What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, who punish those who do for doing?
The best kinds of critics, and the ones I read and seek to emulate, are not –- not any more than John Ruskin was a frustrated architect or Plato was a frustrated poet. At the same time, I don’t think it’s a completely irrelevant point to make. I always try to stay aware of the fact that even the worst, most incompetent filmmaker is doing something that I cannot do, and in fact have never even attempted to do. Though I’ve never wanted to be a filmmaker myself (no really, I swear), I obviously have deep respect for the profession, and the more I come to understand the process by which a film is made, the more I appreciate how difficult it is to create even what the more uncharitable among us might label “hackwork.” It doesn’t mean I don’t want to bash my head into the wall whenever I hear someone bring up that argument, but I do understand it.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
Watching “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves” with my dad, at age 4 or 5, at a small theater in rural Arkansas. Though I’d seen dozens of movies at that point, I’d never been to an actual cinema, and was completely overwhelmed by the experience. I was alternately terrified and exhilarated.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit that you love?
I’m a committed opponent of the idea of “guilty pleasures,” so theoretically none. At the same time, though, I’m not about to divulge the number of times I’ve seen “Legally Blonde” or “Friday.”
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
That we couldn’t possibly enjoy, much less continually rewatch, movies like “Legally Blonde” and “Friday.”
Name a film that you think everyone should see.
Krysztof Keislowski’s “Three Colors” trilogy (as well as the unofficial fourth piece, “The Double Life of Veronique,” which is better than all three). Keislowski is unquestionably my favorite filmmaker -- I’ve noticed my friends have begun to audibly groan whenever I first mention his name, knowing that they’re in for a long tirade -- but it’s more than just fanboyism that leads me to evangelize these films to everyone I know. I’m not a religious, nor even a particularly spiritual, person, and I mostly associate with others who are the same. I don’t see anything necessarily wrong with this sort of lifestyle, but there is something impoverished about living life without any sort of connection to the extraordinary, inexpressible, chthonian elements of existence. And in these films, Keislowski offer a view of the universe that doesn’t heed to any belief system or offer any solutions, but that still looks upon the imperceptible currents that bind together human beings and influence life in the same sort of way than mystics and clerics regard God. Watching these films opens one up to a more expansive and mysterious way of thinking about one’s own existence, and I don’t think it’s hyperbole to claim that one’s experience of life will be appreciably richer for having seen them.
What movie would you have liked to review upon its original release?
Richard Linklater’s “Dazed and Confused” -- I don’t think anyone really raved about that film to the extent that they should have, or that I would have.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
No. But only because my personal critical metabolism doesn’t work nearly fast enough. With a lot of films I review, I’m not entirely sure what I think of them until I start writing about them. With some films, I’m not sure I ever come to a final conclusion.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Well, I’m only in my third or fourth year of reviewing films professionally, so I probably ought to still be listening to advice, rather than giving it. But I’ll say this: no matter how many movies you think you see before becoming a critic, you will see far more movies when you become one. A lot of them will be films you never would have even known existed. And you will realize that, like all forms of art or entertainment, most films that are released operate in varying degrees of mediocrity. It will start to really wear you down after a while. And hence, there will be a tendency to either consign most of the movies you see into some vast, undifferentiated muddle, or else to overpraise films that offer anything remotely novel, and to viciously tear apart films that are merely harmless pabulum. The former approach will only expedite the process by which film reviews become little more than sources of numerical data to be aggregated, and the latter approach will only make critics appear to be either raving hysterics or misanthropic assholes (I mean, even more than we actually are). Almost every great film has a stumbling block, and almost every middling formula picture has something to recommend it, and being able to overcome apathy to seek those elements out is the mark of a good critic. Also, try to avoid making puns on film titles as much as you possibly can. That shit gets intolerable.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
All right: I’ve never actually seen “King Kong,” okay? Please just shoot me (or lend me the DVD, whatever’s easier).
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
Far too many to name. But Tullio Kezich, Manohla Dargis, Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane come immediately to mind. As do Todd McCarthy and Justin Chang, and a large cross-section of my fellow LAFCA members. And my cousin, Christian Keathley.
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