Hello, there! My name is Preston Barta, and I am the features editor of Fresh Fiction and senior film critic at the Denton Record-Chronicle. My cinematic love story began where I was born: off planet on the isolated desert world of the Jakku system. It's there I passed the time scavenging for loose parts with my good friend Rey. One day I found an old film projector and a dusty reel of the 1975 film JAWS. It rocked my world so much that I left my kinfolk in the rearview (I so miss their morning cups of green milk) to pursue my dreams of writing about film. It wasn't long until I met two gents who said they would give me a lift. I can't recall their names, but one was an older man who liked to point a lot and the other was a tall, hairy fella. They got me as far as one of Jupiter's moons where we crossed paths with the U.S.S. Enterprise. Some pointy-eared bastard said I was clear to come aboard. He saw that I was clutching my beloved shark movie and invited me to the "moving pictures room" where he was screening the 1993 film JURASSIC PARK to his crew. He said my life would be much more prosperous if I were familiar with more work by the god named Steven Spielberg. From there, my love for cinema blossomed. Once we reached planet Earth, everything changed. I found the small town of Denton, TX, and was welcomed into the Barta family. They showed me the writings of local film critic Boo Allen. He became my hero and caused me to chase a degree in film and journalism. After my studies at graduate of the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, I met some film critics who showed me the ropes and got me into my first press screening: 2011's THE GREEN LANTERN. Don't worry; I recovered just fine. MAD MAX: FURY ROAD was only four years away.
Movies are often treasures full of fantasy, reality and laughs– a vast assortment of elaborate stories. To write, analyze and explore films is a privilege and a gift. One writer who possesses such a talent is film critic Alonso Duralde.
Duralde has authored HAVE YOURSELF A MOVIE LITTLE CHRISTMAS and 101 MUST-SEE MOVIES FOR GAY MEN. He writes regularly for The Wrap, he has written about film for HitFix, Movieline, MSNBC.com, and Salon, among many other publications. He also co-hosts the Linoleum Knife podcast and appears on the YouTube review show WHAT THE FLICK?!
But how does one become a critic? What does the career entail? What does the life of a film critic look like? These are some of the many questions we asked Duralde when he stopped in Dallas, TX, to speak with us about his film-writing career.
What was the first film that made you fall in love?
Alonso Duralde: “The first movie that I remember seeing in the theater and it definitely stayed with me was WILLY WONKA AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. In its original run and I was four years old. To this day, I still vividly remember those bizarre images on the walls of the tunnel. The worm and the chicken getting its head cut off– it freaked me out, but not so much that it sent me running out of the theater. It had songs. That’s a movie that I remember really hit me.
I grew up in a family where my dad never encouraged this path for me until it was clear I was not taking any other one. He was a doctor, my three brothers are doctors, I have a sister who is a doctor– that was the thing that he really believed in. My mother was a big movie fan and loved to watch old movies on TV late at night. We would drop everything if the original OUT OF TOWNERS came on at two o’clock in the morning, that sort of thing.
I’m the youngest of seven, and I remember all of us piling in the car and driving across town to one of the few rep houses in Atlanta to see REBECCA or something. Nobody else in my family does what I do but we all grew up appreciating Humphrey Bogart and stuff like that.”
How did you get into film criticism?
Duralde: “I had an older brother who went to Harvard in the early 70s where the Marx brothers revival was going on and the CASABLANCA revival and a lot of that sort of newly discovered appreciation of Golden-Age Hollywood. He came home with these books about Greta Garbo and Fred Astaire and MGM. I just devoured those as a little kid. I had always been interested in movies, I was the ‘circle the TV Guide’ kid. This was before VCRs [Laughs]– I feel like I have to explain this to people.
It was always something that interested me. We had a briefly done Xeroxed newspaper in my junior high that I wrote movie reviews for. I wrote movie reviews for my high school paper, I wrote movie reviews for my college paper. It’s just always something I wanted to do.”
How long have you professionally been a film critic would you say?
Duralde: “It sort of depends. I got my first newspaper job out of college. Besides the summer internship in Atlanta, I interned at the Nashville Banner for about six months then. The reason I moved to Dallas in the first place was I was working for the Dallas Times Herald in 1989. Pretty much since then, every job I have had has been either wring about entertainment or working for a film based non-profit or both.”
Do you still have people look over your stuff now?
Duralde: “That’s the good thing about being married to another film critic. We read each other our stuff. Before I submit anything I read it out loud to Dave [White] and he’ll notice if I use the word ‘tremendous’ twice in a paragraph or something. I will do likewise for him or will maybe embellish something that he says or suggest where a joke might go or something. Yeah, so we definitely process each other’s stuff. Then the editors at The Wrap are really good. They don’t muck with my stuff a lot, but when they do it’s for a good reason.”
Do you still have trouble writing now?
Duralde: “Oh yeah. There are days where it’s got to make the donuts. A friend of mine calls it ‘laying brick.’ Sometimes the words just flow out of you and other times it’s [ca-chunk ca-chunk]. A lot of it has to do with what you’re writing about. Certain movies, you see them and you know exactly what you want to say and how you want to convey it. The really good movies can be tough to write about, to capture, but you can get there and you want to do justice. The bad movies are easy to run all over. It’s those ‘eh’ ones, the aggressively mediocre films, where you’re like, ‘Well, this was good,’ ‘this wasn’t.’ It’s the ones that wash through you and leave no impression. You then have to crank out X number of words just talking about these nothing experiences. That’s the challenge.”
What is the screening process like for you when you go to advance screenings?
Duralde: “Usually the distributor or the publicist assigned to the film will arrange it and the smaller indie films, there’s several screening rooms in Los Angeles they can book. Then for the bigger commercial titles a lot of times they’ll screen at public theaters or they’ll book a house. Sometimes we’ll see, I’m sure you’ve probably noticed this too, where for comedy and horror especially, they really try to surround you with regular folks. We’re all dead inside and we can’t appreciate a movie that’s pure sensation. If you got regular folks liquored up, even better.
That’s usually how it runs down. For the last couple of years, I’ve been reviewing on the trades calendar. A lot of times there will be a early screening where literally it’s me, the guy from Variety, the guy from Hollywood Reporter, the guy from Screen International in a room and that’s it. Those are the exception, not the rule.”
Do you pick which films you want to see?
Duralde: “There are publications – the LA Times in Los Angeles and the New York Times in New York – who are so committed to reviewing every single movie that opens in town. Every single movie that opens in Los Angeles on any given Friday, is like 15 to 20 movies. It’s insane now. Reasonably, knowing the resources I have handy between myself and the other critics at The Wrap, I generally try to limit it to no more than five or six titles a week. Obviously, the wider the release the more likely it is to get reviewed. We’re on the web, we’re not a local publication. We want to make room for the smaller, interesting films of note as well.
As film reviews editor, I do decide what we cover and then from there I assign out to Inkoo Kang and to James Rocchi based on their interests and their strengths. Also just logistics. I have to teach that night, I can’t go to that screening. Or you’re going to be out of town, so I got to give it somebody else, that sort of thing. I certainly try to assign movies in a way that the resulting reviews will benefit product.”
Do you have a preference in how you watch movies?
Duralde: “I don’t know that I have a preference necessarily. I have to admit when I’m in a room that’s just critics, I have a lot less hesitancy to tell someone to turn their damn phone off. When they mix you with general pop it’s kind of like this is the world we live in. Even then, if it goes on for too long someone will speak up.”
Yeah, that’s generally what I do when I’m watching a film at a screening. It usually happens after I go see a movie at a festival and I came home to take my wife to see it later. For instance, this year, I saw EX MACHINA at SXSW and then I took my wife to see it later. This particular screening was just with critics, and there were people talking behind us.
Duralde: “No, that’s it. They should know better. The world has gone to hell in a hand basket as far as public etiquette is concerned but people who cover this stuff for a living totally know better and they get called out on it with no mercy.”
There’s a really interesting article that my friend’s buddy posted about how critics are the worst people to see movies with. You know, how you go to screenings and other critics are trying to sound intelligent and want their voices to be heard?
Duralde: “I try not to get roped into those conversations but yeah, it’s either a matter of, ‘What did you see?’ Definitely, one thing that doesn’t bother me as much as it bothers Dave, but, we now, after a screening like that, we’ll bolt. Rather than have the huddle conversation where all of the critics immediately start trading their on the spot evaluations. He’s right, I think it’s better to have the drive home and sit on it a bit and not immediately feel like you have to one arm bandit out some opinion.”
Do you walk out of screenings now?
Duralde: “I have not in a long time. I did turn off the JIMI: ALL IS BY MY SIDE screener because I just couldn’t take it anymore. I didn’t write about it but I said so on WHAT THE FLICK?!. I feel like it’s my job; I have to see this thing through to the bitter end. GET HARD, PAUL BLART 2— I was there for the whole thing.”
How did you respond to the first person who gave you a negative comment?
Duralde: “It’s weird because I try not to read the comments, I’m not always successful about that. I try not to take it personally because I know that people get very invested in there opinions. Unfortunately, when you get a negative comment online, it’s never this rationally thought out, intelligently phrased thing telling you that you’re wrong. It sounds like a 12-year-old on the playground, so you kind of roll your eyes and take it for what it is. I don’t know. What’s weird for me is I’m old enough to remember pre-internet and a post-internet. For all the years that I was reading all of those aforementioned critics, it would never occur to me to call or write any of them to tell them, ‘Hey, you’re wrong about that movie; it was great.’ But with the internet, that box is just right there, right under the review, beckoning you to leave your two cents. You can’t blame people for it. The thing is, also, in the old days if you wanted to write a letter you literally had to write that letter. Maybe by the time you finished writing it, you cooled off a little. Or, you thought better of it or you were more understanding of that person’s point-of-view. But the box is there. Bam, out, send and it’s over.”
What do you think about the future of criticism? We’ve been talking about this for a long time: how the paper is fading, and how podcasts and video reviews are the new thing now.
Duralde: “It’s hard to say. Obviously the technology keeps changing. The internet being a democratizer has been a good and a bad thing. Certainly for the enthusiastic fan, I think, has a way to share an opinion on a broader level and connect with people who agree with her or him, exchange those ideas and have alternative points of view. Obviously for people who want to do it for a living, it’s gotten trickier. Unfortunately, the Huffington Post model of ‘we can’t pay you but there’s great exposure.’ As my friend James Rocchi likes to say, ‘I’m Canadian and exposure leads to death.’
It’s not going anywhere, certainly. I think there’s a very vibrant film culture happening right now in that the internet has enabled people who are in far flung places to talk to each other about things. Now, a lot of that is dominated by a certain fanboy tone but if you want to talk Chantal Akerman with somebody, they’re out there and you can find them and you can have that discussion.
It’s more a question of filtering out the voices. Patton Oswalt had that whole piece about how there’s no gatekeepers anymore with the internet. You create a book, you create a song, you create a TV show or whatever, you can just throw it out there and there’s nobody to tell you no. The problem with there being no gatekeepers and no curators is you’ve got a million things to slog through. I think film critics serve the purpose of being the ones to go to festivals and the ones who see the movies that are coming out and say, this and not that. They provide a service, at the very least, as culture traffic cops. Sort of point people in the direction of things they should check out and away from other things. I hate to see the loss of authoritative voices. I grew up devouring Pauline Kael and Vito Russo and going through the Leonard Maltin guide, that kind of stuff. Watching [Roger] Ebert and [Gene] Siskel obviously on television was massively influential.
Now there’s so many voices, it’s difficult to pick out the ones you want that you can create that kind of relationship with. At the same time I guess there’s more choices, certainly. If there are people who read me only because they know they’re always going to disagree with me, great. I’ll take the click.
I think there’s a lot more of them out there making less money than they used to. I think there is certainly still a lot of enthusiasm and that’s what it comes down to.”
Visit Duralde’s website at alonsoduralde.com, and check out all his reviews and write-ups by clicking on the links in the intro.