Colin Covert on film and Minneapolis knighthood

By Tatiana Craine

Colin Covert is a Twin Cities sensation as the Star Tribune’s resident film critic. However, the metro area might not know that Covert graduated from a little gem of a school in St. Paul-Macalester College. I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Covert to chat film and journalism over Tibetan food. On the changes in the journalism and film-critiquing climate since he graduated in 1972, Covert said, “Oh, it’s been turned upside down. The seventies were the best era of movie making since sound. It was incredibly exciting era. [Film] was a vital part of the cultural conversation at that point. Seeing them was like an obligatory thing. Movies would stay in theaters much longer. They’d run and run and run. [Today] the time that people are thinking about these things and talking about these things is radically condensed. Another thing is in those days, writing about movies was considered a pretty important part of cultural commentary. You had people like John Simon and Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris who commanded really big audiences and would get people arguing. Movies were more intellectually rich at that time. I hardly need to go into how journalism has changed. Most cities had two newspapers and so people who were writing about films for print publications had sort of an authority and prestige, which is totally gone now. Which is great because it’s all very democratic now. Everybody gets an opinion out there, but a lot of it is nonsense, too. You have to really figure out, ‘Who am I going to listen to?’ And that’s not easy.”

During the interim between his graduation from Macalester and attaining a job at the Star Tribune, Covert took journalism courses at the University of Minnesota and had a short stint at the Minnesota Daily.

“After graduation, I knew I wanted to do something with words, but I didn’t know what it was. I didn’t know if I wanted to write a novel or be a librarian or own a bookstore or what. [It is] the English major’s dilemma: what do you do? I sort of got a little practical, and I thought, ‘What’s the most direct route between words and a job with a steady paycheck and benefits?’ And I think that journalism is the way to go.”

Before long, the Twin Cities Reader hired him as an editor for a few years. Covert then migrated to Michigan to work at the Detroit Free Press.

“I moved to Detroit only because I wanted to get a job in Minneapolis. Now, Minneapolis paper has always been very snooty. They always figure that getting a job there is like a knighthood. You really have to be just absurdly qualified. So you’d have to come from better newspapers, actually because this is a destination newspaper. This is not a newspaper where people go to start their careers and then go elsewhere. People do that, but they say, I want to live here and I want to work at that paper. I had to go to Detroit to do it. I had to take the circle route to do it.”

Since growing up and moving around frequently in Minnesota, Covert’s bond with Minnesota is strong. He commented, “In the same way I chose journalism, I chose Minneapolis deliberately too. I was lucky enough to grow up here. And when I was 13, I moved to White Bear Lake. I really love the Twin Cities. And you know how it is, once it gets in your blood- you never look back. It’s a proven fact. I mean fewer people leave Minnesota for good, and more people who leave the state return than any other state. There’s something about being here. [I also like Minnesota] partly because there’s a great deal of art here. And it’s available to you. Here, a middle class [guy] can have a great range of opportunity.

Surprisingly, Minnesota ranks high in the film market. Covert said, “This is the 15th biggest market for film, and it’s distinguished by the fact the movies that do well here are challenging. This is one of the biggest markets for Woody Allen. When Robert Altman was still alive and directing, this was one of his biggest markets. It’s an anomaly. The reason I’m a pretty good reviewer in this area is that this area is interested in challenging films, so we’re on a wave length.”

After 25 years writing for the Star Tribune, Covert tries to keep his writing fresh and innovative. Covert explained, “I just try to operate from the highest intelligence that I have available on that day. Some days it comes easily, and some days it’s like pushing a wheelbarrow of gravel uphill. I think because I’ve spent so much time reading, I’ve sort of absorbed by osmosis some of the habits or tricks of writers that I find engaging. I’m not sure how they get the rabbit out of the hat, but I know what the rabbit looks like. Sometimes it comes through deliberate planning, but most often it’s kind of a string of associations that creates a good review. I mean, in the same way that a bird picks up little pieces of string and twine and doesn’t consult an architect’s plan, but comes up with a perfectly functional and probably beautiful nest, it’s the same way with me. I’m coming up with little bits and bobs of information and kind of rattling them around like a bingo tumbler, and they tumble out, and I try and make a logical connection. However, sometimes the logical connection is as complicated as ‘but’ or ‘and.'”

Though Covert has gained a widespread following with his pointed film reviews, he is no stranger to criticism himself. “My perspective is the only one I have. A lot of times, things that people revile, I just love. Like ‘The Cat In the Hat.’ I just loved that. And ‘Land of the Lost;’ the Will Ferrell thing-it was just so goofy it made me laugh. A lot of times you know you’re walking into a propeller when you say something is good or that something’s bad, but you just say this is why I thought. And you try and put your ideas out there in a way that will start a conversation either between filmgoers or in the mind of a solitary filmgoer. Because that’s the missing piece-we see [films], but we don’t have anyone to talk about them with. I’ve definitely liked movies that people have walked out of the theater demanding their money back. But you can’t please everybody.”

Covert described his role at the Star Tribune as “[thinking] of new ways to say mediocre. It’s kind of like being a food critic, but being assigned to go to fast food restaurants, four days out of five.”

On that note, he noted that “What makes [film critiquing] hard sometimes is that there’s no longer a slow season. It used to be that between the summer action releases and the fall Oscar race, there was a dead time. But now, with all the independent and foreign films channeling the market, it never slows down. The assembly line is always going really, really fast. There’s no time to stop and think.”

However, Covert’s deep passion for films becomes evident when describing the elements of a perfect film. Covert’s favorite part of reviewing is, “A really great movie. Because a really great movie, in my opinion, is better than all the other arts because it contains all the other arts. Film contains music, it contains drama, it contains painting in the color scheme and the cinematography. It contains art in the set design, and the way the actors move it contains dance. It contains writing. It’s all there. Plus, it’s got unique things that no other art form has. It’s got all the camera lens stuff, depth of field, zoom, dolly and editing. It’s all the other arts combined, plus its own wonderful attributes. So when you see a movie that’s a completely successful work of art, it reenergizes you and it restores your faith in the medium.”

Despite print journalism’s recent decline, Covert does not want ardent journalists to shy away from the medium. “Ultimately what is life about? If you want to do journalism, you should enter into it with the same sense that a schoolteacher does. You will be making a certain sacrifice because you think what you’re doing will be good for society. It will be very difficult, but it will be very fulfilling to your soul. If that’s important to you, don’t let anyone dissuade you with stories
about how tough it is. Be sure it’s what you want to do; and if it’s what you want to do, don’t let anybody talk you out of it.”

To be certain, The Mac Weekly will take those words to heart.