Published on July 15th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Film Critic Matt Singer
We go beyond being critics to talk about criticism with some of the biggest names, starting with Matt Singer from The Dissolve and Filmspotting: SVU.
Film critic Matt Singer is a Webby Award winning writer, but he’s also at the forefront of the place where we get a lot of our criticism from these days, the podcast universe. Singer is News Editor at one of our favourite (newish) film sites, The Dissolve as well as co-host of the Filmspotting: Streaming Video Unit podcast, arguably, two of the biggest film forums around today. He’s appeared in places like The Village Voice, Ebert Presents at the Movies, and on IFC. Singer studied under titans like J. Hoberman and he holds a B.S. in Television, Radio, and Film from Syracuse and an M.A. in Cinema Studies from NYU.
We’re not sure how he found the time to do it, but Singer was gracious enough to chat with The Feedback Society about the movies that inspired him, the rise of the Internet critic, first past the post reviews, and more.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What movies did you see as a kid or young adult that made you fall in love with the possibilities of cinema?
MATT SINGER: Citizen Kane is a movie I remember watching very vividly for the first time, at home, on a VHS I got from Blockbuster Video. That made a huge impact on me; I watched it again before I returned the video to the store. I also recall watching The Sting on PBS around that same time, and thinking it was the coolest movie ever even though it was ‘so old.’ The fact that it was a period piece made me think it was even older than it was. 12 Angry Men was another one that blew me away at a young age; it opened my eyes to the power of cinema to entertain and educate and to broaden viewers’ horizons on a tiny budget in a confined space.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What are your thoughts on the rise of the Internet critic? There’s more interest in film and film writing, but also more scattershot quality and knowledge out there, not to mention longstanding professional critics losing their jobs. Is the Internet critic good, bad, or just the way it is?
MATT SINGER: It’s probably a mixture of all of them. The Internet has brought many great writers a level of readership and attention they never would have found in the age of print, and it’s even gotten some of those great writers good jobs. I’ve written some work for print publications, but for the most part my entire career has taken place online, so it’s possible that without the Internet I wouldn’t have a job either. On the other hand, there’s certainly more voices out there than ever before. It’s harder to rise above the din, and it’s harder to find paying work when there are so many people who are willing to do that same work for free. The lack of scarcity in all forms of media on the Internet has changed a lot of things. I still think, though, that you get what you pay for and the cream tends to rise to the top.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Do you think it’s still possible for a critic to pull the kind of weight that Pauline Kael or Roger Ebert did when championing a movie, or does it now rely more on the hive mind Rotten Tomatoes-style aggregates averaging out to high enough scores to garner interest? Could a high RT rating cause a smaller film to break through to a wide mainstream audience?
MATT SINGER: At the moment, there isn’t any one critic that wields the influence of Kael or Ebert in their heyday. That doesn’t mean that another one may not appear again. But this situation isn’t all that different from the one in film or television or music. Everything about culture is fractured now. The #1 television show in America’s ratings in 2014 would probably have gotten it cancelled in 1984. There’s no single huge band that everyone listens to. And there’s no one or two critics who have the nation’s ear. Again, whether that’s good or bad or both is a nuanced argument and depends a lot on your perspective. I do think people look at Rotten Tomatoes and do trust that number they see. How much it directly influences box office I can’t say.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: What do you think about first past the post reviews vs. a write up where a critic can take more time to process the film? Do you think retrospective articles often have more value in terms of good writing for that reason?
MATT SINGER: Some writers are blessed with the ability to write quickly; Ebert was famous for churning out insightful, witty copy week after week on crazy deadlines. Other writers need more time. That said, the shortening of deadlines across the board does tend to hurt the level of quality in the criticism we see. Is it possible to write a brilliant review in two hours? Sure. Is it easier to do in two days or two weeks? I think so — and a second viewing of the movie would probably help too. Personally, I love when I have time to write and rewrite. But that’s a luxury you don’t always get in the world of film criticism.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: While it’s still growing, I think The Dissolve enjoys a different perception from the world at large than its sister site Pitchfork. Pitchfork is seen as a great place to read about music, and an amazing resource for new music discovery, but it also gets painted with an elitist brush of almost comical proportions these days that serves to taint the brand a little. Is there a conscious effort to be knowledgeable but approachable on behalf of The Dissolve contributors? What is the ‘voice’ that the site strives for?
MATT SINGER: I think Pitchfork is a great website for music writing, period. If The Dissolve manages to come across as, “knowledgeable but approachable,” I think we’re in the right ballpark.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Between watching films and reading articles or blogs, how many hours per week do you usually put into research and showprep?
MATT SINGER: 20? 30? Somewhere in that neighborhood, and it varies depending on how much I’m assigned and what particular pieces I’m working on at any given moment.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Though your style is more conversational, do you personally enjoy reading academic film writing?
MATT SINGER: It depends. I went to graduate school for cinema studies, so I’ve certainly read my fair share of academic film writing. And a lot of it was fantastic. I don’t think “academic” automatically means “dry.” Academic writers have the benefit of time and length that their peers writing for blogs or newspapers don’t have. But I tend not to get too bogged down in labels like “academic film writing.” Good writing is good writing whatever you want to call it.
CRAIG SILLIPHANT: Speaking of good writing, or just good criticism in general, are there are blogs or sites you’d like to recommend? Any podcasts besides The Dissolve and Filmspotting that you’d point people towards?
MATT SINGER: I do a daily roundup of essential film writing for The Dissolve that’s called ‘Read On’; sample that a couple of times in a week and you’ll get a good sense of worthwhile blogs and sites to read. The other podcasts I listen to regularly besides the ones you mentioned are The /Filmcast, Fighting In The War Room, Do You Like Prince Movies, which is a Grantland Network podcast, and The Flop House, which is a really funny podcast devoted to bad movies, a longtime passion of mine.