On the cutting edge of videocrit: Burr '80

by Susan Zieger | 10/19/94 6:00am

Everyone, it seems, fancies themselves movie critics. How is it then, that a handful of lucky people watch movies all day and offer up their sanctified opinion to the benighted masses for a salary? And where do I send my resume?

"My opinion as a film critic is not all that much more valid than anyone else's," said Ty Burr '80, who writes for Entertainment Weekly. "The only difference is that I can articulate myself better."

Burr hopped aboard Entertainment Weekly when it debuted in 1990 as a cross between Rolling Stone and People magazines. His ouvre is films newly-released on video and multimedia.

As a video critic, Burr's essays benefit from hindsight as to marketing and audience response; his writing mines films for trends in genres and society. One recent column, titled "Prime Aged Beef," posited the questions, "Why are the leading men of the '50s still among the most interesting people on the screen? Is it our fin de siecle wimpiness? Or did the era immediately after WWII really produce a bumper crop of complex beefcake?" Burr's columns are a mix of cinema and pop culture criticism sprinkled with casual wit.

"I've seen the equivalent of a movie a day for the last 15 years," Burr claims. This sort of weighty experience, plus his training at Dartmouth (he was in the first class to graduate with a major in film studies) and at a one-year program in cinema studies at New York University, enable him to analyze films with a keen eye.

He turned this perception on his years at Dartmouth, when he ran the Dartmouth Film Society as a full-time College employee.

"The years 1976-80 were a very interesting time to be there," he said. "In '76 Carter was in the White House, and by 1980 Reagan was President. It was as if the '60s and '80s generations looked at each other and didn't like what they saw."

According to Burr, the release of "Animal House" in 1978, a campus phenomenon, articulated this change. "The Nugget was packed every night. Whether you loved it or hated it, you felt something about it. And for a lot of people, it was a validation of sorts."

After leaving the College, Burr worked as a production assistant on the sets of films, then became an in-house critic for HBO, where his opinion determined which films the network would buy.

Although Burr's main line is reviewing films on video, he has pioneered the multimedia column in Entertainment Weekly.

"Because no one really knows what this industry is yet, we've been flying by the seat of our pants," he said. One column compared the merits of national on-line computer services; another titled "Spoon Me With a Gag" reviewed CD-ROMs based on "Monty Python's Flying Circus" and "Saturday Night Live."

The broadening of Burr's interests is reflected in his cluttered office on the 28th floor of the Miss Saigon building near Times Square. CD Roms litter the floor, posters for The Cure and an old Fred MacMurray flick fill the walls, and the shelves are filled with compact discs of world music, which Burr likes to review when he gets the chance.

The conversation about Burr's career turned to summer movie phenomena: "Forrest Gump" in particular.

"'Forrest Gump' was a big Hallmark card of a movie; it says a lot about how America sees itself. People like to be told that they don't have to think, to consider complexities -- as if thinking and relaxing were diametrically opposed."

The statement reminds one that although Burr watches movies for a living, mostly on his own VCR at home, to approximate the video consumer's experience, thinking and writing about them really is work.

Had Burr ever considered making movies himself?

"Given that my schooling at Dartmouth was in film appreciation and not filmmaking, I went in that direction. I've written six screenplays, none of which went anywhere. I've never 'done' Hollywood. I don't like the town, the values, the business."

"Those who do, do -- those who don't are critics. I'm comfortable with that."