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Stephanie Zacharek. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Stephanie Zacharek. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

Stephanie Zacharek: Criticism has become a kind of boutique interest

American film critic Stephanie Zacharek on trolls, critic-proof films and the pitfalls of weekly reviewing

As befits someone who grew up idolizing the legendary late New Yorker critic Pauline Kael, Stephanie Zacharek doesn’t suffer geniuses gladly. Here she is on Christopher Nolan: “Even the dirt in Interstellar looks spectacularly art-directed." And on Terrence Malick: “Watching Knight Of Cups is like seeing a guy go to a strip club and tip the dancers with Zen koans instead of singles." She would much rather watch Channing Tatum, whom she describes, in her review of Logan Lucky, as “alive to the molecules around him".

Zacharek has been the film critic at Time since 2015. Before that, she worked with The Village Voice, Movieline and, for over a decade, Salon. A Pulitzer Prize finalist in 2015, she is one of the foremost film critics in the US, her writing at once accessible, wry and evocative. Having been part of the India Gold jury at the Mumbai Film Festival last year, she was back for the latest edition, mentoring the Young Critics Lab. We spoke to her about Blade Runner 2049, Rotten Tomatoes, and why it’s tougher than ever to be a critic today. Edited excerpts:

I was reading your review of ‘Blade Runner 2049’, and it reminded me of something strange that happened at the press screening—a message from the director was read out asking us not to mention the plot in our reviews.

We got the same thing. The publicist said something like, please preserve the sense of wonder for the audiences who are about to see the film.

It strikes me as a particularly mistrustful attitude. Have directors and critics grown further apart in recent times?

I never know how much directors care about what we say—or how much they should care. Sometimes the studios do care—when I write a review that’s mostly negative but is somewhat positive, and it gets a “rotten" rating, sometimes the publicist will go to Rotten Tomatoes and ask, don’t you think this review is actually positive? So those guys will come to me and say, we think you meant this to be negative. And I’ll say, yes.

Is there such a thing as a critic-proof film?

I think there is, from the box-office standpoint. I mean, most films really don’t need us. A film like The Big Sick, a smaller, independent film, can really benefit from what critics say, but big studio films, not really. Look at something like Blade Runner 2049, which got pretty good reviews and it just didn’t do well. I feel kind of bad about it—I was mixed on the film, but it’s trying for something a little bit more adult than most of what’s out there.

Do you have a reader in mind when you’re writing, and has your image of this reader changed as you’ve moved from one publication to another?

It has changed a little bit, I think. Time has a worldwide audience, and a different kind of reader from Village Voice, which is supposedly hip young people, though I don’t know how true that still is. And Salon was something else again, a kind of crazy experiment that worked out great.

I don’t know if there’s a specific kind of Time reader I write for. I just want to engage people. I’m not interested in writing for other critics—I see some of them jockeying for attention from their peers rather than really trying to communicate. So the central thing is to reach people and not bore them, hopefully.

What are the pitfalls of a weekly review gig?

The job does get harder the longer you do it. You fall into certain patterns, even something as specific as certain words you overuse. But even beyond that...every week you go to the well.

Also, there are a lot of films that are just mediocre. Sometimes people ask me, is it easier to write about a film you really love or a film you really hate? I always say, those two are the easiest. It’s the ones in the middle, which are kind of okay—which is 90% of them—those, to me, are the challenge. Usually there’s one good performance, and that’s the thing that saves me, because I love looking at actors and trying to describe what they do.

You concentrate on performers much more than other critics— how they look, how they move…

It’s the thing I love most about the movies. It’s not that I’m not interested in movies technically, but it’s always about faces for me. That really is the essential thing in cinema, going back to silent films.

Movement is hard to capture—it’s like writing about dance, which I don’t really have the vocabulary to write about because I don’t understand it technically.

Sometimes people ask me, is it easier to write about a film you really love or a film you really hate? I always say, those two are the easiest. It’s the ones in the middle, which are kind of okay—those, to me, are the challenge. -

You’ve had a rough time with fans who’ve gotten upset when you’ve criticized their favourite film. Did this start with ‘The Dark Knight’?

I think so. I didn’t like the film and I was straightforward about that. But the things that people said…it was my first experience with people thinking they can say anything because they’re anonymous. It was sexist, misogynist, just unbelievable stuff. Then it happened again with Guardians Of The Galaxy.

Do female critics have it worse there?

I’m really reluctant to play the victim card but…(laughs) yeah. My ex-husband, who is also a film critic, he would see the stuff and say, I can’t imagine people saying these things to me.

You preferred ‘Premium Rush’ to ‘The Master’, and wrote a much happier piece when P.T. Anderson returned with ‘Inherent Vice’. One thing that seems to turn you off is a kind of deliberate artistry.

These are things I don’t articulate for myself, but yes. I don’t want to be close-minded about anybody’s technique or style but I don’t like that obvious showing off. P.T. Anderson was an example until he came back to us, thank god. Wes Anderson is a film-maker I will probably never love, though I adored Fantastic Mr Fox, which is one of my favourite films of all time. When I saw that I thought, maybe from now I’ll like everything he does, and proceeded to hate Moonrise Kingdom. That sort of mannered, adorable, corduroy-sy thing—I just can’t…

What was it like judging the Indian films at last year’s Mumbai Film Festival?

It was fun and they were interesting, even the ones that were not polished. These film-makers had a lot to say about society and restrictions—some of those films felt really radical to me, even by the standards of things I’m used to seeing at home. They felt daring, just in terms of the way they dealt with sexuality or restrictions on women.

You grew up reading Pauline Kael and got to know her later on. Do you get a sense of how young people today are reacting to her writing?

Students are still reading her in certain circles. I’ve gotten feedback from people who have taught certain essays like “Fear Of Movies"—students have a tough time with them. Sometimes they think that her voice is very dictatorial, like she’s telling them what to think. I always thought that’s how a writer needs to be, but that’s one criticism of her work I’ve heard from young people. It alarms me a little bit, that they feel they shouldn’t be that specific and definitive in their opinions.

Do you think criticism is losing its ability to influence the cultural conversation?

It has already become a kind of boutique interest. There are still people who are interested in reading it but the thing that alarms me—I don’t know if it’s the case here in India—is that writing has become so undervalued as a skill and people get paid less for it rather than more. When I was in journalism school, they’d say, as a freelance writer, if you get paid a dollar a word, that’s good. That was in 1983! And now, if you’re paid a dollar a word, that’s really amazing. You can’t make a living like that. For me to realize that young people can’t have the same opportunities I had, it breaks my heart.

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