This Week I Quit Being A Film Critic
The 29th Tokyo International Film Festival was on this past week. For the past three years I’ve covered the festival, seeing 3-4 films a day, attending press conferences and writing reviews. But not this year.
How I Became A Film Critic
The Society For Film was a film review podcast and website I ran with Hong Kong based film critic James Marsh. When we met I was living in Hong Kong, though by the time the podcast took off I had moved to Singapore. Thankfully both cities were (more or less) on the same release schedule for major films, so we always had something to discuss every week, as we recorded over Skype.
In Hong Kong I had a few writing gigs, including my regular column with The South China Morning Post. But, after reaching Singapore I lost the column and had to pass up others because of my dependant visa status (the local authorities used to call me regularly to make sure I wasn’t working).
Preparing for the podcast and writing reviews became my writing gig. It was unpaid, but it was serious. There was pressure, deadlines, and commitments to fulfil. Not only do I love film, but I’ve written about film on and off for a long time. Some of my best academic papers were really stealth film reviews (I got a lot of post-modern mileage out of movies like The Matrix).
The Thing About Side Projects
Every creative person I’ve met has side projects. It’s a natural consequence of having lots of ideas and being curious about the world. With experience we become better at figuring ought how to turn those ideas into reality. Side-projects emerge from our desire to make these passions tangible to others.
And, as long as the side-projects have momentum and can be sustained with a limited time commitment, they can be exhilarating. But, when things start to go wrong, when side-projects start to require more and more time, or become a drag on our emotional energy, they can pull us out of shape.
Early on the time commitment for The Society For Film was contained and the process was fun. A two hour Skype call to record the podcast. The same again to edit and upload the show. A few more hours to write some reviews and of course, the time to watch films I probably would’ve been watching anyway! It added up to about a day a week and an enjoyable day it was!
But, when I moved to Tokyo things progressively got harder. Because of the Japanese cinema release schedule we were seldom watching the same films at the same time. When we were, they were often blockbusters, which are seldom the kind of movies I enjoy watching or discussing. As a result, planning podcasts became a harder, more time consuming task. With less easy banter editing the episodes took longer.
When Too Much Is Too Much
October last year I went to New York feeling burnt out. I had my core working projects, as well as side projects like The Society, but I didn’t feel like any of them were going well. I was burning a lot of emotional energy just trying to figure out where to focus. There were monsters lurking behind every door.
I wasn’t sure there was anything I was particularly good at, which is a dangerous place for a creative person to inhabit for too long.
So, I walked the streets of Brooklyn, from my room at the Wythe Hotel to James Victore’s studio, stopping by cafes and bars along the way, wondering what I was good at. Then, I explored the paths of Central Park, stores and galleries of Midtown and SoHo, all the while trying to imagine a stripped down version of my weekly routine that would let me feel confident in my abilities again.
It was clear that a podcast and the writing of film reviews wasn’t going to be a part of that. Many of the most viewed reviews on the site were mine, but that’s because they were films where my review was of the few, or the only, review in English. There wasn’t really an audience for me as a reviewer. And, as a podcast host, I didn’t have the breadth or depth of knowledge to be sharp and entertaining enough.
While the decisions I had to make were clear, making them wasn’t easy. During a difficult season in my life, The Society had been one of my few constants, giving my weeks some kind of rhythm and meaning.
Still, I stopped recording the podcasts then I stopped writing reviews.
But, the site has stayed up. There’s still traces of the work, on iTunes, on Twitter and in my registration with The Tokyo International Film Festival. After all, covering the festival had been one of the highlights, both of my time with The Society and in Tokyo. It hadn’t been easy, managing family commitments, since the festival always overlapped with midterm school holidays, but it had always been a joy.
It was tempting to just go along to the press screenings anyway. Of course I didn’t. But, I did start the process of discussing with my collaborator how we would move the site off my servers and eventually shut it down.
Having Fewer Sides
From walking those New York Streets last year to embracing the first cool days of this Autumn in Tokyo it has been a year of deep self-reflection. I knew I had to kill most, perhaps all of my side projects and limit the time I spent on all the distractions that were dividing my attention. I started to quit things weeks before the panic attack that was, perhaps, the emblematic end of that year.
I feel like I’m now embarked on a different season, a slow restoration, a new pattern of living. There are still things to quit, but there are also new routines that I’ve been slowly putting in place, all focussed on a much small portfolio of activities.
The writing, the crafting of words that has all my life been an integral part of who I am no longer lives in a side project, it now lives, in undivided fashion, here on this site.
This Week I Quit is a (mostly) weekly series where I try, in a personal way, to address the habit of overcommitment. Each week I quit something, it could be an app, a habit, a possession, a word, anything that had a hold on my attention. I explain why I made the choice to quit and what it was like. Last time I Quit Not Weighing Myself and you can read all the posts in this series here.