The Kid with a Bike was the critic's top favorite during his tenure.
  • The Kid with a Bike was the critic's top favorite during his tenure.
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This is my farewell column, but not a whine about leaving the Reader.

The problems of movie critics don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. And it would be bad form to lament the loss of a part-time reviewing gig when every day journalists lose full jobs, salaries, and status. All are bitten by the black dog of the “bottom line” — now there is a term that lives down to its name.

Obviously, I could never match the tenure of Duncan Shepherd. He filled this space for 38 years (in Chicago, Roger Ebert has lasted 45). While Duncan was at the Reader for decades, I worked at four large newspapers. Each would face hard news about the bottom line.

I leave this post after 19 months, 51 columns, and 182 reviews. It has been a fun run. And it felt like a refuge from a sad fact: for my whole career, print journalism has been shadowed by doubt, worry, and crisis.

I preferred the shadows and stellar lights on screen, where the frequent joy of movies includes seriousness. To not relish the almost mystical grace of Le Quattro Volte or the lighter art found in a stylish charmer such as Moonrise Kingdom is a kind of myopia.

My own blind spot is that I have never understood “the numbers.” That is, the growing, obsessive zeal to quantify quality and to calculate culture. The numbers have become like a biblical plague for newspapers, films, and criticism.

“Criticism can be an art,” said Pauline Kael, “but it will never be a science.” Some people never understand that. They march to a different drummer, one who is tone deaf. A boss I endured at one big paper was so compulsively philistine that talking about aesthetic nuances was hopeless, like trying to slice the French New Wave into French fries.

My first and best paper, the Chicago Daily News, suffered bleak numbers and died in 1978. Numbers issues with circulation, profits, ad volume, and market share led my next niche, the Chicago Sun-Times, to being Murdoched. By then I was at the new USA Today, a rich, pretty, and slightly air-headed paper in love with numbers (pie charts, lists, graphs, surveys, statistics!). The profit numbers were kept in the dark. After two years there I decamped to the San Diego Union, where crucial numbers were buried in a vault of Nixonian secrecy.

In the new century, fear of the Great Usurper (the web) morphed into frantic hope for a Saving Prince (yep, the web). As profits dropped, ugly numbers (layoffs, buyouts, etc.) grew. The Internet also placed its digital faith in numbers: clicks!, analytics!, unique users! Unfortunately, the nuances of good writing, the real heart of criticism, do not respond to number crunching. They don’t compute. They slide off the bottom line.

As newspapers writhed and withered, movies suffered their own numeral delirium. There had always been films hailed for their expense (The Birth of a Nation, Ben-Hur, Cleopatra) or income (Gone With the Wind, The Sound of Music, Easy Rider). But at some point in the ’70s people started chatting less about the subtleties of films such as The Conformist, American Graffiti, and Chinatown and more about those fantastic Jaws numbers. Then came the numbers binges, the “events” (Star Wars, Rocky, E.T., Aliens, Titanic, Lord of the Rings, etc.). Money talks, but it also screams.

Like an idiot savant on steroids, hype became exponential for weekend box-office totals, per-screen averages, weeks on the charts, count of Oscars won, four-star ratings. Theaters, now plexed, put numbers in their names. Sequel films got numbers in their titles. The web has made this contagion a pandemic buzz fever. On IMDB, reviews are neatly stacked by number. If you like toting up Golden Globes, please stop reading this column.

Such fetishism drains the vital life from film discussion, of really talking about films rather than “inside” dope fed by figures. Criticism is a key lubricant for the conversation that makes a culture (both high and low). The numbers are more like gossip for computers. They miss the magic, the wonder felt boyishly by future critic Andrew Sarris when “I ran into that theater. I’d never seen anything like it. It was another world. There was this beam of light!” You cannot quantify that.

The beam loses luster. The numbers, for all the hype, are not numinous. And digital filming is colder than celluloid. True, digitalization can dazzle and its effects can be splendid (ah, those British dwarves in Snow White and the Huntsman). But get real. Digits are numbers. And film, a tech-driven medium, must submit. As it does we are losing something precious, as noted by Geoffrey O’Brien in his recent article “The Rapture of the Silents”:

“By last year [2011] it became fully apparent that the long-heralded death of film as we have known it was definitively at hand. The age of celluloid was rapidly giving way [to] an unpredictable digital future. Projectors and 35mm film prints were being replaced in American theaters by hard drives known as DCPs (Digital Cinema Packages). The manufacturing of movie cameras and movie film was slowing to a halt.... Movie studios showed increasing reluctance to strike new prints of old films.... [These are] portents of much larger changes to come.”

Our celluloid caves have given way to big multiplexes that lack the charming, welcoming aura of single-screens. Jammed in for a whopper, our response often feels programmed, predigested by buzz. The old Bijou bliss is hard to find. Locally, the one-screen Ken still has vintage charm, and the rehabbed Village in Coronado tries hard. There is neighborliness at the Reading chain’s Clairemont plex, mothered by manager Jennifer Deering. And the Landmark theaters have ace staffs.

It has been a long goodbye for serials, cartoons, newsreels, travelogues, frequent Westerns and noirs and musicals, the 50-cent cup of fizz, the 25-cent candy (remember the jingle “Let’s all go to the lobby and have ourselves a treat”?). We might get some of the magic back if we could ever break the trance of numbers. (See page two.)

Despite the dark, prevailing trends, I had a swell gig and found much to share. That included these movies which (just like a critic) I rank in sets.

Genuine pleasures were A Better Life, Bill Cunningham New York, Blue Like Jazz, Chico & Rita, The Double Hour, The Eagle, Elles, The Guard, The Help, Hugo, In Darkness, A Little Help, The Lincoln Lawyer, Mademoiselle Chambon, Margin Call,, The Mill and the Cross, Mother, Mysteries of Lisbon, Our Idiot Brother, Restless City, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, The Secret of Kells, A Separation, Somewhere, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, We Were Here, Wild Grass, Winter’s Bone.

Higher up the scale as favorites were Agora, The Artist, Buck, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Circo, The Deep Blue Sea, A Film Unfinished, The Ghost Writer, Inspector Bellamy, Jiro Dreams of Sushi, Le Quattro Volte, Marwencol, Midnight in Paris, Monsieur Lazhar, Moonrise Kingdom, Of Gods and Men, Pina, The Secret in Their Eyes, Thunder Soul, The Tree, Vincere.

My most commercial pleasure, the Harry Potter series, topped its truly great “franchise.” For joy of ensemble performance and fact-based storytelling, my crowner was The King’s Speech. And my top favorite of them all in these 19 months was The Kid with a Bike, the lucid vision from the Dardenne brothers about a tough, scared boy in Belgium.

I had an excellent editor, Scott Ellis, also departing. Writing colleagues Matthew Lickona, John Rubio, and Scott Marks added much to the best movie mix in town. Marks and Lickona will carry on, in blog and print. Good luck to all, and to all a good movie.

Many people enjoyed my approach. Some hated it. Well, you can’t pop everyone’s corn. But then I never bought popcorn, and I didn’t play by the numbers.

— David Elliott

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eastlaker June 13, 2012 @ 10:01 a.m.

Sad to learn this. I have enjoyed your work, and agree, The Kid with the Bike was deftly and strongly done.

For those who love film, the various festivals here in SD and also Palm Springs offer great opportunities to experience truly brilliant work.

I hope you will find a place that values and suits your talents and interests, and offers some remuneration as well.

As they say in the Navy, "Fair winds and following seas!"


nan shartel June 13, 2012 @ 11:44 a.m.

i'll miss ya...and most of all the words u speak about print journalism in general...the absolute dire quality of it all is so disheartening i could just cry about it

when i was a child all the big number films was heralded 2 but as kids only fare...the public's dumbing down to that instant gratification of sex and violence only is a sad sad thing

and the hope we will have critics warning and encouraging us about new films content coming out seem to be disappearing

disappointing is to limited a word for it

best to u David



monaghan June 13, 2012 @ 3:09 p.m.

Nan --

What is this wonderful art you include with your messages? How do you do this?


nan shartel June 13, 2012 @ 5:22 p.m.

monohan when u write a reply...u will see add photo in the left lower corner...if u click on that a way to download from ur pics in ur computer will pop up


u will get to choose a it to the Reader Box....then post it into the reply...leave space between the photo and ur words or u'll see a link only instead of a picture

i'm putting an animated pic in now...u can do that 2

tigger is such a little show off...hahahahahahahahaha


bushidojohn June 13, 2012 @ 12:53 p.m.

A sad day when a great voice in cinematic criticism leaves the written page. All the best to you as well, Mr.Elliott. May we hear from you soon!


monaghan June 13, 2012 @ 3:25 p.m.

I am really sorry to read this news. I have appreciated David Elliott's excellent reviewing and long experience -- less quirky than mold-breaking Scott Marks, more erudite than dilettante Matthew Lickona, more succinct than the ponderous dean of Reader movie review-writing, Duncan Shepherd. How come Elliott's editor is splitting too?

It seems to me that movies generally stank in the last year and I hope that is not a harbinger for what happened to recorded music and print journalism. So Elliott's departure has me worrying. I don't guess he'll be going to the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Goodbye and good luck, David.


Scott Marks June 14, 2012 @ 4:44 p.m.

Quirky? Mold-breaking? Thanks for the promotion!


blueprl June 13, 2012 @ 3:34 p.m.

Dear David, This is a sad, sad day for movies and sensitive, intelligent, creative, inquisitive human beings... almost unbearable.


dwbat Sept. 17, 2017 @ 8:43 p.m.

That's Krazy Kat; Ignatz was a mouse.


David Elliott June 13, 2012 @ 6:27 p.m.

My thanks to all Commentators. Sorry if that sounds like Stalin (he almost never heard a discouraging word, except from Hitler, and even he snuggled-up for a while). I always welcomed debate and liked a good disagreement, as long as it didn't descend to the level of "awesome" and "it sucks," which is the dialog of two popcorn weevils sliding across a buttered carpet in the lobby. Monaghan, I don't agree that most movies now are lousy. The basic ratios have been about the same for a long time, but the noise level is set by the commercial shouters backed by money, and those have a bigger bullhorn. As my lists imply, I found it a fairly rich 19 months of watching films pass in review (and quite a few worthy films I did not mention). But most people don't take chances. They get stuck in buzz-plex mode. Critics serve readers and films by urging people to get out of that lazy groove, take a chance, and then share adult talk after the show. The afterlife of a movie is not the box office report, it is the discussion. (No, I won't be going to the Times-Picayune, but every real critic catches a streetcar named Desire).


Colonna June 13, 2012 @ 7:58 p.m.

This really stinks...

Here's to the pencil pushers... may they all get lead poisoning and die.


janjustis June 13, 2012 @ 9:50 p.m.


This news is hard to take, on the heels of a huge downsizing at The Denver Post. I have read your wonderful, thought pro-poking film criticism for years; Yes! Your words have often 'poked' my thoughts to make me consider some films/stories/characters in ways I could not see before reading your review(s). I did not always agree with you, but I have learned a lot from your reviews, always looked forward to reading them, and now realize that many of my film experiences have included your reviews for years. You said it best: "The afterlife of a movie is not the box office report, it is the discussion." I couldn't agree more. I believe there are a lot of us out there who love the film afterlife of discussion and do not support "numbers'-driven so-called art in film and journalism. I have only been reading The SD Reader to read your reviews, so I'll be leaving as well....on to the next, eh?


David Elliott June 15, 2012 @ 10:40 a.m.

Jan, thanks for being such a fine, loyal, responsive reader. Criticism is not about agreement, as any group of critics will instantly demonstrate. It is about the shared stimulus and crossfire of opinion, with the occasional idea lodging creatively in the mind. This is the yeast that can help artists like yourself perfect your works. Dance, teach, flourish.......


jcor2808 June 13, 2012 @ 10:33 p.m.

Hi David, great farewell column. Always enjoyed your reviews, although didn't always agree. But sure thought it was great working in the same business with you ( at the U-T). I was on the fourth floor (a numbers person) and always in awe of you (and certain others) on the third floor! Have fun whatever you're going to do now. Julie Corwin


David Elliott June 15, 2012 @ 10:35 a.m.

Julie, thanks much. But who would care to live in a culture, even a dazed pop culture, where people can "always agree." While critics tend to preen and pontificate a little, the smart ones don't want servile readers. By the way, I spent my last U-T years also on the fourth floor, in a small room with four other writers. Despite the metal walls, I felt less like a cat on a hot tin roof than down on the busy third floor.


danchusid June 14, 2012 @ 10:41 a.m.

The older we get, the harder it is to watch movies on that little portable screen...



michaelgrant June 14, 2012 @ 11:52 a.m.

Awe is what I felt, back at the Union, when I would think, "I work on the same paper as David Elliott." And of course my gratitude for the Chernobyl cornbread thang inspiration remains eternal.


David Elliott June 14, 2012 @ 1:14 p.m.

Thank you Michael. You were a master of cogent columnizing beyond my powers. Watching the documentary "The Island President" not long ago, it did occur to me that his nation, The Maldives, might be saved from the rising tide of global warning by mighty Texas-Dutch sea walls made of cornbread thangs, your culinary specialty. David.


marciamanna June 14, 2012 @ 5:53 p.m.

You have a rare and wonderful talent and I'll miss the intelligent perspective and colorful imagery you bring to your work. I remember calling my mom in Chicago and quoting your description of the actress with multiple piercings in "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" as someone who looked like she fell face first into a box of fishing tackle-something like that. Brilliant. An editor from our past wrote this to me a few years ago when I was broken hearted about the layoffs and all of it. I'll share it with you: "At some point I suspect the industry will find level, maybe. My guess is that voices, people like Nick Canepa
and David Elliott will get the last laugh and be the commodity enlightened management will decide it needs - people who have a perspective, a viewpoint and the creative capacity and technical ability to make a newspaper something readers will want because of those voices." I hope to God someone is smart enough to hire you. Marcia Manna


David Elliott June 15, 2012 @ 10:29 a.m.

Marcia, thanks for past loyalty and present remarks. Thoughtful film criticism is just not a growth industry. It does not serve "the numbers," except for all the people who want to bounce their own film reactions off a reliable, savvy voice. But new critics will arise for a new era. Otherwise, no culture.


thistle June 14, 2012 @ 9:32 p.m.

Thank you for helping us all to catch the rare sensations of watching great movies even here in the Jesus-that'll-never-get-on-a-screen-here town of Sandy Burbo. . . saw The Kid with a Bike last weekend at the La Paloma, and all ten or so of us in the audience felt lucky to beat the numbers paradox for a second or two... makes your departure all the more poignant. I hope you'll find greener fields and pastures new, and fare well!


David Elliott June 15, 2012 @ 10:13 a.m.

Thistle: Thanks so much for the nice remarks, and glad you saw Kid with a Bike. I wonder if that title has kept some adults away from one of the year's most adult films. Keep taking chances!


MovieHound June 15, 2012 @ 11:57 a.m.

I like what you have accomplished. I will miss your reviews. I have sensed a balanced and down-to-earth perspective. I wish happiness and good fortune to you and the many other talented people in journalism and criticism that have suffered as the digital information age evolves, good friends included. Finally, I don't usually say negative things in print, but I feel compelled to take this opportunity to say that I was happy when you "replaced" Duncan S. He was predictably pompous and was rarely of use to me as as a reviewer. My only positive words for him are that his movie reviews were better than his music reviews.


David Elliott June 15, 2012 @ 5 p.m.

MovieHound: I do not remember Duncan's music reviews. But any man who can sustain 38 years of critical writing on movies at one paper is obviously either a profoundly committed writer or working for the BAG (Bedlam Asylum Gazette). In Duncan's case, it is the former, and though he wrote in a different manner from a different angle than mine, it was truly his own, with a clear and savvy voice that never fell below standards increasingly rare in this strange trade. He also invited me to follow him at the Reader, and though he got the fat years, and I got a slice of the lean, it was very much worth doing. What I most miss in movie journalism is the former plethora of voices. Well, the ones that can really write, like Duncan. Thanks for your keen support.


djelliott June 15, 2012 @ 3:51 p.m.

So long and thanks for all the fish.

How about writing a book? Or starting a blog? Or creating a podcast? Facebook site?

You are half way there with a loyal fan base...throw off the yoke of corporate bean counters and go straight to your public.

You invented movie criticism when most newspapers only served up warmed-over PR releases. Reinvent yourself in the digital world. "O brave new world," [....]. "O brave new world that has such people in it. Let's start at once."


nan shartel June 15, 2012 @ 3:55 p.m.

do it it do it do it!!!!!!!!


David Elliott June 15, 2012 @ 8:02 p.m.

DJ and Nan.....well, thanks for the encouragement (though yours, Nan, seems a little pornographic). Actually, for several years I have been writing a book, on great star performances. Every time I think it is finished, I find something new or think of a fresh idea, and get back into it. Not exactly the Proust Syndrome, but roughly in the general vicinity. Maybe some day it will see the light of publication, and the better light of pleased readers. I love my computer as a window to the world, but when it comes to social media I seem to be a man of the Old Testament. I blog not, neither do I tweet, nor hath the radiant face of Facebook shone upon me. I do not need to be Entirely in Touch. As for the brave new world, does it still have the hopeful aura of 'The Tempest,' or did Huxley forever put a more sinister slant into it?


eastlaker June 17, 2012 @ 12:07 p.m.

Maybe it is overused, but 'the perfect is the enemy of the good' that, get your book off to someone, because there will always be another good performance, but that can be dealt with in a following volume.


nan shartel June 20, 2012 @ 11:51 a.m.

of course it has (due to the human condition) both the hopeful aura of 'The Tempest,' and Huxley's forever sinister slant

but i'm and oldster David and i got with the digital program late in life

u have so much to offer the public...unrelated to simply critiquing films...a wealth of of historical and in depth understanding that would have the reader glued to the page

pornographic....hahahahahahahahaha...just a cheerleader hun...hate to loose a writer wunderkin (unless he really wants to go sit in a hammock on the beach)

if u do we'll all just have to understand eh



Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:38 p.m.

David... This is a sad column for you to have to write, but you were also lucky to get the chance to write it after the ongoing bloodletting (which has since become a blood-poisoning) at the Union-Tribune. You avoid the subject of your Reader layoff, though one can only surmise that it was also due to "the numbers." This leaves the question of why the Reader couldn't afford a seasoned critic? Has the Reader decided to offer less arts writing?


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:39 p.m.

I see some limitations in your discussion of "the numbers." You hit some tired cliches about how "Jaws" and "Star Wars" tainted the filmgoing experience. Those were good movies and they are not to blame for the downside of their success and influence. You can blame myopic studio heads for chasing financial survival, but the fact is that filmmakers still took risks and still made artful films for decades afterward. Emphasis on "the numbers" didn't begin in 1977, either. Sequelitis dates back to "The Thin Man," "Abbott & Costello," "Planet of the Apes," and "Dr. Mabuse." Myopic or money-chasing productions were always the norm in Hollywood; it's just that we only remember the classics and not the barrage of junk.


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:39 p.m.

Strange too for a movie critic to decry digital filmmaking as the end of cinema, when on so many levels it is obviously the beginning. Digital filmmaking further expands the possibilities for expression among the minimally budgeted, for one thing, and its visual potential (which you slam as "cold") is in its infancy. The crux of your argument is that digital is inherently bad because it's built from numbers -- the very definition of circular reasoning. You come across as old and tired, not a lover of the medium. You can turn a phrase ("Money talks, but it also screams"), but an article consisting of a series of well-turned phrases is inferior to one that expands a reader's perspective on an artform.


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:39 p.m.

Your tenure at the Union-Tribune was lengthy and accomplished, but I sensed too that you might have been stymied by the conservative environment, emphasizing self-stylization and verbal panache in place of sustained depth or focus. Sorry but that is how I felt, though you did come out ahead in comparison to the bitter, story-hating Duncan Shepard (the man was averse to a sincere discussion of story, theme, and meaning, and his fetishization of Alain Resnais and Clint Eastwood suggested he mistook his public writing post for a personal diary).


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:40 p.m.

The first final straw for me, David, was your review of "The Haunting" in the early 2000s. It was a bloated misfire with embarrassingly obvious performances, yet you adored it, giving it four stars -- the highest rating. I don't expect a reviewer to agree with my opinion, but I do expect to understand where that opinion comes from, and you gave readers little to work with. So too with your takedown of "Fellowship of the Ring," which you ridiculed as if the worthlessness of any fantasy genre piece was a foregone conclusion. For Steven Spielberg's "Munich" you were dismissive to the point of avoiding the movie's central themes, quibbling over the "tastefulness" of a sex scene cross-cut with a scene of terrorism as if you didn't realize the scene was culmination of the entire film's point (it was).


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:40 p.m.

There was a conventionalism to your approach but I rarely felt like you were sharing the way the inner gears of your mind fit together. Even now, as you hail Oscar magnets like "The Artist" and "The King's Speech," disposable fare such as "The Lincoln Lawyer," and the meandering "Ghost Writer" with its tacked-on, defeatist punt of an ending, one is left wondering how well-honed movies such as "The Social Network," "Tree of Life," "Submarine," "Greenberg," and "Drive" escaped your appreciation. Your sentimentalism hints at a fear of the future, a distrust of the daring. Also: Do you hate documentaries? Have your years at the Union-Tribune left you loathe to reveal a political viewpoint?


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:40 p.m.

Your review of "Prometheus" consists of a laundry list of references to other works from with the film may draw ("Forbidden Planet" is one of many stretches), followed by the laundry list of characters/actors, complete with spoilers (Theron's relation to the old man is not revealed till the end of the film; why do you need to reveal this in order to evaluate the film's merit?). You'd think a seasoned reviewer would be able to grasp basics about what not to reveal, but you come across like a neophyte. Then, in place of a real opinion, you write the nonsensical "This movie could be its own Comic-Con in hell." What does that even mean? Answer: It means nothing. This is shoddy reviewing, David. As for the cesarian scene, what makes you think it has to be either pro- or anti-abortion at all? There is no value in a review such as this -- it's almost the opposite of everything that defines a substantial critique.


Squonkins June 15, 2012 @ 10:42 p.m.

Sorry but I guess the discussion is forced to end before it even got started. You're being booted from The Reader and now we're left with a guy who foolishly and emptily calls Audrey Hepburn a "coat hanger," Orson Welles a "red baiter." In spite of my disagreement with your approach, you had the brains and the writing chops to offer a distinct voice to the San Diego critical landscape. With your departure there is very little left.


John Rubio June 16, 2012 @ 8:03 a.m.


You're a complex compensator who misses the simplest truths about propriety. You do a mighty soapbox dance about what "proper" criticism is, and yet, didn't you ever learn what proper conversation is? What proper manners are? Haven't you yet grasped the notion of "time and place?"

These are the real truths of what makes something proper (or improper). If you understood them better, you'd see how misguided your comments are. Why can't you just let an accomplished man take his recess with peace and appreciation?

You need to grow up.


David Elliott June 17, 2012 @ 10:36 a.m.

John: Thank you for making such a valuable contribution to our trifecta of column coverage. And thank you for coming to my defense so graciously. That is a difficult tone to maintain in the era of "sucks" and "awesome," and I had to indulge myself a little in my response (below) to the squeaky Squonkins. Keep on writing and teaching!


Scott Marks June 17, 2012 @ 2:16 p.m.

Knowing David's love of both Orson and Audrey, I was making a joke. Why else would I open with such brazen nonsense?


Squonkins June 16, 2012 @ 10:12 a.m.

The man who preaches "proper manners" and "proper conversation" also feels free saying "you need to grow up." Hilarious.


David Elliott June 17, 2012 @ 3:02 a.m.

Squonkins: Where were you in all my 28 years reviewing in San Diego? You arrive so late at the party, like a guy who sat in his car furiously scribbling (urgent thoughts curl around the edges) while the discussion happened elsewhere, and yet still remains constipated with ideas so feverish that no amount of response could ever relieve the infernal pressure. Sorry, I cannot provide the enema you need, but in sympathy I will offer a few replies to your complaints (and weirdly grudging praise), and to dress them up as our "debate" I will include fussy-pedantic numbers:

  1. My piece is not an analysis of The Reader, though you are free to draw out implications.
  2. Hit fever as a media fixation began in the '70s with Jaws, Star Wars, etc.; my favorite of that bunch was Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
  3. The old movie series (Charlie Chan, Thin Man, Martin & Lewis etc.) were hyped but were never pressure-cooked events in the modern manner. The media machinery for that was not then in place..
  4. Of course serious filmmakers continue to do artistic work and smart, crafty entertainments. Look at my lists in the article.
  5. I am not a tech-phobe and I have welcomed good digital work (like the Melies scenes in Hugo). Nobody who owns DVDs (I do) is anti-digital. But like Geoffrey O'Brien I realize that the passing of celluloid is an aesthetic sea-change, that we are losing something cherished for something as yet unproven (and very heavily hyped).
  6. I have supported many documentaries. Nine are mentioned in my piece. My favorite film last year was Buck.
  7. I never felt stymied by a "conservative environment' at the U.T., but like most other staffers suffered from managerial panic infected by growing philistinism.
  8. It isn't the duty of a movie critic to preach his political opinions. Anyone who reads my work can tell that I am a humanist and often liberal.
  9. Your spitballs about my judgment of movies like Munich, The Haunting, etc. show a rabid zeal to maintain old, tired grudges -- about movie opinions! I would have to dig up those old reviews to offer detailed defense, in the context of their time. Once again, you are coming very late to the party.
  10. Anyone who falls down to whining about 'spoilers' in a review is, frankly, a baby.
  11. Are you one of those boring cranks who needs a critic to polish the mirror of you own opinions? You can do that vain buffing yourself.
  12. Good luck, and goodbye.

eastlaker June 17, 2012 @ 12:10 p.m.

Go ahead and laugh, but I think this has the makings of a good movie!!!!!

I jest not...


Squonkins June 18, 2012 @ 4:58 a.m.

Thank you for the gracious response, and, I guess, the enema as well. A few quick comments: I don't think expecting a professional reviewer not to reveal plot twists makes a person a "baby." (I can see if the reviewer is doing an analysis that would not be possible otherwise, but to just belt out a detail that is intended as a surprise element is not good form, in my opinion.) I don't blame you for wanting to get in a dig at me, though, so "baby" I am. Waaaah.

Regarding political opinions, I agree it is not a film reviewer's duty to preach political opinions, but I think you're creating a false dichotomy here. What I really meant is that I felt like you were holding back from revealing any political viewpoint whatsoever. My guess was that writing for the Union-Tribune, a neo-conservative newspaper at its highest levels, had something to do with that. I am not singling you out here; I get that feeling from most U-T writers, as if they fear for their jobs if they dare to speak their minds (I wonder where I might have gotten that idea?), especially on subjects for which the newspaper's owners' views are clear. It does strike me as very, very sad that professional writers would have to hold back opinions about issues as obviously humanist and crucially important as torture, war, and pollution, and yet that is the state of the media landscape today. You're reviewing an art form that reflects reality, but even when giving an opinion of the art, you have to withhold your opinion of reality? That's.....odd.

Regarding my "spitballs" about particular films, those are a few that came to mind. I am not holding grudges, they just served as examples of the ways in which your views seemed unsupported or disconnected. Hey, I don't agree with a lot of Pauline Kael's opinions either (or Roger Ebert, or Manohla Dargis, or whoever) -- but usually I get a sense of where and why our opinions diverged. I didn't get that much from you, and even though I am very late to the party, it's not as if I would have been a welcome guest at the earlier party, let alone taken seriously as a mingler.


Squonkins June 18, 2012 @ 4:59 a.m.

Regarding the media machinery and what it means in terms of sequels and hits: I just hate to see "Star Wars" and "Jaws" constantly getting clobbered as if they are to blame for the way movie culture developed. This seems extremely myopic, as if there was not a whole world of forces affecting things outside of filmdom. At the same time those movies became big, suburbanization was finally coming into full bloom in America. Large malls were being built. Fast-food was turning from a treat into a habit. The full power of math, science and engineering were being applied to all levels of business and marketing, so products could be streamlined and delivered to consumers with max efficiency. Demographically the U.S. was hitting a critical mass, where millions of Boomer children were now having their own children, and that meant an exponential increase in profitability of products aimed at the young. You must know all this, but still, you highlight "Star Wars" and it comes across as though if George Lucas had instead chosen to make ensemble chamber dramas, then today the local mall might be showing Ingmar Bergman retrospectives instead of "Battleship."

Regarding digital film, if we (or "we," the Royal) are losing something cherished, I don't know what exactly "it" is, and I think you could have defined "it" better. "Something cherished" is a passive-voice term: "Well, I know it's something, and I cherish it." I wonder if, in your laments, you (or anyone) can fully distinguish between an objective cultural loss and a more personal loss based on one's age and its attendant nostalgia. I also feel your comments lack perspective: Yes, young people might miss out on the thrill of discovering a grainy cinematic dreamworld in a single-screen theater somewhere, but young people today are missing out on a great many other things, such as the possibility of getting good jobs, or of knowing whether the world they and their own children mature into is going to be able to sustain human life. I think the less-magic, cheap-facsimile cinematic experiences they'll be having are the least of their concerns. And can anybody really say that pre-digital analog/film art hasn't been thoroughly played out? Isn't it time for a sea change? Resisting change is what makes old people act like old people. Instead of embracing new visual approaches and types of storytelling, old people line up to see the millionth rendition of "As You Like It" or some Neil Simon play in Balboa Park, only edging toward the movie theater when Judi Dench turns up in a cute flick about a hotel in India. But don't mess with their frames-per-second count! They'll cane your ass.


Squonkins June 18, 2012 @ 4:59 a.m.

Your comment #11 says more about you being angry than it does about what I wrote. I would think you really should be angry, or maybe even angrier. The U-T and the Reader both deserve the anger of all writers who have put in their time and lifeblood and been ill-treated at the endpoint. I don't think you're really angry at me, as I am one of your regular readers, and one of the people who now has far less incentive to pick up the Reader each week, just as I had far less incentive to grab a U-T after their arts coverage flaked away. And I don't think "The Numbers," an abstract non-entity, is the problem. Honestly I think the problem is political, or cultural-political-economic. The things that people value will direct the way they consume and respond to art and entertainment. The Numbers is a symptom.

One thing I hope you will do is find an independent platform for your continued writing, and then really let 'er rip, saying everything you never could say when being managed by philistines, as you put it.


Delmartian June 17, 2012 @ 9:46 a.m.

David - I read your movie reviews in the Union Tribune for many years, and was very sad when you left the paper (so much so that I sent multiple emails to the newspaper complaining). I was delighted when your reviews resurfaced in the Reader 19 months ago, yet once again I'm saddened by your departure. Not only did I enjoy your writing style and perspective on movies, you and I shared a very similar appreciation for what makes a movie worth watching. No matter what the critics' consensus was, I almost always tended to agree with your review. A great and recent example is Prometheus. As a huge fan of Alien and Aliens, and a huge hater of all that came afterwards (Alien3, Alien Resurrection, etc.) I anxiously awaited the opening of the highly anticipated prequel Prometheus. Okay, 73% on was quite encouraging. Went to see it, and although the visuals were spectacular, the plot line was ridiculous, the acting silly, and the conclusion just outright disappointing. Then I read your review, and learned why you gave it the black dot (I purposely didn't read your review prior to seeing it so as not to color my own viewpoint beforehand). Once again, your review was spot-on and insightful. I can't tell you how many movies I've gone to the theater to see based solely on a good review by you. I almost always (say, 90%) have agreed with your view of a film's worthiness. Thank you for all the years of providing reading pleasure and help in deciding which films are worth my time. You will be missed.



David Elliott June 17, 2012 @ 10:48 a.m.

Delmartian: Thanks much for the excellent note. As I don't really believe in The Numbers, so I can't put much stock in how often anyone agrees with my stuff, but a high number certainly helps to sustain interest, doesn't it? Yes, Scott's Prometheus is a debacle. What puzzles me is how a veteran director who had years to plan his prequel, and was given such a budget, and a capable cast, could squander his resources on such a silly and wantonly generic dud. It seems junk-piled from older movies. That's why I spilled a little spoiler in my review. A film that bad doesn't merit the courtesy of protection (anyway, the chatty Internet tends to divulge surprises very quickly). I admit that it was fun slamming some of the big losers, and my itch was beginning to twitch for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I was hoping it would also set me up for Calvin Coolidge: Silent Succubus. Thanks for your years of thoughtful attention, and best wishes.


Squonkins June 18, 2012 @ 5:33 a.m.

Wow, somebody sure hated "Prometheus"! Head on over to this week's New Yorker and David Denby's review. He enjoyed the film -- on its own terms, not on terms he dictated in advance of entering the theater (or that were the result of previews that built misleading expectations). Error #1 in your premises, David, is that a "veteran director" won't make mistakes, even if he has "years to plan" (as if he was sitting around twiddling his thumbs the whole time, as opposed to working on other projects and having a life). Plus as we all know, veteran directors have to do the same desperate tapdance as anybody else to convince studios to invest heavily in their 100-million-dollar auteur projects. Error #2 is the assumption that somebody has "squandered his resources" when you haven't established why you think they were squandered. The film was a science-fiction horror thriller, and it comes from a story universe full of monsters eating humans, not Max Von Sydow playing chess with Death. "2001: A Space Odyssey" has already been done, and re-done if you count Brian DePalma's "Mission to Mars" thing, which plays out the "Chariots of the God" DNA-planting story, complete with M&M's product placement. Ridley Scott is a visualist first, and he always has been, going back to his days as a commercial director. In "Thelma & Louise" he made sure to light up the mountains, realistic dusk be damned. "Blade Runner" can't even keep its number of androids straight. The only reason Scott managed cohesion and spatial discipline in "Black Hawk Down" is he employed a team of military authenticators. Scott's story mind has never been a steel trap; it's more like a shiny aluminum misting machine. Error #3 is in assuming the film is "junk piled" from past films, when obviously its status as a prequel means audiences will expect some echoes of the past, successful works. Characters are traveling in space -- if not in cryo-stasis, then why not? They do it in "Alien" so it only makes sense to do it here, too. But you can take that repetitive element and change it around, add new elements (a robot who dribbles a basketball, and reads people's dreams?). Regarding the movie as a whole, I thought it had flaws, but naysayers seem to be piling on to an absurd degree.


Squonkins June 18, 2012 @ 5:41 a.m.

Delmartian, "the plotline was ridiculous," you say. Stay away from science-fiction stories if you think the Engineers story was ridiculous. (I hear there's even a movie series where a bunch of earthlings travel around ina ship getting into conflicts with bipedal creatures from other galaxies, and some of those bipeds have pointy ears, or forehead wrinkles! Stay. Away.) Regarding your claim that "the acting was silly," what a concise word you used there: "Silly." What does it mean? Noomi Rapace did a silly job of portraying a woman trying to survive alien attacks? Michael Fassbender did a silly job portraying an android? I thought they were both very good in their roles. When you say "the conclusion was disappointing," why were you disappointed? Did you want big answers to Life, the Universe, and Everything? Could any movie satisfy? I admit "Prometheus" gets stuck in place, and turns into a monsters-versus-people story. But that's all I wanted from a prequel to "Alien." That and maybe John Hurt's stomach exploding after eating spaghetti.


Delmartian June 18, 2012 @ 4:05 p.m.

Squonkins - To your surprise, I'm a fan of Star Trek (the original series and movies). Rather than debate with you the reason I chose the words I did, I'd love to know how you would rate, on a scale of 1 to 4 stars, the movies in the Alien(s) franchise: Alien, Aliens, Alien3, Alien Resurrection, and now Prometheus. . Can you honestly say that Prometheus comes even close to being as good as the first two movies were ?

How about the movie "Another Earth" ? Did you like that oine ? Although the reviews were mixed, David Elliott gave it three stars, and I agree, it was a fascinating and enjoyable movie.

P.S. - Don't know if David reviewed it, but if you like pure sci fi, the movie "Moon" is wonderful.


David Elliott June 18, 2012 @ 8:50 p.m.

Delmartian, I did review Moon. And liked it, partly because it didn't trundle out Big Themes. It does not bloviate space gas like Prometheus. It is about a homesick, lonely, neglected, neurotic man, and Sam Rockwell is terrific. Also, the sets and effects are modest, and thus all the more effective.


Javajoe25 June 17, 2012 @ 10:50 p.m.

Sorry to hear of your leaving, David. You certainly did bring an interesting point of view to the movies. I'm still working my way through the list of Iranian films you recommended awhile back. Truth is, I'm enjoying them. Thank you for putting me on to them.

And thanks for bringing such a depth of knowledge to the subject, and letting the rest of us know that a film can be a multi-layered work of art, viewed and understood in a number of different ways.

On the other hand, I'm glad to see you go because I'm so damn tired of reaching for my dictionary. I didn't always agree with what you said, but I did love the way you said it, even if at times it sounded like you had stepped through the looking glass and viewed the film from another dimension. I wasn't always sure what you were getting at; but it did leave me feeling I wanted to get to the theater and see that film.

Like you, I think something is lost in the transition to digital; even more so if by losing the printed word, we lose reviewers like you. There is no doubt in my mind, the overall experience is diminished in a number of ways.

In any case, I wish you the best of luck with whatever you do and wherever you go. I truly hope I will see your words somewhere else again sometime. Adios Amigo, happy trails to you.


David Elliott June 18, 2012 @ 8:39 p.m.

Javajo25: Many thanks for the kind remarks and the ongoing interest before them. No critic should flog a dictionary, but if we simply stuck to the vocabulary normally heard in mall-plex lobbies, we can then off-load forever Shakespeare, Wilde, Williams (Tennessee), Austen, Dickens, Nabokov, Greene and numerous other fine sources for movies. One reason I like Moonrise Kingdom is that the language is fairly spare but precise, tuned to a fine and funny point, like Mamet reworked by brainy kids (in this case, Wes Anderson and Roman Coppola). Listening well is part of the art of viewing. It wold be a form of sacrilege, but you could turn away from Citizen Kane, just listen, and still have a wonderfully adult experience. And thanks for your send off in the spirit of Roy and Dale.


GHeathJr June 18, 2012 @ 1:54 p.m.

David, I can't stress enough how important your film writing has been to my own criticism. Your 4-star review of PULP FICTION made me see the film opening weekend at the age of 13, an experience that ended up changing the way I looked at movies. I'm deeply saddened by your departure and wish you the best of luck. Getting to know you over the course of the last few years has been a real pleasure and I look forward to more chats in the future.

Glenn Heath Jr.


David Elliott June 18, 2012 @ 8:44 p.m.

Glenn, Something tells me you would have seen Pulp Fiction without my prompting, but I am glad that my usher's flashlight of prose and praise helped lead you there at age 13 (am also glad that Tarantino went on to an even better movie, Jackie Brown). Please feel free to stay in touch, and by all means keep up your thoughtful writing. Thrive.


nan shartel June 20, 2012 @ 11:33 a.m.

David...i think u have a new career here from the plethora of comments u've received

talking about being a film critic

it's interesting and ppl want to know the nitty gritty of the work involved

i'd come read it



David Elliott June 20, 2012 @ 1 p.m.

Nan, I appreciate your high regard and interest. Do people really want to hear about a field that is dying from the brain downward, often by executive decree, especially all the people who want movies to just be a popcorn and buzz experience? Andrew Sarris just died, he shaped the great age of American movie reviewing along with Kael (whom I knew and admired more), and this sad fact is very much a case of twilight's last gleaming. New critics will rise, will find a niche in the new media, but I really don't care to be a keeper of the dinosaur bones. Cary Grant did that better in Bringing Up Baby. (Some reflections on criticism in my era will appear in my book project). On and up......


nan shartel June 20, 2012 @ 6:31 p.m.


u tottle off and finish ur book...may it be a best seller and may everyone say...this is so current and relevant


robco June 21, 2012 @ 8:41 a.m.

Dear David, I have never read your reviews. In fact, I had never heard of you until today. I found this article via a Twitter link. It's apparent you have a passionate following. I would suggest social media a try. It's not like you wouldn't stop writing or reviewing. You could be your own editor as well. You have 'street cred' and history that would lend credence to your words. Nobody can take that away from you. Best of luck to you.


David Elliott June 21, 2012 @ 11:11 a.m.

Robco: Your suggestion that I turn to social media is supportive and au-courant. Sadly I am not compulsively social (scratch not very deeply and you will find that most true critics are loners who relish those many hours in the dark). Writing (for modest pay) a column that comes out in most issues of a respected weekly that has fairly clear-cut competition is a structural habit that imposes concentration on both the writer and the reader. The value of amateurism is rather limited, and the "everyone's a critic" idea is one of the current, indulgent superstitions. In heading for Blogovia the Reader might be a brave Columbus, or maybe more like the guy in 2001: A Space Odyssey who goes spinning off into space without life support. I wish it bon voyage and a safe arrival.


Sejong Sept. 17, 2017 @ 8:18 p.m.

Wow, am I ever late to this party! Nevertheless, David (if you're still there), I used to read you (along with Geprgie Ann Geyer, the late, great Mike Royko, and others) in the Chicago Daily News in the 1970's. Those were that days - 4 daily newspapers - the Daily News, the Sun-Times, the Tribune, and the American! It was a feast.

As I was reading an article by someone named David Elliot in today's 9-17-2017 NYT, I wondered if you could possibly be the author. Obviously not, as it turns out. Nevertheless, I am happy to have searched and have had a chance to read your final Reader column. It reminds me of why I was always a David Elliot fan all those years ago in Chi-town. And to see a comment about the phenomenal Clark Theater was an added bonus. Thank you for the wonderful memories, David, and all the best to you and your family.


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