you’ve driven alone, and you don’t know the rules of the road anymore. What’s too fast? What’s too slow? Are you sending the right signals? Don’t worry, the breakdown lane is nearby if you need it.

Still can’t find a lane to match your personality? Check out all the videos here. And see the final season of Portlandia this spring on IFC.

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Last-Minute Holiday Gift Guide

Hits from the '80s are on repeat all Christmas Eve and Day on IFC.

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GIFs via Giphy, Photos via The Everett Collection

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