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Manohra Dargis’ notebooks are full of illegible words and phrases.
Darges, the New York Times’ chief film critic, looks for memorable scenes while watching the movie he’s about to review. In the darkness of the cinema, she admits, her notes are rarely consistent and her distractions are inevitable.
“When I’m watching a movie, the pen often floats on my shirt and ruins it,” she said. “This is one of the great tragedies of being a film critic.”
This week, Ms. Dargis reviewed two high-profile movies coming to theaters, “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer,” in what the Internet called “Babenheimer,” the movie event of the year.
This long-awaited movie combination came at a difficult time for the American film industry, as 160,000 actors, represented by SAG-AFTRA, went on strike last week. They join thousands of TV and film writers already standing in the picket line over issues such as the use of artificial intelligence in compensation and creative capacity. The strike nearly brought Hollywood production to a halt.
In an interview, Dargis shared his thoughts on the industry’s recovery from the pandemic and how the strike could bode well for the impending cinematic future. This interview has been edited.
How do you get started covering the two most anticipated movies of the year?
Having worked for the New York Times for almost 20 years, I’ve had a similar moment where two huge movies start overlapping. For example, around Christmas time, movie studios release blockbusters, so-called prestige films.
I try not to read about a movie before writing about it, but I do background research. I just want to have my own experience with the movie and know that the reviews are made up of my thoughts.
How do you decide which movies to write about?
I try to find a balance that works for my readers and what they expect from film critics. I have to be interested in movies too. I reviewed a variety of movies last week, including the new big studio movie Mission: Impossible and the smaller independent Earth Mama.
That week in a way represents my ideal mix of where I really have the field covered. I think you’re really missing out on the greatness of the film if you’re only looking at the big spectacles.
Can you guide me through the review process?
I try to watch movies about a week before their release date. I will go to the screening. Some are called all-media screenings, where hundreds of people gather in a large room in a commercial cinema or film studio. In Los Angeles, where I live, there are also small private screening rooms. I like watching movies with other people. There is something special about the energy you get from being with other people. Especially when you’re watching a comedy or horror movie and the crowd is gathering.
I always bring a notepad and pen and write in the dark. I try to absorb as much as possible while watching a movie, so writing helps me remember things later.
In January you wrote Your optimism about women in movies in various films centered around female characters. What other trends are you seeing in the film world right now?
I said I reviewed a movie called “Earth Mama” by a woman named Savana Leaf. It is her first feature film. I’m thrilled that she’s one of many black female filmmakers. We are still far from where we need to be, but there is diversity in women making movies.
Has there ever been a moment like this in the film industry?
One of the interesting things about the American film industry is that it has tumbled from crisis to crisis over time. Part of my optimism and hope rests on the idea that the industry has managed to survive the transition to sound films. Then television came along and everyone thought it was over. Then came the Internet.
The American film industry is built on a crisis. Now the streaming bubble has passed. I don’t know what will happen next. That’s my biggest concern.
Which movie was shown first, ‘Barbie’ or ‘Oppenheimer’?
The first thing I saw was “Barbie”. We met a few days apart so I could be in the right mindset. “Barbie” is fun, but it didn’t stick with me. She didn’t go home and say to her husband, “I just want to talk to you about ‘Barbie’ and the deep impression it made on me.” Because there was no Barbie. It was so much fun that I had to figure out how to write about it.
Need a movie palate refresher after watching a heavy movie like ‘Oppenheimer’?
Immediately after a movie, I often don’t want to talk to anyone about it. Except maybe my husband. Even if you step away from the movies that really impacted you, you’ll still be in the movie bubble for a while. It can be a fun experience at times. I remember watching the movie “Fast and Furious” and really enjoying it. But I also remember coming home a little too quickly that night.
A film like Oppenheimer, a wise and thoughtful film that talks about deep philosophical issues, is pretty special. This movie shocked me, but I’m glad you said it made you think about life. I appreciate the experience.