Monday, August 30, 2010
The cinephile's conversation in new media: Colin Marshall talks to Battleship Pretension hosts Tyler Smith and David Bax
Tyler Smith and David Bax host the film podcast Battleship Pretension. For over three years, Smith and Bax have explored on the show all aspects of cinema history, cinema appreciation, cinema technique, and cinema criticism, doing so with the freewheeling, humorous sensibility of the best late-night film school conversations.Colin Marshall originally conducted this interview on the public radio show and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
David Bax: Maybe you should've picked, like, Bio-Dome and Black Sheep.
David Bax: I was drawn to film for the same reason that the sport I played when I was a kid was swimming: because it's not a team thing. Film is something you do in a dark room alone. It keeps you from having to talk to other people, and I was such an antisocial kid — it's not like they would have had me, that the social groups would have welcomed me in if I had applied. I wasn't a popular kid, so I watched movies all the time. The way I view films is very much personal, individual; I'm not really interested in the community aspect of it, which there is now with the internet. There's very much a community aspect. We're kind of on the outskirts of that, but it's not what got me into film. As far as defining moments, my favorite film of all time is Barton Fink. The reason is, I was at the grocery store video counter and saw the cover, and it had John Goodman on it. I always liked to watch comedies; I'm a comedy nerd as much as I am a movie nerd. I thought John Goodman was funny — I mean, King Ralph, you know —
Tyler Smith: He's very funny in Arachnophobia.
David Bax: He was. So I just picked it up, and it just blew my mind. It was so much more ambitious, otherworldly, and just plain old artistic than I Had come to expect from films. From that moment, that was my search. It was like a junkie looking for that high again. It also helped that this was the beginning of the age when the internet was readily available, so I could find discussions and writings about film. It was easy to research, and I had a library card.
You bring up a good way to frame this, which is that there's usually a film in any cinephile's life that was the one to expand their view of what film can do, that gave them new vistas, that first high you want to reach again. Tyler, what opened up your cinematic vistas?
Tyler Smith: It's odd; I have a very difficult time pinpointing a specific film or a specfic moment where I'm like, "This is what I want to do" or, "This my official passion." I loved movies growing up. My parents went to a lot of movies. It was one of my favorite things to do. I saw as many movies as I could. I really loved them. Right around middle school, I started becoming very dissatisfied with the films aimed people at my age.
Which, at the time, were, like... ?
Tyler Smith: Billy Madison and Happy Gilmore. Don't get me wrong; looking back, they are very funny in moments.
Tyler Smith: Yes, Black Sheep especially. I did see both of them in theaters, and I remember being deeply disappointed in Black Sheep, which frustrated me because I did enjoy Tommy Boy.
David Bax: Tommy Boy's great. And, by the way? Holds up. I re-watched it recently.
Tyler Smith: Glad to hear it. And, of course, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls: — that's the second one. All my friends were like, "Let's go see this!" I'd go see it and be like, "Ehh, I don't like any of this." I'm convinced that I actually like Billy Madison more now than I did then, but these are the films that were made for people like me. I just got really dissatisfied.
I don't know how I stumbled on slightly better movies, but I do remember, my parents always liked to watch the Oscars. I would watch with them, I would see clips of the performances and the movies themselves and think, "Wow, that sounds really interesting!" I found a VHS my mom had called Oscars Greatest Moments 1970-1990 and said, "Apparently these movies are good. I'll just start making my way through these." I found I had a strong tendency towards watching really great acting.
David Bax: Did you find, because you were told they were good, that you assumed they were good? How long after you watched Gandhi did you realize it sucked?
Tyler Smith: I didn't see Gandhi until my English 3 class, so I guess I just assumed then. I watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and The Godfather and Patton, and I loved those. Cuckoo's Nest not as much these days. Probably the first Best Picture I watched and was like, "How is that Best Picture?" was The French Connection, which I love now but at the time was like, "It's just a long chase movie!" I didn't get it, but I thought, "Okay, there must be something going on that I'm not getting."
That's when I first acknowledged there might be a slight divide between what is objectively good and what is subjectively good. I realized there is a lot of interplay between those two, and if you know what you're talking about, it's really just a matter of opinion. The parents I had, they took us to see Forrest Gump. That's a really great movie, but I was twelve when that came out. I think the environment I was raised in really instilled a love of movies in me, and then a general dissatisfaction with the films that were supposedly for me led me to seek out greener pastures.
What do you think defines your film taste now, if you had to name a few selections?
Tyler Smith: In many ways, they haven't changed. Strong characters, well-acted, preferably solid writing, specifically dialogue. David and I have discussed this, that a film can be merely adequately shot, but if it's well-acted, it's enough for me to enjoy it. My favorite movie of 2008, for example, was The Visitor, which is not, cinematically, an incredibly dynamic film. There's nothing particularly wrong with it, but no one's going to be like, "Oh, did you see that shot?" It's an actor's film and a character's film. I think it's incredibly well-written, very well-acted, and I felt a connection with the characters.
That's usually what does it for me. Every one in a while, a film will be really technically amazing, and I appreciate that. But if there's not a character connection, I usually just feel distant from it. I can appreciate it objectively, but it's not going to be one of my favorites.
There is a contrast between you two: there's a cartoon image I can construct, which is that, Tyler, you like a lot of the craftsmanship you see in the interesection of the best-known, most beloved, highest-quality films. Films people know about, that the "average film viewer" would know and maybe love, but also ones that cinephiles like.
David, it sounds like I'm going to say, "You like terrible films, on the other hand," but no. I'm going to say you like — this is a lot more like me, as well — films that take a lot of risks. I remember on your top ten of the 2000s list, you included Ming-liang Tsai's Goodbye Dragon Inn, one of my favorites of the decade as well. How much can I get at that as an example of how you differ from Tyler in taste?
David Bax: I don't know if "taking risks" is necessarily what I look for. The main difference between me and Tyler is that he's into character and plot, mostly, and I'm more into atmosphere and theme. That's changed a lot. One thing's been constant: if you can make me laugh, that's good. It's a problem I have with certain "serious" films: they think having a joke or two would take the weight out from under them, whereas actually it strengthen's it. That's the constant.
But when I was a kid, I looked for things I thought were innovative and kinetic. It's called a motion picture for a reason. Whereas now — and maybe this is risk-taking — the most difficult thing to do in filmmaking is to sustain a tone and atmosphere. Film is so collaborative, and there are so many people making it.
Here's a great way to compare me as a younger film fan and me now: the movie Trainspotting, which I have always loved. My reasons have kind of changed, because I loved it when I was a high schooler because of the extreme dutch angles, the speed, the way it moves, the whimsy, whereas now, the fact that the characters are a sad modern version of a picaresque, and there's an insouciance to it. The fact that you've got a whole crew, and you had to write a script and storyboard and go through the editing that makes it such a mannered process — the idea that you can keep this anarchic insouciance, this tossed-off feeling, and make that authentic and sustained for 90 minutes, that's really impressive to me.
There's a theme here of maturing as a film fan. Tyler, you mentioned how you got into film watching this VHS tape of the Oscars' best moments, which I have a hard time envisioning. What has your maturation been like? What's a good example of something you didn't like then, do like now, or vice versa?
Tyler Smith: A good example, if you watch the "Ask BP" videos, somebody asked for a film David and I vehemently disagreed. A good example is Mulholland Drive. Mulholland Drive does not have much of a narrative structure. The characters are — I wouldn't say they're two-dimensonal, but they're not incredibly well-developed insofar as you're given a lot of information about them. They merely are. When I saw it, I had nothing I could grab onto thematically, as far as character, or anything like that. It infuriated me. To me, it was the definition of pretentious — in the negative sense. Some people see it as a positive word; I think we've started to champion that.
It really bothered me, and has time as gone on, as I became further involved in film school and got to know people whose tastes were different than mine, I came to an appreciation for Mulholland Drive and recognized that one of the things it was trying to do was approximate a dream. How well-developed are characters in dreams? Not very much at all. If anything, they're purely representative of something. Circumstances change on a dime, and an entire person can change.
I became so fascinated by that, and started to meet the filmmaker where they are rather than require that they meet me where I am. It may not be something I pop in on a regular basis, but it is a film I have gained a great deal of respect for, whereas at the time I found it to be incredibly self-indulgent, pretentious, all these things, simply because it didn't adhere to what I thought an effective movie should be.
David Bax: But also — if we could talk about Mulholland Drive for a second — a good film manipulates you, draws a certain emotion out of you. I feel like that's a little bit easier to do with words, whereas just through image and sound, being able to do that — I picture Dumbledore pulling a memory out of the Pensive, the way he sticks his wand in and it attaches to the wand and comes out. It's magic, and that's what I like about a great film like Mulholland Drive. When they go to that theater and see that woman sing, and then she collapses but her voice continues, that is so sad, so terrifying, and almost exhilarating at the same time. That's exactly what David Lynch wanted. That's why he is kind of like a magician with a wand.
Tyler Smith: Which brings up another thing I started to embrace as I got older. David, you said the word "exhilarating." The idea that something might actually be beyond my own comprehension — and, maybe, beyond the comprehension of the person that created it — that they have somehow managed to lock into something way bigger than they are, but they have no choice to keep going. Films like Apocalypse Now, There Will Be Blood, Vertigo, and then my favorite film, which is completely unoriginal, Citizen Kane.
David Bax: It's common. I don't know that it's unoriginal.
Tyler Smith: Fair enough. I arrived at it organically, but people at film school didn't seem to appreciate that. Those are just at the forefront of my brain; I'm sure there are several others I could mention. These are films I'm almost positive the filmmakers were like, "I don't quite know what I'm doing, but I know I'm doing something. I know what I started doing, and I guess I'm just going to keep going." To their credit, they didn't try to sum things up easily. They didn't try to put everything out there. They didn't insist that it be what they wanted it to be at the beginning. They were willing to let it go and be what it was going to be, and in doing so it wound up being something that you can't —
What I've said about a film like Apocalypse Now or Citizen Kane, I feel like it's about maybe ten things, and in my viewing I've only uncovered, like, three of them. There's all these layers, and you keep going deeper and deeper, but there's a certain exhilaration in knowing you're never going to actually get to the center. You're never going to get to the Tootsie Roll center of this Tootsie Pop.
David Bax: It's not built like that. There's something to be said for films that say, "I have a theme. I have a message." American Psycho is a great movie that has specific things it wants to say about America in the 1980s, about conformity, and it finds a very clever way to say them. That's what it is. I don't want to take away from that film; it's a great film, but these monstrous There Will Be Blood-type things that really do feel like they skipped the middleman on their way from the id to the screen, you know? They seem to have just poured out of the filmmaker.
Tyler Smith: I don't mean to crap on a film that has a clear message and does what it can to communicate that. For me, that's what it used to be all about: how clearly it communicated its message. As time has gone on, as I've gotten older and experienced more in life, I realize you can't understand everything, and even the things you do understand, you probably don't have all of it. I've started to embrace things like that in film.
Lost in Translation is another one where a lot of people said — I worked at a video store when it came out on DvD — "It wasn't about anything! Nothing happens! What's it about?" It's like, Ah, I can tell you what I think it's kind of about, but that's just scratching the surface. It's a thing that needs to be experienced. That's what it's about.
David Bax: This idea I talked about of drawing a certain emotion — Lost in Translation evokes an emotion there's not even really a word for. You could say, "You know that thing when you're on vacation an dyou meet another person who's on vacation and your shared otherness makes you really close, but you're not in love with the person, not friends with the person — that connection to a person?" There's no word for that, and there's no real way to explain it with words. That's what art is for. Lost in Translation is a great example, because Sofia Coppola picked a specific emotion a lot of people have felt but that there isn't a word for and made a film for it instead of a word.
You've brought up the word "pretension," and this was obviously going to be something we can't let go of; it's in the title. I tell friends, "It's one of my favorite shows, Battleship Pretension," and they always laugh. I'm sure you guys have had the same experience.
David Bax: You have smart friends.
Classic film, the word "pretension" in there. This is tough to articulate, but pretension comes up so often in regard, specifically, to film, to cinephiles, to film students, which you both once were together in Chicago. We brought up Mulholland Drive, Lost in Translation, There Will Be Blood — all have been called pretentious.
There's a root the word "pretension" has taken in film that it's taken in no other art form. Music gets some of that, but people blow it off, don't take it seriously. They take the "pretension" of the film word so very seriously, especially if they're outside it. What do you guys think about the way pretension hangs around the film world? Not necessarily the thing itself, but the perception. How do you explain why the accusation is so prevalent?
David Bax: Because film, more so that most other art forms, is viewed by the majority of people who watch it as not being art. It's a completely, in a certain meaning of the word, vulgar art form, because it's almost dominated by commerce and as many people liking it as possible. When someone makes a film like There Will Be Blood, which does not set out first to entertain or to scare you or make you laugh. You go into a blockbuster and there are signs for genres: these are the films that will make me cry, these are the films that will make me laugh, these are the films were I get to see somebody get shot...
And here are the foreign ones.
Tyler Smith: Because that is its own genre.
David Bax: If a film like There Will Be Blood is not aiming to do any one of those things, these people who are only expecting those things are saying the film thinks it's better than those other films. Because it's not art to most people — and let's get this straight, film is an art form. Even Kuffs is a piece of art.
Tyler Smith: I don't know why you went to that; that's obviously art, David.
David Bax: When people who don't view films as art are set in front of a film that they can't deny is art, or that it's practicing an art form, they're going to call it pretentious, because pretentious means it's "pretending" to be something it's not. "Why are you acting like you're so much better than Kuffs?" The thing is, some of the time, they're right. There are a lot of pretentious films, a lot of people making films that they think are smarter than they actually are.
Tyler Smith: Garden State.
David Bax: Inception.
I've not seen Garden State or Inception, but I will bring this up because you mention you do see some pretension in films. It's always been an odd thing to me: I talk to people who are less films fan than I am, I mention movies I like, and they get the attitude of, "I don't watch those movies with the French people in turtlenecks yammering at one another." I've done a lot of film viewing; I don't see those movies. I think they might be made up.
David Bax: Every parody of foreign film has two French people smoking and not making eye contact, speaking monotonously. I've been looking about fifteen years for that movie.
Where is it? I've been searching.
Tyler Smith: I will say this, though: the film The White Ribbon is a movie that I love, but one of the things I like about it is that it is the essence of what people who don't watch foreign films think all foreign films are: long, slow, black-and-white, very emotionally cold at times.
David Bax: The French get the brunt of that, because the idea of taking films seriously has its roots in Cahiers du Cinema. But a film like Breathless — if Breathless wasn't in black-and-white and French, it's got cars, guns, and naked breasts. Everyone would like that movie.
Tyler Smith: It might also just have to do with, I would say, an American attitude toward France in general, but if anything, if you watch British television and comedy, in Europe in general, this attitude of, "Ah, the French, they think they set the standard for food, taste, art. They're the ones who set it up; they're the ones who think they're better than everyone else." In America, if you go up to someone on the street and say, "Hey, what's the snootiest nationality?" They're like, "Uh, France? Come on now!"
You mentioned The White Ribbon, Michael Haneke's newest film, which I also loved. I had the late Peter Brunette on the show, the critic who wrote a book about Michael Haneke, to discuss how good that movie is, in large part. It is, sure, in many ways a caricature of a foreign film, superficially, but it has a visceral appeal that has got to be hard to deny to anybody watching it. To what extent do you guys think that is a quality of films that are actually great, no matter the content, no matter the themes, no matter the turtleneck height?
Tyler Smith: My dad and I went to see Gone in 60 Seconds, which is not a good movie. I was becoming who I am today, for good or ill, and on the drive home I was talking about the things I didn't like about it. My dad — he wasn't trying to be a jerk, he's the one who introduced me to a lot of great movies — he enjoyed the film, and he turned to me and said, "You can't turn this off now, can you? It's not a choice you're making anymore. It's now your instinct. If something is bad, you can't enjoy it, and if it's great, you can't not enjoy it. You see it only from your perspective at this point." That's true with me. I also went through a phase where I was astounded that it wasn't true for other people.
I do feel there is a certain stigma attached to certain types of movies, and if people could just get out of their own way and just forget about the fact that people are reading the lines — it can be distancing, if you're someone who loves performances as much as I do, it's an extra step. You have to recognize, "That's the performance I'm seeing. Those are the lines the person is saying. Now I have to go back and imagine, all in a split second, if those lines match that performance and how that registers for me." I understand it can be difficult, but if you're able to push through, it can be an incredibly satisfying experience. There's just so many things: black-and-white, foreign, even films that explore emotions people aren't used to exploring in film: fear, laughing, and a certain type of melodrama — not to imply that's a negative term — and, like, a thril. But what about awkwardness, embarrassment, or just good old-fashioned sadness?
If a film is wanting to explore that, the only thing the person knows — and this sounds kind of condescending — is that they're experiencing something bad. They don't like feeling bad, so they will blame the filmm. But if they were to get out of their own way and recognize that, "Man, this film is making me feel something," you can still feel that feeling, but also feel invigorated by the fact that something you went to go do with friends — now this entire theater is all feeling this thing you weren't feeling before. It created something inside you. I think there is something in film everybody can respond to if they just got out of their own way.
David Bax: People often say the average filmgoer just wants escapism, but I don't think that's true. I started thinking about this when you talked about genuine sadness. The difference between a movie that is just plain sad and a movie that's a tearjerker, the difference is that the average filmgoer is looking for more catharsis, whereas you and I and fans of film or any other art are intellectually curious. If I go see a movie that's about sadness —
Tyler Smith: The Sweet Hereafter.
David Bax: Good example. I don't feel like, "Oh, I had a good cry at the end and now I can move on," but I do feel like I've learned something about the human condition. If you're not getting a catharsis, if you're not crying, but then it ends up that everything's okay, or it's not Beaches, which, like, puts Vaseline on the lens of looking at death. It's that sort of — I keep using this word — catharsis. It's getting past something that most people respond to. But if we watch The Sweet Hereafter, we walk away not feeling any better about the world at all. A lot of people — and rightfully, it's their prerogative — don't see the benefit of that.
This faculty you mentioned, Tyler — you can't turn this off, your analysis of film — it seems like that's just being a critic. Maybe there's just some internal quality that drives you toward film criticism. I'll put this to you as well, David: what do you consider a critic to be? Because I hear Tyler talking about being a film critic, do you think of yourself in the same way on this show, David?
David Bax: You know, you are far from the first person to ask me that, and I never know what to say.
It's the tough questions on this show.
David Bax: I guess the connotation when you say I'm a film critic is that I'm looking at it film-by-film and saying, "This one is good or not good for these reasons." We don't really do that on Battleship Pretension; we don't review movies. We do critique film as a whole. Maybe we're film theorists.
Tyler Smith: I remember I once said — we needed to send in a description to some damn thing — "film theory podcast." Ugh, I don't like that, but it's the best thing I could come up with, because the term "film critic" has been co-opted by movie reviewers. At this point, if you say "film critic," they're like, "Oh, so do you review new movies?" When people ask me that, I don't blame them. The term "film critic," at this point, means movie reviewer. We need to take the term back or create another one.
David Bax: I read a book called Complicated Women, which was written by Mick LaSalle. It's about female Hollywood actors pre-code. Pre-Hays Code. Mick LaSalle also writes reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. Which one of those enterprises makes him more a film critic? I guess that's the question.
Tyler Smith: I would say the very fact that you said "pre-Code" and we all knew what you were talking about means everyone in this room's a critic, David. They're two sides of the same coin. You can review movies, and in doing so you review at least three or four a week — in the case of Ebert, sometimes like seven. As long as you're willing to watch the specific movies week-to-week but also see the big picture and see maybe the whole month, maybe the whole year, maybe the whole decade, and you can see where film is trending, where it was, where it's going. In your capacity of being a movie reviewer, you can learn some deeper truths about film itself. In doing so, you are a critic, if you're willing to have that kind of critical mind in the old-school Pauline Kael critic sense. You can definitely do both, but I feel like there are some people out there who are — this sounds mean — merely movie reviewers. For them, it's just a function of week-to-week, and that's it. Whatever came out last week has no bearing on what came out this week.
Can we frame it this way: whether somebody is a film theorist, a professor somewhere, whether they defined film theory, whether they came up in the whole French scene, whether they're just a lowly one-through-five star movie reviewer — not to denigrate the Chronicle reviewers, but — giving the man-jumping-out-of-his-seat icon or not —
Tyler Smith: Those things are delightful.
From the perspective of the user of film criticism, the reader, the viewer, they just want a guide, don't they? From the perspective of somebody listening to your show, or watching At the Movies, which just ended, or reading Ebert, all they want is a guide. Is that true or false, in your guys' minds?
Tyler Smith: In some cases, it is, unfortunately, true.
A guide — is that a negative thing, that that's the role you might play?
Tyler Smith: When you said "guide," there's nothing unfortunate about that, but my mind immediately goes to having read a lot of online comments about reviews. As lowly as we've made movie reviewers sound, they at least are expressing an opinion, and in most cases trying to express an educated opinion. It has become clear that some people don't want your opinion; all they want is entertainment, tonight.
Maybe literally the show, Entertainment Tonight.
Tyler Smith: Yeah, probably. They want to know what it's about. If you want to throw the slightest of opinions in there, go right ahead, but if you overstep, then you're telling me what to think, and that's not cool.
David Bax: But do people who feel that way about reviews actually read reviews anymore?
Tyler Smith: I would think not. Then if you go online and read a review of a major film, people will find it. I don't know why they seek them out if they don't care about someone's opinion. They care about someone's opinion only insofar as if they agree with it or not. The example I give is, A.O. Scott did a review of Sex and the City 2 — negative review, of course — and I read a lot of the online comments. A few people said, "Hey, I'm just lookin' for a fun night out. I don't want your opinion. I just want to know what the movie's about." It's like... really? What did you think you were reading? And why did you read the whole thing? Once you recognized, "Hey, I don't like where this is going," why not just stop? But I feel like that's the kind of guide the want.
David Bax: The poster tells you what Sex and the City 2 is about.
Tyler Smith: It's about sex.
David Bax: No, it's about four spoiled airheads on a camel.
Tyler Smith: When I said "unfortunately," that's what I was thinking of: people want someone who can tell them what something is about, a place they can go and get all their movie information without any movie opinion. However, I do think, in the spirit of what you actually meant by "guide," there's nothing necessarily wrong with that. To me, a critic can be a very personal thing: you find the critic you relate to. You may not always agree with them, but you at least agree with what they look for in a movie. If that person likes a movie, you're like, "Okay, I think I'm more inclined to like it, Let me look at the reasons. That sounds pretty good." I don't think there's necessarily anything wrong with that.
Do you consider what you're doing to be as guides, on Battleship Pretension?
David Bax: I think that's a way someone could use it. I've always assumed there are some high school and even younger kids out there who are budding film fans and do want the opinion of us and other podcasts they listen to as to what they should pick up at the video store. But for the most part, I don't assume they're looking up to me in any way. I think they know as much about movies as I do, and they're looking for another opinion. It's an ongoing conversation. We get e-mails, there's the message board, there's Twitter. I understand there are people who use us as guides, but for the most part I assume they know and care every bit as much as we do. We just have microphones and charming personalities.
Tyler Smith: And in many cases, they know more than we do. We've gotten some e-mails where someone says, "You should profile this famous filmmaker." I'm like, "I have not even heard of this person, much less seen their entire catalog." The person who e-mailed us, it's their favorite filmmaker. I just feel like, "Aw, jeez." It can be a very humbling experience when you think, "I've got the microphone... yeah, but I don't have the knowledge." There's huge gaps in my film knowledge.
What we haven't really addressed much is that, of course, this is a podcast. It's a new medium, to break out a tired expression. You're on the internet with everyone else doing film podcasts, everybody writing film blogs, everybody chatting about films wherever. This is something an older guard of film critics have trouble with. The internet itself, they tend to treat as the bane of their profession. Ebert has embraced it more than many twenty-year-olds, but he's the exception. What do you gain or lose coming up in this world of film podcasts, film commentary pre-existing on the internet, where somebody can replicate your setup, but they can't replicate who you are?
David Bax: There are good and bad things with the mostl level playing field of the internet. On the one hand, Tyler and I did go to film school. We didn't go to USC or a theory-heavy film school, but we did go to film school. We have credentials in that way, but we didn't go to journalism school. Before, when you had to get a job and be in print, you had to have a certain level of credentials most of the time. Now, I would be the majority of people doing film podcasts and film blogs didn't go to film school. And that's fine with me. I don't feel threatened by that. I think it's good that you're getting more of a perspective. You don't have to have gone to film school to understand film. It's good that you're avoiding that rarefied, insular group that criticism once was.
On the other hand, you've got people who aren't reviewing movies. You've got movie news sites that are really just regurgitating press releases or stuff they found on other move news sites. There's no insight, there's no editorialism, there's no journalism, really, to their news or reviews. That's the downside. But again, if through some miracle we can hold on to net neutrality — despite Google and Verizon's best efforts — the good thing about the democratization of the internet is that — I was going to say the cream will rise to the top, but that's not necessarily true for every person. The cream will rise to the top for you: whatever you're looking for, that's what you'll find. There's bad stuff out there, but thanks to the internet and the fact that there's net neutrality and it's a "pull" medium as opposed to a "push" medium, you can ignore the bad stuff and find the good stuff.
Tyler Smith: There's a certain degree of impulsiveness to the internet, blogs, and podcasts. There's a number of people. that have started a podcast or blog because they've got opinions and will put them out there. There's a million podcasts out there, a million film blogs out there, so there's a lot of competition.
David Bax: I've counted them. There are exactly one million.
No more, no less.
Tyler Smith: That's the amount the internet can hold.
It's full. If you want to start one, wait until someone stops.
Tyler Smith: Give me and David a couple weeks. So this is kind of a piece of advice for podcasters out there, or bloggers: if it seems insurmountable because, "There are so many! How am I going to get noticed?" Here's how you get noticed: keep doing it. The same impulse that gets people to start a podcast will also cause them to run out of steam, and they will stop. The people who are really passionate, whether their opinion is educated or not, they're just going to keep going, and they product will probably get better as they do. So really, it's gotten to the point where there's probably only about fifteen to twenty film podcasts of any note that have been around more than two years. There have been plenty that go maybe ten weeks and stop.
I know, because various listeners say, "Hey, I started a podcast! Want to listen to it?" I say, "Yeah, sure." Then after three weeks, they stop putting out episodes. It can be a difficult thing to do, and if you're not getting listeners immediately, it can be very disheartening. But all you have to do is last and be open to the idea of putting out a better product as you go. As David said, the cream rises to the top — not necessarily in an objective sense, but after a while, people will start to hear of you. People will just find you. It is astounding to me. The equal-opportunity aspect of the internet can seem very overwhelming, but all you have to do is show that you can outlast anybody. Because none of us are vying for ratings, you can last as long as you want to last. That's one of the things I find awesome about being an internet presence as we are, David.
There is longevity to set you apart, but what else goes into making a voice you want to hear talking about film — you personally, or your listeners? Not necessarily the actual tone of one's voice, though you both have very sonorous voices, I'm sure that's part of it. What makes a voice, in print or on a podcast, one you want to hear talk about this sort of thing?
Tyler Smith: I can speak in terms of how our show came along, because it does come from something I thought was lacking in the film podcast community. I will take a slight tangent and say that, if there was a podcast that had Travis from The Criterioncast and you, man, I would just be in heaven, speaking in voices. Oh my gosh, it would be just such a pleasure to listen to.
We'd just talk at each other?
Tyler Smith: Who cares? It would sound like a sweet melody. But our show was my idea, the name was David's idea — I owe him a lot for that, because it does get us a lot of attention. I started getting into comedy podcasts, I really enjoyed them, and I thought, "You know, I'm a movie guy, in theory. Maybe I'll start listening to some film podcasts. At the time, it was 2006 — I don't know if The /Filmcast was around, but I think Filmspotting was around. There were a few that were really solid, but I hadn't found them. I instead found an NPR or public radio or stuff associated with other web sites, and they'd talk about movies. I was like, "Wow! You've managed to bore me about the subject I love most. That's really quite a feat!
What were they doing wrong?
David Bax: I made the joke earlier that we're as smart as our listeners, we just happen to have microphones and personalities. But that's really what it is. Personality is the big draw for a podcast, for me. If you're funny, then I'll listen to you all day long. Sometimes there are people who know a whole lot about movies and TV, but it's just so dry. If you have multiple hosts, chemistry helps a lot.
Tyler Smith: It might just be who they were; they weren't suited to host something. But also, there just seemed to be a lack of passion. They seemed to really restrain themselves. This sounds insulting, and I don't mean for it to, because I can relate to it: they wanted to sound like they knew what they were talking about rather than just be who they are, and it came off incredibly dry. I didn't want to listen to that.
David Bax: I think that's why the biggest influence on us was Never Not Funny. That was exactly what we said going in: we want this podcast to sound exactly like the kinds of conversations — you go to a party in college, most people are drinking, and then you find the two film geeks over in the corner talking about Aliens movies for two hours, you know? That was the feel we wanted.
Tyler Smith: There's a podcast that's still going called Doug Loves Movies. I listened to that, and it's very funny. But as far as movie discussion, everybody involved clearly knew what they were talking about, clearly had strong opinions, but often, because it was primarily a comedy podcast, they would start out with movies and then spiral off into something that has nothing to do with movies. I, as a movie guy, was like, "Augh! You guys clearly know what you're talking about, and I'd love to hear your opinions — I wish there was something that had the know-how of these really dry podcasts and the humor of I Love Movies."
David Bax: Not that we're that funny. We're only funny compared to the average movie podcast.
A low bar, it sounds like. Jesse Thorn from The Sound of Young America was on this show a while ago, and he said public radio is very invested in you sounding dispassionate — which results in you losing your passion. I say this on a public radio show right now, so I'm well aware of that. You've managed to position yourself between the realms of comedy and film in such a way as to please both?
Tyler Smith: When I entertained the idea of doing a show, there was no question of who I was going to co-host with. It was David, because I knew we would have the chemistry. I remember our discussions in college: there were always fun, and other people said, "Man, I could just listen to you guys talk about movies for hours, because you clearly love it." I saw a hole there I thought we could fill pretty well, and it certainly helps that we've taken a lot of guests from Never Not Funny, including all three hosts from the first season as well as several guests from Doug Loves Movies. These people clearly know what they're talking about, and they can be funny if they just had slightly more structure. To me, that's what our voice is, and that's what I wanted to accomplish. This is advice to budding podcasters out there: if you see a hole somewhere and you think you can feel it, at the very least try to be the kind of show you would enjoy listening to.
David Bax: And three years later, you'll have a tenth of the listeners of The /Filmcast. I just needed to poke a pin in our hubris for a second. We're talking like we're giving advice to podcasters, and all these other podcasts we're talking about are ten times more successful than we are.
Tyler Smith: Hey, they're not on The Marketplace of Ideas. I'm just sayin'. And no, we are far from being the most popular podcast out there. Filmspotting is a great show, /Film, is a very good show —
David Bax: You wouldn't make a very good diplomat.
Tyler Smith: I know I wouldn't. Especially to France. Should I cut that out and put in "great"?
David Bax: No, it's fine.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.
Posted by Colin Marshall at 12:10 AM | Permalink