Questions for an ex film critic

Several weeks ago I received an email from the features editor at the Kane County Chronicle, which is one of the newspapers that ran my movie reviews, telling me a local student was doing a class project on film criticism and wanted to interview me. I wrote back asking if the boy knew I hadn’t been a practicing film critic (outside of this blog) for nearly two years? The editor said the student was aware of this, so I said, “OK, pass along my contact information.” Of course, I was happy and surprised anyone, especially a middle school student, remembered me.

The student, an eighth-grader named Ryan (I won’t disclose his last name for privacy’s sake), decided to email me a list of questions. Once I was done writing my responses, I thought the exchange would make a decent blog post. Having received Ryan’s permission, I now present an interview with a former film critic:

1. What kind of education does it take to be a film critic?

The most important education is to watch lots of movies of a wide variety. Watch them and think about them. Why do you like this one but dislike that one? Were there things you didn’t like about a favorite movie or things you admired in a movie you otherwise hated? Who is your favorite actor or actress? Why? What does he or she do that appeals to you? The more movies you watch, the more you learn. All movies draw from earlier movies. You should be able to recognize those earlier movies.

The second important task is to read film reviews. Lots of them by many different critics, not the critics you always agree with. Rotten Tomatoes and similar websites make it easy to read hundreds of reviews every week. Find a few critics you admire and study their writing. How do they make their points? What words caught your fancy? What percentage of the review is recapping the plot and what percentage is analysis? What made you laugh? What made you think? What made you think while laughing?

You can take your education a step further and study film in college. That’s not necessary. I reckon most working film critics are self-taught in terms of film studies. Yet film classes can only deepen your knowledge. I went to Marquette University, which didn’t have a film major and offered only a few film studies classes. I took the few I could and benefited from them. One was called “Literature into Film” and I wrote my final paper on Carol Reed’s The Fallen Idol (based on a Graham Greene novella), which is still one of my favorite movies.

Even if you don’t take any formal film studies, you should read books about film to learn its history and how films are made. A book I recommend is Making Movies Work: Thinking Like a Filmmaker by Jon Boorstin. The copy I have is under its original (better) title: The Hollywood Eye. This is a brief but comprehensive introduction to the elements of film: cinematography, frame composition, editing, screenwriting, etc. I like it in spite of Boorstin’s cheap knocks on the James Bond movies.

One important but sadly overlooked aspect in the education of a film critic is you must know how to write well. You are a communicator who wants to share your thoughts, which are often complicated, with an audience. You need to know how to put those thoughts into words and how to build coherent and compelling sentences and paragraphs with those words. I studied journalism, so I learned how to write for the masses. Even if you plan to review movies on YouTube, you should write your reviews beforehand and practice your delivery. Unless you are an excellent extemporaneous speaker, winging it in front of a camera will come across as amateurish. Distinguish yourself from the thousands of other movie fans with YouTube accounts and viewers will watch you again and again.

2. How did you break into movie reviews? Did you have any jobs prior to this?

The simple answer is I asked. And I did it twice. I wrote movie reviews for my high school paper and one day the editor for the entertainment section of our local newspaper, The Erie Times-News, gave a career day speech. He said, “If you want to do something, you have to prove you can do it.” At the end of his presentation, I went up to him and asked if I could write movie reviews for the Times-News. He looked over what I had written for the high school paper and apparently thought I was good enough, because he gave me a few assignments. My first professionally published review was for Trail of the Pink Panther. I still remember the headline: “Pink Panther ‘Trail’ leads to laughs, snores.”

When I went to Marquette I continued to write reviews for the student newspaper (this is probably still the best training ground for aspiring movie critics). I had a job as a reporter at a paper in Wabash, Ind., after graduating, but I didn’t see a role for a film critic in town that had one theater that showed movies a month after they opened. When I got to the Northwest Herald I started as a copy editor but wanted to write movie reviews on the side. I asked editors and they said they’d think about it. So finally one day I figured I had to show them what I could do. I wrote a review of the new Brian DePalma film, Casualties of War. I told an editor, “I wrote a review of Casualties of War if you want to take a look at it.” He said, “Great, we’ll run it next Friday.” I continued to write reviews for the Herald for about 25 years.

3. What elements make a good movie for you? Do you focus on any specific parts or elements? Does it depend based on the genre?

I don’t break movies down into elements as I watch them. I prefer to have the whole experience wash over me then go back and figure how the elements combined to make the movie work or how the elements smacked into each other as the movie failed. Even great movies have elements that don’t work (I’m not among those who consider Raiders of the Lost Ark a great film, but did you ever notice if you took Indiana Jones out of the story, the movie would end the same way?)

I suppose because I’m a writer I pay the most attention to the screenplay. How is the story told? What are the gaps in logic? If everything else works, I’m willing to forgive even a weak story. For example, I love the Bond movie Skyfall even though the plot doesn’t make a lick of sense.

4. What advice would you give to an aspiring film critic/filmmaker?

There’s so much to say, but I think I’ll keep this answer short. I believe the most important part of being a film critic is honesty. You have to be honest to the film, honest to your readers and honest to yourself. Sometimes the last one is the hardest.

5. Is there such thing as objective film criticism?

No. Your reaction to a film is based upon everything that has made you a person: your upbringing, your background, your religion, your philosophy, your politics, your tastes. Everyone has a different read on a film, even two people who largely agree on why they like a movie. The differences should be celebrated. This is why Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert were an unbeatable team.

6. How did you write your reviews? Would you actively take notes or focus on certain scenes?

I took notes. And if I was lucky I could read them afterward. Writing legibly in the dark is a skill I never quite mastered. I didn’t have a checklist or chart of things I was looking for. This goes back to my belief in experiencing the movie as it happens. I would jot down things that struck me as either smart or stupid. I also tried to get the basic who, where, when, why stuff. Where is the movie set? During what era? Some movies don’t make it obvious, believe it or not.

I would also try to write down lines of dialogue that I liked or disliked. You should have a few lines of dialogue to use as concrete examples in the review. This goes back to basic reporting: Be specific. It is too easy to slip into vague opinions while writing reviews. “The dialogue was lousy.” What made it lousy? Give an example of a lousy line of dialogue so the reader knows what you mean. You can also do this with descriptions of scenes or an actor’s mannerisms. Taking notes allows you to remember specific pieces of a movie to share with your readers.

7. What is the worst part of the job? (besides watching a bad movie)

During my last few years with the Herald the paper cut back on the number of reviews until it was just one a week. Because I was writing for a suburban paper with a general readership, this meant I had to concentrate on Hollywood genre stuff and try to pick the biggest movie each week (I didn’t always get this right). I felt this reduced my effectiveness as a film critic. It was like standing outside a Baskin-Robbins 31 Flavors and someone asks me about the new mango sorbet. “I’m afraid I haven’t tried that,” I would have to say, “but I could tell you everything you want to know about the vanilla and the chocolate.”

The worst thing about reviewing only the big movies, and this happened over the last 10 years, is that they were always screened at night, usually the Tuesday before the movie opened. In previous years most movies, even the big ones, were shown during the day in a screening room in the Loop, usually three in a row. People used to ask me how I could watch three movies in one day, but I would say I would rather go downtown (I usually took the train) and watch three movies at once and get it over with than spend three hours on a train, round trip, to watch a single two-hour movie. But that’s what the last few years of the job became, and increasingly movies were screened at a theater I hated because it was difficult to catch a cab after the movie. It became exhausting, and I often didn’t get home until around midnight. Critics who don’t commute from the suburbs don’t have this problem, but a lot of late nights can wear you down, particularly when it’s all for bad movie.

8. Are there any movies that you have changed your opinion on? (drastically such as ‘bad to good’ or ‘good to bad’)

Certainly, but mostly from “good to bad,” and a lot of that comes with time. Naturally there are the movies you loved as a kid that you look at years later and say, “Wow, this is terrible.” Classic example for me is Moonraker. I saw it on opening day when I was 13 and thought it was the greatest thing ever and cemented my Bond fandom. Now I regard it as one of the weakest James Bond movies (it’s not the worst, though). However, I think The Man With the Golden Gun, bizarrely, has improved with age. Most of the Roger Moore movies look better through the haze of the Pierce Brosnan era.

I can’t think of many examples of movies that I dismissed when I first saw them but grew to admire. I saw Terms of Endearment when it first came out and I was in high school but I didn’t like it because I couldn’t relate to the characters. I couldn’t believe intelligent people would be so dishonest with each other. When I watched it again as an adult, I understood it. Even intelligent people can have difficulty telling the truth.

9. Were you ever criticized for your review of a movie?

Oh, sure. It goes with the territory. I always figured a critic who can’t take criticism is in the wrong line of work.

However, it bugs me to no end that the charge most often leveled against film critics is that, if we dare to call a Transformers movie is crap, we’re elitists who need to learn to lighten up. Having a broad knowledge of film is something that is held against us. I can’t think of another profession where the practitioners are treated with contempt for taking their jobs seriously. If these people were taken to the emergency room, would they tell the surgeon, “I hope you’re not one of those elitist doctors who keeps up to date with the medical journals”?

10. When doing a review for a movie not aimed at your demographic (such as a ‘kids’ movie) would you review it like any other movie or be a little less harsh on the film?

No. It’s a dangerous thing to write a review assuming another demographic’s point of view. As I said before, your reaction to a movie is formed by everything you have experienced in your lifetime. Saying, “It’s good enough for kids,” is lazy film criticism and dishonest.

Moreover, I never understood the belief that movies aimed at kids should be held to a lower standard. If anything, they should be held to a higher standard. Kids aren’t stupid. They can be engaged by material that is more than a string of fart jokes. Yes, I know most children will laugh uproariously at a cavalcade of fart jokes, but most children would want to eat at McDonald’s every day. I don’t understand why parents would feed their children to a steady diet of cinematic junk food. Well, I guess bad movies won’t make their kids fat, and maybe children hit a point when they recognize not all computer animated films are as good as Pixar’s and begin to wonder why.

11. Do you have any memories when you were an active film critic? (meeting an actor or contacted by one, riffing a bad movie at its showing, etc.)

Too many to go into. I used to enjoy the interviews with actors and directors. Pierce Brosnan once wished me a happy birthday, so that was a thrill for me.

When I reviewed a dismal serial killer movie called Suspect Zero I wrote something along the lines of it had the smell of a movie whose director superimposed his own ideas on the script until the story became obliterated by his ego. A few weeks later I got an email from the screenwriter, Zak Penn, who said, “You’re my new best friend,” and then detailed how the director ruined his script. The original script did sound much better.

My most famous interaction with a filmmaker was the hate letter Michael Bay sent after my review of Transformers (which I gave two stars. I wonder how he would have reacted if I had given it one star). To my delight, Roger Ebert came to my defense in his Movie Answer Man column. You can read it here.

12. What are some of your favorite and least favorite movies?

On Her Majesty’s Secret Service is my favorite movie. As I said, I’m a Bond fan. And, yes, that is the one with George Lazenby.

Other favorites are It’s a Wonderful Life, Gregory’s Girl, Heaven Can Wait (1978, the one with Warren Beatty), Monty Python and the Holy Grail, Citizen Kane, Bringing Up Baby, The Incredibles, The Spy Who Loved Me, American Graffiti, Star Wars, Harold and Maude, Lawrence of Arabia, The Godfather, Jaws, The Bad News Bears, Buster Keaton’s’ The General, Sunrise, Groundhog Day, A Matter of Life and Death/Stairway to Heaven, Spider-Man 2, Pinocchio, Aladdin, Top Hat, Babe, Rashomon, From Russia With Love, A Little Romance, Rushmore. I could go on and on.

Least favorite movies? I’ll narrow it down to one. It’s a Michael Bay movie, Bad Boys II. Not only is the story ludicrous – in the final act, two Miami cops invade Cuba – but I count it as the worst film I ever reviewed because it is so hateful, misanthropic, misogynistic, sadistic and sickening. At one point Martin Lawrence gropes a well-endowed woman’s corpse. The movie is mean-spirited to the core.

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