Having written film reviews, in varying degrees of success over the years, I have learned that there is nothing more important than structure and selflessness. Still, more often than not, I’m still whittling and re-working my prose. It’s always a great joy, then, to read the work of someone whose intangibles, work ethic, and honesty are first class in their approach. Glenn Heath Jr. of San Diego CityBeat is a great friend, author, and inspiration – if you haven’t read his amazing take on Jonathan Glazer, you’re missing out on some of the best writing, period. In wanting to dig a little deeper, I interviewed the critic about film festivals, local culture, and the importance of three particular movies.
Rob Patrick: In your opinion, what makes a well-rounded, observant, and engaging film review
Glenn Heath Jr.: For me it all boils down to the reviewer’s tone. A great review should suggest openness to the material, a willingness to engage with it in a way separate of their own ego. Also, does the writer have a distinct style and pace to their work, or does it sound like they are regurgitating someone else they admire or simply rehashing research they’ve done on the subject. I also really admire writers like Fernando Croce and Daniel Kasman that surprise me with their reviews. Their singular perspectives are matched by empathy for the material, an inquisitiveness that breeds conversation.
Compared to a metropolis like Los Angeles or New York, San Diego hasn’t ever been thought of as a cultural touchstone. And yet, the city is making continuous strides toward being recognized as a great hub for film festivals – and you’re at the forefront of that. What’s your take on San Diego’s art scene, from cinema onward?
San Diego is a town with a lot of distractions and seemingly very little interest in film as an art form. But I think that’s an assumption film critics and festival programmers must disregard in order to do their job well. I believe there are cinephiles in San Diego yearning to be involved with a culture that seeks to elevate film beyond what Hollywood gives us on a weekly basis. The film festivals, including the one I work for – San Diego Asian Film Festival – tries to achieve this through our events and programming. Every year I meet people that are excited about watching films on the big screen. They want to engage in a dialogue about the filmmaking itself, and the crucial cultural and social themes inherent to the stories.
What made you want to become a film critic?
My love for movies started out at a young age, and I would go to the theater religiously. But I never seriously considered being a film critic until I read David Elliot. When I was growing up I would devour the Union-Tribune every morning. I guess I was an old man living in a child’s body. I’d memorize the baseball box scores, stats, etc. But my favorite day of the week was Thursday when Elliot’s film reviews would come out. His writing signified the kind of openness that I mentioned before. And his writing was smart, literate, and robust. He respected the reader, and as a kid I picked up on his joy for that process. I remember as an 8th grader I got to shadow David during career day and it was a memorable experience. I asked him why he hated “Forrest Gump” and he spent 30 minutes talking about its dishonesty. I was hooked.
Before I began writing for CityBeat I got the chance to hang out with David a few times before he left town. Our conversations were great. Which reminds me, I need to email that dude.
CityBeat is vibrant, progressive, and unlike most other local publications in its aesthetic. What has it been like working for them, and has it changed your writing compass at all?
It’s been life-changing. Having the freedom to write about whatever I want and for a publication that honors that freedom is something rare this day and age. I feel like my sensibility – which sways toward the fringes of what most people believe to be “good” – falls in line with the paper’s perspective as a whole. The process of being a weekly critic is grueling though. I’ve been doing it for almost three years now and every week provides a new challenge. It all depends on what I’m reviewing. But CityBeat is the coolest and I can’t imagine writing for anybody else in town. I think I’d get too much hate mail if I were at SD Reader or the Union-Tribune.
What are three pictures that every aspiring film critic should see, outside of the obligatory classics?
Great question. Here are the first three that came to mind.
- Allan King’s “Dying at Grace” – for its empathy.
- Edward Yang’s “Yi Yi” – for its patience.
- Robert Aldrich’s “Ulzana’s Raid” – for its political rage
Do you think, modernly, that film criticism has become devalued because of the sheer volume of information available on the internet?
I think there are a lot of people that are in this business for the wrong reasons. There’s a lot of ego and competition out there. For me the cream rises to the top, but unfortunately talent figures into the equation less and less these days because it’s who you know and what they can do for you. You’ve got to play game and meet the right people. If you have a day job it’s tough to make it to festivals or key screenings to do just that, so I’ve found that you have to eventually make a choice between the freelance lifestyle and settling down for something more substantial and less insane. But that’s just me. I have a lot of friends that can somehow go to all these film festivals and never go broke.
You’ve been to many of the bigger festivals – Cannes and TIFF, for instance. How has that changed the way you’ve worked, both as the managing director of the Pacific Arts Movement and as a film critic?
I’ve actually never been to TIFF, but Cannes is such a strange and huge beast. If you ever have the chance to go I’d highly recommend it. It’s such a well-oiled machine that I haven’t been able to really see behind the scenes and glean some wisdom for my festival operations job, but as a film critic it introduced me to so many new people (remember what I said about connections) and new perspectives. All film festivals do that in some way, so I highly recommend attending as many as you can.
You have interviewed a lot of talent. What’s the best strategy when doing a Q&A with an industry professional?
Be respectful and do your homework. Other than that, have fun with the interview and try to get to know them as a person rather than an idol.
Finally, what review, article, or interview are you most proud of – and why?
I think I’m most proud of the piece I wrote during my first Cannes film festival on “The Tree of Life”. I was under a lot of pressure to turn something around quickly since it was the first Terrence Malick film in nearly a decade. A lot of my colleagues were sensationalizing the screening and avoiding talking about the film itself because of the boos and such. After filing it I remember getting an email from my longtime editor Ed Gonzalez, who is a great writer and mentor, saying that my review had helped him work through a lot of his own thoughts about the film. I strive for that response every time I review a film. The writing isn’t about me; it’s about opening the film up for a larger discussion in thoughtful way.