Eking a career from appreciating zombies and Buñuel

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Film critic Budd Wilkins with wife Tina (center)
Film critic Budd Wilkins with wife Tina (center)

by Jordan Green

The Greensboro film critic Budd Wilkins sat in a semicircle of stuffed couches and chairs at the back of Scuppernong Books on a recent Thursday evening as the light from the back windows played on the building’s exposed brickwork and preteens scurried down the alley to the rear.

Billed as a “shelf talk,” the format for the evening was a discussion led by the 42-year-old Wilkins on three formative film books, but in light of the small gathering the writer opted to leave a metal podium unattended. The intimate audience included the writer’s wife, Tina, known as “the film-critic wrangler,” who acts as her husband’s editor, agent and goad; the writer’s mother; and a Spanish professor from High Point University.

While the focus of much of the culturati has shifted from film to television, Wilkins delved deeper into his mania for surrealist cinema, managing to fashion a marginal career as a film critic over the past three years.

“I held off on watching television because all I wanted to do was watch movies — as many of them as I possibly could,” he said. “And write about them.”

He’s a fan of “Louie CK,” and an avid watcher of “True Detective” and “Game of Thrones,” but his allegiance hasn’t shifted.

“Television is more of a writer’s format,” he said. “There’s something about the conciseness and visual storytelling of film that I’ll take over serialized television.”

Haunting video stores on Battleground Avenue as a child with his mother, Wilkins recalled watching an Italian zombie movie at the age of 8, and admiring David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in high school in the late ’80s. He studied religion as an undergrad at UNCG, and tried his hand at fiction, but found he wasn’t very good at it. The fiction-writing class taught him about craft and rewriting. A self-designed major in liberal studies with a focus on film history and criticism resulting in a master’s degree from UNCG in 2010 set him on his current path.

Getting turned down from UNCG’s doctoral English program “was a huge bullet dodge,” Wilkins surmised, noting that the rejection forced him to start pitching his work to film publications. Since the fall of 2011, he estimated that he has written upwards of 200 reviews, and been published in seven publications.

He reviews Blu-ray rereleases for the Cincinnati-based glossy Video Watchdog, including the Spanish director Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone in a recent issue. The lede from an article about the early Jim Henson TV movie Cube (“The Muppet man’s acid-frazzled early TV work showcased his fondness for hope-sapping philosophical literature and Luis Buñuel”) provides a fairly precise gauge of his tastes.

He has found working as a professional film critic at the vaunted Cannes Film Festival to be a kind of demeaning caste system, describing long days with early starts, scrambling for tickets and racing from venue to venue.

“It’s almost like they’re pitting the critics against each other for their amusement,” he said, snorting. “Caged critics match.”

A more salutory career marker was discovering that a 40th anniversary reappraisal he wrote about The French Connection was assigned to students at University of Southern California.

Adam Winkel, the Spanish professor at High Point University, showed up at the film talk to learn about Buñuel with the notion of incorporating the Spanish filmmaker’s work into one of his classes. Wilkins recommended a parallel biography of Buñuel, painter Salvador Dali and poet Federico Garcia Lorca.

For both Wilkins and Winkel, exposure to Buñuel and Dali’s short film “Un Chien Andalou” was a life-changing experience — Wilkins in college and Winkel at Governor’s School of North Carolina in Winston-Salem.

“I’ve never gotten that eye-slicing scene out of my head,” Winkel said.

For those who aren’t familiar with the 1929 surrealist classic, Wilkins helpfully noted that the Pixies’ song “Debaser” — released six decades later — pays explicit tribute: “Got me a movie/ I want you to know/ Slicing up eyeballs/ I want you to know… I am un chien Andalusia.”

With frequent prodding from his wife Tina, Budd Wilkins sprinkled provocative anecdotes throughout his talk.

“There’s a story, apocryphal perhaps, about Buñuel that he had a pile of stones near the stage of the theater during the first screening of the movie in case the audience rioted,” Wilkins said. “But since everyone who was invited was a surrealist, it was well received.”

 

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  • Adam Winkel

    Nice article, Jordan. It is an accurate account of a very enjoyable evening. Too bad there there weren’t more people there to join the conversation, but I appreciated being able to talk to you and Budd. Thanks also to Scuppernong for hosting.