By John H. Foote
Most of my time at TIFF is spent in screening rooms with other film critics from around the globe. Some I have gotten to know over the years and we see each other once a year, swap films we liked and did not, and move on, nodding to one another between screenings, sharing texts or emails during the festival. A handful I happily meet for coffee or even dinner, and others I avoid as though they were lepers.
Being a film critic is all I ever wanted to be, my passion for film runs deep and I do not remember a time in my life when I did not love film. I understand it is not like that for everyone, some critics see their work as just a job and they approach it passionless, as though they were eating a meal.
Others have decided they are more important than the films they see.
Still, others give their opinions sternly, as though they were the voice of God speaking from on high, their opinions to be carved in stone.
Yet, even more, are kiss asses to the studios, hoping it might get them close to the stars.
For sheer indulgence, here is a breakdown of how I see film critics.
The key to attending a film festival is knowing your schedule, know the films you want to see, hydrate, rest when you can, hydrate, and sleep when you can.
Did I mention water….lots of water? My backpack is weighed down with the thick programme book, a notepad, pens, a novel I am reading, and three bottles of water. That is all I need in my pack. Anything else makes it too heavy.
Carry a charged cell phone but make sure you turn it off in the cinema or mute all functions. You are an instant leper if it goes off.
If you have family or friends in the city, stay with them. Hotel living is lonely. I have stayed with my cousin and loved it, this year with my eldest daughter and we are having a blast…I think. Their cat wakes me up, but it is a small price to pay to hang with my girl. Her boyfriend is a cool dude too, so no issues.
Finally, be ready to accept being alone a lot of the time. I am OK with that because I actually prefer it. Just be ready for it because a lot of people cannot handle it.
Believe it or not, a film festival is hard work. You see four films a day, sometimes five, you move from cinema to cinema between films, you check cell messages, write when you have time, listen to others and read between films, you stay alert at each film to take it all in, you go back to wherever you are staying, you write for two hours, go to bed and do the same thing all over again. It is madness, but I love it, live for it. By the time it ends I will have seen 30 or more films, have extraordinary pain in my legs, but be sated for movies…for at least a week.
Here are the critic types I have observed.
THE ROOKIE, THE FIRST TIMER, THE NEW GUY OR GIRL — Wide eyed, face in their schedule as they move from film to film like a baby lamb in the barnyard for the first time, thrilled to be wearing a press pass, thrilled that they are part of the group granted press access to this great festival. They often get lost, or go to the wrong cinema, they often like to chat with the critic beside them, and are hurt when they get a stony response, the chance is the person speaks no English. They often go to the wrong cinema, they often stand for an hour in the wrong line before realizing it, they make mistakes. They go into the bathroom and dance in line because there is always a line and they have waited too long. They look at the bright lanyards around our necks hoping to encounter a critic they have read for years or that they might have heard of. When they speak to them, they are usually disappointed (I was). When they sit down for the first time with the star of a film or director, they are star struck and stumble for words. If they spot a star or director attending a film, they silently roil inside, wanting to run over for a quick selfie (ill-advised) or just to tell them how much they love them (also not advised). The key to remembering they are just people too is to remember they too go to the bathroom. We were all this person once, but just once. You are a kid in a candy store (thanks Alan) but only for a short time, otherwise, you are laughed at and become more entertaining than the film. Once again, and with a smile, we have all been there.
THE TRUE FILM LOVER — I hope I fit into this category. I come here for the movies, not to bag interviews though if offered I will interview someone who interests me. I no longer seek out interviews, they cut into the time I could be watching films. My love of film is well documented, I need prove nothing about that, and I do not believe I am a film snob. Unpretentious, approachable, honest, friendly, these are my favourite critics. Roger Ebert was such a man. Everyone has their opinion, in a way we are all critics, I happen to think I am right and nothing you say will convince me otherwise, but I will listen to your argument. Always, and respect your opinion and right to have it. Do not try and change my mind, it is made up, and I offer you the same courtesy and respect. Critics can disagree and be friends. My cousin Alan, who writes for this site, and I often disagree, but there are no fist fights, no arguments, he likes what he likes, I like what I like. I met a lovely man yesterday, in his seventies, Pearce, a radio host who loved film, loves art, and was exactly the kind of critic I love talking too. Yesterday I sat beside Gina, equally lovely, much better looking than anyone else in the cinema, smart, engaging and in love with all things cinema. We talked until the film started and then grabbed a coffee afterwards, and then went to a film thing together. Meeting again today … critics connect. I am a film critic because it is all I ever wanted to be; my love for film is more of an obsession. My beautiful wife, who passed six years ago called movies John’s heroin, his one true addiction. Maybe, but I was pretty addicted to her too.
THE CRITICS WHO ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN THE FILMS…JUST ASK THEM! — Pretentious, arrogant, bombastic, they like to hear the sound of their own voice filling the theatre so the entire crowd can hear. They are phony, ridiculous critics who, truth be told, no one can stand. They know who you are and will look right through you because they are more important in their own mind than you are, but then they are more important than anyone at the festival. They grant their approval of a film as though they were granting life, and though they have not ever done a creative thing in their life, they crucify the films they dislike quite forgetting that no one, ever, sets out to make a bad film. They are elitist fools, and everyone knows them and knows what they are. They usually sit with a group in order to have an audience to hear them speak. They always gripe about having to stand in line, they gripe about their seat, they gripe about every single aspect of their adventure at TIFF. Last but not least, if a film is beloved, they are sure to hate it…just to be contrary. Reminder to them, we are here because of the films, the films are not here because of us. Rex Reed are you listening??
THE CRITIC WHO SPEAKS FROM MOUNT SANAII — One step above the elitist critic above, if possible, this one believes their word is law and everyone else is a fool if they do not get in line. Believe them, trust them, only them. Did Hitler and Trump not say that? These critics possess every trait the critic above does, but their arrogance is blinding, they treat the festival and cinema staff poorly, and are always happy to berate one of the orange-shirted hard-working volunteers who make the festival run as smoothly as it does. They will not go see studio made films, only Danish Indies about a couple eating corn, or a documentary about Chinese bowel movements. Art, you see, only art, and anything popular, loved by the masses can never be art. Obviously they have never heard of The Godfather (1972)? Art.
THE JADED VETERAN — Cynical, often jaded, perhaps close to retirement, they have attended too many festivals, seen too many films and no longer enjoy it. They wear a constant scowl, grunt a greeting if they know you, and are unpleasant to be around because their bad mood is toxic and easy to catch. They have forgotten likely more than most of us know about film and festivals, but they are loathe to share because they have little regard for humanity. I genuinely like a lot of these people, but I choose not to be around them for too long. Somewhere along the line they stopped loving films and it has become just a job to them. How sad, because at one point they truly loved film, you can hear it in their voice when they speak or see it in their eyes when they discuss a period of time when film still meant something to them. Not any more … if I ever get like this, shoot me, put me out of my misery so I do not bring misery to others.
THE STUDIO KISS ASS — Often young, but not always, often new, but not always, they are also referred to as studio or junket whores. Their primary goal while here is to get as close to the stars as they can, round table and one-on-one interviews, swag, brunch, they take and take and take. Chances are you see them wearing the T-shirts of a film they support, or a hat, or carrying something with the title of the film loudly screaming. They attend the films but likely spend as much time in the PR offices of the studios. They are often quoted in the movie ads, often meaning all the time because they have not ever seen a film they disliked. Or if they have they would not admit such. They are like harpy chipmunks whose eyes glaze over at the chance of meeting a star or director. They hound the already overworked and very busy publicists to the point of annoying them, and think they are being coy or cute. Nope. Not even a little.
THE PARTY ANIMAL — If they were not so blatantly stupid I would feel sorry for them. It cannot be fun. They are here to review the films, but they just cannot help themselves, they love the parties. As we get invited to just about all of them, and our pass helps us get in the door, I get that it is an easy temptation. When I was younger, sure I attended some of them but found out very quickly they zap the strength out of you, impact your sleep, and if you indulge in alcohol, often give you a hangover. No thanks. You can spot them, often wearing the same clothes they did the day before, they might have slept in them. They are downing black coffee after black coffee, their eyes are red, they look beat up, exhausted, and yet they will go back for more. Much more. You see them scampering out of the theatre often to hit the bathroom to do God knows what. Nope, I like to see the whole movie thanks. I have seen these critics leave the theatre, never to return, and then post or publish a review. Not cool. Just so not cool.
THE FOOD OR SPORTS WRITER PROMOTED (OR DEMOTED) TO FILM CRITIC — They know nothing about film, nothing. They have not seen Citizen Kane (1941), they are a walking disaster. You know them when you encounter them. They are usually scouring Variety, The Hollywood Reporter or Screen International reading reviews to know what they should think. These are the critics who pick your brain before the film and stay through the end, trying to get you to tell them what you thought so they know what they are supposed to think. Research, Ben Mulroney…research.
THE LUNKHEADS — Twice this year I have bashed into, or rather had them bash into me while walking through the jammed lobby on the Scotiabank Cinemas because they are speeding through with their head down, faces buried in the cell phone. I am handicapped, I walk with a cane, but am a pretty solid guy. One lady bounced off and landed on her back, stunned, but realizing how stupid she had been, apologizing profusely. Another was a guy who also was cell occupied, who also dropped to his back bouncing off, but nearly taking me with him. If not for the help of the guy behind me I would have gone down. He said nothing, not a word, just stood up and hurried off. Dumbass. I especially enjoy trying to navigate the busy lobby as critics scurry from film to film as other critics or studio folk congregate right in the middle to have a chat or quick meeting. Jesus people!!!! Keep moving!!!! Next, the noisy eaters, or gum chewers, or finger lickers, disgusting, it makes me ill to hear someone chew, to hear them crush, smack their lips, chew with their mouth open and then worst of all noisily lick their fingers … it makes me want to vomit. The cell phone obsessed are the same ones who foolishly go into their phone during a movie, drawing the ire of all those in the cinema I watched a woman this year hide herself under her coat to check messages!! There was a time when we did not have cell phones…how I long for it. Last one…though it has not happened this year, I am waiting for the escalator at the theatres to go out, the one coming down, it always does. And the able-bodied run, not walk, to the elevator, forgetting there are handicapped critics who need that damned elevator much more than they do. I can do the stairs, it is just that there are three stories of stairs and the next day the pain in my legs will be howling.
THE GUY JUDGING, WHO KNOCKS OTHER CRITICS — Oh wait a minute …
One of Canada’s best-known film critics, he spent 10 years on TV as co-host of Reel to Real, and another 10 in education (still writing as a critic) as Director of the Toronto Film School, where he created the curriculum for three programs and taught film history. Film has always been his passion. He has written for magazines such as Toronto Life, Fashion and Hollywood North, been quoted in the Los Angeles and New York Times, as well as the major Toronto dailies. Online he has written for such sites as The Wrap, In Contention, Awards Circuit and The Cinemaholic. His first book Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker, was published in 2010. His second Steven Spielberg: American Film Visionary, a massive volume, has just found a publisher and he’s working on American Film Renaissance – 1967-2018 with Nick Maylor. As a critic, he has had the good fortune to interview directors and stars such as Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Clint Eastwood, Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Tom Cruise, Robert Duvall, Emma Stone, Jane Fonda, and countless others. As he quips, “Everyone but Jack Nicholson!”