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Wait Until Dark: In the shadowy hush of a screening room, all film critics look alike. To protect his identity, we have run a picture of one of Mr. von Busack's many admirers rather than show you the man himself.

Everyone's a Critic

His detractors have psychoanalyzed him, insulted him, called him a cynic and a misfit and accused him of never having sex. His fans routinely rush to his defense. All because of what he has to say about movies. What's the deal with Richard von Busack anyway?

By Richard von Busack

"No child ever grew up wanting to be a critic."
Paula Abdul, 'American Idol,' May 21, 2003

EVERYONE TELLS ME how much they'd love to be a movie critic. People who hate to read--not realizing that a good critic ought to be able to do a little research--inform me that they'd love my job. People who dread writing, who go into a sweat when they have to write a one-page letter? They'd also love to be a film critic, perhaps not reckoning that some writing is required. People who fear deadlines also haven't considered that writing against time is part of even this low level of journalism.

There's more to film criticism than studying Roger Ebert's "Roeper-a-dope" fighting strategy. For example, Kate Winslet doesn't sit on my lap if there aren't enough chairs at the press screening. The hours are strange, with plenty of nighttime screenings. This means working when others--significant others--are back home from their daily dose of toil.

Then there's the fact that on the whole, in the film community, critics are viewed as occupying a spot on social spectrum somewhere between leeches and suckups. Rivalries run rampant in the tight little world of critics, too--egos that don't get along. It's a strange thing that people committed to the task of wounding other people's vanity harbor such sensitive vanities themselves.

Such distrust feeds delusional behavior. I've treasured the memory of a little old lady film critic from Florida I observed name-dropping to a fellow critic: "When ah first met Darren McGavin, we did not get along at all. But later on, we became the best of friends!" Dodging the forces of studios, editors and misunderstanding readers--not to mention landlords, collection agents and Darren-McGavin-worshiping colleagues--I try never to forget that it's an honor as well as a pleasure to have this peculiar yet desirable line of work.

Still, journalism is sometimes disenchanting. Hours are long, even for speed typists. Among freelancers, it's known that some publications will stiff you; they may not want to, but they will. Good newspapers, magazines and websites are shut down (bye-bye, Spy; RIP, Suck.com. No, Salon! No! Don't go toward the light!).

Writers are pushed aside to make way for some flashy know-nothings that someone in authority considered closer to the ideal demographic. "Demographic" is a term defining a group of people older and poorer and smarter than the advertising department imagines. As an alternative journalist, I feel like I've got a different side of the street to work. But this side of the street isn't immune from eviction or redevelopment.

Gaudy Patter

When one daily local newspaper was last looking for a film critic, it specified, "No film geeks!" on its in-house website. This may not be as lunatic as, say, putting, "No Cezanne geeks" in an ad looking for an art critic, but still, it was revealing.

In this case, it was decided that knowing something about the background of the art wasn't as important as being a human seismograph. This particular paper was looking for a critic without a strong memory for what cinema has accomplished. What they wanted was someone sensitive to buzz, who might be able to ignore the fact that the vibrations were being generated by a movie studio.

I'm fortunate to work for one of the last remaining outlets where there's no pandering to heavily advertised movies. I haven't been stopped by an editor with the unarguable comment that his kid loved Charlie's Angels, so why didn't I get with the program? (And what are you supposed to say? "Yeah, and your kid loves green ketchup, too.")

But my experiences are by no means common. As Charles Taylor of Salon notes, "These are rotten times to be a movie critic. ... It has become increasingly common for critics to be pressured by their editors (who themselves may be under pressure from the sales department) to change their opinions. Pressure that no paper would think to bring to bear on their op-ed writers is routinely applied to movie critics. This has nothing to do with the quality of a critic's writing but solely with the content of their opinions, the area where a critic is supposed to be given free rein."

Since studios have troubles with film critics, they sometimes make their own, as in the celebrated case of the two execs at Sony who fabricated one "David Manning" of the Ridgefield Press in Connecticut.

They shouldn't have bothered. There's an armada of easily persuaded Internet critics afoot. The cheaper the crook, the gaudier the patter, said Sam Spade; also, the larger the hype, the tinier the print.

Photograph by E.L. Avery

Exposure Time: We changed our minds and decided to expose Richard von Busack's identity after all. The rakish critic is seen here plying our trade at Cinequest, circa 2001.

An Action Classic!!
says Hollywood Hotpopcorn.com

Despite an often servile press, the film business isn't happy with critics. And why should they be, when our job is to interfere with the prevailing wisdom; as critic John Powers put it, "We're supposed to consume the stuff, not let it change us."

Peter Bart, editor of Variety, wrote a December 6, 2002, article railing against the film critics of America. Bart cast them into three lots. First: critics who, out of snobbery, reject every movie that's a success. Second: critics who are the fans of the obscure, who praise only movies the public hasn't heard anything about. Third: critics whose taste is so perversely individualistic that they go against the mainstream.

An obscure movie, like an obscure political candidate, is simply one that didn't have the bucks to pay for mega-advertising. In Entertainment Weekly, Harvey Weinstein of Miramax explained that the cost of advertising a film like Gangs of New York was $40 to $45 million, compared to the budget (euphemistically calculated as $100 million by Weinstein).

That $40 million didn't make Gangs of New York any better; it just made it harder to ignore. And Gangs of New York was by no means the most heavily advertised film of its quarter. What makes an "obscure" movie is a film that can't pony up those kinds of sums to burn a title into the public's brains. As I see it, one facet of the critic's trade is to level the playing field.

As for the critics "always" hating hits, that's a libel against the profession of critic. Anyone can cite a number of films that, through some luck, transcended the ego of stars and the anxiety of a $100 million-plus budget well enough to please almost everyone--including critics.

In movies like Spider-Man and The Lord of the Rings series, personal and populist elements mesh, just as they always have in the best Hollywood productions. And you can hate Hollywood and love Hollywood movies, just--as that line in Clerks had it--you can hate people and love parties.

Hostile actors, directors or producers aren't a serious obstacle here in San Jose; besides, these people are, on the whole, too busy to spend much time yelling at critics. And the ruffled-feathered flack--a noisome, squawking bird roosting in the eaves of all newspaper offices--is easily ignored.

However, the angry readers are worth hearing out. What I write gets described as "dissing," meaning an extreme, sometimes fatal, personal insult.

Why did you piss all over Director X, they ask? Actually, what I had in mind was taking the piss out of him. West Coast film critics have to do a lot of mopping up of the hype ladled on by some easily impressed New Yorker, who, by virtue of having a telephone that rings when you dial the 212 area code, is presumed to have the best taste in the country.

In the world of criticism, there should be room for dissent, second guesses and second thoughts. In the arts, as anywhere else, there should be lots of room between hate and love.

I get letters from amateur logicians who make the equation "A: You don't love A Beautiful Mind. B: A Beautiful Mind is a movie. C: Ergo you don't love movies." Never fight insult with silliness, but, God, it's tempting: "I'll tell you why I hate movies--my mother was killed by an usher, that's why!"

What I'd prefer from readers is a specific argument about a specific film. What I get are intense speculations on the personal evil of a fiend who had dry tear ducts during Pay It Forward or American Beauty--a Raskolnikov, a Manson, a Goering, a person who doesn't get laid enough?

I love hate mail, and I read it and want more, more! However, in correspondence, complaints about specifics (say, pointing out that I mistook Claire Danes for Julia Stiles, a dangerous hazard in my field) always beat out a letter writer's psychological detection of personal malaise. Like anyone with a nose, I can smell that the world situation isn't good. I could use more money, a better body and a few more vacations, but who couldn't?

Being called cynical is OK with me. Neo-innocence, even new and improved post 9/11 neo-innocence, is not my thing. That's probably why I'm allergic to the work of Annie Lamott, Paul Auster, Jim Jarmusch--the list goes on.

Who doesn't go to the movies with hopes of happiness, distraction and elevation?. Yet so many of them are thrown together, with the idea of a payoff for everyone involved--except the viewer. There are 14 sequels and one prequel scheduled for this summer at the theaters, perhaps a new record.

While the number of sequels and remakes increases every year, some small films can be just as deadly--those overheated indies, featuring an actor testing the limits of his instrument: it's like listening to a drum solo for an hour and a half. Between bad Hollywood and bad indiewood, there's a lot of bad.

Quantum physics is rewriting the laws of the universe. Yet sci-fi writer Theodore Sturgeon's Law is inviolable: "90 percent of everything is crap." In other words, it's the top 10 percent that makes it all worthwhile. Sturgeon's Law stands in the art of film, despite the digital cameras and editing that were supposed to pave the way for a new cinema untainted by editing, rethinking or thought in the first place.

Is It Only a Movie?

Long ago, I learned that writing about movies was like writing about religion, politics and Motherhood. The subject is naturally controversial. People say, "It's only a movie." But that's a lie, like telling some lovelorn friend, "She's only a girl; there's plenty of girls." If it's "only a movie," why do people get so mad when you tell them that you thought a movie they loved wasn't really any good?

Obviously there's more going on than most people are willing to acknowledge. They haven't fully understood our beloved and dangerous invention the movies: how they don't just entertain and divert, but how they influence and sometimes corrupt.

In the movies, we can have the dead with us again. We can see before us the world as it was 1,000 years ago or will be 10,000 years from now, or as it never was. We can see corners of the planet we'll never see in person. We can preserve the comforting small details of our lives, just like those pieces of graffiti scrawled on a Roman wall that lasted two millenia. And who can say how long today's images will last? Will there be movies in a 1,000 years, and what will posterity think about the films we make today?

It's not that everyone who makes a little film about their forlorn love life ought to feel that eternity is looking over their shoulder. I'm not saying, as critic Cyril Connolly did, that an artist who isn't ready to create a masterpiece ought to quit, since there is so much underachievement around in the arts already. I'm trying to make people realize that movies have an extraordinary power. So much power, indeed, that expressing a little disappointment befits the importance of the art as a whole.

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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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