by Ken B.
In what will hopefully be a recurring segment, I interview an online film critic about movies, their views, and the direction of online movie reviewing. My work as in interviewer might be a little rough here, as it’s the first one. Today’s guest:
You can see (or hear) Mike McGranaghan in a lot of places. His main website is http://www.aisleseat.com. He’s a contributor for Film Racket (www.filmracket.com). If you live in Central Pennsylvania, you can hear him regularly on WKOK-AM. (These jobs have earned him membership in both the Online Film Critics Society and the Broadcast Film Critics Association). He’s also written two books: My Year of Chevy: One Guy’s Journey Through the Filmography of Chevy Chase and Straight-up Blatant: Musings from the Aisle Seat. Mike recently agreed to an interview with the site. Here it is:
Ken B.: Everyone asks when a critic’s love of film started, but there’s always something more for reviewers. When did you first realize that film was an art that could be evaluated, and that it was something you felt interested in doing?
Mike McGranaghan: It was in the fall of 1989. I was working as the film critic for my college newspaper and reviewed Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, which had just been released on video. That film moved me so strongly that it changed the way I wrote. It was the first review where I did something other than basically say whether I liked the movie I’d seen or not. I explored the themes in Do the Right Thing and the way they made me feel. I crossed a threshold that day in terms of my writing, and some positive feedback I got from a professor (who I’m pretty sure didn’t like me all that much) made me feel as though I maybe had a sliver of skill that could be developed with hard work.
KB: So, from here on, you presumably progressed further into film criticism as a legitimate interest. Would you say there were any specific critics or other writers that shaped you as a reviewer?
MM: Roger Ebert was far and away the big one. I am a film critic because of his influence and inspiration. Gene Siskel was another critic I really admired. In the ‘90s, when Premiere Magazine was still a thing, I also used to religiously read Glenn Kenny’s reviews. Years later, he insulted my writing on Twitter, which was kind of amusing.
KB: That must have been interesting.
MM: I didn’t take it personally. I’ve got a pretty thick skin. I’m pretty sure he was mostly joking anyway.
KB: Ah. You do need a pretty thick skin for this kind of work, anyway. We’ve talked about how you got around to reviewing, but let’s get around to the practice itself. When you review a film, are there specific rules you have set for yourself, i.e. whether or not you take notes, how long you wait before writing a review, and how much of the plot to reveal?
MM: My basic rule is that I don’t become a critic until I’m back at my computer. When I’m watching a movie, I’m just another viewer. That’s why I don’t take notes. It puts a distance between me and the film. I can’t let a film give me its full experience if my attention is split by note-taking. I’ll remember anything important enough to include.
I try to write my reviews immediately after seeing the movie. Some critics think this is bad form – that you should give yourself time to formulate your thoughts as fully as possible before writing. It’s a reasonable approach, but not one that works for me. I’ve always been able to mentally process things pretty quickly, and I’ve found my reviews are best when I write them right away. If I wait too long, the specificity of my thoughts tends to dissolve, causing me to struggle to remember what I wanted to say. At the very least, I’ll put down a few key ideas so that I can come back and flesh the review out later. I should add that writing for several different outlets (and having to write so many reviews per week) has taught me how to write quickly. This is an essential skill to have if you’re going to make a career in film criticism.
In regard to spoilers, my rule is this: Don’t reveal anything that isn’t revealed in the trailer or TV spots. And, if possible, reveal less.
KB: I don’t take notes, mainly for the same reasons you’ve described. (There’s also a 12 – 15 hour gap for me between finishing the film and writing my review, but that’s mainly an issue of my schedule than preference.) It is a good practice to put yourself in the place of just a viewer, and when critics do this, the reviews are a lot more digestible. It’s something everyone intending to write regular reviews should do. With the Internet, we’re living in a world where anyone can start writing and voicing their opinions (that’s how we’re here). What advice would you give to prospective reviewers who want to write, but might be otherwise intimidated by the vastness of online reviewing?
MM:The basic advice is always the same. Write well and always try to improve. Develop your voice. See every movie you can, regardless of genre. Especially make sure you see older movies – and not just the classics. Be well-rounded in your cinematic knowledge. If you’re setting up shop for yourself, be sure you know what makes your site unique. After all, there are hundreds of Transformers: Age of Extinction reviews online. Why should someone read yours? If you’re planning on writing for other sites and/or doing freelance work, make sure you write efficiently, professionally, and interestingly. And, of course, learn how to find and apply for paying gigs.
KB: Certainly having a solid cinematic knowledge is beneficial to film critics and filmmakers alike. With filmmakers, you can see it in their work (like Michael Bay and how he was obviously influenced by the Hindenburg footage). What filmmakers and styles continually stick out to you as you see more and more movies (both new and old)? If you were to make a film yourself, do you think you would use them as influence?
MM: I think that the way we look at filmmakers has changed. These days, the most beloved filmmakers tend to have a very distinct style that is their trademark. You could walk into a Coen Brothers movie, or a Quentin Tarantino movie, or a Christopher Nolan movie and recognize it as theirs even if their names were not attached. I greatly admire filmmakers like that, but I also have just as much admiration for the ones who are defined by other things. For example, directors like Michael Ritchie and George Roy Hill were notable for their ability to do satire/comedy rather than for any specific visual style or dialogue quirks. They are both gone, but people like Jason Reitman, whose work I adore, follow in their footsteps. I wish directors like that got the same kind of ecstatic adulation.
As to the second part of the question, I don’t think I’d make a particularly good filmmaker. Trolls often accuse film critics of being “wannabe filmmakers.” While I can’t deny entertaining the fantasy occasionally, I know that my particular skill set isn’t really conducive to that. I’m a better cheerleader for those who can make movies.
KB: So, since filmmakers are inspired by the ones of the previous generation, do you think we’ll see more filmmakers influenced by the style directors (Like the Coens, Tarantino, Nolan, etc.) than the ones that developed through genres (like Reitman), considering that they seem to be leaving the heaviest mark?
MM: Yes, that’s exactly what I think will happen. It’s already happening. And those heavy-on-the-style directors will make some great films that we’ll all cherish, but we will be losing a different kind of great film. Take the case of Jason Reitman’s last movie, Labor Day. I thought it was a lovely film, but it got mostly bad reviews and it bombed at the box office. People called it “boring.” It wasn’t boring, it was subtle. You had to study the faces of the characters. You had to look at their body language. You had to read between the lines. It was fascinating, but it also wasn’t very flashy, which I think is why it was so negatively received. Your attention wasn’t grabbed by signature camera movements, or quirky dialogue, or noticing a motif that runs through the director’s works.
I fear we’re losing our appreciation for subtlety and nuance. It’s happening even in the blockbusters. Look at Godzilla. The big complaint is that Godzilla wasn’t in it enough. As many critics have pointed out, the shark wasn’t in Jaws very much either, and no one thinks that movie sucked because it didn’t have enough shark. We’re getting to the point where a lot of people want to be completely blown away every second of a movie’s running time. They don’t want quiet, introspective moments. That’s why Michael Bay’s movies are so popular. He completely removes all of that subtlety and nuance, and just tries to be as viscerally stimulating as possible at all times. You can go on autopilot watching one of his pictures if you want to. That’s not an indictment of people who like his stuff, by the way. I loved the original Transformers, and there were moments in the last two that I found enjoyable, even if the movies overall were kind of lousy.
Of course, I know plenty of film buffs who still appreciate the quieter, more thoughtful films, as well as the ones made by directors skilled in genre. But are we a dying breed? Yeah, probably. I really hope I’m wrong about that.
KB: Well, you sort of also answered my final intended question in there too, which was about your views on the future trends of film and the perceptions of it. I think we can start to wrap up now. Mike, thanks again for taking the time to participate in this interview. Are there any final thoughts or comments you want to say before we close?
MM: My final thought is that the internet has done a magnificent job of bringing film lovers together and helping facilitate new types of dialogue about the art form we all feel so passionately about. These were excellent questions, and I appreciate your interest in hearing my replies. Thanks!
Once again, this was an interview with Mike McGranaghan, a film critic for many different outlets. Follow him on Twitter @aisleseat.