By Aaron Aradillas
(originally published in rockcritics.com in 2005)
Glenn Kenny is a good sport. I write this because he was more than willing to indulge me in responding to my aggressive rebuttals to some of his reviews. Mr. Kenny’s good-naturedness is just one of the things you’ll discover about him in this dishy, engrossing, and very funny interview.
Joining Premiere magazine in 1996 as an editor and shortly thereafter becoming the lead movie critic, Mr. Kenny has brought an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema to arguably the best movie magazine on the stands. His knowledge of movies is matched by his knowledge of movie criticism, which is matched by his reporter’s skill at observing human nature. Whether discussing his ignoring his parent’s drive-in make-out sessions in order to watch Ryan’s Daughter, or revealing his nickname for Renée Zellweger, or his views on “director’s cuts,” you’ll find Mr. Kenny’s no-bull approach to everything quite refreshing.
Aaron: What was the first moviegoing experience that you remember leaving a lasting impression on you?
Glenn: In family legend, I am remembered as responding positively to Psycho in 1960, sitting between my parents at a drive-in theater at the age of one while my mother was pregnant with my younger sister–this anecdote is used to explain a lot of our characteristics. But obviously, I don’t actually remember that. I do remember, at the age of six or seven, my mother inviting me to stay up with her to watch The Haunting on network television. My mom was only about 25 at the time, my dad was working nights, and she didn’t want to watch this horror movie on her own. It absolutely terrified, but also entranced, me. It’s funny–my memory of what I considered the movie’s most terrifying moment, the reveal of Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell of Miss Moneypenny fame) after Nell Lance (Julie Harris) climbs up the spiral staircase, is completely different from what actually happens in the film. In my memory, the shot is from the bottom of the staircase; the camera’s point of view is that of someone lying on his/her back, on the floor, and there’s a slam-zoom up to the ceiling as a panel from the ceiling is removed from within and Mrs. Markway’s screaming face appears. In the film itself, there’s no zoom–the camera’s up at the top of the staircase with Nell, Mrs. Markway doesn’t scream, etcetera, etcetera. And yet that false memory is my most vivid recollection of the film. As Gaston Bachelard said, “The dream is stronger than the experience.” (The artist and musician Peter Blegvad created a series of drawings of objects and creatures as he in turn imagined, observed, and remembered them. I suppose with CGI an artist could do something similar with key moments from films.)
Aaron: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Glenn: I attended what was then William Paterson College, a small state school in Wayne, N.J. It has since metamorphosed into William Paterson University, necessitating, I suppose, a change of its non-official slogan from “We Party Constantly” to “We Party Unceasingly,” or some such thing. But seriously…it was a pretty good school and the cultural atmosphere at the time I was there–from ’77 to some haze-shrouded period in the early ’80s–was pretty great. My major was English Lit, and the faculty in that department was well-regarded, solid. A couple of the professors were stolidly right-wing, a couple others were weepy, or not so weepy, old Bolshies, and they all kept up a running debate in the Op-Ed pages of the college paper The Beacon, which at the time was one of the best college papers in the state and was the first extracurricular organization I joined and the only one I stuck with. As for the cultural atmosphere, the music department did some incredible things–Raymond des Roches, the founder of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, was a professor, and he was instrumental in mounting a performance of Charles Wuorenin’s “Percussion Symphony” at the school that still resonates with me today. The jazz department was great, but I earned its I suppose eternal enmity by giving a snotty Beacon review, way back in ’77, to the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis group, a review in which I criticized Lewis for the small size of his drum kit. That, I suppose, was the most “rockist” critical pronouncement I ever made, and a hugely stupid one. The great rock group The Feelies lived in nearby Haledon; one of the art instructors at WPC was married to a member of the group, and designed the cover of their debut album Crazy Rhythms. (The first piece I ever published professionally was a review of a Feelies show at a Haledon bar, in Musician magazine. And incidentally, the real Haledon bore very little resemblance to the imagined Haledon in Rick Moody’s Feelies-inspired novel Garden State. Which is just an observation, not a criticism.) The Film Studies prof there was the art critic Gregory Battcock, who had a fabulously indolent approach. He knew that most of the students in the course were after easy As, and I suppose he didn’t disappoint, but he would tweak them every now and then by, say, screening Warhol’s almost unwatchable Kitchen, of which he owned a spliced-filled print. (Battcock was horribly murdered in 1980.) I had a lot of fun and learned a lot, but I was a pathetic student for the most part–arrogant and poorly focused. Like “Papa” in that song by the Temptations, I spent far too much of my time chasing women and drinking. I never got a degree, as a matter of fact. I would not recommend this course of action to anyone actually planning on a career in journalism or criticism at this moment in time.
Aaron: Did you always want to be a critic? Did it matter what you were critiquing?
Glenn: I believe it was Paula Abdul who said, “No one grows up wanting to be a critic.” I think she’s right, but not for the reasons she thinks she’s right. Criticism is fundamentally an adult concern–it doesn’t occur to children, necessarily, to want to engage in analysis and assessment of art as a profession. It’s more likely that a child grows up wanting to be somehow famous–a movie star, a singer, a Laker Girl, an American Idol judge, what have you. That said, I took to writing at a very early age, and criticism was a form that I felt very comfortable with as I began writing it. The initial urge was to defend my own taste in music, which in my teens was unusual to the point of seeming affected, which maybe it was. Imagine being a 14-year-old in 1973 and trying to defend Eno’s Here Come The Warm Jets to a bunch of Deep Purple fans. This is actually hypothetical–the Deep Purple fans were not interested in having the conversation, and my closest friend at the time had zero interest in contemporary rock of any stripe (and still does not, God bless him). The closest I got to such a situation was trying to “explain” Kevin Ayers’ The Confessions of Dr. Dream to a nice bookish girl who I had a few dates with in my sophomore year of high school. Anyway, you get the idea. When I started writing about music professionally, the defensiveness had turned into something like a sense of mission, which I think gave my early Village Voice pieces–I started writing freelance for the paper in 1984–a nicely geeky, enthusiastic quality. In fact, I didn’t file a negative review for the Voice until then-music editor Doug Simmons sent me to a Tears for Fears concert in 1986; said notice ended up being titled “Schlock Therapy.” (The band actually brought that fucking monkey from the “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” video up on stage to dance as they performed the song. These, indeed, are the things I can do without.) I had really enjoyed practicing vituperation in my college paper writing, but I wasn’t very good at it. I got better. As far as it making any difference as to what I was writing about, well, you bring different skill sets and I think different ideological baggage to whatever medium you write about. Beyond making adjustments for that, I can’t say that writing about music feels better or worse than writing about films feels better or worse than writing about books. The only thing that would make a difference were if I were presuming to write about something I have no real knowledge of. No way could I bluff my way through a ballet review, for instance. Fortunately I’m not called upon to do many of those. Finally, I’m with Manny Farber, who said, “I can’t imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism.”
Aaron: What impact did the Kael-Sarris brand of movie criticism have on you?
Glenn: As someone whose fascination with film was initially based in a genre, and hence, as someone who was attracted to film qua film rather than film as a manifestation of the larger popular culture, I was something of a Sarrisite by disposition. Before delving deeper into this potentially vexed subject, I want to talk about the first book on film I ever read, which was Carlos Clarens’ An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films. I stole my school friend Allen Siegel’s copy back in 1969 or so, when I was ten. I devoured the book and was obsessed with the idea of seeing, if not every film discussed in the book, then at least every film there was a still from in the book. (A quest that continues to this day–as I write this, I’m about an hour away from embarking to BAM Rose Cinema to catch a screening of Tod Browning’s 1936 The Devil Doll!). Clarens still strikes me as an exemplary critic–informative, clear-eyed, authoritative in his judgments but never ostentatious in his pronouncements of them, possessed of an enormous erudition that he wears quite lightly. J. Hoberman is absolutely right, in the introduction he wrote for the 1997 Da Capo edition of the book, to call it “a beginner’s history of the movies.” A single sentence could set you off on the journey of a lifetime, e.g., “Obviously, Roger Corman is no Ingmar Bergman nor is he Luis Bunuel, both of whom he openly admires.” Who’s this Bergman, who’s this Bunuel, and why does Corman admire them, my ten-year-old self asked. Clarens’ passages on Lang and Dreyer were also fascinating, exhilarating. Years, in some cases decades, would pass before I would be able to see Vampyr or Day of Wrath or Lang’s Dr. Mabuse films. But Clarens’ book placed them at the forefront of my cinematic consciousness. As we know, Kael wasn’t big on horror, and I doubt she would even take vaguely seriously the surrealist critics, whose ideas concerning the cinema as narcotic also influenced my sensibilities. Sarris’ Americanization of the politique des auteurs created a critical atmosphere somewhat more sympathetic to those sensibilities–although I’m sure André Bazin would disapprove.
But let me try to back out of this particularly murky swamp of cerebration I seem to be wading into and address the immediate matter at hand. While I aver that my disposition made me more attracted to Sarris than Kael, the whole question of preference is sometimes merely a matter of who got to you first. (The Jesuits, of course, understand just how crucial this is.) I was chatting with a critic friend just the other night about your question, and he remembered being 14 and reading Kael’s essay “Circles and Squares: Joys And Sarris” and seeing it as such a convincing demolition of Sarris that it was years before he even approached The American Cinema–which I was immersed in at probably exactly the same time he was reading Kael. While American Cinema didn’t exactly convert him, on reading it he did see that Kael’s piece, like so much of her “Raising Kane,” was largely based on deliberate misreading and malicious speculation. (The apogee of the latter as Kael practiced it is this sentence from “Raising Kane”: “There’s a scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which, to be ‘a good sport,’ he had to use.” Which of course is complete bullshit, it was called as complete bullshit, and Kael never budged on it.) All that notwithstanding it was Kael who had been the galvanic experience of criticism for him. (I understand that by taking issue with Kael I’m in danger of getting a verbal flaying from Greil Marcus in a future “Real Life Rock Top Ten” column, but that’s something I’m just gonna have to live with.) As for the politique des auteurs, although it could be argued that it enlarged the sorry cult of the director, and hence helped create the sorry state of affairs in which The Mighty Ducks got advertised as “A Film By Stephen Herek,” it should be remembered that Sarris himself never proposed it as an absolute–he wasn’t like Schoenberg saying that the twelve-tone system was the answer to all musical challenges and that no other method could be considered acceptable from that point on. He offered it as a perspective. There’s this old TV documentary about what it calls the auteur theory which opens with Robert Mitchum telling a story of working with Raoul Walsh, who is one of Sarris’s “Far Side of Paradise” directors, I believe. The picture was 1947’s Pursued, with Teresa Wright, and Mitchum describes with great relish how Walsh would turn away from the camera and roll a cigarette as a take began, and so on, really highlighting Walsh’s seeming indifference to the proceedings. Mitchum’s punchline is pretty much, “So there’s your auteur theory.” And he’s Robert Mitchum, so of course he’s persuasive to the point of being seductive, and the reflex reaction is, “Har dee har har, them egghead critics sure are a bunch of jackasses,” or something to that effect. The only problem is, logic dictates that one arrives at an estimation of Raoul Walsh’s films by actually watching the films–all or at least most of the films–rather than acting in precisely one of them. Which is not to say that one can automatically assume that whatever’s up on the screen which is of value was put there by the director. I have a couple of screenwriter friends who told me that a couple of the lines that were singled out by critics and audiences for being particularly lame within a generally well-received picture they wrote were in fact the interpolations of, yes, the director. I’m still glad to have auteurism in my tool kit.
Aaron: In you review of Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous you wrote, “It’s the story of my life” In what way was the Crowe film autobiography? What role did music play in forming your critical tastes?
Glenn: I think I was overstating a coincidence or two in order to make a facetious excuse for being so utterly taken with the film, which I’m still taken with. First off, music has always been hugely important to me, and when I say always, I’m not kidding–the first Christmas gift I ever asked my parents for was the new Beatles album, when I was five, and they came through, getting me Beatles ’65, which was released in the fourth quarter of ’64. As for Almost Famous and the story of my life…I had started reading Creem in the ’70s, and Lester Bangs’ “Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves,” one of his famous showdowns with Lou Reed, just killed me. Mainly because I just couldn’t believe that you could get away with something like that in a “real” magazine. So like Crowe, I was a huge Bangs fan, and I would run into him every now and again after he moved to New York–at the Iggy Pop Palladium show in October of ’77, where I gushed to him that I wanted to be a writer, for instance. Then I went to see one of his bands, pre-Birdland, I think, and he complimented me on my Felix the Cat t-shirt. That was big. So I was basing my affinity for the film somewhat on the lead character’s Bangs-worship and solicitation of Bangs-advice. I think the autobiographical similarities end there. I did not, for example, go on to be deflowered by a trio of groupies who looked like Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, and Bijou Phillips. Alas.
Aaron: You were a music critic during the second half of the 1980s. What was it like covering music during a time some music scholars view as a period of overproduced product? Like the independent film movement of the 1990s, was the best place for discovering music in the college and alternative scene?
Glenn: Not necessarily, given my tastes, which tended as much toward art-rock as “punk” or “alternative”–CNN Headline News “Buzz Bench” regular Joe Levy once made a crack to me about my Robert Wyatt newsletter, which FYI never actually existed. One of the pieces of music criticism I remember really vividly and which made a huge impression on me was Michael Bloom’s review of the first Art Bears album in the VIllage Voice in ’77; that, combined with Simon Frith’s declaration in Creem that his brother Fred was “the greatest guitar player in the world” got me into exploring that whole arena of music, some of the players of which cross-pollinated with the remnants of the post-punk NYC scene, culminating in a strange moment wherein a lineup of the Golden Palominos featuring Peter Blegvad (late of Slapp Happy), Jody Harris (late of the Contortions and Raybeats), etcetera, could wind up playing a very mainstream venue like The Felt Forum, if memory serves correctly. Sasha Frere-Jones said in an interview recently that there’s always been, and always is, great music around. My tastes don’t always jibe with his, but I think his perspective is absolutely correct, and I never had a hard time finding stuff I was enthusiastic about. A lot of it was in the college rock realm, sure–I reviewed the Pixies’ Doolittle in the Voice, for instance–but not all of it. The trick for me was to follow the record stores, some of which have become legendary across the land–from Soho Music Gallery back when John Zorn and Anton Fier et al. actually worked there, to Rocks In Your Ears when local legend Manny Maris was behind the counter, to Manny’s own subsequent shop, Lunch for Your Ears, to the great Downtown Music Gallery where Bruce Lee Gallanter and Manny hold court. Places like that have provided a certain core continuity to my existence, providing consistent depositories for my disposable income. All the spending has been largely worth it, I have to say.
Aaron: You joined Premiere magazine in late 1997. Your role has evolved from Contributing Editor, to movie critic, to Senior Editor. How did you come to be a part of the magazine?
Glenn: Actually, it was in June of 1996 that I was called over here. After a fairly well-publicized instance wherein an executive at Hachette heavy-handedly attempted to insert himself into the editorial process (that would be David Pecker, now happily ensconced at American Media) and motivated about a half dozen staff members to resign, Jim Meigs stepped into the Editor-in-Chief spot. I had worked with Jim at a magazine called Video Review back in the mid-’80s and we were both big fans of Premiere when the magazine debuted. Jim had gone from VR to gigs at Entertainment Weekly and US Weekly (back when US still had words in it) and I had done some sporadic freelance work for him at both places. In any case, he was a little short-handed when he took over at Premiere and he asked me if I wanted to come in and do some editing, on a freelance basis, for a spell. His timing was propitious; I was coming off a pretty lucrative two-year run of freelancing, but I wasn’t breaking through to the level I wanted to get to and actually felt that I was about to stall. So I could approach the gig as a point of entry into the next phase of my professional life or something to tide me over until said next phase actually happened. It was an editing gig, basically; a special section here, helping out with a department there, and so on. Jim was going through the inventory and he came upon a piece that had been commissioned two editors before him–David Foster Wallace’s essay on David Lynch, centered around Wallace’s visit to the set of Lost Highway. It had been assigned by Susan Lyne, it had come in, in gargantuan form, and Kristen van Ogtrop took a stab at reducing its mass. Premiere had published very long articles before, but this one flummoxed a lot of people, particularly on account of the footnotes. In any case, Kristen was on her way out–not because of the Pecker thing, she had got a more genial (I presume) gig at Home and Garden or some such title–and Jim was aware that I had actually read all of Infinite Jest, so he handed me this massive manuscript and had me look over Kristen’s cuts, and then told me to contact Wallace and “mollify” him about the massive cuts and, having done so, commence with a line edit. This, in the event that anyone is even remotely interested, is why Kristen is nicknamed “The Blunt Machete” and I am dubbed “The Mollifier” on the acknowledgements page of Wallace’s A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. In any case, the mollifying went pretty well and Dave and I had a really good time working on that piece, as we also would, up to a point, working on the piece he wrote for the September ’98 issue of the magazine under a dual pseudonym about the AVN awards. In any case, “David Lynch Keeps His Head” (Sept. 96 issue) proved to be a pretty big deal–got nominated for an ASME award and all that–and I think that convinced Jim to put me on staff, which he did in January of ’97.
Once I got on staff, I went from Contributing Ed to Senior. As far as becoming the magazine’s film critic, well, Premiere took a couple of approaches to film criticism prior to the Reviews section as it currently exists. In the early years it ran concurrent columns by J. Hoberman and David Denby, with Hoberman examining indie or underground fare and Denby doing an appreciation of films or film stars past–his column was called “Rear Window.” When I started there the magazine had Todd McCarthy, the critic for Variety, reviewing a single movie on a single page every month. And Todd is fantastic, of course, one of the smartest guys in the game, but the format sort of didn’t make sense, especially in the front of the book where you’ve got Previews and all these other sections dealing with multiple pictures–even Libby Gelman Waxner usually covers a bunch of films in her redoubtable “If You Ask Me” columns–and then, boom, you’ve got this single page with a single essay about a single film, and that’s the reviews section. And I believe Todd’s workload at Variety was such that it wouldn’t be possible for him to do more than he did. Jim really wanted a full-fledged reviews section that could be done in-house. Problem was, we’re a monthly. Even with advances in magazine production, we’ve still got the lead time to deal with…Oh, wait. I see I’m getting ahead of your next question. Please, after you…
Aaron: Premiere is a monthly magazine. Obviously, its schedule differs from a weekly magazine. What’s your work schedule like? How many movies do you see in a week? Do you get to pick and choose what you critique in your review column? Does your routine change when you’re assigned a profile article?
Glenn: Well, as I was saying, when we were conceiving a multi-film reviews section, we were very concerned about access to pictures. With the bigger, mainstream releases, the prints are sometimes still wet when they hit theaters. You can usually see foreign and independent pictures comfortably ahead of their release dates, and I think one could put together a healthy reviews section strictly covering such pictures, but we didn’t want to do that–it would feel like we were in some way ghettoizing the section. Now you see that every couple of months or so there will be a reviews section that subsists solely of indies or foreign-language films. But when we conceived the section–Jim, Senior Editor Tom Roston (who’s still my editor on the section) and myself–we had a kind of (if you and God will forgive the phrase) “If you build it, they will come” attitude about it–that if the section established its legitimacy quickly enough, studios would make a special effort to get us access to bigger pictures. Which became the case, I’m happy to say. So as to my schedule, it varies. I’ll watch from one to three movies every weekday–that’s counting DVD stuff, because I’m also the editor of the magazine’s Home Guide, which covers that area. (An area that I think is vitally important for any movie critic to be on top of. When Susan Sontag pronounced the death of cinephilia in ’97, she was really pronouncing the death of cinephilia as she knew it. DVD is the present and future of cinephilia–its miniaturization, as it were.) When we’re preparing a list of movies to review, it’s based not so much on my preferences as on what actually can be reviewed. As established as the section is, that’s still the main factor in terms of what gets in there. We try to leave the section open for as long as possible so that in the event that a movie we really want is being screened, or can be screened for us, we can jump right in and do it. Every month is its own negotiation, and there’s always drama. There’s usually enough “give” in my schedule that if I’m going to do a profile or something it doesn’t present much of a problem. Mildly ironically, attending film festivals is usually what necessitates a big shift in scheduling. At the moment I’m trying to prepare two months worth of material so I don’t have to worry about anything else while I’m in Cannes for ten days in May.
Aaron: One of the earliest articles you did was a scathingly funny profile of Harmony Korine and the controversy surrounding Gummo. When Korine said if he couldn’t make the movies he wanted he’d find something else to do, you wrote, “Check this space in ten years.” It’s been eight. Have you re-evaluated his work? While I hated Gummo I found Julien Donky-Boy to be a major improvement, in particular Werner Herzog’s performance.
Glenn: Well, he’s kept his word, hasn’t he? He hasn’t done a “proper” “film” since J D-B. And I don’t think he was coerced into making that video of David Blaine in a box on top of London Bridge. So yeah, I guess we can relax and say that Harmony’s the real thing, which of course leaves open the question of what that thing is. I thought Julien Donkey-Boy had some real beauty in it, and Herzog’s presence was remarkable, but it didn’t amount to much in the end. Gummo was repugnant, but you couldn’t say it lacked impact. I’m very glad I interviewed the guy before his “novel,” A Crack Up At The Race Riots was published, because I probably would have punched him. Which could have led to a video, of the “bum fight” sort he was reputedly doing for a while. Sweet. For what it’s worth, I see a very strong Gummo influence on Jackass and Viva La Bam and all that other let’s-fuck-shit-(and ourselves)-up television. Even in the loathsome Punk’d, as a matter of fact. As for Ken Park, whatever Korine’s contribution to it was, it’s still Ken Park. It’s interesting–he’s managed to work so sporadically that one almost eagerly anticipates what he’s gonna do next and when he’s gonna do it. Out of rank curiosity if nothing else. Maybe somebody should team him up with Vincent Gallo…But the thing is, we’re still talking about Korine eight years later. I pulled out the ish with the Korine piece in it (December ’97), and elsewhere in the front of the book there’s a mini profile of the directing team The Pate Brothers. And a collective “huh?” is heard from the readership of rockcritics.com. Well, it so happens the Pate Brothers were the creators of Deceiver, a film–and I quote–“surrounding the murder of a prostitute (Renée Zellweger, whom Josh is currently dating).” Reading that, I wonder if the Wegs, as I took to calling her years ago, would even recognize poor Josh if she were to run into him today, which is hardly likely (her running into him, that is) since, if IMDb is correct, he was last seen producing episodes of Dragnet, Dick Wolf’s only failed series in years. Damn, Hollywood is a tough town. By the way, kids, that bit of snark above is something you should NEVER DO as a professional journalist. For all I know, the Wegs and Josh have remained the best of platonic pals through thick and thin (although were that the case you’d think that she’d have done a cameo on the aforementioned Dragnet or made some such gesture of good will) and making snotty remarks like that could conceivably raise the ire of the Wegs so that she’d write a letter to Premiere or not do a cover the next time we ask or something. (So, for the record: Just kidding, Josh and Renée! [OK, not so much to Josh.]) The most mortifying example of this sort of thing was in Rolling Stone 12 or so years back, when Journey’s Steve Perry was making his nth solo “comeback,” and the Random Notes writer commented to the effect that the only person those days who would possibly find such news thrilling would be Steve Perry’s mom, whereupon the pub and the writer were beset by a veritable tsunami of angry missives from Journey/Perry fans accusing the pub and the writer of the grossest sort of insensitivity because Steve Perry’s mom was dead, for God’s sake. So don’t do that.
Aaron: You’ve written two of the most balanced profiles of Billy Bob Thornton I’ve ever read. The first was when Sling Blade was about to take off. The second was during Thornton’s triumphant year of 2001, which saw the release of Bandits, The Man Who Wasn’t There, and Monster’s Ball. Is there something that makes Mr. Thornton a unique subject to profile?
Glenn: Well, as Thornton himself noted in the second profile I did of him, he’s got at least 30 different people inside of him. And it’s funny, because the sessions I had with him for that profile were very low-key, contemplative, I asked him at one point about the whole MTV-red-carpet “We fucked in the car on the way here” business, and I told him that guy wasn’t a guy I really recognized, and he had this very humble, sincere apologia for all that, and that kind of set the tone for the overall piece. And then he does the photo session for the piece, shot by Chris Buck, who’s a great guy who doesn’t mind a bit of mischief, and at one point Thornton whips it out and starts peeing on the paper backdrop, which Chris shoots and which picture, naturally, winds up as a full page in the piece. In an issue with the Harry Potter kids on the cover, so there you have Mr. Thornton stirring up trouble in ways he doesn’t even necessarily mean to. The fact that he’s got such a multi-faceted personality allows people a lot of leeway in portraying him. The stuff Peter Biskind writes about him in Down and Dirty Pictures makes him sound like one of the rapists in Deliverance. It’s pretty clear when Biskind starts talking about Sling Blade that he’s not a fan, but man, does he go to town on Thornton–spelling out the drawled words, having him make an anti-semitic remark to Harvey Weinstein, etcetera. And he doesn’t let up–later on, talking about All the Pretty Horses, he mentions that Thornton didn’t know the novel when the project first came to him, and dismisses Thornton as “not much of a reader.” Here’s the thing, though–one of the books Thornton had out at his house when I went there was Ben Watson’s The Negative Dialectics of Poodle Play, which analyzes the work of Frank Zappa–all of it, from “Trouble Every Day” to “Titties and Beer”–through the author’s amalgam of Marxist/Adornoite theory and post-punk aesthetics. In many respects a “stiff” book–The White Goddess of rock criticism, one could say. But Thornton had read it, definitely. He wasn’t all too familiar with a lot of the intellectual underpinnings of Watson’s judgments, but he did understand them. Of course, it’s largely because he’s a music freak. So while Thornton might not be your man in a Proust discussion group, the fact that he successfully tackled that book is indicative of something Biskind isn’t inclined to recognize. On the other hand, I think sometimes Thornton takes some private pleasure in being…not misunderstood, perhaps, but underestimated. In any case, I think he’s a great actor–in stuff like The Man Who Wasn’t There and Bad Santa he really reminds me of Bogart.
Aaron: Do you find it difficult to toe the line when profiling actors and moviemakers whose work you’ll possibly give a negative review to?
Glenn: I’m not being flip, but I never think about it. How am I not being flip, you ask? Well, I’m in a very fortunate position in that I don’t do profiles as a matter of course. Four out of five times, at least, if I’m doing a profile it’s of a person whose work I’ve already professed to admire, and who I’ve pitched. The first time I interviewed Thornton, it was after seeing Sling Blade. I pitched the second profile after seeing The Man Who Wasn’t There, in which I thought he gave just about the performance of a lifetime. I asked to interview Bjork based on the fact that I had the deepest knowledge of her previous work of anyone in the office at the time. A similar circumstance came into play when the opportunity to interview Olivia de Havilland arose. (Even with the Korine interview, it was one of those things where my colleagues felt I could speak with him on a level that would result in a piece that conveyed more of what he was about than a standard-issue celeb profiler would bring to it. That I wasn’t gonna fold when he started in with the references to Japanese noise bands or whatnot.) So as it’s turned out, there’s never been a line to toe. You can’t try to predict the future in the way your question implies. You’d drive yourself crazy. I moderated a director’s roundtable once with Lisa Cholodenko, Whit Stillman, Todd Solondz, and Chris Eyre, all of whom were great and gave me great stuff. Chris in particular was a sweetheart. He had a great exchange with Solondz during a snack break; Todd asked him how old he was, and he said “28” and Todd said, “Oh, you’re just a baaaayby!” Hilarious. In any case, I liked Chris’ film Smoke Signals but thought his subsequent picture, Skins, was a real mess. In a sense, the problem I had here was the inverse of the one your question presents. Here’s a guy I think is a terrific person; I like what he represents, I want to see him making good films, and I see a film of his that I can’t get behind. Well, that final consideration is the only consideration. You have to forget the guy, forget what he represents, and write it the way you see it, or as a critic you’re nothing. As it happens, I saw Chris Eyre this year at Sundance, at a dinner for the film he did for the arm of the Smithsonian dedicated to Native American culture. We had a brief, cordial chat; Skins didn’t come up. I think if he had wanted to bring it up, we could have talked about it without things getting hostile or weird.
Aaron: Ever have any directors or screenwriters get angry with one of your reviews? Or, ever have someone not be happy with the way your profile of him/her came out?
Glenn: I’ve never been personally confronted, no. (Perhaps my physical bearing–it has been called “looming”–has something to do with this. Or not.) Some colleagues have been. I wrote a pretty contemptuous review of Very Bad Things back in 1998–it deserved nothing less–and its director Peter Berg told an assistant editor from the L.A. office who he ran into at some red-carpet event that he considered the notice “Not fucking cool.” You can imagine the sleepless nights that caused. One of that same movie’s co-stars, Jeremy Piven, was talking to another editor at a party in Chicago, and he asked her, I am told, a) how old I was and b) if I was British, which I thought was pretty hilarious. There was a party that Premiere threw at the Toronto Film Festival about a year later that was being attended by Mike Figgis, whose The Loss of Sexual Innocence I had suggested would have been more accurately titled The Loss of the Will to Live. He did not seek me out. I wasn’t surprised; although I don’t like much of his work, he strikes me as a person of integrity and not someone likely to get bent out of shape over bad reviews. In stark contrast to his example, there’s a writer/director/actor, who I will not name (although if I did you would be surprised and dismayed, as he doesn’t generally come off as someone who would be this much of a weasel), who actually complained to my boss about my negative review of his film.
Aaron: If you don’t mind, I would like to play the role of Devil’s Advocate for the next four questions. In the opening of an article about the short-lived trend of explicit sexuality in mainstream movies, you wrote, “Masturbation. Voyeurism. Pedophilia. Repressed homosexuality. Teem promiscuity. One of 1999’s most critically acclaimed movies fairly brims with such stuff, and not only do audiences not seem to mind, but it barely registers when they discuss the picture. Even the film’s relative few detractors haven’t taken it to task for those elements.” The movie in question is American Beauty. Allow me to take it to task. While I feel it is an exceedingly well-directed, well-acted sitcom, a sitcom it remains. I like to think of it as a prequel to screenwriter’s Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under. Beauty‘s darkest moments are brought up short by a perfectly timed one-liner or sight gag. For me, Todd Solondz’s Happiness deals with masturbation, voyeurism, pedophilia, repressed homosexuality, teem promiscuity in a much more honest manner. There’s no sniggering going on in the audience. To put it bluntly, did you actually think a floating bag was beautiful?
Glenn: Oh my. You seem to have a knack for exhuming the most fulsome of my extracts. Either that, or I’m more generally fulsome than I thought. An unattractive state of affairs in any case. But let me address the question at hand…No, I never thought the floating bag was beautiful. I don’t think the film is saying the floating bag is inherently beautiful, but that the beauty of a given object is often contingent to the quality of concentration applied to the observation of that object. Which is a proposition I agree with up to a point. That said, I think I overrated American Beauty quite stupendously. It’s a movie that is at war with itself, and to be honest with you I can’t say how much of that observation is based on the movie itself or what I now know about its making, particularly its editing and the addition of the Kevin Spacey character’s voiceover. What appealed to me about it was not its putative “satire” but its intimations concerning the possibility of the wondrous in everyday life. I overestimated the positive value of one thing and underestimated the lameness of the other. I’ll stick by it in that it was unusual and refreshing in its depiction of the varying states of adolescent sexuality, and I insist that Kevin Spacey reached an apotheosis of funny hatefulness when he said “I rule.” As far as Happiness is concerned, well, dude, in my review of that film I called Todd Solondz the “true heir to Luis Bunuel.” I think I was wrong–or at least overstating things–there, too, but still, given that, you can’t say I privileged American Beauty. And finally, the quote you cite is largely about the way I perceived movie audiences’ reactions to American Beauty. For better or worse, that picture did, um, penetrate the consciousness of the cultural mainstream more than Happiness did. Distribution really can be the ultimate defuser of the genuinely provocative artist; not that Happiness was poorly distributed, but the art house circuit, such as it is, is what it is.
Aaron: You wrote a rather dismissive review of Doug Liman’s rave generation chronicle Go. Of the characters’ hard-edged attitude you wrote, “This is an increasingly prevalent and obnoxious device for today’s ‘hippest’ moviemakers: the all-asshole dramatis personae.” While I agree youth-oriented movies of the late ’90s seemed to wallow in excessive attitude and posturing, Go captured a heedless romanticism that seemed to have more in common with American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. The “all-asshole dramatis personae” you speak of seems to be more in line with the movies of Guy Ritchie or Roger Avary. Do you feel this type of attitude falls in line with teenage life that certain movies capture more authentically than others? Have you reached a point where you find yourself saying, “These kids today don’t know anything about good movies and music?”
Glenn: Good God, no. And I hope I never do. Which is not to say I’m going to make a point of justifying/valorizing pop taste the way that so many music writers do these days, but I would hate to be so out of touch as to reflexively dismiss “the kids.” The kids are great, as far as I’m concerned. To cite but a single, random example, I don’t think the Casavettes revival would have happened without the curiosity and passion of younger movie lovers. I do think that Go, shall we say, overemphasized the unattractive traits of its characters to an irritating degree, but my “all asshole dramatis personae” line should have been framed as an observation rather than a dismissal. I must have been feeling particularly tetchy when I wrote that, because overall I think Go‘s a pretty lively, energetic, conscious picture. I actually like it a lot better than Liman’s Swingers, which some might say is a picture that someone like myself could more easily “relate” to. But I don’t care so much about “relating” when I watch a film. And I don’t mind if a picture is lacking in “sympathetic” characters, but I get annoyed if I suspect that the unpleasant characters in abundance are there in order to up the movie’s “edge” quotient. Or make you keel over at the stark reality of it all, as I believe We Don’t Live Anymore‘s cavalcade of solopsists were intended to.
Aaron: You wrote in you review of Rushmore that it was the best American comedy since Woody Allen’s Annie Hall. In doing so you also said Allen had long since passed his great creative period. Do you really feel that way about his ’90s work? I feel his ’90s work is some of his most daringly honest writing and directing. There seems to be some ruthless self-examination going on in Husbands and Wives, Bullets Over Broadway, and especially Deconstructing Harry. And speaking of Woody Allen, you’ve written some rather dismissive asides about the TV shows Seinfeld and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Don’t you think Larry David is picking up where Allen left off with his late-70s observations about human nature?
Glenn: What I said about Allen, whose Celebrity and Deconstructing Harry were his most current films at that time, was that he was “well past his classic period.” On the one hand, I look at that pronouncement and think it’s arrogant, and on the other I think that while you’re correct in your assessment of the three films you mention, none of those pictures are, finally, as fully realized as Annie Hall or Crimes and Misdemeanors. They have flashes of brilliance–in Bullets Over Broadway the brilliance is often sustained–but they also have moments of unearned crassness, clumsy contrivance, utter half-assedness, and so on. I think the closest he’s come to a real great is Sweet and Lowdown, which is largely because Samantha Morton is so amazing in it she makes you ignore what a hoary construction her character actually is. Even his latest, Melinda and Melinda, which I largely liked, has real problems. So while I cringe a little at the tone of my pronouncement, I won’t take it back. I recently came clean on Seinfeld in a Home Guide column–I do think it’s funny, or at least the episodes from the first four seasons that I’m checking out sporadically on DVD are making me laugh. It might start to wear thin. I think my hostility to Seinfeld was/is triggered by a certain chauvinism–us anti-Seinfeld New Yorkers are versions of the Soup Kitchen’s indignant Abe (the basis of the “Soup Nazi” character) writ small. (On the other hand, conservative cultural critics who condemn Seinfeld as nihilistic because it purports to be a show “about nothing” drive me straight up the wall too.) I’m bugged by the so-called meta aspect of Curb Your Enthusiasm. As with the celebrity roles on The Larry Sanders Show, the whole thing smacks of self-congratulation in the disguise of self-loathing. It carries over into the promotion for the show, which revels, rather adolescently I must say, in the naughtiness, the un-PCness of it all. It’s really tiresome, essentially holding that one has but two options in life–be a repressed prig, or the asshole that you really are. Wow, I can hardly wait to wake up to the wonder of another brand new day! You say David’s picking up where Allen left off, but the character Allen played in his best films was a really passionate guy who believed in art, believed in friendship, believed in sensuality, believed, for better or worse, in love. The “Larry David” character in Curb believes in….hey, wait a minute, where are those cultural conservatives I was bitching about? And also, the last few episodes of Curb I sat through featured acting that wouldn’t pass muster at an improv workshop in a West Virginia mining town. Of course, that was quite a long time ago. I’m told the cycle with Mel Brooks was really good, and I’ll duly check it out on DVD.
Aaron: You didn’t connect to Darren Aronofsky’s visionary Requiem for a Dream. You wrote Aronofsky has talent but lacks judgment. Considering the rabid cult following the movie has (not to mention the almost unanimous critical approval), have you gone back and taken a second look? Is the movie’s sensory overload easier to take once you know what to expect?
Glenn: I still hold to that. In saying he lacked judgment, I meant, and it’s spelled out pretty well in the review I think, that some of his effects worked, and some of them didn’t. I was particularly convinced by the refrigerator attack on Ellen Burstyn. The fast-motion and normal-motion within the same frame in the jail scenes, not so much. It’s not a matter of sensory overload. Sometimes less is more. Sometimes more is more. And sometimes more is less. Knowing how to tell the difference is, well, judgment. Watch Bresson’s A Man Escaped, where the accretion of commonplace detail eventually opens the viewer up to an emotional wallop he or she never necessarily saw coming. There, then, is a perfectly judged series of shots and sounds. But that’s comparing apples and oranges. Look instead at Fincher’s Fight Club. Say what you will of its vision, but all of its technical bravura serves that vision in an exactly appropriate way. But look–Requiem is only Aronofsky’s second film, for God’s sake. And he should have been able to have made at least three more since then. And I imagine they all would have capitalized on the things that were good about Requiem and sloughed off the things that were not so good. The collision of such a prodigiously ambitious filmmaker with such a colossally hidebound system of making films–Hollywood, that is–has really hindered said filmmaker’s artistic growth.
Aaron: What movie critics do you read to see if his/her opinions match yours?
Glenn: Um, I don’t. Read movie critics to learn whether their opinions match mine, that is. First of all, I’m confident enough in my own judgment not to seek out that kind of affirmation. Second, I’ve never read criticism for the purpose of confirming my perspective; I read it in order to broaden that perspective, to have that perspective challenged. Or to challenge the perspective I’m confronting, if only in the privacy of my own thought processes. I’ll admit that when I first started doing the film reviews column in Premiere, I would feel a slight discomfort if J. Hoberman’s opinion of a given picture differed from my own. But I started getting accustomed to disagreeing with critics I revere back when I started reading Robin Wood back in the ’70s. I think I admire Wood more than any other critic, period, but I have no truck with his characterization of David Cronenberg as reactionary. (I do have to admit that there seems to be a strain of homophobia running through his adaptation of Naked Lunch, but I’d argue that…well, I won’t argue anything here, as there’s only a finite amount of space this interview can take up.) So there you are. My own reading of my fellow critics is pretty haphazard I have to admit. I don’t always keep up and sometimes I skip their plot descriptions, because sometimes reading plot descriptions reminds me how much torture writing plot descriptions can be. My faves among regularly published critics are vaguely as follows. I enjoy A.O. Scott’s writing a lot, I think he’s really grown into his position at the Times. Manohla Dargis’ sensibility and stance are always interesting things to bounce my own ideas off of. Hoberman still delivers the goods. Dave Kehr is great. Owen Gleiberman has a really interesting frame of mind that’s made more interesting by the context in which he articulates it. Jonathan Rosenbaum is spectacular. Tom Carson, my one-time editor at the Village Voice and my great friend is always a fantastic read. We disagree quite frequently, by the way. In any case most of the above are pleasant nodding acquaintances, some are friends. Kind of unavoidable if you’re based in New York and/or do a certain number of festivals.
Aaron: Let’s backtrack a little. What was it like going to the movies when you were a kid? Was going to the movies a family-oriented event?
Glenn: Initially, absolutely. My parents were kind of kids themselves when they were married–my mother 18, my father 19. (That makes it sound rather like they had a shotgun wedding, which was absolutely not the case–they were married in November of 1958, and I was born in August of 1959. Do the math. Good Catholic kids, the both of them.) So the drive-in theater was their thing, as you might infer from my answer to your first question. Not to get too weirdly Freudian, but I think they were bemused to discover my enthusiasm for movies–they’d take my brother and sister and I to the drive-in, put down the seats in the back of the Ford Country Squire, and once they assumed the kids were asleep, make out if the movie was boring. Hence, they didn’t notice me looking straight past them, bug-eyed, at the forest love scene between Christopher Jones and Sarah Miles in Ryan’s Daughter. Going to indoor theaters was also a common activity I hasten to add. My mom still loves movies. She managed a bunch of video stores in rural New Jersey in the ’90s. One of her regular customers was the jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, with whom she became kind of friendly. He was really interested in seeing Vadim’s Dangerous Liaisons 1960, I suppose at least in part because Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and, I believe, Thelonious Monk both appear in it. It wasn’t on VHS, but I had it on laser disc, so I lent Keith Jarrett my laser disc of Dangerous Liaisons 1960 through the proxy of my mom. Which I think is kind of cool.
Aaron: You were a teenager during the New Hollywood heyday of the mid-’70s. Were you aware at the time of the high quality of movies being released?
Glenn: Very much so. When my childhood friend Joseph Failla (who sometimes contributes to Premiere‘s Home Guide) and I first saw Mean Streets, we were absolutely thrilled, literally from the moment the kick drum on “Be My Baby” began under the opening credits, with the 8mm home movie footage on screen. For us I guess it was the same feeling Sam Phillips had when he first heard Howlin’ Wolf: “This is for me. This is where the soul of man never dies.” We were all over that stuff, very closely following all the Easy Riders, Raging Bulls directors. (As well as Peckinpah and Romero, neither of whom really figure in that book.) Except for Ashby. We were a little too callow for that–we were all for The Last Detail but when Shampoo came out we were like, “Ugh, a Warren Beatty movie.” In spite of Bonnie and Clyde. Stupid fucking teenagers. But we caught up eventually. My status as a loomer began pretty early on in my teens, so it was easy to pass for 17; hence, getting into R-rated movies wasn’t a problem. I didn’t relish deceiving my parents, but it wasn’t as if we were trying to get into Deep Throat or something. And the alternative could be worse. (Here the “weirdly Freudian” theme reasserts itself.) When the R-rated Frenzy came out in ’72, I begged my parents to take me; they weren’t inclined to, but they suggested that my 70-year-old grandmother act as the guardian in this case. She, of course, remembered Hitchcock as the funny fat British man who directed Rebecca. Cut to me in a movie theater sitting next to my 70-year-old grandmother watching Barry Foster pawing Barbara Leigh Hunt’s bare breasts and muttering “lovely” over and over while raping and strangling her. Ah, what a festive ride home we had. After that I figured I was better off not bringing the family in on my pursuits. Of course, Joseph and I consumed a lot of schlock, too. I remember, to name merely one instance, going to a double feature of the bizarre martial arts/detective story hybrid Golden Needles (starring Joe Don Baker and, um, Elizabeth Ashley? Yes, that’s correct) and the grotesquely bad caper film Little Cigars, in which Angel Tompkins leads a band of midget bank robbers. If you have to see an Angel Tompkins film in your lifetime, make it The Teacher, in which she actually gets naked (for I believe it was with some interest in seeing Tompkins get naked–to no avail–that we checked out Little Cigars in the first place). Or make it Prime Cut, which has Lee Marvin and Gene Hackman and Sissy Spacek in it and is a pretty good movie. Or don’t see any Angel Tompkins movies at all, and check out something with Claudia Jennings instead. I’m sorry. Where was I?
Aaron: What movie character do you most identify with?
Glenn: I took on a similar query posed a couple of months back by the delightful Cinetrix, who was inspired by an EW “Ask the Critic” along the same lines, to which Owen Gleiberman responded by admitting that once upon a time it would have been William Petersen’s character in Manhunter, which the Cinetrix found “unsettling.” Never able to resist an implied invitation to indulge in some one-upmanship, I wrote:
“You thought Owen’s answer was unsettling? Feh. I recall, after seeing Bad Lieutenant back in ’92, shrugging my shoulders and saying to a friend, ‘I’ve had weekends like that.’ (Rim shot.) These days, it’s more about Herbert Marshall’s Gaston Monescu in Trouble in Paradise. But only because my fiancee is so much like Miriam Hopkins’ Lily.”
I absolutely hold to that last bit. But in the main, except for a brief bout of Alvy-Singeritis—-which back in the day afflicted every smart, neurotic straight young male in the tri-state area once they entered the post-collegiate dating pool (I came down with my case in the early ’80s)—-I don’t think I’ve ever seriously identified with any movie character. Empathized with, sought to understand, pitied, maybe even envied at a given point. But identification was never what I was even after. Maybe I’m too much of an egoist!
Aaron: You’ve written very eloquently about foreign, silent-era, and underground moviemakers. You’ve made it clear in your movie and DVD reviews how much you appreciate the work of such noted directors as Bresson, Godard, Ozu, Tarkovsky, and Fassbinder. This begs the question: Is there any director’s canon that you don’t understand what all the fuss is about? (For me, I’ve yet to see a reason for the career of Hal Hartley.)
Glenn: Well, Hartley’s work can hardly be said to constitute a canon. There does sometimes seem to be this willful impenetrability to some of his films that’s frustrating. His rhythms take a lot of getting used to; to invoke Sarris again, I file him under “Subjects For Further Research.” I’ve been trying like hell to come up with a well-loved director who I just don’t “get” and I’ve been drawing a blank. I know that I depart from a lot of my colleagues when it comes to recent Altman–couldn’t abide Short Cuts (although I mean to do due diligence and look at the DVD soon), and have weighed in a couple of times on the unbearable nothingness of Gosford Park but in neither case did my reactions stem from a sense of having missed something. More a case of seeing quite a lot of something and loathing most of it. Canons are funny things, you know. Delete Wise Blood, Fat City, Key Largo, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and The Maltese Falcon from John Huston’s filmography and you’ve got a career that’s far less distingushed than Michael Curtiz’s. There are more than a couple of so-called “masters” or “auteurs” who remain so only due to ignorance of their larger body of work.
Aaron: What’s your mail like? You started an “Ask Glenn” trivia column a couple of years ago. Have you been stumped by a question yet?
Glenn: I get stumped by questions all the time. Those are the ones that don’t get printed in the column!
Aaron: You do a lot of DVD reviews for the magazine. How do you feel about “director’s cuts”? Do you feel they improve the movie? Or, do you think it’s dangerous for directors to be messing with an audience’s collective memory?
Glenn: The whole category of “director’s cut” brings up a lot of questions about artistic “integrity,” ownership, and the different ways that the abstraction we call history manifests itself. Spielberg and Lucas (and to a lesser extent Coppola) futzing around with various special editions and “saga” versions and whatnot strikes a lot of people as dubious artistic practice, but it sure beats Irving Thalberg ripping Greed to shreds. Or, for that matter, the producer cutting up Sam Peckinpah’s Major Dundee willy-nilly to get it to a two-hour mark. As it happens I just saw Columbia’s “extended cut” of Dundee, which adds about a quarter-hour of footage and replaces Daniele Amfitheatrof’s inapposite original score (complete with Mitch Miller’s chorus-sung theme song), which Peckinpah hated, with a really first-rate piece of work by Christopher Caliendo, and I must say, it’s a miracle. For one thing, the movie actually makes sense–the relationships between the characters are so much more strongly defined, the story has the proper pace, the appropriate heft. I think both Charlton Heston and Richard Harris are tremendous in it. In any case, this could not be called a “director’s cut,” since the director is long dead. And there’s already some controversy surrounding it because the composer’s union is objecting to the replacement of the score, claiming it sets a potentially bad precedent. (I’ll note that Columbia is being very scrupulous in making clear that both versions of the film are going to remain available, and both will be put on the upcoming DVD.) Unions really don’t know much about art, do they? But here’s the thing–critical history long ago weighed in on the originally released cut of Dundee and its score, and found both wanting. This “extended cut” is a rare case of history’s judgment actually manifesting itself materially, because there are enough smart people at Columbia to make that happen. (Of course, they were also able to find the necessary material, which is not always going to be the case.) And original scorer Amfitheatrof–not through any fault of his own, per se; he was just doing what the producers asked (the producers seemed to be working under the assumption that viewers would mistake the picture for She Wore A Yellow Ribbon if the music sounded sufficiently similar to that film’s)–ends up on the wrong side of history. An interesting case. As is the case of Leone’s Once Upon A Time In America. If a movie’s been hurt and an effort’s made to put things right, that’s all to the good. Acting like you’re Cezanne and going into the Louvre to do some touch-ups on a canvas is a little different. Scorsese’s attitude toward the whole thing, at least as far as his own pictures are concerned, is refreshing, albeit somewhat fatalistic; the film is what played in the theaters. He’s never going to go back and reassemble the version of Gangs of New York that he put together without Harvey Weinstein’s delightful editing input. But who knows–soon it’s all gonna belong to Disney, lock, stock and barrel. And maybe 20 years down the line–maybe five years down the line–some smart young cineaste working in the home video division is gonna say, let’s put out a “special edition” of Gangs and they’re gonna maybe use one of the VHS boots of the early version as a guide and put it out regardless of Scorsese, Weinstein, whoever. As I said, it’s largely about ownership.
Aaron: You’re one of the few critics who has defended the Star Wars prequels. You even wrote a “Strong Opinions” editorial on how other critics become defensive when a new prequel is released. Why do you think critics get defensive when it comes to summer movies? It sometimes feels like they get a little annoyed when they know no one is listening to them.
Glenn: Maybe so, but that’s no excuse. The audible eye-rolling, or in the case of David Thomson, the heavy, world-weary sighs emitted via prose at the very mention of Star Wars is boring schtick disguised as reasoned/reasonable critical response. In Thomson’s case, you’d think he was poor Alec Guinness, being asked for the millionth time to autograph a Star Wars poster as Obi-Wan. Although it certainly says something about the quality of the prequels that they compelled him to admit that A New Hope had some “verve” to it, and that it was made by a director who seemed to be having fun with his material. So, while there’s plenty to dislike about the Star Wars prequels, it does neither the critic nor the readers any favors to, as I wrote in the piece you mention, approach them with the attitude “of a kid forced to do his or her homework without dessert.” Get out your daggers, bare your fangs, do what you have to do. But don’t whine about all the hate mail you’re going to get before you’ve even gotten your first shot in. If writing about movies causes you such anguish, then don’t do it. Whatever you might think of Kael, you’ve got to give her credit for never adopting a defensive position. (Maybe never backing off, let alone apologizing, for factual errors was a corollary of that, but let’s let that be for now.) And never affecting to be jaded by her subject matter. When movies really stopped engaging her on the level she demanded, she stopped writing about them.
Aaron: In the summer of 2001 you started using a star rating system for your reviews. Do you like using a rating system?
Glenn: When Jim Meigs left the magazine in 2000, he was replaced by Michael Solomon, who at one meeting asked me, “Is there any reason in particular why we don’t have star ratings on the reviews?” And I said, “Of course there is, you vulgarian dunderhead. Do you think in a million years that any kind of publicist-friendly ratings system”–and I believe here I rolled the “r” of “rating”–“could conceivably be sufficient to convey the nuance, the subtlety, nay, the sheer suppleness of my critical processes as they are rendered in prose? Bah! How dare you even suggest such an eventuality. Begone from my sight, rascal!” At which he slinked away. But then I reconsidered. “Perhaps I’ve overreacted,” I thought. “By using a starred rating system, my name will get into the papers more, and my mater will be most pleased.” So I summoned Solomon back to my side…Well, actually, what really happened was that Michael said, “Is there any reason in particular we don’t have star ratings on the reviews?” and I said, “Pleasedontfiremepleasedontfiremepleasedontfireme.” OK, it was more like this:
Michael Solomon: Is there any reason in particular we don’t have star ratings on the reviews?
Me: Uh, I dunno.
Solomon: You think we could maybe initiate them?
Me: I don’t see why not.
Solomon: Why don’t we do that next issue then?
I don’t mind; ratings are a convention that I never really hated, and there is an aspect of what I do that could be called service journalism. If ratings are good enough for Robert Christgau they’re good enough for me. Of course, a star rating system isn’t as nuanced and supple as the letter-grading system that Christgau adopted for the Consumer Guide, but it sure as hell beats a thumb for my purposes.
Aaron: What do you get out of the Sundance Film Festival? Do you feel the synergy between Sundance and Hollywood has been a good thing for studio product?
Glenn: To answer part two of your question first: No. On the one hand, there’s the case of Aronofsky, a Sundance “discovery” whose Hollywood projects have been beset by disasters of all sorts. On the other hand, there’s Gary Winick, a smart guy whose Sundance crowd-pleaser Tadpole was basically a calling card to Hollywood that led to the definitively inconsequential 13 Going on 30. As for Sundance’s part in powering the mini-studios, the putatively independent arms of Fox and such, that’s a different story, and that’s why Sundance is as much of a marketplace as any film festival you could name. (Of course, Sundance also provides ample opportunity for a given mini-studio to make an ass of itself; just say the words “Happy Texas” to any given Sundance vet and watch the smirk that follows.) As for what I get out of it, well, I always approach the trip out there with mild dread, but I always have a good time when I’m there. It’s always great to see the West Coast Premiere crew; our editor-in-chief Peter Herbst takes us out for our annual Grub Steak dinner, which is fun, and so on. And once you get over your reflexive rage at all the celeb-driven bullshit around, it becomes rather funny. Truth to tell, if you’re doing your job as a critic and seeing five or so films a day you’re pretty much insulated from the celeb stuff anyway. I always try to balance out the buzz-accruing movies I’m obliged to see with stuff I’m curious about or have zero knowledge or anticipation of. If I can leave with having a sense of “discovered” at least a couple of noteworthy films, then I’m pretty happy.
Aaron: Finally, what new trend or trends do see happening in the next few years? Are movies getting better?
Glenn: As you might have inferred from much of the above, I’m not terribly interested in trends. I don’t deny that such things exist, but they don’t animate me. I look for individual films, individual artists, always seeking some kind of thrill–emotional, aesthetic, intellectual, erotic, visceral, spiritual. Sometimes all six at once. What I love about doing what I do is that I get to engage in the past, present and future all at once. Glorying in restorations and preservations of great, living works on DVD and in theaters on one hand, and dealing with the fact that video is, for better or worse, absolutely going to be incorporated into this thing we call cinema whether critics like it or not. The art form is developing, or mutating if you will, but it’s still very much alive, and will continue to be as long as it’s able to provide those thrills.