Justin Chang is that rare creature who didn’t fall into film criticism as much as he pursued it.
He chose Expo’s own alma mater, the University of Southern California, in part to take a class from the Los Angeles Times’ longtime lead film critic Kenneth Turan. After graduating with a degree in journalism, Chang first interned, then reviewed movies at Hollywood trade paper Variety before joining his former teacher at the Times. He also reviews movies on NPR’s Fresh Air; wrote a book called FilmCraft: Editing; and serves as chair of the National Society of Film Critics and secretary of the Los Angeles Film Critics Association.
Perhaps most notably he is Film Twitter’s resident Pun Master. (His all-time favorite pun is a very inside-baseball play on the ambitious, free-spending independent production company Annapurna Pictures, Oracle co-founder Larry Ellison, and the Cate Blanchett movie Where’d You Go, Bernadette.)
Chang chatted with Expo about his path to film criticism, how he approaches movies and his role as a reviewer, and what delights him about being the “film critic dad joker of Twitter.”
Exposition Review: When did you know you wanted to be a film critic? How did you get into the field?
Justin Chang: I actually didn’t watch too many movies growing up, or too many different ones. I loved movies, of course, but it was a very narrow range of them. And then at a certain point, especially when I hit high school years, I started getting more interested, started watching Hitchcock, started watching older films.
My dad actually was formative in this way. Once I expressed, “Oh, I’m kind of interested in movies,” my dad was really supportive, and he had been steeped in old Hollywood. He’d watched these movies even in China and Hong Kong when he was growing up, and so he knew all the movie stars like Cary Grant and Robert Taylor and Barbara Stanwyck, and he would just love rattling off names.
And then around this time I started reading film critics, started reading Kenneth Turan, who was the L.A. Times critic. I grew up in Orange County, and Kenny was our hometown critic. I went to USC for a couple reasons, but I had heard he taught there. He taught in the journalism school, and I was a journalism major, and I thought, “Oh, maybe I’ll get to take his class.” And sure enough, I did.
Then years later, after a bunch of other things, I actually wound up getting to be his colleague as well as his student. And now to come full circle, I’m now teaching that class.
ER: How does teaching a class on film criticism inform your own work?
JC: It’s so interesting because I can barely articulate how I do what I do as a writer. I think it’s really hard to talk about, so how do I even begin to tell other people how they should write? But at the same time, it is that saying: if you don’t know how to do something, it’s actually a really good idea to teach it to somebody and then you’ll get better at it and learn the mechanics of it. And that’s been the case.
[The class is] basically a pure writing workshop. We just watch a movie every week. This past semester, I gave them stuff as different as The Power of the Dog and Licorice Pizza and Moonfall just to throw them something kind of fun.
And it’s really great. They’re wonderful students. It’s this weird thing: Sometimes giving feedback, even as a critic, it’s harder to give feedback to people to their face than it is to weigh in on the movies. It’s obviously a much more personal, direct experience. I hope the feedback is helpful and encouraging, but really it also just becomes about talking about the movies, which is fun, and a lot of the students would never have thought to see this [movie] or seek this [movie] out. So I’m also just trying to help them see a more diverse range of movies.
ER: You mentioned that it’s hard to describe how you do your work. So we’re going to ask you: What is your process? Do you take notes during screenings? Do you do a lot of research? How do you approach the review itself? How do you balance plot summary? Are there points you try to hit?
JC: Like most critics, I take notes at screenings, more to focus my attention than necessarily go back and read my extremely illegible notes. And every assignment entails a different amount of research. Sometimes, yes, it does entail knowing a director’s filmography. If I’m reviewing something that’s based on a book, deadlines are such that I don’t always have time to read it. Maybe I’ve read it already, but chances are I haven’t. So sometimes I’ll really quickly do some cramming. Maybe I’ll read halfway through because I’ll let the movie do the rest of the work.
As far as the process, the actual writing, sometimes depending on the deadline I might be writing literally in my head as I go home—you know, just already piecing words together. A lot of times—and I actually have gotten better at articulating this for my students’ sake—it’s a cliché, but actually maybe it’s a useful convention: Try thinking of a scene from the movie that you really like, that you think sticks out to you, that really perhaps even encapsulates something of the whole movie in miniature. I’m big fan of scene-setting ledes just because the lede is often the hardest part in all journalism.
Just start writing. Write about a scene from the movie. It lets you offload some plot summary, which is great because reviews should not have too much plot. I always tell [my students] if you can make a sentence or a paragraph do two things at once, or even three things at once, that’s always good. It’s economical. Try to interweave plot and analysis together. Try to have as few standalones as possible, at least in terms of plot summary.
ER: It feels like we’re getting a masterclass in film criticism right now. Along those lines, how do you approach writing about films that may not necessarily feel like they were made for you?
JC: I have very mixed feelings about it, to be honest. I’ve wrestled with it. This gets into issues of diversity and inclusion in criticism, and in the entertainment industry, because “Is this movie for me?” often becomes “Is this movie for my gender, my age, my race, my sexual orientation?” These are of course questions that are very prominent in discourse right now. These are questions that you do think about as a critic, and that you think about as a moviegoer too, in terms of the whole politics of the entertainment industry and what stories get told [and] who’s critiquing these stories.
In terms of myself, just sitting down with a movie, I have this maybe naive utopian idea that every kind of movie could be for me. If you can relate to a movie, that’s great. It’s wonderful. But the point for me is that if I required relatability in order to like or appreciate a movie, or in order for me to feel like it was for me, well, you know, most of the movies I saw growing up were not about people who looked like me.
I really do like to think that I could like this movie. Usually I am just thinking, is this movie good or bad? But I’m always looking for those entry points.
ER: What role do these questions play in how you approach your job as a film critic?
JC: I’m always trying to encourage audiences to try things that they may not think is for them. I write a fair amount about art cinema and films that maybe are more challenging or a little slower than your typical mainstream film. [Some] people maybe have felt burned by me enough times [that] they see my byline and like, “Oh, I’m not gonna see that. You know, Justin’s recommending it.” But I keep at it because to me it actually is part of nourishing the audience and I think it’s just important to try new things.
Growing up, starting to watch a lot of movies that were not Hollywood American movies, I often felt this isn’t for me. This moves a different way. I don’t know what this country is and what their culture is. We all start off from a place of ignorance about a lot of things that we see depicted. But to me, it’s always just like, dive in, try it, you might like it. Sometimes it takes a little work. People are very offended by this idea that movies should be work. I mean, they should be fun, too. But sometimes you do work at art, and it can be more fun as a result. I don’t see fun and work as mutually exclusive.
ER: When you read a Justin Chang review, a lot of times you’re going to see references to other filmmakers, and a signature Justin move is the year-end best-of list in themed pairings. Do you feel that this catalog of film history is necessary, or at least helps you in your job? How do you translate that to readers who may not have as much of that background?
JC: I do think it’s necessary and important, and I always feel like my own catalog could always be better. I think every critic feels that. There are a lot of critics—you know, that line about who’ve forgotten more about film history than I will ever know. That’s just true, and I have to make my peace with it. So I’m always just trying to catch up with older things, and older can mean something a few months ago that I didn’t see, and it can mean some classic I’ve always been meaning to get around to.
I recently reviewed After Yang, Kogonada’s movie starring Colin Farrell. It’s a movie I really liked a lot. And Kogonada is a filmmaker who is deliberately referencing other movies through his technique. He’s made video essays about Kubrick and other great filmmakers who inspired him. He comes from a critical essayistic background to begin with, and then he’s become this really interesting filmmaker.
I referenced [Yasujirō] Ozu in my review of After Yang. That’s not some obscure reach at all. Ozu is one of the most famous filmmakers in the world. Hello, he directed Tokyo Story. So this is like a very basic elementary thing. And [someone wrote a letter to the Times] taking issue with the fact that I’d referenced Ozu, saying—I’m paraphrasing—“How about writing for people who might be interested in seeing the movie rather than for other critics.” This whole accusation happens sometimes: writing to impress your colleagues more than you’re writing for the benefit of the audience. The truth is, that is something to be aware of. It’s something to be conscious of, but I found that a little sad.
ER: How does it feel when readers react to one of your reviews that way?
JC: First off, the implicit soft racism of thinking that a reference to Ozu—a very famous Japanese filmmaker—is obscure, when if I had referenced someone like Kubrick or an American filmmaker, this writer I doubt would have found that such a reach. Ozu is really famous. If you don’t know him, now you do. Why are you offended by getting new knowledge? Why are you reading a movie review? People really think—and I don’t think that they would have this objection with literary criticism or music criticism—that movies should be a thought-free zone. And that is so annoying and offensive to me, frankly. You pick up a review in the L.A. Times, you should expect to learn something.
What is the fear of putting movies in conversation with each other? Because they are. That’s what art is all about. It’s this great bazaar where we can compare and contrast, and say, “Oh, have you seen this? Have you tried this?”
So it’s very interesting to me that people have this idea that they just want to read about this movie, and all they want is the takeaway—you know, two thumbs up or one thumb down. I’m sorry, I’m not interested in doing that. Yeah, sure, if you want a recommendation, yeah, go see After Yang. It’s really good. But that is not the end of the job for me, and some people really, really think it should be.
ER: Justin, can we talk about puns?
JC: We can.
ER: How did your reputation as a pun master develop. How do puns come to you, and what delights you about wordplay?
JC: I read The Phantom Tollbooth at an early age. It’s formative. Still one of my favorite books ever. There’s so much wordplay, and I just remember a whole chapter where Norton Juster is just unleashing pun after pun. It’s amazing. It’s still one of my favorite books ever.
Probably why I wanted to be a writer is because—I don’t wanna make too big a deal of this, but you aren’t sometimes cognizant of the fact that as an Asian American, we’re not often encouraged to go into jobs that have to do with writing, that have to do with the arts. I didn’t do it because, “I’m going to show them.” No, it’s just that was where my interests were.
Loving the English language and being able to write, hopefully, well in it—that just became a natural passion. Can I do this? Can I do this as well as somebody else? And puns come into that not in any conscious way, but you just start making connections like, “Oh, why does this word sound like this but mean something different?” And maybe that occurs to you more because you’re trying to figure out how language works because you don’t feel entirely at home with the language. English is my first language, by the way, but I just started studying words and sounds with a little more intensity.
There is something about punning that, even as silly as it seems, actually does wire my brain in the same way that analyzing a movie does. I don’t know how to make sense of that. Maybe it’s as simple as when you watch a movie and sometimes when you’re analyzing and maybe you’re really into it, you are looking for rhymes. You look for symbolism and you look for metaphor. There’s something about the way wordplay works that I think actually does reflect the way images work with the way we find meanings and double meanings. I haven’t thought really in-depth about this, but at a certain point there’s something there. They go hand in hand.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.