My Favorite Film Critic Retires (letter to the editor, 2010)

Duncan Shepherd wrote film reviews for the weekly San Diego Reader for years. When I first arrived in town and began reading his column, I was baffled. This was a mild version of perhaps the most common reaction to his hostility toward and impatience with so much of what Hollywood cranked out. As the letter shows, I ultimately grew quite fond of him.

I would also like to add that I most assuredly had nothing to do with the terrible title the editor attached to this letter.


At breakfast on Friday, I was distressed to read that I was in fact to be reading Duncan Shepherd’s last movie column. While I know it is inevitable that he would sooner or later retire, I have to say that you ought to try to talk him out of it, for your sake as much as anyone else’s: the rest of the Reader — the political muckraking, the human-interest pieces, the restaurant reviews, etc. — are all very well and good, but it is only Shepherd’s column that has made me make certain to pick up a copy each week. I know the initial impression he tends to make is that he is the Mr. Crankshaft of cinema, but that’s because he holds films to the highest of standards. Many people who criticize him go to movies with the attitude of “How can I kill two hours?” Shepherd’s main criterion seems to be, “If you knew you had a month left to live, would this film be worth your time?” It’s not surprising that the answer is usually no. Shepherd demands of films that they be sincere, that they are genuinely human and humane. You can learn a lot about movies from reading his columns, regardless of whether he was writing about instantly forgettable junk or a masterpiece.

It never bothered me that he didn’t think much (at all) of my two all-time favorite films or that I have zero interest in French cinema or that I’m mystified by his enthusiasm for Tombstone. His reviews operate on a very different level from those of other reviewers. Reviews from other reviewers seem to me more or less interchangeable, but you’d never mistake one of Shepherd’s columns for someone else’s. His are an art in themselves.

I write in present tense, not only to avoid sounding like an obituary but in hopes that he won’t completely retire. I have been meaning to write in and suggest that a book be made of his best columns: your website only has the brief blurbs of his old reviews, and I for one would like to see the actual essays.