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Friday
Aug302013

Legitimacy (Or Something Like It)

"It's an uphill battle. No, you might not win.
And if you get knocked down you must begin again."

--Baptized By Fire, "Juggernaut"

On December 15, 2012, I received my third consecutive rejection letter from the Online Film Critics Society. I've excerpted the text here, exactly as it was sent to me:

Looking at your applications, the quantitative metrics (at least 100 reviews in the last 2 years with a minimum of 400 words each and evidence of ongoing work) are balanced against the subjective qualities of professional site design and meaningful contribution to film criticism. We will not provide the exact vote count of your rejection. The commentary listed below, where noted, is directly copied from actual comments submitted by our talent scouts. Note that only perfunctory editing was carried out on these comments and they are presented largely as they were provided to us. We will caution you now that some of these comments are rather frank and some may be brutal. We would encourage you to look at them as less an attack on you personally and more as a guideline for where improvements can be made.
Of the specified metrics we use to determine eligibility, site design and contribution to film criticism were most frequently cited as issues.

COMMENTS:
  • There are brief passages of Ian's writing that are very well-written, but they are all encased within lengthy, repetitive reviews that go on without making an impact. Ian spends too much time on plot synopsis, I think, and then stresses certain points to redundancy. His tone is also more of an amateur blogger than professional critic.; If Ian works to trim the fat from his reviews and hone them into clear and concise pieces, I would encourage him to reapply in the future.
  • Blog-level writing, nothing to recommend.
  • Isn does a decent job, but he has to think that sometimes it is better to write fewer paragraphs for the idea to be conveyed has a more powerful
  • On the whole, the writing is too gimmicky and flippant for serious reviews. This applicant has an intense workload, especially recently, though in my experience I've seen reviewers reach this level but not be able to keep it up.

Not even the irony of the judges' misspellings and incomplete sentences could cheer me up. I was officially a three-time loser, as far as the OFCS was concerned. Worse yet, my annual resolve to get up and try again was stopped short when the membership committee announced a series of new rules for 2013. In particular, I was ineligible to apply during the next round because I'd been rejected too often. I'd have to wait a full year to try and get back in.

Lost, tired, and angry, I nearly gave into the attractive little whisper that swings by my head at least once a week. He encourages me to delete Kicking the Seat; not to stop producing content, but to erase it from the Internet outright. This same voice has been with me all my life, constantly working to sabotage my creative endeavors, and its influence has rarely been so soothing, so persuasive as in those dark, wintry moments.

Fortunately, that voice is not nearly as loud and convincing as my wife's, who read me the riot act when I mistakenly opened up about these feelings. After all, she's the one who suggested I start writing about movies in the first place, as a form of constructive anger management (my rant about Julie & Julia nearly ended our marriage, but gave birth to the blog that started this all). Were I to scrap everything on a self-pity whim, all the hours I'd spent away from family--not to mention the thousands upon thousands of dollars I'd spent going to the movies several times a month--would've meant nothing.

I kept plugging away, and found that the old cliche is true: work hard enough, long enough, and eventually doors will open--some of which you may have only ever seen as walls.

Fast-forward to March. Through a great correspondence relationship with Buck LePard of Chicago's Music Box Theatre, I was granted access to an official critics' screening of Room 237 at the famous Lake Street Screening Room downtown. I was the first one there, having arrived more than half-an-hour early; I pulled up a seat in the back of the tiny auditorium, right next to a small wooden table with an old white office phone sitting on it.

By the way, thanks for reading all of this so far. I promise you, there's a point coming up soon(ish)...

More critics settled in, including a guy wearing sunglasses who pulled up next to me, on the opposite side of the table. Realizing we still had about twenty minutes before showtime, he announced an impromptu food-run, and asked if anybody wanted anything. We each politely declined.

On his return, he dug into a salad and asked me, "You must be Ian Simmons." I was stunned, until I realized he'd simply read the sign-in sheet in the lobby, and recognized me as the one person he didn't...um, recognize. He asked me where I was from, who I wrote for. He told me about the white phone, which pre-Internet critics would fight over, so they could be the first to call in their thoughts to whatever paper they wrote for. Apparently, this happened a lot between Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, in whose chairs we were sitting.

There was something very familiar about this guy, but I couldn't be sure if my hunch was right. Ours was one of those weird conversations where, in the middle, both parties realize formal introductions have not yet been made. He said his name was Dann Gire, and a light bulb went off in my head.

"Aren't you the president of the Chicago Film Critics Association?" I asked.

"Yes, I am. You should consider joining."

I nearly fell out of my seat. Here was the Willy Wonka of Chi-town film critics, inviting me to tour his magical chocolate factory. In an instant, I became self-conscious. I told him I'd looked into the CFCA years ago, but hadn't applied because I wasn't a paid, professional movie critic. Undeterred, Dann explained that recently, the organization had been talking about broadening its definition of "professional" to accommodate the rapidly evolving and influential world of Internet criticism. He also said I should reach out to him mid-summer for information on throwing my hat in the ring.

I did just that, and submitted my membership application a little over a month ago. Even that was fraught with drama, as that whisper began hissing in my ear again. The intervening months had been difficult, with minor controversy brewing over some rather strong opinions I've expressed about films big and small, and a general sense that I was perhaps not qualified to write about movies.

Maybe I really was just a blogger.

Fortunately, in addition to my wonderful wife, I also have a pair of great friends in Matt Lazar and Graham Sher. They've joined me in weekly roundtable discussions on the KtS Podcast since before summer began. Our collective enthusiasm renewed my drive, forcing me to devote more time and passion to the site (recording, editing, and posting episodes each week is not slouch-work).

I've also learned that self-doubt can be a good thing. Because I am who I am, my opinions are going to clash with majority consensus most of the time. This isn't contrarian posturing, merely a realization based on a pretty rough year. Though it's lonely as hell being the constant outsider, I can't let the desire to be liked or respected by everyone compromise the spirit of my writing. The trade-off, of course, is that I need to temper some of my more extreme assertions and find a way to be fair and not just funny.

So, what happened to that membership application? The one I almost didn't turn in?

Sure, we can pull over again--but just for a moment...

One of the criteria for consideration in the CFCA is a letter written on company stationery by the editor of whatever publication employs the applicant--one that attests to the applicant's status as the primary film critic of said publication. On a whim, I decided that this unfortunate brick wall could be brought down with a bit of imagination and a whole lot of chutzpah: I'd simply write a third-person testimonial for myself--full of passion, humor, and truth--and print it out at home, using a KtS letterhead I'd created a few years ago. The whisper had a ball with this one:

You're screwed! Just give up already! Save yourself the embarrassment and postage!

A few days later, as I dropped the cardboard mailer in the giant post office drum, I wondered if I had a shot at getting in. Probably not, I reasoned. But at least I wouldn't spend the next several months wondering, "What if...?"

As you may have guessed by the tone of this piece, I have officially been accepted as a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association, a collective of Chicagoland's premiere print, broadcast, and Web critics--which somehow now includes me.

What does this mean? I have no idea. Possibly more access to early screenings, interviews, and the like. Or maybe I just don't have to put "critic" in quotes when I think about what I do with my fleeting free time. It seems I've finally achieved legitimacy, or at least a recognition of my efforts to achieve it.

In addition to thanking everyone I've mentioned above (including, and especially, my faceless accusers at the Online Film Critics Society--who've taught me that sometimes failure is a foot and not just a boot), I would also like to sincerely thank you, my dear, dear readers. Without your support, feedback, and unwarranted indulgence, I would just be another doofus screaming into the wind.

At least now, I'm an official doofus.

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