Criticwire Survey: Origin Stories

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by Sam Adams
July 21, 2013 10:48 PM
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Jeff Berg, Albuquerque/Las Cruces Bulletin

My becoming a critic was something that happened because I made it happen. I was living in a community with poor arts coverage, approached the dying weekly and offered to do some reviews for free. They took the bait and 12 years later I am still doing work for that paper for a small paycheck along with others for equally as small paychecks. However, I'm doing something that I wanted to do and have created my own niche in New Mexico by doing so.

Mike McGranaghan, Aisle Seat

I grew up a movie-obsessed kid. There was no real "aha!" moment; I just loved the experience of going to a theater and watching something on a big screen. When I was about ten or so, I stumbled upon Siskel & Ebert's TV show on PBS. The idea that you could talk about movies for a job was a revelation. I dreamed about such a job for years. My senior year in high school, I joined the school newspaper and volunteered myself as film critic. I did the same thing in college, finding a way to sneak my reviews into print, despite the fact that the faculty adviser didn't want them. Then, in 1989, at the tender age of twenty, I mustered up the courage to send a letter to the editor of my hometown newspaper. I told her that the paper needed to have movie reviews and that she should hire me to provide that service. To my amazement, she took me up on the offer. That was my first paying gig as a film critic, and everything else snowballed from there.

Joey Magidson, The Awards Circuit

I'd always been a lover of film and a compulsive writer, but I got my start as a critic at least partially due to good luck, in all honesty.  I was in college and was an avid follower of Oscar season.  One of the main sites I read was called The Oscar Igloo, and one day I actually emailed them to inquire about why someone wasn't on their awards predictions and through some back and forth with the then editor Johnny Alba, I found out that an opening on the staff was coming.  A note on the site shortly appeared asking those interested to write in, so I did and submitted an awards season related piece and a film review of 28 weeks later....  Somehow, I was in the right place at the right time and they hired me.  I worked my way up the ladder, soon becoming the main film critic as well as a staff writer for the awards season.  The site became The Awards Circuit and I've been there ever since, in addition to my current freelancing.  A special mention also has to go out to my grandfather, who was a theater projectionist and took me to tons of movies growing up, so he laid the foundation, as well as the one and only Matt Singer, who gave me some great advice when I was first starting out.  Without both of them, I highly doubt that I'd be doing what I am today...

Jason Shawhan, Nashville Scene

Joe Bob Briggs and Ian D. "Primax" Smith. The former needs no explanation. The latter worked in dance music, not film, but his criticism in DMA magazine in the '90s helped shape my aesthetics and get over my reticence toward being confrontational when necessary.

I also have a lot of love and aesthetic formation for Jim Ridley, Matt Zoller Seitz, and Dennis Dermody. My first pieces of criticism were in 1988, for The Sugracubes' Life's Too Good album and the movie Bagdad Cafe, for my school's Junior High newspaper. Haven't really stopped since.

Zac Oldenburg, Having Said That

I always loved film, but I turned to criticism to be able to engage with it even further. Sure the free screenings are nice, but I love grinding out an opinion as I write a review; opinion changing to a view you didn't even know you have. Nothing I saw or read provoked me per say, but once I started I haven't been able to stop.

Mark Young, Sound on Sight

It was just this simple: I was not happy with the movie reviews in the "official" student newspaper of my college. So I searched out a competing student paper and asked to be a critic for them. I believed that film criticism should be journalism, and I wasn't getting that unless I wrote it myself.

Tony Dayoub, Cinema Viewfinder

The films of Brian De Palma first inspired me to pursue filmmaking, and I got my Bachelor's degree in Motion Pictures from the University of Miami. But after a few very brief sojourns in the industry, I rapidly realized I didn't like to see everything that goes into making this particular bit of sausage. So I gave it up, worked outside of the world of cinema for nearly a couple of decades, and it wasn't until the need arose for me to stay at home with our new kids that I circled back to looking at movies critically.

That my wife supported my fledgling endeavor; we were financially secure enough at the time to allow me to pursue it for no pay (at least initially); and the internet ushered in a new era of democracy in arts criticism soon made it a foregone conclusion that I would end up writing about film, a subject I revere on which I really feel I have insights to contribute.

Daniel Carlson, Pajiba

If only my origin story were as clean as that of a movie hero. I don't have a single inciting incident that drove me to criticism, though; no spider-bite or magic ring that set me on my path. It was just a passion that grew over time. My dad, who stopped regularly seeing movies in the 1970s, introduced me to a ton of modern classics when I was a teen. He'd think of a title and have me add it to a running list of films he wanted me to see. My best friend in high school was the one I could see and discuss movies with, and we devoured everything we could. (I think he and I are the only people who remember Safe Men.) I saw Ebert in the paper every week and moved to Kael and Sarris and Agee; I read Premiere and stumbled onto Film Comment; I combed the shelves at Blockbuster and Hollywood Video. I just felt a need to be with movies, and that turned into a desire to write about them. Writing about movies means writing about who we are and who we wish we could be (and, underneath, who we're afraid of becoming). I started writing reviews and essays more than ten years ago, and now I couldn't imagine not doing it. I'm always called back to the page.

Edwin Arnaudin, AshVegas 

Growing up, I had strong interests in film and writing (mostly fiction and screenplays) but hadn't done much to combine them.  Then in 2005, two things happened that brought them together.  First, I started listening to Cinecast, which I randomly discovered after my Dad told me about this new thing called "podcasts."  Second, Dan Burns, the faculty sponsor for my campus film society, suggested that we collaborate on reviews for the school newspaper.  Somewhere between Adam and Sam dissecting Hustle & Flow and Dan's mentoring (which included a satirical take on The Dukes of Hazzard movie as a Faulkneresque masterpiece), my interest in writing film criticism solidified.

Sean Hutchinson, Latino Review

I didn't so much stumble into writing about films as intentionally pick it up as a film fan. My academic background is in literature, and though I took a few film classes here and there I tended to stay away from them as a way to separate school and hobbies. I've always watched movies on my own or with whoever else would watch them with me, but my tendency to intellectualize made it easy to eventually bring my hobby into a more focused and intentional means of thinking about something I was only casually involved with. 

Adam Batty, Hope Lies

I actually just this week referred to a screening of Godard's Breathless at age 16 as being my own "year one". It formed one of the classes in a 6 week long introduction to cinema that was essentially a brief overview of each of the major areas of the medium, that I sat during my A-level studies. That screening led to an interest in the French cinema of that period that has fed in to every aspect of my filmic pursuits since. 

Joanna Langfield, The Movie Minute

I should have known, I suppose. Because when most of my grade school and even high school friends ignored the newspapers and magazines their parents had delivered to their homes, I grabbed them. No, not to read the stories of war, protest and social strife. I was reading the arts section, devowering Canby, Kael and Kroll. I remember lying, tummy down on the living room rug, getting really pissed off at Jay Cocks for dismissing one particular audience pleaser while writing so eloquently about a film that would probably never play my hometown. I began writing reviews of my own in college, encouraged by professors including the wonderful sound specialist, Nat Boxer. But what honestly gave me the courage to go public, to think I could be a professional ? Well, I was watching TV. A local critic began her piece by explaining, "this is the kind of thing you either live or you hate. I liked it, sort of..." Realizing not everybody was a Kael, I gave it a go. The years since have been a privilege, challenging and rewarding. I've worked with remarkable artists, struggled to understand work that made no sense to me and championed underdogs. I hope our generation has paved the way for far more people who, in their critiques, aim to help film, as an art, thrive.

Andrew Welch, In Review Online

There's no single moment when all the pieces fell into place. Growing up, I read the Dallas Morning News's film section every Friday. The local ABC affiliate also had a regular critic at the time who could literally determine whether or not my family went to something. Siskel and Ebert were important, but not in the way these local voices were. Now, jump forward a few years to when I was in college. By then, I had started to develop as a writer. Art and self-expression began to mean something to me. I blogged a bit, and sometimes about film, but I never thought of myself as a critic, just a writer. (I still prefer to think that way. Critic has a negative, not to mention limited, ring to it.) After college, I put fiction writing, which had been my focus, on hold and picked up book reviewing, which evolved into film reviewing. That was in 2010. Since then, I've been pretty regular about it, but compared to the writers I've grown up reading, I'm still a rookie. Where I'll end up is ultimately in question, especially with the changes going on within journalism, but what I have now that I didn't have years ago is a better sense of where I fit and a sharper sense of perseverance.

Christopher Campbell, Film School Rejects, Movies.com

Naively and ambitiously, I thought I could change the world. Well, at least Hollywood. Well, not change it so much as stress how much it needed to change. But initially I was also sure that things would continue getting worse, which is where my "film cynic" handle comes from. More recently I've switched to being naive and ambitious about documentary criticism. It may be even harder than changing the world. All in all I just believe I'm meant to be here in this field. It's challenging and fun and my destiny.

Anne-Katrin Titze, Eye for Film

It was Francois Truffaut. I was seeing my very last Truffaut film -- La Peau Douce -- during a retrospective of his films in Paris, and remember vividly the sudden pang of loss I felt walking home in the rain that now I will never again enjoy the -- by then already dead -- filmmaker's movies for the first time. Soon I discovered Truffaut's criticism and the power of language for cinema. I loved how words could make me see. I still do.

Josh Spiegel, Mousterpiece Cinema, Sound on Sight

What made me become a critic? Three words: Siskel & Ebert. Every Sunday morning on the ABC affiliate in Buffalo, I'd make sure to watch a new episode of Siskel & Ebert, impressed at how these two Chicago critics made an often-contentious conversation about film as entertaining or, in some cases, more entertaining than the subject itself. Watching Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert debate over any new release was a huge inspiration to me when I was a kid, as was reading Ebert's yearly compilations of criticism and his other works, like the Little Movie Glossary or his Answer Man book, which made me first aware of what aspect ratio meant and why pan-and-scan was the devil in cinematic form. The influence these two men and their TV show had on my ambitions to write about film is probably shared by most others in this survey, which only proves how important they truly were.

Jason Gorber, Twitch

I've loved movies from a very early age, but have quite accidentally ended up devoting much of my adult life, including a good chunk of my graduate school education in another discipline, dedicated to what I once dubbed "the conversation of cinema". It wasn't until University that I saw two films at my first arthouse screenings (Reservoir Dogs and Glengarry Glen Ross) that first started a more serious quest into films apart from those that had played in my suburban multiplex.

Yet the film that made me have the chutzpah to label myself as "critic" was 1995's The Brady Movie. With this film, I saw something that would be easily dismissed as a stupid comedy, yet I saw a genuine masterpiece that I felt deserved a wider audience. I've long argued that our role as film critic isn't just to say whether something's good or bad, but to occasionally stretch the thinking of our audience, showcasing films that might be readily dismissed, or occasionally pricking the baloons of inflated expectation. I wrote up my article, and had it published by a local independent newspaper, content that I had done my part to extol the virtues of what's still one of my favourite films.

A year after that Sunshine-y day, I attended my first (and to date only) Cannes festival, and wrote up about my experience for what was then a pioneering website. From those early beginnings in the mid 90s, including being one of the first Online writers accredited by TIFF and one of the first members of the OFCS, I've put various degrees of effort into this so-called profession, with the last few years seeing a dramatic increase in the reach of my coverage. Yet for me it still comes down to that movie like the Brady film, or Lebowski, Breaking the Waves or Rushmore, films that I saw and trumpeted before any prior hype or expectation, that I tried to champion and in my own way contributed to this conversation that we're all a part of. 

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