Decade in review: Palermo on Palermo

For over a decade you’ve loved him, screamed at him, totally agreed with his opinions and wrote nasty letters about his reviews. Mark Palermo reminisces about life as Halifax’s longest-standing film critic.

Partly, I loved having the excuse. I didn't have to worry about my dignity when walking into Captain Corelli's Mandolin.

"You're actually going to see The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas?" a friend would ask. "Yeah," I'd say. "It's my job."

Sometimes it is a job. Sometimes going to see Saw V is a day at work, and the theatre is another kind of office. But I always approached this gig out of a belief that good art can happen anywhere, and as a response to common prejudice.

The summer of 1999: I was two years out of high school and filed my first review. The Coast had published other writers' reviews sporadically, but all the local papers were falling short of regular film coverage. Editor Kyle Shaw asked me to send him a review I'd written. That afternoon, I typed up something about John Carpenter's Vampires.

My first published review was for Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me. The next week, I wrote a review of The Blair Witch Project. A couple weeks later, Shaw decided to run me regularly.

The reviews were short, 150 to 200 words each. This task of saying a lot with a little became how I developed my (what one university professor referred to as) "scorched-earth writing style." The Coast also became where I would spend my 20s, a decade, which, in my experience, was nothing like Friends.

As a kid and throughout my adolescence, movies were all I wanted to talk about. I was at the right place at the right time, but I believe I took the whole thing more seriously than my editors anticipated. Other reviewers dropped out within a year. By mid-2000, I took it upon myself not to miss anything.

In 2002, standing in the Empire Bayers Lake lobby, I overheard a couple debating. The girl was pushing for a forgotten comedy called The New Guy, in which DJ Qualls suffers a public fracture to his manhood, and is then made over as a creepy hybrid of James Dean and Snoop Dogg. "No," the boyfriend replied. "The guy in The Coast says The New Guy is not a recognizable synthesis of life on Earth."

Knowing that people read you is rewarding. Discovering that they all have an opinion about you can take some adjustment. Letters concerning my reviews have covered everything from false claims of my schooling, to guesses of my political affiliation, to death threats, to what may be construed as a 1,000-word nervous breakdown. I'm still surprised whenever someone says something nice about my reviews. But criticism is a two-way street. Learn to take it, or get out.

I fell asleep five minutes into a press screening of a Naomi Watts and Kate Hudson picture called Le Divorce. Not realizing I'd nodded off, I turned to Herald critic Stephen Cooke as the credits rolled: "What, that's it!?" I held off reviewing it. Of the 2,000-plus reviews I've written, I've never walked out on any films. Of the times I've fallen asleep (V for Vendetta, two Underworlds), I saw them again.

With a couple of exceptions, I don't take notes. Notetaking removes one from the experience of a film, and places undue focus on unnecessary elements. If you can't remember it without notes, it's not worth remembering. To the high school class that gave me a portable clip-on-light after I came in to do a shot-by-shot breakdown of Spielberg's War of the Worlds: I use it for reading in bed.

In 2004, I went to the Cannes Film Festival. I was broke for the next two years. When I filed my article, Shaw didn't believe I was weird enough to spend my time trying to get into crowded screenings rather than getting drunk at parties on the Riviera. Despite opportunities, I haven't been to any out-of-town fests since. Going on vacation to watch more movies stopped making sense.

One Sunday morning, Shaw called to tell me that David Lynch has gotten hold of things I'd been writing about Mulholland Drive. Lynch sent me a keychain to express his gratitude. It was a small token, but it blew my mind at the time and still means a lot. Three years later, I came into contact with Joseph Kahn, director of the B-movie biker epic Torque. He liked my writing, and I've now been working with him for several years.

It's the biggest outcome that's occurred from my movie critic gig. When I started at The Coast, I used to laugh if people referred to me as a writer. I was just some dude talking about the movies I watched in my own way. But I marched on with it.

There are reasons why my reviews appear less now. The Coast went through a redesign, and I'm busy. Often I can't see and review four or five movies between Friday and Monday.

To anyone who has stuck with me, disagreed with me, thought that they understood me: thank you. I believe any useful critic should instruct and offer new perspectives. I'd rather make people think about what they're watching than have them agree with me. Early on, a rival paper asked me to try out for a review gig. They'd pay me more. I'm glad I didn't get that job---the paper folded. And although I'm sure my editors had times where they disagreed with what I was on about, The Coast has always been cool about letting me speak my mind with little interference.

Especially in the past five years, movie reviewing has taken a nosedive as a viable career prospect. The internet has democratized film criticism to the point where there are people willing to do it for free. Writing standards have lowered, and what should have accommodated a lot of different perspectives has instead encouraged fanboy rage, defined by bullying and conformity. Either you love Iron Man or you fail at the internet.

When people ask me if they should pursue a career in movie criticism, my answer is, "It's great if you hate money and don't like eating." But I get too much enjoyment from writing about films to stay away from it for long. And now other paths are opening as well. Keep your eye on the prize, and good things will happen.

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