Reel time with David Edelstein
By Aaron Aradillas
One of the advantages–or disadvantages–of the Internet is its ability to make everyone equal. There is no real hierarchy on the Internet. (There are “personalities,” but basically anyone can respond to someone else’s post.) This is especially true in the coverage of entertainment, particularly movie criticism. The Internet allows everyone to be a critic. With the glut of spy reports from early test screenings, reviews by alias-loving reporters, and blogs dedicated to giving one’s opinions on everything, it is a challenge to draw attention to your views amidst all the others. People like James Berardinelli, with his Reel Views, the fun folks at Film Freak Central, and Stephanie Zacharek at Salon have done admirable work in getting online movie criticism to be taken seriously.
Then there’s David Edelstein at Slate. Writing for the online magazine since its launch, Edelstein has developed a loyal following on the web as one of the best movie critics of the Interactive Age. Having spent the 1980s and the early part of 1990s writing for print publications like the Boston Phoenix and Village Voice, Edelstein brought his well-honed journalistic skills to the relatively uncharted area of online journalism. (He also reviews movies for NPR’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross and CBS Sunday Morning.) His reviews are at turns funny, enlightening, and not a little infuriating at times. (Critics who are infuriating and enticing are a rare breed. Critics who just infuriate are a dime a dozen.)
In this in-depth interview Mr. Edelstein opens up about movies and much more. He talks about vigilantism, politics in movies and criticism, and his relationship with the late Pauline Kael. You’ll find his answers to my questions to be as thoughtful and revealing as his movie reviews.
Aaron: What was the first moviegoing experience you remember leaving a lasting impression on you?
David: In grade school, I was a horror geek. I built monster models and subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland. The movie that changed my life was The Bride of Frankenstein. I couldn’t believe that here was a black comedy–spilling into camp, although I didn’t know what camp was–that had all the horror and sadness of the original Frankenstein. I loved the far-out German Expressionist sets and James Whale’s fruity angles, but it was Karloff who moved me most. He made the monster’s loneliness so intense, and when he talked, it didn’t diminish the performance. I still love Karloff–even in really rotten movies–for that mixture of monsterliness and grandfatherliness.
In hindsight, I see that I was always attracted to a mixture of tones. When I was ten or eleven, I saw a production at the Hartford Stage Company of Jean Anouilh’s Waltz of the Toreadors. It was a bedroom farce, still one of my favorite genres. But at some point late in the play you just got walloped by the sadness–almost the tragedy-of these peoples’ lives. In his introduction to House of Blue Leaves, John Guare writes that he had the same feeling seeing Dance of Death and a Feydeau farce over two nights at London’s National Theater, and he tried–very successfully–to combine the genres in one play. I love that tragi-farce “house party” genre–obviously The Rules of the Game, and my favorite Bergman picture, Smiles of a Summer Night, which I saw when I was 13 after going to the Sondheim musical version on Broadway. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night’s Dream are in that mode and made a huge impression on me. And, of course, Chekhov’s plays, which I like done comically so that the tragedy kind of bubbles up from below.
Aaron: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
David: I was a theater guy–a big ham–and went to the same drama camp that’s in Todd Graff‘s Camp. Actually, it was its predecessor, Beginner’s Showcase, in Georges Mills, New Hampshire. The clown who ran it (he was literally a clown) became a fugitive from justice and the camp moved to New York and was renamed Stagedoor Manor. Todd was there when I was–he played the Artful Dodger to my Fagin. He was a great showbiz kid. I love actors. People who are less defended can be very freeing to be around. Maybe I identify with exhibitionists.
As an undergrad, I went to Harvard and studied mostly theater and dramatic literature, although I did take a few film classes–one with Stanley Cavell, who had a genius for translating the commonsensical into the convoluted. I also took classes with a voluble Serb named Vlada Petric. He was nuts and I loved him. It was great to watch movies in his class like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors–really flamboyant bags of cinematic tricks. Vlada and I went into Boston once to see Days of Heaven. He picked the seats and in the middle made us move to different ones for a different perceptual experience. He’d sit there whispering, “Ah, ontological authenticity,” or, “Mmmm, kinesthesia.” I lost some respect for Vlada when he attacked The Lady Eve–probably my favorite movie of all time–for being “uncinematic.” The camera placement is brilliant, and how can you call something “uncinematic” that has some of the greatest comic performances on film? For his part, Vlada didn’t love the direction my criticism took. He would sigh, “You’re another bourgeois impressionist.” It was the bourgeois part I resented, because I was infatuated with Hunter Thompson and wanted to be a gonzo impressionist.
Aaron: How did you get your first professional job as a critic?
David: I was finishing school, and a friend told me that Carolyn Clay at the Boston Phoenix was looking for a third-string theater critic. I got a try-out and then voila: I was a professional, earning a grand $35 a review while teaching on the side. Carolyn was a blast–I’ve never since had an editor who’d add puns to my pieces. Then the film section needed a fourth-stringer and Stephen Schiff gave me a shot. Schiff was a huge influence on my voice. His style back then had a lot of Pauline Kael, but it was more fluid and magisterial, and he knew how to let the air out with snarky punchlines. Owen Gleiberman was second string and was very supportive, too. I still recall, fondly, Donkey Kong, debate about movies, and endless pints of Bass Ale with Owen after the section was closed. David Denby and David Chute had been at the Phoenix before my time, and Mike Sragow came at the end of my tenure. I missed my pals Charlie Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek by a few months. It was a great place to apprentice.
Aaron: You’ve written for alternative weeklies (Boston Phoenix, Village Voice), magazines (Rolling Stone), daily papers (New York Post), and now online for Slate. What have your relationships been like with your editors?
David: Unusually good–I’ve never gotten much pressure to write short or get quoted in ads or any of the crap I hear from colleagues. At the Village Voice, my editor Karen Durbin had pretty firm leftist-feminist politics but was such a crazy hedonist that it never got in the way. My goal was always to shock her and make her laugh–and she probably let me get away with too many sophomoric things. But hey, if you can’t be a hot dog when you’re 25 years old at the Village Voice…! And Karen appreciated that I worked very hard. In the days before I had a computer, I’d hide under a desk when the guard locked the place at midnight, so it was just me and the rats until eight in the morning.
When I applied to the Voice, the hope was that I’d write about both film and theater. The theater editor at the time told me she liked my stuff, but that she’d done a “purge”–her word–of white heterosexual Jewish males when she took over and would have used me in a second if I’d been female or African-American or gay…But I don’t want to Voice-bash. I saw the sense in what she said, even though, paradoxically, I think it produced a section that was too homogenous in its aesthetic. In the film section, J. Hoberman and I were both white hetero Jewish males but we couldn’t have been more different in our taste and temperament. Jim was an extremely friendly and generous colleague.
Then Jane Amsterdam hired me for the New York Post, and I went because they paid me three times what I was making at the Voice and I was broke. It obviously wasn’t a great fit but no one–except the occasional reader–complained about my politics. Which was a change from the Voice, by the way. A copy editor did tell me I had to “think in shorter paragraphs,” which seemed crass. But he was right. In a tabloid, you have to make your points faster and with more punch. As for Slate, they simply couldn’t be nicer or more supportive. Pretty boring, huh?
Aaron: Describe a typical workweek. How many movies do you see in a week? How do you decide which movie will get a full-length review or a mention in your blog? One would assume writing for an online magazine wouldn’t require the usual “going to the office” rituals.
David: I never see as many movies as I want to–maybe four a week, which is nothing given how many open. I have two daughters–seven and almost three–and a wife who works long hours as a book editor, and I want to be home in the evenings whenever possible. We live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, so going into Manhattan takes 45 minutes. Plus, I’m a slow writer–it takes me a while to get into the “zone.” I spend a lot of time at Starbucks and a neighborhood place called Gorilla Coffee. It’s too bad that coffee is both a diuretic and a laxative, because I like to write in coffee shops. My favorite scene in A Movable Feast is when Hemingway sits down with a bottle of wine and starts a story and looks at a pretty girl a table away and writes a bit and then looks up and the pretty girl is a fat guy and then writes some more and looks up and the place is deserted and then writes some more and it’s full of people for what you’d now call happy hour. The story is finished and so is the bottle of wine, and then he switches to whisky. Heaven! Except I can’t drink alcohol and write, alas…Anyway, I’d love to go into the office more and kibbitz but they won’t give me a desk. I’ve only been at Slate nine years… [INSERT SUITABLE EXPLETIVES]
My column “Reel Time” is hardly a blog. It came about because I used to do one film column a week with three or four reviews of varying lengths–maybe one long review and a paragraph or two on other movies. I love that form, because it’s so flexible. But then Slate decided that each review should be separate, so I asked if I could also do something “bloggier” like my colleague Dana Stevens’ “Surfer Girl.” The most fun thing about “Reel Time” is doing contests. It’s not a regular feature–it has to be inspired by something that comes up in a review, like a bad twist ending or a mismatch like Samuel L. Jackson and Yoda or Judith Miller going to jail. The responses are just amazing.
Aaron: What was your first introduction to Pauline Kael’s writing?
David: I adapted and directed the musical 1776 for an eighth grade American history class. Then I was in some doctor’s waiting room and there was a New Yorker in which Kael tore the movie apart. I thought she was a big nitpicker. But then I read her review of Sleeper–which I’d seen about five times–and I was blown sideways. She captured what made it great, and she deepened my love for it. She seemed to be watching movies with a higher level of consciousness, moving back and forth between her own responses and what was on the screen better than anyone I’d ever read. Better than anyone I’ve still ever read. She was amazing on actors. And she was so funny. There’s this anti-intellectual idea that if you analyze a joke you kill it, but if you’re brilliant enough, you can make the pleasure of the joke last forever.
There were many other influences on my writing, but around the time I started doing reviews the confluence with Kael was surreal. In Boston, I went to the film of the Pinter play Betrayal, which I’d disliked on Broadway–even with Blythe Danner–but wanted to see with English actors. There was something so suffocating about it that I fled after half an hour. A few months later, Kael wrote that she walked out at about the same time.
Aaron: Being a fan of her writing, what was your first meeting with her like?
David: For some reason, she was asked about me in a couple of interviews and gave me mixed-to-favorable reviews. But then about a year after I got to the Voice she introduced herself in a screening line and I couldn’t fucking believe it. I would never have had the guts to approach her. I visited her at the New Yorker and her first question was whether I loved writing, and I said no, it was agony, and she looked at me sadly. After that, I’d say hello at screenings, but we weren’t close. I do remember seeing her jump about three feet during a sudden bit of violence in Mona Lisa.
Several colleagues told me to keep my distance from Kael–not so much because of her evil influence, but because they said it would hurt my reputation to be seen with her. It wasn’t a good move politically to cite her favorably at the Voice, where everyone hated her and was glad to be rid of her pal Wolcott. It didn’t matter how great Wolcott’s TV column was; he wasn’t with the program. When Philip Lopate wrote an article about Kael in New York Woman in early ’86, he put a photo of me in along with other Friends of Pauline. I freaked and called him up and said I’d only met her a couple of times–which was true–and to please, please not tar me with that brush. He was nice–he took my picture out. Then I felt like a total spineless jerk, liked I’d groveled before HUAC or something, so I called the editor and told her to put the photo back. The die was cast.
I didn’t spend any real time with Pauline until we’d both quit reviewing. Well, she quit. The Post decided not to renew my contract. So it was easier to visit her in Great Barrington. We’d go to a lot of movies. But the biggest treat was talking with her about plays, including my own. I said this at her memorial service–that she always told me to make the characters smarter, even the dumb ones, and to let them surprise me. So much of what she loved was based on surprise. Not cheap surprise–surprise with the underlying idea that life is always bigger and more complex than it is in the work of more programmatic or thesis-driven artists.
Aaron: What was your two’s biggest disagreement, whether it be over a genre, actor, or director?
David: Interesting subtext to this question: “Can you prove you are intellectually independent?” There were times when I thought she was impatient with more depressive, fatalistic kind of work. But even as I write that, I can think of counter-examples. We talked a lot about O’Neill–The Iceman Cometh, Long Day’s Journey, and they’re as depressive and fatalistic as you can get. The key is that the characters are so vital. She certainly was right to be suspicious of misanthropy or self-pity when it congealed and turned reflexive and reductive. Horror is a very reductive genre, which might be why she didn’t like it. Or it might just be that she didn’t like to be worked over by artists whose personalities she disliked. She could admit that Psycho was a masterpiece of sorts, but she hated being in the grip of Hitchcock at his most sadistic.
I was furious at her review of Shoah and told her so. I wasn’t angry that she hated it: She was outraged when filmmakers made their subjects look foolish or one-dimensional. Fair enough. But when she accused Lanzmann of being able to find anti-Semitism anywhere–when he had found it in Poland in the backyard of a death camp…No. Sorry. I thought Roger & Me was a terrific movie and she didn’t. It was upsetting when it came out that Michael Moore had fudged the chronology in places, because that film was so thrilling to see after nine years of Reagan/Bush I and an almost complete absence of dissent in mainstream culture. Certain directors like Phil Kaufman she thought should be supported even when they made missteps. Kaufman is a stupendous filmmaker, but Henry and June was embarrassing, and the way he treated the Marquis de Sade as a martyr for free expression in Quills was horrible.
We disagreed on some things. It wasn’t unpleasant if it was one-on-one and she liked you. I was there one time when her grandson, William, was about 12, and she said something about a movie they’d seen together and he said, “Duh, grandma.” So after that one of my favorite things was saying, “Duh, Pauline.” But, you know, I wasn’t there because I wanted to challenge her. The great critics I’ve been lucky to get to know–Kael, Robert Brustein, Hoberman–are people I wanted to learn from.
Sometimes I wished Pauline and I didn’t agree so much. I liked Kelly McGillis when she started out, although she got terrible. Pauline thought she was phony from the get-go. Then one night I was watching her in a TV movie where she played a psycho and I called Pauline and said, “Turn on the TV and see Kelly McGillis giving a great performance!” So Pauline did and mentioned it favorably in an interview and that was that in terms of my ever writing about it. People would say, “Oh, we know where you got that opinion.”
Aaron: Let’s address the “Sons of Pauline” label head-on. What was your immediate reaction to the “Paulette” label, and how did Ms. Kael feel about it?
David: It’s a lazy tag. Yes, there are colleagues of mine who have an aesthetic that was influenced by Pauline. Of course. But what Pauline valued most was liveliness and surprise and people who did fresh thinking. She was always eager to hear things she hadn’t thought of. She had friends like Wolcott, Roy Blount, Elvis Mitchell, Veronica Geng, Stanley Crouch, Robert Towne, Jim Toback, Marcia Nasatir. They were devoted, but they were hardly sycophants. She was pissed off when people sounded too much like her in print–especially when they had far different sensibilities but had ingested–that’s her word–her style, which came out of effrontery at a time when few critics, let alone women, wrote like that. Effrontery and jazziness–a great combination.
I tried to confront this head-on and raise the issue with Charlie, Stephanie, and Armond White in the last Slate Movie Club, but they didn’t take the bait, and a lot of readers complained that it was all too inside baseball. But figuring out what Pauline meant to my writing and my aesthetic is important to me.
When Pauline was writing, she never discussed a movie or a vote at a critics’ society in advance. Not with me, anyway. Never. Let me say that again: Never. People like my friend David Denby–who has written a lot about Pauline’s nefarious influence since her death–would often call me up to chat about particular movies or what we’d vote for at a National Society of Film Critics meeting. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. Awards are bogus anyway, and that kind of politicking is fun. But with one exception–Casualties of War–Kael never told me how she felt about a movie before she reviewed it. And with Casualties it was only because I bumped into her after a screening and she was so shaken up.
I don’t want to sound like a crybaby, but I almost never go after other critics. Why do they still harp on Pauline? Are her friends that powerful? Am I that powerful? Many critics characterize her as a sensation-monger. But two of her favorite filmmakers were Renoir and Satyajit Ray. She was a Henry James nut. A writer in L.A. opened a review of Sin City by attacking Pauline. She said it was just the sort of empty, stylish violent movie that she would have turned cartwheels over. Pauline was notoriously hard to predict, but I’m pretty sure she’d have loathed Sin City. She wasn’t into comics, and she hated sadistic violence used for kicks. She made distinctions between violence that intensified your emotions and violence that was just meant to be a turn-on all the time. So what was this writer talking about? It was like shadow boxing!
I agree with Craig Seligman that we should start to think of her as a great American essayist and humorist, like Mark Twain. Let’s take her out of this fractious film-critic thing. I wrote to Kent Jones when he said in a Sarris profile in Film Comment that Sarris and Kael never stopped battling after she wrote her essay “Circles and Squares” in 1963. I like Kent, but he’s wrong. Kael never wrote a word about Sarris again. He went after her year after year after year–even after she died. But it was Andrew who was so stung that he could never let it go. Pauline pointedly didn’t include “Circles and Squares” in her ultimate collection, For Keeps. That was a gesture that I don’t think Andrew appreciated.
Aaron: Let’s backtrack a little. What was it like going to the movies as a kid? Was going to the movies a family-oriented event?
David: No. Those were the days when you dropped off your kids. I went with my friends or my younger brother or alone. But my mom used to come back from grown-up movies like The Graduate and tell me about them; I remember long nights of her telling me the plots of stuff like Straw Dogs! I always remembered seeing Straw Dogs, even though I hadn’t! We did have an early movies-at-home service in the ’60s called Pay TV. You got a decoder box and you dialed in a number and it converted these little buzzing crickety posterized boxes into images. I saw a lot of Don Knotts comedies on Pay TV. Before the feature started they’d show a drawing of a theater curtain and play Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” so whenever I hear that now I think of Don Knotts. The best part was that on Saturday afternoons the feature was preceded by an episode of an old serial from the ’40s or ’50s-sci-fi, Westerns, African adventures. I loved the cliffhanger endings and was always so angry that they’d cheat when they reshot it for the beginning of the next installment. Also, every Saturday night I got to stay up and watch Chiller Theater, all the Universal monster pictures with an occasional ’50s sci-fi thrown in.
As for theaters, sometimes I’d go to downtown Hartford and see the latest horror double bill–a Hammer movie or Count Yorga, Vampire or House of Dark Shadows. I love Dark Shadows. That probably demolishes what critical reputation I have right there. As a rare treat my parents would let the babysitter take me to the drive-in to see triple bills like Horror House, Cry of the Banshee, and The Crimson Cult. The best thing was seeing a midnight show of Freaks and Night of the Living Dead in ’71 or ’72. Nothing was ever the same after Night of the Living Dead. On the more conventional front, we also had a local Cinerama, where they played “big” pictures like Marooned and Ice Station Zebra and Battle of Britain and 2001 on the biggest curvy screen. The size of the screen always made the movie worth watching–even Ice Station Zebra.
Aaron: You were a teenager in the mid-to-late 1970s. How aware were you of the revitalized American movie culture?
David: It’s too bad I was born in 1959 and didn’t see movies like Bonnie and Clyde when they opened–not to mention missing out on all that counterculture free love. But my parents let me see big pictures like Patton, M*A*S*H, Little Big Man, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The Conversation, and Taxi Driver. I was shaking after I saw Nashville. There were plenty of bad films in the ’70s, but the distance between them and what was happening in the country was so short. People talked about films with a different kind of urgency. Now, it’s TV that they talk about that way. I also remember thinking that every film seemed to be flouting some new taboo. You had these profane, morally ambiguous protagonists in Patton and The French Connection. You had an unprecedented mixture of surgical gore and irreverent humor in M*A*S*H. You got messy stuff that hadn’t been over-processed. There was as much excitement about what would come next as about what you were seeing. I guess that’s happening in TV, too.
Aaron: You said you feel people talk about television the way they use to talk about movies in the ’70s. What shows do you watch? Are you an HBO junkie?
David: Not a junkie. Bad word. I like Deadwood, because for all its clutter, it really shows you a frontier ruled less by black-hat villains versus white-hat heroes than by unchecked capitalism and moral compromise. I’m not a Marxist or a socialist–I agree with the guy (who was it?) who said that capitalism is the worst system except for all the others. But right now it’s a blind, heartless, and ultimately self-destructive capitalism. I agreed with Pope John Paul II about that–funny that his right-wing eulogists didn’t mention that particular critique. The Sopranos is a fascinating character study. They’re genuinely horrible killers yet they have enough stature and complexity that you want to see what happens to them. Again, it’s not about evil. It’s about the unchecked self-interest. I thought Sex and the City was unwatchable, but hey, women having casual sex and not getting punished: Hallelujah. Mainstream movies are still behind on that score. What cable TV has in common with the films of the late ’60s and ’70s is that it allows writers to explore subjects that had previously been taboo. And they can treat those subjects over time and do variations on them, which movies have never been able to do.
What else? The Daily Show. Stewart at his best is as fast as anyone, even Carson. Bill Maher has redeemed himself. I love South Park. It’s so hilariously tasteless. It’s in the great offensive, scatological tradition of Ubu Roi and Aristophanes. Sorry, I always feel compelled to shore up my taste for poop jokes with classical references. My only problem is that Trey Parker–and his buddy, Penn Jillette, who has a too-smug series on Showtime–are Cato Institute libertarians, and they mock any argument that invokes “the social good.” Oh well, artists don’t have any obligation to further the social good.
My problem with network shows, even the ones I enjoy, like House, is the A-B plot formula. They can’t pick a story and stay with it. They skip back and forth between a serious main plot and a lighter secondary plot in a way that’s tin-eared and in some cases offensive. I’m also tired of forensics, especially with those whooshy plunges into peoples’ anatomy. It was great when David O. Russell did it in Three Kings, but when it becomes routine it’s borderline offensive.
Like everyone else, I rewatch Seinfeld. It’s great insane farce, and for all the selfishness of those characters, there was an authentic social bond that was inspiring. If only I could drop in on my friends and be nuts in the same way. Also Roseanne in its best three years or so–that was amazing. Not only was it beautifully written and acted, it was about money and the lack of it in a way you never see on sitcoms.
I wish I didn’t find the medium itself so depressing. I had some problems with my friend Bill McKibben’s anti-TV book The Age of Missing Information: I wanted him to acknowledge that in countries like Ireland that were tyrannized by a church that sent unwed mothers to laundries for life, television was a genuinely liberating force. Television showed us Bull Connor turning loose his thugs on peaceful Civil Rights marchers, and it gave us “the living room war”–in Michael Arlen’s phrase–that helped turn the tide against the Vietnam debacle. But Bill did capture that disgust I feel when all I’ve done is sit for a few hours in front of a TV, passively soaking in it.
I watch it very, very selectively. Which is possible now thanks to TiVo and movies on demand. With that and podcasting on radio, we’re moving into an era when we can all be much more selective. Advertisers should be worried. The trend is going to be to do more product placement within movies and TV shows. Yuck.
We need good TV critics now much more than we need good movie critics. We need people who can sift through this massive amount of material and alert us to interesting stuff, especially in the margins. I like my colleague Dana Stevens and my former colleague Virginia Heffernan especially. I wish Wolcott did it weekly again.
Aaron: Being an Internet movie critic adds an extra layer of intimacy between you and your readers. What is your e-mail like? It would seem you would have a base of loyal readers who would write you with some regularity.
David: Yes. I e-mail back and forth with some people, and just had dinner the other night with a guy who wrote me maybe five years ago–a very talented TV writer. From the beginning I posted my e-mail address because it seemed wrong to keep the wall up between writer and reader in this medium. At first, my mail was mostly nasty, especially when a piece would get bannered on the MSN homepage and lots of non-Slate readers would respond. It’s not that they were idiots (well, some were idiots), it’s that they weren’t expecting a pointy-headed 1200-word analysis. They’d write things like, “Blah blah blah. Why don’t you critics understand that people go to movies to escape?” Some guy wrote, “I only wish harm to you and your family” because I hadn’t liked The Mummy Returns. I got called a “faggot” and a “queer” for panning Gladiator. One guy wrote, “You obviously didn’t see the movie because you had your dick up your gay lover’s ass the whole time.” But now the e-mails are mostly kind or at least more respectfully critical. Back in the ’90s, people were testing their power and probably doing a lot more impulsive flaming. On the other hand, I don’t read Slate‘s the Fray. Too much viciousness and anti-Semitism hidden behind cowardly pseudonyms.
I’m often surprised by what people will post on the Web. I remember reading a review at EW once and someone had written in the comments section below it, “I have never heard of this movie and I don’t care to read about it.” So, um, OK. They post whether or not they have anything to say. Or what they want to say is, “I exist!” They write before they even finish reading something. I had a joke at the beginning of my Day After Tomorrow review. It was something like, “The Day After Tomorrow has a wildly implausible plot turn. Greenhouse gasses and emissions have heated up the atmosphere, the polar ice caps are melting, blah blah blah,” and then the punchline: “Now here’s the implausible part: The Dick Cheney character goes on TV and says, ‘I was wrong.” I got more than a dozen e-mails from people attacking me for calling global warming implausible. Rants, abuse, links to articles and scientific studies. They were lecturing me–in some cases writing hundreds of words–and they hadn’t even read to the end of the first paragraph! It’s like they have their finger on the button: BOOM!
Aaron: Ever have any screenwriters or directors confront you about one of your reviews?
David: No. I have gotten a few thank yous. I’m not sure it’s a good idea for artists to respond to critics–even to say thanks. An old theater teacher of mine used to say that the only time it’s good to respond to critics is if they get something egregiously wrong–and then you write to the paper–or they pick up on some small detail that you liked and didn’t think other people would notice.
I got a complimentary e-mail from Neil LaBute, whose movies I’ve panned. I think it was meant to psych me out, but who knows? Maybe he’s a masochist as well as a sadist.
Aaron: Having written a couple of plays yourself are you more or less patient with an artist’s intentions?
David: Both. I’m less patient with shortcuts and cheap shots at characters. I probably need to be more patient with artists who try something difficult and don’t pull it off. I bent over backwards to say how great David O. Russell is even though I thought I [Heart] Huckabees was a disaster, but I was too harsh in my tone on the movie itself. That was true about Alexander, too. Stone refused to pander, and if the structure had been cleaner and someone other than Colin Farrell had played the lead, maybe it would have worked. I might have been too hard on Adaptation. Charlie Kaufman is brilliant, but that movie really seemed to me like a guy doing a big meta-song and dance because he couldn’t find a way into the material. Possibly there wasn’t a way into that particular material.
It’s always useful to have experience on the other side as long as it doesn’t make you too soft. I wrote a book with Christine Vachon about producing independent movies and got to hang out in her office for six months and see the deals being made and the movies budgeted and cast and shot and test-screened. I saw films go from sprawling, unfocused cuts to release prints–what was lost and what was gained. Christine taught me that sometimes if an audience doesn’t like a key scene, it might not be because the scene is bad but because it hasn’t been set up right.
It was also useful to watch real actors up close, which I did when I apprenticed at the American Repertory Theatre at Harvard. Believe it or not, I used to enjoy reading John Simon on theater in the ’70s, right up until the time I started seeing the same productions he did. There was an actress he described over and over as masturbating in public, and I had a chance to work with her at the A.R.T. She was a total sweetheart, and I did see that expression on stage that enraged Simon. It appeared when she was momentarily unsure of what she was doing and became self-conscious. So Simon had called it exactly wrong and had used his misperception to bludgeon her. To write about actors well you have to have some empathy. You can’t sit there measuring their features with imaginary calipers.
Aaron: How do you feel about “director’s cuts”? While you disliked Apocalypse Now Redux you qualified your placing Gangs of New York on your 10 Best List of 2002, stating you wouldn’t pass final judgment until the 3 ½ cut of the movie was made available.
David: There’s no general rule about director’s cuts. Gangs was misshapen–it wanted to be longer. Yes, that final battle sequence was intended to be disjunctive, because you were watching a classical revenge play literally blown away by the forces of modernity. It was a great idea–and when was the last time you saw an American movie on that scale? It’s what you expect from Leone or Bertolucci. But I thought about what Christine had said–about things that don’t work because they haven’t been set up. The various social forces in play hadn’t been dramatized. They were in there, but the scenes just didn’t breathe. Maybe the film wouldn’t have worked at any length, but I was hoping for a three-and-a-half-hour masterpiece in there in which everything had the right weight. Who knows?
Ninety percent of the time, if a studio has run roughshod over a director’s work, it’s a bad thing, and it’s fascinating to see what the filmmaker will put back. And it’s not like the old movie goes away. It doesn’t hurt anyone. But some directors will fiddle until they die and the movies won’t get better. Apocalypse Now Redux was a terrible mistake, I don’t care how many rave reviews it got. It certainly had more scope, but it also had everything that Coppola had sensibly cut. That French plantation scene was such an embarrassment. The director’s cut of Donnie Darko was another mistake. I had watched all those cut scenes in the DVD and was relieved that they’d been snipped for length. They made the movie sappier and more simpleminded. When they were left out, you had some drama. Donnie was a visionary and a martyr, but he was also a really disturbed kid.
Aaron: Let’s talk vigilantism. (One of my favorite topics.) You’ve stated repeatedly you’re not a big fan of vigilante movies. You’ve made exceptions by praising movies like In the Bedroom and Mystic River–movies that serve up vigilante justice with a moral lesson. (The lesson being vigilantism is bad.) Don’t you find the moralizing of vigilantism a little on the hypocritical side? To put it another way: Is Death Wish or Dirty Harry more offensive? The former being a fast-paced, well-executed audience rouser while the latter is a fast-paced, well-executed audience rouser that tacks on a “thoughtful” final gesture by the vigilante killer. Dirty Harry throws away his badge after he’s achieved instant gratification. Makes me yearn for the straight-faced nihilism of Alex and his droogs.
David: That’s not why Harry throws his badge away. He’s pissed off at the liberals who’ve held him back–he’s not ashamed of his own actions. Harry has no shame whatsoever.
But it’s a good question. The droog in me loved Sin City. It’s funny that I was denounced in the right wing blogosphere–this guy Brent Bozell said no one should ever take Slate seriously again as a moral arbiter–for a review in which I said that the movie was vicious and sadistic but I still loved it.. The critics who merely praised it without making the case for the other side weren’t attacked in the same way.
Anyway, I write obsessively about vigilantism precisely because it makes me go “Yes!” and “No!” at the same time–precisely because I feel like a hypocrite. If you live in a place like New York–I’ve had my car broken into many times, and just last week someone stole the wheels and seat off my bike, and like everyone else I live in fear of something happening to my kids. Some of us carry around a lot of anger and anxiety. And most of these movies exploit those feelings without making you grapple with or try to move beyond them. Vigilantism is the principal motif in modern action movies. And it has awful ramifications–in the way people fetishize guns, and in how they think about the death penalty. I don’t mean to suggest it’s new in American culture. When you read Richard Slotkin’s trilogy, you see the strains almost from the beginning. But in cinema it has a special power. Look at Birth of a Nation–one of the most important American films and a textbook racist vigilante movie. The South is being destroyed by northern politicians empowering unruly Negroes. A man’s got to protect his women! The Ku Klux Klan to the rescue! Batman Begins is lacking in some ways, but I liked the way it hinged on the vigilante question. It’s too bad that Katie Holmes was so unbelievable as the assistant D.A., because when she tells the vengeful young Bruce that vigilantism is self-serving whereas “justice is about harmony,” it’s a wonderful line. Vigilante justice is satisfying in the short-term but is profoundly disharmonious–if that’s a word.
It was interesting when Mel Gibson claimed that The Passion of the Christ was about forgiveness, because if you look at almost all his movies, they build to orgasmic acts of righteous vengeance. I didn’t buy his contention that he didn’t want to make audiences furious watching that endless beating and scourging. Eastwood has done a lot better at mixing in ambivalence, especially in Mystic River–which was completely faithful to Dennis Lehane, but still…He also did that unbelievably brilliant scene in Unforgiven–the best sequence in any Eastwood movie–in which he shoots the young cowboy, who wasn’t particularly guilty of anything, and he has to sit there and listen to him dying and calling out for water. The movie is still rigged to make killing a bunch of people the only thing a real man can do. Eastwood’s character is supposed to be broken at the end, but he’d have been much more broken if he’d walked away and left his friend unavenged. Of course, audiences would have torn down the theater–and maybe I would have, too.
Aaron: I read one of your favorite movies is Jaws. You were not a fan of its spiritual sequel Open Water. Why? You described Open Water as a “pure exploitation move.” And? While Jaws tapped into the then unacknowledged fear of not being able to see beneath the ocean’s surface, Open Water used the audience’s 30-year knowledge of Jaws (combined with the collective knowledge gained form “Shark Week”), and added the child-like fears of isolation and abandonment. The movie “exploited” fears that the audience thought they had already “worked out.” Isn’t that the key to a good horror movie?
David: I couldn’t disagree more that Open Water is Jaws‘ spiritual sequel. Apart from sharks that eat people, there’s no relation. Jaws is manipulative as hell, but it doesn’t maroon you with two uninteresting people getting nibbled at by sharks for 90 minutes. That’s a kind of sensory deprivation. I didn’t pan Open Water–I thought it was very effective. I just found it extremely unpleasant. If it’s the spiritual sequel to anything, it’s The Blair Witch Project. That movie scared the crap out of me–the subjective camera, the lack of peripheral vision, the fact that you never saw anything. I still get the willies thinking about it. But I wouldn’t call it a work of art. It’s a brilliantly effective scare machine.
Aaron: In a post in a “Movie Club” chat a few years ago you compared Baz Luhrmann’s Moulin Rouge to Sylvester Stallone’s Staying Alive, which you nominated as the worst movie ever made. C’mon, Staying Alive has too many bad laughs not to be entertaining. Luhrmann’s movie displays a sense of the theatrical (not to mention a respect for choreography) that the Stallone movie doesn’t begin to hint at. How about a more out-there candidate for Worst Movie Ever Made? Like, say, Fellini’s Satyricon?
David: Well, I couldn’t get on the wavelength of late Fellini at all. But laughing at bad movies isn’t my thing–maybe with the exception of The Life of David Gale or parts of Ed Wood’s films. They’re claustrophobia-inducing. They shrink your sense of what’s possible. Staying Alive was a bludgeoning. I couldn’t bear what Stallone did to Travolta–not to mention Tony Manero. But I couldn’t bear Moulin Rouge, either. You say a “respect for choreography????” You couldn’t see the choreography. It’s that whole miracles-are-cheap style of filmmaking, where you never hold a shot for more than three seconds and throw in every show-off effect you can think of. Most of the time it’s just slam-dancing over a void. You have to be Guy Maddin to get away with it, and Guy Maddin doesn’t get away with it all the time. And don’t get me started on Stephen Sommers and his nonstop zillion-dollar effects. He’s the worst director in Hollywood.
But my least favorite movie is Natural Born Killers. I read the original Tarantino script, which was a shallow but amusing media satire. Oliver Stone turned it into a celebration of serial killers as existential heroes. Maybe anti-heroes–he does bring in some shaman mumbo-jumbo to undermine their holiness, but he’s still turned on by their murders of innocent people. You’re supposed to rock out to the carnage. I couldn’t stand his methamphetamine style-switching film stocks every three seconds. I had to get up and walk around. That’s the worst side of Stone. U-Turn, Nixon–stupid, horrible movies. I thought JFK was really exciting, though. I didn’t buy the Stone/Jim Garrison thesis, but that loony technique was a perfect match for the whole dizzying paranoid conspiracy element that surrounds the JFK assassination. JFK worked because it plugged right into our collective unconscious about the CIA and Vietnam and the real beginnings of the ’60s. So, sometimes in-your-face is good.
My other least favorite movie is Mississippi Burning. Imagine doing the first Hollywood feature about the civil-rights movement–maybe the greatest application of Gandhi’s non-violent resistance principles–and turning it into a vigilante movie. And making the FBI the heroes! Alan Parker is an extraordinary combination of pretentiousness and cluelessness. I’m really proud that I was one of only two critics out of, like, thirty to pan that movie–in the New York Post–the day it opened. Hoberman was the other. Canby raved it to the skies and then had to watch as Brent Staples denounced it on the Times‘ editorial page. I had a good chuckle over that, because no one at the Times was ever allowed to undermine Canby. Tony and Manohla–in addition to being smart and funny–are 180 degrees from the imperial Times style of old. I hope they stay that way!
Aaron: It is hard to imagine a world without online publications. When you joined Slate were you nervous about attaching yourself to a relatively uncharted form of journalism?
David: I didn’t have a job or even the prospect of one, so it wasn’t a factor. I’d been in a bit of a funk for a couple of years, and Judith Shulevitz gave me a chance to write for Slate about TV and books. I got the film critic job nine months later, by default. But from the start I loved the place–Judith, Mike Kinsley, Jacob Weisberg. The people are unbelievably nice, even if they won’t give me a desk. The main problem was that my writing wasn’t–isn’t–“webby,” whatever that means. There was a lot of talk about weaving movie clips into reviews. I resisted. Maybe it’s a good idea, especially with broadband, but I think the fun of being a critic is trying to evoke something and not being like Warner Wolf and saying, “Let’s go to the videotape!”
Aaron: Since you’re a writer for Slate, I couldn’t conduct an interview without bringing up politics. The two things casual readers–usually conservative–don’t want in movie reviews are opinions and politics. They seem only interested in plot summaries and opinions that match their own. How do you feel about expressing your political beliefs in reviews, especially when movies like The Life of David Gale and Fahrenheit 9/11 all but demand you reveal where you stand?
David: Um, The Life of David Gale is so bonkers that it’s hard to know what its politics are supposed to be.
As for politics in movie reviews–I do get some nasty letters from Republicans. I won’t dignify them with the label “conservative,” because an honest conservative would want nothing to do with the current administration. Anyway: How can you keep politics out of reviews, especially when writing about The Hunting of the President, Outfoxed, or Fahrenheit 9/11? Art isn’t divorced from the real world. Or if it is, then that’s a political statement. Every day the deficit balloons. There are scores more deaths in Iraq, more evidence of the mendaciousness and incompetence of this administration–and more people who are finally unable to deny the evidence of their eyes and ears. At the very least, this is gangsterism on a scale that would have shocked Al Capone, along with lies and doublespeak that would have shocked Orwell. And it’s going to lead to catastrophe, while we all scribble about Brad and Jen and Angelina. I can’t piss on something like Fahrenheit 9/11 or The Girl in the Café just because they don’t measure up to my highest ideals of documentary and drama. I’m not going to remove part of my brain to endorse them, but there are some imperfect things worth getting behind right here, right now.
When I started out reviewing theater, I was enthusiastic about more stridently political stuff. I’d spent a few summers in England and Scotland and had seen a few good neo-Brechtian companies and even some pub theater. I didn’t want all plays to be like that, but why couldn’t there be a healthy segment of the American theater working in an unapologetically political vein? Especially in the populist vein–the cabaret/music-hall stuff that gave you “a good night out?” Now it could be built around more current forms, like rap. There was a brief surge, around the time of the disarmament rallies in ’83 and ’84. But it was preaching to the choir. And I guess I lost my appetite for all that at the Voice, probably in reaction to cultural commissars like Richard Goldstein. One of the few bright spots in the last five years has been the emergence of an angry and funny left wing that isn’t in that Stalinist tradition. The Air America folks like Franken and Randi Rhodes. Harry Shearer, who’s reaching more people than ever with his podcasts. The bloggers. I don’t have a fraction of their impact, but every little bit helps.
I’m still upset about the time in 2001 I did a Crossfire opposite Michael Medved. Even though my politics lean leftward, obviously, I went in there without an agenda and Medved had–has–nothing but an agenda. He even got in a dig at Erin Brockovich–he made the charge that she was responsible for the rolling blackouts in California! The blackouts that we later found were orchestrated by Bush’s pal Kenny Boy Lay. But Medved was mainly there to trot out his line that Hollywood is liberal and anti-religious and the enemy of “traditional” values. The Oscar nominations had just been announced, and he argued that critics were taking Gladiator to task because it embodied manly values, camaraderie, spirituality, the conflict between good and evil, blah blah–and Gladiator had just been nominated for everything! Chocolat had also been nominated, and that’s the one he homed in on. Another Hollywood effort to undermine religion and to impose an agenda of secular humanism! The problem was that I thought both movies were crap. What they shared more than ideology was a belief in jerking the audience around and in caricaturing everyone on the opposite side. So I said that, and that didn’t exactly make for a good debate. Today, I’d stand up for secular humanism, if not for that particular movie. I didn’t dream at the time that secular humanism was in any danger. For Medved, we need more films like Signs, which carry the message that if you don’t believe in God you kill your kids. That’s not the subtext of Signs, that’s the text. How can you review it without engaging with that–a blood libel? Well, many critics didn’t. They simply judged the film on whether or not it was a successful thriller.
On NPR and CBS, I’m not really allowed to address political issues. Not in the same way. You try reviewing Fahrenheit 9/11 without taking a stand on Moore’s politics! With Slate, I have a rare opportunity. The Judith Miller Slammer Film Festival I thought up, wrote, and posted in less than half an hour. I was sitting there getting furious that Miller had become a First Amendment martyr when she might have played a role in spreading information about Valerie Plame. At the very least, she labored to prop up the contention of her neocon pals that Iraq posed an imminent danger. So within minutes of my posting, I had a dozen e-mails with nominations for movies to educate Judy Miller in prison. Amazing: 45 minutes from conception to cause. Only on the Internet, baby.
By the way, one of the most fun things I’ve written in the last three months was a reply to the people who wrote angrily that I reviewed Jane Fonda’s comeback without mentioning that she had betrayed her country. I got to write what they always write to me: “Politics have no place in a movie review.”
Aaron: What new trend or trends do you see happening in movies in the next few years? Are movies getting better?
David: I started writing about movies in the early and mid-’80s, which was the worst period ever. It was right after the big corporations had taken over the studios and brought in the marketing guys at the earliest stages. They used to do that with exploitation films–you know, you do the poster before you hire a scriptwriter or director. But those films cost nothing to make-not a hundred million dollars, that’s for sure. Since I wasn’t a lead critic until 1988, I wrote about a lot of teen comedies. And I used to dread the summers. All those movies like Vision Quest and Krull and The Last Starfighter and Rambo.
Then everything changed when the indie film thing happened. It’s sad to say, but prizes made a huge difference, and just having the Sundance festival and the Independent Spirit awards was a big step in whipping up public excitement. We Americans do love our awards. In the mid-’80s I had an idea at the Voice of doing a movie equivalent of the Obies–awards for Off-Hollywood pictures. There wasn’t enough of a real movement at the time, but now there is, and every mid-sized city seems to have its own film festival that gives prizes and shows stuff that isn’t multiplex-friendly-which is most of the stuff out there. The one-time indie directors are bringing a lot to the mainstream: Payne, Russell, Soderbergh, Christopher Nolan. Many are not just directing but executive producing and acting as good godfathers to younger or less successful filmmakers.
On the other hand, directors I know say the level of studio interference has never been higher, especially at the development stage. You have to go through a small army of junior executives, and for every smart one-and there are many, many smart ones-there are two or three arrogant boobs. And the amount of money that big movies have to make to show a profit are insane, even with DVD on the back end.
The longer-term issue is that our culture is getting more and more private. It used to be that theater was public and movies were private, even kind of masturbatory. But then TV and video came along, and now Walkmen and iPods. In the mind of many people, movies are public in a bad way. No one wants to stand in line or risk going to a theater where some asshole is going to answer a cellphone or yammer away. We’re getting used to controlling what, when, and how we watch. A lot of the people who e-mail–especially people with kids–go on and on about Netflix. They say they’re much happpier with wide-screen TVs and surround sound. They go to movies only for event pictures–Oscar winners or FX extravaganzas. Too bad. And too bad they don’t go to the theater anymore. Maybe a more public culture would be a more politically engaged culture. But then, I’m still pissed off I missed the ’60s.
Aaron: Finally, what function do you see the role of movie criticism having in the pop culture landscape?
David: As I said, TV criticism is more vital right now. I’ve had offers over the years to write it, but I’d rather watch a bad movie than a bad TV show. I don’t love the medium enough to do what you have to do.
We have a lot of good movie critics now–critics who are synthesizing many different influences. They have to be better because they’ve lost their exclusivity. People listened to Bosley Crowther or Vincent Canby–or me–because no one else had a public platform. Canby was once asked what qualified him to be that powerful an arbiter, and he said the fact that the Times chose him. Period. No one could get away with that attitude today. Certainly it’s not the attitude of Tony or Manohla–or Manohla’s predecessor, Elvis Mitchell. They’re still the most powerful critics because of the way people read the Times, but they thrive on being part of a dialogue.
We’re always going to need good critics. Not so much as consumer reporters–now you can get that on the Internet. We need them to keep the discussion going. To help catalyze the reaction between the viewer and the work. To teach by example how to think about what we see–or in some cases how not to think about it. It probably sounds silly to evoke wine, but here it is: A movie doesn’t just have an aroma and a taste. It has a finish, and if it’s a great movie that finish lasts decades while you weigh all the nuances and components in your mind. Criticism is a living thing. At its best, it’s revitalizing. And as we sink further and further into a stupor, we need it more than ever.