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 411mania » Movies » Columns

411 Mania Interview: Chicago Tribune Film Critic Michael Phillips
Posted by Tony Farinella on 07.12.2012

Michael Phillips is the film critic for the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper that previously was the home of the legendary Gene Siskel. Michael also served as a fill in for Roger Ebert on Ebert and Roeper when Roger became ill back in 2006. In addition to that, he was one of the co-hosts, along with A.O. Scott of the New York Times, of At the Movies. Recently, I caught up with Michael to discuss his career as a film critic, his time on At the Movies and Ebert and Roeper, and his thoughts on film criticism. This is a 36 minute conversation filled with great knowledge and insight. You can also listen to interview which I have linked here on You Tube.

TONY: Talk to me about what the experience of being a film critic does for you today and what you get out of it compared to when you first began.

Michael Phillips: I get an infinite amount of it. I just hope other people get a fraction of that when they read what I'm writing. It's a joke to think about it now. I was writing about movies like Taxi Driver and Jaws. I mean, Jaws is such a far-fetched notion for a fifteen year old to be writing about. I still remember going up to Milwaukee from Racine with my friend Joe Checki, who was slightly older than me, had access to his dad's car, and we drove up to Milwaukee to see the new Scorsese. We actually referred to movies in that sort of French auteur sort of way. We referred to the director. I read some of the stuff I was writing in high school and more about theater than film. Well into college, you read those early reviews and they really don't sound like any particular voice at all. I was writing like an amalgam of various people I admired. I guess what I get out of writing now and how I approach it really is just really trying to find the thing that must be said about whatever aspect of the film or the filmmaker or the visual quality of the picture of whatever is most compelling or most enraging, to find that thing that must be said and to hell with any notion of what must a conventional or "acceptable" review contain.

The best reviews I've read lately, and some of the better ones I may have written myself, tend not to be following any kind of formula. They read more like essays on one or two subjects within that film. They're reviewed enough. You're answering enough of the questions so as not to frustrate people into wondering, ‘Well, what is it the hell about?' I've taught writing a lot in my life, and I do it because it's the only way I seem to continue to learn myself, really, is just to talk about writing and immerse yourself in it. What I always tell students of any age, ‘Just enough plot summary not to make them wonder.' Everything in life is more interesting than a plot summary. So if you're a critic, you have to respect the medium you're writing about and address it on a visual level foremost, not like you're rehashing somebody's synopsis of the screenplay.

TONY: I remember Gene Siskel used to say when he was writing his review that it was like he had breaking news. He was a beat reporter and breaking the news as it was happening.

Michael Phillips: Gene, his reviews had a very breathless first dispatch quality. It translated very well to television, that style. That's the one thing about Roger. Roger's writing is very different than Gene's. His style developed naturally out of his writing. Both were conversational in print, and Roger is conversational in print. Roger also has the kind of ear for the vernacular and he's poet enough as a critic to know just when to go for the personal reminiscence or the detour that really takes you somewhere interesting.

TONY: We mentioned Gene Siskel and of course you work for the Chicago Tribune, and the Tribune has had so many fantastic critics, yourself included. Talk to me about what being a film critic for the Tribune means to you considering their long line of so many great voices.

Michael Phillips: Great tradition. I appreciate you saying that. When I was not that long out of college, I remember thinking Chicago. I was working as the arts editor of City Pages in Minneapolis and I wrote about film for a time up there. That was fairly interesting. I remember the first thing I reviewed for them was The Big Chill. That was the era of that and Never Cry Wolf. I was writing in the early eighties and arts editing a little later. That was my first real job. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, Chicago. You have Ebert over here. You have Dave Pear, who was tremendous, over here. And you have Jonathon Rosenbaum at the Reader. I thought, ‘how long is that going to last?' That's this bizarre trifecta of truly vital voices.

It's a tricky one. I haven't checked the chronology on this, so correct me if I'm wrong, but Dave was brought in because Gene was sort of demoted because they were mad at him for something to do with the television show and Tribune broadcasting. For a while there, Dave was on staff, but Gene was also on stuff, sort of doing a variation on his old job. So it was a little uneasy, the pairing there. I love it. I love the tradition. I love the Chicago newspaper tradition. It's really a piece of twentieth and twenty-first century pop culture, thanks to people like Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur's play The Front Page, thanks to any number of relatively unheralded Chicago journalists and critics. It's really in the blood stream of the city.

TONY: We mentioned some film critics. It's interesting, looking at it from when you first started when there were all these great critics in Chicago. Now, in terms of the film critic landscape, last year Bob Butler from the Kansas City star was let go. It seems like the newspaper critic is going by the wayside, unfortunately. How do you see the future of the newspaper critic, and what do they bring to the table as opposed to an online critic?

Michael Phillips: I would sort of fudge your distinction a little bit, Tony. I don't think you're necessarily stating otherwise, but it's no easier or harder to watch someone like Stephanie Zacharek, who is really good, lose her post as the film critic for Movieline. To me, it's irrelevant whether or not someone like that is online or in print. Those distinctions mean less and less. I mean, I'm online, too. How many people truly subscribe to me the old fashion way? Fewer than we'd like but enough to keep me employed, which is great. It's more important than ever to sharpen your critical acumens so that you're worth reading. The worst thing that can happen in a time like this where you are seeing more and more jobs disappear is it tends to force the nervous or indecisive critic to a kind of a middle ground so they write very caustically and they seem preoccupied with what's happening in the profession.

I know people with mortgages and kids and bills to pay, whatever, have to treat their jobs seriously and carefully. If we don't write like we have nothing to lose, then we're lost. We have to be able to say exactly what's on our mind and find a way of saying it that provokes and entertains and instructs. If that sounds like more than a ‘Oh, just tell me if I should go,' then to hell with you (laughs). I may be doing some of that, too, but that kind of criticism is not criticism. It's a book report. You can get that everywhere, online or in print. It's important to try to be one of the voices that people seek out and how you do that is all about who you are as a writer.

TONY: I remember watching something about five, six years ago where Roger and Gene were talking about the state of film criticism and they think the thing that suffers for a lot of film critics is wanting to be liked and not having a personal tone. When do you think, as a film critic, and as a writer, you found your personal tone?

Michael Phillips: Back in the eighties, I probably had flashes of it occasionally when I was writing for City Pages in Minneapolis. I would re-read what was printed and this is before there was any online of any kind, and now and then, you would read a paragraph or two sometimes where you think, ‘That does sound like me.' It's not just because it's loose and conversational. It's saying something that's important to me and I'm saying it in a way that I find worth reading. I would probably read on to the next paragraph. We cannot take anyone's attention span for granted right now. Nonetheless, it's important to remember what may or may not appall you in some of the movies you see. You see a movie and there are certain directors, certain movies are terrified of losing their audience every second and they're exhausting and agitated as a result. Maybe they don't have the skill to pull off whatever kind of style they're attempting. You can't write the same way. For the movies you don't like, you can't write every sentence as a grabber or there's no such thing as a carefully established argument.

I have a serious joke reflex that I have to watch out for. I guess my challenge in that regard is make sure you're distinguishing between punch lines and wit. Wit doesn't go for the gag. You're hopefully just making an interesting point in a way that stimulates their curiosity a little bit. A lot of it is just sort of trusting, ‘OK, I'm going to say this the way I'd like to hear it and I'd like to read it.' Then you read it over with the other half of your brain and say, ‘OK that does work' or you say, ‘I don't know if this works. This one I need to bounce off an editor.' I'll tell you, Tony, I am seriously grateful working for a paper that allows me to be do that, to experiment a little and also to say, ‘Look, I don't know if this works. Take fifteen minutes and read it.' There's so much pressure on everybody right now to just spit out and move on. It's hard. You write two hundred and fifty things a year and it's too much, but you have to slow down. You have to preserve the time for the research and whatever it takes to make whatever you're writing not empty.

TONY: I would be remiss if I didn't ask a couple of Ebert and Roeper questions. Of course, that opportunity came to you when Roger became ill. Talk to me about what that was like for you, jumping into that show. We mentioned earlier how the Tribune has such a legacy, so does this show as well. What was it like walking into that format? Was that the first time for you doing television in that capacity?

Michael Phillips: I had done some television but not regularly. That all started out very irregularly because no one, Roger and everybody else, no one had any idea how serious Roger's condition was. It was a real honor to step into his aisle seat there for a while. It was a fast learning process. Richard and the executive producer, Don Dupree, were both very gracious and very supportive. They had no idea how little of the jargon I was even picking up at the time. ‘OK, we're going to do this. You turn here and you go for the bumper.' I'm like, ‘What?!' Then the camera is running and I'm like, ‘What's a bumper? What's a bumper?' They were used to putting that show out pretty fast. It was good. I learned a lot, all those bizarre mechanical and technical things that I didn't have any clue about going in. Richard and all the staff were very, very helpful about getting me up to speed. What actually helped was the fact that I was an enthusiastic but mediocre high school and college actor. I had just enough experience as a mediocre actor that a simple mechanical thing of turning from the teleprompter copy in one smooth motion and sort of continuing the sentence extempore for the conversational part, the non-scripted part. That was a move that wasn't that hard to learn. Some people had more trouble with that kind of thing than others. That's where being a mediocre to lousy college actor paid off. They could never do anything about trying to get me to sit up the right way.

We had a great consultant come in and among other things, he told me, ‘The secret of Oprah Winfrey when her ratings were the highest, she was sitting on the first ten percent of the edge of her chair.' He was saying, ‘Don't sit back. If you're comfortable, you don't look comfortable. You look like your calking out.' I overdid that ridiculously the next time we taped. I would sit so far forward in the chair that Richard could not be seen, even in a single shot of Richard. I remember them just saying, ‘Would you please sit the hell back about six inches please?' So things like that, you're sort of the bumbling new guy. Tony and I, he had great strengths in one direction and I had strengths in other directions. That was fun. We had never been together on camera, at all. It was a real risk. We had both been on a lot with Richard independently.

TONY: You mentioned Richard Roeper and how he was so helpful to you. Talk to me a little bit about what the on air back and forth was like and how you guys found your chemistry together.

Michael Phillips: You find it on the fly. It's nothing you want to try to manufacture or rehearse. I think it's always true that no matter who you're debating movies with, you do get a little boost when you realize, ‘Oh, we have a substantial disagreement here.' There is a lie, though, Tony, relating to Roger and Gene. They didn't disagree as often as people remember. People kind of misremember there, like they were constantly going for each other's throats (laughs). It wasn't really true. I do remember in my experience with the show with Richard and Tony, you did feel like, ‘Oh, good. We can sharpen this disagreement nicely.' There were times where, for various reasons, we'd take the option to immediately after a two minute or a minute and a half back and forth on a movie-we'd take the opportunity to say, ‘OK, wait. That first thirty seconds we were just sort of dog paddling, but when you said this, let's take it back right now and start it there.' It's only about an eight second transition between take one and take two, but sometimes that second take really was it. That's not rehearsing the argument. That's cutting out the fat and then doing that in a way that isn't leaving it up to the editor.

If I had a criticism of the format of the show under Disney in that last season or two, no matter who was on air, they had really developed a manic and chopped up rhythm to the show. When Tony and I came on, we realized right away, within a month, we're much better off just throwing out this segment on this dismissible movie and just going a little longer on let's say the new Scorsese. Let's spin that off in an argument about why is he still a vital filmmaker or you think this is his masterwork, I disagree. Those segments are the ones that we always heard the most amazing feedback on. Often it was from people who completely disagreed with the fact that neither one of us liked Shutter Island for example. We were able to prove in three, four, five minutes that we had a hell of a lot to say about Scorsese and the movies we do love of his and they happen to not be the same ones. That was very gratifying-the fact that we had kind of leeway to monkey a little bit with the formula was really gratifying.

TONY: You were put in a weird situation because you were on the show with Roeper and then they had the new format and you came back again. What was it like being involved in that, going back and forth? How did you deal with that uncertainty and confusion?

Michael Phillips: Anytime anybody gets on television, you have to assume you're not going to be on very long (laughs). You just do. You can't make any other assumption. I just thought I was filling in for a few weeks for Roger. To have been on air much of the last five years has been an incredible privilege and good fortune. That's all it was. Tony and I really got calls out of the blue for that last season. It felt like, to be honest, it was going to be the last season. It was likely to be the final season. If that's the general feeling going in, that does give you kind of a weird degree of confidence. It gives you a sense of we have nothing to lose. If they're hiring us anyway, they're not really going for the flashy, telegenic people. They're going for the nerds.

TONY: I would say going for substance and content.

Michael Phillips: I suppose so. Again, we did what we could to bend the shape of the show on the best episodes around our strengths in that we could go longer on certain things and frankly just cut out a couple of segments. I think if you have fragmented it to that degree, then suddenly you're racing throughout the segments and onto the next one. Then pretty soon people are expecting us to weigh in on the Kardashian's because it's too much like ET or TMZ. That said, there's a couple of great ways you could rethink a movie show that's basically taking the best of the beautiful simplicity of the original format and also taking full advantage of how people experience their movies these days and how they respond instantly to things and can't wait to get in on the discussion themselves.

Take this point for example, Car Talk. It's two brothers who work out of Cambridge, Massachusetts, radio personalities, and they're constantly giving each other shit. They know an endless amount about cars and it's an advice show, a call in show. The format, you can't believe they're getting by with it it's so simple. They never changed that format. They would throw in different segments, but they never were doing anything they weren't comfortable with and that show remained. They just announced they're leaving the air, I think, and NPR might go to all reruns on that. It's the most popular hour on NPR still after fifteen years. Why? Because they adapted relentlessly to the times or the perceived taste of the audience? Hell no (laughs). They didn't do any of that. They just stuck with it and they were worth listening to. End of story.

TONY: When I talked to Richard Roeper last month, we talked about when he had a bad experience with Eli Roth and Kevin Smith in terms of filmmakers who were not happy with his negative reviews. Has that experience ever happened to you?

Michael Phillips: Oh yeah. Eli Roth was cranking off on my Hostel Part 2 review. He's got the right to do it. He's protecting his work from the attacks of the people who don't understand. That's his view. My view is it's a piece of shit. I don't think he's without talent. I think if you just look at the difference in relative quality between the first Hostel and the second one, you see that if the gap in loathsomeness is that substantial between the two, then he's got something going on because the first one shows some real strengths as a filmmaker. The second one shows almost none.

It showed only to me that the MPAA can give an R rating to almost anything. That's an old bugaboo of mine anyway. This country is insanely lax on violence and very nervous about language and nudity. That's always been a little ass backwards, I think. I'm astonished at how thin-skinned a lot of critics are. It makes me crazy. You're kidding me. The times where I've actually had conversations, some very angry, some in person, some by phone, by the people you're actually writing about, it's my turn to really hear what's on their mind. There's often something behind the immediate problem, which they see as your review of their work. If you just simply talk to these people for fifteen, twenty minutes, you're going to learn a few things and you're going to learn a few things about what was behind the making of or the circumstances that they may not have ever resolved, problems with financing, distribution. You're not there to reassert your argument in that case or shut them down or any of that. You've already had your say. It's their turn. Just suck it up.

TONY: It's funny, though, because oddly enough I sat next to you at the Hostel Part 2 screening.

Michael Phillips: Oh, that's right. That's right, Tony.

TONY: As soon as the film ended, you ran out of that theater. You couldn't wait to get out.

Michael Phillips: Yeah, I hated it. I hated it. I really did. I don't get too many that are really that soul crushing. I'd say That's My Boy was close. That was more horrifying than Hostel Part 2.

TONY: I remember Gene Siskel once said that the films that people like and respond to say a lot about who they are as a person. What do the films that you like and connect with say about you?

Michael Phillips: Hmm. I don't know if my tastes are predictable enough for me to give you an easy answer to that. I guess when a movie really becomes part of my life it's because it's found something kind of simple and true to say but it's saying it in a way I've never heard before and never seen before. When you look at something like The Earrings of Madame de... or any truly great piece of cinema, Minnelli's The Bandwagon , the first half of The Magnificent Ambersons I always go back to, any number of films, Howard Hawkes, His Girl Friday. These are, in many ways, the old stories of love and ambition and jealously. You can go down the list and yet the way they're told and in the best cases, the way the camera activates your imagination and puts you in the story with the people, whether they're conventionally sympathetic characters or not. I think a great movie, honestly, is one where you can't answer simply why it's great. It has to have some mystery to it. I guess I've always appreciated in art and in life not having all the answers and being tantalized into knowing more about someone or some movie.


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