A few years ago I developed a fear of movies. I was working as a movie critic at the time (as I still am), so it posed a problem. I was then the Listings Editor at my paper, writing about films on my days off and at night. I was still making my bones in the film section, which meant I had to go to a lot of movies my higher-ups didn’t want to see themselves, often just for a “blurb,” the short, 75-word reviews that appeared in the movie listings. I would often have to see these after the films opened, with a general audience, as some companies wouldn’t screen films for us in advance. I always put these off until Monday or Tuesday night (the deadline was Wednesday), so I would end up having to go to the movies straight from work.
This doesn’t sound that bad, but in the dead of winter, when you’re tired from data-entry all day (which my job basically was), trudging up the steep, icy hills from Old Montreal to downtown, eating in a food court, and then going alone to see Angel Eyes or Pokémon 2000 or something else that the world has by now justifiably forgotten, felt like a grim labour.
This was where the fear, which had emerged quietly out of the shadows, was at its height. As the lights would go down I would start to feel nervous, jumpy, irrational. I would feel panicky, like I was on the verge of being overwhelmed, being physically hurt, or drowned somehow, by what I was about to see.
I’ve put a lot of space between myself and those times so my memories of what exactly I felt are a little indistinct, perhaps intentionally so. I’ve never talked about it to anyone, or written about it, until now. I don’t know what brought on these little anxiety attacks whenever the lights went down and I don’t know why they stopped. (They just gradually ebbed away.) But it seemed right to reveal this now, this feeling I haven’t thought about in a long time. Because somehow, I think beneath the experience of being in a movie theater, especially alone, there’s always a little current of fear, of losing yourself completely to the entity of light on the screen.. I don’t think that whatever instinct prompted that feeling is entirely bad or worth abandoning completely.
I see most movies by myself. In the morning I go to press screenings, which are usually scheduled to start at 10 a.m., but which are always a little later than that. Those are usually populated by a handful of critics, usually around a dozen or so, and who seem to me like characters from a Tintin book (the guy with the florid gray moustache who always sits in the front row, the gypsy-looking elderly woman who used to smoke in the theater, the unfailingly courtly and sweet Argentinian radio personality). Since my morning ritual involves a dissolvable vitamin supplement and lots of green tea, I always need at least one bathroom break during these screenings, and the mental calculus I perform to figure out the optimum moments to run out of the theater can be agonizing. Seeing movies in the morning used to be disorienting, strange, even alienating, but I’ve since gotten used to the ritual. (For a while I suspected it had made me partial to relaxed movies with gentle rhythms, not offensive to my irritable morning mood.)
Sometimes I go to sneak preview screenings at night. There’s always a handful of writers at these, but the theaters are usually full of people who have won tickets from radio station giveaways and newspaper contests. (There’s also a gang of guys who are somehow in the know about every sneak preview and go up to people as they redeem their coupons if they have an extra ticket. These people are pushy and weird.) The best thing about these screenings is seeing a new movie with an excitable audience. The worst thing is the prize giveaways beforehand, hosted by local radio DJs, and which usually involve bringing a handful of little kids to the front of the stage and quizzing them on Holocaust trivia or something.
And occasionally I get “screeners” (DVD copies) of movies sent to me. Some writers love these; I hate them. They’re always stamped with timecode or some sort of anti-privacy message, the video and sound quality always sucks. And for whatever reason I find it very difficult to concentrate on a video if it’s for work.
I never take notes. I’m a really bad note-taker. I rely entirely on my memory, which is generally pretty good. Nowadays any concrete plot or casting details I need to verify can be found on IMDB; it’s the impressions the movie leaves on me, impossible to jot down in a notebook in the dark, that are important to retain. I recognize that my job is basically telling people how I think they should spend their entertainment dollar every weekend, but what I try to convey, ideally, is my experience of seeing a movie—what it felt like to me, what surprised or excited or dismayed me. The trick is to convey just enough of my own personality without letting the article become about me (I rarely say “I” unless it’s to really hammer home a point or a punchline). My “self” needs to sort of side-step out, always in the background, always just suggested, never getting in the way of the film I’m talking about.
Sometimes I get taken with something and I’m not exactly sure why, like the opening images of Roman Polanski’s The Ghost Writer, a practically wordless (and character-less) scene on a ferry that somehow enchanted and thrilled me in a way I didn’t quite consciously “get.” I just knew I was going to be completely onboard with this film. I try communicate why exactly I like these scenes or images or characters so much, but often it’s not entirely clear to me. That to me is the most fun part of criticism: interrogating my own reactions, trying to understand myself better and somehow communicate that in words.
* * *
At a festival a some years ago I was invited to a dinner celebrating Italian cinema at a fancy restaurant. Within seconds of arriving I realized I was both embarrassingly underdressed and unequipped to communicate with most of the party, who all spoke Italian and very little English. Luckily I was seated next to an Italian newspaper journalist, working for her paper’s Canada bureau, who I could converse with. She was covering the festival at the time, but her beat wasn’t limited to movies. She had been stationed in Kosovo, reported in on war crimes trials at the Hague, sat in on the indictment of Slobodan Milosevic.
She asked me what I wrote about; I explained that I largely covered movies and food. Fixing me with a skeptical gaze that I can only describe as very Italian, she delivered a brief and devastating verdict on my life that I have never been able to really shake. “All you write about,” she said, “is pleasure.”