How did you get started as a film critic?
I grew up not being allowed to watch television, and moviegoing was a rare occurrence. As a teenager, I went through an intense catch-up phase, cramming as many movies as I could see (no easy feat in the relatively small town of Waco, Texas, whose dozen or so screens played only the big Hollywood movies). After moving to Houston, writing for the university paper became a way to see movies early (and for free — not insignificant to a poor college student). I had actually enrolled thinking I wanted to be a novelist, but film criticism immediately captured my interest, because it combined creative writing with a certain analytical component absent from fiction, and before I knew it, I was editing the school paper’s entertainment section and rethinking my career plans.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
My earliest memory of going to the cinema definitely wasn’t the first movie I ever saw — it wasn’t even the first movie I saw that night. My mother had taken me to a drive-in double feature of Disney’s “The Jungle Book,” followed by “Tarzan the Ape Man” (the racy Bo Derek version, in which she’s captured by savages and body-painted naked). The program must have sounded innocuous enough, but that second movie opened my eyes to a lot more than just the magic of Hollywood.
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
One of my mottos in reviewing films is that “there’s no apologizing for taste.” My appetite in film may be quite esoteric (cherishing such outside-the-box offerings as “The Woman in the Dunes” and “Antichrist”), when it comes to music, I’m hopelessly square — I like songs that make me feel happy and don’t particularly care about their artistic merits, or lack thereof. That gives me sympathy for all you “Transformers” fans out there. You have your reasons.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
“The Five Obstructions,” by Lars Von Trier, in which the director coaxes mentor Jorgen Leth out of a creative rut by challenging him to remake a short film according to certain arbitrarily imposed rules. I keep multiple copies of this DVD on hand and regularly give them out because it reflects an important part of my personal aesthetic philosophy — namely, that working within constraints leads to better creative results than having unlimited time, resources and opportunities (which could explain why low-budget independent movies are so often more disciplined than their big-budget studio counterparts, where production may have started even before the script was finished).
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
“Is there anything good out I should see?” The question drives me crazy, since it misunderstands my job. There are plenty of critics out there tasked with supplying recommendations; however, at Variety, we have the luxury of analyzing a film on its aesthetic, creative and commercial merits. Plus, since my taste tends to favor indie/arthouse fare (much of which I review at film festivals long before they open theatrically), it’s hard to keep up with what’s in theaters now.
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
That would be Roger Avary’s “The Rules of Attraction,” based on the novel by Bret Easton Ellis. I understand why many critics attacked the film (it’s an undeniably depraved look at a group of self-absorbed college kids doing extreme physical and emotional damage to one another), but wish they’d gone beyond the highly stylized surface. I experienced the movie like a punch in the gut and had to be honest in my review. It revealed something to me that I hadn’t been able to articulate until that point: That the big difference between childhood and maturity is the shift from seeing yourself as the center of the world to realizing that your actions have consequences. None of the movie’s characters have reached that point, but Avary illustrates the effect of their individual selfishness by alternating between the various characters’ points of view, much as Ellis does in the novel.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
Animation — which, of course, isn’t a genre at all, but a technique, and yet, a field that excites me simply because everything you see onscreen has been created from thin air. There are no sets or costumes or actors. It all begins with a blank page and a pencil (or a monitor and a supercomputer, opening up all new realms of possibility), and it’s up to the artists to create entire worlds, populate them with characters and give us reason to care about them emotionally. Some have said that animation is the closest thing to dreaming with your eyes open, but I can assure you, my dreams aren’t anywhere near as interesting as the imagination of artists such as Walt Disney, Hayao Miyazaki, Sylvain Chomet and Henry Selick. In recent years, films such as “Wall-E” and “Avatar” have proven that CGI can go beyond the limits of live action to tell stories we would have never thought possible.
What is your process in approaching a review?
The process has changed since coming to work for Variety. In the old days, if the movie wasn’t particularly interesting or original, you could use the review as an excuse to talk about something else entirely. At Variety, there’s a very strict routine: The big challenge is to capture what the film’s about, how well it works and what its box office prospects are, in one of Variety’s trademark “nut grafs” — an opening paragraph meant to tell busy studio executives everything they need to know about the film in 100 words or less. There’s a bit more freedom with the rest of the review, but the goal is to stay on topic and evaluate the film on its own merits, which include such aspects as cinematography, music and editing — details that matter to Variety readers (film industry professionals who know more about moviemaking than I ever will).
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
Some friends and I are obsessed with oeuvre of German director Uwe Boll (starting with his first American job-for-hire, “House of the Dead”), to the extent that we get together and host “Super Boll parties” where we watch his films Mystery Science Theater-style — cracking jokes the whole way through. Boll has carved out a niche for himself adapting obscure videogames (“Alone in the Dark,” “BloodRayne”) into incomprehensible action movies. Most of them go straight to DVD (if they come out at all), and yet, he continues to find financing for his schlock epics. Tired of the criticism, Dr. Boll has taken to tackling more important issues in his recent work — Vietnam (“Tunnel Rats”), African genocide (“Darfur”) and the Holocaust (“Auschwitz”) — making his incompetence all the more troubling.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
Given the film-historian aspect of the job, we’re always playing catch-up. You do the best you can with the time you have, but it’s important to remember that movies aren’t the only thing critics should reference when writing reviews. Art, music, literature and, of course, life itself all factor into the way we respond to the films we see, and it’s important to leave time to see the world and meet interesting people.
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
Whereas many people go to college without an idea of what they want to be when they grow up, I had the opposite problem: so many potential careers interested me. “Toy Story” had just come out when I graduated high school, so naturally, I dreamed of going to work for Pixar early on. I also came very close to getting a degree in advertising (and even did my undergraduate honors thesis on the aesthetics of movie trailers), before committing to the riskier path of writing about movies for a living.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
That brings me to another important personal motto: “Every movie is someone’s favorite movie.” It’s not my place to insult you for liking it (the way one of my LAFCA cohorts did when dismissing “Apocalypto” as “a movie that can be confidently recommended only to viewers who have a concentration camp commandant's tolerance for repugnant savagery”). However, if I do my job correctly, my reviews can point out a bad movie’s shortcomings and help give you an appreciation for other films that aren’t as immediately accessible in style or content, yet infinitely more rewarding if you’re open to the challenge.
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