How To Become A Film Critic: An Interview With Rob Ager

August 11, 2014

Rob Ager
NYFA: Would you mind telling us a bit about your background and what drew you to film criticism?

Rob Ager: As a child I was introduced to a lot of quality films by my father. I was six years old when VHS players had not long come on the market and we were one of the first families in our neighborhood to get one, but VHS owners were limited to just recording things off the TV, commercials and all, for playback. Video stores came along later. The idea of studying a film before that would have been extremely limited because people relied on broadcasts to watch things, not that I was into film analysis that early, but in the following years VHS allowed me to re-watch movies and TV shows and become familiar with subtleties other than mere plot points. My father also allowed me to watch a lot of very adult themed movies from an early age. I was seven when we rented our first two video cassettes Alien and The Shining. Sure I was dreadfully underage, but my father would always watch these movies with me and offer explanations for what would otherwise be beyond my comprehension. It was very educational.

I became interested in short story writing by the time I was about 10 years old, though the inspiration came from movies rather than books. At that age I didn’t even know what a screenplay was, but was always writing from a cinematic position. At around age 13 I saw a documentary on The Making of Aliens. This was the first time I’d ever really paid any attention to what a film director does and it sparked my interest in wanting to be a director, but not being from a privileged background (in fact being caught up in a very down-trodden part of Liverpool with very high unemployment, crime levels, and terribly run state schools) going to university was out of the question.

After leaving high school I struggled for a few years and had to sort of re-educate myself and re-invent my life from scratch. From there I got a job making graphics for video games then moved into the field of social care.

Although film making had never taken off for me as an aspiration, technology suddenly opened the door in the form of digital video and PC video editing software. I was in my late twenties at the time. By then my experience in social care related lines of work, and all the hundreds of psychology books I’d read during that time, had given me enough confidence and organizational skills to get the ball rolling. So I made a few short films (TV episode length shorts rather than 5 minuters) before encountering the creativity-suppressing, politically motivated brick wall that is British film funding. From there I veered into making film analysis videos and articles, which wasn’t so much a conscious choice, but rather a happy accident. In the process of studying the works of my favorite directors I’d noticed a few things that I’d never heard talked about and which I felt ought to be common knowledge.

NYFA: You were one of the first internet-based movie critics and also helped pioneer the video movie critique. When did you first start publishing your own reviews and how has the online critical landscape evolved since you began?

RA: It was around early 2007 that I posted my first couple of film analysis videos—they were about A Clockwork Orange and The Shining. For reasons that baffled me at the time, both of those videos received mainstream coverage, though very negatively, in Wired magazine. The Wired writer considered my first two videos somewhat harmful or dangerous and put himself forward to defend the public against being misinformed by my work. I followed up with videos on Alien, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Cape Fear, Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior, and Scorsese’s remake of Cape Fear, but Wired didn’t bother trying to attack my work again. Meanwhile YouTube subscribers were signing up by the thousand and the videos were generating a ton of online discussion and debate. It was very clear, even after the first two videos, that I’d tapped into something that was controversial and for which there was a largely uncatered audience. A couple of years in my work started getting a lot of positive media coverage, especially when the documentary Room 237 came out, even though I didn’t take part in that film.

As for the evolvement of other online film critics using the video narration format, it seems that a few different niches have been identified and tapped into. Plenty of people do straight reviews of new movies in the traditional sense and reach a lot of people, but the content is little different to what’s already present in reviews found in newspapers and magazines. Red Letter Media put a lot of effort into their stuff and have reached a larger audience than I have, but it often involves attacking bad films rather than praising good ones so doesn’t overlap much with my work. RLM’s sense of humor is very important to their fan base, but my audience seem to be more interested in a sober, almost academic, approach—which is great, but sometimes frustrating because offline I have a bizarre sense of humor too, which I inevitably suppress in my videos (actually I’ve taken to encoding subtle jokes in my videos as a compromise).

There are also a handful of video-based film critics who keep their identities anonymous and some of them reach a lot of people, but I find the anonymity is often understandable because of the poor quality of the critiques, inefficient editing, perceptual bias, and tendency toward over-emotive statements. So far I’ve encountered little from other online critics that I’d consider to be “competition,” so to speak.

NYFA: You spent over fifteen years in social work. How did that experience color the theories and over-arching philosophy you apply when analyzing films and filmmakers?

RA: During those years I met and worked with schizophrenics, the homeless, pedophiles, poverty-hardened teenagers, abused children, ex-cons and so on—thousands of people. Rather than just observing, my job usually involved dealing with these people’s behavior and belief systems—sometimes in violently threatening situations and very often involving lies, manipulation, and pathological denial. You have to keep track of a lot of information in those situations—familiarizing yourself with people’s subconscious habits and environmental triggers, which lends itself quite well to studying human behavior as represented in movies. So a lot of subjects that I talk about in film analysis are things I’ve experienced or observed many times in the real world.

NYFA: What is the guiding theory behind your film criticism? (For example, do you believe that a director, like Stanley Kubrick, is completely intentional in how they compose a scene and thus every element can be analyzed for symbolic value?)

RA: My guiding theory is to gather information first and then form an opinion based on the patterns that emerge from that information. That may seem obvious, but the world is full of people, even in academia, who do it the other way around. Some film makers put incredible depth in their work, but most don’t. Stanley was one of a rare breed in terms of his range of themes and attention to detail. His films are like huge detailed canvases, while a lot of other films are like tiny framed, botched imitations of things already painted better by previous artists. That’s not to say absolutely everything is intentional in a Kubrick film. Even the great master painters made mistakes, but in the same way that every square centimeter on a canvas painting can contain significant detail, there isn’t a single element of the film making process in which metaphors cannot be included. Everything is open to scrutiny.

NYFA: You often focus on what others would consider to be the minutiae of a film to reveal a greater truth. What is it about this method that you believe helps you uncover a greater truth? How do you feel this method fits into the tradition of film criticism?

RA: I don’t think it fits much into the tradition of film criticism because I don’t see a lot of method there. A lot of film reviews and critique are just hasty opinions formed from instinct without any effort in information gathering or even basic note taking during the course of watching a movie. That works well for telling readers whether they might commercially enjoy a particular movie, but it doesn’t work for getting beyond obvious plot lines in any way that is convincing or informative. Basically the issue boils down to the literal verbal (explanatory dialogue, which carries most plot points in movies) versus verbal innuendo (dialogue with hidden or double meaning) and non-verbal communication (visuals and non-dialogue sound). It’s very well known, even to the general public, that most human communication is non-verbal. So naturally, that’s the case in movies as well, even those that have straight, one dimensional narratives. My job as “film analyst” is to put words to those facets of communication that are normally missed or only experienced subconsciously by the audience and often even by the film makers themselves.

NYFA: You also work as an independent filmmaker, having completed a trio of short films and the recent horror feature Turn in Your Grave. How does the film making pursuit differ from the role of the film critic? How does your experience as a film critic inform your decisions as a filmmaker?

RA: Mostly I’d say my experience as a film maker informs my film analysis / critique, rather than the other way around, though in the course of writing film analysis I have learned a few tricks from Lynch, Kubrick, Hitchcock, and other greats which then affected me on set. As a film maker you sort of have to be a critic anyway, attempting to anticipate how your creative decisions will affect the feelings and opinions of the audience. At the same time you have to sometimes go ahead and do something that you know the audience will initially dislike in order to get certain points across or to challenge them in some way. I went all out when shooting Turn In Your Grave to create a film that would challenge the viewer’s assumptions about movies on many levels and which would demand the viewer play detective. As a result I find people have strong reactions to the film ranging from fascination to unease and frustration. Even if it’s the only feature I ever make, I’m happy with it because I can honestly say it’s original and represents a personal vision on film. But making a feature film is expensive and extremely time consuming—at least a hundred times more so than making a film analysis video. So, unless the British film industry is radically altered to facilitate creativity and filmmakers with a personal vision, I’ll be continuing mostly with film analysis as a cheaper, but still wide-reaching alternative…unless I end up leaving the country.

NYFA: What led you to work within a genre like Horror that tends to have a pretty established structure in terms of how a story unfolds? Did you see working in such a codified genre as somehow liberating or were you trying to find a certain freedom within the structures?

RA: A lot of my film analysis videos are about horror films, which can be misleading. Horror isn’t necessarily my film viewing preference, partially because it’s so rarely well done, but it is a genre which, along with sci-fi and fantasy, provides a means through which deeper aspects of the human psyche can emerge and be collectively experienced consciously. Narratives that are bound by the perceived rules of everyday reality can be quite restricting in that the film makers spend an inordinate amount of time trying to create something that is “realistic” rather than interesting and stimulating. Turn In Your Grave isn’t actually a horror film, although it does intentionally wear that mask. It’s more like a potent bad dream in which subconscious thoughts surface and play on you for days after you’ve woken up.

NYFA: When it comes to directing your own films, what role do you see the director playing? As someone who often conducts a symbolic reading of film, do you find working within a genre as a means to exert complete symbolic control over the elements in your films?

RA: The director role varies. It can mean window dressing something in which all the true creativity derives from the script and most of the aesthetics are decided by technicians. Or at the other end if the director has been involved in the script writing and personally gets involved in guiding the technical tasks of all the crew members and the editing process then he becomes the creative driver. I’ve only directed using the latter approach.

As for genres, all of my films have been mixed pieces, as in they initially appear to be of a certain genre, but subtly morph into another genre or two. I have watched some films that attempt to abandon all genre conventions and simply hit the audience with something outside of their normal experience. David Lynch’s more bizarre films Eraserhead and Inland Empire do this, but they’re also, for many viewers, his least accessible films. Many people simply switch off those two films mid-way through because they can’t relate to them, but with Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet Lynch took the wiser step of giving the audience an initial genre narrative that they could relate to. He then, through the course of those films, eased the audience gradually into unfamiliar realms, primarily involving dream logic. That approach works in most forms of communication. A shrink is able to get more far reaching results by stepping into the world of the patient first, occupying that world with the individual for a while (provided it isn’t too physically dangerous), and then gradually introducing perceptual elements that lead the patient to a more pleasant, truthful, and resourceful place. Good movies do that too.

NYFA: What would you say has been the secret ingredient in gaining a wide audience for your film criticism videos?

RA: Communicating from a truthful place, especially in areas where it’s unfashionable to do so. In a world that is drowning in lies and denial, truth is a powerful and underestimated commodity (in many ways much more powerful even than money).

NYFA: Do you have any parting words of advice for aspiring film critics looking to make a name for themselves online? Any essential writers or critics that you feel every aspiring critic should be familiar with?

RA: Yes, spend some time soaking up the articles and videos at my website (biased recommendation of course). There’s only one other independent online film analyst / critic I recommend at the moment and that’s Darren Foley (known on YouTube as foleyd87). I’ve actually only seen a few of his videos, but they were enough to earn my recommendation.

Advice for aspiring film critics…

1) Keep your language simple and to the point. A great many film critics try to pepper their articles with unnecessary pseudo-intellectual jargon or trendy buzz words, catch phrases, and verbal clichés. If you want to write poetry then write poetry, not film critiques.

2) Be your own harshest critic. After writing or editing something, look for ways to tear it apart conceptually before finalizing and publishing it. If you don’t find the flaws in your arguments, your audience will certainly do it for you.

3) Your real life experiences are as important as your love of films. Get some good, character building life experiences under your belt. Only then will you have something truly personal to say about other people’s movies or to express in movies you write or direct.

4) Work hard!!! Creating a thorough film analysis video or article requires a lot of advance information gathering about your chosen film topic, a strong knowledge of video editing, a lot of writing practice, and a lot of time. Most people, including myself, don’t have a lot of free time so if you’re really serious about it then you’ll have to make some sacrifices in other areas like getting drunk less often with your friends, playing less computer games, or watching less sports.