Cover Story: Get a Job

For the first time in six years, a film critic takes the summer off

It's the summer movie season again, and it's hard to miss the hoopla. But for the first time in my adult life, I'm on the outside looking in. In January, I quit my post as lead film critic after nearly six years writing for Detroit's alternative weekly, The Metro Times. Prior to that, I'd spent my 20s toiling for an art museum film program.

As you can imagine, my adult life has revolved around movie release dates and looming deadlines. I'd attend screening after screening, taking notes in the dark. Afterwards, I'd sit at my computer to process those images and my feelings into words that might stimulate a reader's imagination.

I've grown accustomed to seeing at least three movies a week (three a day at film festivals). In the past months, I've seen three films total. Two were for interview assignments, but the third was to feed the film fan inside me.

How could I refuse the chance to attend a preview of the latest Star Wars installment?

I had seen the original as an 11-year-old movie fanatic. My pre-kindergarten years were spent in Italy, where my mother took me to the cinema instead of church. (I continue to thank her to this day.)

In some ways, Star Wars wasn't that different from the spaghetti westerns I was weaned on, yet it became a defining experience.

This time, I wanted to share the magic with my younger sister. Movies were no longer merely a distraction or an exciting story, they were hypnotic and transporting. They could grip one's imagination like nothing else. Star Wars showed me that.

As I left the theater, I wondered if Star Wars: Episode II — Attack of the Clones, which felt to me like a piece of a complex puzzle instead of a stand-alone film, would impact my younger sister the same way Star Wars had impacted me in 1977. No, I decided. She might love this film, but she'll have been denied the exquisite pleasure of discovery. Her feeling of surprise was denied by know-it-all predictions. Here I was on hiatus, and I broke the first rule of reviewing: Instead of describing how I felt, I told her what to expect.

During my six years of reviewing movies, I've learned that people want to see a movie or they don't. When a critic begins to manufacture desire, fanning Blair Witch Project-like hysteria, readers are bound to become disappointed victims of hype.

Like a lot of Americans, after Sept. 11, I felt what I did for a living was utterly useless. But I'd felt that way before. I struggled to put "myself" into my reviews, interviews and columns. At the same time, I also tried not to reveal too much or tell people ahead of time how they should respond to a movie. I wondered: Am I just predigesting art and regurgitating pabulum for wary consumers?

Film critics, by nature, are an arrogant, pompous lot. They exist to pronounce judgment. It's no coincidence that the Roman emperor's signal determining whether a gladiator lives or dies — thumbs up or thumbs down — is synonymous with movie criticism. If you meet enough film critics, it's clear that power is what motivates them.

I honestly believed power didn't matter to me. Sure, I wanted to be taken seriously for what I knew and how I wrote. But I began writing about movies because I truly love them, because there's something about film that triggers deep emotional responses unlike any other art form. You can get swept up, lost in a movie, so that when you come out the other side, you feel like you've really experienced something which can alter your perception of the world.

During one weekend, I saw Jonathan Demme's screwball comedy Something Wild and David Lynch's surreal, suburban drama Blue Velvet, and these two films blew apart the smug complacency of the 1980s for me and revealed that I wasn't alone in my contempt for Ronald Reagan's America.

Some years later, before I sat down to write about Paul Thomas Anderson's Los Angeles-set drama, Magnolia, I went to see it a second time, a luxury critics rarely get. During the closing credits, my comfortable anonymity was shattered when a friend in the row behind me asked when my review was running. A clearly baffled woman next to her inquired if I was a movie critic. Yes, I sheepishly confessed.

"OK then," she asserted, "it's up to you to explain this movie to me."

It's a deal, I thought. I'll tell you what I can, but what you think is up to you. That's a pact I've always tried to honor as a critic. This summer movie season, my first as a civilian, it's that dialogue that I'll miss the most. For the time being, at least, I can talk to my sister.

Serena Donadoni is a freelance writer in Detroit who stubbornly specializes in film coverage. She'll spend this summer mowing her neighbors' lawns.

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