WRITTEN BY SADE FALEBITA
SFC Today interviewed Cole Smithey, the man referred to as the smartest film critic in the world. With over 15 years of experience in the business, Smithey discussed his rise to success and offers advice to students about what it takes master your craft and rise above the competition.
1) What was your major in college and when did you decide to become a Film Critic?
I started out as a Drama major at San Diego State University in 1981. After two-and-a-half years there I became disillusioned with the drama department’s politics of favoritism and left to pursue music. I played drums in a punk band called the Rockin’ Dogs as part of the San Diego underground music scene. I moved to San Francisco in ’83 and, after a couple of years working a day job, got an acting scholarship to Hartnell College in Salinas . I lived in my van for a year, had a 4.0 GPA, and once again ran up against Drama department politics and vague teaching methods that favored humiliation over craft. I really got more out of Hartnell’s music and dance departments than I did its “Core One” drama program.
I returned to San Francisco and studied screen-acting, filmmaking, directing, and screenwriting at City College . I started working for my SAG talent agent in SF. I was getting industrial commercial acting work but not the kind of acting gigs that would lead in the direction I wanted to go. So when I picked up a copy of Sight and Sound magazine for the first time at the age of 30 I had a revelation about becoming a film critic.
In 1996 I did a class with Susan Gerhard, the film critic for the Bay Guardian at the time. Susan taught me the craft of writing film criticism. I cherish the time I spent learning from her. She was a great writer and a generous teacher.
In 1997 I was inspired by my friend Ted Rall to move to New York to become a film critic, and it worked out. I got picked up by The Independent in Raleigh, North Carolina , and shortly thereafter the Tacoma Reporter picked me up.
2) How long have you been a Film Critic?
“Trainspotting” (1996) was the first film I ever reviewed, so I guess it’s coming up on 16 years.
3) How exactly do you critique a film?
Writing a film review comes with a lot of demands. You need to explain enough of the story without giving away the whole plot so that the reader knows the narrative context of the film. Another important aspect has to do with what you perceive the filmmaker set out to achieve, and whether they accomplished their thematic goals. This is where things can get subjective. As a critic you have to walk a fine line of being able to set aside your own prejudices and yet be able to editorialize about everything from the film’s overriding themes, to the characters’ motivations, to the way the film is designed and marketed.
I caught a lot of flak for taking “Toy Story 3” to task for being rated “PG” when it is clearly a PG-13 film. I’m always stupefied at readers who think that a critic shouldn’t comment on such things as how a film is rated, or who don’t understand the importance of providing a synopsis in a film review.
Obviously, performances play big part in judging how well a film works. But understanding the language of cinema and the way subtext works within the realm of things such as composition, camera-work, mise en scene, and lighting is part and parcel to mapping out how well a film achieves the filmmaker’s goals. Art films trip up a lot of critics because they’re not prepared for the sometimes daunting task of following out ideas of abstract metaphor beyond the limits of the screen. You need to be able to “read a film.” All films are political. You have to be able to see at, through, and beyond the many angles of style and substance that fit onto the screen.
There are a lot of what I call poseur critics, such as Una LaMarche and Roger Ebert’s lackey’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, and Christy Lemire, who come across as shallow and not very well versed in classic films or in the demands of film criticism. For example, in Lemire’s review of Asif Kapadia’s great documentary “Senna,” she gives away the film’s ending in the second sentence. That’s a big no-no. As for Ignatiy, he doesn’t write long or short form reviews. He just spouts quips on the video show without having a body of written work to base his opinions on. It takes time to develop a voice as a critic. I’ve written over 3000 film reviews. You have to work at it. I like to go back and read Hemmingway every so often to remind myself what good writing is.
A big part of my life as a film critic revolves around reviewing a classic film every week. There aren’t too many critics who do the due diligence of constantly watching and reviewing classic films, but it’s an integral part of judging modern cinema because it gives you an ever-refreshing point of reference. It also helps you to recognize where filmmakers are taking their inspiration. I guarantee you that almost all of critics who gave “Drive” a bad review don’t have a wealth of knowledge about classic cinema. I watched the top 100 films of all time before I decided to become a critic because it was my personal homework as an actor at the time.
4) Describe your work schedule. What is a typical work day like for you?
Normally I like to get up and write at least one short film review. Because I shoot a weekly film review video series—we’re about to shoot episode #193—I always have four reviews that need to go through a special copy editor. I need to leave time for him to edit those and get them back in time for each week’s shoot. It takes the better part of a day to shoot each episode of “Cole Smithey’s Movie Week.” A few days later I get the rough edit back from my video editor. I go over every second of the 10-minute episode and make notes about things that need to be edited or altered—send it back to him and do a follow-up round of comments about how well he executed my edits.
I also have a weekly deadline for long reviews that need to be finished by Monday morning. I’m always sitting down to write something or working on the website. I typically have a 6pm screening on most days. I like to go swim laps after a screening to give me time to mull over what I’ve seen. I also write at night frequently.
I don’t like to talk about films with other critics because it can affect my opinion. Also, I don’t to say something that might turn up in their review. I pretty sensitive about keeping my mind open to develop my thoughts about a film, and what I want to focus on in my review.
A lot of time is spent scheduling screenings with publicists and running out to see films. I keep a checklist of films I need to write about. Sometimes I almost get caught up, but then the list gets backlogged again. I typically write about 30 film reviews a month. Most of those are short reviews (250 to 350 words), but I always write at least one 500 to 700 word review every week.
5) How important is the role of a film critic, and is this role expanding within the film industry?
I think film critics serve an important role in analyzing complex films, and in giving people and idea about which movies they should spend their time and money to see. As for “this role expanding in the film industry,” I think it’s a pretty specialized occupation. It’s not expanding much. It’s a tough gig to break into, and it’s a tough way to pay the bills. The business has followed the spiraling economy. If I hadn’t set up my own website in 2005 I don’t know if I’d still be doing it. But I saw the writing on the wall and didn’t want to be beholden to any one publication for my livelihood. The future for corporate film critics is a very tenuous thing. It’s great to be a critic for the Village Voice, but if you get bumped out you’ll be left holding the bag unless you’ve made a name for yourself beyond local readers.
6) Do you think it is important for students to participate in courses in which they study past and present films?
Absolutely. Films are such an important means of social interaction and expression. They can tell us so much about history and value systems. You can choose your friends based on the films they like and how they express their reasons for liking them. I’ll be a student of film until the day I die.
7) What skills do you believe are necessary to be successful in your industry?
First and foremost you have to be committed to writing. That means sitting down daily and tapping away at the keyboard in a lonely room because it’s what you love to do. Learn to type. I know writers who make do with the hunt-and-peck technique, but it’s not a reliable, or professional, way to go.
You have to read trade publications constantly to know what’s going on in the industry. You also have to read other critics to see what they’re are saying, and to make judgments about your own choices for editorial style. I’m partial to British critics like Philip Kemp and Nick James personally.
Entrepreneurship is important. I consider myself a publisher as much as I do a content provider. It takes an incredible amount of discipline and will power to create the content and then to turn around and sell it.
8) What skills do you believe graduates are lacking?
I’ve already talked about typing. You’d better be able to type.
Discipline and a commitment to hard work is always going be the thing most lacking, and ironically they are the most important skills. “99% perspiration and 1% inspiration” is what it takes to succeed at anything, so you’d better love what you do and give it all you’ve got for as many years as you can.
9) Do you believe certain courses or training should be added to the college curriculum?
College is good for instilling a routine of discipline that you should/will follow in a mode of self-motivation after you graduate. It so much about the curriculum as it is about little things your professors teach you that come out of their own passion. The lessons you learn in college that stay with you are the little things. I always remember little phrases different teachers have told me over the years that I was able to interpret for myself and make my own. The trick lies in your ability to find the things that inspire you to your core, and then work in that arena as much as you can humanly stand. Things will happen. Opportunities will open up.
10) What advice do you have for Communication Arts majors (or students in general) about pursuing a career in the entertainment industry and/or becoming a film critic?
Work harder than everyone else around you, and try to smile as much as you can while you’re doing it. Dress for success. Use pencils and pens. Make checklists and use them. Make a schedule and stick to it. Don’t be late. Always bring your “duck” to the meeting. Under-promise and over-deliver. Be polite. Always say “thank you.” Know your objectives and super-objective. Ask for what you want, but don’t get mad if the answer is no. Spend time with people who are smarter than you. Be generous. Choose your friends wisely. Don’t procrastinate. Look ahead and plan for the future. Establish multiple income streams. And if you want to be a writer, you have to write everyday. If you want to be a film critic, read as much as you can about film history and plan on watching a movie a day for the rest of your life.