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Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire July 21, 2013 at 10:48PM

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics and publishes the results on Monday morning. Send suggestions for future question to sam at indiewire dot com.
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Origins

Every week, the Criticwire Survey asks film and TV critics and publishes the results on Monday morning. Send suggestions for future question to sam at indiewire dot com.

This week's question: 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?

David Fear, Time Out New York

I wish I could say it was something as exciting as being bitten by a radioactive Stanley Kauffmann on a school field trip and waking up with superpowers, but it's much more mundane. It really starts with the almost simultaneous discovery of three things in the late '80s: Guide for the Film Fanatic by Danny Peary; the existence of Film Comment; and my local alt-weekly, which featured a film critic named Richard von Busack who wrote (and still writes) in the Kael/Farber/Bangs vernacular. That unholy trinity made me want to become a critic. Later, after aping Peary's GFTFF blurbs for the website of the San Francisco video store I worked at, my boss (also a writer) suggested I apply for the film-writing internship at the San Francisco Bay Guardian. I got it. You can blame them.

Scott Beggs, Film School Rejects.

The radioactive spider that bit me was Harry Knowles' Butt-Numb-a-Thon. The fifth year to be exact. I'd grown up relating to my father through Guns of Navarone and my mother through Gone with the Wind, but it wasn't until sitting through 24 hours of excess (via Oldboy, Return of the King, and a a live-accompanied copy of The General) that I handed my heart over to the screen and felt an itch for sharing that enthusiasm with others. Peter Jackson giggling with glee at Buster Keaton's antics, meeting people of all walks of life whose connective tissue is movies, eating eggs for breakfast right after seeing Teenage Mother...it's hard to keep these things to yourself. So I learned to share.

John Keefer, 51 Deep

I made two video essays for Press Play and now I'm on this list... and I was bitten by a radioactive Gene Shalit.

Glenn Kenny, MSN Movies, Some Came Running

I'd have to say it was CREEM magazine. From an early age I had been told that I had an aptitude for writing, or that I didn't have an aptitude for anything else except MAYBE writing, I don't recall exactly how it was put to me. And I liked writing, and I played around with various forms as kids do, but it wasn't until I was in my early teens and began reading CREEM magazine that I discovered writing in a form that I found congenial as a model I could perhaps follow. In that magazine's pages I found a lot of things that appealed to me: wit, irreverence, and a wide ranging sensibility. I was the kind of kid who, upon reading a reference to some obscure record or book, would not turn my nose up at it and say, "This writer's talking down to me!" and then discard the reading; no, I would passionately seek out and devour the thing referred to. So, a parody record review by Bangs under the pen name "Mort A. Credit" eventually led me to Celine. As a more or less autodidact my connection of the pertinent dots remained seriously spotty for many years (and in fact I think it's only within the last decade or so that I've come to understand what criticism actually is, or what one calls criticism actually ought to be, but that's for another time), but I did know that doing what Lester Bangs, Robert Christgau, Billy Altman, Robert Duncan, James Wolcott, and a lot of other writers there were doing looked not only culturally vital but an awful lot of fun, and as I continued reading through the '70s I formulated what was my first -- and as it turns out, really ONLY -- professional ambition. Which was that I wanted to write about rock and roll in The Village Voice and be edited by Robert Christgau. And I got to do that, beginning in 1984. Having fulfilled that ambition in my mid-twenties, I then realized that I now had my whole life, short or long, ahead of me. And that's when I began to fuck up. But that's also a story for another time. 

Steve Dollar, Wall Street Journal

One answer is that when I really began my serious career as a journalist, at the Florida Flambeau (R.I.P.), the off-campus tabloid daily at Florida State University, I really hated covering city commission meetings and thought movie reviews and the like would be a lot easier. But I was lucky in that the campus had an amazing repertory theater (with a leaky ceiling and a pianist for all the silent movies) where you could see almost everything in the Janus catalog within a few quarters. That, and all the then-current German New Wave hits you could slather in sauerkraut und der angst von der angst. Fassbinder and Herzog and Wenders were my gods, and it was still the late 1970s/early '80s so even the multiplex was kick-ass (From Reds to The Terminator). No InterWebs then, but I was a faithful Voice reader, in thrall to James Wolcott, Lester Bangs and J. Hoberman, especially. My passion for film, and writing about film, was kindled by all of that. But I also remember that as a small child, my parents always took me along to the drive-in as they could not afford a babysitter, so I had a near-primal-scene exposure to Spaghetti Westerns and other mid-'60s grindhouse fare that made a huge impact. I suspect my first "review" came at some elementary school show-and-tell when I regaled my class (and the certainly abashed teacher) with a description of the naked skiiers in one of the Mondo movies. Birth of a critic.

Adam Nayman, Cinema Scope

I think that I first decided to be a film critic when I flipped through a Pauline Kael anthology that my mother kept on her movie-book bookshelf in the basement. I was looking for a review of Jaws, which was (and still probably is) my favorite movie, and I was brought up short by the author's assertion that the film suggested "what Eisenstein might have done if he hadn't intellectualized himself out of reach." I had no idea what she could possibly be talking about. A few days later, I looked up Eisenstein. That was twenty years ago and would you believe I've still not gotten around to seeing Alexander Nevsky?

Mary Pols, Time

My origin story is so boring and predictable that I can already feel the commenters vomiting in my general direction. My parents subscribed to only one magazine when I was a kid, the New Yorker. Somewhere along the line they got a gift of Smithsonian and Jesus, that was dull. But every week, there was the New Yorker and I was both a voracious reader as a child and fascinated with horses. So I started reading The Race Track column and puzzling over the cartoons and during some particularly long bath or maybe when my brother was monopolizing our TV with yet another Star Trek episode, I moved on to reading Pauline Kael. I very rarely went to the movies, although I watched a ton of old movies on TV with my mother, but I was hooked. She wrote on a level that could, miraculously, engage a child, and I mean that as a great compliment. I went to J-school, where there were no classes taught in movie criticism and there was already a general sense of doom about the industry that made me think I'd better be a news reporter if I wanted to make a living. Then, at my last newspaper job, the opening came up, I tried out and somehow, got the job. I've never forgotten the lesson: in the small pond there can be big opportunities. 

Richard Brody, The New Yorker

As far back as I can remember, even in earliest childhood, criticism was always there, long before I knew what it was called -- the feeling of living more through records and books, ball games and movies than through the stuff of my own experience (at which I've always felt like a spectator), along with a pure secret pleasure in style and gesture that took priority over action or outcomes. A high-school obsession with Nietzsche, who seemed to spend half his time writing about music, didn't hurt. So when, early in college, I found out about the cinema (something different from watching movies) thanks to a filmmaker (Jean-Luc Godard) who -- I soon learned -- started out writing criticism, it seemed like the obvious thing to do (via college newspapers). From there, it took another couple of decades of wandering in a desert of my own making (and writing an awful lot in private) before I'd write criticism again for publication. The Internet, had it existed, might have helped. 

A.A. Dowd, A.V. Club

I blame the dinosaurs. My father had a subscription to Entertainment Weekly and the magazine's constant coverage of all things Jurassic Park got me reading. Soon I was hooked on the words of Owen Glieberman and Ty Burr, though it took me at least another dozen years to realize that I could (and should) be doing what they were doing.

Robert Greene, Hammer to Nail

Well not to slice this too thinly, but I'm not a critic, really, although I started writing about documentary last year when the otherwise esteemed Manhola Dargis completely missed the boat on what I and others saw as one of the best nonfiction films of the year, Only the Young. So in between making movies, I've taken up the art of pontificating. I never thought to be a critic. Or maybe that's a lie. I wanted to be an actor since I appeared in a Sears commercial as a toddler (I was adorable) until I got a good grade on a writing test in the 4th grade. That became an obsession with journalism in high school (I was editor of the sports section), which slid into film/documentary in college. Now I reject the journalism-documentary connection with the fervor of a convert!

Kevin Lee, Press Play 

Becoming a film critic was due less to any revelation (in fact the most significant critical revelation I've had recently is that it's better NOT to see oneself as a professional film critic). My experience has been more a haphazard series of stumbles and detours which I disclosed in one of Peter Labuza's Cinephiliacs podcasts. But one memory unmentioned there does carry a shudder of discovery: sophomore year of college, when I read a student review of Pulp Fiction which began with the paragraph: "See it. See it. See it. See it." then plunged into two pages of analysis on how bathrooms displace characters within the space time continuum of Tarantino's narratives. No review before or since gave me such a whiplash pan across the different spells cast by film criticism, from bullying bluntness to seductive sophistry, both conveying not just the power of a film but the power of one possessed by film. In hindsight, my practice as a critic has evolved along this idea of possession: not just psychological, intellectual or emotional, but the cultural, economic and political forces behind these presumably personal affects. 

Peter Labuza, The Cinephiliacs

When I was in high school, I was sort of into golf (don't ask), and went down on a spring break trip during my freshman year with many of the seniors to Topeka, Kansas. One can imagine that there's not much to do after 6 p.m. in a place like Kansas, but the older guys rented three movies that first opened me up to seeing films that were (at least) slightly outside the mainstream: Pulp Fiction, Memento, and L.A. Confidential. Surely a contested point, but to the impressionable 15 year old at the time, it was the first time I realized movies could do something different and outside the mainstream, and I've been hooked ever since. 

Matt Prigge, Metro

I don't really have some romantic (any meaning of the term) reason I foolishly got into writing about film. It's just made sense, once I became more than a casual viewer, to write about movies after I watched them. I wanted to talk about, for instance, 2001: A Space Odyssey with someone after first seeing it at 14, but no one I knew in person was interested in that. (Definitely not my poor sister, who did not take kindly to early man screaming and banging on rocks for twenty minutes.) That the internet was first blooming around this time meant that I had people (or the illusion of people) upon whom to foist my ideas and readings, and maybe even start a dialogue. Roger Ebert, Pauline Kael, Andrew Sarris, et al. all came later, after which I'm pretty sure I became better (I hope). In the movie of my origin story, the young me will be played by Jon Hamm.

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