By Aaron Aradillas
(originally published in rockcritics.com in 2006)
In the history of movie critic partnerships (Corliss and Schickel, Scott and Dargis), Entertainment Weekly’s Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum have been providing the most stimulating insights into movies for over a decade. In the summer of 2004 Mr. Gleiberman became the first subject in this continuing series of in-depth interviews with movie critics. Ever since then I’ve wanted to interview the other half of the critical team from EW. Now, that time has arrived.
A little taken aback by my request to interview her, Ms. Schwarzbaum turned out to be an engaging interviewee. She steps up and answers my questions with the combination of wit and grace that mark her best reviews. From her early years as a critic of classical music, to her fondness for the craftsmanship of magazines, to the pros and cons of TV, Ms. Schwarzbaum allows us to understand what makes her one of the most intelligent critics working today. We can only hope that she and her co-critic at EW continue to provide their brand of two-pronged insights into movies–and pop culture–for a long time.
Aaron: What was the first moviegoing experience you remember leaving a lasting impression on you?
Lisa: I didn’t grow up in a movie-going family, so it wasn’t so much the going out as the staying home that made an impression: I was an indiscriminate repeat customer of WOR-TV’s Million Dollar Movie, a New York-area television program that broadcast the same film every night for a week at a time. (I watched alone, or with my younger brother; I didn’t grow up in much of a TV-watching family, either, and now I’m an addict.) To this day, for me and an army of other Boomers, “The Tara Theme” brings to mind Gone With the Wind only as an afterthought: More to the point, it was the musical signature of our favorite Sputnik-era culture-shaping TV programming. Anyhow, decades later, it’s still easy to pick the two Million Dollar Movie movies that affected me most: Roger Corman’s Pit and the Pendulum (1961) made me vomit from fright. And Joseph Losey’s The Boy With Green Hair (1948) haunted me deeply for un-analyzed reasons I thought were mine alone, but turns out (I discovered when I wrote about the experience in Entertainment Weekly) to be shared by a generation of fellow MDM alumni.
Aaron: I read you went to Sarah Lawrence. What did you study and what were your college years like?
Lisa: I majored in music–to be exact, I “concentrated” in music, since Sarah Lawrence didn’t have majors (or exams, or grades, or requirements). I studied piano, viola, music theory, music history, composition, and conducting. I sang in a chorus that traveled to Europe for a month-long concert tour. I wore black garments. I took classes in fiction writing. I made my own yogurt. I took a course in oxyacetylene welding since I admired the sculpture of David Smith. I wrote in blank notebooks with a leaky Rapidograph pen. You know, the usual.
I also experienced a lightbulb moment of Aha!, the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, with an assist from my mother, who suggested that I write about music just as I was coming to terms with the reality that I didn’t have the skill or interest to become a professional musician. I should back up and say that I have always written, since grade school–poetry, fiction, high-school-newspaper journalism, high school literary magazine–and my pals were always the newspaper boys. But it was my mother who identified a way to synthesize my interests. After that, I began writing about music, and dance, for the Sarah Lawrence newspaper.
Also, during that time I competed for and won one spot among twenty college-student Guest Editors who would spend a month interning at Mademoiselle magazine, and I had the great luck to be assigned to the arts and entertainment pages presided over by the legendary editor Leo Lerman. The experience was brief, but the effect–a lifelong love of magazine writing–has shaped my professional life.
Aaron: What makes feature writing in magazines special for you?
Lisa: When I was a girl, my mother subscribed to McCall’s and Vogue. Every month, the former provided meat-and-potatoes household service, practicality, and common sense. Every month, the latter offered fantasy, artistic experimentation, aspiration, and astonishment of writing, design, photography, and composition. I loved both publications. (Other home deliveries: The New Yorker, Popular Mechanics, and The Readers Digest–preferred bathroom reading provided by an annual subscription from my grandmother.) I still love those qualities about magazines–every month or week a new little universe. Each magazine with a purpose, a look, a style, a front and back cover, a thing to hold. Each article (and illustration and photograph and short story and essay) a thing declared, defended, and concluded. Perfection. Funny, as a writer I’m sometimes exasperated by the editing process (monthly magazines, and women’s monthly mags in particular, are prone to poke and tweak and torture a story to death by blandness). But as an editor–for a time in the 1980s I was the editor of The Dial, the national public television magazine–I adored working with graphic designers and art directors to shape each “book.”
Aaron: You might be the only critic I know of whose background is in covering dance and classical music. Some people might view these as more reputable art forms to critique. What were you able to take from them that you could use in reviewing movies?
Lisa: Do you really know anyone who actually believes today that movies are a less reputable art form to critique than dance and classical music? Or are you saying that defensively, assigning high/lowbrow heights that don’t apply? Relax, Mozart and choreographer Mark Morris aren’t scary. There’s plenty from my days of writing about dance and music that I still regularly draw on to write about movies, particularly as I consider the movement, rhythm, harmony, and dynamics of a work. Also, my ear-training and knowledge of classical repertory is a help when it comes to considering the use of music in any particular film. There’s a whole essay to be done just about the use of Mozart’s music in movies, with particular attention paid to the trio from “Cosi fan Tutti”–the hardest working mood music in showbiz.
Aaron: Does your appreciation of classical music allow you to spot when a filmmaker is putting on airs when they place a seemingly “refined” piece of music on the soundtrack to give their movie a cachet of “class?”
Lisa: Are you sure you’re not being squeamish–or maybe just shy–about stuff written by dead guys who may or may not have worn wigs? Classical music isn’t primarily the province of the “classy” (whoever they are in the filmmaking world–Woody Allen? Walt Disney?) any more than classical literature is primarily the province of the BBC. It’s just–music, as accessible to you and me and, oh, I don’t know, Eminem or Kenny G. So when I hear a familiar cadence in a soundtrack–a fragment from Mozart’s Requiem, a hunk of Orff’s Carmina Burana, a sampling from Satie’s Gymnopedies (to name three favorites from the movie soundtrack repertory), I think, what does this hunk of Orff mean to the filmmaker? Is the music being used creatively as a vital artistic element in its own right? (I can’t, for example, imagine Apocalypse Now without the thunder of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries.”) Or does the music mask a narrative weakness and serve primarily as pretty aural putty?
By the way, I’m still pondering the implications of Terrence Malick’s arresting use of Mozart’s Piano Concerto #23 in The New World–a pointed decision to juxtapose the serenity of ordered, peak-of-culture Old World music against scenes of much wilder beauty and newness.
Aaron: What does classical music offer you that you can’t find in pop? What part did pop music play in forming your tastes?
Lisa: Let me work backwards here. I grew up listening to the Top 40 countdown on radio just like any other bird in love with The Beatles (specifically John, of course, the Thinking Girl’s Beatle) and their Merseybeat contemporaries. (Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, the Dave Clark Five–I’ve still got the vinyl, and the turntable to play it.) I was also deep into folk music (Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, The Weavers–remember, I dressed in black). Then there were the years of Procol Harum, The Incredible String Band, Tim Buckley. Oh, and Cream.
The canon of classical music though–Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, the biggies, and Mozart above all–fills me with the joy of passionate emotion organized into tonal order. Like an exquisite math. I don’t know how else to say it. Maybe I can play you a Bach fugue?
Aaron: What impact did the Kael-Sarris schools of criticism have on you, if any?
Lisa: The short answer is, little. I read Kael’s reviews in The New Yorker, and I thought she was a jazzy writer–a knockout writer, really–with marvelous (and sometimes marvelously wacky) enthusiasms. But her tastes didn’t shape my tastes, nor did her critical writing style inform my style, and I knew nothing of Jets vs. Sharks, Paulettes vs. Sarrisites, until much, much later in my professional career. Anyway, at the time I was reading Kael, I was writing about dance and music and was much more influenced by the critical confidence and literary brio of New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce, not to mention by the high-wire panache of Janet Flanner, writing her delicious “Letter From Paris” under the pseudonym Genet. For me, Flanner’s description of the murder scene on which Genet–the original Jean Genet–based The Maids is one of the great set-pieces of cultural reporting.
Today, Andrew Sarris’s organizing principle of auteurism makes much more elegant sense to me than Kael’s va-va-voomy visceral judgment calls, her insistent loves and hates. But what I don’t get is this: years after Kael’s death, why are we still talking about Kael vs. Sarris as if choosing a team color is Topic A? As if, indeed, any serious movie critic must declare a team in order to play? Why does the mention of Kael, in particular–and the declaration for or against on the part of an army of male critics (it’s predominantly men who get het up about the subject)–still generate so much ink? I’m being a little provocative here for the sake of, oh, I don’t know, pantsing the keepers of the flame, but I’m also serious: The humorless orthodoxies of the competing teams baffle me.
Aaron: You joined Entertainment Weekly in 1991 as a senior writer. You became co-movie critic with Owen Gleiberman in 1995. How did that expansion of your duties come about?
Lisa: I was already writing critical pieces about books, television, and theater. And I was writing movie feature stories. And the number of movies released each week was increasing to the point where no one human could write every review, not even a human as unflaggingly productive as Owen. Then luck and fate made an appearance: A senior editor, David Hajdu, suggested I might try coming in to the movie section as second-string critic. I did. The graft took better than I ever could have imagined.
Aaron: Describe a typical workweek at EW. How many movies do you see in a week? How do you and Owen decide who reviews what? Where do you do your writing?
Lisa: There’s a kind of wave motion to the EW work week. Monday and Tuesday are busiest–the crest–since that’s when we close pages. I’m a down-to-the-deadline (or, er, a tad-past-the-deadline) type, so at the start of the week I’m writing (or about to write) all day, or working with my editors and making revisions. I happen to love my office at the magazine, which has a door I can close and a view of the Hudson River that can’t be beat, so I tend to do a fair amount of writing there, but sometimes I also file from home, and then come into the office for editing. The rest of the week I’m at a lot of screenings–maybe an average of four a week (which means sometimes seven and sometimes two). I became a co-equal lead critic some years ago, and Owen and I alternate lead reviews each week, then divide up the rest of the week’s assignments, overseen by our section editor, Marc Bernardin. The shorthand is, the work balances out. It’s a notably cordial and collaborative assignment process.
Aaron: How do you feel about the grading system at EW?
Lisa: Letter grades, numbers, stars, apples, tomatoes, thumbs, drawings of little men tipping their hats–no matter the system, there’s something undeniably weird, not to mention presumptuous, about assigning a movie a quantitative value. But that said…I feel fine about the grading system at EW. It’s a guideline for readers, not a final exam grade; it’s a shorthand, not an analysis.
I’d add that the hardest half-steps for me to gauge are probably those between a B and a C, where the gradation feels so slippery. That I reserve the dreadful grade F for movies that are not only badly made, but also reprehensible. And that nothing is more exciting, either as a movie lover or a movie critic, than to see something to which I respond with an A.
Which reminds me: You may notice that the movie section of EW has never handed out an A+, although other review sections in the magazine have done so. Why? Good question. The tradition was established before I came on board–something about preserving a Platonic ideal, something no actual movie could attain, I think. Then a year or two ago when we began our “Ask the Critic” column, I answered a reader question about the matter by announcing grandly that I intended to break that tradition at the right opportunity. But…I didn’t. Because after so many years, and so many good films in the past, how could I pick one in the present above all others to be the first A+?
Of course, now that I say this to you I think, jeez, that’s nuts. Just do it. So who knows?
Aaron: Along with reviewing movies for EW you also sometimes do reviews for the Stage section. What do you get from the theater not found in movies? What adjustments do you make in reviewing a stage production versus a stage-to-screen adaptation.
Lisa: I love how stage actors have to think on their feet, literally. I like the live-ness of stage, and the scale of it–the drama is at once bigger than movie “real life” and squished onto a stage that’s more confined than movie “real life.” When I write about a stage-to-screen adaptation, I want to study how/if the production stands on its own as its own art form.
Aaron: Can you provide an example of your different reactions to seeing both the stage and film version of a play or musical?
Lisa: Sure; two productions come to mind immediately. Everything delightful in the theatrical experience of The Producers on Broadway–all the manic inventiveness of Mel Brooks, the too-muchness and wily spritz of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick–feels misaligned in the movie version. Every gesture is too big, every reaction shot is too close, and what was bright, festive, and loose on stage actually appears claustrophobic on screen because the performers are playing to a non-existent balcony. Susan Stroman is an inspired theatrical director and choreographer, but in making her first movie, I think she was at a loss about how to move the action off the stage. Or conversely, how to contain the action within the film’s frame. On the other hand, Mike Nichols took Angels in America, with all its unique theatrical grandeur, and translated Tony Kushner’s modern stage epic into something fluid and authentically cinematic–yet authentically Angelic.
Aaron: What other movie critics do you read?
Lisa: The answer to this question always feels to me like a shout-out to friends, a suck-up to influential people, or a settling of scores with adversaries. The question I’d always love to hear critics answer instead is, what else do you love to do, read, or read about. So I’ll answer my own question: I love the fiction of Dawn Powell, John Fante, and the short stories of Laurie Colwin. I have a strong interest in graphic design and typography (I’ve studied letterpress printing, papermaking, and bookbinding), with a corresponding collection of books about books. I’m just getting involved in gardening, so I’ve got a stack of stuff to read about mulch, ripped from the pages of magazines. (I’m a huge fan/scholar of women’s mags, shelter mags, design mags.) I like to take hiking vacations to places far from screening rooms–Morocco, Iceland–so I’ve got a shelf of Lonely Planet guidebooks. I own a cookbook, but I use it mostly to weigh down the stuff about mulch ripped from other publications.
Aaron: Usually around this point of the interview I ask if you’ve ever had any screenwriters or directors confront you about one of your reviews. You have the distinction of being singled out most recently by writer-director James Toback for your review of When Will I Be Loved. While I’m a fan of the movie (and am a fan of Toback’s work in general), I found his attack on the petty side. How did you feel about being singled-out? Did you ever hear from Barry Levinson for your mixed-to-positive review of Liberty Heights?
Lisa: Filmmakers are artists, and artists, by chemical composition, are often sensitive, unruly, quick to take hurt, provocative, impassioned, all that stuff. I know that. I was mortified by Toback’s gossip-column sexual comments about me–who wouldn’t be? Critics are human too. But then I reminded myself that I haven’t met him, he hasn’t met me, and so the “me” he was attacking isn’t me, Lisa–someone who is actually quite pleasant and reasonable. I continue to be interested in Toback’s work, by the way, whether or not I have trouble with it.
As for Barry Levinson, you’re referring to the movie about his Jewish roots in Baltimore, which he made after Sphere, which I described as a matzoh ball. I also said Dustin Hoffman’s character seemed Jewish. After which Levinson called me anti-Semitic. In the New York Times. The only thing that pissed me off about that ludicrous accusation was that the Times reporter, Bernard Weinraub, didn’t have the journalistic courtesy to call me for a comment–nor had I heard from Levinson, ever–and so the first time I learned of my alleged transgression was by reading the paper. (The New York Post was much classier about offering me an opportunity to respond to Toback.) Anyhow, now it can be told: I am probably one of the most Jewishly-educated, ritual-familiar, Hebrew-literate, synagogue-interested of any of my Jewish colleagues, and I’d be happy to daven with Levinson any day.
Aaron: On occasion you and Owen will do a point-counterpoint review of a certain movie. (The X Files, Dancer in the Dark). You did this for The Passion of the Christ. What was it like being a critic in the weeks immediately following the release of The Passion, especially since you gave it a negative review?
Lisa: The sad, simple truth is that every single critic with a Jewish name I’ve talked to who happened, like me, to have written a negative review of The Passion of the Christ had the extremely unhappy experience of receiving anti-Semitic hate mail from outraged readers. Real anti-Semitism this time.
Aaron: You were a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies right from the beginning. You also were not a member of the Tolkien loyalists. In the opening of your review of The Fellowship of the Ring you state, “…remembering the ferocity of high school classmates-boys, mostly-who steeped themselves in Elvish arcane while the girls wallowed in Salinger and Sylvia Plath, I open by saying that I have never read the fantasy series by the tweedy British scholar J.R.R. Tolkien.” Is it safe to say you prefer the intimate connection one has with a piece of entertainment over the rabid fandom that is found in certain parts of pop culture? On a related note, did you ever read the Tolkien books after the final movie was released?
Lisa: Not necessarily. I’ve been a rabid fan of Survivor on television, and of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office, and I’ll talk about what Jon Stewart said last night at any time, with anyone. I’m also a rabid fan of South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. And I can recite every TV episode of Monty Python. I just didn’t read Tolkien (I still haven’t), and I’ll confess something else, too: There was a fanboy in my high school who had a crush on my best friend, and he used to leave notes for her in Elvish written on the desk in English class. She wasn’t interested in him. I learned Elvish just so I could mess with his head and answer on her behalf. I still know this boy, and she’s still my oldest friend.
Aaron: You mentioned earlier that you’re a TV addict. What do like about TV? Are you an HBO junkie? Do you discriminate between regular network TV and cable programming? Is reality-TV the end of the medium as some critics claim?
Lisa: At its most involving, television is unmatchably intimate. Also unmatchably influential. (The late, great Dennis Potter, who wrote Pennies Fom Heaven and The Singing Detective, said he loved working in TV because it’s “the medium of the occupying power.”) Some of the best writing anywhere is done for television–not just the gems of HBO, but the run-of-the-week 10pm dramas on network TV, 90 percent of which, I’d say, are better than 90 percent of the run-of-the-week movie screenplays we consume today.
I love TV because budget and deadline realities teach its practitioners to work efficiently and concisely; because it values the ensemble over the star; because it’s egalitarian by nature; and because even when it’s crappy (and of course there’s plenty of crap filling all those channels), it tells us something direct and immediate about ourselves and the times we live in. Cartoons, sitcoms, the way sports and news are presented–they’re direct expressions of political and cultural temperament. No wonder even the dorkiest old sitcoms are beloved for their time-capsule charms. By the same token, I don’t think reality TV is a dire development by any means. Some of it really interests me (Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol, America’s Next Top Model) and some of it interests me not at all (The Apprentice, all those bachelor and bachelorette games), but I’m sure the wheel of fortune will turn again and something else will take its place, until America’s Biggest Loser looks as dated as an eight-track tape. (Speaking of game shows, I had a perishable moment of fame a year or two ago as one of the trio of Wise Men assembled as a lifeline for stumped contestants on an episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Our team had the honor of being the first brain trust to supply incorrect information.)
Incidentally, my TV obsession for the past year has been HGTV and its home and garden shows. Much to the surprise of this passionate fan of The Office in its brilliant original BBC form starring the unsurpassable Ricky Gervais, I also love the great American version with Steve Carell. I am (of course) a nightly devotee of The Daily Show and (the first 20 minutes of) The Colbert Report; I prefer Law & Order SVU but will watch any L&O, any time; I’ve adopted Grey’s Anatomy and Prison Break as this year’s follow-throughs; and I am bored crosseyed by Desperate Housewives.
Aaron: You achieved some notoriety among readers for your scathingly negative review of Fight Club. (Personally, I fall somewhere between your disgust and Peter Travers’ blind devotion. I already knew fascism was bad when I entered the theater.) What are your feelings about the movie now that it is considered by some to be a misunderstood classic? Have you seen it again since it came out?
Lisa: I think it’s being called a classic for reasons I didn’t misunderstand: Boys love the swagger and “outrage” of the nihilistic male-on-male violence, and Chuck Palaniukheads are ardent. But I freely admit that I should see it again and reconsider. Am I right or wrong in thinking that David Fincher’s work is wantonly sadistic? I’ll get back to you.
Aaron: Let’s talk Frank Miller’s Sin City. Some might interpret your review as being a little on the defensive side. You write, “Faithfulness, a virtue in personal relationships, is overrated when it comes to movie adaptations of comic books. The devotee who is betrothed to the pages of a particular, ardently loved graphic novel-sequential print-art event, multipage transportable visual diversion, whatever-is the devotee advised to reread that book, through sickness and health, for guaranteed fidelity of experience.” You later write, “Call me a non-fangirl, but if the sacred works of Jane Austen can stand up to freewheeling reinterpretation, than so, too, can heavy-breathing pages about trussed-up little girls and a vile-smelling cartoon pervert known as Yellow Bastard.” My immediate response as a non-fanboy is to point out that the works of Austen don’t come accompanied with a visual component. It would seem that the slavish recreation of Miller’s visuals is key to the movie’s success. I’m not arguing against “freewheeling” interpretations when it comes to adaptations. However, I do feel reinterpreting the Sin City books would render the movie pointless.
Lisa: Yes! Exactly! The movie is pointless! As I guess is becoming clear as we chat, I don’t believe that everything needs to be adapted, or ought to be, or really can be. Hell, if you want something exactly like the graphic novels, why not read the graphic novels? What’s the triumph of miming the page? Everything I value about The Lord of the Rings (yes, that again) or X-Men 2 is what I find lacking in Sin City. Which is to say, an artistic energy of its own as a work of cinema.
Aaron: Do you think there’s a double standard in being a female critic? Is there a boys’ club atmosphere among critics’ circles that makes it difficult for the opinions of female critics to be taken seriously? I found it interesting a couple of years ago to see how the critical response to the Jane Campion feminist thriller In the Cut seemed to split down gender lines.
Lisa: I wasn’t with my gender on that one; I thought In the Cut was dreary, damp, and self-consciously neurotic. But to go back to your second question, I, uh, hell, I have no idea. I tend to think critics are taken seriously–or not–on a byline-by-byline basis, male or female. When we all get together in our “clubs” and “circles” there are more men in the room than women, certainly (I’m thinking about our award-voting meetings), but I’m not nearly as aware of a gender split as I am of a children-of-Kael affinity group. As for your first question, what do you mean by double standard?
Aaron: “Double standard” might be the wrong phrase. Let’s put it this way: Your negative review of Fight Club might be dismissed because of your gender, while a male critic’s negative review might be taken under consideration. I’m speaking of readership.
Lisa: Although you know what? If I were a critic known for my love of splatter flicks, or kick-boxing epics, or, oh, I don’t know, Spanish telenovelas, then I don’t think gender consideration would enter into the discussion at all. Readers would be all “ooh, Lisa doesn’t dig Fight Club, which is interesting ‘cos she’s such a connoisseur of pulp cinema” rather than “ooh, Lisa is a wimp chick, where’s Owen when we need him?” (Not that I know where she stands on the title, but I doubt anyone would pigeonhole my pal and colleague Manohla Dargis as too chicky to take on Fight Club.) I truly don’t think (or maybe I just don’t want to think) that a whole sex might be undervalued on the basis of a positive or negative review for a movie with an inherent male or female viewership base.
Aaron: Until recently you had the market on reviewing Wes Anderson movies while Owen still has the market on Oliver Stone. Care to share your thoughts on The Doors, JFK, Heaven & Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U Turn, or Any Given Sunday? (You’ll note I left Alexander off the list.)
Lisa: That market-share division is less rich with subtext than you might think. I do like Wes Anderson’s work a lot (less so Life Aquatic) and Owen does like Stone, but it’s kind of an aberration that we haven’t mixed up the coverage more, since Owen and I tend to track that sort of thing–you know, who wrote about the last Woody Allen, or Jodie Foster movie. Then again, I probably like Anderson’s stuff more than Owen does, and vice versa. There’s something about Stone’s assertive bluster and brawn that can feel more like assault than assertion if I haven’t prepared by getting enough sleep, doing stretching exercises, etc.
Aaron: In 1999 you were one of the many guest critics to step into the balcony for the late Gene Siskel on the re-tooled Siskel & Ebert. (I remember a lively discussion on the finer points of the Holocaust comedies Life is Beautiful and Jacob the Liar. You went against popular opinion and preferred Jacob the Liar.) How did you get the call to be a guest critic? Mr. Ebert doesn’t strike me as someone who would have a subscription to EW.
Lisa: Are you kidding? Roger has a subscription to everything. He’s amazingly media-forward and techno-forward, an early and knowledgeable devotee of the Internet, digital photography, and related gizmos. I got the call because Roger and his team were casting a wide net as they tried to figure out how they wanted to shape the next iteration of the show. I had a great time; Roger’s a pleasure to play with. I got to have my thumb photographed for up/down purposes. And for the purposes of a mass-market “Ebert & [insert name here],” they probably chose the right guy in turning Richard Roeper into a movie critic.
By the way, I’d prefer the Jerry Lewis telethon to Life is Beautiful.
Aaron: In 2000 you wrote a great cultural analysis about the emerging of Extreme Entertainment that started with the success of There’s Something About Mary and continued with Eminem, Tom Green, South Park and so on. Six years later, with the success of Fear Factor, The Shield, and The Passion, how do you feel about the state of the culture of entertainment?
Lisa: Here’s my new, freshly squeezed metaphor: Sometimes people crave extremely spicy food because their tastebuds have become dulled and they can no longer distinguish “simpler” tastes. I think the louder/rougher/realer/angrier school of pop cultural entertainment today supplies that extremely spicy food, formulated for a benumbed populace.
Aaron: You were one of the earliest supporters of the Iranian film movement. I seem to admire your admiration more than the actual movies. What do films from Iran offer that you can’t get from other parts of world cinema?
Lisa: For me, the most exciting aspect of world cinema is its specificity–how aesthetic sensibility is rooted in place: Only Bollywood could have birthed Bollywood movies, only Hong Kong could have whipped up Hong Kong action, only Finland could produce Aki Kaurismaaki, etc. (Conversely, one disappointing byproduct of globalization is the Miramaxizing of national cinema into exportable “product” that won’t scare off Academy Award voters.) I’m drawn by temperament to art that appears to work within structure, and stricture, only to find brilliantly creative ways to circumvent limitations: the sonnet form, the fugue, a ban on depicting X, Y, or Z. Was it because of or despite a limitation of freedoms that modern Iranian cinema flowered? Whatever the impetus, I respond to the Iranian aesthetic of modesty cloaking passion.
Aaron: You are the resident go-to critic when it comes to covering the Cannes Film Festival. What is it about the craziness of Cannes that marks it different from other festivals?
Lisa: Resident at EW, you mean, because there’s a whole passel of important American critics who have been covering the festival far longer than I have–Roger Ebert, Ken Turan, John Powers, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman, and Amy Taubin among them. This May will be my tenth immersion in the madness–baby stuff compared with, say, the track record of Time‘s Richard Corliss. But a decade is certainly enough time to be able to articulate what makes the air in Cannes so highly charged: For twelve days, everything feels new, foreign, glamorous, and ardently important about cinema, and everyone is keen to get in on the discovery of the moment first. I’m speaking of the thousands of journalists waving their entry credentials, but the same holds true for the thousands of market attendees, celebs, gawkers, and regular civilian movie lovers who cram the streets pleading and shoving for tickets. (My first year, I saw a rioting stampede charge a screening of an Abel Ferrara film few would pay to see.) Here you are in the dazzling light of the south of France, with the accumulated history of half a century of Cannes glitzmoments hanging in the soft air, and everyone runs from screening to screening–or reception to reception–as if his or her entire identity depended on it. It’s nuts, and marvelous, and touching, and infuriating, and inspiring, and indescribably exhausting in a way that awes me about cinema all over again, every year.
Aaron: What movie character do you most identify with?
Lisa: I am the child that Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter should have had in Broadcast News, grown up to become Allison Janney.
Aaron: Finally, what do you see happening to movies in the next few years? Are movies getting better?
Lisa: One aspect I’m particularly interested in is how a movie fills a screen. And one thing I see changing is the very composition of the frame. You know the stats: The DVD market has become more important than the theatrical market, which means more and more people are watching their movies at home. Most people, however, still watch those movies on average-sized TV screens where the enveloping neurological experience of movie-theater-sized viewing (not to mention big-group viewing) is undeniably diminished. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I see movies becoming more regularly scaled down in visual scope–more TV like, come to think of it. (There will always be cinemascopic epics. And they will always lose power on a TV screen.) At the same time, video and DV vocabulary is becoming more expressive as filmmakers learn how to use the video medium as an art, not just an economy. And I think we’re just beginning to see the possibilities of DV art. One closing point: There’s been a boomlet recently in movies constructed from fractured narratives (Syriana is this year’s showiest example). I don’t have a prediction, but I’m curious to see if and how that trend continues and develops. Just as I easily tire of movies where spectacle overpowers character and emotional content, so I’m underwhelmed by movies whose storytelling fanciness draws attention to its own cleverness. This preference by no means mires me in a classical past–it just anchors me as I look optimistically to the future. Happy 250th birthday, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.