Critiquing for dummies with David Elliot

by David Dixon

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David Elliot is currently the main film critic for the San Diego Reader, and the former chief film critic for the Chicago Daily News, USA Today, The San Diego Union-Tribune and sdnn.com.

The Daily Aztec: How did you decide to become a film critic?

David Elliott: I realized that my college degree was not going to take me where I wanted to go. Since I had written movie reviews in college, I decided to give journalism a chance. I was lucky, because I was hired directly by the Chicago Daily News. Two years later, I became their movie critic. Ironically, I was not planning on being a film critic when I was in school. I do not think a modern kid could do it that way, because people want you to have a degree in journalism or to have more experience.

DA: What or when was your first assignment?

DE: I cannot remember my first assignment for the Daily News. I remember doing interviews with people ranging from circus performers to stand up comedians and visiting starlets. The first review I can remember vividly was “2001: A Space Odyssey” , which I knew was an instant classic. I was able to write at length about it, which helped me get the job at the Daily News.

DA: How has film criticism evolved throughout the years?

DE: I do not think film criticism has evolved so much as it is part of the larger context of journalism. There has always been a minority of critics who want to write for people who care about film, both as art and as entertainment. Obviously, there are fewer outlets and unfortunately criticism is under assault from people who do not understand what it is or what it can provide.

DA: Where do you see film criticism going in the future?

DE: I think it will always remain a fascinating discipline for people who want to take their feelings about movies and combine them with ideas in an interesting way. If you like writing about films and figuring out how you feel about them, then criticism will remain a valid form. Whether editors and publications appreciate that fact is another issue, but I think criticism will continue, because culture needs that conversation to stay alive. Otherwise, it becomes advertising.

DA: Who has been the greatest influence in your professional career?

DE: I do not think any critic or writers in particular made me want to be a critic. As a kid I did not read reviews. There was not much available in Houston papers where I grew up. Later, I was influenced by the critical debate in New York, especially by the confrontation between Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris. It was very fruitful and helped shape me and a lot of young critics in the ‘60s and ‘70s. That does not happen now, and I think it is (partly) the lack of intellectual ferment, which has contributed to the decline of movie criticism and the press.

DA: What do you think were or are the golden days of film criticism?

DE: Well it is obvious they were from the ‘60s right into the ‘80s when the blockbuster, spawned by George Lucas and Steven Spielberg etc., became the dominant form. In other words, people stopped talking about what are the interesting movies this week, and began asking, “What’s number one at the box office”? That greatly damaged the level of discussion about movies. The obsession with numbers is a plague. That kind of thing is a distraction and a childish evasion of all the really interesting stuff about movies. It is good to know what is making money, but do not be entranced by the numbers.

DA: Are there any film critics you follow on a regular basis?

DE: Not right now. I used to read Kael after I wrote my reviews, because you do not want someone else sitting on your shoulder and whispering in your ear while you’re going to a film and trying to write about it. Later, I would check out her reviews and a few other people. Right now, I think Anthony Lane of The New Yorker is a very bright and funny writer. What holds you with a critic essentially is not whether you agree with them, but do you enjoy their work? Are you held by their voice? Do you appreciate what they put in to shape their review? Lane is very good at that.

DA: What are your top five favorite films of all time?

DE: No one should reduce their taste to a list, but my holy trinity for film creativity is “Citizen Kane” , “Vertigo” and “8 ½” though “The Rules of the Game” could substitute for any of them. So could Satyajit Ray’s “Apu Trilogy.” My top trio for personal pleasure would be “The Maltese Falcon”, “Roman Holiday” and Orson Welles’ “Mr. Arkadin.” The last is definitive, inspired pulp.

DA: What advise would you give to an inspiring film critic?

DE: Your enthusiasm for going to movies and spouting opinions should be matched by your desire to think about them and write well in a personal voice. That voice, or style, has to combine ideas and emotions like a double helix and be entertaining enough so that you stimulate the conversation about films. There is a vast realm of expression between “awesome” and “sucks” , so take the time to develop it. Also, practice, even if you aren’t being paid.

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