Watch Write Now: Birth of a Critic

What’s your favorite film?It’s the first question people ask as soon as they find out what I do for a living. There’s a bit of awe in the question, mixed with a challenge.

Mar 27, 2013 at 9:02 am

What’s your favorite film?

It’s the first question people ask as soon as they find out what I do for a living. There’s a bit of awe in the question, mixed with a challenge, because after the initial surprise over meeting someone who gets paid to watch movies (and write about them — that’s the aspect of the job people tend to downplay) an almost immediate need to judge — to critique the critic — arises. Am I one of those high-falutin’ indie art house snobs? Am I open to (insert your favorite genre)? What do you think about (I would say “insert your favorite film,” but generally I find that most people go with Shawshank Redemption)?

Sometimes I feel like a professional golfer, with weekend warriors telling me about their handicap or eager to glean some secret about driving or putting. The thing is, I actually love the interplay. Most people don’t feel like talking shop, but I live for it. In fact, a few years back when the industry started contracting in the face of technological changes, I embraced the opportunity to head into the classroom as an adjunct instructor with the University of Cincinnati’s Journalism department because, besides joining the front lines to prepare the next generation during this adapt or die phase, I desired the exchange with others. 

Teaching is focused on passing down knowledge, paying it forward on a larger scale, but for education to truly work its magic, it needs to flow in both directions. And, to my mind, every moment can and should be a teaching moment; at least that’s how I approach life and lifelong learning.

Which leads me back to that question: What’s your favorite film? 

My favorite film comes with a story, a practiced response that, no matter how many times I share it, seems packed with new nuances. Blue Velvet, I say, and after, in most cases, I face the collective blank stares, I dive into my crafty yarn spinning. 

I remember everything about Blue Velvet’s opening weekend back in 1986. I was a high school senior attending the McCallie School in Chattanooga, Tenn., hanging out with my film geek crew (OK, we were far more universal in our geekitude). Long before anyone other than industry insiders cared about weekend box office, we scoured the newspapers to schedule our off-campus downtime, and there were never any limits. Any film that opened was fair game.

So, there we were, a small group of multi-ethnic teenage guys having just ditched our school uniforms, in a mall theatre settling down for the latest David Lynch film, and none of us were Lynch neophytes. We were ready, or so we thought. Looking back, I realize that we had no idea for what was about to unfold.

That first time came and went in a blur of sensations. During the final credits, we sat in stunned silence before shuffling out to pack ourselves back into cars for the ride home. We returned the next day, Saturday afternoon and again that night, and even secured permission to take in another screening Sunday afternoon. The film was a dream that we simply didn’t want to end.

Monday morning rolled around and most of us had AP English as our first class of the day. I raised my hand as soon as the bell rang and pleaded with our teacher, Cleve Latham, to give us a few minutes to talk about the film. I told him that Blue Velvet, with its Oedipal fixations and hypnotic use of image and music, felt like a book, one that might even be a classic in the making. And what I will never forget is that Latham, without much concern, granted this wish. He gave the film geeks 20 minutes, letting us rant and rave and probe into the raw guts of the film.

Over the course of the next two weekends, I browbeat the crew into repeat viewings, close to a dozen by the time the initial release reached its end. 

In the years since, I have seen Blue Velvet almost 30 times on the big screen. What matters most (and why it is my favorite film) is the opportunity that Latham afforded us. He thought enough about film and our curiosity to indulge, inspire and empower us.

I facilitate an after-school program at Lighthouse Youth Crisis Center, which has evolved into a film club called Watch Write Now, and it is my hope that a few of these students have the same kind of “a-ha!” moment that I experienced back in 1986. If one or two of them encounter a film, a short, or a music video that sparks a creative fire that initiates a quest for and questioning of their sensibilities, then criticism and critical thinking will live on. 

That’s the real power of having favorites. 

CONTACT TT STERN-ENZI: [email protected]