As you peruse Rotten Tomatoes, it can be easy to forget that there are actual people behind those numbers. These people have a job that sounds great to the common moviegoer. However, this shiny surface hides a plethora of complexities. Sure, they watch and talk about movies for a living, but film criticism requires dedication and hard work, in a field that is drastically different from when Siskel & Ebert first started using their thumbs. I sat down with Monica Castillo, a freelance film critic who has written for The Phoenix (RIP), DigBoston, Paste Magazine, Bitch Magazine, serves as co-host of Film Geek Radio’s “Cinema Fix” podcast, and is co-founder and current co-chair of The Boston Online Film Critics Association (BOFCA), to talk about film criticism, Boston and the evolving film scene.
Derek: How did BOFCA come about?
Monica Castillo: We kind of formed, in essence as a way to raise awareness of the film critic scene, the local Boston film scene in itself and also to protect ourselves. A colleague of mine who had stopped writing for a bit after he finished his Master’s thesis, he was kind of just burnt out on writing. He was more or less kicked out by the publicists and told like, since he’s no longer writing he no longer gets to cover film. There was no mediary term, there wasn’t any talk to him about it, [no one] ask[ed] him “hey are you planning to go back into this, because otherwise we’re going to tell you to stop”. They just kicked his ass out, chucked him out. So finally after that, he was like, I’m done fighting with publicists. We kind of all [the Boston online film critic community] had a wake up moment, where it was like, wow these people could actually have a say in where our career goes…that’s a huge thing.
D: Little bit.
MC: Then we started to form that in order to organize, if we did have a problem we could send in a mediary or whatnot in order to discuss it with them. And then the other part of that was also to talk more about the things we like to see in the Boston film scene. So IFFBoston is a big thing, everybody did some sort of form of coverage somewhere usually. I like to talk a lot about rep[ertory] stuff, and I haven’t really had the chance too much, but through DigBoston, they restructured my column more or less, so it’s a lot more focused on local, local, local. So now I get to talk about what’s going on in The Brattle Theater, what’s going on in The Coolidge; [the] Alloy Orchestra is in town over at the ICA [Institute of Contemporary Art], so that sort of thing where I get to direct people to this awesome silent movie or this great Tarantino retrospective that I’m really excited for, [it’s] what keeps me going to the movies, day-in, day-out, week-in, week-out.
D: That’s nice, a lot of times if you’re not following The Brattle, or don’t get their email, you won’t know what they’re doing.
MC: That’s the thing. And if you live outside of Harvard Square, or even near Harvard Square, you may not know they exist.
D: I mean, I lived in Boston for four years before I even knew The Brattle existed.
MC: Oof, yeah, it’s not uncommon.
D: The repertory scene does offer us something that we can’t really get anywhere else. There really is just something about seeing those old movies on the screen—
MC: And with an audience. I just saw “Thief of Baghdad” at the Somerville Theater as part of their Silent Film Series that’s going to happen once a month for the next couple of months. It has live accompaniment, which is the best way to see silent film, it’s all on the big screen and they’re all 35 mm, which is quickly dying in the city of Boston. I went to this last midnight movie at the Coolidge Corner Theater, it was “Buffy the Vampire Slayer”, and Fox told them that they no longer have a print of “Buffy”. It’s gone, only DCP [Digital Cinema Package].
D: That’s sad.
MC: It’s really sad. But it’s flipping real quick, I think it was about, maybe a year and a half ago, maybe a little bit more than that, I wrote a piece that’s basically just saying how sad I was to see all this change because I’m so used to seeing, even as a little girl, I may have complained, “oh there’s dark spots on the screen, it’s scratchy, ew, why does it sound like that” and now I’m missing that because it’s all crisp it’s all clean. It’s so digitalized that sometimes the color is off or sometimes you have that weird unnatural grain.
D: It loses some of its mystique. I mean, there’s something kind of sexy about the big reel of film and everything.
MC: Yeah, and it’s different. I’ve been in the movies where it messes up, where they accidentally lost track of the time and then they missed their cue or whatever, so you have that awkward little blank spot. It was like something exciting. Or worse, [there were] very beat up prints that got stuck to each other, this was recent, a couple months ago; the projectionist was like, “I’m going to die during this screening”, and sure enough not twenty-five minutes in, it jams and you see the film burn up on the screen. So he had to go, turn the light off, cut it, splice it together, put it back in and rewind it just a bit to start it up again, and it played.
D: As terrible as that is, that’s pretty exciting.
MC: It’s super exciting.
D: You don’t see that anymore. You only see it when Quentin Tarantino does a fake grindhouse movie.
MC: Yeah, it’s like, “oh, does that really happen in movies”. No that’s real. Santa Claus does exist. Film reels are still out there, they are just getting very rare.
MC: They are more film focused but they still play mainstream films. So that’s where their main money comes from. I’ve been to The Drafthouse for repertory screenings in a half full theater. But then you have something like the Sci-Fi Film Festival Marathon that happens over here in The Somerville and that gets pretty packed. I haven’t seen it sold out but The Somerville also seats maybe 900, like upwards of 700; a ridiculous amount of people for your average screen. But that’s like once a year. The @fter Midnite series at the Coolidge is always hit and miss. I’ve been in screenings where there is literally me, two other friends who are film critics who also like to go to the midnights a lot and then maybe a couple; all five people to go see “Flashdance”. Not a big crowd for that. That’s why I want people to go to these rep movies; I want people to support the programming that’s at these theaters. Because it is an actual programmer that picks the types of movies that get played. They have to book the prints, they have to ship the prints; this isn’t a little USB drive that’s sent in through UPS.
D: It’s the way they DID movies.
MC: It’s the way that it’s been done since forever ago. It’s sad, but you got to keep it alive. That’s part of why I love writing about it for DigBoston.
D: Boston has so much going on, but it seems that the majority of people don’t know that this stuff exists.
MC: That’s why film critics are important. We do draw attention. We are probably the only ones publicly stating “Oh my god, please check out this film, it is amazing, drop what you’re doing right now, go see it”. There are so many films like that. “Gimme the Loot” which played only one week here, did horribly, which was really unfortunate, but it’s in my opinion one of the best debuts by a new director I’ve seen in a long time. It could’ve been a seasoned professional. I was so stunned. It’s such a great story. Across the street right now, “Something in the Air” is playing, probably only until Thursday, one week.
D: Then wait for it to go on Netflix Instant.
MC: Basically. Again, these small little films that otherwise people miss on their radar because it doesn’t have the multimillion dollar campaign behind it. It’s not distributed by a big ass studio that’s going to push the trailer on every single film in the [AMC] Boston Common [Theater]. You’ll never know they exist.
You can find Monica Castillo on Twitter at @mcastimovies.