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Profiles in Criticism: Anne Thompson

Profiles in Criticism: Anne Thompson

Each participant in the Indiewire | Sundance Institute Fellowship for Film Criticism was paired with an experienced mentor who shared her or his insight during the course of the Sundance Film Festival. Their profiles will run this week on Criticwire. The Fellows’ complete contributions can be found here.

She sits cross-legged at the corner of the room, dressed in a crisp black pantsuit, resting one cocked elbow on the sofa. Her hair fashioned in a tufted crop, smiling bemusedly, Anne Thompson bears a striking resemblance to the illustrated avatar on her blog Thompson on Hollywood. Thompson has just situated herself in full view of the bar at The Riverhorse on Main in Park City, Utah, where film industry veterans and upstarts sip wine and otherwise make like they’re not hustling to seal deals and contacts at Sundance’s annual Press and Filmmaker Reception. The slight smile that plays across her mouth suggests she is jotting down mental notes on the familiar faces milling about, many of whom do not fail to stop by her corner and say hello. She receives them with a stately nod. Unlike what one might expect from a film journalist who so often lands a scoop, one approaches Anne Thompson, not the other way around.

Thompson was not always so sure of her place in this group, though she was quick to join their ranks. As an undergraduate writing major at Hamilton College, Thompson began her Hollywood beat at The Hamilton Spectator, where her first review covered the 1935 Charles Laughton comedy The Ruggles of Red Gap. By the time she became one of the only sophomores ever to helm the college’s Kinokunst Gesellschaft Film Society, she knew her future lay in film. Never one to equivocate when action needed to be taken, Anne transferred to New York University for her last two undergraduate years on the Cinema Studies track. This time, she began reading her reviews at WNYU-FM radio, where she typed out her responses in all caps, AP style, a succinct style appealing to sensibilities that would later find expression in the breaking-news niche her blog occupies.

Thompson says she has her regrets about homing in on the cinema as an undergraduate, though her assured demeanor may give the impression she harbors none. “I will say this to anyone with great conviction: do not take film as an undergraduate because you need to know as much as you can about history, politics, the world, Shakespeare,” she emphasizes. Especially Shakespeare — for Thompson, missing a survey on the Bard of Avon’s opus was the signal mistake of her undergraduate education.

What the Cinema Studies courses did not teach, Thompson picked up under Richard Corliss as a fledgling associate editor at Film Comment after her time at NYU. Theirs was not a seamless mentorship: he red-pencilled and rewrote her longform, made it snappy. Tom Allen of The Village Voice stepped in to bridge the gap her writing straddled between journalism and the world of long magazine features, guiding her prose’s evolution from her radio feature’s declarative statements to the magazine wordplay familiar to Film Comment. She scored her first article there, a Q&A with Terry Gilliam for Time Bandits that appealed to her natural instincts for interviews. In these early days, it was the process of wading through words to find her proper voice that compelled her to label herself a business reporter, where, from her demonstrated dedication to cover film, others might anticipate a budding critic.

When it comes to the movies and her relationship to them, Thompson never quite fit the classic Friday file review model, anyway. Her mind has always operated on an nonsequential continuum, such that she remembers exactly when and where she has seen every film in her life with the same immediacy as the latest industry developments Thompson on Hollywood covers. Growing up in New York, where her single father deployed the movies like a babysitter, it was as natural to catch an old Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields film at the now-extinct New Yorker Theatre at 88th & Broadway as it was the opening of A Hard Day’s Night. Perhaps this is the secret to the longevity of Thompson’s presence: though much of her career has been spent at established publications like Film Comment, Premiere, and Entertainment Weekly, her mind has always been more suited to the blogosphere, where discontinuous time lends itself to non-formulaic writing that prioritizes passion over linear punctuality.

Don’t be fooled by the careful way she writes a text message, peering through her glasses on the bridge of her nose, eyebrows raised, cell phone outstretched like the arm of a trombone –Thompson has her finger on the pulse of the Internet. Six years ago, a young blog called Pajiba (“Sweetened by Mock, Lightened by Droll,”), caught her interest due to a curious niche it had created. Its most popular post on film at the time, “Walks Like a Duck, Talks Like a Bakhtin,” revisited the 1983 commercial hit Trading Places, with Eddie Murphy as a con artist-turned-Wall Street yuppie. At a time when film writing still operated largely on a studio release model, Thompson found Pajiba’s discovery kind of… brilliant. Her voice bubbles over when she remembers, “I realized as I looked at it, holy cow, they’re doing old movies, they’re doing new movies, they’re doing stuff that’s on DVD, they’re doing stuff that’s streaming. There was no distinction. There was no time frame.” The best film critics read like they’re speaking directly to you, their words printed to suit your particular mindset for processing the cinema. The aggregated flow of a blog spoke to hers. One year later, she left Variety and took Thompson on Hollywood with her, relaunching the blog as part of the Indiewire network.

Passing by, Sundance Film Festival Director John Cooper interrupts us with an amused grin. “Are you in the hot seat, Anne?” She’s known to challenge industry bigwigs no matter who they are. “Over the years I’ve worked for other people,” she tells me. “You have to follow their voice, you have to follow their rules, you have to follow their demands.” These days Thompson wakes up at night with ideas, angles on a story. The real-time stream in her head doesn’t stop when she turns off her phone or laptop, if she ever does — it doesn’t feel appropriate to ask. Regardless, she anticipates the current of criticism is flowing back towards longform and voices of authority. She hopes more women with the determination to own their voices, critics like Manohla Dargis and Amy Nicholson, rise up in the next few years. It’s just too easy, she says, for the men to be the “maniacal pontificators.”

After only seventeen minutes, we’ve covered a lot of ground: Thompson speaks with the rapidity of a reporter accustomed to handling the industry’s standard for rolling calls, which suits her position as hybrid webmaster and critic that requires speed and adaptability. Hollywood’s quick turnover, though, appeals to her, the author of an upcoming book on the future of the industry after 2012’s watershed year. “I’m still fascinated by the psychology of the people who participate in this industry,” she says. “One of my favorite things in the world is discovering a new filmmaker and how they run at a festival before they’ve been changed and tarnished and messed up. So my voice is just me, now. It really is. It’s not trying to please anybody else.” With that, she stands up and winds her way into the crush of press and filmmakers to find who’s next.

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