Clarisse Loughery Interview: On Film Criticism & Wittertainment

Clarisse Loughrey is the chief film critic at The Independent and has frequent appearances on Radio 5 Live. There she stands in for Dr. Mark Kermode on the BBC's flagship film review show (playfully referred to as the Church of Wittertainment).

You can follow her on @Clarisselou on Twitter for witticisms about the latest blockbuster and independent releases. She’s also on YouTube: That Darn Movie Show.

We were lucky enough to catch up with her recently for an e-interview. Here are Clarisse’s insights on some of the pressing questions about the world of modern cinema.  

Hi Clarisse! First up, what's your earliest film memory? And what got you hooked?

My earliest memory is cowering behind a sofa during the scene in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs where she runs through the haunted forest. But, I think, the moment something really sparked in my brain was when I was 13 and saw Nicole Kidman in The Others for the first time.

There was something about that performance – the way she took such a hard, cruel character and showed us how wounded she was inside – that really made me realise how cinema can be a tool for empathy and for better understanding our world. 

When did you first start analysing films? 

I think, in a way, I’ve spent a lot of my life interrogating why I’m drawn to certain films and how they speak to me.

That said, the first time I ever put it down in writing was when I was at university and started contributing to the school paper. And I just kept going from there. 

Now a professional critic, what’s your approach? Do you find there's a standard process, or is it specific for each person?

I think it is really specific to each person. I just try to be honest with myself and my own emotions.

It’s about paying attention to that gut reaction, the thing you don’t really have any intellectual control over, and then breaking down exactly what caused that within the context of the work, its meaning, and everything that surrounds it.

That feels more authentic to me, in contrast to only ever approaching work with the desire to interpret and classify. Emotional sincerity isn’t the enemy of analysis. 

Are there definite no-nos to avoid? Or regular mistakes you see other critics making (no need to name names, of course)?

Oh god, I feel like such a hypocrite saying anything when I’m sure plenty of people think my work is a mess. I guess I’d just say I wish criticism had more room for messiness and contradiction. The internet has made this job really weird.

Everyone’s out there fighting to have the hottest take. Every significant movie release becomes this pro- or anti- discourse where you’re pretty much forced to take sides. Social media forces you to take your infinitely complicated and layered personality and basically reduce it to an easily marketable “brand”.

It’s all the makings of an existential crisis, but I don’t know if there’s a fix. It’s hard because I owe my career to the internet, but it’s also one of the things that makes me the saddest on a daily basis, because you’re constantly being pushed and pressured to act a certain way if you want to stay relevant in this industry. tl;dr I was really in my feelings during Eighth Grade. 

Film criticism felt male-dominated for a long time, but there's a notable shift towards diversity in recent years. How do you feel women are helping to change the established order as critics (and across the wider film industry)?

It definitely feels like the established cinematic canon is being challenged in a way that’s not only long overdue, but really essential to the future of film criticism.

That’s a canon that was built up from such a narrow perspective and, for years, it’s been so alienating to anyone who sees things differently.

I read this quote from Kirsten Dunst yesterday: “Remember when Marie Antoinette [came out] — y’all panned it? And now you all love it. Remember Drop Dead Gorgeous? Panned. Now you all love it.”

Well, that’s the thing. You speak to women from a certain generation and they’ve been behind those movies from the offset, but it’s only now that they’re actually getting enough of a voice to shape the public conversation about those movies.

Diversity in criticism means we’re actually talking about the movies that matter to EVERYONE, not just a select few. 

What advice would you offer students pursuing a career in film journalism?

Build yourself a decent portfolio. That’s always step one for me. It’s tricky because, obviously, there’s this insidious practice of writers consistently not getting paid for their work.

But, at the same time, you need something to show editors before getting commissioned. So, I see it as two options:

  1. Set up your own platform/blog and just have fun crafting your own voice and really discovering what you’re passionate about.

  2. Find a community-based blog and a group of writers where you can develop together and really support each other.

There are loads out there, although I love what Screen Queens are doing. They focus on work by women and the LGBTQ community, plus they seem genuinely nice and open to a wide range of voices, tastes, and ideas.

Which film was your favourite to review? Plus, which is the review you’re especially proud of? 

Oh, it’s always the best when you’re writing about a film you really connect with. There is something about Darren Aronofsky’s work that feels so vividly, almost scarily like a replication of how anxiety affects my mind and body.

Although these weren’t actually reviews, it was just incredibly cathartic to write about Mother! and Black Swan, because it can be so hard to talk about mental health when you don’t always feel like your experiences necessarily match up to how everyone else describes it. It’s really freeing to come across something that feels that specific.

In terms of what I’m proud of, I’ve had a couple of people say a review made them cry. I remember the one I did of Lady Bird, specifically. That really makes you feel like you’ve connected with somebody. It’s incredibly touching.

How do you approach reviewing a film you disliked (or even hated)? Is it schadenfreude delight, or you take a considerate approach? 

No, I’m never happy that a film is bad. Obviously, there are films that are so bad that they’re laughable, but still… that’s somebody’s work.

Even if it’s a soulless corporate product, that’s months of labour from hundreds of people, and there’s obviously someone on that crew list who will have really cared about what they did.

So, it’s a hard balance. I’m still working on it. You want to have fun with criticism and make jokes about dumb movies but, yeah, I think there’s a line I never want to cross there. I want to still be wary that it’s my opinion and that it’s ultimately a subjective perspective, at the end of the day. 

Director Uwe Boll famously challenged critics who hated his films to a boxing match. Under the right circumstances (such as if the match was rigged in your favour), would you be up for anything like that?

I mean, sure. Obviously, I’d rather talk it out and maybe meet for a pizza, but I feel like I’d be a surprisingly scrappy fighter. I’ve got a lot of pent up frustration in me. 

From your experience, what do you think makes a film stand out? Are there certain signs of brilliance you look out for?

Not at all. I think brilliance comes in a thousand different, often surprising forms, so I never try to impose certain criteria.

I want to be open to everything. I really do try to approach every film from the same place and give everything an equal chance, even if it’s totally outside my usual taste.

Like, I’m going into Cats with a clear heart and mind, ready for it to prove to me that it’s the greatest masterpiece of all time.

You're a regular stand-in for Dr. Mark Kermode on Radio 5 Live. How did you find the transition from written criticism to going live on air? 

I was lucky because I’d already been posting reviews to YouTube for a while, so I kind of knew how to make things work and how to approach a spoken review versus a written one.

I guess you have to be a little more structured and a little more forward with the basic information, but it also means I can get away with way dumber jokes. 

What's the highlight of your time on the show so far?

I mean, getting to sit down for a cup of tea and a natter with Emily Blunt was pretty surreal. I’m not quite at the stage yet where getting to meet famous people (especially people who have played Mary Poppins) is a normal experience for me. Maybe in a few years.

Other than that, it’s genuinely just been how kind all the listeners have been. This job can be such a hustle, so to have a gig where I can just come in and it all feels like we’re in this together is so refreshing. It’s nice to feel a part of something in that way.

It gives me the energy to keep going, even on the days when it’s a little bit tougher or I’m feeling down on myself for whatever reason.

Can you reveal any dramatic behind the scenes secrets? How comfortable is Dr. Kermode’s chair, for instance? 

I’m pretty sure I’ve never physically sat in Mark’s chair because I always switch it out for the one next to it with the armrests. I don’t know what to do with my elbows otherwise.

I’ll be honest, everyone runs the show so smoothly, I’m struggling to think of anything crazy that’s happened. I think the closest to drama we’ve had is when Alia Shawkat lost her sunglasses (she found them eventually, it’s all good). 

In the Wittertainment community there's ongoing debate about your excellent accent. Can you finalise the rumours for us, please?

Ah yes, the accent. Confusingly, I’m not Australian and I have never been to Australia.

I was born in the US (Phoenix, Arizona), but moved to the UK when I was around ten. So it’s like some unholy mishmash of those without actually sounding like a traditional mid-Atlantic accent. 

And finally, do you have any major announcements? Upcoming books, reviews of importance, or big film events you can tell us about?

I have pretty much nothing, aha. But if anyone wants to commission a book from me, I’m all for it!