As anyone who follows film criticism knows, it’s tough to make it as a film critic. For every Manohla Dargis or Matt Zoller Seitz who’s found a hell of a regular gig, there’s hundreds of freelancers who are living hand to mouth in order to write about the medium they love, or writers with staff jobs who learn just how insecure their positions are. For young aspiring critics especially, it can be disheartening to look at the news of another writer losing a job or take a gander at Twitter to see critics talking about dire financial situations. But one young critic has some advice for those hoping to make it: “Step up or step off.”
Michael Pattison took part in the 2013 Locarno Critic’s Academy (organized by Indiewire’s Eric Kohn), and he returned this year to talk about how, while he’s still very much in the process of making it, he’s managed to cover 13 festivals this year up to Locarno. He gave some advice how to make a name for yourself, and it’s a mixture of being in the right place at the right time and tirelessly and aggressively pitching, lobbying, and fighting to write and be read:
…at some point, you have to be hungry for this: you have to have an insatiably aggressive thirst for contributing to established dialogues and shaping new ones, for risking ridicule and corrections when spouting something as perishably dangerous as an opinion, and for joining a professional scene full of cliques and daggers.…this here is a lifestyle choice. I joked in Locarno that if I wanted to be rich, I would sell drugs. I have opted for this precarious grind, I have opted for a dramatically fluctuating bank balance, I have opted to pursue payment from commissioning editors who respond to and reject my pitches only after my fifth fucking follow-up email. I have chosen all of these things because more than anything else I enjoy them, and I enjoy the process of enjoying them. But it is disingenuous to carry on in this vein without pointing out that there is a choice, that I am in a position—geographical and cultural—to be able to enjoy them. That is not a luxury afforded to others. Indeed, at the risk of sounding ridiculous, you have to be hungry for hunger itself. Because hunger alone does not get you fed.
He continues by addressing critics who think their life is tough:
Critics complaining about deadlines, about word counts, about that mythical ailment you call writer’s block, or about having to transcribe a 30-minute tête-a-tête with the director of all our dreams: don’t make me laugh. Step up or step off. If you can not write 500 excellently watertight words in 40 minutes flat about a film you have just finished watching and analyzing, then you are shit at what you do, and you should resign yourself to sitting there like some flaccid lump of flesh sponging up the pretty colours and lovely, fluffy sounds that bedazzle your waste of a layperson’s mind. “Hi, I’m a critic and I complain about what I do. Feel the smoothness of my idle hands – that’s the smoothness of a workless career.” Verbosity is the soul of bad jokes, but humblebrags will be the end of us.
Pattison also addresses the real difficulty of critics in, say, the Balkans or the Czech Republic who don’t even have the same shaky but relatively accessible prospects of critics working in North America, the UK or France, where there’s a regular scene and a lower level of “cultural amnesia.” He also gets into the need for hungry critics to cover festivals beyond the obvious, and for things to “be OK for everyone,” not just Western critics.
Pattison’s piece is full of good advice, encouragement and tough love. It’s easy for a young (or even established) writer to lament the workload they have, or the low number of full-time jobs out their for critics compared to the large number of people vying for them, or their precarious financial situations. Thing is, there’s a difference between stressing about everyday pressures of the job and whining that you have three movies to write about or that no one’s recognized your brilliance and given you a job. If you’ve chosen this field, you should know what you’ve gotten yourself into, and use the limited amount of jobs and space as incentive to apply and pitch until the sun goes down.
As a young film journalist and critic, I’m not going to pretend I don’t have my work cut out for me or that I’m not going to spend most of my career scrambling for whatever crumbs I can get. But that was something I knew when I chose to go down this path, and I’m comfortable with that choice. I’ve been extraordinarily lucky so far to get an internship, then a regular freelance gig at Indiewire, as well as an internship here at Criticwire. It’s been a mixture of knowing people who know the right people, being in the right place at the right time, and working my ass off to earn the opportunities I’ve been afforded and to try to prove I didn’t get them just because of the first two factors. Wasting the time of others complaining that my life is hard is just that: wasting their time.
Because I’m just starting out, I’ll also acknowledge that my perspective on what critics should or should not do is extremely limited compared to those of Glenn Kenny or Lisa Schwarzbaum or Keith Uhlich. It’s easier for me to be (cautiously) optimistic and plug away when I have fewer bills to pay, no one dependent on me and infinitely fewer experiences in the business of arts journalism. I might change my tune when I’ve had ten, twenty, thirty years of competing for jobs and reading space. Right now, though, Pattison’s advice sounds pretty good. If you’re going to enter a crowded field, expect to have to elbow your way through.