When Orson Welles produced “War of the Worlds” as a radio drama in 1938, it slipped immediately into legend. To this day, critics and historians debate how much of the supposed fearful populace actually believed the United States was being invaded, and how much of the mass-hysteria was drummed up after the fact by Welles. It has become an iconic moment in the legend’s history, but also of radio. It was maybe the first time that radio and the spoken word were thought of not just as a tool or form of entertainment, but as an art.
The radio was ubiquitous in my childhood. While we were cooking, driving or working, in the background was the soft, catchy beat of Ace of Base or the Sunday Morning trivia show. It seemed like a fabric of reality before the Internet and MP3 players swept into our lives. It brought rhythm and rigour to life, but it was something we never thought of as an art.
Podcasting, while different from radio in many ways, was born from the tradition set forth by radio. Film podcasts have been around since the early days of the medium; a natural extension of movie message boards and post-movie discussions with friends. While radio shows about movies have always existed, they were never treated with any real critical reverence. They were also largely market-dependent — one city might have a great movie show, but many others did not. Yet for many people film fans, the experience of stepping out of a movie and chatting for hours was one of the great joys of the cinema, more so than reading criticism. Podcasting opened up a whole new venue for the way we think and talk about movies on a mass scale.
What makes a good podcast? Engaging personalities, well thought out arguments, good sound and strong concepts. While in the early days there were many general interest film podcasts, at this point, it’s hard to compete with the major players like Filmspotting who have been polishing and establishing their brand since 2005. Many of the rising podcasts now are more niche, focusing in on specific themes, ideas or eras. They’re not looking for the widest possible audience, but one large enough to have companions on the journey they’re taking.
Over the next few weeks at Why Criticism, we will be taking a look behind the scenes at a number of podcasts to determine their role in the larger scheme of criticism. To set the journey off, here’s a short list of five essential podcasts.
Karina Longworth’s silky smooth voice transports you on a journey through Old Hollywood. With a keen sense of history, a dollop of gossip and sharp insight, “You Must Remember This” might be the very best film podcast available right now. Journeying through different chapters in film history, Longworth sometimes brings in guest voices but mostly does it all herself. A break from what we typically think of as a film podcast (which usually involves something more discussion-driven), Longworth adopts a more narrative-based form, utilizing strong production values.
Recommended Episode: Star Wars Episode II: Carole Lombard and Clark Gable
As the newest podcast on the list, “Yo Adrian!” is hosted by Kiva Reardon and Fariha Róisín. With two of the best writers on film and culture right now, the podcast tackles the intersection between life and cinema. Even in its burgeoning form, the podcast stands out largely in part to the strong chemistry and repartee between Kiva and Fariha. Going off the beaten path, they tackle Big Hollywood and smaller industries alike, with more critical weight than most writers or podcasters ever dare. I am excited to see how this podcast continues to grow.
Recommended Episode: Ep 5: Call Me Channing Tatum
Incredibly personable but with a clear political message, “Black Men Can’t Jump in Hollywood” takes a look at cinema helmed by black leading actors, discussing the different facets of race as it intersects with the business of Hollywood. Hosts Jonathan Braylock, James III and Jerah Milligan create a consistently entertaining product that challenges the white-centric bias of most mainstream criticism.
Recommended Episode: xXx
Helmed by Josh Spiegel and Gabe Bucsko, “Masterpiece Cinema” tackles all things Disney. There are few podcasts that have such passionate and informed hosts, with regular guest stars as well, and with the ever expanding umbrella of the Disney family, it seems as though they won’t be running out of material anytime soon. That is also the crux of what makes the podcast so interesting, as it is one of the few productions tackling an individual studio on a critical level, let alone the most powerful media conglomerate in the world. Great flow of conversation and strong guest hosts make this a consistently entertaining experience.
Recommended Episode: An Extremely Goofy Movie
Peter Labuza hosts “The Cinephiliacs”, a podcast “about cinephiles and cinema” that takes a look beyond the mainstream. One of the great joys of this podcast is the seemingly endless run of incredible guests, who tackle movies from the past and present along with films that you might not find at your local cineplex, all from different academic and critical points of view. Labuza’s style, which focuses as much on personal taste and experience as it does critical rigour, strikes a balance successful between academia and natural conversation.
Recommended Episode: #78 Eric Allen Hatch (Possession)
Honourable Mention: Points de vues, a fantastic Quebec-based French language podcast.
Justine Smith (@redroomrantings) lives and writes in Montreal, Quebec. She has a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies and a passionate hunger for all kinds of cinema. Along with writing for Vague Visages, she has written for Vice Canada, Cleo: A Feminist Journal and Little White Lies Magazine.