Long Takes: A world without blurbs

July 17, 2014

Editor’s note: on July 3rd, 2014, Toronto alt-weekly The Grid published its 162nd—and final—issue. Jason Anderson was The Grid’s chief film critic for its entirety, and wrote for Eye Weekly since its debut in 1991.

Film criticism at the end of print (or maybe just The Grid)

by Jason Anderson

Eye Weekly’s first issue: October 10th, 1991. Anderson began writing for Eye the following week.

It’s not like I was always so desperate for a cheap ego boost, but I knew one way to get it. While walking the aisles in the chain video store on the corner—which, like all chain video stores on all corners, is now long gone—I would scan the shelves for titles I’d reviewed in Eye Weekly or, in the years since the paper’s re-launch under a fresh brand, The Grid. When I found movies I had raved about in print—especially titles released on DVD in a Canadian edition, less likely to be automatically festooned with quotes from Ebert or Travers—I’d look to see if the requisite set of excitable blurbs on the back included any of my precious words.

The New York Times typically hogged the prime real-estate, but every so often I’d score. I’d sometimes have to overlook the fact that it wasn’t actually my name, Seinfeld’s Jason Alexander having once again claimed credit for my achievements. Other times, I would cringe to see how easily my high praise could be so reduced to one drab adjective. I preferred to see my painstakingly-constructed hyperbole transformed into gibberish. According to the old Alliance sleeve for Maelstrom, I was apparently moved to describe Denis Villeneuve’s film as “starkling beautiful,” a phrase that seems as exquisitely baffling as the movie itself.

Embarrassing as it is to admit to this habit, I get misty at the memory of it. For one thing, it’s part of an increasingly distant past, the act of browsing video store shelves having become another obsolete ritual for dwellers of our digital entertainment realm. I also know that in the off-chance I do find any fresh DVD sleeves with my imprimatur, it will not be followed by “Eye Weekly” or “The Grid,” the two stages of Torstar’s alt-weekly endeavour that kept me busy for much of the past 23 years and ended with The Grid’s final issue in July.

Jason Anderon
The author celebrates with Ken Davitian in Cannes.

As a result, I’m now a part of the ever-growing legion of critics without a regular perch, and with a gloomy outlook on the future of film criticism—at least in terms of its viability as a (slightly, marginally) professional vocation. Certainly anyone who still regards print as the core (read: best-paying) part of their practice has reasons to fret, what with film studios having largely abandoned spending on print advertising and arts sections unlikely to ever regain the pages they’ve shed.

It can feel like an endgame even to the mid-career-but-semi-youthful freelance types like me, who evaded the earlier culls of newspaper staffers but are now imperiled by the similarly grave state of smaller outlets. As for online film critics, reports of the decline of Internet advertising in recent years may leave them feeling as glum as a songwriter who just received a royalty cheque from Pandora.

Yet I keep writing, and writing a lot, though increasingly less of it is about movies. I suspect the movies won’t miss me that much. But when I reflect on the thousands of reviews, features and columns I hammered out for Eye Weekly and The Grid, I realize that the work that meant the most to me—or felt like they had value in the film culture I most cared about—was the support I gave to those films and events that have been the first to be squeezed out. These are the marginal releases, one-off events, idiosyncratic festivals, and other termite activities that give Toronto’s cinematic ecosystem a vitality and character that persists despite the weekly barrage of American studio product.

Thankfully, I can continue to write about that periphery in my “Projections” column in The Toronto Star. I can otherwise take solace in the knowledge that I’ve sometimes been useful to the nameless interns who assembled those blurbs. I find it telling that on most of the occasions I found my name on a DVD, it was on a Canadian movie or a foreign title that rarely got the attention it deserved. This may be another self-indulgence, but it pleases me to believe that the five-star rating I gave to Songs from the Second Floor (“The most ingenious film comedy since Being John Malkovich”) inspired a few more browsers to take it home from Blockbuster. That is, until I went to the store’s closeout sale and bought the only copy.