Reel to Reel: An Interview with Film Critic David Edelstein

Reel to Reel: An Interview with Film Critic David Edelstein

Jacob Friedman, Staff Writer

Last week I had the chance to talk with film critic David Edelstein after he spoke to the World Affairs Breakfast Club.  Mr. Edelstein has been in the business of criticism for decades, and contributes to publications such as New York Magazine, NPR’s Fresh Air, and CBS Sunday Morning.  In our interview we talked about how he achieved his success, why he loves criticism, and how he reviews films.

Blotter: When did you first realize that you wanted to be a film critic?

 David Edelstein:  I did film reviews for my college newspaper. I really fell in love with a film critic named Pauline Kael who wrote for the New Yorker in the 60s, 70s and 80s.  She was really a hero of mine  I loved the way when you saw a movie you could go and read her, it was like having a conversation with her.  She really helped you think through your own responses.  I didn’t always agree with her.  In fact I disagreed with her a fair amount, but she always made me challenge my own feelings.  And I have to be honest that my first love was theater, and I always dreamed of writing about it and possibly writing for it.  I wrote a few plays when I was in my twenties and thirties, and they did okay, but I always found myself going back to criticism which is a form that I really love.

B:  What is it that you love about criticism?

DE:  When I was a kid, movies and theater were really important to me, and I went to a lot of movies, and I went to a lot of plays, and I wanted to figure out what they were doing to for me.  You know, what I was responding to.  I wanted to be more aware.  I didn’t want to just be hypnotized; I didn’t want to just be manipulated.  I really liked the way our forefathers maybe read the torah and sat around talking about it and debating it for hours and hours.  I was never much into the torah but I was into doing that with film. I was into pulling them apart and reliving them in my head.  And I realized that criticism can be an art form, that it can be something that entertains and inspires, and that makes you think and come to terms with your own responses.

B:  How did you get from writing for your college newspaper to writing for the major publications that you write for now?

DE:  Well that’s a long journey. I mean I’m fifty-four years old now.  When I was in my early twenties, I went to Harvard and worked for the Harvard Crimson, a really great student newspaper.  Then I sent clips to an alt weekly called the Boston Phoenix, and I got the job as third string theater critic, getting thirty-five dollars per review.  I would spend days writing these reviews, and I just really worked my butt off for those thirty-five dollars.  Then they hired me as a fourth string film critic, so I got whatever the other critics didn’t want to do.  After doing that for a couple years I sent clips to the Village Voice, and they hired me to be a third string film critic, and I moved to New York on that.  I just wrote my heart out all through my twenties, I would stay up all night writing, I would see every film I could possibly see.  It was really just from the bottom up.

B:  What specific qualities do you look for when you’re watching and reviewing a film?

DE:  The first thing I look for is if it entertains me, and I have a very broad definition of “entertain.”  A movie can be set in one room, be 90 minutes long, have two lines of dialogue and I can be entertained by it if I watch with a state of heightened alertness; if it holds my interest, and if it shows me the world in ways I’ve never seen before.  If it teaches me to make imaginative leaps without which I’d be an even duller person than I am.  I’m not somebody who’ll see a comedy with a lot of fart jokes and laugh my ass off and then go off and write a sour review.  If I respond to it, if I think it’s funny, I’m gonna write about it.  In many ways, I think that South Park is the best show on television.  It’s funny, it’s the smartest, it’s the most daring, it’s unbelievable penetrating about popular culture.  And it’s got great fart jokes and makes me laugh like an idiot.  I’m very proud that when the South Park movie came out in 1999 I said it was the best film of the year.  I was probably the only one, but I think history has vindicated me.  Now that doesn’t mean that in other years, I haven’t picked obscure French movies as my best film of the year.  I look for ways of seeing the world that I haven’t thought of before.  I look to be surprised.

B:  Do you have any suggestions for us at the Blotter as we begin this film section?

DE:  Read as many great film critics as you can, imitate like crazy, like I did.  And then, when you go into a movie, be true to your own responses.  Don’t write cookie cutter leads.  Bring in yourself when you want to, but also be very aware that one of the responsibilities of a critic is to evoke.  To give a sense of what it’s like.  Not a plot synopsis, but what this film looks like and feels like: the quality of the cinematography, the movement of the camera, the editing, the music.  You don’t have to name all of these things, you don’t have to be a film student to write about them descriptively.  I’m making it more complicated than it is, but basically just write an entertaining piece.

B:  Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview.

DE:  Pleasure talking with you.