We've Got Hollywood Covered

How I Winnowed 5,000 Reviews Down to Fit Into One Book on Film Criticism

I console myself with the notion that filmmakers usually end up significantly whittling down their ideal cut, so why not film critics?

Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era” is the name of my book — and therein lies the rub.

Thirty years.

How did I go about deciding what goes in? After all, in those 30 years (it’s actually closer to 34, but who’s counting?) I’ve probably written close to 5,000 reviews and essays — about 3 million words altogether, enough for an entire shelf of books.

Five hundred-plus pages for the new tome represents a severe winnowing.

I am the first to admit that the vast majority of my overall output did not cry out for preservation between covers. My criterion for inclusion simple: What pieces am I proudest of?

Because of the vagaries of the profession, I had no illusion that all or even most of the important films from those bygone eras would make an appearance. Some films I didn’t review because I was not in a position to do so — for example, I wasn’t always acting as the first-string critic. Others that were important didn’t necessarily inspire my best wriitng.

I wanted the book to be representative of the finest (and in most cases, not coincidentally, the lengthiest) writing that I could offer up from a lifetime of being a film critic. The pieces in the book (around 140 of them) reflect that desire.

As a chronology of movie eras, the collection is best approached as snapshots in time, written in the heat of the moment. I changed virtually nothing in them, adding a few postscripts in some cases to bring things up to date.

Many pieces came immediately to mind without the need for heavy-duty archival excavations. I knew wanted my essay on “The Night of the Hunter” in there, or my review of Satyajit Ray’s “Home and the World,” or my review of “Sideways,” or my essays on Richard Pryor and Eddie Murphy, or my piece on Quentin Tarantino and movie violence, and so forth. Scanning lists of releases for all those years jogged my memory, too.

I compiled three categories: (1) Must include. (2) Maybe — read over again. (3) Forget it.

For the second category, I ranked the reviews after a quick read, going with my gut response, and rated them on a 10 point scale. From there I did more eliminations.

When the final tally came up, I discovered that the book would need to be pruned, so I let go several dozen pieces. I console myself with the notion that filmmakers usually end up significantly whittling down their ideal cut, so why not film critics? There are pieces I miss in the book but the truth is, I think it’s at a very good length now. (Did I hear someone say sequel?)

There were pieces I felt pretty sure wouldn't be in the book that, in the end, found favor, such as my reviews of "The People vs. Larry Flynt" and Baz Luhrmann's "Romeo + Juliet." Others, such as "Pennies From Heaven" or Spielberg's "The Lost World," upon further examination either weren't quite uip to snuff or else repeated material stated better elsewhere.

Going back over fondly remembered reviews is a bit like going back over fondly remembered old movies. You always reisk confronting your own hazy sentimentality.

Whatever the circumstances, reviewing the writings of such a long a career is daunting. On a practical level, I had to access all those files and yellowing clips from the pre-digital era. It’s also humbling. I can remember very well the circumstances, not infrequently tumultuous, in which many of these pieces were written.

Late-breaking deadlines, grievances personal and professional, world cataclysms, earthquakes, job closures — these are the book’s backstories.

Nothing unusual in any of this, of course. Anybody who has worked at anything through the decades can present a similar scenario. But still: In reading through these pieces again, what I discovered was that I was not so much going back over my writings as going back over my life.

Since film criticism is, or should be, a deeply personal enterprise that draws on everything in one’s life, it makes sense that this is how I would feel. It probably won’t read this way to anybody else, but to me my book is a species of autobiography.

Condensed, of course, into a manageable 200,00 words.


Peter Rainer is the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor, a columnist for Bloomberg News, president of the National Society of Film Critics and a regular contributor to "FilmWeek" on the NPR-affiliate KPCC-FM. He was a finalist in 1998 for the Pulitzer Prize in Criticism and in 2010 was the winner of the best online critic award from the National Entertainment Journalism Association. He has served on the main juries for the Montreal and Venice film festivals. Previous film critic posts include the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Los Angeles Times, New Times Los Angeles and New York magazine. He also wrote and co-produced A&E Biographies on Sidney Poitier and the Hustons.