For a moment I’m going to ask each and every reader consuming this piece of writing to think back and reflect on the authors they most admire. Chances are, the wordsmiths racing through your heads are the ones with distinct voices. To find and adopt a unique, clear and coherent style of writing is the eternal pursuit for just about every writer.
In the pantheon of film criticism, Roger Ebert had a voice. Pauline Kael had a voice. Modern critics like Dana Stevens, Matt Zoller Seitz, Michael Phillips, and others have procured a writing aesthetic that allows them to eloquently articulate what they have to say. But most importantly, Keith Phipps has developed a voice — a distinguishably knowledgable one at that.
As of this past July, Phipps is the editorial director of The Dissolve, the Chicago-based publication apart of Pitchfork media. In merely a few months the site has done wonders, quickly evolving into one of (if not the) most well-rounded, cinema-centric outlets around.
Thankfully for us, Keith was gracious enough to answer a few questions amid his busy work schedule.
Why do you think film criticism is still important in the modern age?
Even before I wrote film reviews, film criticism was one of the main ways I came to understand how the world, not just films, works. It was a portal to ideas for me, and I know I’m not alone to that. Consequently, I attach some pretty lofty ideals to it and I think as long as people care about film—and care to engage in movies in any kind of active way—good film writing will remain important.
What keeps you going as a writer?
The idealistic answer: I keep discovering new things about films new and old. Great films continue to be made and released and I have astounding patches of ignorance about the past that leaves me with areas to explore and discover. I’m not bored. And I’m enjoying the actual act of writing more than ever. The pragmatic answer: It’s become a profession and it’s how I make a living and help put food on the table. Happily, both answers are correct.
How different do you think the film criticism landscape will look ten years from now?
That’s a good question. I think it’s easier than ever to get published, even if it’s just on your own blog. And easier than ever to find compelling film writing. The tough part is making a living doing it. We’ve stopped hearing awful stories about daily newspapers and alt-weeklies shedding critics, but that’s partly because there aren’t that many left. I’m optimistic, though, an audience remains for reliable outlets on which quality writing can be found in bulk. (That’s the dice we’re rolling at The Dissolve anyway.) So, ten years from now, I suspect there will continue to be a lot of people writing about film but I suspect the gravity will shift toward quality online publications that specialize in film writing—or online outlets that make it a major component of their offerings—and continue to move away from traditional news outlets. And that it will also be in 3D. (Maybe not that.)
Who are a few of your favorite working filmmakers?
Oh gosh, how can I avoid just listing the usual suspects? There are dozens of filmmakers about whom I always get excited by the prospect of new films—even if they sometimes let me down. I was just thinking this the other day, however: When the dust settles, how many directors will leave behind filmographies as fascinating and unpredictable—ups and downs and all—as Richard Linklater?
What’s your favorite film of 2013 thus far?
Of the ones I’ve reviewed so far, I keep coming back to Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, which really got to me. And I feel a little protective of it, too. Yes, it’s inspired by great ’70s filmmakers, rather obviously, but to me it feels like a new riff on what Malick and Altman were up to at that time. And it looks gorgeous. That can’t be understated.
What are The Dissolve’s plans for the future?
I think we’re still figuring out what we are, which is exciting. We’ve got a great staff of reviewers. We keep trying out new column ideas. We’re not locked into doing anything we don’t want to do—apart from reviewing as many films as we can. I’d love to try out some more video ideas.
Films you’d like to be played at your post-mortem film festival:
A whole post-mortem film festival? Honestly, I’d probably just want to play something that got me hooked on movies in the first place, so maybe Star Wars (but it would have to be the original cut). And then maybe something that opened up my eyes as to how great film could be. So maybe 8 1/2. A side note: For my 40th birthday my wonderful wife rented out, without my knowledge, the great Music Box Theatre for a private screening of my favorite movie, The Umbrellas Of Cherbourg. That was a film festival I got to enjoy while alive. Actually, scratch that: Show A Matter of Life and Death and let this be my epitaph: “One is starved for Technicolor up there.”