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Hello, Mr. Phipps


2014 marks the year that Photogénie is organizing Film Fest Ghent’s first international Young Critics Workshop, a celebratory event that would not be complete without a host. Joining the ragtag team of Belgian Photogénie editors and intercontinental young upstarts to pop Ghent’s cinephile cherry – if you’ll pardon our French – is none other than renowned Windy City film writer Keith Phipps, founder and editorial director of Pitchfork Media’s The Dissolve, a film lover’s playground. We feel that the best way to truly introduce Mr. Phipps, other than starting this piece with a movie pun, is by subjecting him to an old school cinephile questionnaire, the likes of which adorned the pages of the French magazine Cinématographe in 1980. Their film critical survey elicited responses nationwide, with Serge Daney taking the honors for Cahiers du Cinéma, and is as topical now as it was then.

1.   How did you become a critic? What was your professional trajectory?

The long origin story: I stumbled across an episode of Roger Ebert and Gene Siskel’s television show, then called Sneak Previews, and I was hooked. These guys, I thought, had the greatest job in the world, getting to watch and talk about movies all the time (and talking about movies was always part of the appeal to me, even as a kid with a limited understanding of how film criticism worked). From there I started reading the film critics in my local papers—even in a smaller city like Dayton, Ohio we had two papers and two critics in the early ’80s—checking out every movie book I could find from the library, and using Leonard Maltin’s movie guides to tape any movie receiving more than 3.5 stars. I did some reviews for my junior high newspaper then picked reviewing up again as an unhappy English grad student in Madison, Wisconsin. I started writing for The A.V. Club, then the half-forgotten back pages of the satirical weekly The Onion. In 2004 I became editor of The A.V. Club and in 2013 I partnered with Pitchfork Media to launch The Dissolve. Our thinking: There’s an unserved audience of smart filmgoers and a publication that would appeal to cineastes and someone wanting a smart take on Captain America: The Winter Soldier could be successful.

2.   How do you approach the writing of a critical piece? How do you work? 

When it comes to reviews of new movies, I write quickly out of necessity, usually the day after I see the film. Having a week between a screening and a film’s debut is a luxury. Having a day or two is usually the norm. It would probably be better to have longer, to get a chance to see a film multiple times and reflect on it more, but for those of us writing for a popular audience, that’s not the business we’re in. That means sometimes half-considered opinions, and opinions we’ll later regret, sometimes make it to print. I’ve learned to live with this and think of my reviews as records of my immediate feelings at the time, not an opinion I can never change carved in stone forever. When it comes to writing about older films, my process is different.

3.   How much influence do you think you exert on the commercial success or failure of a film? 

Me? Personally? Virtually nothing! I run a still-small film site. What we say or do will have zero effect on the commercial success of anything put out by a major studio. I do think, however, we’re in a good position to champion and beat the drum for smaller films we love.

4.   What role do you assign film criticism in the evolution of cinematic forms?

That’s an interesting question and one maybe best answered in the form of a book rather than a questionnaire. Best I can tell, criticism’s greatest influence on cinematic forms comes from an increase in movie literacy. From the French New Wave on, directors have grown up steeped in film knowledge. Whether it’s Godard making movies that, whatever their narratives, are ultimately about movies or Edgar Wright throwing in a world of genre references to every film he makes, many films would take strikingly different forms if it weren’t for the influence of criticism.

5.   What is the place of film history and theory in your work? 

I’ll confess here to being largely uninformed and less-than-knowledgeable about film theory as it’s practiced in academia. I have endless respect for that world, but it’s not mine. Film history, on the other hand, is a passion that I’d love to have more time to pursue. I find the more films I watch and the more I know about who made them and the circumstances around their creation, the better I can be as a critic. It’s been interesting to see, for instance, who has recognized Ira Sachs’ terrific new drama Love Is Strange as a stealth remake of Leo McCarrey’s Make Way For Tomorrow.

6.   Out of your recent critical choices, which one is dearest to you?

Right now, the two movies I’ve loved the most this year—and I have a lot of catching up to do—are Love Is Strange and Under The Skin. They have nothing in common beyond striking a perfect mood and immersing viewers in the lives of others, but both moved me deeply.