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Seven steps to taking his job

The Spokesman-Review

Whenever a high school student spends the day with me, one of the first things he or she wants to know is how I do my job.

This is no job, I say. Busing dishes is a job. Washing cars is a job. Putting cover sheets on TPS reports is a job.

(First movie reference: “Office Space,” 1999.)

I review films for a living. I write a books column. I write this column. I write the occasional 7 cover story (as I have this week) and the occasional InLife story. I blog. Where’s the labor in that?

I’d be lying if I said there’s no effort to what I do. But there is a formula to at least one aspect of it, which I’ll be happy to share.

I call it “How to Be a Film Critic in Seven Easy Steps”:

1. Know your subject.

You can’t convince anyone of anything without having some knowledge at your fingertips.

My film education began at age 5 when my sister told me that our aunt and uncle were taking her to see a movie.

You know how older sisters are. She just wouldn’t leave it alone, bragging about how much fun she was going to have, how I couldn’t go because I was so young, blah-blah- blah. I began to feel like Pugsley Addams.

(Second movie reference: “The Addams Family,” 1991.)

So I did what any self-aware brat would do: I began to cry.

What adult can resist that kind of blackmail? Certainly not my aunt and uncle.

2. Know your subject, revisited.

Watch as many movies as you can. But beware: Movies need to be seen in a theater for full effect. Your home television just isn’t big enough for “Son of the Mask,” much less “The Aviator.”

My family loved movies. One of our favorite weekend activities was going to the drive-in. Throughout the 1950s, we saw movies that starred the likes of John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Yul Brynner, Burt Lancaster, Deborah Kerr, Spencer Tracy, Doris Day and Rock Hudson. Too many, really, to count.

One of the most memorable scenes: Jack Lemmon tossing a shrub off the side of a Navy ship.

(Third movie reference: “Mr. Roberts,” 1955.)

As the second feature would come to a close, my two younger brothers would be asleep. But I would sit there, my chin perched on my father’s right shoulder, watching everything up to and including the closing credits.

3. Develop your writing skills.

This is just common sense. As I always tell writing classes, I never was the smartest guy in college. But I could write well enough to fool my instructors.

My brother Randy is one of the smartest people I’ve ever known. He was a teaching assistant for the first film course I ever took, which was why I managed to get a B.

4. Always keep in mind that …

You aren’t working on a Nobel Prize in self-importance. This is about movies, after all, not brain surgery – so there’s no need to make it any more serious than it needs to be.

In that film course, the instructor (Manny Farber) one night interrupted a screening of “Letter to Jane” (1972) to introduce the director, Jean-Luc Godard. Some students yelled at Farber to resume the screening. Farber yelled back. Godard just stood there, smiling like a … (choose your own cliché).

(Fourth movie reference: “Alice in Wonderland,” 1933.)

5. Don’t forget:

State what you believe, but try to give your readers room to have their own opinions – no matter how stupid they might be.

My family is still giving me grief because I gave the Tom Cruise film “Days of Thunder” (1990) a three-star rating. What can I say? Mistakes were made.

6. Construct your review as an essay.

Whatever tack you take, use your review as a way of challenging your readers to see the movie in a different way – or to see different kinds of movies, period.

My daughter, Rachel, and I watched P.T. Anderson’s “Boogie Nights” in 1997 in a Manhattan movie house. When we walked out, feeling overwhelmed by Anderson’s ambitious vision, I heard one New York sophisticate ask her partner, “What the hell was that?”

7. What this has all been leading up to …

Above everything else, present a point of view. And never resort to the simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down style of criticism.

So I got to go to the movie after all. I remember mostly just a big screen full of moving images, the glorious color and a smiling guy playing in puddles.

(Final movie reference: “Singin’ in the Rain,” 1952.)

Oh, and I remember something else that still makes me smile:

My sister sulking in her seat.

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