The Chicago Reader Opens Its Archive of Long-form Criticism to the PublicApril 16th, 2012 | Posted by in Movie Reviews
When it comes to artistic endeavors, I’m a big believer in reinventing the wheel. There is no wrong way to be an artist, and most “how to” instructionals seem to be more about what not to do than they are about proper technique. Even the concept of “proper technique” makes me bristle: it implies an improper technique. I know someone who was awarded an MFA in photography for work she did entirely on a photocopy machine. So what if there were no dark room chemicals involved? It was brilliant work and deserved every award it won.
In my own experience, I’ve found that approaching something without first reading the directions may send me down unpredictable paths, led only by my curiosity and passion, and bring me to unexpected destinations. When I was a kid in art class, all a teacher had to do was tell me “that’s not how you do it,” and I was off, risking a grade to find my own way.
One of my passions, movies, is something of an exception to this. Sure, I watch a whole lot of movies on my own, without any critical checkpoint to refer to, and process them myself with knowledge (or hubris) gained just by watching lots of other movies and coming to my own conclusions and interpretations. But I’ve learned way more from reading the work of other movie buffs and film critics.
I lived for many years in Chicago, where getting hold of the latest edition of the Chicago Reader was something of a weekly ritual. Hefty for a free weekly, and smeary with a foul-smelling ink, the Reader was an absolute necessity for navigating life in Chicago, political as well as cultural. Long-form front-page articles with real muckraking teeth to them, the Straight Dope, hootingly entertaining personals, and of course, for me the prize in the bottom of the box: the movie section, with its long critiques of current films and seemingly bottomless cache of capsule reviews which are still, to this day, a vital source of pertinent info on almost any title you can think of. Reading the reviews of Dave Kehr and, later, Jonathan Rosenbaum, was my film school. (Most of my film education can be traced back to a particular article by Mr. Rosenbaum and tangents therefrom.)
While the archive of short reviews has long been available online, the long reviews have been much more difficult to find. For a while the Reader tried to sell access to them. When I wrote asking why a free paper charged money to read articles that had originally been published for free, they replied that I was welcome to come down to their offices and dig through the stacks and read old articles for free that way. But that they were going to charge extra for making them available online. And so, except for the few long reviews that were linked from IMDb.com—I was never able to discern a pattern—the long reviews were relegated to a room I imagined was much like the warehouse show at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark: towering piles of brittle newsprint, receding into dusty darkness.
Until now. On March 26, the Chicago Reader announced an online index of forty years’ worth of long reviews.
I contacted the two critics whose work makes this significant news. Dave Kehr, who now writes for the New York Times, and Jonathan Rosenbaum, who retired from the Reader a little over four years ago but remains a kind of critic at large, attending festivals and conferences and maintaining a blog. Mr. Rosenbaum pointed out to me that all of his long reviews are already available online at his blog, while the Reader archive appeared incomplete. Mr. Kehr expressed enthusiasm for the project, but noted that the digitization process will not reach as far back as his “era” for years. “Let’s hope the new owners, whoever they may be,” Mr. Kehr goes on to say, “are willing to continue the initiative.”
Here’s hoping along with him.