WHAT THE HECK DOES A MOVIE CRITIC DO? - Blogs
WHAT THE HECK DOES A MOVIE CRITIC DO?
Me, at the Deseret News, circa 1988.
For Hicksflicks.com, Friday, Feb. 22, 2019
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alan Alda is a curious fellow, which I found out for myself during an interview some 30 years ago. (That interview story was in this space last week and can be found here.) Below is a ‘Hicks on Flicks’ column that attempts to answer his most probing question, published on March 20, 1988, under the headline, ‘With a new movie out, Alda’s curious: What does a film critic look for, anyway?’
Interviewing Alan Alda was an interesting experience, partially because before the interview was over, Alda was interviewing me.
Toward the end of our half-hour together he seemed genuinely curious about the process by which movie critics see and reflect upon so many movies.
This was Wednesday, when I flew into Denver to interview Alda after seeing his latest picture, “A New Life,” the night before. He asked about the circumstances under which his film had been shown to the Salt Lake critics, and I confessed that it had been No. 4 after a very long day.
Actually, if any of the movies suffered because of that they should have been among the first three. Those films were shown in theaters that were virtually empty, and they were shown back to back at various locations. Alda’s film was shown with a very enthusiastic audience in a packed theater after I had had a couple of hours off.
Here’s the friendly neighborhood film critic’s journal of that fateful Tuesday:
I got to the Deseret News about 8:30 a.m., wrote a short story and made a few phone calls. At 9:30 a.m. there was a meeting of Today Section editors and entertainment writers to discuss what was coming up during the next week or two.
At 9:50 a.m. I walked over to the Crossroads Cinemas to see a 10 a.m. showing of “D.O.A.” When the film was over I sauntered down Main Street, stopping at Wendy’s for a sandwich to eat during the next film, and at noon saw “The Theme” at the Cinema In Your Face! on Broadway.
Then came a brisk walk back to the Deseret News to get my car, and an even more brisk drive to Trolley Corners Theaters to see “Gaby — A True Story” at 2 p.m.
At 4:15 p.m. it was back to the office for more phone calls, some note-taking and about 5:15 p.m. I took a couple of hours for myself. (Even movie critics have a personal life.)
Matt Groening's 'Life in Hell' comic strip defines the job.
At 7:30 p.m. it was back to the Crossroads Cinemas again, this time for Alda’s “A New Life,” shown about 8:10 p.m. to an invitational audience.
I didn’t give Alda all this detail, of course — we only spoke for a few moments about this subject. And days like this are more the exception than the rule. But there are a lot of movies being released right now, and advance screenings have to be sandwiched in whenever the critics can attend.
(For those who feel seeing movies for a living has to be the best job around — and it is — add this: Wednesday I saw “The Whales of August” at 9 a.m. then caught a noon plane to Denver, returning that night about 7:30. To meet deadlines for Friday’s Weekend section, I wrote all day Thursday and on into the night.)
Anyway, some of the questions Alda asked may cover things you’ve wondered about as well. So here’s some elaboration he didn’t get:
The aspect he seemed most concerned about was whether the critic’s personal taste doesn’t get in the way considering how diverse the movies are that he has to see. After all, there’s no question that one has to shift gears to see a violent thriller like “D.O.A.” in the morning and a sensitive character study like “Gaby” in the afternoon.
Certainly critics are no more without prejudices than anyone else, but I think it is possible to set those prejudices aside to some degree. On the other hand, how do you measure whether a film is or is not too violent or whether a sex scene is or is not really gratuitous or whether something is very funny or not funny at all. Those are subjective things that can only be evaluated on a very personal level — what’s funny to me may not be funny to you.
Kathleen Quinlan, Eric Roberts
Among my more obvious prejudices:
As a student of Hitchcock, whenever I see a Brian DePalma movie and observe how much blatant thievery DePalma commits from Hitch, it irritates me. Yet I still enjoy DePalma’s expertise as a filmmaker in his own right and I have given many of his movies positive reviews.
On an even more personal level, I don’t particularly care for actor Eric Roberts, so when I review a movie he is in I try to set aside whatever it is about him that inherently bothers me and evaluate his performance on its own. That’s not easy, but I try.
On the opposite end of the scale, I really enjoy Kathleen Quinlan, but I try not to rave about every performance regardless of its individual quality, just because something about her appeals to me.
As far as the wide range of pictures is concerned, it’s no secret that a critic is required to have eclectic taste. He has to be able to appreciate documentaries on the Holocaust, slapstick comedies, suspense thrillers, horror films, coming-of-age melodramas, serious dramas with and without messages, etc. And he has to be able to evaluate each on its own merit, good or bad. A critic can’t give “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off” a knock simply because he hates teenage comedies in general.
But perhaps of primary importance is that the critic genuinely appreciates the medium he covers.
We’ve all read reviews written by TV critics who obviously disdain television or theater critics who don’t seem to like live theater — and movie critics who seem to feel movies are not at all worthwhile.
When I am asked what qualifies me for this job, aside from the fact that I got lucky, my immediate response is that I love movies. I’ve always loved movies.
And to me, that’s the bottom line.
Movies can be entertaining, artistic, or they can be trash. But regardless of the achievements of individual films, the medium as a whole has great possibilities, and it is those possibilities the critic should be striving to encourage.