How did you get started as a film critic?
I began writing film reviews in high school, then continued to write and publish film essays while in college and university grad programs.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
My first meaningful moviegoing experience was with my parents in Israel and then Paris. Both my mother and father were avid film lovers. I remember arguments in the family about movie stars (Gary Cooper vs. John Wayne), beautiful women (who was sexier Rita Hayworth or Ava Gardner?)
What was your first published review?
My first review was of the movie musical “My Fair Lady,” which we saw in 1965. It was published in the school’s newspaper. I’m glad to say that even then, I was critical and analytic and gave the George Cukor musical a mixed review. Years later, I wrote the first biography of George Cukor, Master of Elegance (William Morrow)
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
I would have loved to review Orson Welles’ “The Magnificent Ambersons,” made long before I was born; John Ford’s “The Searchers,” and Douglas Sirk’s “Written on the Wind.”
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
Melodramas of the 1940s starring Bette Davis.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
Orson Welles’ “Citizen Kane” (1941)
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
How can you see so many films (I see about 1000 pictures per year, including festivals) and remember their plots and characters?
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I like the 1950s, which I consider to be the Golden Age of Hollywood. Hitchcock, John Ford, Cukor, Minnelli, Preminger, Sirk, all made their best films during that decade.
What is your process in approaching a review?
I tend to be analytical and critical no matter what I read or see. The reviewing process begins during the viewing of the film. I learn to trust my initial, instinctive reaction to a film.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
Not at all. I do not discuss movies with critics before or after the screening.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
My teacher and mentor is the great critic Andrew Sarris, at Columbia University, where I got M.A. and Ph.D. degrees. I modeled my career, in structure not brilliance, upon his dual career, as a full-time critic (Village Voice) and full-time professor. For the past 30 years, I have maintained a dual career.
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
There is no such thing as “the worst film” I have ever seen.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
I’d be a theater critic or book reviewer.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
Gatekeeper and tastemaker: Critics can alert and urge the public to see “small” or “art” films that can easily get lost in the theatrical market.
What’s the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
The best part of being a critic is that you get to be the first to watch and discuss good movies; the worst part is that too many bad movies are being made and need to be reviewed.
Name the worst sequel ever.
There are too many of them.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
The biggest misconception is that we are all frustrated screenwriters or directors, that we have no other talent but writing critiques. Unfortunately, this misconception prevails, even though it is not grounded in any factual reality.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
It’s an invalid, unfounded statement. Most of the critics of my generation wanted to be critics; none of them was a frustrated filmmaker. We consider it a privilege to review the latest films of Godard, Fellini, Tarkovsky, and other film artists.
Are movies better because of film critics?
Movies are neither better nor worse because of film critics.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
Many of my reviews for Variety were of films that had no theatrical distribution. I was particularly gratified to attend major film festivals, such as Cannes, Venice, Toronto, and Sundance, where I “discovered” many young and new talents, such as Paul Thomas Anderson.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Watch as many movies (good and bad) as possible and get some education outside the realm of film, like sociology or political science or philosophy.
Has social media changed how you interact with your readers and has social media made the job of film critic easier or harder?
Yes, I created a website, www.EmanuelLevy.com back in 2004. Now in its seventh year, it contains over 16,000 reviews and essays and has five writers.
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