L.A.-based writer Wade Major fell into his career 17 years ago when, after having a go at directing music videos in Los Angeles, he began writing film reviews and features for Entertainment Today. He met then-Boxoffice Magazine staffer Ray Greene on the press circuit (“It was either the Bugsy junket, or at a screening of Raise the Red Lantern,” he recalls) and when Greene became Editor-in-Chief, he brought Major on board. The rest is Boxoffice (Magazine) history.
That was in 1992; since then, Major has also contributed to publications like L.A. CityBeat, The L.A. Times, The New York Daily News, and People.com, and currently co-hosts the DigiGods weekly podcast at IGN.com with fellow film critic Mark Keizer. The podcast, as Major describes it, is “an informative and irreverent weekly podcast about the state of digital movie distribution,” which means that today in particular (D-Day for the HD-DVD-Blu-Ray format wars, if you don’t know) will be a busy one. (Click here to argue Blu-Ray supremacy with Major and Keizer at the DigiGods blog.)
Read on for our interview with film critic, DVD pundit, and filmmaker (Schlock: The Secret History of American Movies), Wade Major!
Name: Wade Major
Hometown: Malibu, California
Years reviewing film: 17
Why and how did you become a critic?
Wade Major: My father had been a very distinguished acting teacher and drama coach during the heyday of the studio era, so I grew up inundated with backstage stories about Alan Ladd, Rita Hayworth and Tyrone Power. After my father died in 1978, I got the filmmaking bug pretty seriously, eventually winding up at UCLA film school at the same time as Alexander Payne. Two years later I graduated with a pretty slick music video under my arm, but the boom in music videos was leveling off and a lot of companies were shutting down or downsizing. I eventually got hired to do a few concepts for this Grammy-winning producer who liked my style, but we eventually parted because my approach to music videos was “too narrative,” which pretty much soured me on the dumbed-down direction music videos were taking. A week later I walked into the office of a little publication called Entertainment Today, which I remembered from my days as an usher at the now-demolished Mann’s National Theatre in Westwood, and I handed them some copies of my critical essays from school. They liked what they saw and hired me as associate editor and film critic.
Fill in the blank: “If I wasn’t a professional film critic, I’d be a…”
WM: …filmmaker, which I actually still am. I never really stopped. But unless you’re taking home multi-million dollar paychecks, filmmaking is an inconsistent and unreliable way to earn a living. But I’ve actually done quite a bit in the last several years, mostly in the documentary field. I produced a documentary on the history of exploitation films called Schlock! The Secret History of American Movies, which was written and directed by my former Boxoffice editor Ray Greene. That’s been on DVD for a few years now. I also made a couple of shorts that played the Silver Lake Film Festival and just finished executive producing another documentary which ought to start making the rounds later this year. I have a few other things in the works, but it’s premature to talk about any of them at this stage.
What is your favorite film?
WM: It changes all the time, but most of the time it’s either 2001: A Space Odyssey or Lawrence of Arabia, depending on my mood. Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colors: Blue, White, Red trilogy falls into that slot on occasion, too. I think the first ten minutes of Three Colors: Blue just might be the most perfect piece of cinema ever created. Jackie Chan’s Project A: Part II is easily the most fun I’ve ever had in a movie theater. From an emotional standpoint, however, I don’t think I’ve had a more transcendent set of movie-watching experiences than when I was able to see pristine 70mm projections of The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Ryan’s Daughter and Jaques Tati’s Playtime with packed audiences.
Who is your favorite director?
What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen?
WM: Natural Born Killers. I used to think that Ken Russell’s Gothic would hold that spot forever, but when Oliver Stone inflicted NBK on me, I just about wanted to stop watching movies entirely. Fortunately, I had seen Muriel’s Wedding and Bandit Queen at the Cannes Film Festival a few months earlier, and the memory of those gems helped me perform the necessary mental enema to keep going.
Who do you think is a shoo-in come Oscar night?
WM: Daniel Day-Lewis. They may as well have given him the statuette a month ago.
What was the most interesting film of 2007?
WM: It would be one of the two foreign films which, appallingly, did not get nominated in the Best Foreign Language Film category: France’s Persepolis and the Romanian 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days. That’s not to say either is the best film of the year — both are certainly among the best — but they’re definitely the two most interesting because they take so many unconventional risks in the way they choose to tell their respective stories, and they succeed brilliantly.
How in touch with the movie going public are most critics?
WM: I don’t see the “movie going public” as a monolithic group. There are many different demographic slices to the movie going public, and different movies intersect with each of them in very different and fluid ways. Professional film critics are extremely savvy and knowledgeable about the tastes and proclivities of nearly all these demographic groups, but they’re often labeled “out of touch” because they aren’t willing to cater to or validate popular opinion. Let’s be honest — if you’re reading a movie review to feel validated in your artistic sensibilities, then you’re looking for therapy, not criticism. Film criticism is supposed to be opinionated and incendiary. It’s meant to challenge you and poke at you, not whisper sweet nothings to your fragile ego. People loved reading Pauline Kael not because they agreed with her but because her opinions infuriated them and prodded them to think more deeply about the films if only to be able to rebut her. And I’m no fan — just the thought of Kael still infuriates me. But she’s often held up as the archetypal critic of her generation for that very reason. I’m sure some of my opinions infuriate a lot of people, too, which is a good thing. What distinguishes a critic is their ability to intelligently back up their arguments, not the extent to which their opinions coincide with the week’s box office.
What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly?
WM: I’ve always admired David Ansen, who’s now one of my colleagues in the Los Angeles Film Critics Association. His ability to be both objective and subjective in assessing a film’s merits still impresses me. I don’t think anyone “reads” a film better or more concisely than Leonard Maltin. He brings with him such a wealth of knowledge and insight that it often forces you to reexamine your own opinions. I’m always amazed when I read Kenny Turan and see my own opinions so much better articulated. I always think, “Now, why didn’t I come up with that?” I think Andy Klein is one of our real national treasures — he has this vast, encyclopedic knowledge but his reviews cut to the chase in a way that’s both insightful and incredibly entertaining. You haven’t read truly great film writing until you’ve read Andy’s review of Showgirls. Along with Jack Kroll‘s review of Clan of the Cave Bear, it’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read — and yet, at the same time, great film criticism.
What does it take to earn a 5/5 rating from Wade Major?
WM: I don’t think I’ve given more than six or seven five-star ratings over the last fifteen years. It really has to be a perfect film, one that just blows me away artistically and emotionally. There was actually a standard that Ray Greene established when he was Editor-in-Chief [at Box Office Magazine] that identified a five-star movie as “One of the Greatest Films of All Time — A Masterpiece,” and I’ve tried to adhere to that. My own personal rating system goes from 0 to 100, which I assign to each film immediately after seeing it. Then, at the end of the year, when “top ten” time comes, I do a reevaluation of the top twenty or thirty films. When you see between 150 and 200 films a year, it’s the only way to really keep track of everything.
Do you go into a film as a glass half full or half empty person?
WM: It depends. I’d love to say I go in without any preconceptions at all, but part of the job is also keeping track of films as they move through the development and production pipeline. When you’re that exposed to the buzz, it invariably impacts your expectations. What I can say is that I never walk into a movie daring it to entertain me. I may sometimes walk in expecting a film to be crap, but deep inside I always hope that it’ll surprise me. I genuinely want to like every movie I see, even the ones I dread.
How has the Internet changed film criticism?
WM: It’s been both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s made it easy for everyone everywhere to instantly read great criticism by the best critics in the world. You’re no longer restricted to your local newspaper of record and the handful of guys on TV. On the other hand, it’s created debacles like Ain’t It Cool News and Mr. Cranky which are more pollution than anything else. So real criticism has to scream a lot louder to distinguish itself from the crowd, to keep from getting drowned out by the noise. My fear is that the noise may eventually turn everyone off to criticism entirely, which would do a great deal of harm to the kinds of small independent and foreign films that need criticism to get attention. The best films typically don’t have big marketing budgets, so the support of the critical community becomes of vital importance. And if Internet noise makes it hard to discern critical legitimacy, those films will simply drown.
Is the critics’ community much divided along print/online lines?
WM: There’s a certain degree of lingering snobbery among some old school print critics who still don’t recognize the Internet as “real” publishing, but that’s starting to disappear. I think everyone realizes that online is where information lives. It’s now more about whether your outlet is journalistically legitimate or even relevant. In that respect, print publications still have an edge if only because they’re more recognizable and penetrate the public consciousness even when you’re away from your computer.
How do you see yourself in regards to the old guard/older generation of film critics? Is there a sense that the younger generation has different sensibilities than their older counterparts?
WM: One of the great things about critics organizations is that you have the chance to interact with those who may have first inspired you to pursue criticism. I remember being unbelievably impressed by the Los Angeles Film Critics when they declared Brazil the best film of the year even while Terry Gilliam was still fighting with Sid Sheinberg and Universal to get his cut released. It was in that moment that I realized critics could make a difference, that the pen was mightier than a studio chief. Many of those same critics are now my colleagues, and I’ve learned a great deal from them. So I’d like to believe that I’m helping hold the torch and uphold the craft as they pioneered it in the ’60s and ’70s. That’s not to say there aren’t younger critics out there who think differently. It depends on the outlet. If you’re talking about publications like Boxoffice, Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker or Esquire, even younger critics realize there’s a tradition and a reputation to uphold. But if you’re writing for something like Slate, I think you feel pressure to be edgier, more experimental, less reverential.
What is the state of current film criticism?
WM: Chaotic. Just as we’ve had a proliferation of awards shows, we’ve had a proliferation of critics organizations and “name” critics, many of whom are simply blurb-whores looking to get quoted in as many movie ads as possible. It goes back to the pros and cons of the Internet and its impact on criticism. One of the great things about Rotten Tomatoes is that it serves as a filtering mechanism, helping people avoid the noise and find critics who really matter or whose taste they respect. But the proliferation of vanity sites — many of them really slick — and the persistence of the blurb-whores is making it harder and harder for aspiring young critics to break in and work their way up.
What word or phrase do you over-use?
WM: They come in streaks. If I write several reviews in quick succession, certain phrases will stick in my head and sometimes wind up in all of them. I usually catch them, but sometimes you’re on such a deadline that they slip by. I know I use “decidedly” and “invariably” far too much. I’ve probably used them both a half dozen times in this interview. “Auspicious” creeps in a lot, usually in conjunction with the word “debut.” That’s a common cliché for lots of critics.
When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
WM: A writer and director. Both. Never either/or. And that’s still the primary focus.
What is your most common concession stand purchase?
WM: When I worked for Mann Theatres, right out of high school, I really burned out on popcorn, nachos and candy. I’ll still occasionally eat popcorn when it’s free at press screenings, and I still have a soft spot for Raisinettes, but I generally avoid junk food at movies. I run about 15 miles a week, which usually makes feel guilty if I even look at a concession stand.
What has been your most bizarre movie-going experience?
WM: I’m not sure it’s a necessarily bizarre experience, but the press screening for Showgirls was definitely the most surreal. There was so much palpable anticipation for the film, primarily centered on the NC-17 rating but also because it was Paul Verhoeven and Joe Eszterhas reteaming for the first time since Basic Instinct. And it was just a train wreck from the start, but not in a predictable way — the audience was infatuated with how bad it was, catcalling and hooting as if we were in some kind of 1950s burlesque parlor. I was sitting next to Mark Keizer, a fellow Boxoffice and Tomatometer critic with whom I currently do the IGN DigiGods podcast, and about half-way through he just curled up in a fetal position and started snoring. From there the raucous reaction snowballed to almost total mayhem. I remember people walking out with tears in their eyes from laughing so hard. The sad part of that recollection is that it was at the Mann’s National which, as of this past week, no longer exists. So even that memory now comes with a certain measure of sadness.
You can find Wade Major’s up to date film reviews at Box Office Magazine
Read more Meet a Critic interviews here:
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times
Scott Weinberg of eFilmcritic, Cinematical, Apollo Movie Guide, FearNet, and more
Pete Hammond of Maxim magazine
Lisa Kennedy of the the Denver Post
Jack Mathews of The NY Daily News