Published on September 30th, 2014 | by Craig Silliphant0
Interview: Film Critic Michael Phillips
The Feedback Society gets a chance to talk to one of our favourite contemporary film critics, Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune and Filmspotting podcast.
If you’re a film geek, you’re familiar with the name Michael Phillips, who is arguably one of the most well known film critics in the world, appearing in high profile places like The Chicago Tribune and as a regular contributor to the excellent cinefile podcast, Filmspotting. Phillips has become one of my favourite critics, partially because he has seen a plethora of material (which I think is crucial for a good reviewer, and is lacking with a lot of modern critics), but also because he is erudite and well spoken, without coming off as snobby and elitist. It’s a very hard balance to strike, and Phillips is consistently able to pull it off. His movie smarts and intellectual approach never stifles the sheer passion for film that he radiates.
We had a chance to chat with Michael Phillips, which, to be honest, made us squeal like 1960s schoolgirls at a Beatles show. Mr. Phillips had some amazing insights into the current state of movies and criticism, his time on At the Movies, and why Chicago has become a hub for North American film criticism.
THE FEEDBACK SOCIETY: What movies did you see as a child, or young adult, that made you fall in love with the possibilities of cinema?
MICHEAL PHILLIPS: In the spring of 1969 I turned eight, and saw The Love Bug four times. That same spring my mother took me to Milwaukee (from Racine, where my folks, my brother and I grew up) to see 2001: A Space Odyssey. My mother was, and is, one of the kindest, most patient people on the planet, but on the drive home I asked so many questions about the Kubrick film that she eventually pulled over on the side of the road and said, very quietly: “I really have no idea. About any of it.” I could barely get my head around the experience, not just of 2001 itself (which I still contend was Kubrick’s last great film, capping the 1956-1968 streak of masterworks) but of a medium large enough to contain HAL-9000 and Buddy Hackett. And Michelle Lee, whom I think I was already a little bit in love with, having seen How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying when I was six or seven.
TFS: You were a drama and theater critic previously, but hearing you talk or reading your work, I get the sense of an encyclopedic knowledge of film, which can take a lifetime to cultivate. When did you start focusing on film? How hand in hand are theater and film able to go?
MP: Back when dinosaurs ruled the earth, Racine was an unexpectedly good place to grow up in love with movies. This was in the pre-VHS era. We were roughly halfway between Milwaukee and Chicago so we got all the broadcast stations and, consequently, a lot of movies aired at all hours. And I was in love with movies from the beginning. Comedy was my way in to the older stuff, as it was with so many of us. WGN-TV broadcast Horsefeathers (1932) one Saturday afternoon when I was nine or ten and I fell instantly in love with the Marx Brothers, and on a subconscious pre-sexual level, the pre-Code era. A few weeks later I saw The Big Store (1941) and didn’t laugh much and it bugged me. Why? Why was this Marx Brothers film so much funnier than that one? It may have been my seminal puzzle as a budding film critic. It got me thinking a little bit, at least in between episodes of Laugh-In, that there was more to the movies than the stars on the screen.
I wrote more about theater than movies in my 20s, 30s, and early 40s, but I started out while in college as a film critic for the Twin Cities weekly City Pages, where I later had my first full-time journalism job, as arts editor. Much later, in my mid-40s, I took the Chicago Tribune theater critic job, and was very happy to. But I was also eager to move back over to my other love, and am thankful to be dealing with film again. The two mediums work wonderfully together; so much of the first half of the film industry’s output is tied directly to source material from Broadway. It’s a great question to this day: How to activate a play on screen without falling prey to fidelity at all costs?
TFS: 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?
MP: Folks, we’re all online talent these days. Yes, the fully compensated positions are criminally rare, and there’s a lot of survivor’s guilt floating around. As a reader I’m the same as anybody else — I crave voices with something to say and a way to say it. I have no time for officious or misguidedly cautious thinking. I look for knowledge and wit and a dynamic way of engaging with the world. I look for the same things in filmmakers.
TFS: 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? Or is there something to that first visceral reaction that’s just as important?
MP: Many of us have to write quickly, under a variety of deadlines, for more than one medium. It’s crucial, today more than ever, to protect your time and your intellectual priorities and not take the buckshot approach too often. Think of it criticism as a rolling conversation, or monologues mixed up with dialogues: If you’re at a film festival, for example, and you write your first thoughts on something interesting, you know you’ll dive in more deeply at some point down the road. Working through my initial response to Malick’s Tree of Life hours after the Cannes premiere, for instance, wasn’t easy, and I had to tune out a lot of the bullshit simply to write anything coherent or worthwhile on it.
TFS: We love your appearances on the podcast Filmspotting — you bring a lot to an already excellent show. How did you come to be a more permanent contributor?
MP: I’ve loved Filmspotting for years, and have known Adam Kempenaar, and more recently co-host Josh Larsen, as Chicago colleagues and pals. At some point we all decided for me to come on every month or so. It’s a great, engaged listenership.
TFS: Is it just me, or has Chicago recently become one of the major North American hubs for film criticism? Do you think there’s a reason for this, or did it just sort of happen?
MP: Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel basically put Chicago on the map for film critics, particularly for film critics who became unlikely television stars. But when I was reading Chicago critics from afar, when I was still in college at the University of Minnesota, I thought: Wow. Ebert AND Jonathan Rosenbaum AND Dave Kehr. Today, it’s a very different landscape but the emergence of thedissolve.com and so much more has done a lot to maintain the city’s reputation. Now if we could just get the damn studios to screen movies more than 10 minutes before the release date…
(Photo: Phillips with fellow critic and At the Movies co-host, A.O. Scott)
TFS: Ha! Try being in the middle of nowhere in Canada. Speaking of Siskel and Ebert, can you tell me a bit about your experience on At the Movies?
MP: Roger and Richard Roeper were gracious enough to have me on At the Movies when Roger got sick and lost his voice back in 2006 and it was a treat to mix it up with Roeper and, later, with Tony Scott of the New York Times. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing the first 50 times. It took me a while to learn that on TV, in micro-reviewing allotments, you need to say the one thing you must say about that film, or in response to what the other person just said. Also, there are ways to approximate reality in conversational television without quite giving into it. For example, you’re better off sitting somewhere on the front 20 percent of the chair. If you sit normally you look as if you’ve suffered a stroke.
TFS: I listen to film podcasts while driving, running on the treadmill, mowing the lawn, you name it. Do you think that podcasting, perhaps on a smaller level, has the power to replace the idea of the televised movie review show? (Perhaps not en masse, but for a world of movie geeks like me?)
MP: It already has! People relish long-form film criticism in podcast form, just as they crave long-form narratives in television. They are hungry. Our attention spans are frayed and constantly under digital bombardment, but when we find something we like and people who have something to say, we tend to listen. It’s not “the loudest one in the conversation wins”; it’s more like “the ones who really talk, and listen, seem to have the most to say.”
TFS: You have been an absolute sport to take the time to talk to us today. To throw a recommendation or two at our readers, what’s the most fun you’ve had at the movies this year? Is there a lesser-seen film you’d champion from this year?
MP: Of the big hits, I thought The Lego Movie was a gasser. Big fan of Boyhood. Of the international auteurs, Ceylan’s Winter Sleep is terrific. Deadly title, almost a parody of art-house insufferability, but Ceylan’s about the best we have.