Photo by Jerry A. Schulman
From the beginning, Filmspotting founder and host Adam Kempenaar took podcasting seriously.
“We didn’t want to do what we saw other podcasts doing-- no structure, subpar audio quality, this sense that people were kinda babbling. If we were going to put the time in, we were going to take advantage of the podcast format.”
This was back when podcasting was untried, a new media platform. Nearly a decade later, Kempenaar’s keen adherence to his vision has paid off. After being picked up by iTunes and later WBEZ, Filmspotting is more than a Chicago phenomenon. Co-hosted by former Sun Times film critic Josh Larsen, the show offers listeners across the country lively debate, top five lists, and a thoroughly modern take on film criticism.
Our Town’s Sarah Terez Rosenblum and Andrew Weir spoke with Kempenaar and Larsen about the show’s genesis, the purpose of film criticism, and the top five quintessential Chicago films.
Our Town (Sarah Terez Rosenblum) What drew you to film criticism?
Josh Larsen- I always enjoyed writing and movies so it was just the merging of the two. I can remember as a kid being as excited about the reviews in the paper as about the movies in the theaters. And being a Chicago-area kid, you grew up with film criticism, Siskel and Ebert-- as a really rich part of the culture.
Adam Kempenaar My goal was to be a director. After I had the experience [of film school], I realized although I was passionate about film, I was not going to be the guy who went out to LA and maxed out my credit cards to make a film. It just wasn’t in my DNA. I needed more structure, but I didn’t want to drop film completely. I was getting my masters in Journalism and it turned out there was an opening for a film critic at the University of Iowa newspaper. I got the gig, and I had to figure it out as I went along--what being a film critic meant.
STR So what does it mean? What’s the purpose of film criticism?
AK Early on, I decided that I didn’t care that much about whether the person reading the review felt compelled to see the movie. The thing that annoyed me as I got more serious about film criticism was critics who saw themselves as box office guides, as if their goal was to influence what people spend their money on. There may be some validity to that, but I ultimately hope-- and I don’t know that we always succeed-- but I’d like there to be, in every review, at least one good idea that maybe the person listening wouldn’t have thought of on their own. That it makes them shift their perspective a little. I think one of the best compliments we get is when there’s an email from someone saying, “I can’t believe you guys were so hard on that movie!” And then like two minutes later, an email with the exact opposite response: “You guys were way too easy on that movie!” People hear us in totally different ways which reflects where they stand. Rather than seeing that as a failure, I like that people can interpret us how they want. There’s a lot of hostility toward film critics; this impression we’re in an ivory tower passing judgement, but just because I’m here talking about a movie for twenty minutes doesn’t mean I have it all figured out. We’ll put the show up, people will start responding, and they may change my mind.
JL- Both of those models, the ivory tower and the consumerist approach, have been blown open by podcasts. The old guard will rail about movie blogs, “who are these people to have a say?” But it’s shocking how much good stuff passionate bloggers are publishing. So as a working critic do you panic and try to shut that off or do you let the conversation grow? It’s been interesting to adapt to that myself. Now everyone has a platform, which reorients film criticism so that critics are just part of the conversation, and that’s so much richer.
STR What was the impetus behind Filmspotting?
AK When we started in 2005 as a podcast, I was married and had one kid, and then a second. I had become that guy who was so caught up in his job and his family that I wasn’t going to see movies anymore. Sam [Van Hallgren, the show's original co-host and current co-producer] and I, we said, let’s force ourselves to see one new movie a week. That’s the joke that my wife still reminds me of--I pitched this to my wife as, I’ll only be gone for a couple hours a week--
JL You didn’t even invite her?
AK No. So, a couple hours, then we’ll discuss for maybe 20 minutes, no editing, just the conversation--that’ll be the show.
JL Lying through your teeth.
AKI didn’t know I was lying through my teeth! What changed was, once people start listening--I’m a little bit obsessive by nature--so you start structuring and adding, building out segments. June 2005 was when iTunes launched podcasting. We’d been doing it for three months, so were a fairly established podcast, but we were seeing fewer than 1,000 downloads a week. Then iTunes featured us on their main page and overnight we were at 12,000. Those people liked what they heard and wanted more.
Our Town (Andrew Weir) Occasionally you get into some heated discussions. Does that keep it lively, or do you ever have to leave the room and let the blood pressure come down?
JL It’s been two years and how many of those heated ones have we had? Five? It’s rare. Last week [Podcast #474 "American Hustle" vs "Wolf of Wall Street" conversation]...we did pause. It was early on in the recording and we went on and did like an hour and a half more of the show, so it was fine. I responded to someone who emailed--they were like, can you dial it back? They found it uncomfortable. In retrospect, I don’t know why I got so excited. But haven’t you been in conversations about a topic you love and it just gets that way? So part of it is a shared passion.
AK And a respect--if Josh wasn’t making really good points, I wouldn’t get so worked up. He’s giving me something I have to respond to, he’s challenging me. And hopefully I’m doing that for him. One big difference between Josh and his predecessors is, I was friends with the first two. Josh, we didn’t know each other at all. So even two years later we’re still figuring out who the other person is and what our hot button issues are. At this point, I don’t have him figured out, I doubt I ever will.
AW Do you find yourself playing devil’s advocate just to keep the conversation going?
AK I think Josh is always playing devil’s advocate. That explains why he’s wrong all the time!
JL For the sake of conversation, sometimes I’ll want to push the conversation in another direction, but it doesn’t feel like button-pushing so much as, examining all angles.
AK Conversations go where they go. That’s the beauty of the podcast format.
AW A fun part of Filmspotting are your top five lists--do you find it effortful to decide the individual positioning?
JL There’s no list you could form that the hive mind will like. You can spend as much time as you want rearranging and there’s still going to be someone going “How could you leave that one off?” So because of that, I don’t feel a lot of pressure, but you have to do your due diligence.
AK I don’t stress out about whether something’s at number three or number four--until the top ten of the year--but I do take it very seriously. Sometimes you’re picking a top five that arguably could include every film ever made, like top five movies about ambition or people on a journey. You want to make your picks count.
STR We were hoping you could do a spontaneous top five Chicago movies.
AW Either shot in Chicago, about Chicago, a Chicago vibe....
JL He’s going to want to limit-
AK Are we talking city or suburbs?
JL Here we go...
AK Cause that does matter. We want the lists to be personal but if we can give the listener something they haven’t thought of that would be ideal. So we could sit here all day and go “Blues Brothers,” “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” “High Fidelity,” now “The Dark Knight”--shot here--that’s another distinction. Then the suburban movies, I love “Ordinary People,” “Risky Business”...
JL Sometimes the obvious ones are the right ones. But “Ferris Bueller” is an obvious one and it’s more of a travelogue. You get what you’d get in a tourist ad, so that one I’d set aside. But “The Blues Brothers” is unique because there’s so much south side--you’ve got Harvey, which doesn’t usually show up in Hollywood, the Baptist church on the south side. As far as idiosyncratic stuff--this weather we’ve been having is perfect for this--there’s this Nicolas Cage movie, “The Weatherman.” It’s set in the winter and they do a wonderful job of getting the chill, the oppressiveness, the slush--that movie feels like right now. They really do it right. “The Dark Knight” takes what’s unique about Chicago and uses it to its advantage, like those chase scenes on Lower Wacker-- it finds a way to get something from the city that no other city could give.
AK I like the Michael Mann movie, “Thief,” with James Cann. Really gritty. Michael Mann uses real Chicago cops so you get that authenticity. I love “Medium Cool.”1968. Shot around the protests at the democratic national convention. He’s out there capturing things as they unfold, using this Cinéma vérité style, but layering a story over it. He’s got actors amidst all the chaos. It opens with a car having a blow out on the Dan Ryan. It feels like Chicago right off the bat. Also “Call Northside 777,” a Jimmy Stewart movie. The first movie set and shot in Chicago. He plays a journalist assigned to write about a guy imprisoned for murdering a police officer. Great cast. You see almost the whole city as it looked in 1948.
JL Another one for you, from 05’ “Roll Bounce.” 1970’s-set roller rink comedy. Apparently Bow-Wow is in it. I don’t know if he was Lil’ Bow-Wow at the time. Lot’s of southwest side. It really captures a time and a place.
AK We just discovered this a year and a half ago, “Cooley High” from 1975, almost an African American response to “American Graffiti.”
STR How about a favorite movie--don’t worry, I’m going to define the term. By favorite we mean the movie that if you’re flipping through channels you will always stop and watch.
JL “Rushmore.” I’ll stop and watch it anytime. It helps that it’s ninety-eight minutes. For me those ‘stop and watch’ movies are generally comedies.
AW Right, you’re not going to watch “Twelve Years a Slave” every three months.
AK I’ll be honest. Right now, it’s totally pitch perfect. The sequel was announced this week--I’m pumped. I’m not into A Capella, I can’t completely explain it-- I love that movie. And now I have my nine-year-old daughter obsessed with it.
STR Mine’s “Coyote Ugly.”
AK “Pitch Perfect” and “Coyote Ugly,” now that’s a double feature!
Andrew Weir is a Chicago-based actor, writer, and director with an MFA in Theatre from Western Illinois University.
A writer with an MFA in Creative Writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sarah Terez Rosenblum freelances for sites like Pop Matters and
afterellen.com Her debut novel, “Herself When She’s Missing," was called “poetic and heartrending” by ALA Booklist. Sarah is also a figure model, Spinning instructor and teacher at Chicago’s StoryStudio. Inevitably one day she will find herself lecturing naked on a spinning bike. She's kind of looking forward to it actually.
IMPORTANT: the official Our Town site doesn't support comments. Join in the conversation by following facebook.com/OurTownBlog.ChicagoSunTimes and Sarah on Twitter: @SarahTerez and Facebook.