Movies can be appreciated on different levels. On the surface, there’s a superficial enjoyment — the positive, negative or mixed feelings a film leaves with its audience. On a deeper level, there are questions a great film explores and conclusions it may draw about the human condition. Deeper still, there’s a level of appreciation for cinema that lies in how these questions and feelings are presented by the filmmaker: What makes audiences feel the way they feel?
Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips considers all of these questions and more as a filmgoer.
The PHOENIX spoke over the phone with Phillips about his journey toward reviewing movies professionally and the art of film criticism itself.
As with many film fanatics, Phillips said his interest in cinema began at a young age.
“I fell in love [with movies] pretty early on and pretty hard,” Phillips said. “Between what I was seeing at the movie theaters as a kid and what I was seeing on television, I had all the reasons I needed to get interested in the movies.”
While Phillips said he enjoyed movies throughout his childhood, one year in particular took his interest in film to the next level.
“The big year was late ‘68, early ’69, because I remember seeing ‘The Love Bug’ four times,” Phillips said. “Then I saw ‘2001: A Space Odyssey.’ I didn’t have the brain matter to even absorb that one properly, but I was hooked anyway.”
As his love for cinema grew, Phillips credits his parents for nurturing it — even if that meant driving outside of his home state of Wisconsin to see the latest and greatest film.
“I had very generous parents who would take me down to Chicago sometimes to see movies I’d heard about but never seen,” Phillips said. “Back [in the 1970s] before VCRs and cable and the rest of it, if an obscure or foreign or indie picture showed in a theater in Milwaukee or Chicago and you didn’t see it, you might go a year or two before you’d even have the chance again. So there was a different sense of excitement and urgency around this prospect of seeing movies you haven’t seen yet.”
In high school, Phillips reviewed movies for his school paper, although he didn’t write about or even watch them the way he does now.
“At that age, you’re writing as a combination of people you admire,” Phillips said. “You haven’t really figured out how to sound like yourself yet … you’re trying to write your way towards your own true sensibility.”
Today, it seems Phillips found his sensibility as a writer, as he’s now the Chicago Tribune’s film critic. The company hired him to be a theater critic in 2002 after working for the Twin Cities’ weekly City Pages, the San Diego Union-Tribune and the Los Angeles Times prior. In 2006, Phillips shifted from reviewing theater to films.
While he said how he watches movies has changed dramatically, he still enjoys them just the same. Phillips said he sees his role as a film critic as figuring out why he’s responding or not responding to a film and articulating the reasons behind his reactions to help others articulate their own.
A large aspect of how Phillips said he watches movies deals with the visual language a director uses. There are rare instances, according to Phillips, when a film understands the principles of cinema so well that it’s still gripping decades after it premiered.
“Most films in terms of technique and screen acting are only satisfied with getting one [aspect of filmmaking] right, let alone two or three emotions or ‘notes’ at once,” Phillips said. “For example, ‘close-ups’ are great for people changing their mind, and if you had a whole movie that was that aware of all these building blocks of cinema, then you got a movie that really holds up.”
Many reviews focus on acting, as it seems easy to discuss; however, Phillips said he finds it “deceptively simple” to write about.
“It’s easy to talk in generalities about so-and-so being a great actor,” Phillips said. “But [the writer] has to get very specific and detailed about why a performance works or doesn’t work. Otherwise, it won’t make much sense to people who have yet to see the movie.”
In addition to writing for the Tribune, Phillips is also a regular guest on Chicago’s popular Filmspotting podcast, a long-form movie discussion show. In comparing his written reviews to his spoken reviews on the podcast, Phillips said both can be challenging.
“To do them well, they’re equally difficult. It’s kind of a relief, frankly, to ‘stretch-out’ a bit on Filmspotting after I’ve written a review,” Phillips said. “[Critics] can’t always be as specific and accurate with [their] reasons when [they’re] writing on deadline.”
Whether he’s writing or speaking, Phillips is a respected mind in the world of film criticism. In an occupation saturated with dense, showy writing, Phillips’ reviews speak conversationally and are a breath of fresh air among the peers in his field.