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News & Events for the Smith College Community
Alumnae News March 7, 2019

Film Critic Ann Hornaday ’82 Talks Film Trends

Ann Hornaday in a movie theater
Photo Credit: Robert Severi

Teach-ins, knocking on doors, leafletting and marching against nuclear proliferation and the war in El Salvador: That’s what Ann Hornaday ’82 thinks of when she recalls her Smith years. “It was a very politically engaged time,” she says. She was a goverment major who worked passionately for political and social justice causes. When she left Smith to pursue a writing career, she landed in the research department at Ms. magazine, where another activist, editor Gloria Steinem ’56, encouraged her writing.

Decades later, that sense of political and cultural engagement is still with her, but now she’s using it to evaluate films at The Washington Post, where she has been the chief critic since 2012. In her column, Hornaday reliably comments on the cultural milieu of films. A December column, for instance, focuses on the spate of movies about women who dare to be bitchy, ambitious, single-minded or just plain unlikable. 

She writes: “The Favourite is just the latest sprout in a bumper crop of movies depicting women, if not at their best, then at least in some form of sisterly solidarity: From the depraved sisterhood of Suspiria to Viola Davis coolly leading a team of henchwomen in Widows, 2018 is shaping up to be a year singularly devoted to the vicarious pleasures of feminist troublemaking. Throw in such tough protagonists as Emily Blunt in A Quiet Place, Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween, Melissa McCarthy in Can You Ever Forgive Me? and Rosamund Pike in A Private War, and the trend is clear: Good girls are out. Difficult women—preferably ones who can defy social expectations to drink, swear, misbehave and screw up a storm—are decidedly in.”

In 2017, Hornaday drew from decades’ worth of moviemaking wisdom, which she gleaned from interviews with directors, actors, writers and producers, to inform her book, Talking Pictures: How to Watch Movies (Basic Books). In her acknowledgments, she thanks the likes of Ben Affleck, Ava DuVernay, Steven Spielberg, Tilda Swinton and Gary Oldman for being her “unofficial tutors.”

Hornaday, a 2008 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism, talks here about how she made the leap to film critic, what makes a great movie and what film-making trends she’s keeping her eye on.

What was your first job after Smith?
I had two choices: Move to Washington, D.C., and find a job either at a think tank or a nonprofit, or go to New York and try to make it as a writer. I chose New York because I was a little more familiar with that city, and there was a whole cadre of Smithies there. I ended up getting a job at Ms. magazine as a fact checker in the research department, and that’s where I got my first byline. Then I worked for Gloria Steinem as her assistant. She was very instrumental in my going freelance.

And then you started writing for entertainment magazines?
Yes, all these publications needed copy: Us magazine, Premiere. They’d say, “We need a profile of Sam Neill.” I was also doing a kind of paparazzi reporting, where they would have you and a photographer stake out a certain location where celebrities went. I would think, “I cannot believe, four years at Smith and I’m standing out here in front of everyone.” But I was also doing general assignment features for Working Woman, Self, the Daily News. It was just cobbling a lot of things together to make a living.

How did you move into film criticism?
I started writing film-related stories for The New York Times, and then I was hired to be a film critic at the Austin [Texas] American-Statesman. I think they were interested in my reporting skills and felt the critical voice and acumen would come.

What was the first movie you reviewed?
Gus Van Sant’s To Die For [1995]. I loved the film and I wanted to give it a positive review, but I didn’t know how to begin. I sat in front of the computer thinking, “Oh God, now what?”

What did you do?
A friend of mine, David Friedman, who had gone from being a reporter to a television critic, said, “I’m going to give you the same advice I got when I made the switch. Every time you review a movie, ask yourself three questions: What was the artist trying to achieve? Did they achieve it? Was it worth doing?” And that’s really been my philosophy in terms of how to approach this job. It makes it easier to meet the work halfway and really judge it on its own merits, rather than my personal biases.

Does personal taste come into criticism at all?
Yes, I just don’t think it should dominate. In other words, it should be in the car, but it shouldn’t be driving. The first thing you have to decide is what is this movie? Is it a comedy, is it a Western? And then, are they trying to make a conventional version of that genre, are they trying to subvert that genre? And then, does it work? Does it work as entertainment, does it work in pushing the art form forward?

What inspired you to write a book about movies?
A big part of my job is talking to filmmakers, so over the years I’ve gotten some wonderful insights from them about how they do their jobs and what they’re trying to achieve. I roughly follow the production of a film, starting with the screenplay. How do you evaluate screenwriting? When we say a movie is well-written, most people think that means dialogue or the story has a really good twist, but it’s a lot more than that.

What should people keep in mind when they’re watching a film?
I think sound is often overlooked. If it’s working really well, we usually don’t notice it. But it’s affecting us emotionally and giving us information in a way that is very subtle. Sometimes filmmakers think that the best sound is the “most” sound, so between the music and sound effects everything’s too loud. I really love subtle sound design. A great example of that is A Quiet Place [2018]. It gives audiences a chance to appreciate how sounds create an environment and give us a different emotional story from the one portrayed on the screen.

What is your favorite movie of all time?
The Best Years of Our Lives [1946]. It’s beautifully written, perfectly acted, gorgeously shot, gorgeously designed. The set, the music ... my God. The original score is absolutely exquisite, the direction. It checks every box in terms of a well-crafted, beautiful film.

What about your least favorite movie?
I was never a fan of Forrest Gump [1994]. I hated the way that it portrayed political activism, especially in the 1960s, around the anti-war activism. I thought it was really reactionary and kind of insulting. I’m not a fan.

How has your interest in social justice affected your work?
As a journalist I have to be objective, but obviously my own experiences and passions and beliefs are going to inform my work. I believe transparency is the best policy. I think the people who read me consistently can accuse me of being a bleeding-heart liberal, and that’s a fair point. Then they can decide if they think that’s compromising my judgment or not, but I don’t think that it would help anything to try to deny that, or to silence that voice, or to take away that lens. We all come to everything—viewers and critics alike—bringing multiple lenses.

How do you think social media has affected the influence of established critics?
I think that aggregating sites like Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic still need us. They need something to aggregate. So, I feel like we still matter on that level. But I think the younger generation is going to YouTube for a lot of their criticism. So, I think it’s still being sorted out.

Do filmmakers have a duty to consider the psychosocial effects of what they create?
I’m not sure I would use the word “duty.” I think every artist comes to terms with the world in his or her or their own way. But I do think it’s relevant and not unreasonable for viewers to bring that lens to work and to make that a part of their own consideration of whether something succeeds or fails. For instance, guns and gun violence have been a piece of cinematic grammar since the inception of the medium. I don’t categorically object to guns or violence in movies, but I do feel that it’s reasonable to look at how they’re being used. Is it gratuitous? Is it aestheticized into meaninglessness? One of my pet peeves is when guns are treated like playthings; they’re so cartoonish that the effects of gun violence are never shown.

What trends do you see in filmmaking?
Over the last 20 years there has been a significant “blockbusterization” of movies, like the superhero and spectacle movies. Now, I’m not sure. I think Hollywood is making films as much for the international box office as it is for the domestic audience. Digital technology has made it easier for people to make films, so we still have very low-budget indies that people will always be able to make. I think what’s endangered is the kind of midrange-budget movie like Michael Clayton [2007]. That is the kind of movie that they used to make a lot of in the 1970s—adult drama, no explosions, just a relatively smart, sophisticated urban thriller.

How has your Smith experience influenced your work?
My education at Smith really taught me how to think critically. I didn’t go to film school, so I’m not coming at this job as a film geek or expert. I’m just looking at it as an art form and trying to learn about its conventions and its grammar and languages, and then educate myself to be able to evaluate it intelligently. And I really do credit Smith for giving me the tools that have allowed me to do that.

Spring 2019 Smith Alumnae Quarterly