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Film Critic Jay Carr Offers Advice to Aspiring Writers

By Chelsea Greene
On April 29, 2003

When Diana Potter told Jay Carr that she was planning to introduce him to the group he replied, "Poor you." Quite the contrary, however; the students and faculty who showed up to hear the accomplished film critic's presentation in the Allen K. Smith Writing Center on Tuesday, April 22 were in store for an entertaining and informative discussion. Indeed, Jay Carr's life, and the steps he took between a college newspaper and a twenty-year career reviewing film and the arts for The Boston Globe, unfold like a Hollywood narrative; he describes his journey as a series of "lucky breaks," but his control of language and entertaining style suggest that a little skill may have also contributed to his success. In a review of Conspiracy Theory (starring Mel Gibson and Julia Roberts) for The Boston Globe, Jay Carr exhibits his ability to effectively manipulate language while describing the main character's neuroses; "It wanders freely from fluoridization as a method of mass enslavement... to black helicopters buzzing everywhere, undetected because they're on whisper mode.

Jerry makes Travis Bickle seem a poster boy for rational, sequential thought" (Carr, 08/08/97). In less than 35 words Carr gives his reader concrete examples of Jerry's conspiracy theories, and also recalls a famous film icon to create a stronger impression of the character; after having written thousands of film reviews Carr knows never to waste words.

Considering his success it might come as a surprise that Carr's first newspaper job was not as a critic, but as a police reporter. He describes the job as, "one of the hardest writing jobs you can get," but he also recognizes the skills that he learned. "I was a really bad police reporter...basically I just was really bad at talking to cops." The writer thanks older, more experienced police reporters for "saving his ass" as he learned to study the crime scenes more carefully, much like he would later study the scenes of thousands of films.

Jay Carr is either a modest man, or a writer whose talent has taken a lifetime to develop; perhaps he is both. "When I started writing reviews, they were terrible, too. But I knew that I wanted to be a critic. When you're a columnist there are days you have nothing to say, and it shows. When you're a critic, your subject is always right in front of you." He had two main suggestions for aspiring critics; first, write 500 bad reviews, eventually you'll find your voice, and you'll learn the history, and you'll master the language; second, trust your viewing of a film.

When asked by a writing professor about his "revision process," Mr. Carr grimaced. "I never answer this question the way teachers want me to," he said. He answered honestly that he rarely has time to write more than one draft of a review before it is due. It takes discipline to watch a film closely, and then write a concise balance of summary and analysis. This is why he believes so strongly that critics must trust their first impressions of any film they intend to review. "In any film review you only have enough time to write about a few key assets; the elements that you inherently notice about a film will guide your writing."

Jay Carr also edited and co-wrote a book with the National Society of Film Critics called The A-List. The book is comprised of a list of 100 essays about the "top 100 essential films of all time," which were chosen according to "the film's intrinsic merits, its role in the development of the motion-picture art, and its impact on culture and society" However, when asked to name his favorite movie, Carr, like all film lovers, faltered. After a pause he replied, "I love Robert Redford's Quiz Show, it's one of the best films of the last ten years; the way it flip-flops high and low culture, that's brilliant." No "all-time favorite" was ever mentioned.

As he was wrapping up his presentation Carr did briefly mention one of the evil sides of the film critic's world; "there is always some idiot that will a write a good review of a crappy film to get his name on the cover. In a sense, big Hollywood films are immune to criticism...but that's okay; those films are never fun to review anyway."

Just before ending his presentation Carr reminded the group about the three most important steps toward becoming a film critic: "watch a lot of movies, read a lot of reviews by critics you trust, and then just start writing your own." I'm sure that everyone could commit to the first, but who knows, maybe a future writer was in the room that night that might actually follow through.


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