Cultural Omnivore, Arts Critic: The Vanguard of Jose Solis
Debates about cultural criticism question its relevance, who is and is not a critic, and the audience for critical writing. We believe critics themselves must not be sidelined from these debates. In our occasional series, Critical I, critics tell their own stories and offer their personal views of criticism. This latest interview is with film, theater and music critic Jose Solis. He contributes his thoughts about many art forms to a range of outlets including The Film Experience, PopMatters and StageBuddy.
Please provide a personal professional statement of +/-150 words.
I’m an arts journalist who specializes in theater and film, with over 10 years of experience writing for online publications. I’m highly motivated, driven, very curious, not limited to one art form, and willing to explore new branches and immerse myself in them. I’m a creative thinker, interested in efficient problem-solving and new ways to engage readers in arts criticism, adept at assessing needs and finding original ways to discuss the arts and to engage consumers. I’m well versed in musicals, classic Hollywood film, art of the Weimar Republic, Italian neorealism, Jane Austen, fashion and costume design, screenwriting and pop culture. I’m interested in implementing mentorship programs for budding critics and finding a way to introduce arts criticism into the life of my home country, Honduras.
What city or town do you live in? Where did you grow up? Where’s your favorite place on Earth?
I live in NYC. I was born in Tegucigalpa, Honduras and lived there until I left to go to film school in San Jose, Costa Rica when I was a teenager. I spent the next eight years there before coming to NYC. If you’re asking about cities, then NYC is the only place I have ever wanted to be. If we’re going for super specific locations, I wouldn’t mind living inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Do you consider yourself a theater journalist or critic or a bit of both?
I’ve always known that I wanted to be a critic, but since I went to film school and was surrounded by budding filmmakers, the word “critic” was associated with two things: “the enemy” or “those who can’t become critics.” Growing up, the word became a pejorative; I remember my father having to defend me in front of his friends who mocked me when I said I wanted to be a critic. I’ve learned to own the word. I’ve come to believe that part of the reason why I love my work is that I’d like to change people’s ideas about what we do. Yes, I’m a critic.
What is your main area of expertise? How did you acquire it?
I grew up watching classic Hollywood movies. Two of my earliest memories of movie images are Rhett carrying Scarlett up the very red stairs in Gone with the Wind and the road to Manderley in the opening of Rebecca. My grandmother and father raised me on a diet of Kazan, Donen, Wyler, Wilder and Hitchcock. I believe my area of expertise is finding connections to classic Hollywood filmmaking in theater, literature, art and music. I’m your man if you need to come up with the way a piece of art is connected to Laura.
In what year was your first professional piece of writing published? What was the publication and what was the piece?
It’s strange to think how much “professional” has changed for arts journalists. If “professional” is the first time someone paid me to write something, it was the first review I published on StageBuddy in 2013. If we’re talking about having a piece of writing published in a “professional” outlet for which I wasn’t remunerated, it was a review of Plastic Planet published by PopMatters in 2011.
Which areas of cultural criticism have you not covered but wish to try? Why?
Opera and ballet. I consider myself an omnivore, so the only reason I haven’t covered those is because I haven’t had the time or the outlet. I have written about everything from film to theater, music, modern dance, fashion, graphic arts, food, literature, TV, design and even sports. (Yes, sports!)
Can anyone be a critic? Why or why not?
Anyone can put together words and write. But most people are under the misconception that a critic’s job is “to criticize” — we have earned a reputation for being people who tear apart the work of others. Becoming a critic takes a huge amount of preparation, not only in terms of academia, but also in being a constant student. Besides having vast knowledge of what came before them, they must always be up to date on how art is evolving, new techniques, what is happening in the world around them, and engaging with audience members. Our job is to contextualize art and moderate past, present and future. When people say I have an easy job and get to rest and relax, my go-to response is “I may not be a coal miner, but I bet you couldn’t do my job.”
Which living critics, in your own or other field(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
I could listen to and read Peter Filichia forever — he is a human encyclopedia of theater, I love how generous he is in his criticism, how he’s unafraid to be very “out there” with his opinions. His books are some of my favorites on art history, and his column on Masterworks Broadway is always a delight. I’m a total Maureen Corrigan fanboy: not only does she make radio criticism an art form (her book reviews on Fresh Air are almost poetic) but her breadth of interests excite me about what she loves. Richard Brody is the greatest film critic alive: his knowledge is as expansive as his humor. He perfectly encompasses what makes a critic great: you love engaging with their work even when you don’t agree with them at all. His review of Pixar’s Inside Out is perfection. I am completely head over heels about Pete Wells’ review of the now defunct Señor Frogs restaurant, which turned lowbrow eating into a celebration of life and an invitation to decadence. I used the review to convince my friends that Señor Frogs was where I wanted to celebrate my 30th birthday.
Which dead critics, in your own or other fields(s) of expertise, do you admire? Why?
Name a review in which you were dead wrong, and why.
I don’t think criticism is something where you can be right or wrong; I’ll plead the fifth on this. I believe your views on a piece of art should evolve. Roger Ebert would revisit La Dolce Vita every decade or so and approach his writing about it from a different perspective. Art should grow up with us, and so should our opinions of it.
Name a case in which most critics were wrong and you were right.
I wish there were more dissenting voices when it seems that the entire critical mass shares the same opinion. For example, with [Joshua Harmon’s] play Significant Other, I yearned for someone to point out how the show depicted a saintly version of a white gay male, and never questioned why his world was so misogynistic and racist. I applauded Gideon Glick’s performance in this role, taking the character to dark places, but I was disappointed that critics focused more on the rom-com aspects of the play and didn’t question the character’s motivations. Why did he make fun of the more feminine gay man? Why did he get away with treating his female friends like an abusive boyfriend? Why were all the love interests for men and women a traditional jock-type white man? The opposite of this happened in 2010 when Sex and the City 2 came out and every critic that I read trashed it with glee. I noticed people were lashing out and airing their own sexism — for example, Ebert criticized the female characters in the film for the same reasons he celebrated the male characters of The Hangover. In my review of Sex and the City 2, I focused on it as a throwback to the Crosby-Hope exotic buddy movies, like Road to Morocco, and to romantic comedies like It Happened One Night.
If you weren’t a critic, what would you be? Why?
When I was six I wanted to be a chef, a priest and Princess Jasmine from Aladdin. One of those.
What is very wrong with contemporary cultural criticism?
First and foremost, the lack of diversity. Every critic seems to be a middle-aged white man, so the way they view the world comes from a place of utmost privilege and that’s how they write about the art they experience. I find that film criticism is slightly more open to diversity, perhaps because film reaches wider audiences and people from all over can contribute to the discussion. I have found myself attending theater criticism panels and conferences where I am the only person of color, and often the youngest attendee. There needs to be more inclusion. This is tricky because jobs in criticism are limited and no one wants to let go of their positions to make way for new people. I certainly don’t blame them, but I think we have a responsibility to usher in new, diverse voices. I’m not saying give them your job, but bring them to the theater as your plus-one, help them edit their pieces, inspire them to start their own blogs — and stop using the word “blogger” as a pejorative. We often hear people say our profession is dying, but rather than holding onto it until they take us away in a coffin, we should be training the people who will extend its life.
Criticism has also become yet another space for outrage culture to flourish. I celebrate when critics point out sociopolitical and racial injustice because we have a lot of work to do there, but I am disappointed by how many reviews I read in which the critic dismisses an apple because it wasn’t an orange. We need to become more engaged with the art we’re experiencing, whether it aligns with our beliefs and tastes or not. I would never be caught dead at a soccer match, for instance, but I would not demand that [Sarah DeLappe’s] The Wolves — a play about a girls’ high school soccer team — be about figure skaters instead. Given the times we live in, we all need to demand equality and justice, but to do so while dismissing the art that came before us is insane. Nothing makes me sadder than hearing younger people saying that they refuse to watch Gone with the Wind because it depicts slavery or that The King and I should never be produced again because of its white-hero take. I believe art should be challenging and have issues that force us to discuss it. The past should be icky, to show us that we’ve made progress. But we need to be better at compartmentalizing. We can and we should be disgusted by the plot of The King and I without taking away the merit of the music and lyrics. I think in this need to be “woke,” we often become censors.
What is very right with contemporary cultural criticism?
I love that Twitter is making conversations possible between critics and audiences. Despite all the horrible things social media brings to the table, it has also made criticism the public forum it was always meant to be. Now you can ask the critic questions about their work and debate with them, if they’re so inclined. Many critics still refuse to be on social media. Criticism was always meant to be a town hall, not a dictator’s podium.
In up to 150 words, please review yourself as a critic.
Extremely passionate. I can have too many ideas going on at the same time, which I hope end up in a cohesive knot. I like coming up with original ways to discuss the ideas in my work. I don’t limit myself by the norms of what people before me have been doing. Someday I will file an instrumental composition as my review, but first I need to learn how to compose. Why should a review feel like reading a form? You don’t need to mention every single element about a production — sometimes your review can be only about the lighting, a particular costume, a specific performance. Where are all the haikus and graphic reviews? If nothing else, I hope that my love and devotion to the art forms I discuss come across loud and clear.
In up to 140 characters, please review yourself as a critic.
Are emojis allowed?