To the average observer, Michael Ward is the definition of the American everyman. An unassuming, workaday family man, it wouldn’t be immediately obvious that there lies a deep-seated passion for the motion picture. Indeed, his entire philosophy of reviewing films takes on a removal of self rarely seen of most critics. “My mind intuitively drifts to others when forming an opinion on a film; what would my friends think of this? My wife? Would they see it differently than I do?”
Far from a simple personality quirk, this distinctive trait had been cultivated from the time he was seven years-old. “It all started when my parents gave me not only a TV set, but HBO along with it.” That was the first domino, “From that point, it was always, ‘on.’ I was not really a ‘popular kid.’ I preferred my own company and was a little reclusive.” So what was it about cinema that appealed to him at that age? “I don’t remember any specific film that ignited my interest. I do recall lots of bits and pieces of classics, and being very drawn to them. To me, their visuals and sensational presentation were more captivating than other forms of entertainment.”
Such enthusiasm inevitably spilled over into the Oscars. “My mother used to watch the Academy Awards, so I ‘had to’ watch them as well. I loved the pageantry of it, the prestige and importance of the ceremony. I believed – as probably a lot of kids did at the time – that the Oscars were authoritative. Whatever won an award was the objective best, right? Well, that all changed when I saw one of my all-time favorite films as a kid (and to this day), E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, lose Best Picture to Gandhi. The disappointment was so raw that it took years for me to finally watch Gandhi and not feel resentment towards it.”
His passion became more focused as he got older; eventually landing what he considered a “dream job” during his high school years: Flynn’s Video. “It was the local hometown video store, and it felt like it would be so awesome to work there.” He and two other teenage friends of his got their lucky break when the store experienced a rapid expansion due to high demand from a relatively small community. A lot of new employees were needed, and by chance he knew a classmate who was the daughter of the owner, Pam. She got all three of them an interview with her mother, and impressed her enough to all get a job.
As an employee, Mike was frequently asked for recommendations by other customers, which required him to develop his cinematic palate and carefully gauge responses from a variety of tastes. He took an especially active curiosity in how the store itself would order new releases and what its customers had the most demand for. “My enthusiasm really impressed Pam, and she allowed me to have influence in and assist with the buying of titles for the store. I would get the weekly pre-book catalogs and go through them and make my recommendations, which she often incorporated into her ordering along with her decisions. It taught me a lot about a consumer’s decision-making in entertainment.”
But his education didn’t stop there. Majoring in Communications/Broadcasting at Central Washington University, he was for the first time exposed to the more technical aspects of filmmaking; taking the finer points of things like mise-en-scène and story development and analyzing them. But despite this, Mike felt that such formal knowledge was not as interesting as gauging the intuitive, emotional responses of others, “Film education usually doesn’t account for the real reason people love movies. While that kind of awareness can be helpful, the bottom line is that most people don’t think in technical aspects, they’re looking for that emotional impact, whether it is sadness, joy, terror, etc.”
Mike realized at that point that he was more interested in the diversity of responses from the average viewer more than his own critical analysis. After much thought, ShouldISeeIt.net was born in October 2009, with the mantra of “film criticism with you in mind.”
“Sometimes it’s a challenge to consistently think of ideal audiences for a particular film. Take my most infamous Awards Circuit review, Sucker Punch. I tried, but it was tough to find anything redeemable in that one. I’d say the same thing about Sex and the City 2; those types of films that have a conceit of insularity and arrogance about their own existence while failing to offer anything of value…unfortunately, the worst of film can hit me harder than the best.” So how does he judge the best of cinema? Many factors can affect him, but ambition goes a long way, “Movies that take big risks and believe in them, especially if they have an emotional resonance, represent the very best that the medium has to offer. This is particularly true of films like 2001: A Space Odyssey and A Clockwork Orange, but I can be moved by the simple earnestness of something like Toy Story as well.”
Mike had known of The Awards Circuit for a while, but was not especially aware of the particulars, “I liked what I saw and I followed its content carefully from September to March, but was more interested in quietly observing the individual responses than participating in their debates at the time.” When the opportunity to apply there came knocking, he saw the chance to test his own writing and abilities. As we know now, he passed with flying colors and the rest is history.
Today Mike lives in Carnation, Washington, happily married for fifteen years to a woman he’s known since elementary school and has two daughters who are developing a cinema passion of their own. “They’re starting to love movies as much as I do…which is to say too much!” He currently works as a paralegal at a local law firm, and also contributes movie reviews to a local newspaper called The River Current. While he is uncertain of the future, he is immensely grateful for everything he has managed to accomplish so far. His wife Wendy, in particular, reminds him of the truly important things in life: “She’s supportive of my interests, but doesn’t allow it to consume me. In the end, my family is the best thing that has ever happened to me and I always try and put them first no matter what.”
As one of the new staff writers, Mike sees his new position as an opportunity to expand his ideas from ShouldISeeIt: “I hope that my involvement will ultimately allow avenues for a broader focus and audience.” His detailed and well-informed reviews have already made a great impression on the site and its readership, but as always, Mike remains humble. “I’m not what one would call ego-driven or ambitious in the world of film criticism. I’m terrible at marketing myself; I don’t even feel entirely comfortable being the ‘star’ of any group or event. I’m just glad to be part of the team, to be honest.”