HOW DID YOU GET STARTED AS A FILM CRITIC?
College graduation was looming on the horizon and I hadn’t a clue what to do after reaching that troubling milestone. Over winter break, I found myself filling all my free time with movies I’d been meaning to watch for years: Rashômon, The Seventh Seal, Onibaba. I’d entertained the notion of pursuing a career in film criticism as a teenager, albeit as something of a pipe dream, and one day I simply decided to go for it. A few weeks later, I started writing reviews for my college newspaper.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST MEANINGFUL MOVIEGOING EXPERIENCE?
The very first is difficult to pin down, but the one that changed the way I look at film as an art form and set me on the path I’m on now was Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line. It had never even occurred to me that a director could (or would) take such an overwhelmingly visual approach; it was everything I never knew I wanted a movie to be.
WHAT WAS YOUR FIRST PUBLISHED REVIEW?
WHAT MOVIE WOULD YOU HAVE LIKED TO REVIEW HAD YOU BEEN A CRITIC UPON ITS INITIAL RELEASE?
Steven Soderbergh’s undervalued Solaris remake comes to mind; so do 3 Women, Exotica, White Dog, and The Rapture.
WHAT MOVIE ARE YOU EMBARRASSED TO ADMIT YOU LOVE?
Much to my surprise, one of the most well-received reviews I’ve ever written is a defense of Alien: Resurrection. That experience made me realize the importance of a sincere dissenting opinion—which is to say, no one should be embarrassed to like any movie if they have a good reason for liking it.
NAME A FILM YOU THINK EVERYBODY SHOULD SEE.
A Woman Under the Influence. It’s possible there’s a more devastating performance than the one Gena Rowlands delivers here, but I kind of doubt it.
WHAT’S THE MOST COMMON QUESTION YOU’RE ASKED WHEN SOMEONE DISCOVERS YOU’RE A FILM CRITIC?
Whether I’ve seen any good movies lately, which I always seem to get asked when nothing especially memorable is in theaters.
IS THERE A GENRE OR ERA YOU HAVE A PARTICULAR AFFINITY FOR?
It’s an obvious answer, but I don’t think I’ll ever stop being enamored of New Hollywood. Films like Rosemary’s Baby, Fat City, and Cruising being released by major studios on a regular basis is practically inconceivable now. It may have been unsustainable, but so is the franchise-dominated business model Hollywood is operating under now. Most every Italian Neorealist film knocks me flat, and B-noir from the ‘40s and ‘50s (Detour, I Wake Up Screaming) is as economical and appealingly barebones as filmmaking comes. I also love movies that use genre frameworks as a starting point and end up transcending them: Alien, The Thing, The Addiction, Drive, etc.
WHAT IS YOUR PROCESS IN APPROACHING A REVIEW?
I turn to two quotations, both of which are probably overused but accurate nevertheless: “I write entirely to find out what I'm thinking, what I'm looking at, what I see and what it means,” from Joan Didion, and “A writer is someone for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people,” from Thomas Mann. Every once in a while a film’s sensibilities will so perfectly align with mine that writing about is quick and joyous, but more often it’s a bit painstaking and slow-going.
DO YOU LIKE TO DISCUSS A MOVIE WITH OTHER CRITICS IMMEDIATELY AFTER A SCREENING OR BEFORE WRITING A REVIEW?
In theory this runs the risk of letting someone else’s opinion influence your own before you’ve put it down in paper, but in practice I’ve never had this happen to me. Verbalizing your own thoughts (and being forced to defend them) can be as helpful to shaping your views as writing them down.
WHAT OTHER FILM CRITICS, PAST OR PRESENT, DO YOU ADMIRE?
Renata Adler’s criticism has always resonated with me, and her book A Year in the Dark captures what was surely a wild time to be a critic (1968–69). Jonathan Rosenbaum, J. Hoberman, and Roger Ebert are all luminaries for a reason. Present (as in, fellow LAFCA members) company excluded, some of the colleagues whose writing I’m always compelled to seek out include Richard Brody, Ed Gonzalez, and Michael Koresky.
WHAT’S THE WORST FILM YOU’VE EVER SEEN?
Short answer: I don’t know. Long answer: Being forgotten is probably worse than being canonized, even if it’s as an example of what not to do. One of the least productive things a critic can do is continually harp over movies they don’t like; if you remember something well enough to complain about it months or even years later, clearly something about it stuck with you. (And if you’re a Bosley Crowther-type naysayer whom the tides are clearly turning against, it’ll lead to you getting fired.) Ed Wood is still remembered for his ambitious failures today, which is more than can be said for a lot of his forgettably mediocre contemporaries.
IS THERE A CLASSIC FILM YOU’RE EMBARRASSED TO ADMIT YOU’VE NEVER SEEN?
The Mother and the Whore, which I’m waiting to see on the big screen.
IF I WEREN’T A FILM CRITIC, I’D BE A…
My inability to answer that question is part of why I chose to pursue this. I simply wouldn’t know what to do with myself otherwise, though I do harbor half-serious plans of one day opening a cat ranch.
IN THE AGE OF DIGITAL MEDIA AND BLOGGING, WHERE IS FILM CRITICISM GOING AND WHERE SHOULD IT GO?
Other than my college newspaper, I’d been writing criticism in one form or another for more than a year before I was published in a traditional print publication; everything else was online. I came in at the end, so to speak, and am lucky in that I never had to adapt to a new business model but unlucky insofar as I would have liked to experience the halcyon days of a booming print economy. There’s a lot of misplaced alarmism over the harm the internet has done to criticism, but it’s also true that for every worthwhile film site there are two or three that do more harm than good.
TO THE PUBLIC AT LARGE, WHAT PURPOSE DOES A PROFESSIONAL FILM CRITIC SERVE?
There’s always been a disconnect between critics and readers, which is unfortunate but not exactly surprising. If the comments on Rotten Tomatoes are to believed, the critic’s purpose is to ensure that superhero movies maintain a 100% “fresh” rating and not challenge people’s preconceived notions about what’s good and bad. Our actual purpose — to open dialogues and serve as the front line of understanding and analysis — is very close to the opposite of that, of course, and as long as the aggregation age continues the divide will probably keep widening.
WHAT’S THE BEST PART OF BEING A FILM CRITIC AND THE WORST PART OF BEING A FILM CRITIC?
The best part is pretty simple: getting to immerse yourself in cinema and write about the truly great films that come along more often than you might expect. The worst part is being assigned to review a truly bad movie that was clearly financed with the filmmaking team’s credit cards and is only screening in a theater because they rented one out for a week.
WHAT’S THE BIGGEST MISCONCEPTION PEOPLE HAVE ABOUT FILM CRITICS?
That we do this out of spite.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY TO THE OLD SAW THAT CRITICS ARE FRUSTRATED ARTISTS, PUNISHING THOSE WHO DO FOR DOING?
It’s possible these critics exist, but I’ve never met one.
ARE MOVIES BETTER BECAUSE OF FILM CRITICS?
I don’t know about the movies themselves, but film culture certainly is. A movie like Margaret would never have been seen by as many people as it was had it not been championed by a vocal minority of critics.
IN YOUR OPINION, HAVE YOU EVER WRITTEN SOMETHING THAT HAD A MEASURABLE IMPACT?
I try not to think too much about what happens to my reviews once they’re published, since at that point they’re out of my hands, and I’m not sure it’s up to me to decide what impact my writing has or has not had. I’d like to think that my praise for certain under-the-radar films during their time on the festival circuit has been of some value, however.
WHAT ADVICE DO YOU HAVE FOR ASPIRING FILM CRITICS?
If you’re anything like I was when I first started doing this, it’s possible (if not likely) that you don’t yet know as much about movies as you may think. Watch as many as possible, read and write about them, and challenge yourself to branch out and explore beyond your comfort zone. Too many young critics try to draw attention to themselves rather than the work they’re discussing. Don’t be one of these people.
HAS SOCIAL MEDIA CHANGED HOW YOU INTERACT WITH YOUR READERS AND HAS SOCIAL MEDIA MADE THE JOB OF FILM CRITIC EASIER OR HARDER?
It’d be more accurate to say it’s helped shape it, as I started interacting with other critics and cinephiles online not long after my first few reviews were published. This has a lot downsides — namely, the risk of becoming part of an echo chamber — that I try to avoid, but I think that, as with the larger shift from print to digital of which this is a part, this is a case of needing to adapt or perish.