Meet a Critic: Guilty Pleasures and Must-See Movies with MSNBC's Alonso Duralde

by | April 8, 2008 | Comments

Meet a Critic - Alonso Duralde

Name: Alonso Duralde

Publication: MSNBC.com

Age: 40

Hometown: East Point, GA

Years reviewing film: Counting high school and college, I’ve been reviewing films on and off for more than 25 years.

*Photos courtesy of Gabriel Goldberg.

Alonso Duralde grew up in a household that embraced the movies. “If Notorious came on TV, I could do my homework later,” he recalled over coffee in West Hollywood. “If The Out Of Towners was on at two o’clock in the morning, we would stay up. There were a few movies where we would drop everything if they were on.” That childhood obsession gave way to writing film reviews in high school and at Vanderbilt University, where he created his own major: Criticism and Contemporary Media. Soon after graduating, he moved to Texas to write for the now-defunct Dallas Times-Herald, among other publications.

Duralde took a break from criticism to serve as Artistic Director of the USA Film Festival in Dallas, for which he still consults today. He later returned to film journalism at the gay and lesbian magazine The Advocate, where he served as Arts & Entertainment editor. Last year he joined the ranks of MSNBC.com as their sole film critic on staff, where he reviews opening wide releases each week for a national online audience. He wrote his 2005 book, 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men, in response to a younger generation of movie lovers who’d never seen many of the “essentials” that include, for reasons ranging from camp value to contribution to gay cinema, films like Grey Gardens to The Living End to Barbarella. Read more with MSNBC.com‘s Alonso Duralde below.

Why and how did you become a critic?

Alonso Duralde: I grew up obsessed with movies, and I devoured film criticism, from Eleanor Ringel in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to Roger Ebert and Vito Russo and Pauline Kael and David Ansen and anyone else I could get my mitts on. So it’s something I’ve pretty much always wanted to do.

What is your favorite film and who is your favorite director?

AD: I know everyone says Citizen Kane, but it really is a movie I go back and watch at least once a year. (Of course, I also rewatch Valley of the Dolls every year, but for completely different reasons.) My favorite living director is Pedro Almodóvar, but I don’t think I could pick one fave of all time.

What’s the worst movie you’ve ever seen, and why?

AD: Again, lots of nominees, but I have a special place in my heart for a late-80s comedy called Johnny Be Good, not only because it was dreadfully written and directed but also because it actually included an entire commercial in the middle of the film.

Was there one formative movie-watching experience growing up, a defining movie moment?

AD: Even before I started going to movies, I loved the idea of them. When I started learning to read as a kid, I started reading the movie pages in the paper and I could tell you what was showing at every theater within a ten mile radius of our house. The first movie I remember going to see was when my sister took me to see Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory — in its original run, mind you. That’s how old I am! And, oh god — that movie was incredible.

Describe the type of reader that you write for.

AD: I like to think I’m generally accessible, but I give readers the benefit of the doubt of being reasonably culturally-literate. I suspect that MSNBC.com attracts a somewhat older demographic that’s interested in getting the full soup-to-nuts of current events and the arts, but don’t quote me on that.

How different is it writing for online audiences at MSNBC than for a niche print audience at The Advocate? Did you have to make much of an adjustment to your writing?

AD: I think that MSNBC had read other stuff that I did and liked it. So it’s not like I’ve had to change how I do stuff for them. They’re great and pretty flexible. I mean, it’s different from being at The Advocate, because at The Advocate everything’s through the filter of, how is this gay? It’s sort of equivalent to writing for Ebony or something; there’s a fixed agenda.

Do you get much reader feedback?

AD: I don’t get any reader feedback, actually! MSNBC doesn’t let people comment, except you get to rate [a review]. My positive reviews get higher ratings, my worst reviews get lower ratings; my theory is that most people read reviews because they’ve already decided they want to see this movie, and if you tell them it’s bad, then they don’t want to hear it. [Laughs] But that’s just a theory.

What other film critics/bloggers/entertainment journalists do you read regularly?

AD: Manohla Dargis, GreenCine Daily, Hollywood Elsewhere, Matt Zoller Seitz’s The House Next Door, Dave White, Stephanie Zacharek, Robert Abele, David Ansen, Roger Ebert.

What does a film need to achieve to earn a perfect rating from Alonso Duralde?

AD: Heck, I dunno. It has to move me in some way, whether it leaves me laughing, crying, angry, or otherwise stirred. And it can’t take me out of the movie by doing something stupid or featuring some kind of blatant ineptitude.

As more and more jobs in criticism are being cut, what is the state of film criticism? Where do you see the future of film criticism?

AD: I hate to see great writers like Ringel and Ansen and Jan Stuart (among many others) being put out to pastures because print media is suffering.

Obviously the Internet has become something of a leveler; it was once a luxury to be able to reach a mass audience, and now anybody can do it, to some extent. There’s a Harlan Ellison line I like to quote: “Everyone doesn’t have the right to an opinion; everyone has the right to an informed opinion.” And I hope that the people with informed opinions still have a place.

One of the things that’s come up in discussions lately about papers letting critics go is that it’s not going to affect blockbusters at all. People are going to go see those movies no matter what critics say, or even if critics say nothing. But critics can come to the rescue of little movies that really need it. I just read about how miraculously, 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days just broke the million dollar mark — which is great, because that was my favorite movie of last year, but it’s not an easy sell by any means. “Oh yeah, the Romanian abortion movie, you must see it!” Plus the fact that it got treated so badly by the Oscars, which is the kind of thing that would give that sort of movie a little more visibility in the marketplace…it kind of comes down to critics. So I would hope that there would be a way for people to develop followings, and for consumers to find voices that trust and agree with. Or even consistently disagree with; if somebody thinks I’m terrible, at least if they always do they know if I hate something they need to run out and see it!

Where did the inspiration come to write your book 101 Must-See Movies for Gay Men?

AD: I was at the Advocate; we always had interns, these really bright 22, 24-year-olds working in the office. It would eventually come out in conversation what movies they’d never heard of, never seen, and I was just like, “What?” There’s something of a responsibility, generationally — you have to sit the young ones down and say, “You need to see this, this and this.” So I actually sat down and came up with a list.

And I see that Jackass is on that list of must-see movies for gay men…?

AD: Yes, Jackass is on my list. It’s an incredibly gay movie!

What word or phrase do you over-use?

AD: When I hate a movie, “fails miserably.”

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

AD: Believe it or not, a film critic. But before that, a mailman.

What is your most common concession stand purchase?

AD: I like Twizzlers, but most theaters in L.A. carry Red Vines, so whenever I see Twizzlers I usually get them. Beyond that, I have a weakness for those Wonka chocolate bars with the graham cracker bits. I probably have a buried wish that I’m going to get a golden ticket in one of them.

What has been your most bizarre movie-going experience?

AD: When I was Artistic Director of the USA Film Festival in Dallas, we had an annual show called “Bad Movies We Love,” where actors or directors would come in and present a terrible movie they had made. Connie Stevens came in for a screening of the hilariously dreadful Susan Slade, and I sat behind her as she watched it for the first time in decades. She howled through the whole thing.

Read more of Alonso Duralde’s reviews on MSNBC, his musings on The Advocate‘s Mr. Sardonic blog, and more on his site, AlonsoDuralde.com.


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