Film Comment Magazine is a well-respected and essential institution for impassioned research, comprehensive criticism, and pressing interviews. The venerable publication not only covers topics of note with enthusiasm and knowledge, but they are unpretentiously affectionate toward people, culture, and art. While the digital age has brought about a new brand of paintball spattered film criticism (choleric quips and monomaniacal agendas tend to march, hand-in-hand, against thoughtful discourse), Film Comment has used curiosity and conversation as their masthead. As the Digital Editor of the aforementioned magazine, Violet Lucca not only curates content for the New York-based publication but is the author of many wonderful articles, interviews, and social media posts – she is also the host of the inimitable Film Comment podcast. In wanting to discuss the current climate of film, we asked Violet about the tenuous stability of criticism in general-interest publications, the groundwork of writing an engaging review, and many other topics.
Rob Patrick: You’ve interviewed wonderfully talented artists, and, because of your approach, have always received warm reception and conversational responses. Outside of research, what’s the best strategy when conducting a Q&A with a filmmaker or actor?
Violet Lucca: Get to the point as soon as you can. Match their energy and put them at ease. If someone’s not really in a jokey mood (or just not laughing at your jokes), don’t try and force it. I think one of the grossest things in transcribed interviews is when someone includes [laughs] when the interviewee is clearly just humoring the interviewer’s lame joke!
When I interviewed Richard Lawson of Vanity Fair, he said that “movies are a reflection of a lot of things—not just the discrete circumstances of their making—and the best critics, the best reviews, capture the sense of a film’s place in the world in ways that are illuminating, funny, inspiring, moving.” As someone who explores the medium, through various channels, what do you find to be a thoughtful and engaging film review?
A well-made argument. Even if I disagree with your opinion, if your argument is interesting and built on solid footing, I’ll enjoy reading or listening to it. Video essays are trickier because there are definitely those that are too much like music videos to be insightful and others that are way too formally flamboyant to be taken seriously.
What interested you in becoming active in the film community?
With the exception of friends who are also critics, I don’t really try to be active in it. I very much enjoy talking about film with people who are as passionate as me in person, but most of the time the online community strikes me as unappealing. A lot conversations out there are far too reductive and exclusionary. When I do participate, I usually end up offending someone…intentionally or unintentionally.
One of the many things I love about your writing is that you are invested in the exploration of the film’s creation and its cultural impact. When reading your work, there’s a distinct sense of joy and curiosity in your process. To me, that sort of criticism is vital. How has your style of writing changed over the course of time?
When I was first starting out, I got a really bad piece of advice from an ex-boyfriend: don’t describe what happens the film, just focus on the analysis. (You know, because you can just read a plot synopsis anywhere?) Now I try to convey a certain sense of the experience of watching a film, because that opens things up to all readers. An argument isn’t going to be comprehensible, even to people who have seen it, if you don’t give some type of plot description. I also try to focus on why things didn’t work on a structural level. Obviously I can’t review the film an actor originally signed on to do (that got messed up by a meddling studio or whatever), but whenever appropriate I try to think through something like a misplaced story beat. Is it possible to see some intention behind it? What does it do to the story overall?
In a recent Film Comment Podcast episode, you touched on social media and criticism. With the amount of websites and podcasts dedicated to cinema, do you believe that writers are being pressured to become more accessible, through either Buzzfeed-like snark or acerbic brevity, to reach an audience? How does one bridge analytical film writing in the ease of the Twitter-era?
Yes, definitely. A lot of nuance has already been lost with the stupidity of Rotten Tomatoes—I’m not sure how many people get past the score page, let alone bother to read a review with a contrary opinion. A different problem you’re touching on with your Buzzfeed mention is the tendency for writers to put films into two buckets: “good politics” and “bad politics.” A general reader will be familiar with what “good politics” look like, but they probably don’t know what the three-point lighting system does to a face…which is why it’s easier to “sell” an article based on its politics rather than its aesthetics. The Ghostbusters remake was touted as “destroying the patriarchy” by Buzzfeed before it was even released, which is offensive to me as a feminist. A phrase like “destroying the patriarchy” shouldn’t be incorporated into an ad campaign for a multi-million dollar movie backed by a major studio unless Lizzie Borden made it. Writers need to approach films on an aesthetic and ideological level, because ideology couldn’t exist without aesthetics. (For instance, the three-point lighting system was designed for caucasian faces.)
The San Diego Union-Tribune decided, recently, to sever ties with its resident film critic in order to ascertain movie reviews from other outlets. Is film criticism seen, more now than ever, as an expendable luxury? Culturally, what danger are we facing?
Yes, I think most general-interest publications treat film as totally expendable. Film writing is losing out to television writing, simply because TV gets made faster and there’s a lot more of it. This isn’t entirely bad for film writing itself—it’s an opportunity for smaller, film-focused publications to give film more in-depth attention. However, it’s bad for the medium itself, because this means people have to seek it out. In a world where our attention is constantly being competed for, it can definitely get lost. Without new cinephiles, what sort of film culture can we hope to have? That’s a grim prospect.
What are three pictures that every aspiring film critic should see, outside of the obligatory classics?
I’m not sure what’s an obligatory classic anymore…but I would say: Chantal Akerman’s News from Home, Dbril Diop Mambety’s Touki Bouki, and Agnes Varda’s Ulysses.
“OJ: Made in America” is being sent out to critics organizations for the purposes of award consideration. With the popularity of serials, do you see long-form narratives becoming more recognized by the film community?
I really hope so. I’ve always found three-act structures pretty limiting, and every chance to break out of that rigidity should be taken.
As we enter a new, uncertain, era of politics, where do you think film will take us in the next four years?
Art under G.W. Bush sucked, and it seems like everyone just gave Obama a free pass when he was expanding things like the drone program, so I really don’t have much hope. We’re definitely going to get a bunch of really tedious but well-intentioned docs about how evil Trump is.
Finally, what review, article, or interview are you most proud of – and why?
Probably my interview with Agnes Varda. I did it the day I turned 30. If I could survive being that nervous, I can survive anything!