How did you get started as a film critic?
I never intended to become a movie critic. I just wanted to share my passion for the movies I loved. When I was kid, I kept a scrapbook with movie ads taped in it, below which I wrote little comments. I posted a yearly Ten Best List on my bedroom door. (Total geek). As an adult, I began writing personal essays about my life and about the way a given movie had affected me personally that I called “Flickers”. I would photocopy these short essays and mail them to friends. Eventually, I met Manohla Dargis, then the film editor of the L.A. Weekly. I put her on my “Flickers” mailing list and in 1987 she called and asked me to write a capsule review of a teen ninja movie, the title of which escapes me. I’ve been freelancing for the L.A. Weekly ever since. Reviewing movies and interviewing actors and directors barely pays the light bill, but it remains a continuing joy for me.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
It’s hard to pin down a “Eureka!” moment. My family went to the movies every weekend, and my childhood memories are rich with the pleasures of sitting safely in the dark, surrounded by my brother, sisters, and parents. In the years since, my family has become deeply fractured, but we’re bound still by our love of movies. I remember being terribly nervous the Sunday night before starting junior high, so my parents let me go alone to see the early evening showing of Lady and the Tramp, which was in re-release. I know that the movie, still one of my favorites, soothed me, and made me think I was going to be okay. A good movie can be a saving grace.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
Long Day’s Journey into Night, with Katherine Hepburn, Ralph Richardson, Jason Robards, and Dean Stockwell, directed by Sidney Lumet (1962). This magnificent adaptation of Eugene O’Neil’s play is one of my five favorite films of all time, not only because of the wrenching performances (Hepburn’s true moment of genius), but also for the elegant yet haunting cinematography of Boris Kaufman. A masterpiece.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
For me, these questions go together because I think most people believe that film critics only care about foreign films, documentaries, and “art house” indie dramas. That’s a high-brow image we work hard to project, I think, to both the public and each other, but on a Friday night, after a long week, a mindless action flick or silly comedy is often just the ticket. As for guilty pleasures, well, if you promise not to tell, I do find myself watching Shining Through (1992), starring Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas, whenever I flip across it on cable. What can I say? I’m a sucker for WWII melodramas, period costumes, and heroic romance.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
The Saint of 9/11, director Glenn Holsten’s 2006 documentary about the life of Father Mychal Judge, the New York City Fire Department Chaplain who suffered a heart attack while ministering to the fallen on 9/11. There is a famous photo of the firemen carrying his body out of the rubble. Father Judge was gay, which may be why this deeply moving films—as much a tone poem to New York City as it is a documentary—never got mainstream attention. Sad, but you can discover it on DVD. I promise you’ll be recommending it to friends and family.
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
“I always wanted to be movie critic. Do you get every movies for free?”
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
Even though they’re often pretty terrible, I love reviewing horror movies. I’m a fan of the genre, and because the form invites stylization, it’s often a good genre for discovering new talent. And horror movies are usually 90 minutes or less—a critic’s dream!
What is your process in approaching a review?
I try to watch and then review each movie on its own terms. Does a horror film display a bit of style and wit? Is that buddy comedy actually funny, and does it move along quickly? Does that first-time filmmaker with the super low-budget movie have anything on his mind? Is that $100 million dollar big-star Hollywood epic intelligently made, or is it a cynical knock-off? Basically, I try never to forget that Hollywood remains a factory town—there has to be new product in the theater every Friday. To say the least, they’re not all going to be masterpieces.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
The novelist James Agee (A Death in the Family) wrote insightful, wonderfully soulful reviews for The Atlantic in the 1940s. They’re worth tracking down. Manny Farber was briliant. In my 30 years in Los Angeles, I’ve been deeply affected by the film writing of L.A. Weekly writers such as Michael Ventura, Ginger Varney, John Powers, F.X. Feeney, Ella Taylor, Manohla Dargis, Hazel-Dawn Dumpert, Ernest Hardy, and Scott Foundas, all of whom are writers first, and critics second. Sheila Benson, formerly of the L.A. Times, is a friend and mentor to this day.Finally, as for so many others, my biggest influence has been the late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, whose personal friendship and thrillingly vibrant writer’s voice I never stop missing.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
Seven Beauties (1976), directed by Lina Wertmuller
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
A bookstore owner, probably, but I would have loved to have been a war photographer.
Name the worst sequel ever.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Don’t expect to make a decent living from being a film critic. That’s always been a difficult task, but it’s beyond impossible now, thanks to the cutbacks at newspapers and magazines. Those staff positions will never come back. If you can handle that, then write reviews because you want to share your excitement about and deep love of movies. Most movies you’ll review professionally will fall short in some way, so you need to have a deep reserve of passion to draw on for those times when one movie after another seems truly awful. Publish yourself if you have to, and try to build an audience, even if that audience is only friends and family. Send your clips to editors and to critics you admire. Finally, don’t let your entire life revolve around watching movies. Read good fiction, study art, listen to classical music, and most importantly, go out and explore the real world. Live life. Love hard. Make mistakes. The more you know about the world, and about yourself, the better critic you’ll be.
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