Why (and how) I became a film critic

Posted by · 6:11 am · December 24th, 2008

Robert Duvall in Apocalypse NowI think this is important to state right now.  Why do Kris, Guy, Gerard, Blake, Brian and I do what we do? How did we get on this path?  Obviously, I cannot speak for them, but here’s my story and some insight into why I love film, and how deeply that love goes.

Though my education on film began at the age of seven in a small Ontario village called Seagrave (where I live now), the actual “eureka” moment came in August of 1979, 10 minutes after walking out of the first Toronto showing of Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now.” For the previous three hours I had sat and watched Coppola’s surrealistic exploration of Vietnam, its images haunting me throughout. I was numb as I sat down on the street bench a few feet from the theater entrance.

At the age of 20, I was an acting student hoping to become a film actor, but at that moment I had been galvanized in some way I could not fully explain. For years I had consumed all things cinema, seen everything I could, set my alarm to watch the late, late shows and wrote my own reviews, which I kept in a large binder.  Somehow I knew right then that acting was not for me (I was never really any good).  I wanted to write about film.

I got back in line to see the film again and began speaking to people around me in the line who had seen me come out of the theater. They wanted to know what I thought, and I told each of them, “Your life is about to change.” More than anything I wanted to celebrate the greatness of film, to spread the joy of cinema, to discuss and debate cinema as art and entertainment.

I made mention earlier of my film education beginning in Seagrave. My dad used to to put my me and my brothers to bed on Friday nights at seven, only to wake us up at 11:25 to go down and watch Fright Night Theater, which used to broadcast all of the old Universal Monster movies out of Buffalo. There we sat on the couch wrapped in a blanket, our eyes wide with fear as those old black and white films were shown before us. Oddly enough, I live just a block away from that old house in Seagrave as I married a country girl.  Dad would later take us to see “The Ten Commandments” in a re-release of the film in 1971 and upon seeing Charlton Heston part the Red Sea I was hooked…period.

Of course things did not happen quite as I had planned. I gave up the acting dream, but one of my professors believed I was an excellent director and guided me through the beginnings of being a stage director. I never gave up on film, though.  I never felt the same way about the theater as I did about movies, but I had to make a living. Over the years I directed more than 40 plays, with a special place in my heart for post-war American drama, the works of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams and William Inge. All the while I kept seeing every film I could, celebrated the coming of VHS and home entertainment (which quadrupled my film watching) and reading every book written by Pauline Kael, John Simon, and anything cinema related, biographies being a favorite.

In the early 1990s I was offered a chance to create, produce and host a TV show about film. For one half-hour my on-screen partner Christopher Heard and I discussed film, but not in the Siskel & Ebert style.  We would devote entire shows to a single film or actor or director. The show became enormously popular in Toronto, the U.S. studios took note and soon we were being sent on junkets, becoming well known in Canada.

I hated that part. More than anything I hated being approached on the street by someone who was a fan of the show. Once I was in an HMV store with my two-year-old in my arms and a lady loudly came at me regarding some comments I had made about “The Sound of Music.”  I left the show after seven years when I was offered a dream job, writing for a national magazine: Life and Fashion Magazine. They wanted me to be their film critic. Wow.

The writing took off.  Soon another company called and asked me to write a syndicated GTA newsgroup for them that saw my reviews published in more than 20 Canadian papers, and of course the Internet. I still make TV appearances on the CBC and for a small network in Toronto on a show called Durham Today, but I do not miss TV. The book deal with Greenwood came into play two years ago and is a dream come true, five books in three years is what they want, and of course, I am Director of the Toronto Film School.

Why a critic?

I live, breathe, sleep and eat film. My dear wife, also a film junkie (what else?) once said film was my drug.  In 2001 I was in a terrible car accident that left me partially handicapped and in chronic pain, with some memory loss. Incredibly, all of the movie knowledge was still in place when I awoke three weeks after the crash.

Movies fulfill a need in me I cannot quite explain, but I cannot imagine my life without them. I still, after tens of thousands of films, experience a high when those lights begin to dim and the screen flickers to life. Every film I walk into might be the best I have ever seen, and though most are not very good, the love of the art has never been diminished. I have watched other critics, friends of mine, become jaded and angry with film, leaving to go write about something else, as they should. If there is ever a moment when I get like that I have asked my wife and friends to let me know so I can move on.

When not watching movies I am reading books about them, bios of actors and directors, studies of genres, histories of other countries’ film industries — film, film, film. How much do I love it? Some of my writing I do for free, just to do it. There is nothing better than sharing with people a love of an art that provokes debate and discussion. After seeing “There Will Be Blood” for the first time last year at a critics screening I called my wife and told her about it…just to share that was extraordinary. At 49, closing in in on the big 5-0, I still find myself learning. Guy Lodge, I must say, has taught me a great deal and I hope I have done the same for him.

I may not agree with what people write on the site, and in fact I disagree with our editor quite a lot.  But we agree to disagree because we love film. Of that let there NEVER be any doubt. Far too much time is put into this website for us not to love what we are doing.

But enough about me.  Tell me YOUR story.

→ 25 Comments Tags: | Filed in: Daily

25 responses so far

  • 1 12-24-2008 at 6:34 am

    Chase Kahn said...

    Wow. I’m in the same boat right now — I’m 20 and fooling around with classes, etc. but all I care about are movies.

    I would say it was more watching Kubrick’s ‘2001’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ 3-4 years ago that spawned it, but now I would consider my dream job to be a film critic/blogger/writer/etc.

    With the death of print journalism right before our eyes, however, it’s a sad time.

    And by the way, I write my own reviews in a spiral, too, when I’m on a ‘film high’.

  • 2 12-24-2008 at 6:48 am

    John Foote said...

    That is very cool, ‘A Clockwork Orange” had a profound impact on me — after seeing it I took my younger brother the next night to see it again — Kubrick’s best — don’t give up criticism if that is where your heart is, the INTERNET is alive and well, and never forget books, which will never die — people like to hold a book they are reading — books on film do surprising well due to colleges and libraries — my Eastwood book did incredibly well in pre-sales off the Greenwood/ Praeger site, amazon and barnes and noble — keep going, you got so much time but it goes so fast —

  • 3 12-24-2008 at 8:26 am

    Ross Miller said...

    I have been writing about film for a couple of years now. I started my own website just to hosue my hunble opinion in the form of reviews, just to express my film opinions. From then on I have taken every oppportunity to talk about film, both amongst friends and faily and on the internet.

    For me the firt film that really wowed me and opened my eyes to what cinema could be was probably Donnie Darko (I’m just 19 years old in case anyone is wondering why THE film for me is such a modern one). I have always loved movies ever sine I can remember (my first movie memoryw is watching Evil Dead at thwe age of three whilst other kids were off watching E.T.) but it was only about five years ago that I truly got into film.

    It was films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Psycho, Citizen Kane, Rear Window, Seven Samurai…..that made mee see just what cinema could be. I used to love films like the Vin Diesel shit-fest xXx but have luckily seen the light.

    I share your love for the art, John, I truly do. I couldn’t imagine my life without film, to me film is life. And that’ll NEVER

  • 4 12-24-2008 at 8:26 am

    Ross Miller said...


  • 5 12-24-2008 at 8:59 am

    Zan said...

    Like this pair of youngsters, I too am only 21. I’ll be graduating this year to pursue a law degree, but my love for film supersedes all other interests. I write several reviews a day for a review thread on a message board, which sounds small and campy but gives me a chance to express my technical views and emotional perceptions. I’d love to eventually write for a publication, but those jobs take a lot of time to acquire, and I’d have no idea where to start.

    All I think about is film now it seems. Going to see new releases in the fall has become an obsession of mine, and I now dread the approach of the early months of the year because I know what dregs they bring.

    After watching a lot of older films, I’ve learned a lot. Whether it’s learning montage from Battleship Potemkin or tracking shots from Max Ophuls, I seem to pick up something technically trend-setting when I dive into older films.

    Anyway, I’ll save some space for the rest!

  • 6 12-24-2008 at 9:05 am

    John Foote said...

    Ross, you have no idea how happy it makes me that a young man like yourself is looking back at films made before the year of your birth — as a film history lecturer nothing makes me more crazy than walking into the film school and seeing no hands go up when I ask who has seen Chinatown or The Godfather or Manhattan…what rock did they crawl from under??? You made my day and gave me faith in the critics and film lovers under 30…bravo.

  • 7 12-24-2008 at 10:05 am

    R.J. said...

    Wow, I’m glad I’m not the only “youngster” on board! I’m 20 and I’m majoring in Cinema Studies right now. Ultimately I would love to work in the film industry, but who knows where I might end up? It’s great to know that there are other people my age who just love this art form, my friends are mostly pre-med and think its weird that I like to sit around reading reviews and watching old clips of “Siskel & Ebert” for fun. I just feel like film is such an undervalued medium, sure millions of people go to movies on a regular basis, but I have this feeling that most people really don’t grasp the importance and beauty of a well made film. I can’t explain it, but I truly feel a passion for film (something I’m sure everyone here understands).

  • 8 12-24-2008 at 10:10 am

    Homero said...

    I’m 20 and only have been getting seriously into film for a couple years now, but I remember the event that made me hold movies above everything else.

    I was a kid in the 90s and had watched the Star Wars trilogy for the first time on our awesome VCR player (Blockbuster rentals and having to wait a week for my parents to get the next one felt like torture). I wanted that movie to be real so bad. I asked for any of the three movies for my birthday…but received none.

    Instead, my parents accidentally bought me the Making Of Star Wars, a 2 hour long VHS tape showing how George Lucas filmed and envisioned Star Wars. I must have watched that tape and Ewoks: Battle for Endor almost 30 times before the age of 12.

    Since then, I always shell out the $30 for the 3-disc Lawrence of Arabia or $50 Collector’s Edition of Casablanca over the $3 Ben-Hur I find in the flea markets. Director commentaries, making of documentaries, featurettes…I love it all.

    Also, I’m currently reading Rebel Without a Crew, how Robert Rodriguez made El Mariachi for only $7,000…it’s amazing.

  • 9 12-24-2008 at 10:11 am

    Casey F. said...

    I’m 18 years old and my love for movies kicked in when i was 13. i was at my 8th grade girlfriends house and her dad insisted that I watch Pulp Fiction immediately because I told him I was a fan of films. That man gets at least half credit for the love I have developed for the art and entertainment of film. Pulp Fiction opened my eyes in a way I cant begin to describe; but the most important thing it did for me was pique my interest in the making and makers of films. the next big stop was GoodFellas, and that’s when i truly began to explore films. I watched every Scorsese film I could find, every De Niro film i could find, and every other film that i found had some distant connection to any other film I loved as a result of these two. Although I have done a good job of exploring the history of films and consider the films of the 1970s and 50s among the best decades for movies, I consider myself a proponent of modern cinema, with a great love for the films of the 1990s. My hope is to be a director of pictures some day. All I really want to do is share my love with other people and that’s why i read these websites. I think it;s important to praise the people who have inspired me, because true inspiration is rare in this world. Thank you John for sharing your love with me, your retrospectives are among my favorite articles to read

  • 10 12-24-2008 at 2:50 pm

    Kip Mooney said...

    I’m a student at the University of North Texas in Denton, studying Journalism. I interned at the Dallas Morning News in 2007, and currently intern at Pegasus News, an online news service based in Dallas.

    My blog houses most of my movie reviews from the last year or so.

    Up until this year, I hoped to work for a newspaper. But given the bleak outlook for print journalism, I’m hoping to go into magazine or online writing.

    I remember when I finally started caring about quality films: It was 2000. I was only 12 years old, and my parents took my sister and me to see “Rear Window” at the Inwood. I was hooked.

    My favorite movie of all-time is “Singin’ in the Rain.” I can’t tell you how many times we’ve watched that in my family. It’s the reason I love film so dearly.

  • 11 12-24-2008 at 4:03 pm

    Chad said...

    When I was a teenager my favorite films were Braveheart and Apollo 13. When I went to film school my favorite films were Citizen Kane and Singin’ in the Rain. Now that I make films I can’t find many to like at all.

  • 12 12-24-2008 at 4:25 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    There’s so much truth there it actually physically hurts.

  • 13 12-24-2008 at 4:57 pm

    Jonathan Spuij said...

    Wow, I’m actually starting to feel old here guys ;). I’m a film student in Amsterdam and my passion started out with “My Generation’s Star Wars”: The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Everything that film could accomplish for me was in that trilogy. Before that it was probably JFK (which I still admire, and truly adore). From there on I started to get engaged in everything else in film and really catching up on the classics, buying my way around on dvd (particularly SE’s, I eat upextra’s like chocolate). Particularly the classics Westerns (The Searchers, The Wild Bunch) and Hitchcock (Rear Window, North by Northwest) perked my interest and became my all time favorites.
    Now I see about 100 new releases each year so I’m building my repertoire from the ground-up so to speak. I love film in every respect, though I have a girlfriend who finds it all incredibly tiresome and doesn’t enjoy it the way I can, though my enthousiasm can sometimes spike her interest in it.
    All I listen to in terms of music, aside from the Bee Gees, is film music. There is really very few subtitutes for the enjoyment that gives me. Also LoTR was a stunning highlight there in the history of film.
    I’ve still no idea what I wish to become when I’ve finished school. Probably something in film, anything. I don’t care. Right now all I want to do is see and enjoy great films. Discover everything out there that’s still to be discovered. However last year when I first saw There Will Be Blood I was blown away unlike anything else since LotR. That film was so truly amazing.

  • 14 12-24-2008 at 5:25 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    Count me in the film school boat, jaded after having the curtain pulled back and trying to rediscover the joy on a daily basis. What can I say, I’m a product of my history. But I take solace in the reminders, which come each and every year, of why I took an interested.

    And the “eureka” moment for me was in the mid-1990s. I always had a fondness for the cinema, but somehow Michael Mann’s “Heat” and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” spurred my creativity to a point that I thought they could be so much more.

    This is a great topic for this time of year, by the way.

  • 15 12-24-2008 at 5:46 pm

    jp said...

    I’m 19 and now at acting school and (obviously) love film more than just about anything. I grew up gorging myself on classic films: The Hustler, On the Waterfront, Atlantic City, Dog Day Afternoon, The Godfather, Hannah and her Sisters, Network, Apocalypse Now…

    I thought that the art of filmmaking was dead (I know that sounds pretentious as hell. forgive me). Then I started to realize that there were phenomenal works being created every year: City of God, The Lives of Others, Magnolia, Eternal Sunshine, the full Coen brothers collection, Road to Perdition, The Usual Suspects…

    Last year my spark was reignited into a full fledged flame by Into the Wild, No Country, Diving Bell and other instant classics. A little disappointed this year but…

    Either way, now is the time to be thankful for all the great work that IS out there and to remember why we love film so much in the first place.

  • 16 12-24-2008 at 7:27 pm

    McGuff said...

    Thanks John, both for inspiring this conversation and sharing your fascinating story. I think we all wish to have lived your cinematic experiences.

    As a 22-year-old, out of college and since moved on to a career far away from my journalism major, I have put to rest any hope of writing as a career. For years, I thought if I wrote, it would be about sports. I spent years doing just that. But last year, something began stirring inside me, and my passion for film started demanding an outlet. Unfortunately for Kris, that outlet has become the comments section of his blog more than anything…

    And, you know, I’ve often tried to go back and find that sublime piece of film that got me hooked, but I never have. It’s been there since I remember — I just grew up with that wide-eyed feeling everytime I stepped into a theatre. I know that “Speed” was my first rated R movie, and I can tell you that “Meet the Parents” was the movie in which I laughed the most/loudest. But that film that got me interested in this art? I don’t know.

  • 17 12-24-2008 at 10:14 pm

    Zan said...

    Woody Allen’s “Take the Money and Run” was my arrival into real comedy, quality film and the generation (70s and early 80s) that belonged to him. Hitchcock taught me about suspense, Dreyer taught me about the effectiveness of the close-up, Kubrick taught me about abstraction, Godard taught me about cinema being art and beauty, Ozu taught me about honor and family in film, Ford taught me about persistence, Welles taught me about innovation, and now PT Anderson, my favorite of them all, has taught me about perfection.

    I’ve learned something distinct and memorable from all the great directors and actors. It’s these things that keep me coming back for more in modern films– seeing how a “No Country” or a “Punch-Drunk Love” stacks up to the big boys of years past. Needless to say, it’s more than just a hobby; it’s definitely a passion.

  • 18 12-24-2008 at 10:39 pm

    Kristopher Tapley said...

    McGuff: Nay, fortunately for me. And the rest of us here.

  • 19 12-25-2008 at 7:25 am

    John Foote said...

    As the Director of a film school believe I understand the students feeling jaded. My instructors need to be fair and honrest with the students all the time, letting them know the extraordinary difficulty in making it into the business. Canada is different than the States in that we have many small films made up here and anyone with a digital camera can make a movie these days which is both good and bad in that anyone can make with a digital camera (some people should not) — I tell the kids what I was told, stick with it, believe in yourself, never lose the love and keep going — you may never win an Academy Award but if you have the chance to make films, work on films of any kind, you are a filmmaker — one of my finest students graduated with honours, made a brilliant short film as his final term project and then went back to work on his father’s farm, no explanation, nothing, just gone — and when I say brilliant, I mean brilliant, this guy was gifted — he just stopped — and then there are the ones you never think will d it slogging it away as a PA and working their way up the chain to AD or Associate Producer — it does happen but it is a hard line to tow. You gotta eat…right?

  • 20 12-25-2008 at 9:42 am

    Ross Miller said...

    @John Foote,

    Glad I could reaffirm your faith in the younger movie going generation. I get exactly what you mean – most of the people I know who are casual viewers look at my as if I’ve got three heads when I mention films that are black and white or subtitled. I have only two or three people I know who are truly into film in the way the people on this comments section are.

    Anyway, just thought I’d throw in some more of the movies that really opened my eyes to what cinema could truly be, some of those defining movies for me (will include already mentioned films and will put a characteristic/area of film it is a defining example of):

    Donnie Darko (Originality, ambition)
    2001: A Space Odyssey (Ambition, intelligent cinema, eneveloping musical score, visually awe-inspiring, the “bigger and ‘more’ than you feel like you can comprehend” feeling)
    Psycho (The chill factor, mood, shock)
    Rear Window (Suspense, mood, gripping)
    Seven Samurai (Marrying scope with feeling like a personal story, excitement, expertly crafted)
    Raging Bull (Acting/performance, skillful editing, emotional power)
    Citizen Kane (Technical craft, ambition)
    Pulp Fiction (Unique storytelling, “cool factor”, memorable characters)
    Mulholland Drive (Mood, thought-provoking, discussion/debate starter)
    Blue Velvet (Mood, shocking, frightening, memorable characters)
    The Godfather (Mood, control of pace, classiness, “beautiful violence”)
    Once Upon A Time In The West (Scope, musical score, engaging, well judged pace)
    Aguirre, the Wrath of God (Mood, scope, ambition, emotional power, shocking, memorable character(s))
    12 Angry Men (Edge of your set feeling, expert script, amazing performances, engaging from beginning to end)
    Vertigo (Exciting, intriguing, engaging, great performances, memorable characters, suspense)
    Dr Strangelove (Intelligent comedy, expert satire, memorable characters, social and political commentary)
    Goodfellas (Defining movie of genre, engaging, memorable characters and scenes, violent but not unwatchable)
    Chinatown (Mood, memorable characters, “one of the classiest movies ever made”)
    Taxi Driver (Amazing lead performance, emotionally powerful and engaging, well judged pace building to memorable near-end scene)
    City of God (“Modern classic”, violent but still watchable, ambitious, great performances from non-actors)
    Oldboy (Powerful, sytlish, engaging, emotional, violent, memorable)
    Blade Runner (Milestone in sci-fi cinema, still-to-this-day-impressive special effects, memorable villain)
    The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (Mood, great performances, “one of the best musical scores in years”, well judged pace, intriguing, “could watch regularly”)
    There Will Be Blood (Stunning musical score, phenominal leading performance, beautiful cinematography, “hard to fathom words to describe it after first viewing”, “instant classic”)

  • 21 12-25-2008 at 12:51 pm

    Ronn said...

    Here’s narcissism at it’s finest for you… As I read this article just now it felt as if I was being spoken to directly in some “sign” sort of way. For whatever reason people keep telling me to write and I keep evolving into a write almost as if it were by accident… or is it?

    I’m 33, elderly on this board it appears, and I have lived in Hollywood the past 10 years. I went to college in North Dakota and am now there visiting family and answering a myriad of questions from friends and family regarding celebrities and the film business in general and of course explaining to them what I have been doing in the Entertainment business all these years. Simply hearing stories from my parents about my youth and the 3 movies they told me I watched repeatedly were ET, Explorers and Goonies, which I remember. They tell stories of how intensely lost in these moves I would get, like I was a part of them. This has happened to all of us here. Even as a child a told them I was going to California to do what those kid’s did in those movies. I was fully aware at that young of an age that they were actors and it intrigued me as to how movies were made.

    This article is exactly how I feel and have always felt. I can’t explain that feeling I get from getting lost inside a move theater and going for the ride of the film. It euphoric, it’s an escape and I literally sometimes say to myself that it’s the only place I’m truly happy.

    I am very analytical and write frequently and totally for free. I read scripts, write coverage, I watch films and write reviews, write screenplays and create TV and Film concepts and write treatments. I can’t help it, I don’t know why I do it all I know is I feel compelled to do so. I watch every Academy nominated film in EACH category every year. I read this site religiously and have for years. It’s Christmas Day and I couldn’t stay away.

    Thank you for this thread. The mysterious but real passion we all share for films is amazing and it pleases me to no end that there is a place in this site to go to converse about this love affair. Merry Christmas.

  • 22 12-25-2008 at 7:06 pm

    Nicolas Mancuso said...

    John, reading your articles always puts a smile on my face. Even when I don’t agree with you (which is quite often, it turns out), I always find your passion for film infectious. You write with an almost wide-eyed innocence, and I certainly don’t mean that in a bad way. You watch films with the excitement of a young child on Christmas morning, and write about them with an equal amount of enthusiasm, whether you like them or not. Considering how long you’ve been doing what you’re doing, I think it’s amazing that your passion and enthusiasm continue so freely, without being infected with the cynicism that defines so many of the angry commenters on this site. I truly think you’re an inspiration to all of us who visit In Contention.

    As for me, I am a 23-year-old student in Montreal. I am a classically trained actor, and I’m currently studying English at Concordia University. I love film so much, and my future definitely involves teaching film, writing about film, or performing in film.

    Thank you for your work at In Contention. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

  • 23 12-26-2008 at 5:59 pm

    Xavier said...

    I’m just an Ivy League student who enjoys Oscar prognostication.

  • 24 12-26-2008 at 10:24 pm

    Rustin said...

    John –
    Thank you for giving us a peek into your experiences.
    I found this site today by accident while reading Cinematical.
    I am forty-one and am too in love with film. I went into the Army to pick up the GI Bill in order to attend film school, but a baby came along and changed everything.

    I felt despair as the years went by and my love for film raged on and ten years after the baby changed my path, I am back to writing screenplays and looking at financing my first film. At 41!! This shows you that no matter what and no matter when, you can parlay your love for film into something.

    I know the road to financing and making a film is tumultuous – I have had the time to read everything there is to know about indie finance and the troubles I will face in distribution, festivals et al. But – I don’t care. I have had enough time to realize I might not make the Oscar or the Globe – I just have to make a film. That way, I can say I did it instead of when I’m eighty wishing I had.

    I write because I feel that it is my contribution to the industry or art of film. It’s payback for the many, many hours I have been enthralled or disgusted by motion pictures.

    Thank you for your writing – I am now a fan of yours and this site. I will be seeing you more often.

  • 25 12-27-2008 at 4:06 pm

    John Foote said...

    Rustin, you made my day…thank you.