7/15/12

Why Am I A Critic? And Why You Should Ask Yourself the Same Question

Spock would say that the documentary "Heckler" is full of colorful metaphors. And it is. Because my role models in movies tend to land more on the Maria from "The Sound of Music" side and less on the Quentin Tarantino script side, I admit that the brutal language of "Heckler" made me wince sometimes.

But when I decided to get past some of the inherent crudeness, what I found was a kind of raw and cracked open discussion about ego, creativity, and deciding what side of the dividing line you want to fall on exactly.



The movie is about comedian Jamie Kennedy's quest to deal with his critics. But the real meat of the movie has a much broader scope. It ends up being less about Kennedy specifically and more about creators and critics.

But it's also the representation of something else in my life, a turning point. I turned on the documentary on yet another day when I should be so busy working that I should NEVER have time to turn on my television. Then again, my schedule right now is impossible. Work. Work. Work. Then some more work. Write, shoot, edit, schedule, write, shoot, edit, schedule, and on and on.

On that note, I'm warning you now, this blog will sound like the ramblings of a narcissistic lunatic. The ravings of a fangirl, you might say. (See what I did there? That's the title of the blog.)

But while watching the movie, I decided I need to finish my train of thought on something I've been bouncing around in my mind for the last year. Am I a critic or am I a creator? Most people are both, but sooner or later, if you are a creative professional, you have to pick a side or languish trying to keep up with both. Filmmaker or journalist? Writer or reporter? You can be both, but certainly not at the same time. And I've straddled that fence for far too many years. It's time to move forward with intention.

I tell the people I mentor, I used to tell my writing students, I tell the people I oversee and the people I supervise, you have to be brutally specific with yourself. When you are a creative professional, be that producer, writer, editor, whatever...you have to ask yourself every morning, what am I doing today? Is it a  day for brainstorming and free form writing? Is it a day for scheduling shoots, is it a day for editing? What project is your priority today, this month, this year? When is your next deadline? What are you doing with your time?

Creative types must be brutally administrative with themselves, because we're squirmy. We just want to play all the time. We want to watch moves and TV.  Read books. Explore areas of interest. But that same slavery to inspiration keeps us shackled just out of reach of ever FINISHING anything original.

But I write to work things out. I don't have epiphanies, I write my way to them. And this particular blog entry is not for an audience. It's for me. You know the break-up video Nick did in "The New Girl"? He videotaped himself at his lowest point and saved it in the event that he should ever consider getting back with the girl who broke his heart and brought him to that low point. This is a version of that. I have this conversation in my head far too often, maybe if I just get it out once in written form, I can just refer to it in the future instead of going around and around about it over and again.

And I think that being a fangirl might be my bad girlfriend. Geek Audrey might be breaking creative Audrey's heart repeatedly. Audrey with the obsessive need to spend her energy talking about movies might be ruining Audrey who really wants and needs to make movies.

I told you. Narcissism.

All my life, I've been honest to goodness torn between two worlds. I've always wanted to make "stuff" (TV, books, movies) and I've always wanted to talk about stuff (critique TV, books, movies).

Unlike a lot of other bloggers, I love the material that I write about. If you read this blog, you know that I often compare myself to "The Chris Farley Show", meaning that I often love things so much that I degenerate into blabbering on and on and on about why Star Trek, Star Wars, comic books, PBS, etc. are just so downright awesome that I can hardly contain myself.

But I'm getting older. And I really want to make stuff. So there's some confrontation in order. So why have I spent so much of my time as a fangirl? Is it good? Is it unhealthy? Time to list the reasons why I'm a critic...

1. Because I can't help myself. It's who I am. I am fangirl, hear me roar. It's my natural state of being. I think about film, TV, storytelling, art, books, and stories all of the time. There's nothing disingenuous about my life on the internet. I've always used my real name, never an anonymous screen name so I could cut someone down to size. (Apart from my "Marion Ravenwood" handle on the AICN messageboards, even then, I always kept it positive.)

But loving what you love can't be a day job. Unless you are a journalist, and even then, that requires a choice that we'll get to later.

2. Because I can envision my life as an academic. There's a whole world out there where film is taught. I had an influential film professor in college, Dr. Gehring. He spent his time showing movies to students, teaching film history, writing books on film and novels. He was a professional movie fan. And that REALLY appeals to me. I can still envision a life somewhere in a tiny college office surrounded by books and movies, talking about them, writing about them, debating about them at conferences. The academic side to movie geekdom is valid and necessary.

It may be stuffy and pretentious at times, but that world prevents the dumbing down of the art form. It educates entire swaths of kids who wouldn't otherwise ever be forced to watch any black and white movies or learn about Charlie Chaplin or understand the larger context of the creation of film itself. Movies are only about a century old. Painting, drawing, writing, it's all been around for thousands of years. But film. Film is a baby. A baby that needs constant keeping track of, for fear we might lose track of her history and forget how good she can really be.

3. Because I love Roger Ebert. Just because the internet is awash with amateur critics doesn't mean they are all amateurs. Siskel and Ebert's discussions about film, Ebert's books and writing on film, Pauline Kael and other critics REALLY have always had something significant to say about film. They are society's curators. They want us to think, really think about the movies we see. They encourage us to ask ourselves why we love what we love.

That feels really important to me, that there are figures out there in the world forcing people to think about an art form that modern commercialism is asking us to just accept without consideration. There is now and always will be a place for legitimate film critics. And I hope the internet doesn't completely destroy that idea. True film criticism and conversations about movies are a vital necessity, so the idea of becoming a film critic is still an admirable choice to me. And probably always will be. It just comes down to standards.

4. Because sometimes you learn by pushing back. You learn who you are sometimes by learning what you don't want to do. I used to show my creative writing students lots of movies and movie scenes when I taught at Ball State. I always told them, "You don't have to like what I show you, but you have to talk about it in a way that makes sense." I never let a student say, "I thought that sucked." and leave it at that.  They had to tell me why. They had to think.

It was kind of magical to watch some students discover who they were as writers by figuring out what they hated in movies. If a student really felt a disgust for a scene from the sci-fi film "Monsters", I made them figure out why. Often times, those students would discover that their disdain for science fiction came from a deeper place. Maybe it meant that they were journalists at heart and were drawn to what is true, therefore they hated the allegory of sci-fi and fantasy. Maybe it meant they hated aliens as a plot because they thought they could write a better alien story and had been holding onto one in their mind for years.

All I ever wanted was to see them push back, go ahead and rebel against whatever they didn't want to be. I do the same thing. In the past, if I've railed against a movie, I've tried to discover why I hated it. And nine times out of ten, it had something to do with me and who I was and what I wanted to create. It's okay to be a frustrated filmmaker or author as long as you KNOW that's why you are having negative or nit-picky reactions to movies or books.

When you look up at a movie screen and your first thought is, "I could've done it better." then you better put your feet on the path to making an attempt to do so. Otherwise that bitterness takes up residence and turns into hate, forcing you to the dark side. What if Luke HAD gone to the dark side? Well, that's what you do every time you anonymously hate on someone who actually had the guts to make a movie.

Here are the reasons why I've been thinking about this so intently (and increasingly) over the last year.

1. I've been more public than ever before and I've been exposed to internet criticism. Is it just me, or are we going to have to develop a rehabilitation for what it means to be human in the digital world? I've been thinking of this a lot lately, and then I ran into this article that really articulated how I've been feeling over the last year. It's kind of like the old, "If a tree falls in the forest, but nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound." Except the modern version is, "If you work really hard at what you do, but you don't post about it on the internet, does it still count?"

I've always had a love/hate relationship with the internet. I love that it gives me a voice. I love that it gives me a career. As a fledgling writer in 2006, all I had were content farms to turn to. I wrote for Ehow and Associated Content. That got me a couple lines of experience I could list when submitting for print publication and the whole thing snowballed from there. Without the internet, I would have almost no audience. Even my day jobs are centered around internet distribution. I work on a local TV show, but our concern and conversations behind-the-scenes almost always seem to turn to our YouTube audience.

But here's the thing, when Steven Spielberg hunkers down to make a movie, when anyone hunkers down to make a movie or write a book, they have to disappear for a little while. To, you know, DO THE WORK, instead of incessantly talking about doing the work, or advertising themselves as doing the work, or spoiling their own work just so the ravenous internet audience that is demanding it in the first place won't turn on them.

As I get older, I have to give myself license to disappear from time to time. Because life on the internet is not real life. And getting attention on YouTube, Facebook and Twitter is actually NOT the same thing as building a career doing what you love.

In my case, that's writing and making stuff with cameras. The internet is an addiction. So is getting attention on the internet. To feel like we're alive and headed somewhere and making progress, we have to become self-promotional machines. Or so we think. Actually, self-promotion is a better step to take when you actually have a creation to promote. A book. A short film. A Kickstarter campaign. I'm seeing an entire creative culture that is forgetting to CREATE anything other than a persona. That's not writing or filmmaking. That's PR.  And yes, I realize the irony of making that statement on a blog.

Speaking of getting older...

2. I'm. Getting. Older. Life is a gift. We know all too well in my family that it can be cut tragically short at any moment. Life is a gift and it passes you by and how you choose to spend your time is entirely up to you. If you want to spend it academically exploring film history, do it. If you want to spend it becoming a sassy internet celebrity, do it. But the years go by, whatever you spend your time creating will be what ends up keeping you company and eventually it will be your legacy.

I've dabbled in film and TV, mostly the works of other people. The short films I've written that I really wanted to make, well, I've always put them on the back burner. Always told myself, I'll put my time in on this project and after that, I'll get to the projects I want to do off the ground. I keep trading my time away.

I always imagined myself as building something. I'll do "this" in order to get to "that". I'll put in my sweat equity. I'll help others and then I'll get to my own stuff when I've earned enough experience. And that's all valid. But there comes a point when that really just translates to being a chicken. Hiding behind other people instead of taking the risk of making your own stuff.

I see a pattern forming in my career. I keep inheriting other people's dream projects. I keep ending up making other people's TV shows and pilots and audition videos or ending up in meetings with people who are inviting me to come and head up a department for them. People come to me to help them get their ideas off the ground. Which is really fun. But if I do that forever, where will it leave me?

Why wouldn't I use that same energy to get my own ideas off the ground?

3. The biggest reason is this, I left my bubble. When you leave your hometown and all that is familiar, you have to take a closer look at yourself. The things you did to get by in your bubble might not work anymore. In my case, I was really naive and didn't even know it. It wasn't the Mid-West that was holding me back. There's a long history of creative geniuses who have come out of the frozen Mid-West. (John Hughes is the one I most admire as far as keeping film close to home.) So I'm not knocking where I come from. The issue was who I was in the Mid-West. Not the place itself.

I could go back tomorrow and be completely changed because I've just spent a year way out of my comfort zone.  Yesterday marked the one-year-anniversary of my life away from Indiana. (Original entry written on June 7th.) Over the last year, my skin has thickened immensely. I've learned to be far more confrontational and far less afraid. I care a lot less what people think about me. And most of all, I've only toughened my position when it comes to the idea that everything you do creatively has to be in service to whatever project you are working on. Not a sensitive person's ego. Not a guilt trip. Not a project's potential. But the actual practicality of what that project needs right then and there in order to be done well. But now I'm getting way off topic...

The nature of the creation of any art requires incubation. It requires down time. Away time. Work time. Even the public arts like theater and music require intense rehearsal periods.

 The very nature of "making stuff" has changed drastically over the course of my lifetime. I was born in 1982 and the world was a different place then. The internet didn't spread rumors of a film or distribute copies of it's script months before it even entered production. On some of the shows I work on, the audience demands to know what's going to be on the next episode a month away from the episode's release. In between learning what will be on the show and the time of the show's release, those rabid fans have often gone off on the internet and researched that subject matter to death so that by the time it appears on our finished show they are already "bored" with it. That doesn't make me a director. That makes me a babysitter trying to entertain the kids. That makes me a captive to my own audience. That makes me a slave to the marketing I have to do for my own unfinished product.

The nature of creation necessitates a choice. Many actually. In my case, that choice right now is between journalism and the narrative. I'll explain. If you are so infatuated with your many loves, (In my case, Indiana Jones, film history, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings and so on.) that you decide you only want to devote yourself to those things then the choice you are making (Whether subconsciously or consciously) is to never create your own material.

I run into this all the time at my current job as a journalist for Orlando Attractions Magazine. People flock to the theme parks of Orlando, Florida for many reasons. Some worship the history of the parks. Some, like myself, enjoy how the parks bring them closer to the films or books that they love. But there's a biting undercurrent to that love. It's a frustration. They love the films of Disney, the movies or Universal, or even the history of a specific theme park ride SO much that it sort of fills them with an undercurrent of rage.

Because that's it. That's all they have. That obsessive love. And the thing is, as consumers and fans, no matter HOW much they love what they love, it doesn't belong to them. It's not theirs. Disney won't use their ideas. Can't even listen to them for legal reasons. So if you are a creative type and you are completely in love with your inspirations, a bitterness begins to develop. Because you can't get in on that action. And even if you did, even if you were one of the lucky few who gets hired to script a live show or a dark ride, you have to tow the company line and your art has to be approved by focus group and marketing executives.

Some do this successfully and with the love of a fan, Joss Whedon with "The Avengers", Jon Favreau with "Iron Man" and even park show-runners like the talented and creative Mike Aiello who lovingly crafted the end-of-the-night tribute show at Universal Orlando called "The Cinematic Spectacular". I had the pleasure of interviewing Aiello and the man is a fan. One of us. For sure.

But I don't think I quite fit in with the crowd of superfans here in Orlando. I mean, I do. I belong. I know what they know and in some cases, more. But I don't know if I want to spend my entire life running around desperate to be Queen of Movie and Theme Park Trivia.

My role models are people who love what I love, who know what I know and can claim expert status, but who spend their time making things instead of making sure they are at the top of the heap of the fanboys and fangirls.

You think Steven Spielberg loves movies? Um. Yeah. He does. A lot. He's probably king of movie trivia. Same thing probably went for John Hughes. That goes double for Peter Jackson and Fran Walsh. Carol Burnett. All the people I love obviously love what they do and know their stuff.

But they are also MAKING THINGS. Art. Books. Essays. Comedy. Performances. They aren't sitting in a stagnant puddle of other people's work. They are using their inspiration to create something original.

I have been standing at a crossroads for a year. Do I want to devote my life to fandom, however academic I could craft it to be? Do I want to branch off and go the way of the expert, the super geek, the regarded film expert who gets asked to guest in commentaries and write book intros and host special events. Well, sure. And I've had all three of those requests lobbed my way in the last few years and I often oblige.

But I don't want that more than I want to create. So I have to do that. That involves making time. Adjusting a schedule. Changing priorities.

"There are two kinds of people in the world, creators and there are destroyers. I prefer to align myself with the creators because I think they bring something positive to society." - George Lucas



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