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Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories

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by Sam Adams
July 21, 2013 10:48 PM
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Eric Kohn, Indiewire

I probably became a film critic the first time I snuck Bazin's What is Cinema? into a high school Talmud class. Spending my teenage years in an Orthodox Jewish community, albeit a fairly modern one, meant that I was surrounded by fixed ideologies and a severely limited view of the world. Movies were both my escape and my real education -- as were the volumes of analytical texts I could find about them in the absence of like-minded cinephilic peers.

Fortunately, growing up in Seattle in the 1990s meant that I had plenty of art houses to explore on my own. Seeing Le Cercle Rouge at the Neptune Theater or hearing Quentin Tarantino present a series of Roy Rogers Westerns at the Seattle International Film Festival gave me the opportunity to venture beyond the barriers of the multiplex. When I moved to New York to attend NYU's Cinema Studies program, I discovered that my enthusiasm for film history had barely started. It wasn't just about loving the movies; I needed to marry the process of discovery with an outlet for championing it.

John Oursler, In Review Online, Sound on Sight

I moved to New York to study queer and gender theory, though film was always my primary passion. The first time I watched a David Cronenberg film, probably The Brood or Dead Ringers, I felt absolutely compelled to write something about it through a queer reading. From there I was hooked. My passion for writing about film still comes from that same desire to see things, and hopefully help others see things, from a new perspective. 

Scott Renshaw, City Weekly

I've probably always been a naturally critical thinker, but the true genesis began in the spring of 1984, when I started working at a movie theater in my hometown of Bakersfield, California. Because I could watch for free, I started to see everything, including stuff I never would have thought to watch as a 17-year-old. And Amadeus became the first "prestige" movie that grabbed me unexpectedly, and made me start thinking about why I enjoyed it so much even though it was a movie about (bleh) classical music. I soon started writing the reviews for my high-school paper, and just 29 years later, here I am, still asking myself "why."

Shawn Levy, The Oregonian

I think it was an impulse I always had, combining the love of movies, writing, and newspapers. I published my first reviews in a fifth grade newspaper: The French Connection, which I had seen, and The Godfather, which I had not (I interviewed a classmate who'd seen it, and I remember trying, to little avail, to get him to distinguish between Messers Pacino and Caan); for some reason, I *exactly* recall my lede:  "Good movies are BACK!" (Little did I know....)

From middle school through college I wrote about pop music, never film, but it was the same impulse: writing, curatorial opinionizing, putting stuff in print.  My first "professional" reviews were done in exchange for restaurant scrip coupons in 1985, after I ran into a former poetry workshop student who was editing a freebie newspaper in Newport Beach and suggested I write something -- anything -- for him; we had both just come out of a rerelease of The Mystery of Picasso, and it was what we were talking about, so I said "sure."

It was the beginning of my doom.....

Stephen Whitty, Star-Ledger

Like a lot of film fans of my generation, what got me interested in cinema were monster movies, and the magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. Realizing that many of my favorite films were directed by James Whale, or all produced by Val Lewton was, for me, the beginning of auteurism.That led to Carlos Clarens' The Illustrated History of the Horror Film, which I got when I was about 10, and Robin Wood's Hitchcock's Films which I probably got a year later, my first two books of long-form, critical analysis. As my parents also got The New Yorker (and my father had a copy of Kiss Kiss Bang Bang lying around, mostly for the capsule reviews at the back) I was soon reading Pauline Kael, too, and carefully keeping track of all the movies I'd seen, grabbing the credits from Leonard Maltin's TV Movies paperback (this was pre-IMDB, youngsters), and writing out my reviews (with stars!) on index cards. The die was cast.

And as a result, I'm the marginally employable professional I am today.

Zack Handlen, A.V. Club

I'm not sure I have an origin story per se; I got into criticism because I love to write, and because I loved books and movies, and having opinions about 'em just sort of happened. I can remember the first public critical piece I ever wrote. It was my senior year of college, and I decided I wanted to contribute to the school newspaper because, well, that's just what young writers were supposed to do, right? So I convinced them to give me enough space to print a huge diatribe against The Breakfast Club, despite the fact that The Breakfast Club hadn't been in theaters in over a decade. It was an incredibly self-indulgent, snarky piece of crap, but it must've impressed someone, because it also led to my first press screening: the 2000 horror film Lost Souls, starring Winona Ryder as a Roman Catholic who meet cutes with the Anti-Christ. Something like that, anyway. The movie was bland and forgettable, but I remember feeling very cool hanging out in a theater in Boston with a group of local critics. I felt like I was part of a conversation, even if no one talked to me or made eye contact. That's the biggest reason why I keep writing reviews. That and the millions of dollars I make doing it.

Mike D'Angelo, Las Vegas Weekly, The Dissolve

Sheer chance, for the most part. I happened to be attending NYU at the time the Internet took off, and had created a bare-bones site where I'd post "reviews" of just a few sentences, intended solely for my friends. But I was one of only three or four people writing about movies online back then, so it was easy to get noticed. My site was written up by Ty Burr in Entertainment Weekly -- I believe this was the first piece ever written about online film critics, ca. Jan 1997 -- and the magazine started giving me freelance work soon thereafter. Stil had no expectations that it would turn into a career, but it gradually did. And that, kids, is how I made it to middle age with no marketable skills! 

Jordan Hoffman, Film.Com, ScreenCrush

I fell into this quite by accident. I've always been bananas for the movies, and an opinionated loud mouth, but this career was never my intention and, frankly, I have no formal training. (I went to NYU film school for production.) I've had a lot of other jobs, but this feels like the right fit. I got my break as a writer by knowing a guy on the inside and faking my way through some interviews. I'm lucky, though, because my interests are as wide as my pants. I'll be the only writer that covered the Cannes Film Festival and the Las Vegas Star Trek Convention in 2013. To young writers desperately trying to make rent, I urge you to diversify. It's the only reason I'm not homeless. 

Calum Marsh, Village Voice, Film.com

I've wanted to write criticism in some capacity since early high school and I consider myself tremendously lucky to be able to do so professionally today. The reason has always been simple: next to a thoughtful discussion, writing is the best way I know to think through a movie. If I could be paid to talk about movies with smart people over dinner and drinks, I would gladly do that instead, but criticism is a pretty good alternative. 

Todd VanDerWerff, A.V. Club

Sadly, sadly, I have had a love of being a know-it-all bred into me from a young age, and I was always interested in knowing what the "best" was in any particular field, so I could become a fan of it. From as early as I can remember, I was reading reviews and watching Siskel and Ebert and trying to make my tastes reflect theirs. When I hit adolescence, I shifted to wanting to develop my own taste (though I still had that crippling need to be "right" and thus reflect the critical consensus), but if you ask anyone who knew me as a little kid, I was kind of insufferable in this regard.

Scott Weinberg, Fear.net

I was the kid who watched all the movies, so my friends asked me what to see. I read the Philadelphia newspaper reviews every weekend. I wasn't that interested in how the films were made; I was more into talking about the final product. I had a small nugget of writing skill and I worked hard to make it larger. And here we are! Ta-dah!

Gary Kramer, Gay City News

When I was 12, we got Cable TV. (PRISM, which folks outside Philly won't know and it's now defunct). It wasn't even 24 hours a at the time. But I still went home every day and watched everything I could. Bad films like SUNBURN with Farrah Fawcett and Charles Grodin, and 10 with Bo Derek. But cable TV exposed me to indie films like Head Over Heels (aka Chilly Scenes of Winter) and that's where I found my passion. I started reading everything on the films I saw, and started writing professionally for a local paper at 16. The rest, as they say, is history.

Danny Bowes, Movies By Bowes

About 5-6 years ago, I started reviewing theatre, mostly as a way to see shows for free, but I took it seriously and did my best to always evaluate each show (which was nearly always microbudget Off-Off-Broadway) on its own terms. Prior to this I'd always thought of myself as a working artist and had plenty of reductive and nasty things to say about critics, and the realization that I had become the enemy, and that the enemy actually wasn't the enemy at all but a pretty nice guy (how could he not, being me?) came quickly and refreshingly. Once that particular Rubicon had been crossed, I gradually started posting lengthy, acerbic, and frequently profane rants about movies (my first love, long before I started doing theatre) on Facebook, which quickly led to several independent requests from friends of mine to start a blog I did in December 2009, and within a year I was getting paid. I'm still learning, but who among us is not?

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