Godfrey Cheshire: Daring to Write for Sophisticated Filmgoers

Editor’s Note: This is the 22nd in a series of “How I Got That Story” interviews featuring the winners of the 2005 AltWeekly Awards. First-place entries are collected in the book “Best AltWeekly Writing and Design 2005.”

Although Godfrey Cheshire lives in New York City, the reviews that won him an AltWeekly Award for arts criticism are published in a paper in his native North Carolina, Durham’s The Independent Weekly.

Recognition is nothing new to this critic, who has focused his entire career on writing thoughtful essays about film. He helped launch Spectator Magazine, an alternative paper in Raleigh, N.C., 27 years ago, and until 1991 he worked there as a writer and editor. Then he moved to New York City where he served as chief film critic for the New York Press and freelanced for other publications such as Variety, Interview and The New York Times. From New York he continued writing for his North Carolina audience, shifting from Spectator to its rival, The Independent, in 1998. (The Independent subsequently bought and absorbed the older weekly.)

In addition to writing his biweekly columns for The Independent, he has spent the last eight months working on a first-person documentary about a Southern plantation that has been in his family since 1739 and on a screenplay based on the life of an American schoolteacher who was killed in Persia in 1909. He has also taught a course at his alma mater, The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, on the history of film.

His winning reviews included one of Jafar Panahi’s Crimson Gold, another of Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, and a third of Andrei Zvyagintsev’s The Return.

How did you become interested in writing about film? As a college student I majored in English and in radio, television and cinema studies. So that was always my interest. But when we started Spectator, I had other interests, which I still do. I was involved with the rock ‘n’ roll scene; I was friends with R.E.M. and toured with them around Europe; I was interested in theater and art and literature. But I purposely picked cinema to be my specialty because, as a critic, I think you should have one subject that you can specialize in and really go in-depth with.

Some of the judges admired your writing and insight — but one thought your writing was overly academic. Do your readers give you the same response? Do you ever feel a need to dumb down your work?

Well, not dumbing down my work is a hallmark of what I’ve been trying to do. In the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, there is a very educated population because of the many universities and colleges. The publications that existed prior to our starting Spectator in 1978 didn’t reflect the education the people there have. When we started out, our goal was to shoot higher, not shoot lower. And as soon as we started publishing, we had people coming up to us to thank us.

As for "academic," that comment perhaps reveals the general dumbing down of the culture. "Intellectual" and even "high-brow" are epithets I can reluctantly accept, but I’m familiar with academic jargon and I avoid it like the plague it is. Overall, what I’m trying to do is write about film in a way that’s intellectually substantive yet accessible to any educated filmgoer.

Why did you come to New York? After a while, it became apparent to me that there were no new worlds for me to conquer in Raleigh. When I came to New York in 1991, I was very lucky to quickly land a job writing for the Press. It was the perfect transition — coming from writing for this sophisticated audience in North Carolina to what is surely the most sophisticated film audience in the country, downtown Manhattan.

How did the move affect your writing?

When I started out in North Carolina, I was so far removed from the people who made what I would see. So I could say whatever I wanted, under the assumption that no one mentioned in the review was ever likely to read it. When I moved to New York, I met many people who were in that world, who work in film, so I became more conscious in writing a review that so-and-so who had worked on a film might see. In fact, I got to know many filmmakers and people in the business personally, and that inevitably altered my perspective.

Sometimes this can lead to quandaries, but it’s actually fairly rare that I feel I should recuse myself from reviewing a film because I’m too close to the artists. Mostly, I think it has deepened my perspective because it’s given me a closer view of the film world.

Who do you read? Who has inspired you? 

I’m a tremendous reader. My apartment is lined top to bottom with books, and I go through them at a very rapid pace. Lately, I’ve been reading a lot of philosophy, which has found its way into my reviews. In terms of other critics, there are some that I read, but there really isn’t anybody who is doing what I’m doing.

One thing I’ve specialized in is the transition from celluloid to digital technology. In 1999 I wrote a two-part essay, "The Death of Film/the Decay of Cinema," that was reprinted all over the world and made the subject of a special colloquium at the Museum of Modern Art.

My writing has also had a strong international focus. I wrote a lot about Iranian cinema in the ’90s and made several trips to Iran beginning in 1997. That led to writing a screenplay based on the story of a young American who tried to help the Iranians establish a democratic government in 1907-09, and became such a national hero that the Iranians were still celebrating him even during the American hostage crisis of 1979.

How do you prepare to review a movie? I don’t think about the review I’m going to write when I’m watching a movie — only if the movie is so boring, then yes, I do. I go see a movie and get caught up in it just as any other person would.  The thoughts for the review come afterwards. I like to take a day or two between the viewing and the writing to think about it.

Do you have access to the scripts? Do you take notes? I generally don’t have access to the scripts beforehand. Except for reading the production notes the studios give out, I consciously make an effort to know as little as possible about a movie beforehand. I don’t read any other reviews and try not to hear what people have to say. Because if people rave about it — it’s really hard for a movie to live up to that.

I take notes during documentaries because they are so fact-oriented. Later on, when I’m writing, I want to be accurate in how I portray everything.

What is your writing process like? I’ve always thought of what I write as essays. I go and I see a movie, and I think about what a movie really means. With many other reviewers, it’s somewhat of a functional thing — they write about what works and what doesn’t. With me, I want to apply all of my outside knowledge to what I’ve seen.

How is being a critic now different from what it was like 27 years ago?

Things have changed so much since I started. The late ’70s was the boom period of alt-weeklies, and editors then wanted real, smart reviews. Now things have changed 180 degrees. Alternative doesn’t mean what it did back then. The Internet has a lot to do with it. Publishers now assume that their audiences want condensed, snappy writing.

Movies have changed so much now, too. American film studios rely on movies that they can sell around the world and that they can turn into a franchise. So by their very nature, to reach everyone, those movies must be dumb.

What advice would you give to writers who are starting out? There is the creative question and the practical question. You have to figure out how to put those two things together: to do what challenges you and, at the same time, find a way to get by. This is a challenge because so much of news-gathering and dissemination has shifted to the Web, and both publishers and writers are still trying to figure out a way to get the Web to pay.

My advice is to take the interests you may have in subjects and pursue them. All that will feed back into your writing. After I finished college, I spent a few years wandering around Europe. In many ways, I was inspired by so many of the French New Wave filmmakers who had been critics. It doesn’t have to be that, though. Just go out there and engage the world in any sort of way.

Erika Beras was a 2005 fellow of the Academy for Alternative Journalism at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. She is currently a student at the Columbia School of Journalism in New York.

Leave a Reply