Diversity in Film Criticism: Part 1 - April Wolfe and Alicia Malone

by Rosalie Kicks, Old Sport

I’ve always been a writer in one way or another. However, it was in the eighth grade that I truly remember being shown how powerful writing can be. There was a teacher, a former journo, that made me realize the influence I could have with my words. She ran the school newspaper and I of course immediately joined with the determination to push my agenda. One of my first stories being about the negative impact heavy school bags could have on a teenager’s back causing students to resemble hunched turtles. The article was entitled, “Backpacks: A Weighty Issue”.

As for film, I’ve always loved to dissect a movie. This activity (which includes milkshakes) has become somewhat of a ritual for Best Boy and I after leaving the cinema. I just never thought movies were something I could write about. During my youth, there was not much time for films. At least not many. There were a few that were kept on heavy rotation which included: The Universal Monster Flicks (compliments of my Uncle Weazel), The Matrix, Back to The Future, and The Burbs. Slinging produce at my grandparents’ farmers market took up most of my time and as a family we would maybe get to the cinema once to twice a year. Fortunately, and shockingly, during my college years I was given time (it was the first time I didn’t have a job) and finally discovered my love for film. It was at that time that I made the switch from writer to filmmaker. Every free moment, a DVD was being slid into the tray. I had to keep feeding my eyes. After college, as many film graduates do, I made the trek to Los Angeles filled with dreams and stars in my eyes, only to leave the place with a drinking problem. When I decided to leave, I couldn’t take much but I managed to bring my hundreds of movies.

It was hard moving back home. For a while, I forgot all about movies. I stopped following them. Stopped watching them. I felt like a failure, a letdown to myself and my family. I was constantly being reminded of my California dreams and it never stopped feeling like a punch to the stomach.

Maybe it was Buster Keaton who helped pull me from the darkness and find the light of the projector again. But when I really think about it, it was that moment I received a message from my friend Francis, the Founder of Moviejawn, asking if I wanted to write about film for a zine he was putting together. I read the message a few times thinking, “Huh. I never thought about writing about film.” The idea of making a film can feel daunting. Writing about em’…I just need a pencil. This began my transformation. I was one with film again.

Sharing my knowledge and insight on films has been so thrilling for me, but also eye-opening. Because I never really thought about film criticism, I was unaware of the issues within this community. Things really came to light when I started attending press screening events here in Philadelphia and having the realization that I was the only woman in the room. In addition, everyone was white. As with most art forms, the way in which we process a film can be extremely different amongst individuals. It is so important for there to be representation within the world of film criticism and this is why I wanted to share these voices with you.

This group of film critics are just a glimpse of some of the amazing voices out there that I have been fortunate enough to stumble upon. I am still learning about the art of film criticism, but something I realized early on is just like many different people watch movies, we need to have many different people writing about them too. It is such an incredible feeling to be able to find someone out there in this wild world that you can relate to and help you make sense of things. We don’t just need more female film critics, we need diversity.

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APRIL WOLFE

The world wide web, specifically film Twitter, can often be deemed dreadful. Surprisingly though, there are a few bright spots out there in which one can have a feeling of comfort. This is how your favorite old sport felt after finding the words of April Wolfe.

After reading countless critiques on film by April and listening to her newly created podcast, Switchblade Sisters, I’ve realized how nice it is to find a person that “gets me”. I now have this invisible connection with a fellow rad film nerd who I may or may not ever meet, but will always be connected to through film. Reading her takes on movies makes me feel like we are old friends that go way back. She is that movie pal I turn to when I am looking to understand something I just watched. It is nice to know she is out there because, unlike many of the male critics in the land of film Twitter, April understands me. “The longer I do it [film criticism], the more I realize it is important. Journalism is important. Film criticism is journalism,” explains April. “The critic is necessary - and if that means “amateur” critic (ex. Letterbox) or whether it is a professional, who devotes time solely to this, it is all very important.”

With the cry of “fake” news and never-ending horror of White House happenings, April finds there is a renewed sense of urgency for film critics. “Movies are pushing an agenda. They are emulating something and providing role models in some way. Whether or not that is the intention,” states April. “We are inundated by it [media] by our earliest of ages.”

In this aspect, film criticism plays such a significant role. As April puts it, “Critics who can dissect the craft of filmmaking, can help people appreciate it more - the art. Break it down for people to help them understand, and appreciate it differently or break it down to show how something failed.”

This is another reason that I am drawn to April’s writings. She is not only able to cut apart a film to make it digestible, but her knowledge of the overall filmmaking process helps one to understand what separates a good film from a bad one. This comes from her past experiences of working at a production company in Los Angeles where she performed script analysis. This role provided her with insight into the overall film writing process. As for the journalism gig…well she kind of just fell into it. Initially, her focus being more of music and book journo, she eventually found her way to film criticism. “When I applied to LA Weekly I had not worked professionally as a film critic,” says April. “You were not just a film critic at LA Weekly - you had to write in-depth and investigative reporting – long form, blog posts, and profiles.” With April’s previous experience, LA Weekly took a chance on her as they wanted to see if they could do something new with their film reporting. It is a good thing they did.

April’s awareness and understanding of film brings so much to the table. It is her understanding of film that helps the viewer bond with a movie. But hey, she didn’t learn all this film stuff overnight. Her adventure with movies began in childhood. “My family does not read,” explains April (*Editor’s Note: April does read now and is a self-described “voracious reader”). “There were not books growing up in my house, there was the bible. It was hard to connect with the family, but we could always connect with the movies.” Being raised by her grandparents, it was the movies that brought them together. “They [grandparents] taught me to watch horror films. My earliest memory was watching Sleepaway Camp – the movies brought me so much joy,” remarks April.

Similarly, April feels the same way after writing a review. She finds it is an outlet for her to truly advocate for the things she adores. “I love when I put a review into the world and someone has an astute thought about it,” states April. “All of us care about movies so much. It is nice to have thoughts provoked based on your discussion and the film becomes something else.”

Q&A with Film Critic, April Wolfe:

RK: Who is a female reporter you admire that is portrayed in film? Fictional or historical.

AW: Of recently portrayed reporters – Kay Graham the publisher, in The Post. That was a huge one for me. A phenomenal person and that changed the course of journalism and American politics. And if she didn’t do what she did we may not be where we are today.

RK: Who's your favorite female filmmaker?

AW: Catherine Breillat – French filmmaker – who does, psychological dark comedy. Movie recommendation: Fat Girl – about two sisters, one is conventionally pretty and older and the other is a chubby girl that does not have great social skills. They go away on vacation. It has one of the most bizarre endings to a film you will see. Divisive as hell.

RK: Where's your favorite cinema to see a film and what's your favorite concession?

AW: Cinema: Laemmle – Pasadena, CA. Even though I am not supposed to eat dairy, they have great ice cream sandwiches and of course popcorn.

RK: Pay it forward: Recommend a female film writer/critic/podcaster that you love to follow...

AW: Inkoo Kang (@InkooKang) – loved reading her work and became friends. Amy Nicholson (@TheAmyNicholson). Lara Zarum (@LaraZarum) – Village Voice. Emily Yoshida (@EmilyYoshida) – love the way she looks at movies. Jen Yamato (@JenYamato).

April was the former film critic at the LA Weekly until it was purchased by very bad people. You can find her writings mostly at Village Voice. She also hosts an amazing podcast, Switchblade Sisters (@Switchbladepod) where she invites female filmmakers to discuss their favorite genre flicks and is a regular guest on Who Shot Ya? (@whoshotyapod) a podcast discussing more mainstream contemporary films. Follow her on Twitter at: @AWolfeful.

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ALICIA MALONE

Whether she is traveling the world attending film festivals, interviewing filmmakers for the FilmStruck podcast or hosting on Turner Classic Movies, Alicia Malone is living the film geek’s dream. “I can’t believe how lucky I am that my hobby has become my job. I get paid to do exactly what I would do normally - watch films and talk to people about films. But truly, this is my dream job. I put in many more hours than a “normal” 9-5 job, but as they say, if you do what you love, you don’t work a day in your life,” says Alicia.

Surprisingly, Alicia did not set out for this to be her career but her love of movies took her down this path. “In school I started a film club, with the hope that I could convince my peers to love classic movies as much as I did. After school, I worked in a video store, and would tell the customers which films they should rent,” describes Alicia.

Alicia didn’t stop there. She later pursued a job in television, where she worked in various behind-the-scenes roles. This eventually led her to the Movie Network, where she served as a producer and editor. “Movie Network consisted of three cable stations in Australia, each dedicated to movies, and my job was to produce the short-form shows which ran in between the films,” explains Alicia.

It was at the Movie Network where Alicia found her true calling. “When I saw the fun tasks the TV hosts got to do on the channel - interviewing filmmakers, reviewing movies - I knew that’s what I wanted to do. It was like my film club or video store experiences on a much larger level,” says Alicia. Through the help of a friend and supporter, Renee Brack, - Alicia was able to pitch her own show and was given the opportunity to conduct red carpet interviews. “She [Renee] was the first person to show me how incredibly powerful it can be to have the support of another woman,” says Alicia.

As her career began to grow, so did her reach and she learned quickly the impact that she could have. “For me, I see my purpose as helping smaller films find an audience, keeping classic movies alive, and someone who will speak up for women in film. I’m very lucky to have a platform and people who listen to me, and I’m determined to use it in a positive way,” describes Alicia.

Alicia doesn’t just use her voice to speak about film, she uses her writing skills too. Her recently published book Backwards & In Heels: The Past, Present, And Future of Women Working In Film is a wonderful read about women from various eras within the film industry. Her writing takes you through the silent era of Lois Weber and Alice Guy right up to present day talkies. Alicia’s book is well researched and includes many great interviews such as, Ava Duvernay. Geena Davis and Octavia Spencer…just to name a few. After reading her book, it is hard to not to see the importance of having diversity within film. “Film has a way of transporting you through time and space. I enjoy being able to escape from my life, and getting a window into somebody else’s. Story-telling is one of the most human things we do, and there’s nothing quite like seeing these stories larger than life on a big screen, laughing, crying and jumping in fright with a group of strangers. This is why representation is important, because seeing yourself on that screen is so powerful, and film is one of the ways we learn how to treat others and treat ourselves” explains Alicia.

When it comes to the Hollywood mainstream, the idea of diversity can often be lost. For viewers, it can often be hard to sift through the sea of movies that exist out in the world and find the ones that are worth the watch. However, with Alicia as your guide there is no need to feel overwhelmed. She’s out there on the ground at some of the most premiere film fests looking for the best films for eyes to see. This especially rings true for the smaller indie flicks that often go unnoticed. “These small movies don’t have the marketing budget of the studio blockbusters, and have to fight to cut through all of the noise. So, to have a variety of voices supporting indies can really help for them to find an audience. Especially somewhere like the Sundance Film Festival, where the majority of films are looking for buyers,” states Alicia.

Not only does Alicia try to find audiences for the smaller budget films, she also makes an effort to keep her conversation about movies focused on the ones she genuinely likes. “Just over a year ago I decided to only talk about the films I truly enjoy. I see myself as an advocate for smaller films and older movies, which need all the help they can get but can be harder to find. So what I try to communicate to the viewer is why they should take the extra step to seek them out, why they are worthy of the effort and why it will ultimately be a fulfilling decision. I approach my work with a friendly warmth, like I’m a friend, with no pretension and a lot of passion,” says Alicia.

Alicia walks the walk and talks the talk. Just throw on one of her videos from her YouTube channel and it will feel like you are getting movie tips from a really rad film pal. “What brings me the most joy is hearing from people who have watched and enjoyed my recommendations. There’s nothing I love more than getting an email, tweet or YouTube comment saying, “I never knew about this film before you talked about it, and now I think it’s changed my life.” It’s like my high school film club, except now people are actually listening to what I have to say!”

Q&A with Film Critic & Reporter, Alicia Malone:

RK: Who is a female reporter you admire that is portrayed in film? Fictional or historical.

AM: One of my all-time favorites is Hildy Johnson in His Girl Friday, played by Rosalind Russell. I remember seeing this film when I was quite young, and the image of this fast-talking, whip-smart, hilarious female reporter burned into my brain. I love how Hildy not only keeps up with Cary Grant’s character, she surpasses him with her wit and talent for cracking a story. It’s quite telling for female characters that Hildy is the one of the best in cinema history, and yet, she started out as a man. It was director Howard Hawks who had the brilliant idea to make her a female character.

RK: Who's your favorite female filmmaker?

AM: There are many who I admire, from Lois Weber who tackled social issues with her films in the teens, to Dorothy Arzner, the only female filmmaker working in Hollywood in the 1930s. Her movies are delightfully feminist. Both Jane Campion and Gillian Armstrong were hugely important to me growing up in Australia. And these days, I can’t wait to see what Greta Gerwig does next. I’m also a huge fan of Lynne Ramsay, particularly the way she uses sound design and images to give the audience a glimpse into the mind of her characters.

RK: Where's your favorite cinema to see a film and what's your favorite concession?

AM: Because I’m enamored with classic films and Hollywood history, my favorite cinemas are the old movie palaces of the past. Here in Los Angeles, we are spoiled with quite a few, and my favorite is a small local theater called The Vista. It opened in 1923, projects 35mm film and the inside is beautiful and ornate with an Ancient Egyptian theme. The seats are really comfortable and there is plenty of leg room (important!) My favorite snack is popcorn with lots of butter, and if the cinema has it, I pop some jalapeños on top for a bit of spice!

RK: Pay it forward: Recommend a female film writer/critic/podcaster that you love to follow...

AM: So many! I love the writing of film critic Emily Yoshida (@EmilyYoshida) at Vulture, she is someone whose taste seems to align with mine, yet she’s able to articulate it much better than I ever could. I also always read and admire the work of Amy Nicholson (@TheAmyNicholson), who has been at many established publications, most recently Variety. Jen Yamato (@JenYamato) at the Los Angeles Times is an incredible reporter and critic. I always listen to Aisha Harris (@CraftingMyStyle) with her Represent podcast, which looks at representation and diversity in entertainment. And April Wolfe (@AWolfeful) has a wonderfully cool podcast called Switchblade Sisters. I feel very lucky to be surrounded by so many incredible women in this industry who inspire me daily.

Alicia is everywhere! Find her on Fandango, where she hosts, edits and produces the Indie Movie Guide – a wonderful video vlog where she gives the 411 on smaller flicks hitting theaters and movies to watch on-demand. Hear Alicia on The FilmStruck podcast biweekly, where she has in-depth chats with filmmakers and artists behind the scenes in movies. Watch out for Alicia introducing movies on FilmStruck! – a partnership between Turner Classic Movies and the Criterion Collection. Here she gets to talk about the best films from all over the world and throughout different eras. You can also pick up her book, Backwards and In Heels – available on Amazon and in bookstores. Visit: aliciamalone.com to sign up for Malone Mail and to follow her on twitter @AliciaMalone.