(In this installment, Che Underground: The Blog catches up with Rockin’ Dogs drummer Cole Smithey about his career at the movies in New York. If you’d like your story told, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org!)
You recently celebrated your 15th year in New York and 15 years as a film critic. What was your path from drummer with the Rockin’ Dogs to your current role as “the smartest film critic in the world”?
It was a long and bumpy one, I can assure you. I moved up to San Francisco with the idea of finding a new band to play with, but that just didn’t happen. Having studied acting at SDSU, I got an acting scholarship to Hartnell College in Salinas. So, I spent a year in Salinas living out of my van. I played tympani in a 38-piece symphony orchestra there — doing classical music. I also played drums with the pep band at football games. The drama-department politics at Hartnell were horrendous, but I somehow managed to come out of it with a 4.0 GPA. There’s something to be said for living in your van: You just study all the time.
I moved back to SF and was working for my talent agent — sending myself out on auditions for industrials and commercials — when I picked up an issue of Sight and Soundmagazine. I realized instantly that I wanted to be a film critic.
By that time I had met editorial cartoonist Ted Rall — while standing at the front of the line for a Buzzcocks show at the I-Beam on Haight Street. Ted gave me a lot of good advice about writing and self-syndication. I did a writing workshop with Bay Guardian critic Susan Gerhard, which proved indispensable. “Trainspotting” was the first movie I reviewed.
By 1996, Ted and his wife had moved back to Manhattan, and he would always ask when I was moving to New York. So, in the fall of ’96 I made plans to move to NYC on July 1, 1997, with the intention of becoming a professional film critic. For most of the first year,I only wrote capsule reviews — four or five every week — for the Independent in Raleigh, N.C. I shifted into longer-form reviews and started getting picked up by a slew of alternative weeklies across the country. Gradually, I started writing for magazines. I realized the pitfalls of writing gigs, which is that they always come to an end — some sooner than others.
After scratching my head for too long about launching a website, a friend of my girlfriend Katherine — Kris Fortney — built a website for me (in 2005) that I could maintain and grow with.
Before the economic collapse of 2008, I started a weekly film review video series with the intention of syndicating it to daily newspapers. United Media were interested in representing me, and mentored me to develop and tailor the series. The put a lot of emphasis was on branding. Another friend — Jeremy Schwartz — a well-known voice-over actor, offered to do the intro for the video. I gave him some ideas to play with, and he did five different versions. Of the five, he only pronounced my name correctly in the one that says, “The Smartest Film Critic in the World: Cole Smithey.” United Media loved it, so it stuck. It’s always been a tongue-in-cheek thing, but Roger Ebert took it seriously when he wanted to take me down a peg for a review I’d written. I thought it was pretty funny that he took the slogan so seriously. He said he expected more from the smartest film critic in the world. I suppose it’s like the famous Iggy line, “a heavy price for a heavy pose.”
Which came first: your interest in music or film?
Probably music. My parents played a lot of records when I was a tot. I remember jumping around to Sam Cook’s greatest hits and Harry Belafonte records. My dad was a professional magician in Richmond, Va., where we lived. He was friends with a bunch of musicians around town. I always begged for a drum kit, and although my parents promised to buy one for me, they never did. They did however set me up with drum lessons when I was 12 with a drummer named Bob Antonelli — he played for a band called “The Good Humor Band.” I spent a lot of time playing on a practice pad with my Franz metronome ticking away.
My dad was also friends with actors such as Celeste Holm and Ethel Merman. So I got to meet those great ladies when I was a kid. My dad was a movie fan, and took me to the movies a lot. He took me to see my first R-rated movie “Fists of Fury” when I was eight. He also took me to see “The Exorcist” a couple of years later when I was 10. Those aren’t exactly the kinds of movies most little kids can handle, but I’d been prepped for what to expect. As a boy, I had a lot of respect for the power of cinema as something very complex and sophisticated. I always aspired to really understand movies.
I find similarities between the production of music and movies: Both reflect the synthesis of many elements to create a singular vision. Do you agree with that?
Absolutely, they both demand intuitive communication between their ensembles of artistic contributors. There’s a lot of right-brain-left-brain activity going on.
Do you see a relationship between your appreciation of film and music?
Naturally. Both depend on combining language with sound and performance styles and techniques. The both exist in the same universe. Of course, seeing films like “Quadrophenia” and “The Harder They Come” gave me a lot of inspiration. The early ‘80s was an interesting time because music videos seemed to promise a bright future that didn’t really pan out as well as we hoped. Nonetheless, seeing a movie like “American Gigolo” — with Blondie doing the theme song, or “Cat People” — with David Bowie doing music was really exciting. The list goes on. Iggy’s contribution to “Repo Man” seemed huge at the time.
What movie should readers of Che Underground: The Blog see this weekend?
If you haven’t seen “Moonrise Kingdom,” that’s a great way to spend a couple of hours. Takashi Miike’s “Hara-Kiri: Death of a Samurai” is opening in New York, and should roll out to smaller markets. That’s really cool Japanese movie to check out.
More There to Here:
- There to Here: Cynthia Jaynes Omololu, Young Adult fiction phenom
- There to Here: Paul Kaufman, University of Massachusetts Medical School
- There to Here: Todd Lahman, Sweeney Todd’s Barber Shop
- There to Here: Mark Stern, Soup Nation
Tags: Bob Antonelli, Cole Smithey, film criticism, Hartnell College, Kris Fortney, Roger Ebert, San Francisco Bay Guardian, Susan Gerhard, Ted Rall, the Buzzcocks, The Good Humor Band, the I-Beam, The Rockin' Dogs