Film Criticism with Brandon Judell
New York City
Brandon Judell has been a film critic since the mid 1970’s with his work appearing in newspapers, magazines, and online as one of the very first Internet reviewers. His writing tends to be sarcastic and humorous, but more importantly honest. You can see his current output on indiewire.com and as Cinema Editor of the magazine Arude.
*This interview contains explicit language.*
CCB: What is your first recollection of going to the movies?
BJ: It was a Disney film and I remember it being Lady & the Tramp. It’s the only nice thought I have with my father, maybe that’s why I became a film critic.
CCB: How long ago did you start?
BJ: 1976 or so.
CCB: When did you realize that films were more than just entertainment?
BJ: I always thought that because I grew up in the Bronx. Parkchester, that’s a very sheltered neighborhood. When I saw films they acted out all different personalities and characters. There is a book out that says we learn everything from film even how to kiss, how to date, etcetera. I remember when I took Michele Goldstein out… It was an awful film starring Dick Van Dyke called Fitzwilly. I yawned and put my arm over her shoulder. Why would you do that? It’s such a stupid thing to do unless you had seen it in about twenty movies. If you don’t have an older brother then you learn everything from films.
CCB: Did that yawn technique work?
BJ: No, well I got to touch her but then my arm fell asleep. It was so uncomfortable I don’t know why anyone would do it.
CCB: When did you first attempt a film review?
BJ: I took a film course at Herbert H. Lehman College and the teacher said these were the funniest film reviews he’d ever read.
CCB: And you enjoyed doing that? I mean you are still doing it.
BJ: It is fun. The problem is it became less fun later on with magazines because depending on who you write for you can either write very long reviews or it started ending up 400 words, 200 words reviews. Some magazines actually wanted 100 words. You really can’t do much. After a while when you start having the limitations of space with most print media which is different from online, it starts affecting the way you write and the way you look at films. There are some reviews that I’ve done, that were done so quickly that I can’t even remember having seen the film. I have to read my review to know I actually have seen the film.
CCB: How do you go about putting your thoughts together for a review?
BJ: Depends how fast you have to turnaround. When I was writing for AOL sometimes the review had to be there the same day. I tend to do more research for an interview than for a film review. With a film review you find out whether the film is the first version or if it’s a well known director, you try and see maybe one or two of his other films.
I remember for Braveheart I saw the film and I said something is wrong with this movie. I went to the library and took out about four books, did some online research, and saw how the whole film was fabricated, but for no reason. There was no reason to do the screenplay this way and just lie to everyone. You don’t go to historical or biographical films and expect the truth but this one had about twenty reasons why it was wrong. The audiences were upset because they loved the film as it was and I was getting literally about a thousand letters. “We don’t go to films for historical truth.” I pointed out the homophobic aspects of the film and that got people furious and that the characterization of the king was wrong.
The idea is do you write for yourself or do you write for the audience? The thing with AOL is the more hate mail I got they sort of liked it. People actually wanted me to be fired, especially when I gave Titanic one star. When you are writing for films you can’t expect to be loved. You really have to write for yourself and if the people like you… I tell people if you disagree with me all the time then I’m perfect. Go to the films that I don’t like and don’t see the films I do like.
CCB: How did you become a film critic?
BJ: Now it might be easier. In those days you go to any newspaper that is starting up. Or you go to a community newspaper and they are just starting, small budget lots of times, they are so excited to have you there. I immediately got a column. I think it was a gay publication called Gays Weekly. If you have an ethnicity, if you are Jewish you go to a Jewish newspaper. If you are African go to a black publication. Milk whatever you are… If you are a white Protestant rich person than you probably don’t need anything, your father will get you the job.
CCB: What was the learning process like once you were writing for a publication?
BJ: It’s always been pretty easy. The main thing is you have to know that you can write. I tend to be sort of sarcastic, humorous, and that works. You could be brilliant but if what you put on paper is boring, nobody cares. You have to get a style. Read Dorothy Parker, read Thurber. The two most important people who affected me were Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris who was writing for the Village Voice then. He now writes for the New York Observer, but he was brilliant in those days. One woman online, read Penelope Houston on her review of Barry Lyndon which is such a brilliant review. Just google her. They give you different aspects of reviews.
The problem with film reviews because I also review books for the Village Voice, if you review films most times you just see the film once. How well can you write in the dark? Try to get one or two lines of dialogue. They do give you production notes with the whole plot of the film. I try not to look at that because you don’t want to sound like everybody else. Sometimes it’s a technical film like Apollo 13. If you want technical terms check. Definitely always fact check the spelling names of the actors and the titles of the characters. It’s all memory so it’s really strange. So you keep wondering if you see a film over, am I wrong. What’s amazing is your opinions change. I really loved Truman Show the first time I saw it and the second time I was less enthused.
CCB: It must be hard to gather your thoughts when you see so many films?
(Seeing up to six films in a day, when attending a film festival.)
BJ: Some films are so brilliant like Amores Perros, 21 Grams. If you see a real powerful film it will just wipe you out. Certain films like two days later, how did it end?
CCB: Is there a typical day or routine you have?
BJ: It’s changed because in the last two years I started teaching at City College. I have just been named Cinema Editor of this quarterly magazine, one of these trendy magazines called Arude. Which nobody has ever heard of, you can buy it on the Internet. If people see it, it’s beautiful. With a quarterly you have more time. When you go to a festival you have to see which are the most important films although I tend to just go to films I know nothing about and hopefully it will be a nice surprise. With the New York Film Festival there are critic screenings at 10-1030 in the morning and at two. Once you are established you are on the publicist’s list. In New York most films are at six and eight in the evening. Film Forum shows its films at 10-11 in the morning. Christmas pictures are starting to open…
CCB: Sorry to interrupt, why do Christmas pictures start in November?
BJ: To get a buzz for the Oscars. Because it’s the Christmas season and people are starting to get in the Christmas mood.
CCB: I was wondering why they don’t start them closer to Christmas.
BJ: You have to do it before because after Christmas is over everyone is so sick of it they won’t see anything. This way if they do it in November if it’s a hit they just keep it longer. What were we talking about?
CCB: Typical day.
BJ: Then you write when you write. I find I write best in the morning like from 10-5 but with school it’s sort of different. I tend to write just before deadline when it’s due in an hour, which is a terrible way to do it, but…
CCB: What is your role to the public as film critic?
BJ: My role to the public is to be honest about my feelings and to entertain them so that even if they don’t want to see the film they will have fun reading my piece. Some people have another idea that the critic should be there for the director, the writer, the actors. Some times I feel they are right. It depends what publication you are writing for like indiewire is for the trades. So it’s different if I write for the public which has to be more spiffy, funny. I feel guilty when I’m not writing for the director but often I am not. Like you should have done this, this was bad, this was good… You don’t really have the space and I don’t know that the audience would want to read that.
CCB: You are writing to entertain, but not to sway them?
BJ: If I love the film hopefully they will go. I just did an interview with the director of Tarnation, which is a brilliant film. I think I may have called it “a small masterpiece.” You do hope people will go if you write a good review.
CCB: Have you had any mentors in your career apart from the people that you read?
BJ: I had a friend Arthur Bell. You know Michael Musto at the Village Voice? Before Michael Musto had that column Arthur Bell started it and he wrote it for decades, or at least it seems like decades. He died in ’84. He was my mentor. He took me out to films and shows. I saw how the business ran. It’s good to have friends in the business.
CCB: What did that mentoring process mean to you?
BJ: He taught me how the publicity thing worked. Also if you have a friend who is in the business they can bring you to screenings and introduce you to publicists and say this is an up and coming critic, he writes for this, he might be able to get you on the list. It’s hard to get on the list otherwise you have to call up for each film.
CCB: During the review process do you try and find positives in a film that you do not enjoy?
BJ: No. (Laughs)
CCB: You don’t try and be as objective as you can?
BJ: There is no objectivity as a film critic, how can you be objective? It’s not one and one is two. How can I prove with a scientific scale that I am right or wrong? It’s impossible. There is one woman who directed Amy’s Orgasm and acted in it. I said she probably had to fuck herself to get the part because it was horrendous. It was such an ego-trip I had no reason to be nice to her.
CCB: They are creating something, the filmmakers… I don’t know if they set off to make a crappy film…
BJ: No one sets off to make a crappy film. I went to the Palm Beach Film Festival where I saw film after film after film where after ten minutes you know it was horrendous. People are making films today with nothing to say and they should not be in the business. Oh wow, you wasted a few million dollars of your parent’s money, you are boring the audience, nothing to say, you are an egomaniac. You should become a plumber. Why should I be nice to them?
CCB: Fair enough.
BJ: I mean we are eating food right now. If I say this is great what is the basis on that? You don’t know what I mean by great. We have different taste buds. So there is no objective way of saying that.
CCB: Does your writing process differ when you are doing interviews versus writing reviews?
BJ: Yes. When I am writing a review it is like I am more with myself reacting to the film, getting myself on the paper. When I’m interviewing I try to get myself out of the interview. I want you to know the artist. The idea is to ask some questions that nobody else is going to ask, to make an interesting piece.
CCB: What are the different publications you write for? You said indiewire and the new one…
BJ: Arude. I’ve written in the past for the Village Voice, NY Daily News.
CCB: Does your voice change depending on who you are writing for?
BJ: If you only have 100, 200 words it has to be real spiffy. You can’t have serious passages inside. It has to be very to the point. It’s like telling a joke. You don’t have time to set up anything. It’s usually very snappy, sarcastic. I can write any way, it doesn’t have to be that way. Depends on the subject matter if it’s a serious documentary about children in concentration camps it would be inappropriate, though God knows I’ve done it. They know my writing style so they know what I’m going for. Also when you write for a magazine you have to read the magazine and you get a sense of what they want. If you write for the Voice you tend to become more leftist. When I was writing for Women’s World… you are talking to the middle class woman. It’s a whole different thing. You can’t namedrop. There are certain people the VillageVoice would know like Vladimir Nabokov, who wrote Lolita. You could drop that into a Village Voice piece but you would not drop that into Women’s World because you take it for granted that the people who read Women’s World don’t read books.
CCB: What do you look for when you are reviewing a film?
BJ: I like to go into a film with a clean slate. I always take notes immediately from the beginning of the film because most people don’t realize the opening shots are important. The director is setting the mood, what did he do? It’s really noticeable if you see a master filmmaker like Todd Haynes in Far From Heaven. The opening shot is barren trees with no leaves. The last shot of the film is trees all in bloom and blossoming. It’s a happy ending. He was showing how the heroine transformed from barren life to a full life. I would not have known that if I had not concentrated on the beginning of the film. You notice costumes, sets, editing, and music. Plus if you know you are interviewing someone beforehand you might focus more on that. Witty dialogue, I love witty dialogue.
CCB: Is there a formula that creates a good film?
BJ: There isn’t. You look at something like Pulp Fiction, he sort of broke it up. If you see Tarnation or Run, Lola Run, they all do different formulas that you might not have thought about. A talented person can make anything work. And an untalented person can ruin any technique.
CCB: It doesn’t start with a good story?
BJ: Of course, you have to have a good screenplay which is the problem.
CCB: Someone call still screw it up.
BJ: Well, that’s right. Billy Wilder was a screenwriter and he became a director because he felt these directors were messing up his screenplays. You can mess up a good screenplay but it’s very hard to improve upon a bad screenplay.
CCB: Do you have favorite films that the public should see if they haven’t seen?
BJ: It depends which public you are talking about. I love Todd Haynes films like Safe and Velvet Goldmine. The films of Truffaut, the early films of Godot like Weekend and Breathless. Fellini films. Early John Schlesinger like Midnight Cowboy, Darling. Billy Wilder screenplays, Alfred Hitchcock, some Preston Sturges. You should actually go see silent films to see how films work without words. Really brilliant.
CCB: Charlie Chaplin.
BJ: Charlie Chaplin, but even DW Griffith. Lot’s of unknowns, it’s amazing the acting there. Try to see some early Rudolph Valentino films and see how you could become a star without words.
CCB: Do you ever feel the responsibility to champion a small independent film you like?
BJ: That’s what I concentrate on especially with indiewire, which is an independent film site. I’ve reviewed lots of films that have not gotten releases. I do try and champion. Sometimes people send me films before they have a distributor. You see lots of films at film festivals and I cover that. You see films that no one sees because it’s so expensive to release a film.
CCB: Some print critics seem threatened by Internet film criticism or at the very least don’t take it seriously, why is that?
BJ: I was one of the first Internet reviewers for AOL, I think I started in 1991 or 92. I belong to the Online Film Critic’s Society. If somebody is brilliant it doesn’t matter where they write. There are mediocre people who write in the press and great people who write on the Internet. It’s the same anywhere. Of course on the Internet since everyone feels they can write you may come across crap, but I think its just people nervous that they are losing their power. That you could just get on there and find out about films for free. When I started out the studios didn’t even know what an Internet site was and now everyone has an Internet department.
CCB: What advice do you have aspiring film critics as far as breaking in, getting their work seen?
BJ: If you are in school start writing immediately for the school papers. Get online there are hundreds of sites. Get clips. The more clips you have the more you are capable of breaking in when a job opens at a magazine or maybe a bigger website. I’d written for indiewire when they started for free and then they started paying me. Don’t be afraid. You are going to have to…
CCB: Pay your dues?
BJ: Right, sometimes you don’t. Make lots of connections. Try to go to bed with people who are going to be successful or rich. You should do that when you are young because no one wants to go to bed with you when you are old.
CCB: Is there a writing submission process? Do you send your clips to the magazine and try and follow up with the Managing Editor?
BJ: That’s not going to work for the NY Times or…
CCB: So, you really need to make those connections.
BJ: Make those connections. You might join the National Writer’s Union which sometimes has meetings that can introduce you to editors. They used to do that regularly. Try to take classes with a published writer or editor and then you have a way to get in there. Also start at a new magazine. What I do is I go to the magazine stand, if I don’t know the magazine’s name I just write the editor. That’s how I did with Arude and now I am Cinema Editor. And they did not know me from a hole in a wall. You have to have ideas and you have to learn to find out what films are opening way in advance. If it’s a magazine, a glossy or something, they need there articles 3-4 months before the film opens. For a newspaper it can just be a few weeks. Then you have to pitch yourself to the studios. It’s hard in the beginning to break through. Now they call me lots of the time for interviews so I know who is coming.
CCB: What would people be surprised to learn about being a film critic?
BJ: I guess how many idiot film critics there are, no social lives. It’s a very easy job to get out of shape. There are lots of fat film critics. Sadly lots of film critics don’t have the film knowledge they should have. Lots of people whose names you see in the ads will say just about anything to get their name there, to make the studios like them so they can get free gifts. It depends if you want to keep your integrity or not. Lot’s of film critics are nice. There’s David Sterritt, he’s one of the better critics who writes for the Christian Science Monitor. David Kehr who writes for the New York Times, try to find out the ones who are really good.
CCB: What makes a quality film critic?
BJ: They have to know how to write. The more knowledge they have about films, the better they are. It depends if you write for The Penny Saver or some schmaltzy thing where your editor won’t want you to use your knowledge. The more knowledge and styles you have the more publications you can write for.
CCB: Has your writing changed since you began?
BJ: My favorite writing tool was Rodale’s Synonym Finder. I used to use that a lot. After I’d write I’d go over and try and improve the words and things. Now I have no problem. I can write a review in an hour.
CCB: I guess the writing has gotten better. You know the process.
BJ: Are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s early novels better than his later novels? Lots of people think the early novels are better. It’s just different styles.
CCB: Has your voice changed?
BJ: I don’t read my old writing so I don’t know.
CCB: Have you become more jaded since you have seen so many bad movies over the last twenty five plus years?
BJ: Not really. Each time you see a good film that moves you, you are bowled over. You are so excited that thank God this is an artistic experience. If you still didn’t get those highs then you couldn’t be in the business.
CCB: What is the most rewarding or coolest part of the job?
BJ: If you say you are a film critic people pat you on the back, they get excited. There’s some weird thing that you see a film before everybody else. You see Star Wars a week before everybody. You get into the high too. It’s so phony. What difference is there that I saw a film a week before you did? First of all film critics, the majority of them, don’t make that much money. Then there are perks, which they are cutting back on. Like I have a knap sack with Red Dragon on it instead of making a living. If I had a good job I could buy the knap sack myself…The pseudo perks are I’m talking to Paul Newman, Kirk Douglas. It’s nice but you are talking to them for an hour. That’s my job as an interviewer. It’s sort of a fake high, but nice in the moment… Now that I am teaching I love teaching more. Teaching is the most rewarding.
CCB: What is the most difficult part of your job?
BJ: The money. In a sense there is no loyalty in the business. You could be writing for a magazine for a decade and then you stop getting calls. Or there is a new editor who comes in and you are gone because they want to hire their friends. This happens to the biggest editors like even A. O. Scott at The Times is no longer there… There’s politics everywhere. It’d be nice if you had lots of money and didn’t care. The other way I did it for decades and survived. It’s a fun way of living.
CCB: Do you have future career aspirations beyond film criticism?
BJ: I’ve been teaching for two years at City College and I wish I had done that decades earlier because I could still review films. Teaching is unbelievable. I’m much happier than I ever was. A novel, do some writing or maybe publish a collection of my interviews book-wise.