How did you get started as a film critic?
As early as age 14, I remember doing an annual Top 10 list of the best movies I saw for that particular year, having a lengthy debate with my best friend about our picks. And even before that I was reading Roger Ebert’s yearly movie book and watching Siskel & Ebert on a weekly basis. So even though I wasn’t officially a film critic, I feel like I’ve been one since I was a teenager, analyzing and discussing movies and finding out why I did and didn’t love particular kinds of films and directors.
In junior high, I was going through a heavy Isaac Asimov period, when my favorite uncle (who is a big reader and moviegoer) asked me if I’d ever seen 2001: A Space Odyssey. I hadn’t, so we rented it on VHS — this was before there was a “letterbox” version — and watched it one weekend morning. The film blew my mind — it was a movie and a ballet and a classical-music concert all at once. It simply lifted the ceiling for me on what a movie could be. It remains the greatest film I’ve ever seen — I’m sure part of that has to do with seeing it at a formative age, but I think it’s also because 2001 still works on me the way it did as a kid. I allow myself to watch it very sparingly — and only then in a theater — and the movie retains its hold on me. To cite a cliché, I do legitimately discover new things in it each time.
Shallow Grave. I was writing music reviews for USC’s newspaper, the Daily Trojan, at the time. Throughout my life, I’ve loved writing about both movies and music, but when I was in college everyone and their mother wanted to write about movies — everybody likes movies, right? So for a few years in college, I focused on music reviews, which were great practice for writing criticism in a public venue. Eventually, I was able to start doing film reviews, which I was thrilled about. Shallow Grave was a last-minute assignment — I actually went to see it opening night — and I still remember sitting in the theater feeling that I was going to be undertaking a serious endeavor and that it was important to do as good a job as possible. I still take reviewing that seriously.
I really dislike this idea of “guilty pleasures.” Look, if you liked the movie, you liked the movie — hiding behind hip terminology like calling it a “guilty pleasure” is a lazy way of sidestepping your responsibility of actually talking about why the movie worked even though you weren’t “supposed” to like it. (And who said you weren’t “supposed” to like it, anyway?) So I’ll just list some recent films that I think are criminally underrated/misunderstood: Bamboozled, Stone Reader, Shattered Glass, and, yes, Chicago.
One of two things seems to happen, neither of which is particularly pleasant. One group of people will seem instantly intimidated, as if assuming that because I’m a film critic I’m a pompous know-it-all who will automatically think that their taste in movies is hopelessly pathetic. (I’ve actually been told, more than once, “It’s weird — you’re a critic, but you’re actually nice.”) The other group will get excited and tell me how much they loved a particular movie and want to share that experience with me. It’s my bad luck that almost every time this happens, they’re talking about a movie that I just didn’t like very much, which then puts me in the position of not wanting to pop their balloon. Still, I like these encounters because it’s a good reminder of why we all love movies — and that we don’t have to love the same movies to share that enthusiasm.
Looking at my list of favorite films, I apparently like movies with ambiguous endings where characters don’t end up getting what they want. I also prefer movies that appear to be made in a particular genre but actually behave in the exact opposite way of the genre conventions. I’m also a sucker for movies where nothing momentous happens and yet it feels like I’ve seen daily life in an entirely new way.
I don’t take notes at screenings. I know that many critics do, but it’s never worked for me. I want to experience the film as purely as possible, and looking away from the screen to jot down comments feels weird and wrong to that experience. Instead, I’ll just keep a running list of thoughts and observations in my head while watching the film — in a way, I suppose I’m actually talking to the movie while it’s going on. Then on the way home, I start picking through those shards of ideas and start to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it. If I’m really lucky, I have my opening paragraph laid out in my head before I’m in the house.
If I’m writing a review, I tend not to like talking with other critics after the screening. I suppose this may come across as rude to my colleagues, but I really like to be in my own headspace to let those thoughts simmer. (Ideally, the first time I really “talk” about the movie is when I sit down to write the review.) I have found myself getting better at this over time, but it still feels weird to talk about a movie at length and then write a review — it seems as if I’m trying to reproduce a discussion rather than letting that discussion happen at the computer.
I’m going to intentionally refrain from mentioning anyone in LAFCA because I don’t want to leave anyone out or be accused of favoritism. With that said, Roger Ebert and Pauline Kael were writers who meant a lot to me when I was growing up and starting to think about film critically. And though he’s not a film critic, Robert Christgau, the Dean of American Music Critics, has been extraordinarily influential on me as well. Those two men and one woman helped me see the possibilities for writing about art. Most specifically, they’re people who absolutely love what they write about. No occupation has a worse name than “critic” — it suggests a negative, grumpy attitude toward the world. These critics have written many, many negative reviews, but their adoration for great work is what keeps them going.
If I couldn’t do this, I would be a music critic. Or I’d become an accountant or film teacher. But even if I were an accountant, I’d be seeing films all the time.
I think there’s a general sense, which I’ve heard repeated constantly, that film critics don’t like what the general public likes. The perception is that there are some movies for critics and others for “regular” people. And I think that critics help perpetuate this problem by acting as if they are somehow “above” the general public. I’m not saying that means critics should automatically like films just because they’re popular — our job is to help distinguish between the good and bad. But to hold the general public’s taste in contempt as a given cuts off the conversation.
Those critics shouldn’t be critics. If anything, trying to create your own art should give you a greater empathy and understanding for what legitimate film artists are trying to achieve, even if they fail miserably.
I’ve been told on a couple occasions how much my positive review of a very small, indie film has meant to that film’s director. These are the movies that need good reviews to help them find an audience (or, in some cases, even distribution). If I can help these kinds of films in some miniscule way with something I wrote, I’m very happy to do so. It’s also one of the reasons I’m very pleased to be part of LAFCA’s “Films That Got Away” series, which presents a handful of films during the summer’s Los Angeles Film Festival that have yet to receive distribution in Southern California. What can I say: I enjoy championing underdogs.
Don’t assume that being snarky and edgy means you know anything about movies. Just write the way you write, and the rest will fall into place.
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