After seven years writing as the principal film reviewer for New Zealand’s national Sunday newspaper, I have called it a day at the Sunday Star-Times. This decision (actually about a year in the ruminating) has brought with it a tinge of sadness – I’ve been likening it to breaking up with someone you’ve been with for a long time when you know the relationship isn’t quite right any more but it’s hard to let go and there are plenty of reasons to stay. But I’ve also found an immediate sense of peace about letting go. So it’s clearly time.
My film-related blog-post headline is actually quite true: I got into film reviewing at the suggestion of John Davies who was then running the independent Academy Cinemas in town, after I went by myself to see Synecdoche, New York one nondescript evening. John did what few cinema managers do, and introduced the film – albeit in a slightly negative “tell me if you think it’s a bit shit” way – and invited the audience to contact him with their views afterwards. I’d never written a review before, nor expressed my (considerable) opinions in anything more formal than a conversational setting. So it wasn’t until I was back home in bed that night, and thoughts started flooding into my mind in perfectly formed sentences, that I got the bug.
I remember sitting up in bed, putting the light on, and purging my brain of these thoughts via notepad and pen so I could go to sleep. Next morning, I did as John had suggested and sent him an email.
He replied something to the effect that I wrote with a nice energy, or style, or something – something enough to make me feel the warm glow of approval I’ve always craved since childhood and spark in me the notion that maybe thinking about film properly could be a fun thing to do.
So when I next popped into the Academy to watch something, I introduced myself and naively (because I had no idea then how these things work) offered to be “his” (as in the cinema’s) resident reviewer. He explained that’s not really how it’s done, but suggested I start a blog. I went home, hit upon the name Lina Lamont as my moniker, and the rest is history.
But paid reviewing was still a way off, and to be honest going professional didn’t occur to me for a second. I was in a period of my life where I was recently single (one of many such periods, TBH) and seeing a LOT of movies. So I simply started writing reviews of everything I saw when I got home from the cinema. In April 2010, my inaugural month, I published 13 blog posts about many more than 13 films.
I soon found I derived enormous pleasure from writing – the sort of all-immersive enjoyment that makes you forget about eating or drinking or going to bed (three of my usual preoccupations). I loved posting my reviews and occasionally getting comments from readers* (*mostly friends and my mum), but most of all I really enjoyed the process of opinion-writing.
If you’re thinking this is all a bit self-indulgent and who really cares how you got into a cushy job where you get paid to have an opinion, then I hear you – but hear me: now I’m a full-time high school teacher (previously of English, now English and Drama), I’m often asked how I scored such a dream job. And so I tell my kids: I had a passion (for film) and a burgeoning skill (writing my thoughts) and I worked at it for months. And then one day, literally out of the blue, an opportunity arose.
This brings me to the second person I have to thank in this already-over-long Oscar speech: Mark Broatch – then editor of the Culture section of the SST, and an innocent guest at some publisher’s Christmas party when he was accosted by my mother (who worked for years in book retail) and was told “My daughter writes film reviews on the computer”. Mark generously gave out his email address and my proud mother told me next day to send him the link to my blog, which I duly did. Mark was apparently sufficiently inveigled that he invited me for a coffee to chat about film, obviously “got” my energy, and then offered me my first ever publishing gig (if you don’t count my letter to the New Zealand Herald as a teenager lamenting the disparity between drinking and driving age), inviting me to watch several screeners for the Doc Edge festival and write a few hundred words about them.
I thought I’d hit the jackpot – to watch films (for free!) and have my opinions published! But before I could even file my copy on the agreed deadline, Mark offered me the permanent role – two reviews a week, c. 500 words all up (if I remember rightly) – and so it began.
The following seven years has given me extraordinary privileges and opportunities: the film premieres, the several-times-a-week critics’ screenings (and the wonderful friendships I’ve made with my fellow critics), the ability to secure a press pass in order to attend the Cannes Film Festival (admittedly on my own dollar, but getting into those films at 8:30am every day with critics from around the globe is priceless – you can read about that heady 12 days on this blog). I’ve interviewed Andrew Dominik, Andrew Adamson, JJ Abrams. Some guy called Quentin Somethingorother. I travelled to Sydney to speak to Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto. Met the incredible Tahar Rahim at Cannes. Zoe Bell was charming. Brian Cox was affable and had great anecdotes. One film company flew critics from all over New Zealand to Wellington for two nights in a top hotel and the first Hobbit premiere, screened at Park Road Post. I have attended myriad film festivals, written “Must-Sees” and “Best of the Years” lists. I’ve spoken on the radio (notably RNZ, but also 3 smaller, local stations), done three heady stints on breakfast TV (my mum still has two of them saved on MySky). I have been blessed in recent years to work under a very supportive editor, James Croot, who put up with my periodic absences or complaints about Stuff’s typos. And every month I raised a few dollars which became especially important five years ago when I gave up a normal day job and went back to square one to train as a paltry-paid teacher.
Film reviewing has become a large chunk of my identity, and in past years provided me with a great sense of my personal value. Granted, there’s nothing like teaching to give you a real sense of purpose and fulfillment, but let’s be honest – it’s the film reviewing thing that captures strangers’ interest at parties, and it’s the dream job everybody thinks they want.
Sure, the inevitable trolls can get you down, and I’ve been guilty of stewing over ludicrous, anonymous insinuations that I don’t understand why a certain movie is actually good because I a) am a woman, b) don’t “get” sci-fi, or c) had the audacity to give The Last Jedi five stars. And increasingly one starts to believe the old “No one cares what critics think anyway” which usually emanates from the mouths of those I’m pretty sure would love to have my job.
But right til the end I’ve taken this public service seriously and strived to back up my opinions (something we always teach our students) with coherence, a dollop of context and not too much mud-slinging. It’s much more fun writing a bad review (oh boy, is it), but to be credible the 5-star movies have to be heralded without just gushing.
And of course, the opportunity to watch sometimes three movies a week has been a staple part of my relationship with my wonderful, film-loving husband. We’ve been writing our own and reading one another’s reviews for years (he has frequently given feedback on mine late on a filing night) and last week we recorded our first joint podcast, the inaugural episode (our Oscar nominations rant) which can be heard here. Since film makes up a large part of our home-life conversation, we’ll be doing more!
I’ll also continue the pleasurable task of meeting monthly with three fine teacherly minds to compare two films with a connection between on Cinema in Context. And I’ll still be watching, still writing, still reviewing in a more relaxed capacity for whomever asks.
But I’m grateful as anything for the gift of this dream job, just as I am that the time has now come to make space in my life to spend precious time with real, actual people and not just celluloid ones.
If you DO wish to keep up with my musings or pick my brain for advice, come follow me on https://letterboxd.com/linalamont/films/
In the meantime, my final thanks go to YOU, dear reader – I literally couldn’t have done all this writing without knowing someone would read it. Thanks to you, it’s been a blast.