Mark Olsen

How did you get started as a film critic?

Honestly, it’s kind of an accident. I watched a lot of movies and then I read a lot about movies and then I started having ideas of my own. And those ideas wanted to get out.


What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?

Where I grew up, outside Kansas City, a local TV station had movie weeks – Japanese monster week, beach party week, Elvis week, Humphrey Bogart week – and though not technically “moviegoing” those were foundational experiences for me. Then, in a theater, I distinctly remember a scene during “E.T.” where something went off in my young brain – “this movie is trying to make me feel a certain way, it’s manipulating me. I don’t like it.”


What was your first published review?

Woody Allen’s “Husbands And Wives” in my college paper, the University Daily Kansan at the University of Kansas. I just walked in the door and said I wanted to review movies and they let me.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
“Tougher Than Leather.” (See answer #5)


What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?

I am not embarrassed about my affection for any movie that I like. I can justify them all. There is no such thing as a “guilty pleasure” anymore. We’re way past that. However, I do have a disproportionate affection for Rick Rubin’s underseen RUN-DMC movie, “Tougher Than Leather,” which is something like if Sergio Leone made a blaxsploitation flick.


Name a film you think everybody should see.

I will restrain myself from saying “Tougher Than Leather.” Rather I will recommend “The Long Goodbye” by Kansan City’s own Robert Altman. It sits so well at the intersection of classic Hollywood and more modernist ways of thinking about filmmaking, what’s not to like? Also, Howard Hawks’ “His Girl Friday.” It’s funny, sexy and talky and a distinctly modern film made in the classic mode.

What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?

“So you get paid to watch movies?” To which I like to respond “Sort of, but I also see a lot of movies neither you nor I nor anyone else wants to see. That’s why it’s work.”


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

I generated no small amount of internet traffic out of Sundance this year with a spirited defense of “The Killer Inside Me.” Also, I once received a very angry letter from a cinematographer after implying he had not read the instruction manual for his camera.


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

All of ’em. Bring it on. When it comes to movie-going I try to follow the words of Travis Bickle: “Anytime, anywhere.”


What is your process in approaching a review?

I like to think of myself as a submersible vessel. I enter into the world created by the film and look around. Then I try to understand what the filmmakers’ intentions were and evaluate how close they came to achieving whatever those goals may be.


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

It depends, sometimes yes, sometimes no. Most importantly I prefer seeing movies with as little noise in my head as possible. That’s why it’s so great to see things ahead of the curve and before there’s a lot of press in the ether. Once I’ve seen something, I do often like reading other writers just as a sounding board and to help me clarify my own thoughts.


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

Again, I am embarrassed by nothing when it comes to the viewing of movies. I actually think sometimes not having seen something is as valuable as seeing something. Unlikely blind spots build up your own personal, idiosyncratic view of the world of filmmaking. But, since you asked, I’ve never seen “Gone With The Wind” all the way through. Or “Titanic,” for that matter.


What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?

Once while working in a Lawrence, Kansas video store, John Clifford, the screenwriter of the immortal “Carnival Of Souls,” rented some dreadful movie. (I want to recall it as Anna Nicole Smith’s “Skyscraper” but that can’t be right.) I engaged him a bit and he slyly told me, “You learn a lot more from the bad ones than you ever do from the good ones.”


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

As there is more and more information available it becomes more and more difficult for the average citizen, or anyone really, to make sense of it all. This is where the critic can step in. Of course the paradox created by the widespread availability of the tools to cut through the noise while simultaneously adding to it is one of the great questions of our age.


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

Functioning as a cultural first-responder is but one of the tasks of the critic. As the cultural landscape becomes more and more asymmetrical, with massive marketing forces behind some films and the scarcest of resources behind others, the critic is in a position to level the playing field, pointing audiences toward work that is simply worthy regardless of whether there are billboards and TV ads or not.

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

I would disagree. Do artists not want an audience that is educated and receptive, waiting each time to have their heads torn clean off? That to me is the critics’ greatest role, to be the best possible audience for a specific piece of work.


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

I would like to think so. I have some sense that positive things I have written have helped to push the sale of a few films, which I have to confess feels good. Knowing that you’re helping good work find a broader audience is really one of the purest rewards of this job.


What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?

Good luck. Please do not enter this profession expecting to become rich in a monetary sense, but it will push you as a person in ways you likely cannot expect. Also, there will, if you’re lucky, be crazy-ass moments when you’re utterly pinching yourself knowing that your 15-year-old self just had his/her mind totally blown. (Your 15-year-old self will also sometimes frown and be scornful of the very grown-up compromises and decisions you will be forced to make. But maybe it’s better to forget that kid.)


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