Status update: After 20 years of covering film, preceded by 16 writing on pop music, theatre, television and other matters, I’m retiring as as a full-time employee of The Globe and Mail. For historical perspective, I started in 1979, the year of the Iran Revolution, Apocalypse Now and the introduction of the McDonald’s Happy Meal, the year Jurassic World star Chris Pratt was born. It seems a good time to get a few things off my chest.
Unlike so many film critics who lost their jobs in recent years and wrote sad farewell columns, I’m leaving voluntarily, and I wouldn’t say this is necessarily the best gig in the world. “King” for example, might be better, so long as you could still see free movies when you wanted, but not have to write an overnight review of Grown Ups 2.
I’m not what could be called a real “fan.” I’m not arranging my action figures in anticipation of the 29 upcoming comic-book adaptations over the next five years. Or pencilling into my daybook: “Sex and the City 3!” The Academy Awards are not my favourite night of the year, I don’t own a home theatre or have any celebrity friends, because, as I mentioned, I’m not a king.
Nor am I a frustrated anything, except, rarely, a frustrated film critic. Criticism is some of my favourite reading, sometimes more than the works that are being written about. How do you separate enjoyment and trying to understand what you’re enjoying? That’s why I’m particularly happy that my successor, The Globe and Mail’s Kate Taylor, is an actual critic. Not just a fan, a buff or an enthusiast. Okay, she’s a successful novelist, too – but definitely a critic.
I learned about my favourite films and musicians from reading critics, often long before I had the chance to experience their work first-hand. I can remember critics who introduced me to favourite artists: Alfred Kazin on novelist Walker Percy; John Leonard on Maxine Hong Kingston; Pauline Kael on Taxi Driver; Robert Christgau on Al Green; Jon Pareles on Richard Thompson; The Globe’s Jay Scott on Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
Reviews, for me, are like those three-minute pop songs Bruce Springsteen celebrates, that take you out of your little personal world into the big, wide, fascinating one. Hold on, baby.
Naturally, I worry about criticism’s future. A lot of people worry about film criticism’s future in the age of social media: CBC and CNN have even covered the subject.
In the past decade, it’s been difficult to attend any film festival or arts conference that doesn’t have a panel about it. The consensus is that it’s all going down like a boulder into an abyss.
First, it was the layoffs of talented critics at the Village Voice and Entertainment Weekly. More recently, there have been film writers losing their Internet jobs with the closing of sites like The Dissolve.
The trouble is that the financial numbers just aren’t crunching. Even at sites that pay reviewers for piece work at a rate equivalent to minimum wage, the film reviews just aren’t driving enough traffic to justify the cost. It’s tough when just a click away you can check out Justin Bieber’s backside or watch Ariana Grande licking doughnuts in a protest against American portion sizes.
There is a flip side to this unhappy story. The Internet has had an explosive and largely positive impact on film culture. The average film lover can read good critics from around the world for free, draw on more academic resources than ever and simply see more films than ever before. They can argue, engage, question and inform each other in film forums and keep up on the latest discoveries from festivals around the world. The paradox of film culture closing down locally and opening up globally was the subject of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s book Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia. You may think of this as A Tale of Two Cines: the best of times and the worst of times.
Video: Retiring film critic Liam Lacey on the three movies he’d need on a desert island
I’m also not sold on the idea that the golden age of print reviewing, which I caught the tail end of, was really all that golden.
There’s a case for the investment newspapers make in giving young journalists a period to develop their knowledge and judgment on the film beat, but the notion of the “professional critic” is a suspect term. It doesn’t refer to a trained and licensed professional, just someone who’s found a publisher to support their viewing and writing habits. Or, in my case, got too old for the rock beat.
Hyperbolic praise for movies didn’t begin with the Internet. (“My eyeballs were literally riveted to the screen, by literal rivets …” wrote Dave Barry in a satiric review of The Lord of the Rings). And snarkiness had a long history before Gawker ever went online. As a New Yorker cartoon showing a couple talking at a party put it, “The reviews said the reviewers were very clever.”
Although they’re often referred to with reverence today, both Kael and Roger Ebert were, in their time, sometimes disparaged and held up as examples of the Great Dumbing Down. Things haven’t changed that much. The critic’s basic questions – what is it, how does it work and does it matter? – are the same. What has altered are the objects of our attention and how we see them.
Films are, for the most part, not really films any more. They’re part of the digital video soup we’re all swimming in. The democratization of media production tools, once in the hands of big corporations, has atomized the moving image formats: Movies, television, games, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, Snapchat and phone captures have created a porridge pot of “microfame” and “nanofame” bubbles.
To quote a meme that originated with the Scottish musician and writer Momus: “On the Web everyone will be famous to 15 people.”
Last year, a Variety survey determined that U.S. teenagers are more familiar with YouTube stars than they are with the biggest celebrities in film, TV and music.
Meanwhile, those “legacy media,” old-school celebrities are in oversupply, put out of work by reality television and Hollywood’s lack of attention to smaller movies. At the film festivals, we see hundreds of them, eager to talk to anyone about their latest projects. When they can’t find movie and TV jobs, they lend their names to lifestyle brands. You can actually read a Gwyneth Paltrow blog on how to yawn like a star.
Maintaining a distance from your subjects used to be a basic tenet of the critics’ code, but no more. We interact on social media, both positively and negatively. More often I hear critics describing filmmakers they like as friends, which is hard to imagine. At some point, you will probably have to choose between being a good friend and a good critic. What you can’t do is hide out. Marketing your journalistic brand on social media is now a job requirement. Some journalism schools even include Klout “influence” scores as part of students’ grades.
There’s a strong incentive to try to trade tweets with a real celebrity and gain some reflected light. Or find the right sequence of characters to light up the Twitterverse and briefly fluoresce as a Twitter firefly yourself. Everyone’s a critic, everyone’s a star, everyone’s an audience. All this increases rather than diminishes the importance of the dedicated evaluator, someone who is agile enough to operate in the new media ecosystem and extract the signal from the noise, the art from the hype.
We’re all ultimately in debt to the people who create content, the writers, composers, filmmakers and performers who give us the gifts of the imagination. The least we owe them, and our readers, is an honest response to their work.
From the archives: A few of Liam Lacey’s most memorable pieces
If this is Tuesday, it must be Kenora
April 13, 1985
The k.d. lang bandwagon had already started to rumble in Edmonton and Vancouver before I jumped on for this cross-Canada trip, when I got to meet a person I consider one of the great originals of our time.
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A voice that can scale mountains
April 24, 1985
When Whitney Houston died in 2012, after more than a dozen years of personal problems, addiction and a humiliating reality television show with her husband, Bobby Brown, I recalled that I had interviewed her at her career’s beginning, and I was reminded of a warm young woman with a voice so big she said it used to scare her.
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Santa Claus, the Little Mermaid and a Great White Shark
November 23, 1990
One reason for getting off the rock beat was staying home with my family at night. Sometimes, the world of adult drama and children’s story-telling would get strangely confused. This piece was for a column called Cross Current, in which arts writers were encouraged to write from a personal point of view.
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Blown away (and blushing) after the big space-o-rama
July 22, 1994
This piece was for a TV column called Scanners that I wrote for a few years. The title was lifted from a David Cronenberg film and the premise was a kind of stream-of-consciousness response to channel-flipping, back when there were only a few dozen channels to flip through.
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