Film criticism is a passion and a craft. Most film critics first became obsessed with cinema as kids, but developed into working writers through what they watched and who they read, as well as, simply, through the passing of time. In the first part of a three-chapter conversation conducted over months via a large Google Doc, film critics Manuela Lazic and Adam Nayman discuss what makes a writer’s voice, colleagues that keep inspiring them and how, a generation apart, they became interested in movies and writing.
Adam: Ok, so the plan is for you to interview me, which is fine, but I’m actually very curious about something off the top. Do you remember the first piece of film criticism that immediately compelled you to watch (or re-watch) a specific movie? If so, what was the movie, and who wrote the piece? And was the review something that you read online, or in print?
Manuela: That’s a tough question! I started reading film criticism in Cahiers du Cinéma when I was still living in France and going to middle school and, frankly, too young to fully understand those critics’ often convoluted formulas. I remember being fascinated — and even intimidated — by many of the films they described, and even more so by the way they were writing about them. I can’t remember what was the first film that they made me want to seek out, however. What about you? Did you also find film criticism daunting at first?
Adam: My mother had all of Pauline Kael’s books, and told me I should read them, so I did. I remember being probably nine or 10 and looking up Jaws in 5001 Nights at the Movies, because it was my favourite movie then and still is now. And she wrote — I am quoting the capsule blurb from memory — that it “suggested what [Sergei] Eisenstein might have done if he hadn’t intellectualized himself out of reach.” This meant nothing to me when I was nine, but I didn’t understand why she wouldn’t just say the movie was funny or scary or talk about the best parts. A couple of years later, I did a project on Jaws in junior high school and went back to the book and then looked up Eisenstein at the library. I remember all of this ridiculously clearly, and when I eventually saw Battleship Potemkin on a high school film syllabus, I figured I should try to see what she was talking about. In terms of whether or not it was daunting, no, it was exciting, but that was also because I had my mom to talk to about every movie I watched. She made me into a film critic when I was younger just by asking me about what I thought of everything.
Manuela: The title of her book reminds me that I had one of those list books too, 1001 films à voir avant de mourir (1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die)! My parents aren’t big into movies, but my passion started with my twin sister Elena, and we would go through this book all the time, crossing out the films we had seen and learning about many classics. We started being proper cinephiles — seeking out films, watching more than one a week, reading about them — quite late in comparison to most people, but thanks to this book, and to IMDB, we know a lot about movies we still haven’t seen. It’s frustrating, but I’m also glad that I still have so many masterpieces to watch, and at an age when I feel much better equipped to appreciate them. I think I need to rewatch most films that I saw before turning 20.
Adam: It’s funny because Kael, of course, was famous for saying she only watched a movie once — she didn’t revisit films after she’d written about them. (Which she didn’t start doing until she was well into her 30s, so it’s not exactly the same thing.) I think it’s really important to go back to movies, and not just for the reasons you’ve said about being too young to appreciate certain films the first time you see them, though that’s definitely true. When my friends and I were 14 or 15, we would rent notorious, but ultimately fairly accessible, movies like Blue Velvet or [Alejandro] Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, and the point was more to say we’d seen them than to watch them “properly.” But it was only a few years later, when I was 20, that I started reviewing semi-professionally, and that’s sort of embarrassing to admit because I’m not really sure what difference five years really made there. So, in 1996, I’m watching Blue Velvet on VHS with a bunch of my high school friends. In 2001, I was interviewing David Lynch about Mulholland Drive. There’s something amazing about that, and maybe something a bit ridiculous, too. Suffice it to say I wish I’d done a better job on that interview, but I was 20 and making it up as I went along.
Manuela: It’s interesting that you mention watching movies to be able to say you’ve seen them, because as often as I’ve felt bad for not having seen something, I’ve rarely sought out a film because of that feeling. I think when I first started taking cinema seriously around 17 years old, I was at once fascinated and intimidated by films; I thought they were those mysteries that I was perhaps a bit ill-equipped to approach and understand, or that I would be forever changed by. So, I wanted to have the best possible circumstances to watch them, and that meant not with a bunch of friends while eating pizza and chatting. Of course I would do that too, but not to watch all kinds of films — it sounds elitist perhaps, but even then, I’d rather watch acclaimed masterpieces in the cinema, alone, or with quiet friends.
Another thing that blew up my respect for cinema to such proportions was perhaps that, when taking film studies courses in university, I met some students who would pride themselves on having seen everything but didn’t have much to offer in terms of film analysis or class discussion. Their consumerist approach to movies, according to which they would go down a list of “films to see,” made me so depressed and determined to embrace the fact that I hadn’t seen much. I would watch all those films they had seen, but with all the respect, interest and devotion that they had refused to grant them, and in my own time. Today, I’m much more comfortable admitting I haven’t seen something, and everyone I care about gets excited for me when I’m about to see a masterpiece they’ve loved for a long time.
Adam: That feeling of having blind spots never goes away, of course — and neither do those stirrings of excitement or trepidation about filling them in. I think that the practice of writing about movies is partially about reconciling — or maybe just recognizing and respecting — the two realities you addressed just now: a desire to watch as many movies as possible and an acknowledgment that completism, at least when it comes to cinephilia, is an illusion. The problem is that there’s so little room in professionalized writing to admit to those gaps, or to deal with them in an honest and interesting way. Clearly delineated canons, ranked lists, serious or casual designations like “best films of all time”… they’re hard to really take seriously but even harder to avoid, as a reader, and as a writer, especially in the current climate where even reputable publications crave that kind of content and contributors are either willing or obligated to provide it.
But what I really want to respond to here is the idea of being excited for other people when they’re about to watch a movie that you love, because it gets to the idea that movie love is something that’s best when it’s shared — an impulse that I try to reflect in my writing sometimes, and that is present in some of the film writing that I value most, past and present. There are some critics who are able to communicate their excitement about a work in a way that feels totally contagious, and you want to catch whatever they’ve caught — whatever fever they’re operating under. I don’t think that that kind of excitement is mutually exclusive with the more rigorous or empirical aspects of criticism, but nor is it a substitute for them. I know I have examples of reviews or critics that I think embody what I’m talking about, and I can list them afterwards, but what about you?
Manuela: I totally get what you mean, and those types of pieces are my favourites. They’re the ones that made me realise back in the day that cinema matters because it can be about everything in life, and that’s worth getting excited and intellectual about! The Cahiers writers might have been the first, then at university I studied the writings of André Bazin, the father of the Cahiers, and his passion for particular films. What the form at large could do really moved me.
Nowadays, I’m lucky to have a few colleagues who keep me excited about movies and inspire me: yourself, particularly because you combine a sense of humour with a deep knowledge and appreciation of film history; Nick Pinkerton — most recently, his review of Claire Denis’ Un beau soleil intérieur made me cry; Eric Hynes — his writing is the clearest, most precise there is, and his passion for documentaries in particular is contagious; K. Austin Collins — such a strong voice that articulates complex ideas beautifully; Bilge Ebiri — my favourite writer on performance, his piece on Jeff Bridges is perfect. But I also appreciate these writers and others when they tackle movies they dislike and explain why clearly, constructively, and with style. Collins’ piece on Suburbicon, to cite a recent example, gets to the root of this film’s problem; Jessica Kiang often offers the wittiest festival coverage and her hilarious review of Xavier Dolan’s It’s Only the End of the World is already a classic; and David Ehrlich’s often cynical but usually justifyingly so reviews of the countless horrible films he has to see every week turn into exercises of style that remind me that film writing can and should be fun.
This question makes me realise that all these writers I admire have a strong voice, and I always wonder if I have one already, or if I ever will, and how that comes about. What do you think it takes to develop a voice? Is it just time and practice? And do you ever feel the need to restrain your own personal style from coming through a piece when writing for certain publications? How important is your voice to you?
Adam: Some of the writers you named would be on my own list as well. If I started listing additional names, I’d go on forever, but I’ve stolen so much over the years from Howard Hampton’s style in Artforum and Film Comment and his collection Born in Flames — a singularly idiosyncratic, obnoxious and brilliant volume of film and music writing that I’ve basically memorized. I’ll single him out and leave it at that.
Talking about present-tense writers is good, though: I think that in some ways it’s the best period ever for film criticism. It’s easy to be cynical and snark that “everyone’s a critic” and rag on “Film Twitter” (whatever that is) and lament a time when there was a more rarified, centralized critical constituency; print the legend that somebody like Bosley Crowther, Pauline Kael or Vincent Canby could make or break a film with a single review in a New York-based publication. But a plurality of voices and perspectives is preferable and essential, even if it isn’t necessarily reflected in who gets hired, or amplified. It’s why the best period ever for film criticism is also a completely frustrating and imperfect one. Now, I have colleagues who don’t understand why I make such an effort to read everything and everyone when they say, rightly, that it involves wading through a lot of mediocre or annoying material. My answer is always the same: because you can’t discover anything if you don’t look. And what I like looking for — and love finding! — is film criticism written in a strong, confident, original voice, which is generally what draws me in more than the opinion being expressed.
In terms of what it takes to develop a voice, the first thing is probably the confidence to project it, which comes naturally to some people and less so to others. Confidence, as opposed to arrogance; sometimes confidence is evinced by expressing humility or confusion about how to wrestle with a complex movie with elements outside the writer’s frame of reference or experience, or via a reluctance to try to be too declarative or definitive. I would say that it takes as much confidence to embrace nuance as to elide it entirely, and maybe I can say that that’s a realization that comes a bit with age and experience (such as it is in my case). The practical part of what you’re talking about, which is modulating a writerly voice for different publications, is absolutely a real thing. The reality is that unless you’re able to get a staff job somewhere (pause for laughter here), writing about arts and culture regularly has a schizophrenic aspect; ironically, it’s sometimes the film writers who don’t do this “professionally” (or at least not fully) whose voice is the most consistent since it’s not subject to different editing processes (or lack thereof) or immersions in various “house styles.” So, yes, I write differently for The Ringer than I do for Cinema Scope, but I’m the same person, and I think somebody would be able to tell that pretty easily. And on the rare occasions when I return to an older piece I did for Eye Weekly in Toronto when I was in my 20s, I feel a mix of embarrassment and recognition because 1) boy did I sound like a stupid, snotty, try-hard little twerp back then, and 2) boy, I’m still writing exactly the same way, aren’t I? I sound the same.
Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.
Adam Nayman (@brofromanother) is a film critic and lecturer in Toronto. He is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope and writes regularly for Reverse Shot, Quill & Quire and The Ringer. He is one of the writers for the Viceland television series ‘The Vice Guide to Film’ and has taught classes on film at the University of Toronto and Ryerson. He is the author of two books: ‘Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck’ and ‘Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage.’