Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories

Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics and publishes the results on Monday morning. Send suggestions for future question to sam at indiewire dot com.

This week’s question: Many of this summer’s blockbusters have been devoted to origin stories: What’s yours? How did you become a critic, and why do you write?

David Fear, Time Out New York

I wish I could say it was something as exciting as being bitten by a radioactive Stanley Kauffmann on a school field trip and waking up with superpowers, but it’s much more mundane. It really starts with the almost simultaneous discovery of three things in the late ’80s: Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary; the existence of Film Comment; and my local alt-weekly, which featured a film critic named Richard von Busack who wrote (and still writes) in the Kael/Farber/Bangs vernacular. That unholy trinity made me want to become a critic. Later, after aping Peary’s GFTFF blurbs for the website of the San Francisco video store I worked at, my boss (also a writer) suggested I apply for the film-writing internship at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I got it. You can blame them.

Scott Beggs, Film School Rejects.

The radioactive spider that bit me was Harry Knowles’ Butt-Numb-a-Thon. The fifth year to be exact. I’d grown up relating to my father through Guns of Navarone and my mother through Gone with the Wind, but it wasn’t until sitting through 24 hours of excess (via Oldboy, Return of the King, and a a live-accompanied copy of The General) that I handed my heart over to the screen and felt an itch for sharing that enthusiasm with others. Peter Jackson giggling with glee at Buster Keaton’s antics, meeting people of all walks of life whose connective tissue is movies, eating eggs for breakfast right after seeing Teenage Mother…it’s hard to keep these things to yourself. So I learned to share.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I made two video essays for Press Play and now I’m on this list… and I was bitten by a radioactive Gene Shalit.

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

I’d have to say it was CREEM magazine. From an early age I had been told that I had an aptitude for writing, or that I didn’t have an aptitude for anything else except MAYBE writing, I don’t recall exactly how it was put to me. And I liked writing, and I played around with various forms as kids do, but it wasn’t until I was in my early teens and began reading CREEM magazine that I discovered writing in a form that I found congenial as a model I could perhaps follow. In that magazine’s pages I found a lot of things that appealed to me: wit, irreverence, and a wide ranging sensibility. I was the kind of kid who, upon reading a reference to some obscure record or book, would not turn my nose up at it and say, “This writer’s talking down to me!” and then discard the reading; no, I would passionately seek out and devour the thing referred to. So, a parody record review by Bangs under the pen name “Mort A. Credit” eventually led me to Celine. As a more or less autodidact my connection of the pertinent dots remained seriously spotty for many years (and in fact I think it’s only within the last decade or so that I’ve come to understand what criticism actually is, or what one calls criticism actually ought to be, but that’s for another time), but I did know that doing what Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Billy Altman, Robert Duncan, James Wolcott, and a lot of other writers there were doing looked not only culturally vital but an awful lot of fun, and as I continued reading through the ’70s I formulated what was my first — and as it turns out, really ONLY — professional ambition. Which was that I wanted to write about rock and roll in The Village Voice and be edited by Robert Christgau. And I got to do that, beginning in 1984. Having fulfilled that ambition in my mid-twenties, I then realized that I now had my whole life, short or long, ahead of me. And that’s when I began to fuck up. But that’s also a story for another time. 

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

One answer is that when I really began my serious career as a journalist, at the Florida Flambeau (R.I.P.), the off-campus tabloid daily at Florida State University, I really hated covering city commission meetings and thought movie reviews and the like would be a lot easier. But I was lucky in that the campus had an amazing repertory theater (with a leaky ceiling and a pianist for all the silent movies) where you could see almost everything in the Janus catalog within a few quarters. That, and all the then-current German New Wave hits you could slather in sauerkraut und der angst von der angst. Fassbinder and Herzog and Wenders were my gods, and it was still the late 1970s/early ’80s so even the multiplex was kick-ass (From Reds to The Terminator). No InterWebs then, but I was a faithful Voice reader, in thrall to James Wolcott, Lester Bangs and J. Hoberman, especially. My passion for film, and writing about film, was kindled by all of that. But I also remember that as a small child, my parents always took me along to the drive-in as they could not afford a babysitter, so I had a near-primal-scene exposure to Spaghetti Westerns and other mid-’60s grindhouse fare that made a huge impact. I suspect my first “review” came at some elementary school show-and-tell when I regaled my class (and the certainly abashed teacher) with a description of the naked skiiers in one of the Mondo movies. Birth of a critic.

Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope

I think that I first decided to be a film critic when I flipped through a Pauline Kael anthology that my mother kept on her movie-book bookshelf in the basement. I was looking for a review of Jaws, which was (and still probably is) my favorite movie, and I was brought up short by the author’s assertion that the film suggested “what Eisenstein might have done if he hadn’t intellectualized himself out of reach.” I had no idea what she could possibly be talking about. A few days later, I looked up Eisenstein. That was twenty years ago and would you believe I’ve still not gotten around to seeing Alexander Nevsky?

Mary Pols, Time

My origin story is so boring and predictable that I can already feel the commenters vomiting in my general direction. My parents subscribed to only one magazine when I was a kid, the New Yorker. Somewhere along the line they got a gift of Smithsonian and Jesus, that was dull. But every week, there was the New Yorker and I was both a voracious reader as a child and fascinated with horses. So I started reading The Race Track column and puzzling over the cartoons and during some particularly long bath or maybe when my brother was monopolizing our TV with yet another Star Trek episode, I moved on to reading Pauline Kael. I very rarely went to the movies, although I watched a ton of old movies on TV with my mother, but I was hooked. She wrote on a level that could, miraculously, engage a child, and I mean that as a great compliment. I went to J-school, where there were no classes taught in movie criticism and there was already a general sense of doom about the industry that made me think I’d better be a news reporter if I wanted to make a living. Then, at my last newspaper job, the opening came up, I tried out and somehow, got the job. I’ve never forgotten the lesson: in the small pond there can be big opportunities. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

As far back as I can remember, even in earliest childhood, criticism was always there, long before I knew what it was called — the feeling of living more through records and books, ball games and movies than through the stuff of my own experience (at which I’ve always felt like a spectator), along with a pure secret pleasure in style and gesture that took priority over action or outcomes. A high-school obsession with Nietzsche, who seemed to spend half his time writing about music, didn’t hurt. So when, early in college, I found out about the cinema (something different from watching movies) thanks to a filmmaker (Jean-Luc Godard) who — I soon learned — started out writing criticism, it seemed like the obvious thing to do (via college newspapers). From there, it took another couple of decades of wandering in a desert of my own making (and writing an awful lot in private) before I’d write criticism again for publication. The Internet, had it existed, might have helped. 

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

I blame the dinosaurs. My father had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly and the magazine’s constant coverage of all things Jurassic Park got me reading. Soon I was hooked on the words of Owen Glieberman and Ty Burr, though it took me at least another dozen years to realize that I could (and should) be doing what they were doing.

Robert Greene, Hammer to Nail

Well not to slice this too thinly, but I’m not a critic, really, although I started writing about documentary last year when the otherwise esteemed Manhola Dargis completely missed the boat on what I and others saw as one of the best nonfiction films of the year, Only the Young. So in between making movies, I’ve taken up the art of pontificating. I never thought to be a critic. Or maybe that’s a lie. I wanted to be an actor since I appeared in a Sears commercial as a toddler (I was adorable) until I got a good grade on a writing test in the 4th grade. That became an obsession with journalism in high school (I was editor of the sports section), which slid into film/documentary in college. Now I reject the journalism-documentary connection with the fervor of a convert!

Kevin Lee, Press Play 

Becoming a film critic was due less to any revelation (in fact the most significant critical revelation I’ve had recently is that it’s better NOT to see oneself as a professional film critic). My experience has been more a haphazard series of stumbles and detours which I disclosed in one of Peter Labuza’s Cinephiliacs podcasts. But one memory unmentioned there does carry a shudder of discovery: sophomore year of college, when I read a student review of Pulp Fiction which began with the paragraph: “See it. See it. See it. See it.” then plunged into two pages of analysis on how bathrooms displace characters within the space time continuum of Tarantino’s narratives. No review before or since gave me such a whiplash pan across the different spells cast by film criticism, from bullying bluntness to seductive sophistry, both conveying not just the power of a film but the power of one possessed by film. In hindsight, my practice as a critic has evolved along this idea of possession: not just psychological, intellectual or emotional, but the cultural, economic and political forces behind these presumably personal affects. 

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

When I was in high school, I was sort of into golf (don’t ask), and went down on a spring break trip during my freshman year with many of the seniors to Topeka, Kansas. One can imagine that there’s not much to do after 6 p.m. in a place like Kansas, but the older guys rented three movies that first opened me up to seeing films that were (at least) slightly outside the mainstream: Pulp Fiction, Memento, and L.A. Confidential. Surely a contested point, but to the impressionable 15 year old at the time, it was the first time I realized movies could do something different and outside the mainstream, and I’ve been hooked ever since. 

Matt Prigge, Metro

I don’t really have some romantic (any meaning of the term) reason I foolishly got into writing about film. It’s just made sense, once I became more than a casual viewer, to write about movies after I watched them. I wanted to talk about, for instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey with someone after first seeing it at 14, but no one I knew in person was interested in that. (Definitely not my poor sister, who did not take kindly to early man screaming and banging on rocks for twenty minutes.) That the internet was first blooming around this time meant that I had people (or the illusion of people) upon whom to foist my ideas and readings, and maybe even start a dialogue. Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, et al. all came later, after which I’m pretty sure I became better (I hope). In the movie of my origin story, the young me will be played by Jon Hamm.

Eric KohnIndiewire

I probably became a film critic the first time I snuck Bazin’s What is Cinema? into a high school Talmud class. Spending my teenage years in an Orthodox Jewish community, albeit a fairly modern one, meant that I was surrounded by fixed ideologies and a severely limited view of the world. Movies were both my escape and my real education — as were the volumes of analytical texts I could find about them in the absence of like-minded cinephilic peers.

Fortunately, growing up in Seattle in the 1990s meant that I had plenty of art houses to explore on my own. Seeing Le Cercle Rouge at the Neptune Theater or hearing Quentin Tarantino present a series of Roy Rogers Westerns at the Seattle International Film Festival gave me the opportunity to venture beyond the barriers of the multiplex. When I moved to New York to attend NYU’s Cinema Studies program, I discovered that my enthusiasm for film history had barely started. It wasn’t just about loving the movies; I needed to marry the process of discovery with an outlet for championing it.

John Oursler, In Review Online, Sound on Sight

I moved to New York to study queer and gender theory, though film was always my primary passion. The first time I watched a David Cronenberg film, probably The Brood or Dead Ringers, I felt absolutely compelled to write something about it through a queer reading. From there I was hooked. My passion for writing about film still comes from that same desire to see things, and hopefully help others see things, from a new perspective. 

Scott Renshaw, City Weekly

I’ve probably always been a naturally critical thinker, but the true genesis began in the spring of 1984, when I started working at a movie theater in my hometown of Bakersfield, California. Because I could watch for free, I started to see everything, including stuff I never would have thought to watch as a 17-year-old. And Amadeus became the first “prestige” movie that grabbed me unexpectedly, and made me start thinking about why I enjoyed it so much even though it was a movie about (bleh) classical music. I soon started writing the reviews for my high-school paper, and just 29 years later, here I am, still asking myself “why.”

Shawn Levy, The Oregonian

I think it was an impulse I always had, combining the love of movies, writing, and newspapers. I published my first reviews in a fifth grade newspaper: The French Connection, which I had seen, and The Godfather, which I had not (I interviewed a classmate who’d seen it, and I remember trying, to little avail, to get him to distinguish between Messers Pacino and Caan); for some reason, I *exactly* recall my lede:  “Good movies are BACK!” (Little did I know….)

From middle school through college I wrote about pop music, never film, but it was the same impulse: writing, curatorial opinionizing, putting stuff in print.  My first “professional” reviews were done in exchange for restaurant scrip coupons in 1985, after I ran into a former poetry workshop student who was editing a freebie newspaper in Newport Beach and suggested I write something — anything — for him; we had both just come out of a rerelease of The Mystery of Picasso, and it was what we were talking about, so I said “sure.”

It was the beginning of my doom…..

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

Like a lot of film fans of my generation, what got me interested in cinema were monster movies, and the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Realizing that many of my favorite films were directed by James Whale, or all produced by Val Lewton was, for me, the beginning of auteurism.That led to Carlos Clarens’ The Illustrated History of the Horror Film, which I got when I was about 10, and Robin Wood’s Hitchcock’s Films which I probably got a year later, my first two books of long-form, critical analysis. As my parents also got The New Yorker (and my father had a copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang lying around, mostly for the capsule reviews at the back) I was soon reading Pauline Kael, too, and carefully keeping track of all the movies I’d seen, grabbing the credits from Leonard Maltin’s TV Movies paperback (this was pre-IMDB, youngsters), and writing out my reviews (with stars!) on index cards. The die was cast.

And as a result, I’m the marginally employable professional I am today.

Zack Handlen, A.V. Club

I’m not sure I have an origin story per se; I got into criticism because I love to write, and because I loved books and movies, and having opinions about ’em just sort of happened. I can remember the first public critical piece I ever wrote. It was my senior year of college, and I decided I wanted to contribute to the school newspaper because, well, that’s just what young writers were supposed to do, right? So I convinced them to give me enough space to print a huge diatribe against The Breakfast Club, despite the fact that The Breakfast Club hadn’t been in theaters in over a decade. It was an incredibly self-indulgent, snarky piece of crap, but it must’ve impressed someone, because it also led to my first press screening: the 2000 horror film Lost Souls, starring Winona Ryder as a Roman Catholic who meet cutes with the Anti-Christ. Something like that, anyway. The movie was bland and forgettable, but I remember feeling very cool hanging out in a theater in Boston with a group of local critics. I felt like I was part of a conversation, even if no one talked to me or made eye contact. That’s the biggest reason why I keep writing reviews. That and the millions of dollars I make doing it.

Mike D’Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, The Dissolve

Sheer chance, for the most part. I happened to be attending
NYU at the time the Internet took off, and had created a
bare-bones site where I’d post “reviews” of just a few
sentences, intended solely for my friends. But I was one of
only three or four people writing about movies online back
then, so it was easy to get noticed. My site was written up
by Ty Burr in Entertainment Weekly — I believe this was
the first piece ever written about online film critics, ca.
Jan 1997 — and the magazine started giving me freelance
work soon thereafter. Stil had no expectations that it
would turn into a career, but it gradually did. And that,
kids, is how I made it to middle age with no marketable skills! 

Jordan Hoffman, Film.Com, ScreenCrush

I fell into this quite by accident. I’ve always been bananas for the movies, and an opinionated loud mouth, but this career was never my intention and, frankly, I have no formal training. (I went to NYU film school for production.) I’ve had a lot of other jobs, but this feels like the right fit. I got my break as a writer by knowing a guy on the inside and faking my way through some interviews. I’m lucky, though, because my interests are as wide as my pants. I’ll be the only writer that covered the Cannes Film Festival and the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention in 2013. To young writers desperately trying to make rent, I urge you to diversify. It’s the only reason I’m not homeless. 

Calum Marsh, Village Voice, Film.com

I’ve wanted to write criticism in some capacity since early high school and I consider myself tremendously lucky to be able to do so professionally today. The reason has always been simple: next to a thoughtful discussion, writing is the best way I know to think through a movie. If I could be paid to talk about movies with smart people over dinner and drinks, I would gladly do that instead, but criticism is a pretty good alternative. 

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

Sadly, sadly, I have had a love of being a know-it-all bred into me from a young age, and I was always interested in knowing what the “best” was in any particular field, so I could become a fan of it. From as early as I can remember, I was reading reviews and watching Siskel and Ebert and trying to make my tastes reflect theirs. When I hit adolescence, I shifted to wanting to develop my own taste (though I still had that crippling need to be “right” and thus reflect the critical consensus), but if you ask anyone who knew me as a little kid, I was kind of insufferable in this regard.

Scott Weinberg, Fear.net

I was the kid who watched all the movies, so my friends asked me what to see. I read the Philadelphia newspaper reviews every weekend. I wasn’t that interested in how the films were made; I was more into talking about the final product. I had a small nugget of writing skill and I worked hard to make it larger. And here we are! Ta-dah!

Gary Kramer, Gay City News

When I was 12, we got Cable TV. (PRISM, which folks outside Philly won’t know and it’s now defunct). It wasn’t even 24 hours a at the time. But I still went home every day and watched everything I could. Bad films like SUNBURN with Farrah Fawcett and Charles Grodin, and 10 with Bo Derek. But cable TV exposed me to indie films like Head Over Heels (aka Chilly Scenes of Winter) and that’s where I found my passion. I started reading everything on the films I saw, and started writing professionally for a local paper at 16. The rest, as they say, is history.

Danny Bowes, Movies By Bowes

About 5-6 years ago, I started reviewing theatre, mostly as a way to see shows for free, but I took it seriously and did my best to always evaluate each show (which was nearly always microbudget Off-Off-Broadway) on its own terms. Prior to this I’d always thought of myself as a working artist and had plenty of reductive and nasty things to say about critics, and the realization that I had become the enemy, and that the enemy actually wasn’t the enemy at all but a pretty nice guy (how could he not, being me?) came quickly and refreshingly. Once that particular Rubicon had been crossed, I gradually started posting lengthy, acerbic, and frequently profane rants about movies (my first love, long before I started doing theatre) on Facebook, which quickly led to several independent requests from friends of mine to start a blog I did in December 2009, and within a year I was getting paid. I’m still learning, but who among us is not?

Jeff Berg, Albuquerque/Las Cruces Bulletin

My becoming a critic was something that happened because I made it happen. I was living in a community with poor arts coverage, approached the dying weekly and offered to do some reviews for free. They took the bait and 12 years later I am still doing work for that paper for a small paycheck along with others for equally as small paychecks. However, I’m doing something that I wanted to do and have created my own niche in New Mexico by doing so.

Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat

I grew up a movie-obsessed kid. There was no real “aha!” moment; I just loved the experience of going to a theater and watching something on a big screen. When I was about ten or so, I stumbled upon Siskel & Ebert’s TV show on PBS. The idea that you could talk about movies for a job was a revelation. I dreamed about such a job for years. My senior year in high school, I joined the school newspaper and volunteered myself as film critic. I did the same thing in college, finding a way to sneak my reviews into print, despite the fact that the faculty adviser didn’t want them. Then, in 1989, at the tender age of twenty, I mustered up the courage to send a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper. I told her that the paper needed to have movie reviews and that she should hire me to provide that service. To my amazement, she took me up on the offer. That was my first paying gig as a film critic, and everything else snowballed from there.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I’d always been a lover of film and a compulsive writer, but I got my start as a critic at least partially due to good luck, in all honesty.  I was in college and was an avid follower of Oscar season.  One of the main sites I read was called The Oscar Igloo, and one day I actually emailed them to inquire about why someone wasn’t on their awards predictions and through some back and forth with the then editor Johnny Alba, I found out that an opening on the staff was coming.  A note on the site shortly appeared asking those interested to write in, so I did and submitted an awards season related piece and a film review of 28 weeks later….  Somehow, I was in the right place at the right time and they hired me.  I worked my way up the ladder, soon becoming the main film critic as well as a staff writer for the awards season.  The site became The Awards Circuit and I’ve been there ever since, in addition to my current freelancing.  A special mention also has to go out to my grandfather, who was a theater projectionist and took me to tons of movies growing up, so he laid the foundation, as well as the one and only Matt Singer, who gave me some great advice when I was first starting out.  Without both of them, I highly doubt that I’d be doing what I am today…

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene

Joe Bob Briggs and Ian D. “Primax” Smith. The former needs no explanation. The latter worked in dance music, not film, but his criticism in DMA magazine in the ’90s helped shape my aesthetics and get over my reticence toward being confrontational when necessary.

I also have a lot of love and aesthetic formation for Jim Ridley, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Dennis Dermody. My first pieces of criticism were in 1988, for The Sugracubes’ Life’s Too Good album and the movie Bagdad Cafe, for my school’s Junior High newspaper. Haven’t really stopped since.

Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That

I always loved film, but I turned to criticism to be able to engage with it even further. Sure the free screenings are nice, but I love grinding out an opinion as I write a review; opinion changing to a view you didn’t even know you have. Nothing I saw or read provoked me per say, but once I started I haven’t been able to stop.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight

It was just this simple: I was not happy with the movie reviews in the “official” student newspaper of my college. So I searched out a competing student paper and asked to be a critic for them. I believed that film criticism should be journalism, and I wasn’t getting that unless I wrote it myself.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

The films of Brian De Palma first inspired me to pursue filmmaking, and I got my Bachelor’s degree in Motion Pictures from the University of Miami. But after a few very brief sojourns in the industry, I rapidly realized I didn’t like to see everything that goes into making this particular bit of sausage. So I gave it up, worked outside of the world of cinema for nearly a couple of decades, and it wasn’t until the need arose for me to stay at home with our new kids that I circled back to looking at movies critically.

That my wife supported my fledgling endeavor; we were financially secure enough at the time to allow me to pursue it for no pay (at least initially); and the internet ushered in a new era of democracy in arts criticism soon made it a foregone conclusion that I would end up writing about film, a subject I revere on which I really feel I have insights to contribute.

Daniel Carlson, Pajiba

If only my origin story were as clean as that of a movie hero. I don’t have a single inciting incident that drove me to criticism, though; no spider-bite or magic ring that set me on my path. It was just a passion that grew over time. My dad, who stopped regularly seeing movies in the 1970s, introduced me to a ton of modern classics when I was a teen. He’d think of a title and have me add it to a running list of films he wanted me to see. My best friend in high school was the one I could see and discuss movies with, and we devoured everything we could. (I think he and I are the only people who remember Safe Men.) I saw Ebert in the paper every week and moved to Kael and Sarris and Agee; I read Premiere and stumbled onto Film Comment; I combed the shelves at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. I just felt a need to be with movies, and that turned into a desire to write about them. Writing about movies means writing about who we are and who we wish we could be (and, underneath, who we’re afraid of becoming). I started writing reviews and essays more than ten years ago, and now I couldn’t imagine not doing it. I’m always called back to the page.

Edwin Arnaudin, AshVegas 

Growing up, I had strong interests in film and writing (mostly fiction and screenplays) but hadn’t done much to combine them.  Then in 2005, two things happened that brought them together.  First, I started listening to Cinecast, which I randomly discovered after my Dad told me about this new thing called “podcasts.”  Second, Dan Burns, the faculty sponsor for my campus film society, suggested that we collaborate on reviews for the school newspaper.  Somewhere between Adam and Sam dissecting Hustle & Flow and Dan’s mentoring (which included a satirical take on The Dukes of Hazzard movie as a Faulkneresque masterpiece), my interest in writing film criticism solidified.

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review

I didn’t so much stumble into writing about films as intentionally pick it up as a film fan. My academic background is in literature, and though I took a few film classes here and there I tended to stay away from them as a way to separate school and hobbies. I’ve always watched movies on my own or with whoever else would watch them with me, but my tendency to intellectualize made it easy to eventually bring my hobby into a more focused and intentional means of thinking about something I was only casually involved with. 

Adam Batty, Hope Lies

I actually just this week referred to a screening of Godard’s Breathless at age 16 as being my own “year one”. It formed one of the classes in a 6 week long introduction to cinema that was essentially a brief overview of each of the major areas of the medium, that I sat during my A-level studies. That screening led to an interest in the French cinema of that period that has fed in to every aspect of my filmic pursuits since. 

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I should have known, I suppose. Because when most of my grade school and even high school friends ignored the newspapers and magazines their parents had delivered to their homes, I grabbed them. No, not to read the stories of war, protest and social strife. I was reading the arts section, devowering Canby, Kael and Kroll. I remember lying, tummy down on the living room rug, getting really pissed off at Jay Cocks for dismissing one particular audience pleaser while writing so eloquently about a film that would probably never play my hometown. I began writing reviews of my own in college, encouraged by professors including the wonderful sound specialist, Nat Boxer. But what honestly gave me the courage to go public, to think I could be a professional ? Well, I was watching TV. A local critic began her piece by explaining, “this is the kind of thing you either live or you hate. I liked it, sort of…” Realizing not everybody was a Kael, I gave it a go. The years since have been a privilege, challenging and rewarding. I’ve worked with remarkable artists, struggled to understand work that made no sense to me and championed underdogs. I hope our generation has paved the way for far more people who, in their critiques, aim to help film, as an art, thrive.

Andrew Welch, In Review Online

There’s no single moment when all the pieces fell into place. Growing up, I read the Dallas Morning News‘s film section every Friday. The local ABC affiliate also had a regular critic at the time who could literally determine whether or not my family went to something. Siskel and Ebert were important, but not in the way these local voices were. Now, jump forward a few years to when I was in college. By then, I had started to develop as a writer. Art and self-expression began to mean something to me. I blogged a bit, and sometimes about film, but I never thought of myself as a critic, just a writer. (I still prefer to think that way. Critic has a negative, not to mention limited, ring to it.) After college, I put fiction writing, which had been my focus, on hold and picked up book reviewing, which evolved into film reviewing. That was in 2010. Since then, I’ve been pretty regular about it, but compared to the writers I’ve grown up reading, I’m still a rookie. Where I’ll end up is ultimately in question, especially with the changes going on within journalism, but what I have now that I didn’t have years ago is a better sense of where I fit and a sharper sense of perseverance.

Christopher Campbell, Film School Rejects, Movies.com

Naively and ambitiously, I thought I could change the world. Well, at least Hollywood. Well, not change it so much as stress how much it needed to change. But initially I was also sure that things would continue getting worse, which is where my “film cynic” handle comes from. More recently I’ve switched to being naive and ambitious about documentary criticism. It may be even harder than changing the world. All in all I just believe I’m meant to be here in this field. It’s challenging and fun and my destiny.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye for Film

It was Francois Truffaut. I was seeing my very last Truffaut film — La Peau Douce — during a retrospective of his films in Paris, and remember vividly the sudden pang of loss I felt walking home in the rain that now I will never again enjoy the — by then already dead — filmmaker’s movies for the first time. Soon I discovered Truffaut’s criticism and the power of language for cinema. I loved how words could make me see. I still do.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

What made me become a critic? Three words: Siskel & Ebert. Every Sunday morning on the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, I’d make sure to watch a new episode of Siskel & Ebert, impressed at how these two Chicago critics made an often-contentious conversation about film as entertaining or, in some cases, more entertaining than the subject itself. Watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert debate over any new release was a huge inspiration to me when I was a kid, as was reading Ebert’s yearly compilations of criticism and his other works, like the Little Movie Glossary or his Answer Man book, which made me first aware of what aspect ratio meant and why pan-and-scan was the devil in cinematic form. The influence these two men and their TV show had on my ambitions to write about film is probably shared by most others in this survey, which only proves how important they truly were.

Jason Gorber, Twitch

I’ve loved movies from a very early age, but have quite accidentally
ended up devoting much of my adult life, including a good chunk of my
graduate school education in another discipline, dedicated to what I
once dubbed “the conversation of cinema”. It wasn’t until University
that I saw two films at my first arthouse screenings (Reservoir Dogs and Glengarry Glen Ross) that first started a more serious quest into films
apart from those that had played in my suburban multiplex.

Yet the film that made me have the chutzpah to label myself as
“critic” was 1995’s The Brady Movie. With this film, I saw something that
would be easily dismissed as a stupid comedy, yet I saw a genuine
masterpiece that I felt deserved a wider audience. I’ve long argued that
our role as film critic isn’t just to say whether something’s good or
bad, but to occasionally stretch the thinking of our audience,
showcasing films that might be readily dismissed, or occasionally
pricking the baloons of inflated expectation. I wrote up my article, and
had it published by a local independent newspaper, content that I had
done my part to extol the virtues of what’s still one of my favourite
films.

A year after that Sunshine-y day, I attended my first (and to date
only) Cannes festival, and wrote up about my experience for what was
then a pioneering website. From those early beginnings in the mid 90s,
including being one of the first Online writers accredited by TIFF and
one of the first members of the OFCS, I’ve put various degrees of effort
into this so-called profession, with the last few years seeing a
dramatic increase in the reach of my coverage. Yet for me it still comes
down to that movie like the Brady film, or Lebowski, Breaking the Waves or Rushmore, films that I saw and trumpeted before any prior hype or
expectation, that I tried to champion and in my own way contributed to
this conversation that we’re all a part of. 

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