Watch List Year 2: The Author Thanks You

Yet wonders how to write about movies in a calamitous time.

Watch List Year 2: The Author Thanks You
(Bettman Archives)

Two years ago this week, I left The Boston Globe, my place of employ for 19 years, to jump off a cliff and start a newsletter. I had a very good idea what I wanted to do with Ty Burr’s Watch List back then. I have somewhat less of an idea now.

I think that’s probably healthy.

At the very least it’s a response to a film industry and an entertainment world and a real world that are all in very different places than they were 24 months ago. When the temperature pushes above 110 degrees in the American south, the skies above our cities are red with wildfire smoke, and Vermont is underwater, it seems in questionable taste to say, hey, look at this movie on Netflix. Some people would argue that we need diversion more than ever or at least someone to recommend which to see first, “Barbie” or “Oppenheimer.” And because writing about movies and popular culture is all I actually know how to do — see my piece on the 50th anniversary of Pink Floyd’s “The Dark Side of the Moon” in today’s Washington Post — that’s what you’ll still mostly get here. But it does feel like a quixotic project when the sustainability of certain things we (I) once took for granted – the economic model of the entertainment industry (at least for the people who write and act in the things), democracy, even human life on the planet – is no longer as certain as we (I) believed. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn’t rename this newsletter “Whistling In The Dark.”

That said, I have found real satisfaction these past two years in what I think of as The Experiment, and I hope you have too. Not that it hasn’t been nerve-wracking. There are writers and critics who feel most comfortable working freelance and there are those who prefer a staff gig, and I have always been what in Japan they call a salaryman, happy with a desk and company benefits, content to turn out reviews according to a weekly theatrical release schedule. Lucky, too, to have a job at a time when film critics have been a vanishing species at newspapers across the land. Why on earth would I quit?

Boredom had a lot to do with it, or, more precisely, the itch that comes from doing the same thing for too long. For my first 11 years or so at the Globe, I worked alongside my fellow reviewer and great good friend Wesley Morris; when he left, so did a lot of the fun. A new editorial regime at the paper put most of its eggs in the basket of sports coverage and increasingly took those eggs – page counts, number of reviews, writers to write them – away from the arts section. When I started at the Globe in 2002, three staff critics reviewed every movie opening in the Boston area; by the time I left in 2021, it was just me, cherry-picking two to four films a week. Not a cataclysm on the order of climate change or a second Trump presidency, but, still, a disservice to anybody who wanted guidance on what to see in a movie theater or on demand and maybe some idea of how to contextualize it.

(Darlene Hammond/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

The editor in charge of the new regime helped bring the Globe back to profitability, so I guess he was right, even if he liked to say that the last movie he saw was “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” in 1987 and even if he talked about the paper’s “elite critics” in a way that made the word “elite” sound like a skin rash. (He wasn’t a Philistine, actually. I just think part of him felt more comfortable being seen as one.) Anyway, it wasn’t his fault that the movie exhibition business was morphing seemingly overnight into a theatrical-streaming hybrid, goosed by corporate greed and panic and a pandemic. I do know that my efforts to cover more movies on VOD, or to revisit theatrical movies when they appeared on VOD – because why shouldn’t a review be re-made accessible when the film itself becomes accessible to a larger at-home audience? – met the usual fate of suggested change at a legacy media institution. I got tired of trying to turn the battleship and wondered what it would be like to steer a kayak instead, paddling upriver through the never-ending flow of movies in theaters and on demand, and more at liberty, too, to follow personal and political tributaries wherever they might go.

The Watch List has been successful so far – not as successful as my initial fantasies but more successful than my worst fears. In the Substack cosmology, I exist somewhere between Heather Cox Richardson and the guys who write newsletters devoted to fly-fishing. (What I’d really like to be is the Hunter Harris of my generation.) I still haven’t hit the benchmark level of subscribers I set in my head when I started, the magic number that would allow me to exhale and finally unbend out of start-up mode. But I’m most of the way there. On some level, I’m still holding my breath.

There’s a pitch for you: Subscribe to Ty Burr’s Watch List and help Ty breathe! This is the part where I traditionally exhort subscribers to renew their annual memberships or, if they’re getting the newsletter for free, to consider moving to the paid tier. (See special offer below!)

And traditionally it’s when I ask readers if they’re getting what they want out of the Watch List and, more important, when I ask what they want in the first place. (Comments are open to all today, ahem.) Every week I pick a handful of titles, old and new, in theaters or on streaming platforms, and hope that the combination of quality and zeitgeist sticks to your ribs. I try to take stock of the VOD wars and how to manage the insane amount of programming pouring through our screens. When I’m feeling so moved – but only when – I might send out something angry or mournful or humorous or meditative, and while these have often been the pieces that resonate most strongly with readers, I can’t and don’t want to crank them out to meet demand. I started this newsletter to be truer to myself and the way I write than I was able to at a large media organization. The personal stuff comes when it comes. As it is doing now.

My governing assumption from the start – and this may have been embarrassingly wrongheaded – was that if the Watch List guided a reader to a certain number of rewarding media experiences in a year (movies, music, TV series, the odd viral video), that reader would find their subscription worth the price and would re-up for another stint. Correct me if this is not the case. Over the past 24 months, I’ve thrown a number of things at the wall: Podcasts, the “One Good Film” repertory dive on Mondays, the Friday What To Watch round-up. I enjoy it all – the podcasts with my fellow critics especially – but I have no idea if they’re speaking to the entirety of readers or to different subsets of readers. Also, I have a friend who likes my stuff but says I write too much of it; she’s probably right. Either a decade at a national weekly magazine followed by two decades at a major regional daily has made it impossible for me to not file copy to meet the deadlines in my head or it’s something more existential – that I fear a writer who doesn’t write may not actually exist.

Maybe it’s time for me to call it a day and go birding full-time.

Oh, but then I wouldn’t be able to tell you about “Showing Up” or “Past Lives,” or “Rye Lane,” or any of the new movies that will end up on my Best of 2023 list in December. I couldn’t drag a title up out of the camp trunk of the past, recent, semi-recent, or not recent at all. I wouldn’t be able to warn you of the disappearance of cinematic treasures as the streaming revolution collapses in on itself and the corporate gatekeepers of “content” sacrifice movie history to the bottom line. I couldn’t do one of my favorite things, which is to come at a beloved or be-hated actor from an unexpected direction.

And I couldn’t catalogue the rare moments of transcendence, both in this medium of cinema that first enraptured me when I was an adolescent a half century ago or in the waking world refracted by that medium – a world that remains a vibrant original to which the movies will always be a faded carbon copy, no matter how many frames per second are used to create them. Little slices of the divine: The farewell on an East Village street corner in “Past Lives.” A raptor on the far side of the planet from its home, Odysseus on the wing. Gene Kelly tap-dancing in roller skates in “It’s Always Fair Weather.” The abandoned horse vanishing behind the jungle foliage as the conquistadors pull away in “Aguirre, The Wrath of God.” My older child in the white coat of her chosen profession. My younger child in a field in Maine, building a house where there was none. Lee Chandler accepting his damnation in the hush of a North Shore dining room in “Manchester By The Sea.” My wife. The people you love. “Mulholland Dr.” “Sherlock Jr.” The bird outside your window this very second.

Things like that. I’ll keep writing about them a while longer. I hope you’ll be with me on the journey.

Hollywood, CA- Kelly, German Shepherd and canine actor, yesterday celebrated his sixth birthday on the set of Kelly and Me at Universal International and his guests included a foursome of top TV and Movie stars. Shown above, seated from left to right around a prime roast decorated with six candles, are; Lassie, Cleo (TV performer), Kelly, Daisey (TV and films) and Red Dust (night club headliner).

Feel free to respond with any thoughts, positive, negative, or otherwise. I love to hear what readers think.

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