How did you get started as a film critic?
I’d just graduated from UCLA Film School with some very slick music videos under my arm, but it was right at the peak of the MTV glut when there were too many music video production houses for the actual demand, so nobody was looking to expand, much less hire any new talent, and some were shutting down. So on a whim, I walked into the offices of small free weekly in Burbank, handed them some essays I’d written for my critical studies courses, and they hired me on the spot as both an editor and a film reviewer.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
Patton I was five years old. It was the first time I’d ever been in a movie theater. My parents apparently had a rather lengthy discussion about whether it would be appropriate, particularly since it was my first-ever movie. I remember being instantly awestruck by the image of George C. Scott in front of that enormous American flag. The experience was indelible. I’m still awed by how much of the movie stayed with me – entire scenes, lines of dialogue, shots, sequences. I understood implicitly the power and majesty of which the cinema was capable.
What was your first published review?
Edward Scissorhands The publication is now out of business and the review impossible to find anywhere but in my personal clippings file. Which is just as well.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
Chariots of Fire.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
None. I have no guilty pleasures. The bad movies that I love, I’m perfectly willing and able to defend. I’m a particularly huge fan of exploitation films from ‘50s through the ‘70s which nobody took seriously until Quentin Tarantino made them hip again. The thing is, their value isn’t in their hipness but in their sociological and historical context. The one I’d likely catch the most flack for, though, is a relatively recent one: Showgirls It was agonizing to sit through the first time, but once you learn to laugh at it, it’s irresistible.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
Jackie Chan’s Project A, Part II because it’s one of the purest pieces of cinematic joy ever created, yet relatively few people, apart from Hong Kong film buffs, have ever seen
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
What’s your all-time favorite film? (I vacillate between 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia)
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
Eye of the Beholder I reviewed it off of an American Film Market screening at which time I thought it the greatest thriller I’d ever seen. I gave it five out of five stars – one of maybe only four or five films to which I’ve ever given that rating. About a year later, when it was finally released, the original ending had been stripped and replaced with a more ambiguous, less dramatic conclusion. Critics savaged it. Suddenly I was the one guy who not only didn’t hate it, but who seemed to rank it alongside Citizen Kane Of course, as I was forced to point out… Citizen Kane wouldn’t be Citizen Kane with the ending stripped off, either. The director, Stephan Elliott, later told me that he only added the original ending – which wasn’t in the book – as a way of raising money for the film. I understand why he abandoned it, but I think his first instincts were best. It should have stayed. Even still, I stand by that review. It’s a brilliant film, deeply misunderstood.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I love the films of the 60s. It was just an incredibly vibrant period for cinema – from David Lean epics (Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago) to Technicolor musicals (“My Fair Lady,” “The Sound of Music”) to Britain’s “Angry Young Men” to Truffaut and the French New Wave, Kurosawa and the Japanese New Wave, Bertolucci, Visconti, Bergman, Antonioni, Satyajit Ray, Richard Lester, Lindsay Anderson, Stanley Kubrick, Fassbinder and the early stages of New German Cinema. From about 1957 through 1970, I can’t think of a more exciting, more vibrant, more ambitious period in the history of world cinema. It’s when the movies really came alive.
What is your process in approaching a review?
To be as professional as possible in detailing my opinion of the film and justifying my opinion while at the same time helping direct the film toward its intended audience. Even if I dislike a film, I recognize that there are others out there who may like it, and it’s also my job to make sure they know that, even if, in the process, I end up insulting them. Especially if I insult them.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
Absolutely. Movies are meant to be talked about. You see a movie with an audience. It’s not a solitary activity. The shared experience and the discussion of that shared experience is crucial.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
David Ansen and Kenneth Turan always impress me with their ability to so perfectly communicate precisely what does or doesn’t work about a movie, and why. Leonard Maltin is a magnificent scholar and historian – a joy to read and to talk to. I can’t get enough of Anthony Lane. I don’t always agree with him, but his prose is so beautiful, it wouldn’t matter to me if he were writing about sand.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers.” It should have been clear from the beginning that handing a Tarantino script to Stone was a bad idea. The result was worse than I could have imagined. A head-splitting exercise in psychotropic self-indulgence and cinematic egomania so shamelessly masturbatory it’s a wonder the film doesn’t just implode under the weight of its own excess.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
Yes. Rex Ingram’s 1921 silent “The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.” It’s one of the most seminal silents of all time. I’ve had chances to see it, but never actually made it. It’s also not on DVD, which is inexcusable.
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
…writer and director of good movies, to spare myself the increasingly tedious ordeal of having to sit through bad ones.
In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?
The age of the local newspaper or television critic is gone, which has put a lot of film critics out of work. Long term, though, I think the occupation is in flux. Eventually, the new paradigm will be more liberating once movie fans discover that they don’t need to find their favorite critics through any particular outlet. That, in turn, will make it possible for more people to shop for the critic that best articulates their views and best represents their own voice. It will also make it possible for more voices to eventually join the party and rise to the top. More long term, I think criticism is going to have to expand beyond print. You’re writing about an audio-visual experience, and with the audio-visual capabilities of the Internet, it only makes sense that eventually our work become similarly audio-visual. Time will tell precisely what that means, whether separate audio, video and text work or some kind of multi-media combination of all three.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
As movies become more expensive, people rely on us more and more to help decide whether to see questionable pictures or wait to see them on DVD. But for certain films, it’s also nice to get an educated, scholarly, critical perspective – our real job should be the articulating of thoughts, feelings and ideas that average filmgoers can’t quite assemble on their own.
What’s the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
The best part is discovering that rare gem that touches your heart and stirs your emotions in a way that reinforces your faith in life and humanity, taking you somewhere new and uncharted, emotionally and intellectually,
The worst part is having to sit through literally hundreds of horrible misfires every year. Week after week. It’s dreadful.
Name the worst sequel ever.
“Robocop 2.” Everything the original did right, the sequel did catastrophically wrong and for the most obvious of reasons: the jettisoned the original writers after they came back with a sequel idea which the studio found “unacceptable.” In turn, the suits chose to pursue a sequel path which the public found “unacceptable.” There’s a lesson there for the suits: you’re not creative. So don’t even try.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
That we have it easy. That it’s a luxurious job, seeing lots of free movies and getting to write about them. Nothing could be further from the truth. I suspect food and restaurant critics would say much the same thing.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
I’m sure that’s accurate for some, but certainly not most. Many are just converted beat journalists, some actually just want to be critics while a substantial number – and I include myself here – are trained filmmakers and film school graduates whose primary motivation is to hold working filmmakers and artists to the same high standard we hold for ourselves. The only people we’re interested in punishing are those who waste our time and the public’s money with substandard work. When you’re spending huge amounts of someone else’s money, and you blow it on self-indulgence or incompetence, don’t expect our sympathy.
Are movies better because of film critics?
Overall, yes. Plenty of junk will always get made in spite of us, but if you count the films that wouldn’t exist if not for us, which relied on our support to see daylight (“Brazil” being a key example), the careers that would not exist had we not turned a spotlight on some crucial performance, It’s a stunning lot. Critics, and critics organizations in particular, have made a difference.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
If I did, I’m not aware of it. But I don’t really pay attention to most of my reviews once they’ve been published.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Do something else.
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
Readers and filmgoers have always had a love-hate relationship with film critics – everyone’s an armchair critic in one way or another, and always wanted to sit in that third chair and argue with Siskel and Ebert. But only within the last few years have they had the means, through social networking and online comments, to make that engagement. I don’t know how much that changes the way critics interact – that depends upon the critic, how much they care and whether they choose to engage with readers in return – but it definitely makes the job harder in the sense that it creates more aggregate noise. I don’t think anyone would deny that we’re now on media-overload, inundated with media that is now, for the first time, competing with the real world for our attention. For critics who were previously accustomed to the polity of proprietary journalism where you knew that what you wrote would receive at least a modicum of isolated time and space for readers to absorb your thoughts, that’s a difficult, chaotic paradigm shift.
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