My late father-in-law, a salt-of-the-earth South Dakotan who lived most of his life in that state, had a career in hardware: first running a Coast-to-Coast store in Yankton, S.D., then joining the Coast-to-Coast corporate structure, for which he traveled in the midwest.
And here I came, wanting to marry his only daughter who, at the time, was a city planner for the city of Sioux Falls. As he understood it, I planned to help support us by working … as a movie critic?
Never mind that, at that moment, I was employed as the all-purpose entertainment editor/critic for the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, the largest newspaper in four states. (OK, so those states were North Dakota, South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming — you take comfort where you can.) I was covering everything that came to town, which meant reviewing each week’s new films (along with the community theater, the local symphony orchestra and whatever B-list touring acts and shows rolled west on I-90).
It was apparent, however, that being a film critic was where my true passion resided.
“Tell me once,” he reportedly said to my mother-in-law, “how he’s going to make a living watching movies.”
It’s a fair question, one I’m still chuckling about 35 years later, as I survey a landscape from which regularly paying film-critic jobs are vanishing almost as quickly as the audience for a physical daily newspaper. Unfortunately, my father-in-law died far too young, six months after our wedding, the victim of a massive coronary. But he has been on my mind the past few weeks as I considered closing up the review and interview section of this website.
Which I am now doing, after seven years and more than 1,800 posts. In the future, you can find my capsule reviews here.
If you’ve paid attention at all, you’ve noticed that I haven’t posted anything new here since the beginning of October. That led to an exchange of texts with my son a couple of weeks ago:
Him: …you know you’ve only posted one thing on your site in the last month?
Me: Think anyone noticed?
Him: Your number one fan did: me
*audience: hoots hollers dies of laughter*
Which should tell you something about the slightly twisted nature of our relationship.
The point being that, while I had stopped doing the work, mentally I was still just taking a break. Until I finally realized that, no, I was actually going to stop.
I launched this website in 2008 (with more help than I can ever repay to my web wizard, Stan Krome — firstcrescent.com), because I missed having an outlet where I could write at length about movies and the people who make them. At that point, I was (and still remain) the film/TV critic for Star magazine (on a freelance basis), and did enough free-lance movie-feature writing for the New York Daily News to keep me happy.
When the Daily News made a cutback in its freelance budget (and a shift in the kind of material it seemed to want), I still had the urge and the energy to write at length on a daily basis about film, a habit I acquired during 30 years of writing for daily newspapers.
I still have most of that energy, but I no longer have the urge. I came of age as a journalist during the Nixon years, leading into Watergate, which reached its climax shortly after I graduated from college. Intoxicated by the New Journalism and the adventures of Woodward and Bernstein, I went to work as a true believer in journalism, because I saw it as a calling.
I tried to bring that same zeal to entertainment writing, which was a passion from an early age. I’ve been writing reviews for newspapers since I was 18, working as a journalist full-time since I was 23 (minus a few months here and there of unemployment, the consequence of being fired from my first three jobs). I had thoughts and ideas that I felt a need to express about movies, popular music, theater, TV — whatever it was, I approached it as though it had the potential to transform the world in which we lived.
I had that true-believer excitement for a long time, that conviction that the success and failure of certain films or rock groups or TV shows were a measure of the worth of the society itself. It all mattered to me a lot more back then.
Yes, I still consider it a travesty that “Forrest Gump” beat “Pulp Fiction” and “Quiz Show” for best picture — but I no longer want to pitch a fit in print about it. There are those who still would. And don’t get them started on “Dances with Wolves” and “Goodfellas” — or, God forbid, “Ordinary People” and “Raging Bull.”
Not me. At least not anymore.
I still love movies. I love watching and re-watching them, championing and sharing them with other people. And so I’ll keep the commentary section of this website semi-active, to write about film festivals I attend and the films I see there.
But, for the most part, after almost 50 years of spouting off in print, I’m a little tired of the sound of my own voice. It’s not that I don’t have opinions — strong opinions, as critics must. It’s that I no longer feel the need to share those opinions with strangers by putting them into writing. I’ll leave this website up, as a kind of archive of films from 2008-2015, for anyone who’s interested.
That compulsion to express an opinion fits a theory about people in my field that I’ve been developing for a few years: that we are born with what I refer to as “the critical gene,” which compels us to look at everything through an analytical (and, often, judgmental) lens — and then express an opinion about it.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a clerk in an office, a dock worker or a doctor in a clinic: If you have this gene, well, sorry but you’re the guy every boss hates because you can always find fault. On the other hand, if you can find someone to pay you to focus those opinions on movies (or music or books or whatever else you want critique in words), then you’re a critic.
I recently turned 65 but have no interest in retiring. Amazingly, I’ve had a career where, in fact, someone continues to pay me to think and write about movies. Somewhere, my father-in-law is shaking his head and smiling.
Thanks for reading.
— Marshall Fine