How did you get started as a film critic?
I never set out to become a critic. When I was very young I became interested in film history and it remains my first love. When I attended New York University I started working on the daily newspaper there. There was no call for articles about the early days of movies—but there was an opening for a film critic. That was when I wrote my first reviews. I was 18.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
When I was seven years old my parents took me to see a feature-length compilation called The Golden Age of Comedy. It introduced me to Laurel and Hardy and other performers of that era and I fell in love. I’ve never been the same since. Not long afterward I went to my local library and took out my first film book, King of Comedy, the autobiography of film pioneer Mack Sennett. And many years after that I had the chance to meet, and become friendly with, the man who made The Golden Age of Comedy, Robert Youngson. It was wonderful to be able to thank him for opening that world to me.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
I would have loved to dealt with Citizen Kane when it was brand new in 1941. I wonder how I would have responded to it—and whether I would have been completely overwhelmed.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
I’m not exactly embarrassed, but since I was a kid I’ve been fond of Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth, which many people cite as one of the worst movies to have won a Best Picture Academy Award. But at least I’m not alone: Steven Spielberg also loves it, and even included footage of it in his version of War of the Worlds.
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
People usually respond by saying I have the best job in the world—getting paid to watch movies—and they’re not wrong.
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
In my annual Movie Guide I give negative reviews to Blade Runner—which I’ve now seen in at least three different versions—and Taxi Driver, which I readily acknowledge is an influential movie but turned me off nevertheless. I stick to my guns on those reviews but people give me a lot of grief about them.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I love the silent era but my favorite decade is the 1930s. The machinery of studio filmmaking was at its zenith. They had great art direction, cinematography, music, a wonderful array of stars and character actors, and the knowledge of how to tell a story (with a beginning, middle and end). I almost always find something of value, even in a film that isn’t great. (That said, they made plenty of bombs then, too; those aren’t the ones worth cherishing and reviving.)
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
Many years ago I discovered a book of essays and reviews by Scotsman John Grierson, a documentarian who went on to form the National Film Board. They remain some of the best essays I’ve ever read. I admire many other critics, past and present, including David Denby and Anthony Lane of The New Yorker, Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times, and Peter Rainer of the Christian Science Monitor. I also admire the way Roger Ebert can turn a critique into a highly personal essay.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
I’ve never seen some of the epic films of the 1960s because I missed them the first time around and want to see them on a big screen, not on my TV set. I don’t want to name names because it’s too embarrassing!
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
I love to write, and when I get interested in something I feel the need to express myself. If I weren’t a critic I’d still be writing about something. (I used to write about jazz for Down Beat magazine and the Village Voice.)
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
People seem to think critics wield great influence over audiences; it simply isn’t true. There is definitely a segment of the moviegoing public that pays attention to critics, but if we had any real power there never would have been a Friday the 13th part 2, let alone a long-running series. Conversely, the indie films and imports we tend to champion would become hits—which seldom happens.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
I can enjoy and appreciate a great meal without having any desire to cook one. I tried making movies when I was an adolescent, and learned then how hard it was. I never had any desire to pursue it seriously. Some years later a friend convinced me to try screenwriting with him, and while I enjoyed the creative exercise, I soon learned that “pitching” movies is a hugely frustrating process. It gave me new respect for people who are willing to endure all of that to see a project to fruition.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
The highest compliment I receive is when someone tells me they watched, or rented, a film because of my recommendation—and liked it.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
I always tell aspiring film critics to see everything they can, know their film history, and read as much as possible. Then start writing and gain experience
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
I juggle a great many balls in the air all the time. Seeing films and keeping up with deadlines is a full-time job in itself; as a result, I simply don’t have time to interact with readers. I realize that many people expect journalists to maintain a two-way conversation with their audience nowadays, but I’m not sure that should be a requirement of the job—certainly not when it interferes with one’s ability to do one’s work on a timely basis
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