Lessons For Film Critics From J. Hoberman

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Out of the dozens of questions I got doing interviews for my Siskel & Ebert book, this was the hardest:

“What do you think of the state of film criticism today? Do you have any advice for aspiring film critics?”

You want to know the extremely intricate history of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert’s various television series on PBS and syndication? No problem! You want me to tell you how to become a critic? That’s tricky. Can you engineer impossibly good luck? Are you willing you write about your passions in your spare time while you pay your bills some other way, in or out of the online publishing world? Do you have a relentless work ethic? You’re going to need all of the above to even have a shot.

Contemplating those skills made me think about the lessons that were imparted to me when, many years ago now (ugh), I was a film student and aspiring writer myself. The best class I had at that time was a seminar on film criticism taught by J. Hoberman, then the senior film critic for The Village Voice. Hoberman’s nuts-and-bolts insights were revelatory. For years, I kept my notebook from his class in my office; if I ever needed inspiration, I would pick it up and flip through it. And when Hoberman was laid off by the Voice in January of 2012 in a very dumb and shortsighted decision, I turned ten of his most useful tips into a blog post for the company I was working for at the time.

Ironically, I got dumped by my own employer just a few weeks later. I went looking for the article I wrote about Hoberman recently, and it had been wiped from the internet as if it never existed, along with the entire archive of writing, podcasts, and videos that I and some very talented colleagues had poured our hearts and souls into for about seven years at that site. (Still want to be a film critic?)

So I went back to my original class notes, and found that Hoberman’s advice remains as useful and relevant as ever some two decades later (ugh ugh ugh). As a service to those who asked me for advice recently, I am printing the best I ever got here — ten lessons from someone who’s forgotten more about the craft and practice of film criticism than I’ll ever know. They’re more useful than anything I could come up with for aspiring (or practicing!) critics.

On the fundamentals:
“Ask yourself the question, ‘What do people want to know about a movie that they’ve never seen?’”

On plot:
“Plot synopses automatically ruin a review.”

On brevity:
“Watch for excess words. If there’s a shorter word, use it.”

READ MORE: A Company Was Allegedly Paying Critics for Rotten Tomatoes Reviews

On editors:
“Work with them for the good of the piece. Don’t have ego. Don’t compete.”

On interviewing filmmakers:
“If you’re thinking about it, ask them about it.”

On digressions:
“The longer the em dash, the weaker its impact.”

On taste:
“Always ask yourself why you like what you like.”

On bad movies:
“Vent your spleen. In criticism, it’s better to be angry than depressed.”

On the competition:
“Never read other critics’ reviews. They cloud your judgment.”

On deadlines:
“Never miss a deadline.”

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These movies all got high marks from critics, but general audiences were less than enthusiastic.



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