Justin Chang

How did you get started as a film critic?

Shortly after graduating from college, I interned and freelanced for the Orange County Register, where I wrote reviews as well as feature stories.  I was eventually hired full-time as an editor at Variety, writing reviews for the paper on the side.  Six years later, I’m writing more than ever and editing more than ever.  “Multitask or perish” seems to have become the new mantra of modern journalism.


What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?

“Vertigo.”  I may be dreaming, but I like to think I’d have been on the side of history, not critical opinion at the time.


What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?

Critics should never be embarrassed by their pleasures, but I’ve noticed that I have a serious weakness for love stories involving time travel.  “Somewhere in Time,” “The Lake House,” “The Time Traveler’s Wife” — these movies are unabashedly ludicrous, which is also why they’re so sublime.  Whereas most romances bend over backward to cook up some phony, “realistic” way of keeping two lovers apart, there’s something wonderfully pure about a film that drops all pretense and poses a metaphysical or supernatural obstacle — the more tortured and tragically overwrought, the better.  It’s so much more romantic.  And on an emotional level, far more realistic.


Name a film you think everybody should see.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s “Flowers of Shanghai” (1999), because it might teach you some of the lessons it taught me: that cinema can be poetry as well as prose, and that when dealing with a work of art, there are far more important criteria to consider than your own fickle attention span.  But also because it’s simply one of the most beautiful films ever made, and it’s not seen often enough.


What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?

It was more of a teapot tempest than a full-blown controversy, but I knew I was courting ridicule when I enthusiastically described “Inception” as “a Jungian’s ‘Rififi’” — a contorted set of allusions, to be sure, but it struck me as consistent with the spirit of the film.  Sure enough, an L.A. Times columnist took me to task for elitism, though it was gratifying to see a number of Times readers fire back; they not only understood the references, but resented the implication that they wouldn’t.  People are much smarter than the media often give them credit for.


Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?

As a Christian, I’m particularly fascinated by films that deal with matters of faith — by which I don’t mean those sanitized, church-sanctioned cine-homilies like “Fireproof” (although, in the spirit of confession, I admit that these movies can be awfully fun to review).  Artists of faith can and must do better if they are to have the widespread impact they desire.
I’m much more drawn to films that use the poetic properties of the medium to bring us closer to a genuine notion of the divine — films that treat the conundrums and contradictions of human faith and morality not with some transparent agenda, but with the complexity and stark beauty they deserve.  Robert Bresson’s “Au hasard Balthazar” and “Diary of a Country Priest” come to mind, as do Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Andrei Rublev,” Pier Paolo Pasolini’s “The Gospel According to St. Matthew,” Jean-Pierre Melville’s “Léon Morin, Priest,” Carlos Reygadas’ “Silent Light,” Andrei Zvyagintsev’s “The Return,” Lee Chang-dong’s “Secret Sunshine,” and just about anything by the Dardenne brothers.


Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?

With the exception of a few trusted individuals whom I’ve been known to bounce ideas off from time to time, I try to remain fairly tight-lipped about a film until after I’ve written my review.  I want my response to be my own, and I don’t want others to find out about my opinion before they’ve read it.
If I’m not reviewing the film, it’s a different story.  One of the great pleasures of attending film festivals like Cannes is engaging in the often fiercely passionate discussions that immediately follow the press screenings.  It’s wonderful to see the inherent pluralism of criticism in action — there isn’t a point that can’t be argued, a masterpiece that can’t be assaulted, a travesty that can’t be defended — and also to engage with journalists from all over the world, united by a common love of cinema.


What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?

Too many to name them all, but I admire Manohla Dargis, A.O. Scott and J. Hoberman enormously, as well as two critics, Kenneth Turan and Todd McCarthy, whom I’m proud to call mentors as well as colleagues.


Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?

Again, too many to name, but today I’ll go with “Sansho the Bailiff.”


In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?

The Internet has brought exposure to a host of new voices (some mediocre, some brilliant) and exploded the traditional, print-based paradigms of what film criticism can be — which is wonderful in some ways, but also unfortunate because those very paradigms have kept a lot of very smart critics employed.  I could subject you further to my cluttered thoughts on the matter, or I could direct you to Paul Brunick’s excellent two-part essay in Film Comment, the first half of which can be found here: http://www.filmlinc.com/fcm/ja10/onlinecriticism.htm


To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?

Ideally, critics help their readers to better understand, trust and articulate their own opinions about a film — and, when necessary, to challenge them to see past their immediate reactions.  They teach them to be better moviegoers: more attentive, more informed, more appreciative, more exacting.  And they provide an intelligent, independent-minded counterpoint to the hype manufactured by the movie studios, drawing attention to the fact that some of the best films out there are not made or widely distributed in this country, and don’t have millions of advertising dollars at their disposal.


What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?

That we’re all unhygienic slobs.  My friend Shane Danielsen (a superb critic himself, incidentally) once said he’d like to invent a critic-scented cologne, L’Eau de Critique, the formula for which would consist of “tobacco, sadness, and a subtle bass note of poo.”


What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?

Laying aside the fact that the critical drive stems as much from a desire to praise as it does from a desire to “punish,” I’d say that anyone who voices such an opinion is merely revealing how little they know about art, criticism and the not-insignificant overlap between the two.  They probably haven’t heard about this thing that happened 50 years ago called the French New Wave, which produced the likes of Godard, Truffaut, Resnais and Rohmer, among others — all giants of the medium who also worked as critics, and who indeed saw filmmaking as a natural extension of their criticism.  Or, on the American side of the ledger, people like James Agee, Paul Schrader, Peter Bogdanovich and countless others who have not only contributed to film history but commented extensively on it as well.  It’s infuriating, and kind of hilarious, that such reductive non-thought still persists; one is tempted to suggest that it’s the frustrated artists themselves who keep it in circulation.


Are movies better because of film critics?

The movies aren’t better, but the moviegoers are better off.


In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?

One of the cool but scary things about writing for an industry publication is that your reviews often do have a direct, immediate effect, especially when the film in question has not yet been placed before the public at large.  A few years ago, I reviewed a film at a festival and was generally complimentary, though I noted that it dragged a bit toward the beginning; word got back to me that, apparently, the filmmaker had read my review and subsequently trimmed the opening reels, in time for the film’s second festival screening.  I never expect anyone to take my advice, so it was a bit of a shock to hear that someone had.

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