I would submit that O’Hehir’s words are true for 90 percent of the words one might string together in a career: if it ain’t funny, lively, and engaging, it ain’t dick. In film criticism specifically, all the erudition and well-developed theory in the world won’t save you from irrelevance if you forget that your principal task is simply to write well. Or, a O’Hehir puts it, “Reviewing movies is a lot more like performing stand-up comedy than like delivering a philosophy lecture. None of those grand ideas even begin to matter if you're boring and you can't write.”
I loved that my interview last week with Battleship Pretension hosts Tyler Smith and David Bax [transcript] turned into a pretty respectably in-depth discussion of criticism itself. I asked them what, in an environment crammed full of film bloggers, film podcasters, and plain old film reviewers, they listen for most in voices discussing cinema. It seemed to come down to not necessarily knowledge, not necessarily intellectual acumen, but personality.
Then it dawned on me: of course — that’s why I listen to their show too! That’s why I listen to all the podcasters and broadcasters I listen to. That’s why I read all the writers and bloggers I read. That’s, in a less direct but no less valid way, why I watch the filmmakers I watch. (It’d be true for vloggers too, if I ever watched vlogs.) I won’t go so far as to say that personality is all, but it now seems obvious to me that, without personality, nothing else — however much you have of it — matters.
Naturally, I make such a big deal of this because I so often fail at having a personality myself. That’s not to say that I don’t possess one — though the matter remains up for debate — but that I don’t convey one. I might have picked up that ill-serving habit through commercial radio announcing, which is all about getting in, maintaining a tone, reading song titles off the monitor, and getting out. You’ll notice commercial radio isn’t a particularly booming industry these days.
Whenever one quashes their own personality in the sort of media that needs it most, I tend to suspect, as Tyler Smith said in our interview, that they want desperately to sound like they know what they’re talking about. We all run this risk from time to time. The probable consequence is a reaction from the audience much the same as the one Smith described himself as having to most other film podcasts: “Wow! You've managed to bore me about the subject I love most. That's really quite a feat!”
Ultimately, I’ve never thought to myself, “Wow, this guy knows so much!” and then become a dedicated fan. I have thought, “Wow, this guy’s so engaging!”, and dedicated fandom followed. Indeed, most of my favorite people to read, watch, hear, etc. probably know far less about the subjects that most interest me than I do. Maybe that’s all that needs to be said on this subject.