What it Means to Be a Good Film Critic

Howdy, film nerds! Meet our pal, Andrew Chan. He’s the web editor at The Criterion Collection, which is a home video distribution company, a theatrical film distributor (see: Janus Films), and a newly-launched streaming service (RIP FilmStruck). Andrew oversees The Current, Criterion’s online mag where you’ll find essays, videos, and interviews with the filmmakers of works released via Criterion.

Before his current gig, Andrew was the marketing manager at BAMcinématek, the film department of BAM, the renowned performing arts hub in Brooklyn. He’s also written for pubs like Film Comment, Metrograph, Reverse Shot, and others. At STET we really love movies, so it was a pleasure to speak with Andrew about criticism, the need for more perspectives, and his emotional connection to movies. My biggest takeaway with speaking with this film fanatic? Write about the things that wholly obsess you. —JL

Where did your obsession with movies come from?

I was living in Malaysia from the age of eight to 11. This was ’93 to ’97, and I became obsessed with movies, partly as a way of staying connected to America. Going to the theater was a really exciting ritual for me and my parents because we got to stay in touch with American pop culture.

Do you remember the first time you wrote about film?

I was in middle school when I came back to America and it coincided with AFI’s list of the 100 Greatest American Movies Of All Time which came out in ’98. It was also the first time I had cable and Turner Classic Movies. I hadn’t really explored classic cinema as much, and then having access to TCM, everything kind of exploded for me. I started watching foreign films, and in order to process what I was seeing, I started writing in a little notebook.

At the same time I started reading critics like Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert who were a big influence on me at the time, and I tried to imitate them. I gradually, over the course of some years, went from more freestyle, diary-entry kind of writing to slightly more polished essay writing. But of course I was so young at the time that I didn’t really know what I was doing.

I started my own website in ninth grade — a Geocities type of thing. It led to writing about films over summer break. I watched movies on TCM, and Netflix had just started their mailing service. I would watch movie after movie after movie, and then write 700-word essays, put it on the Geocities website. Over the course of two summers, I had a portfolio — not to say that the stuff was good, but I had writing to show people. And in the process of writing these essays I started to learn about how to talk about movies, how to research them on the Internet, and how to communicate the excitement I felt about this new passion of mine. My first paid gig was for The Charlotte Observer, which was my local paper, as a teen screen critic for a semester.

What would you say is a good film critic vs. a bad film critic?

First, it’s important to be a strong writer — this is something that I tell people who want to try their hand at it. We need to encourage more voices, and not necessarily the traditional cinephile kind of voice, to write about films. But I think you need to be a really strong writer with something to say. I don’t really seek writers who I agree with so much as writers who spark a dialogue in my head.

Film criticism that doesn’t interest me is the kind of writing that is only thought-driven and doesn’t give you a sense of what it’s like to actually sit there and have a movie wash over you in an emotional way, in a sensorial way. That’s what turned me off from academia — and not to knock all academic writing, because oftentimes that writing provides important historical perspective. But what’s often missing for me is a real experiential connection to what you’re watching. I admire critics who give me an experience through their words.

Do you have any personal rules that you follow when you’re writing?

No, but I probably should. It would make it easier. I find writing difficult and maybe it’s because the way I write is so lacking in rules or any kind of structure. I would say plot summary is very boring to me, but obviously you need some of it because otherwise your writing becomes very insular. Instead of rules, I’d say the thing I try to pay attention to is that balance between writing from an insider’s perspective and writing outward. Trying not to be too insular but also writing from a real place that is still communicating something from a point of view that is specific to me.

What do you think is the responsibility of the critics to their readers vs. the filmmakers?

Writers have a responsibility to the reader and to [the filmmaker] be respectful to the labor that went into what they’re writing about, but honesty is important too. I’m actually lucky to write mostly about things that I really care about, or find interesting. I don’t tend to write a lot of “hit pieces” or rants about things that I don’t find valuable. Even if I don’t find a piece of work to be great, I’ll still write about something in it that fascinates me and something I see value in. I’m not the kind of person who delights in panning things, though there are certainly people who are brilliant at that who I enjoy reading.

Do you think there are enough critics out there who do have different perspectives?

We need more. Film criticism is not a diverse field by any stretch of the imagination. I’m not sure how I would characterize the size of the problem, but it’s definitely a problem. There’s been a heightened consciousness in the past few years about assigning certain kinds of movies — that have something to say on racial issues, or issues of representation — to people who can actually speak about those angles. But it’s hard because there’s not a huge base of writers representing every culture and every perspective. The awareness is there but film criticism is not a booming field. Attracting new blood and new voices, making people feel like it’s a worthwhile vocation to pursue, is incredibly difficult. It’s hard to build an inclusive and diverse field of writers when the field itself doesn’t pay [well].

I’ve participated on panels about Asian-American film, and at a certain point you realize the actual trends, or what’s happening within that field of representation, it’s actually not that interesting. How much can you talk about Crazy Rich Asians? I mean, It’s a fun movie but is that all we have? There are very worthy and impressive Asian-American filmmakers out there — Patrick Wang, Christine Choi, Kogonada — but they don’t tend to get wrapped up in this conversation about representation. When it comes to Asian-American representation in cinema, a lot of the problem stems from the fact that these movies don’t exist in the volume that we need them to. So the conversation ends up circling around a couple titles that may or may not be worthy of deep discussion.

What’s your approach to writing for an institution like Criterion?

We don’t have strict rules. Obviously what we commission, or anything that I would assign myself, has to make sense for our readership. We tend to cover filmmakers who have a connection to the Collection or are filmmakers who our audience would know and be interested in.

Are there any general writers that have influenced your work?

Pauline Kael, for sure. She was very idiosyncratic in her tastes, much more seeking a visceral reaction to cinema than I personally am. But she wrote in such a way that made engaging with film seem like the most exciting thing in the world. And where thinking, feeling, and experiencing really become one and the same thing.

A critic who’s very different from Pauline Kael in terms of his approach to cinema, his aesthetic values, his ideology, is Gilberto Perez, who is a beautiful essayist. He writes from a very humanist perspective and he comes from the academy. He’s an example of someone who comes from a film studies perspective, but is just a gorgeous writer.

I have to mention Geoffrey O’Brien, another essayist who writes beautifully about music, as well as cinema and literature. He’s someone who loves the arts in totality and is curious about every aspect of it. He’s inspiring to me because I don’t think cinema stands in isolation. It’s connected to, not just society, not just the history of the art itself, but to literature, theater, music, all of these things. He makes me want to know, and I actually don’t think it shows that much in my writing because I don’t write so much from a knowledge perspective like facts, but I do research a lot. I’m hyper-aware of what I still don’t know, and even about filmmakers whose work I’ve been following for years.

Writers who inspire me to know more, to read more, to watch more, to research more, are very important to me. Also, a lot of my favorite writers have nothing to do with criticism, like Virginia Woolf. There’s Louise Glück, who writes in a very prose style. Toni Morrison has written really incisive things about race and literature that have really inspired me. James Baldwin, always. Those are just a few.

Do you have any other writing endeavors besides film crit?

Well, I have been writing more about music, mainly R&B, over the past couple of years. I don’t know if this sounds a little tooting my own horn, but two pieces I was really happy with recently are about Aretha Franklin after she passed. She’s my favorite artist in any art form, basically, in terms of just how much she matters in my life.