When she was asked if she’d ever write her autobiography, the great critic Pauline Kael responded “I already have.” It’s a great dodge, but there’s truth in it as well; even without incorporating the details of a critic’s life, the most personal criticism can be deeply revealing (albeit, like much great art, in ways that are only apparent to a chosen few). I feel similarly about the Criticwire Survey. I’ve worked to keep the weekly questions open-ended because I prefer a wide range of responses, but in most cases, they’re drawn from specific examples in my own life. More often than not, it’s a way for me to answer the question “Does anyone else think X?” So it’s only fair that as I come to my six-month anniversary as Criticwire’s editor, I answer them myself. Of course, part of the joy of asking questions to so many great writers is getting responses that are better than anything I could have written, but this’ll have to do for now. I feel blessed to have made so many new friends through the survey, and honored to receive their writing. I really am the luckiest man in Bedford Falls — whatever that means.
July 21: Origin Stories
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?
I don’t know if this was the case for everyone, but I think I was always a critic; Even as a teenager, I remember searching for the perfect phrase to describe my understanding of a movie or an album, and no doubt being insufferably pleased with myself when I settled on one. I grew up reading Roger Ebert, syndicated in my local newspaper, and Vincent Canby and Janet Maslin in the New York Times, but it was Pauline Kael’s Movie Love that showed me writing about movies could be an art unto itself.
I decided I wanted to be a movie critic before I graduated from high school, but I didn’t do anything about it until I was almost out of college. With senior year looming, I realized I needed clips to get a job — this was back before I realized that making as a living as a writer was a long- and not a short-term goal — and decided I’d pitch my school newspaper’s editors on letting me review on-campus movies in the fall. But what really stiffened my resolve was seeing Forrest Gump that summer, and hating its smarmy conservatism with the fire of a thousand suns. “Maybe,” I thought, “it’ll play on campus next year, and I’ll get to tell everyone how appalling it is.” It played, I wrote my review, and got my first piece of hate mail soon after. What more could a budding critic ask for?
November 18: Go-to Simpsons Quotes:
What’s your go-to quote from The Simpsons — not necessarily your favorite, but the one you’re most likely to use on a daily basis?
I’m not generally a quoter, but I have dozens of answers to this question: “I hear chopping, but I don’t hear digging”; “Guys like me? I’m a guy like me!”; “Always recycle — TO THE EXTREME!” But my two favorites might be Disco Stu’s “If these trends continue — aaayyyyy,” always helpful when contemplating a short-term uptick, and Nelson Muntz’s “I didn’t think he’d do ‘Moon River’ but then — Bam! Second encore!” which pops into my mind every time a band leaves its biggest hit for last.
August 12: Glaring Omissions
Critics have a responsibility to know their art form, but no one’s seen everything. What’s your most glaring omission, the X in “You’ve never seen X?!?”
In the spirit of brutal honesty, here’s what I’m missing from They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?’s Top 100 films.
53. Children of Paradise
72. Voyage in Italy
89. It’s a Wonderful Life
93. The Mother and the Whore
With the exception of the last, which I acquired by (ahem) other means, I own every one of these on DVD or Blu-ray, which means my only real excuse is that I watch a ton of movies and don’t see much sense in feeling guilty about the ones I haven’t gotten to yet. (I’d like to see Stalker and It’s a Wonderful Life, at least, on 35mm as well.) Some of these, I gather, are terrible omissions, and I’m sure someone or other will promptly use them to argue that I have no right writing about movies until I’ve drawn a line through every one, but life’s too short.
August 5: Coming-of-Age Stories
In honor of The Spectacular Now, what’s your favorite coming-of-age story?
Being taxonomically impaired, these are the sorts of questions I’m better at asking than answering, but let’s say The 400 Blows, Hope and Glory and any of Terence Davies’ early-childhood films for starters.
December 23: Best Non-2013 Culture of 2013
What’s the best piece of non-2013 culture you discovered in 2013?
I asked this question because it always interests me, and because I don’t like the way media coverage is always driven by what’s novel when people are discovering “old” things all the time. But I also asked it because I wanted to write about Phase IV, which I was lucky enough to see on 35mm during the Plaza Classic Film Festival in El Paso, Texas. I knew it was about giant ants, and that it was the only feature directed by the great title designer Saul Bass, but that hardly prepared me for the movie’s psychedelic dystopia, further enhanced by the digital restoration of Bass’ original ending. As originally released, the film barely hints at the titular “Phase IV,” which would represent the next step in the relationship between Earth’s surviving humans and the giant ant colonies that have mysteriously taken over the planet; the extra nine minutes shows the two societies merging in ways that evoke Tarkovsky’s Solaris more than the Hollywood directors Bass is known for working with. The Festival also screened Bass’ 1984 short, Quest, and though it wasn’t nearly as great, it made for a fascinating comparison, also riffing on the evolution of a miniature society, this one composed of humanoid beings who grow to adulthood and die in the span of eight days. The hero’s journey to free his people from their abbreviated lifespan involves a lot of flat acting and some cheap-looking effects, but being able to see such a rare film — on film — was a treat all the same.
July 29: First Serious TV Show
Most of us grew up in a time when television was still the “idiot box.” What was the first TV show you took seriously?
The summer before my senior year in college was also the first time I spent living alone, and my first prolonged exposure to network TV. Twin Peaks and, before that, the Sunday night double-bill of 60 Minutes and Murder, She Wrote notwithstanding, I grew up without prime-time TV, a deficit my siblings and I addressed by mainlining six or seven straight hours of Saturday morning cartoons a week. In other words, I came to Grace Under Fire like a newborn babe, and to be honest, I was blown away. Here was TV approaching the lives of blue-collar characters in a way American movies never did (and still rarely do), starring Brett Butler as a single mother who works at an oil refinery. It was a delicate comedy about a recovering addict — that part was drawn from Butler’s stand-up act — that also featured a way-out but perfectly calibrated comic turn from the actor playing Butler’s onscreen boyfriend. (Play as many snaggletoothed villains as you want, William Fichtner, but you’ll always be nutty chemist Ryan Sparks to me.)
The real answer, though, is NYPD Blue, which started up again in the fall. (For some reason, my local ABC affiliate didn’t rerun Blue over the summer.) It was immediately obvious to me that TV could be a place for sophisticated long-game drama, featuring actors, like the great Dennis Franz, who in spite of their prodigious talents weren’t glamorous enough for the big screen. Blue became the show I wouldn’t shut up about, and the first one I talked about online, in a newsgroup run by a devoted and articulate fan who was still an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania. I wonder whatever happened to him.
August 26: Binge-Watching for the Summer Doldrums
The tail end of summer tends to a be a dead zone for worthwhile new movies, but it can be a great time to stay home and mainline TV. What would you suggest for a Labor Day binge-watch?
I’m skipping this and the question about “anticipated fall entertainments“ as time-limited questions, but if you haven’t watched NYPD Blue, binge that sucker. (And skip Labor Day.)
October 21: Lousy Film, Great Soundtrack
Many great movies draw strength from their musical soundtracks, but sometimes the films don’t measure up to the songs themselves. What’s your favorite example of a great soundtrack to a not-so-great film?
If we’re talking commercial releases, I’d have to go with the justly forgotten college-rock drama A Matter of Degrees, compiled by music supervisor extraordinaire Randall Poster, who also co-wrote the screenplay. (Collector alert: That’s an alternate version of Eleventh Dream Day’s immortal “Liz Beth.”) As a group of songs sadly uncommitted to disc, I’d nominate Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader, a brightly colored, not-especially-great comedy about gay reeducation camps scored with a splendid collection of breezy, shambolic indie pop: Go Sailor, Dressy Bessy, Lois Maffeo and April March’s “Chick Habit,” which later found its way into Quentin Tarantino’s Death Proof. No wonder it’s on track to become a musical.
September 16: How Would You Solve the Problem of Texting in Theaters?
During the Toronto Film Festival, blogger Alex Billington made international news when he called 911 to report someone using his cell phone during a press screening. Stipulating that involving the authorities is not the right approach, how you would you solve the problem of people using their phones in theaters?
Though my gut response is “murder,” I’ve found that polite but firm civility almost always works. Either people genuinely don’t know their phones are distracting others or they’re counting on no one saying anything; either way, “Could you please put that away?” usually does the trick. Truculent texters should be dragged into the lobby and beaten with Twizzlers.
December 2: Family Movie Memories
What’s your favorite memory of watching a movie with your family?
A few leap to mind: My parents taking me into New York to see a re-release of Citizen Kane; later arm-wrestling my skeptical siblings into watching it and begin told it was so good they forgot it was in black and white. The moment in Blankman when, after having overridden their bossy elder brother’s objections to the choice of family movie, my siblings turned and admitted I was right. But in many ways my fondest memories are of wearing out VHS tapes of Airplane! and Summer School and Return of the Killer Tomatoes (really), all of which we can quote at length. (Don’t order a double around my sister unless you’re prepared to act out a scene from Condorman.) They’re not the best movies, but they’re the ones we enjoyed the most.
September 23: Everyone (Else) Is Wrong
It’s important for critics to keep an open mind, but there are some cases where it feels like no sane person could differ. What’s a movie or a show where you feel like anyone who doesn’t agree with you is just plain wrong?
Right now, I’m perplexed by the praise American Hustle has garnered from otherwise sane peers, who if not conned at least must be a lot less bothered by the film’s arbitrarily frantic visual style and haphazard structure. In a positive vein, I’m either a unique visionary who fully understands the genius of Room 237 or as crazy as one of the people in the film; guess which I choose. I also don’t think George Armitage has ever gotten his full due for the back-to-back genius of Miami Blues and Grosse Point Blank.
October 7: Game-Changers
This weekend, Gravity set a record for the biggest October opening weekend in history. But that’s small potatoes compared to the claims some critics have made that it represents the dawning of a new era in movies. What’s a film you thought would change movies forever, and were you right?
Um, I’m sure I’ve thought this at some point, but I don’t think I’ve ever been foolish enough to put it in print. Avatar was pretty cool though.
October 28: Off-Camera Info
The very public feud between actress Lea Seydoux and her Blue Is the Warmest Color director Abdellatif Kechiche has become as well-known as the film itself. Should critics ignore off-screen information in reviewing a film, or do they have an obligation to deal with it?
The lady, and the tiger, which is to say critics have a duty to take such information into account and a duty to ignore it, depending on the information, the film, and a host of other factors. Means of production matter, especially in documentaries or other movies involving people outside the industry. But to paraphrase Chairman Mao, art is not a dinner party. If you were to limit your consumption of art to that made by people with whom you could pass a pleasant afternoon, you’d cut out many of the greats. (You’d also cut out a lot of untalented assholes who think acting like a jerk makes them an artist, but that’s a separate issue.) In the case of Blue Is the Warmest Color, many who attacked the film worked from a single inflammatory interview without factoring in later explanations or even bothering to factor in the distinctly different impressions of the movie’s leading actresses. (One prominent, or at least persistent, commentator persisted in referring to them as “girls,” which would be news to 28-year-old Lea Seydoux.) If a critic’s going to play journalist, then they need to put in the full legwork and not merely cherry-pick facts that suit their opinions.
November 4: Scary Movies That Don’t Scare You
Now that Halloween horror-movie recommendations are out of the way, what’s a scary movie that doesn’t scary you at all?
As I’ve gotten older, horror movies disturb me more and scare me less. Slasher movies and the Final Destination films turn my stomach with their programmatic elimination of characters, and I flinch when genre directors describe their movie’s “kills.” But I’m less apt to be spooked by supernatural hogwash, which to me seems like a silly and resolutely un-scary way to depict the real horrors of the world. The Exorcist didn’t move the needle for me at all, and though I enjoy the Paranormal Activity movies and The Conjuring as formal exercises (a sublime one in the latter case), they won’t keep me up at night. The Strangers, on the other hand…
November 11: The Video Store That Changed My Life
With Blockbuster Video closing its remaining stores in January, the video-store era is drawing to a close, but for most critics they were an essential part of learning to love movies. What was the video store that changed your life?
There were two: First, the Video Station in Greenwich, Conn., which was a weekly, sometimes daily, destination for my family, and Philadelphia’s TLA Video, which came to be an invaluable resource once my tastes turned more obscure. (They also arguably changed my life by turning down my job application, forcing me to push towards writing full-time.) They’re both gone now — in fact, if I wanted to rent a DVD from anywhere other than a Redbox kiosk in the nation’s fifth-largest city, I have no idea where I’d go. There are plenty of other ways to get movies, of course, but as I’ve written elsewhere, they’re subject to opaque and ever-shifting licensing agreements that physical media isn’t bound by.
December 9: Biggest Artistic Disappointment of 2013
What was your biggest artistic disappointment of 2013?
How can I not have an answer to this question? There were plenty of movies I disliked, but none I really expected better from. I suppose my failure to respond more deeply to Inside Llewyn Davis was a minor letdown, and it’s a bummer to see Saorsie Ronan keep making movies that are so obviously unworthy of her talents (although How I Live Now was at least a half-step up). But I know I’d rather have my expectations surpassed than have a film fall short of them, which is why I try to go in without any.
December 16: 2014 Anticipations
What are you most looking forward to, culturally speaking, in 2014?
Although friends who’ve seen it are mixed, I still can’t wait to see Lars Von Trier’s Nymphomaniac, which whether it’s a masterpiece or a train wreck will be something to see. Other that that, I try not to look too far ahead, which goes hand in glove with not building up expectations in advance. Whatever my favorite filmmakers are up to, I’ll see it when it’s done.