(Photo by Erik Tanner, Paramount Pictures, Elevated Films, and Warner Bros.)
“Know Your Critic” is a column in which we interview Tomatometer-approved critics about their screening and reviewing habits, pet peeves, and personal favorites.
Nicolas Rapold has written for some of the most well-known film-centric outlets in print and online. His byline can most recently be found at the New York Times and at his podcast, The Last Thing I Saw, where his guests include Justin Chang, Soraya Nadia MacDonald, and Richard Brody, among many others. In this month’s edition of Know Your Critic, Rapold shares not just his classic and childhood favorites, but charts the trajectory of his career as a writer and editor, including 15 years at Film Comment where he worked his way up to editor-in-chief.
“The 2000s were something of a bloodbath when it comes to the transition, and there were, of course, many new places for people to write – and that’s a good thing,” Rapold said.
His work has included new media, print, editorial hybrids (such as Film Comment, where he edited online, magazine, and podcast coverage), and programming. He favors seeing as many films as possible over rescreening old favorites – hence why his most-seen movie is Gremlins, his childhood favorite: “Because what kid doesn’t like total mayhem?”
Do you have a favorite classic film?
Duck Soup, just because it’s such a bonkers movie. Because there’s a point where really nutty comedy just is also poetry, and you realize, maybe they’re also just brilliant because nothing makes sense. … You can always just watch that, and it’ll take your brain apart for you.
You have worked in both programming and editorial, especially with Film Comment’s connection to the Film Society at Lincoln Center. Do you have a favorite guest that you’ve invited, or perhaps a favorite screening that you’ve hosted?
It’s tremendously rewarding when you’re working at Film Comment – you are living the dream of working right above a movie theater. You have your theory and practice right there. At the end of the day or during the day, you’d be able to go down and watch something. And it’s even more special when it’s something where you’re presenting a filmmaker.
I had a series called “Overdue” that was itinerant with another critic, Nick Pinkerton. We did a screening of, I think, Midnight Run and Clifford, where we had Charles Grodin come, and that was a lot of fun. We were kind of showing a combination of movies that weren’t necessarily canonical or “great art,” but were great movies, and also just lesser-known directors.
Can you talk about some of the most exciting or maybe surprising people whose work you’ve edited while working at Film Comment?
Andrew Sarris, Mr. American Cinema himself. We had this feature called “Critics Choice,” and that was kind of an aggregator of star ratings from a wide variety of movies. Ordinarily, people would email what their ratings were. In Andrew’s case, it was my job to call him up and transcribe his star ratings. … He’d be like, “Wendy and Lucy… four stars.” And then it’d be like, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith… one star.”
What are you proudest of in your career so far?
I don’t know if it’s any one particular thing. I mean, I’ve certainly been honored to do a number of things. Edit Film Comment, write for The Times and The Village Voice.
I’m proud of being able to do different types of work at these different publications, because I always admire when publications have particular voices. And that doesn’t mean a house style, I don’t think, but it just means being able to speak to readers, and maybe different groups of readers as well in different ways.
I’m also very proud of establishing Film Comment‘s website as a regular editorial voice. The website used to be an addendum, but I made it daily, expanded the timely coverage, and also established the weekly Film Comment Podcast (appointing Violet [Lucca] as host), plus instituting its many columns (“Feeling Seen,” “Present Tense,” “Classified” on genre) and bringing in new voices.
(Photo by Elevated Films)
What’s a Rotten thing you love?
It was the last movie directed by Dee Rees, The Last Thing He Wanted – which was a world premiere, I think, at Sundance, a Netflix release. … It’s not a movie I love; I can’t say that. It’s a movie that I kind of admired, and I just felt it got completely ravaged, and I just thought it was a little over the top, because I thought there were definitely interesting things in there. …
I can’t handle this kind of rating, to be honest, and so I come across examples by happenstance – recently, it was Belly (1998). I really don’t know why anyone looking at the eye-popping images in this movie could dismiss it. Happily co-presented a screening of it in the “Overdue” series about a decade ago.
What is the hardest review that you’ve ever written?
I don’t want this to sound like a cop-out, but I think every review is a bit of a challenge just in that you want to do the best that you can, and be true to your voice, and also be reading the movie as a movie, and being… I don’t want to say “true to the movie,” because I don’t think it’s an obligation to basically channel what the filmmaker’s intent was – just give a kind of faithful and faithfully nuanced critique of a film. But that doesn’t mean you have to agree with what it’s doing.
What do you think is the biggest misconception about critics?
Some people think critics go in with a negative mindset, or even the way that we use the word “critical” to mean “negative.” And I think that is probably in the dictionary, but a critic is not inherently there to tear something apart.
This is a little silly to admit, but when I’m watching a new movie, I’m sometimes thinking, “please be good,” or “please stay good,” or “please turn good.” I’m not looking for the movie to be bad so I can go sharpen my knives and just filet it afterwards. Although, the frustrating thing is, the things you get the most attention for – and this is tough feedback – are often the reviews where you’re kind of taking something apart.
Before becoming a writer and editor, what did you study in grad school?
It was an unholy mix of comparative literature and movies, and ultimately, it just became more of an administrative challenge than anything else. I was very fortunate to have a scholarship stipend, so that kind of freed me up with a little teaching, and just gives you the time to read and watch widely. So it was good for that as well.
Teaching is really wonderful just because… one of my favorite things is talking to anyone about what they think about movies, or what they’ve liked recently, not just other critics. And when you’re in a class setting, you have 15 opinions right there. And then you get to just kind of re-experience things as well when you’re moving through your syllabus.
On that note, is there something you consider required viewing?
I would say required viewing is just a lot of viewing – seeing loads of movies from all eras of film history, and all different directors. Because to pin everything on one or two classics or something like that, I think doesn’t work. … It’s almost like for every new movie you see, you should also just pick something from the ’30s, or the ’40s, or the ’50s.
Is there someone in your life who is not a critic whose opinion you admire and you regularly seek regarding movies?
What I really enjoy is just the elevator conversation, or the plane conversation. I mean, anyone would say that’s the worst thing you can do: ask the person sitting next to you just as the transatlantic flight is starting, “What did you think about Crash?” Or something.
But I actually love it, and I think that really takes you out of your comfort zone in a sense, because what I do for a living is watch and write movies, and not everyone does that, and I love to hear their opinions.
(Photo by Warner Bros.)
What is the movie that you’ve watched more times than any other?
I’ve probably watched Gremlins a lot. I’m sure I watched it a lot, because what kid doesn’t like total mayhem?
What is your favorite film from your childhood?
I guess it might well be that! This is the funny thing. I hear from friends who are parents – it’s kind of whatever’s there and they’re watching 100 times. So I mean, maybe it is Gremlins.
I grew up in the ’80s, so I think the touchstones were just, yeah, blockbusters like that, and that also were immediately convertible into these video rentals that then you’d get again and again.
Do you prefer to re-watch something that you’ve already seen perhaps multiple times already to pick up on new elements? Or do you prefer to watch new things, rather than re-watch?
I guess I tend towards watching new things, just because there’s so much still out there to see that I haven’t seen. I mean, I love when I can watch something again. That’s usually in connection with writing about it, or doing a podcast about it or something. It’s also just the way it is, because you don’t always get the ability to see something twice if you’re reviewing, so I guess I’m sort of in the habit of only seeing things once.
That’s why, although no one will ever believe you, it is pretty draining to watch something, if you’re watching it with your full attention as if you’re never going to be able to see it again, and just absorb all you can about it. It takes a little out of you, just because you’re trying to be fully present.
Do you take notes while you watch?
It varies. Criticism is a form of journalism, so I do take notes in that respect. You never know whether you’re going to quote something, so it’s better if you jot it down, the dialogue that struck you, unless you have total recall, which… more power to you.
(Photo by Frederick Wiseman)
What have you been watching while sheltering in place throughout this pandemic?
That’s kind of been the premise of the podcast that I’ve been doing, which is just talking about the last things I’ve been watching. And I mean, again, I keep this ridiculous document that doesn’t even load quickly anymore because it’s so long. But I watched a couple of Janicza Bravo shorts that are on Criterion Channel, which were just remarkable.
I watched Nathan for You, all of it – that was a needed laugh there. I watched I May Destroy You, which is also incredible, because I was just reading – not just, but earlier this year, I had read – Girl, Woman, Other, and those seemed to be in the same universe.
I watched City Hall, which is the new Frederick Wiseman movie. He’s hands down one of my favorite filmmakers. It’s a four-hour movie about the Boston city government, and there are passages in there that are just, you get a lump in your throat about civic government and American history. It’s really remarkable.
When you are reviewing something, do you read other peoples’ reviews before watching the thing or writing your own piece about it?
I know some people can be a little dogmatic about that. I don’t read other reviews before I write my own generally. I think that’s something I remember learning kind of early on from critics that I admired, just to kind of keep your head clear.
An interesting wrinkle in all this is festival reviews. You might write about something on its theatrical release, and you already have reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, however many it might be – 10 to 20 reviews that were filed right at the moment of birth, wherever it was. So that’s tricky.
When sitting down to write, do you prefer a shot of espresso or a shot of alcohol?
I’m thinking more about the aftermath of the writing. I think that’s when maybe you want to crack open a beer or something. I think beforehand, same kind of deal: I want to keep my head clear, so usually I’m just having some extremely radical chamomile tea or something like that, or water. If I add espresso to the mix, my head will just be buzzing.
What is your personal record for the most movies you’ve watched in a day?
Oh wow. I might not even remember, because I think there’s a point where you dissociate to a certain extent. I mean, I know I’ve seen five movies in a day at a festival, and also five movies even just for fun going around town to different repertory houses. So I think that’s probably my limit that I remember.
Who are three people that you think everyone should follow on Twitter?
Michael Koresky / Reverse Shot (@reverse_shot). Two for one: Michael is an essential read among film critics and so is Reverse Shot, the publication he co-edits and whose Twitter account he runs. Original, uncompromising, eloquent, deeply knowledgeable.
Soraya Nadia McDonald (@SorayaMcDonald). Brilliance and clarity, on multiple fronts across a dazzling array of arts and culture. I don’t know how she writes beautiful and incisive essays week in and week out while also keeping an up-to-the-minute commentary on the world that’s sharp, engaging, and empowering.
Bodega Cats (@Bodegacats_). Sometimes it’s important not to think about movies.
Is there someone who’s under the radar as a director or screenwriter that you think more people should know about?
For me, the easy answer, and it’s not going to win me any awards for, just because of people’s preconceptions, but it would be Frederick Wiseman. He’s made, I want to say, 45 films over the past 50 years, and he could be under the radar for people just because although his movies are shown at Film Forum, and used to show on PBS, it’s not the sort of documentary that’s become most common viewing for people.
I just think they’re beautiful, and just full of life, and all about America, and just also about art. A lot of his movies are about art. It feels funny to be recommending it because it’s so out there in the sense that he’s been doing it for 50 years, but I still think that there’s more to discover and learn in there, in his movies.
Do you have any advice for critics who are still kind of finding their voice?
Voice is a lot of what makes some of our greatest critics who they are. I mean, writing and reading and watching movies would be the kind of combined answer. Some of the greatest writers start off by imitating other writers, and then deviating from that. Sometimes it’s good to read past critics just to see what you can give yourself permission to do in a way.
And also just reading non film writers. Melissa Anderson is another great critic that talks about, just keep your eyes open. And just the more you can have coming in, that’ll help you in developing your voice.
Nicolas Rapold is a writer and editor based in New York City. His work can be found in The New York Times, Sight & Sound, Artforum, and others. He runs the film podcast The Last Thing I Saw. Find him on Twitter, @NicolasRapold, and Substack.