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From AJR,   June/July 2013  issue

The Village Gets a New Voice   

Film critic Stephanie Zacharek takes her distinctive style to the Village Voice.Wed., May 8, 2013.


By Sarah Albert
Sarah Albert (sarahjeannea@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

The Village Voice is as entrenched in New York culture as yellow cabs and Broadway. So it's no surprise that when the alt-weekly was looking for a new film critic, it wanted someone as entrenched in film culture as the paper is in the city. The answer came in the form of Stephanie Zacharek, a well-known movie critic for over a decade.

Zacharek, a veteran of Salon.com and Movieline with an engaging writing style, started work April 24, but her name had been circulating the Voice's office since well before that. "During my job interview last April. I mentioned Stephanie as the kind of writer I was looking for," says Alan Scherstuhl, the paper's film editor.

Zacharek, 52, began her career writing pop music reviews, eventually doing them for Rolling Stone and Entertainment Week. Then she heard from friends of hers who were the American editors of the English magazine Modern Review.

"They said. 'Would you like to write about film for us,' and I said, 'Sure I'll try it,' " Zacharek says. "I had always loved movies, but I never really said I wanted to be a film critic. It seemed like something so unattainable that you would never ever wish for it."

But that wish came true for her. Writing movie reviews, she says, is challenging and fun. "When you watch a film, you have to be firing on all cylinders. There are so many things you have to keep track of at once." Focusing on the dialogue, acting style, music and visual aspects of films--there was a lot to learn. "Now it's basically second nature to me," Zacharek says.

She fell in love with the job and never looked back, moving on to work as a full-time critic for the pioneering online magazine Salon in 1999. There, she built up an audience that has followed her throughout her career and a voice that is unmistakable.

"Her knowledge of film and her passion and excitement is kind of rare. She can really make you feel what the film is like," Scherstuhl says. "She's open and responsive to everything the way a filmgoer should be. She knows everything a critic needs to know."

After surviving round after round of layoffs and pay cuts at Salon, Zacharek couldn't resist the prospect of making more money while doing the same thing at the Web site Movieline. She made the move in 2010. "You start looking around, and your friends are gone, and you start thinking I could be next, maybe."


Stephanie Zacharek

The Moveline stint only lasted until July 2012, when her position was cut. But for Zacharek, it was sort of a blessing. The editor who had brought her on left eight months after her start. "It was not the publication that I left Salon to work for."

Zacharek freelanced for a variety of publications, including the Voice, until she started her new job.

"Just the thought of Stephanie Zacharek not having a full-time job somewhere seemed like something I couldn't believe," Scherstuhl says, "Working with her is the pleasure you would expect it to be."

Zacharek jumped at the chance to join a publication with a tradition of being committed to film criticism. "There are very few places that will actually give a film critic a platform and any sort of freedom, so I went for it," she says.

Here's how Zacharek describes her approach to her craft: "I feel that while you're looking at a movie, you have to be analytical and have a bank of knowledge about not only movies but general culture. I think that kind of makes my writing more personal, instead of just looking at a movie and trying to assess it in a straightforward, clinical way."

To say she has some knowledge of general culture would be an understatement. In her recent review of "Something in the Air," Zacharek manages to mention both Scooby-Doo and Botticelli's Venus in the first four lines.

Despite having been a critic for so long, Zacharek hasn't grown tired of watching the same types of mainstream movies week after week. Making sure she covers all of them is actually one of her biggest priorities.

This fits in perfectly at the Village Voice, which aims to do the same. "I was hired with the idea that we would cover every movie opening in New York and L.A., and the opportunity to do that is why this is such an exciting place to work," says Scherstuhl.

Says Zacharek, "I feel that movies are a popular art form. They're for everybody, and it's really important to be in touch with the movies young people would go to see on a Friday or Saturday night. I don't want to distance myself from that.

"Sometimes there's real artistry in crap."