NOT ALL OF the highlights of this year's Northwest Film & Video Festival are great films. In fact, What's Wrong with This Picture?—a free workshop hosted by film expert and co-founder of Seattle's TheFilmSchool, Warren Etheredge—is all about the films that didn't make it into the festival. Etheredge wittily and mercilessly leads a conversation on the failings of each, complete with Gong Show-style elimination. You'll laugh—and you'll also learn a thing or two about making, and watching, film.
MERCURY: How do you characterize your relationship to film? Do you think of yourself as a critic?
WARREN ETHEREDGE: It's a funny thing: A couple of years ago I was asked to be on the Seattle Film Critic Association, and I did it. But I was a critic for years and I hated it. So, I don't like to think of myself as a critic. I'm critical, but in terms of film I think of myself more as an advocate or a curator, programmer, promoter.
What did you hate about it?
It's not that I hate offering commentary. I got really nervous—I found that people were actually listening to me and making choices about what they should see or not see based on what I would say, and I think that's the wrong idea for criticism. I'm far more interested in—it used to be called movie reviews. They still are, but now they're movie previews. It's really trying to get people to know what they should and shouldn't see. And I'm more interested in a conversation for people who have already seen something. I don't want to stop anybody from seeing a movie. I'd rather go out and champion films or books that don't get attention. I made it my policy a few years ago that I will no longer put negative reviews out there, particularly of anything that's sort of indie or low budget, because I think they have such a hard time reaching an audience already. Why should I make it harder?
But you've also expressed concern that people not waste their lives in two-hour increments. What guidelines do you think are wise to strategize your film choices?
Skip anything by Michael Bay. No—you know, I don't think it's really that complicated. I think that once people become active viewers or active audience members, you tend not to make bad decisions anymore. I think it's really the passivity that most of us have gotten into the mindset of. Like, "Oh, I'll just go through the channels and leave this on, or I'll go see that thing because, God it's been so long since I've seen Rob Schneider onscreen." That leads to bad decisions. But if you're actively watching movies and thinking, "I don't like this because it's insulting to my intelligence," or, "I don't like this because it's simply not funny," I think you start to make smarter decisions.
But don't you think there's a time and place for fluff and brain candy?
People think I'm some art house snob, and I'm not. I like fluff as much as the next person; I just like decent fluff, that's all. A few months ago, I had to watch 2012 on pay per view, just because I knew it was going to be moronic but I needed to see something big budget and moronic like that. I think there's great room for it, I just hate the stuff that insults our intelligence and wastes our time.
What are some common mistakes that filmmakers make when they're first starting out?
My favorite is the interminable opening title sequence. That is easily one of the big ones for short films. You know, a short film is 12 minutes, and three minutes is eaten up by reading the names of people you don't know, and that's sort of an innocuous mistake but it's always there. Another one is simply terrible, terrible casting. So often it's hard to even determine if the script is any good because they've asked friends or, even worse, relatives to act in the movie. And then the one big technical mistake that almost every filmmaker makes is to not pay any attention to how they're recording audio. It's interesting because as an audience we're become more and more accepting of visual deficiencies, from YouTube and all sorts of outlets. But if you can't hear something it's shot to hell immediately.
What's your philosophy on short films?
There is absolutely no money in short filmmaking. And the wonderful thing about there being no financial reward is that people are doing this with a great passion. Sometimes it's a passion just to build their career, but either way you're getting people who are working and committed to something great simply because they want to make it great. The second you get into a financed feature film, a lot of that goes away.
What about audiences? What are some common mistakes made by the viewer?
That's a great question—the sheer lack of knowledge on the audience's part. For example, the number of people that can watch a film and say, "Oh, that had great cinematography," and for most audiences, great cinematography means "Wow, that was the Alps." They confuse great scenery with great cinematography and they're totally different things.
What about critics, what are the errors of their ways?
The second you get into the role of really being a critic, you're watching tons of movies—when I was doing it full time, I was watching probably five or six new Hollywood features every week. It's very easy to get jaded very, very quickly. And there's good reason for that, because there's a lot of crap out there. But it's remembering that most audiences aren't seeing films that way. Most audiences are delighting in fluff, and you just have to keep a little bit of innocence in going to the movies, which I don't think many critics can do. It's so hard because everything you see starts to remind you of something else. It's hard to shut off the critical part of your brain. For me the sign of a great film now remains this moment: When I start watching something and I become unaware of the fact that I'm watching something and I become lost. But as a critic it's so easy to go, "Oh, I didn't like that choice," or "Oh no, I've never liked that actor. Ah, really that's the music?!" You just become so aware of what you want to find fault in that you can't enjoy it for its flaws.
But aren't you advocating that everyone be more critical of what they're exposed to?
It is a tricky balance because you want people to be aware of what they're watching so that they can make some critical distinctions, but you also want not to become so immersed in it that they can't appreciate it any longer. That's a very fair point, but most people aren't going to watch—I was watching 1,500 shorts a year, and probably another 300 features a year. Most people aren't going to do that. And really, they shouldn't.
What do you think of mainstream measures of cinematic success, like the Oscars?
I don't generally agree with the Oscars, I think they miss a lot of performances. I think part of it is that the Academy and other organizations don't pick what they really believe in, even with expanding the Oscars from five to 10 best picture [nominees]. I think they're trying to take a middle-of-the-road approach with everything and I think it fails, but that may be the simple fact that if you're going to have tons of people vote on something, it's rarely going to be the best that comes to the surface. It's going to be the average.
Would you say that you favor independent film?
No, not anymore. I feel like independent features have in many ways become as formulaic as many Hollywood films. I think you can watch a lot of American independents and instead of there being the formula of explosions and overly attractive young star with too-old male star, you get something else, which is a series of characters with quirks and miscommunications and a VW van. There are very few fresh voices. I guess what I'm getting at is the fact that there are a finite number of artists in any medium, and video or the digital revolution has been great in the fact that it's gotten cameras in more people's hands, but it means that there's a higher number of "artists" out there.
You're very articulate and constructive, but brutal. Have you ever felt like you'd gone too far?
I love doing that workshop because I love trying to walk that line between being critical yet constructive, tough but empathetic. The worst experience I've had was actually last year down in Portland. I had the best and the worst experiences. There was a filmmaker I knew exceptionally well for many years, who was thoroughly offended by the commentary. Not so much even from me, but from the audience, and thought they were all terribly wrong for criticizing his masterpiece. He called me up and emailed me the next day and was like, "I'll show you, it's playing at the Teaneck Film Festival in New Jersey, and they like it there." I never tried to say that other people won't like it. And then there's another person, I think last year, who I felt I was exceptionally critical of. He wound up coming to the film school I teach in Seattle and has been working with me for the past few months. [He] took the challenge exceptionally well and learned something from it. I would say my absolute favorite experience was a guy whose film was absolutely brutalized both by me and the audience and who came up to me afterward and said, "I just wanted to thank you so much, I can't wait to have a film in here next year."
What would you say to a non-filmmaker to convince them they should check out WWwTP?
You're going to get to hear film talked about in a way you wouldn't normally. As long as I've taught film, if you go to film class, they'll say, "Oh Citizen Kane is a great movie. See how perfect this movie is?" And for all the times I've seen that, I don't think you learn a lot from perfect. When you show things that have tried and failed, there's something for everybody to learn from. Because you can actually look at a mistake and go, "Why is that a mistake?" Well, I can tell you exactly why.