Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Phillips led a discussion and Q&A at a film screening on Wednesday Oct. 10 at Downtown Reno Library from 6:00-9:30 p.m. The event was hosted by Nevada Humanities Pop-Up Salon, a program that plans discussion events with the aim of stimulating thought-provoking conversation within the Reno community. The event featured a screening of the 1961 John Huston film The Misfits, written by Arthur Miller and starring Marilyn Monroe, Clark Gable and Montgomery Clift.
Phillips previously worked as the film critic for the San Diego Union-Tribune, the St. Paul Pioneer Press and the Dallas Times-Herald, and he started at the Chicago Tribune in 2002. He was also the 2017 recipient of the African-American Film Critics Association Roger Ebert award.
The event opened with a discussion with Phillips led by Katherine Fusco, a UNR associate professor of English, about the importance of film and film criticism during politically turbulent times. Phillips’ explained how film criticism needs to maintain an appropriate balance of reporting and opinion, even if the film is politically-driven. He described criticism as “informed subjectivity”, and said film reviews are “at least half reporting.”
“Is it enough for me to say, I don’t agree with this movie’s viewpoint, therefore I don’t like it? No,” he said.
Phillips told the story of the time he interviewed Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, which was an ethical dilemma for him. Bannon was at the Venice Film Festival after being the subject of Errol Morris’ 2018 documentary “American Dharma”, and Phillips happened upon an opportunity to speak with him. However, because of Bannon’s controversial far-right views, Phillips worried he was enabling and giving a platform to someone who should not be spotlighted. However, he decided Bannon’s presence was relevant to the festival and conducted the interview.
When it comes to film critiques that could be controversial, Phillips emphasized the importance of “timing your punches”. He explained that being opinionated has its time and place, but it’s important to state opinions tactfully instead of coming in swinging.
Another discussion followed the screening of The Misfits, this time about the movie and the impression it left on the audience. Phillips expressed his excitement to discuss what he called “the Reno-est movie ever” with a Reno audience. The film was full of familiar scenery, including scenes of Marilyn Monroe on the steps of the old courthouse, next to the Truckee River, and at Harrah’s casino. It also included plenty of shots of the majestic desert mountain scenery, as well as a scene depicting the Reno rodeo.
The event was quite intimate with an audience of about 25, which allowed for an in-depth informal discussion. Audience members shared opinions and observations about the movie, ranging from how cool it was to see what Reno looked like in the early 60s to how the film could be interpreted today as an allegory for climate change.