On Tim’s Vermeer and Entertainment Weekly

There is one thing that put a tiny documentary like Tim’s Vermeer on my radar back in January and kept it there for three months as it slowly made its way to Gainesville. In January, Owen Gleiberman did a capsule review of it, and appearing on the Entertainment Weekly site, which I visit essentially whenever my finger twitches toward a keyboard, it grabbed me with that warm, welcoming A beckoning me in. So before I talk about the hyonotic, heady film, which I adored, I want to talk about the man who shared his passion for it on one of the biggest entertainment journalism platforms possible. Or, at least… it was…

Gleiberman’s taste could frequently run counter to the mainstream critical consensus (he rather infamously defended Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen and The Hangover Part II when everyone else in the world looked at Hangover II, threw up their hands and said “SAME DAMN MOVIE!”), but whether you agreed or disagreed with his take on a film, it was thrilling to see someone so smart and opinionated doling out witticisms and incisive, constructive analysis from his giant platform at Entertainment Weekly, a platform he had held, with fellow critic godhead Lisa Schartzbaum, since 1990. (In 1990, I was one…)

It felt inevitable when every prestigious voice employed by EW, minus Gleiberman and including Schartzbaum, jumped ship last year: at a certain point the magazine would fully wash its hands of its first epoch and find a way to part ways with its longest-tenured writer. And yet it still shocked me when it happened. I always checked in with Gleiberman to make sure he was still “all there,” invested in sticking with EW as it invested in young, enthusiastic (and, in my opinion, scarily talented) voices like Darren Franich and Grady Smith, and as it transitioned into being just as much of a web content generator and Sirius XM talk station as it was an entertainment weekly – y’know, a weekly magazine about the entertainment world. And Gleiberman was still there and vital. Just last week, he was hosting his weekly movie critic show, arguing that Divergent was better than Hunger Games (fighting words, but if we’re just talking the first movie, he’s right). Wednesday morning he had a segment on EW Morning Live, a calm dignified voice at the center of the incessant babbl… ahem… conversation. As the announcement of his firing – not retirement, not buyout, but out and out firing – spread, his review of the first huge movie of the year, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, was the top story on EW, the first thing you saw when you loaded the page. This was a man who would have kept writing for Entertainment Weekly, championing films like Tim’s Vermeer, until someone stood in his way, blocking his path to screenings and festivals. And someone did just that. Gleiberman is a writer who deserves, who has earned the right, to be paid absurd amounts of money for his talent and his craft, and Entertainment Weekly is at a point where that is not something they are willing to do anymore.

I want to write about movies forever. I have pretty much divested myself of any hope of ever being paid for it in anything other than, like, joy… the joy of doing it and hoping my voice is heard. Which is fine if that’s my goal; I didn’t think it would ever be a major media company’s media strategy. I’m not arguing it’s not smart. Financially, the idea of The Community, a collection of writers generating content for the website in hopes of launching their careers through having a bigger audience could be a coup as long as the writers are talented enough that the website’s readership doesn’t notice many of the voices they are reading are “amateurs” and start abandoning the site for greener pastures. “Amateurs,” for the record, does not mean bad writers; amateurs could be some of the best voices the site champions in the years to come, but they’ll be amateurs and not professional writers not because of lack of talent but because Entertainment Weekly publishes their content while choosing not to pay them in anything but “prestige.” (Their words, believe it or not.)

Now, I am right in the Bullseye (EW-related pun intended) of the target audience Entertainment Weekly hopes might hear this and go “Squee, this could be it! My MOMENT!” Had it been presented to me without all the media outrage around first the tone-deaf announcement of the initiative and then around the firings of many prominent writers (including Annie Barrett and music critic Nick Catucci) directly after the announcement of an initiative that would wrangle unpaid writers to seemingly replace them, I might have said just that. Loudly.

Let’s say I see a movie like Tim’s Vermeer. It comes to my city, and before disappearing from theaters like a faint shadow, it plays to the thirty or forty people in town who either study Vermeer, fanboy/girl over Penn and Teller, or are directly related by blood to the film’s star, wealthy video engineer and talented breaker-down-of-things Tim Jenison.

Who else would see it? It’s not like there’s a big marketing blitz for a documentary about an obsessive tinkerer who sets out to prove that the prominent Dutch painter Vermeer used a complex combination of camera obscura and tiny mirror to paint his frighteningly lifelike masterpieces, proving this by creating his own version of one of Vermeer’s most famous paintings in spite of never having painted before in his life. And there’d be even less of a marketing blitz three months after the film’s initial release, when it finally does skulk into town like [David Banner][bannner] accompanied by the “Lonely Man” theme. There’s not going to be a Tim’s Vermeer commercial during the halftime break of the Sweet Sixteen matchup between Louisville and Kentucky is what I’m saying.

And yet, let’s say that when I see it, I fall for its immense charms, and I want to share that love. I have a friend, an art history major, who I think would fall in love with how enamored this movie is of humanity’s capacity to create art by whatever means necessary. I also have a friend who is very calculating and scientific, who I know would dig how this move breaks down art analytically, treating it as a theory to be tested by scientific method, through hardcore experimentation. These are my two most reliable movie buddies; if someone is going to go see a movie with me, it’s one of these two. But never the same movies. All my small art films and foreign films, I go see with my art hippie. All my tentpole blobkbusters I see with my logician. And yet this movie! This movie could unite them! But this movie I saw alone, on the recommendation from a few months ago of an evocative and inspirational film critic who saw something special in Tim’s Vermeer and passed that on from a platform I worshipped. And heck, if I can write well enough, I could convey that same passion in my writing, convey how nifty and tight this film’s montage sequences are, how well they evoke the passage of immense amounts of time and show off genuine on-the-fly craftsmanship, how they turn Tim, who could seem like an entitled millionaire weirdo with an odd obsession, into a crusader struggling to find truth in genius. I could pass what Owen gave to me on to my friends. And not just to them, but, if I had a large enough platform, to all the people like them who might love this film, for whatever reason, but would never in a million years know it exists.

So I write about Tim’s Vermeer. And the gaping maw of the Internet, with enough content on it to overwhelm a sentient demigod, swallows it whole. And that’s the thing. When I’m writing a piece, I’m not wishing I were getting paid for it. When I’m writing a piece, I am hoping desperately it gets seen. I want to be heard. If I were ever so effectively heard that someone might reimburse me in such substantial amounts that I could than do nothing more than write, that would be a nice bonus, not lying.

I am very far from that place, suffice it to say.

And so it would be easy for me to undervalue my writing and put together these two facts: “I’m an amateur writing on a blog even my mom doesn’t read, so it doesn’t matter right now if Entertainment Weekly doesn’t pay me for my thoughts on Tim’s Vermeer, that could come later if I’m good enough…” and “If I get something about Tim’s Vermeer on Entertainment Weekly’s homepage, other people like me might see it, react to it, talk to me, and respect my opinions!” These two things together would make me… let’s say susceptible to the suggestion of getting “paid in prestige.”

I’m sympathetic to all angles here. I’m extraordinarily sympathetic to every writer who will create content for EW’s Community. They’re not amateur hacks happy to be exploited by a megacorporation in hopes of gaining fame. They’re probably passionate writers looking for the biggest platform accessible that will allow them to share their writing.

It’s harder to see this from EW’s point of view, but considering how dire everyone has made out the critical/journalistic profession to be, it’s fairly easy to see how they thought they’d be doing young writers with big dreams a huge favor by giving them an EW byline to accompany their writing – looked at from certain angles, and certainly from the angles they saw in their business meetings, this could be viewed as a mutually beneficial arrangement. It’s not, since they are going from paying writers they liked to not paying writers they like but still taking ownership of their work and treating it like a gift, but it’s easy to lose that in the murk.

Even less sympathetic is the magazine’s decision to let go of a GOAT film critic who had been entrenched as the magazine’s leading voice for 24 years. However, as we enter a new media age, it is a fact commonly acknowledged that, in order to stay alive, print publications will have to stay inventive, and in the end EW did nothing many other companies wouldn’t: they parted ways with a highly paid legacy employee in hopes of finding a cheaper replacement. Or in this case hundreds of free replacements. It’s abhorrent to witness as a fan of Gleiberman’s work and of the Entertainment Weekly that was, but it’s not uncommon, right?

I’m not going to do anything so drastic as stop reading EW immediately. Reading Dalton Ross’s screeds on Survivor are a Thursday morning ritual, and I think that Darren Franich is probably a critical legend in the making, with a voice that fluctuates smoothly between being bro-ily approachable and prescient beyond his years. An out and out boycott is out of my reach at the moment. However I will admit that over the past week I have found myself experiencing a painful twinge, something approaching dislike and disgust, every time I click the dial over to EW Radio or guide my browser to the EW homepage. Entertainment Weekly may be an opiate I learn to wean myself off of as better alternatives with more respect for strong voices like The Dissolve and Grantland find their legs.

One thing I won’t do is try to get in with Entertainment Weekly by pursuing writing on The Community. What would my hopes be? That they like me so much after a year or two of generating content for nothing but dreams that I then acquire low-pay employment at a company so desperate to change things up and garner cheap page views that they fire their most valuable (most expensive yes, but most valuable!) voices? Hardly sounds opportune. I don’t know what the right ways to break into this industry and increase others’ awareness of your work are and I should look into it more if I’m serious about this; and I’m unsure whether the pessimistic outlook on the profession as a whole is overwrought or completely warranted (and hey if you have any advice on either front, reach out!), but I can tell pretty easily that, while looking into The Community might be an easy way in to the “professional” criticism game, it’s also the way that attaches you to a company with (let’s understate here) questionable business practices, no desire to compensate reasonably, and no safety net guaranteed, no matter how much your talent or experience merit one. It’s not out of respect for Gleiberman, who points me to wonderful films like Tim’s Vermeer and will find a new avenue to do that soon, that I say this. (My respect for him should be evident.) It’s just simple logic.