Alumnus Q&A: The Boston Globe film critic Ty Burr '80
As a former film evaluator for HBO, author of “The 50 Movie Starter Kit: What You Need to Know if You Want to Know What You’re Talking About,” and former chief video critic for Entertainment Weekly, Ty Burr ’80 is a prominent player in the world of film criticism.
How did you become interested in film?
TB: When I was in high school in the Boston area back in the 1970s, I started watching old movies because I was told by my mother one night that a movie was coming on TV late at night that my dad, who died when I was a kid, was huge fan of. It was called “Duck Soup,” and it stars the Marx Brothers, and I never really watched an old movie before, but I watched this movie, and it knocked my socks off. It was the funniest thing I’d ever seen. And I was 14, you know, I was right at that age when you kind of latch on to something and you want to know more about it. So I started watching lots and lots of movies: old movies, new movies, horror movies, American movies, whatever I could get my hands on.
Why did you decide to become a film critic rather than part of the filmmaking process?
TB: For myself, if you grew up in the 1970s, it was kind of the golden age of movie criticism and film reviewing. There was a woman at The New Yorker named Pauline Kael, that was kind of the Elvis Presley of movie critics that kind of recreated the field of movie criticism. So she influenced me, and a professor of mine at Dartmouth, a writer named David Thomson, who wrote a book called the “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film,” which was very influential on me and people not just at Dartmouth. I just liked writing, and I liked watching movies, and I liked thinking about popular culture. And you know, criticism is basically thinking out loud and trying to make connections. And it’s slightly different from movie reviewing, which is just, “Here’s a movie, is it good, should you spend your money on it?” So I try to do both of those things when I write for the Globe.
What’s your approach as a film critic?
TB: My approach as a film critic is pretty straightforward. You know every movie is its own world, every movie is its own window. It’s kind of great, you know, for two hours you get to put yourself in a totally different end, and maybe be exposed to concepts and imagery that you otherwise would not. So then I judge every movie against the movie it’s trying to be. You know, does it live up to that? Where does it fall short? How does it fall short? And sometimes, you know it overshoots what it’s trying to do. I love when that happens.
Has the “move online” in media affected your role in the film critic industry?
TB: Oh absolutely. Just on the basic level, I have a lot more competition, a lot more people writing about movies. The thing about being a movie critic is that everyone thinks that they can be a movie critic. Not everyone thinks that they can be a ballet critic or an art critic, but everyone thinks they can be a movie critic because you go to the movies, they’re a popular art form and you come out and you start talking about it with your friends. It’s a thing that everyone does to one degree or another. You’ve got the internet now, and everyone can put their opinion on there, which is great, it’s opened the door to a lot of good young writers, but it’s also opened the door to a lot of bad writing.
But it’s also changed my work for the positive, in that I now have a national and international audience. Now I get responses from people all around the country. It’s put a huge pressure on the newspaper business, and I’m not sure how it will survive or in what form. We’re still in flux, we’re still in the middle of a revolution. And it’s also completely changed how we consume movies. You know, unless it’s a generational thing that you have to see, more often than not, you’re watching it on your laptops, or your TV, or streaming it on your phone.
How do have you adapted to these changes in media?
TB: I try to stay on top of the streaming market and not just for films but TV. You know, there are certain shows that I try to watch, “Atlanta” and “Transparent.” You know, there’s a lot of talk about how we’re in the “Golden Age” for TV. And I think that’s because a lot of creative writers, producers, directors and actors are being drawn to some of the stuff that Netflix and Amazon and others, sort of new content creators, are doing. You know, when I was growing up, it was an era called the “New Hollywood,” where you know, Coppola, Duvall and Spielberg were all running. There are still great, great movies coming out, you know any year that has both movies like “La La Land” and “Moonlight” coming out is a great year for film. But the ways we’re watching them are changing.
This interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.