LUKE Y. THOMPSON
How did you get started as a film critic?
I guess the most formal “beginning” would be when I was at USC, and wanted to have a radio show on the student-run station. The deal was that in order to do that, you had to be on one of the “staffs” at the station, so I joined the entertainment staff – basically I'd see a new movie every week and review it, after it came out of course (we supposedly got invites to advance screenings, but the only one I ever saw that way was The Jerky Boys). Post graduation, and in the pre-blogosphere era, a friend of mine put out a 'zine – hand-photocopied with original fiction, humor, artwork, etc. I asked her if I could review movies for her, and later I decided that I could probably do my own 'zine, so I did. (Sign of the times – back in 1998, I told some of the contributors that we were short on space and one of their submissions would be a website exclusive. They were furious with me, figuring that meant nobody would see it!)
When New Times LA ran an ad saying they wanted a new film critic, I sent them my ‘zines. A few months later, after combing through all of the submissions, and getting me to write two sample reviews (Lake Placid and Run Lola Run) they hired me and Gregory Weinkauf.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
I remember seeing Quest for Fire at a small local theater in Ireland. It was technically rated for 18 and over only, and I was maybe 6 – my parents had figured I could pass for older, but didn't realize just how old I would have to pretend to be. Turned out the staff didn't much care about my age. My mother kept putting her hand over my eyes during the violent moments, which I mostly thought were funny. She soon realized she'd be better off covering her own eyes.
What was your first published review?
My first capsule review in New Times LA was for some small indie called Stripped and Teased, a first-person documentary in which the feminist filmmaker learned to respect strippers in a girl-power sort of way. My first full-length review was of the Tom Berenger movie One Man's Hero. I think it (the movie, not so sure about my review) has justifiably been forgotten by most.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
Schindler's List. Not enough people stepped up to puncture that balloon. I remember an LA Times story about some inner city kids who were taken to see it, and laughed out loud, offending people. The debate in their favor took the position that these poor kids were so used to seeing real-life violence that laughter was a defense mechanism. Nobody ever considered that the movie itself might have been kinda laughable in parts (seriously, the red dress thing, people).
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
I am rather infamously unafraid to admit any aesthetic tastes, however uncool they may be. I'm the guy who put The Room on his best of the decade list. I don't think anyone should be ashamed to like what they like if it doesn't harm anyone...so I guess I'd consider something like The Crow a guilty pleasure, since someone actually died making it.
I think I maybe have the opposite of guilty pleasures – movies I'm embarrassed to admit I don't much care for. I wish I had more patience to sit through full-length silent features in one sitting, for example. I suspect that may come with age.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
Tough call on an artistic level, since everybody's taste is different, and there's no one movie I think everyone will agree on. I'd like more people to see Louis C.K.'s Tomorrow Night, a brilliant and hilarious film that never got a proper release. I'd like more casual viewers to watch Citizen Kane, as I think many are scared away by its “prestige” and don't realize it actually is that damn good. I’m continually impressed and disturbed by When the Wind Blows, how it gets a message across by luring you in with humor and then twisting a knife in your back. I wish everyone who loved film would get past the “anime” stigma and watch the films of Satoshi Kon (and Akira, for that matter). But this isn't Middle Earth, so I have trouble coming up with One Movie To Rule Them All.
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
“What was the last movie you reviewed?” “And what did you say?” [considering that every outlet I've ever written for has been free to the public, the latter question annoys me. Just read the damn thing if you want to know what I said.] These days, though, people talk to me more about my online fast food reviews than movie reviews.
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
Easy – at the L.A. Film Fest a few years back, I saw Hitchcock's Notorious for the first time, and having heard how great it was, was struck by how horribly dated it was, and how flat-out ludicrous some of it seemed to me. I wrote as much on my blog, and still get hate for it...everyone who has ever wanted to impugn my credibility cites that review. I may not have expressed myself that well in my post, but it seems to me there can't really be much argument that it's dated...the issue is does it transcend that fact? King Kong, for example, is extremely dated given what we know about animal behavior and dinosaurs now, but the movie itself is still charming. Notorious, though...I don't buy the love story for a second, and find the rear-projection in the outdoor scenes silly...and that's a huge problem.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
In general, I prefer movies that don't adhere to the rules of reality, whether we're talking David Lynch surrealism or big-budget sci-fi. I get stereotyped as a horror guy a lot, and I am fond of that genre, but I also feel that that's more a case of other critics disproportionately disliking horror than me being a horror-above-all guy.
What is your process in approaching a review?
I try to construct my reviews exactly as I would construct my verbal response if you were to ask me what I thought. Instant reaction, stream of consciousness, slightly polished. Though my major outlets now have specific formats that I need to fit into, so their structure determines my process nowadays.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
Usually only if I'm not sure of my own reaction. Movies that are “just okay” are the hardest to review, and it can help to bounce off others.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
My critical inspiration was Joe Bob Briggs, a faux-redneck portrayed by an art-major. Being half-Southern and half-English, I like a mix of trashy and highbrow. My current favorite critic, as of this writing, is Dave White at Movies.com. I also enjoy reading the reviews of insane people, like the far-righties at Movieguide.org, or Harry Knowles.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Worst major studio movie: The Ladies' Man, a movie seemingly oblivious to its own casual racism and homophobia (took me a long time to warm to Will Ferrell precisely because of this). Worst of all might have to be Cupid’s Mistake, a movie which I believe was shot on VHS, using the camera’s built-in mic which is often blown out by wind, and featuring fades out and in, mid-scene, for no apparent reason. Ironically, I’ve become friends with the director, and even acted in one of his subsequent movies...but I cannot defend this one.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
If there were one, I'd go out and rent it right after filling out this form. As of this writing, though, I believe I have not seen any Antonioni or Truffaut, and need to correct that.
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
Filmmaker or actor. Still working on both.
In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?
It should go in a direction that pays me a ton of money. Period. As to where it is going...I'd say more and more niche, like popular music. Even before the newspapers started failing and the economy went south, there was a developing idea in the zeitgeist that “old white males” dominated the field of criticism, and were boring and not sufficiently representative of their audience.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
The public at large is, I think, often looking for a critic who agrees with them 100% of the time, when no such beast exists – a friend once told me that I was a terrible critic because he always disagrees with me, to which I responded that I was therefore a great critic, because by doing the exact opposite of what I suggest he’d always be happy. I like to think the best of us at least entertain, and occasionally offer a new way of looking at things.
What’s the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
Best: free movies (and awards-season parties w/free food). Worst: the fact that you need another job or two to support a career as a film critic, which keeps you from seeing as many movies as you’d like.
Name the worst sequel ever.
Cocoon: The Return.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
At one time, I can say that people were amazed to hear that the job was not any kind of chick-magnet. But believe me, it ain't.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
I know for a fact that many of my colleagues are quite happy to just be critics, but as a cursory web search will reveal, I also act in movies, and would do that for a living if I could. I don't think that makes me “punish” other actors – I'm always happier to discover new talents than see a performance I hate. I think it gives me a different appreciation than others may have – I'm most impressed by actors when I see them do something I don't think I could do.
Are movies better because of film critics?
Inherently? No. Critics can help draw audiences to certain movies, but those movies would be just as good or bad regardless of whether anyone saw them.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
Unfortunately, I don't think I've ever been able to get people to come out and see a movie they didn't already plan on checking out. But I have gotten some job offers based on things I've written, and I did have one filmmaker actually offer to buy me lunch even after I’d written several negative reviews of his movies.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Don't do it. As a career goal, it's a loser right now. Once the economy settles and the transition period media finds itself in finally shakes out, maybe there'll be money in it again. Right now, I would guess that the absolute best bet as a gig for a critic would be if you're young, great-looking, and can open your mouth without embarrassing yourself...you can be a critic on TV. But if you can do that, just go ahead and try to be an actor, because there are more of those jobs!
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
The Internet made things harder, by taking away paying gigs, but given how much we all have to multitask now, social media are a great help. I didn't realize how few of my friends read my own site regularly, until I started posting my review links on Facebook, and all of a sudden it seemed like everybody remembered I was a writer again. Readers don't want to do a scavenger hunt all over the web to find what you do, so being able to follow a critic on one site, be it an aggregator like Rotten Tomatoes or a social tool like Twitter, is a massive help, for reader and writer.
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