By Aaron Aradillas
Janet Maslin has seen a lot. And, heard a lot. And, read a lot. She has been a critic, in one field or another, for over 35 yeas. Currently a New York Times literary critic, Ms. Maslin began her Times career in 1977 as a movie critic. Before that she was a music critic at the Boston Phoenix and Rolling Stone. (I hear she plans to try her hand at ballet criticism any day now.)
In this rare, career-spanning interview, Ms. Maslin comes clean about living the life of a critic. While some have said she might be a little too sweet for criticism, I think you’ll find Ms. Maslin’s answers to my questions honest, straightforward, and lacking in sentiment. Whether discussing walking out of a zombie movie, the power that comes with being a critic for the Times, or reminiscing about the late Vincent Canby, Ms. Maslin displays a critic’s knack for getting to the point.
Aaron: What was the first moviegoing experience that you remember leaving a lasting impression on you?
Janet: Drive-ins with my parents. First movie I remember: Yankee Doodle Dandy. Over and over and over again on TV.
Aaron: Where did you go to school and what did you study?
Janet: I went to the University of Rochester, and I have a B.A. in Mathematics. Go figure.
Aaron: You started as a rock critic and writer at the Boston Phoenix during the ’70s. What was exciting about writing about music during this period?
Janet: I think I loved music and movies about equally in those days. But it was much easier to get published reviewing records than films. The Phoenix (it was Boston After Dark then) already had a movie critic and he reviewed everything; there was no way for me to write about movies until he left.
And the only reason I wound up reviewing anything is that a friend was editor of the school paper at Rochester, and he needed somebody to review a concert. He asked me to try it, and one thing led to another.
Aaron: You became a critic at a time when both rock and movie criticism was emerging as a vital and adventurous brand of journalism. People like Greil Marcus, Lester Bangs, Andrew Sarris, and, most importantly, Pauline Kael, were making being a critic seem hip. What impact did these critics have on you, if any?
Janet: When I first started I wasn’t very aware of any of the people you mention. I’m definitely not one of the many critics who got started by reading Pauline. In those days–after I had established myself at the Phoenix, and just when I was starting to write elsewhere–I was married to Jon Landau, the film and music review editor of Rolling Stone. On the night he discovered Bruce Springsteen, I didn’t go with him to the club where Bruce was playing because there was a movie I wanted to see. In retrospect, this seems like a bad call.
So I heard a lot about Greil Marcus and Bob Christgau because he worked with them. Also heard a lot about how tough it was to get copy out of Lester Bangs. As for film critics, Jon adored Andrew Sarris and used to refer to The American Cinema as The Bible. He kept a copy nearby at all times, and I got to know it well too.
I also remember reading Vincent Canby and John Simon and admired the elegant way they could turn a phrase. Read James Agee, Otis Ferguson and Manny Farber in those days, too.
Aaron: In Marcus’ collection of essays Stranded, you wrote a persuasive essay on how the Kinks’ Something Else would be the one record you would take if stranded on a deserted island. When was the last time you listened to the record and are you still as passionate about its power?
Janet: I love Something Else by the Kinks. But I haven’t listened to it lately–although I just ordered the CD from Amazon because of you. But if I had to take somebody’s album to a desert island now, it would be Warren Zevon’s. Life’ll Kill Ya, probably. I miss him terribly. Listen to him all the time. And I’m always delighted when some mystery writer brings him up; he seems to have had a devoted following in those circles.
Aaron: In your Kinks essay you wrote, “Life is simply too short for me to get to know disco.” You express a similar sentiment in your review of Saturday Night Fever. What was it about the disco era that you found yourself resisting?
Janet: I don’t remember my review of Saturday Night Fever. But I saw John Travolta somewhere lately, and he said I had really helped to get it off the ground. So I can’t have hated disco that badly. But the artificiality of it made it not very interesting to me.
Aaron: You joined the NY Times in the late ’70s. You had one of the longest runs as a movie critic at the paper. What initially drew the Times‘ attention to you?
Janet: Well, I was working at Newsweek, was very unhappy there, and was just about to throw in the towel and go back to Boston. Then, out of the blue, Vincent Canby called me and asked if I would be interested in going to the Times. I didn’t know Vincent except as a reader, and I was (rightly) awestruck by his work. So this was amazing. The same kind of dumb luck–a phone call out of the blue, this one prompted by Pauline, who recommended me even though I didn’t know her–got me to Newsweek in the first place. I was the first of the Boston Phoenix people to leave for New York but it was a phenomenal training ground. David Denby, Stephen Schiff, and Owen Gleiberman are among those who later came to New York after being Phoenix film critics.
Anyway, the Times usually takes forever to hire people. But they were in a fix. Richard Eder, the second-string film critic, had just been made Chief Theater Critic. Vincent was ready to go on summer vacation. They didn’t have a fill-in. So after I met Vincent I was very soon told to go have an audience with Abe Rosenthal, the Executive Editor. It only took a week or two.
I went into Abe’s office and he told me the following: that he had doubts about hiring me and had strong reservations, so why should he do it? I had a tough time talking after that. He spent the rest of the interview getting me to behave normally again. Finally, I screwed up my nerve and asked him what those doubts were. “Oh, I don’t have any, I just said that,” he said. “You’re hired.”
Aaron: You became a movie critic at the close of the New Hollywood era. Heaven’s Gate is often pointed to as the movie that signaled the end of big-studio-financed personal filmmaking. At the time, did you think that the ’80s would become a decade of summer blockbusters and prestigious costume dramas?
Janet: You have to remember that some of those blockbusters were pretty thrilling–this was Star Wars time, after all–and that Heaven’s Gate, at least in my opinion, was no great shakes. That wasn’t the kind of independent spirit we were eager to protect. In any case, the shift to mass-marketing behemoths wasn’t as drastic as it appears now. There were lots of other things happening at the same time.
Aaron: In your review of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead you wrote, “I have a pet peeve about flesh-eating zombies who never stop snacking. Accordingly, I was able to sit through only the first fifteen minutes of Dawn of the Dead.” First, I think this is a hilarious review. Second, did you learn to develop a stronger constitution as a movie critic?
Janet: Well you can bet I never did that again. I hated it and thought I was being funny, but I took a lot of heat–justifiably–for walking out. And from then on I learned to sit through anything. And I mean anything. Boredom is a much bigger problem than revulsion, by the way. Hating something can lead to an interesting review. But when you’re bored, you just wind up boring others.
Aaron: The first half of the ’80s seemed to be defined by summer blockbusters, particularly those created by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. From 1980 to 1985 you saw the summer release of The Empire Strikes Back, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., Return of the Jedi, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Back to the Future. They’re all great entertainments but their success made it difficult for smaller-sized movies to get made. Did you feel conflicted in enjoying these extravaganzas while personal filmmaking became harder to come by?
Janet: This is a hard one to answer. American films were getting worse, but there were foreign films (remember Australia?) and documentaries–lots of things. I always found films to interest me.
Aaron: If it’s true that everything comes in cycles, you were a movie critic long enough to see repetition in what Hollywood thought the public wanted. The slasher movies of the early ’80s were revitalized by the post-modern success of the late-’90s Scream movies. The teen-age sex comedies of the early ’80s were resurrected by the success of There’s Something About Mary and American Pie. How did you feel about seeing slicker versions of these genres being cranked out?
Janet: Well, there’s nothing worse than a remake of a TV show, even if it’s The Brady Bunch. But some of the prototypes for certain genres may not look as good in retrospect as they did at the time. And sometimes there was even improvement: There’s Something About Mary is a whole lot better than, say, Porky’s. But the proof of how cyclical things have been lies with kids who are just discovering films now: they don’t have the sense of decades separating these films, so that Bill Murray and Adam Sandler might strike them as interchangeable. Not such a great example, but I hope you see what I mean.
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?
Janet: My parents liked movies a lot and talked about them and took me with them. But as soon as I could wangle it, I was getting my father to drive me to the theater every Saturday and just leave me there–so it became solitary for me very quickly. My father was a wonderful, wonderful man with great patience. He never complained about driving me to see Lawrence of Arabia and I can’t tell you how many times he had to do that.
Also, I grew up on Long Island at a time when movies in Manhattan were a very different experience. I would buy tickets in advance as soon as I saw an ad in the Times, and it would be like going to the theater. I loved the kind of movie that had a souvenir program and an overture. Years later, I thought Titanic was a throwback to that kind of overwhelming experience, even though it was generally disliked by other critics.
Aaron: What part did music play in your youth?
Janet: Always. And I remain amazed at the nanosecond it takes me to identify any hit from the ’60s. It’s almost like a reflex, remembering those songs.
Aaron: You were in college during the part of the ’60s that everyone remembers. How aware were you of the constantly changing times?
Janet: Well, you couldn’t miss the fact that these were turbulent times. And I graduated right after the Kent State shootings. I was very much aware of the world in turmoil. Only thing I didn’t get was how badly some of those clothes would look in old pictures. I had a dress made out of a tablecloth, for example.
Aaron: Film societies became fixtures on college campuses during this period. What was it like seeing foreign movies and the more adventurous American movies during that time?
Janet: I joined the one at Rochester just so I could get them to play Lawrence of Arabia. I really did. But we also had Eastman House nearby, and they had a remarkable collection of films, as of course they still do. That was where I first saw Nosferatu and Pandora’s Box and Rules of the Game and a lot of other wonderful things.
Aaron: Has a movie ever come close to capturing the turbulent nature of the ’60s?
Janet: A movie capturing the turbulent nature of the sixties?: Well, yes–but un-selfconsciously. I can’t name one for you, but I’d look for the truth about those times in less celebrated places than Easy Rider and Bonnie and Clyde, for instance. It’s the little, unguarded touches that seem most eloquent in retrospect, at least for me. Only rarely does a film that sets out to capture its moment–like Network–actually do it.
Aaron: Let’s talk a little about the year 1994. The biggest film that year was Forrest Gump. You initially gave it a mixed review that praised Mr. Hanks’ performance while questioning the film’s sense of history. By the end of the year you had it as one of the worst films of the year. What was it about the film that continued to gnaw at you?
Janet: I thought it was facile. And glib. And cute. And manipulative. And I didn’t think life was like a box of chocolates. I put it on my Ten Worst list because I found it so dishonest and it was so overpraised. To be on that list, a film had to be egregiously bad, not just forgettably bad.
Aaron: The other cultural firecracker of that year was Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. You wrote, “While Natural Born Killers affects occasional disgust at the lurid world of Mickey and Mallory, it more often seems enamored of their exhilarating freedom. If there is a juncture at which these caricatures start looking like nihilist heroes, then the film passes that point many times.” It seems Mr. Stone was deliberately stepping over the line as a way to create a cinematic form of catharsis. Do you think nihilism is a worthy subject for movies? Movies like Irreversible and the work of Larry Clark seem to relish the blurring of the line between disgust and hero-worship.
Janet: In order to have the kind of effect that Oliver Stone claimed to be after, I think it needed to be more deliberate–and more in control of its own chaos. I saw something untethered, not something thoughtful. And I thought the film tried to exploit what it pretended to examine. I would be interested to see it again, in light of some of the stronger, tougher films that followed it. But I think Kids, for instance, had the real amorality that Natural Born Killers had to work at.
Aaron: Being a critic for the Times comes with a lot of power. Did you know this from day one, or was it something you learned?
Janet: If I had known how influential the Times critic was at the time of Dawn of the Dead, I wouldn’t have left. There’s some evidence of the fact that I really didn’t know. I tried not to think of being widely read, of killing helpless films that couldn’t survive a bad Times review, etc. It wasn’t that hard to ignore. Really, I spent most of my adult life as a Times film critic so it was a natural condition for me; I didn’t really examine my situation until I moved on. You can tell–or I can tell, anyway–when a critic is infatuated with his or her own authority. I don’t think I sounded that way because I didn’t feel that way. I wrote as if I were writing to on person, not to a vast audience. And I rarely used the first person–I think it’s a sign of trouble when a critic starts doing that. Sorry to be doing it here so much but it’s unavoidable. Anyway, I always thought the film was the star and kept my blinders on.
I wasn’t stupid, however. I knew that I was surrounded by rather strange behavior. People would watch me closely when I walked out of screening rooms, and be unnaturally nice to me when I walked in. I was a conversation piece at the beginning–any Times critic is–and got a lot of invitations, based not at all on my being good company. In any case, I avoided this kind of attention very easily. When I did feel that the power of the Times was important, it was usually because there was some film I hoped would connect with an audience, and I could try to make that happen.
Aaron: Being a Times movie critic means your review is read first. Consequently, when you pan something, you deliver an early blow to a movie’s potential for success. (At least, the more idiosyncratic movies.) Did you ever have any directors get after you for panning their latest film? Any truth to the story that Spike Lee’s response to your mixed review of School Daze was to accuse you of not being able to dance?
Janet: You can’t even think about that if you want to be a good critic. You would be cheating audiences if you were afraid to call things as you saw them. Sure, I sometimes heard that I’d angered somebody, but I didn’t care. And yes, Spike Lee did write that letter to the paper about School Daze. So what? I can’t dance but I can see.
I actually thought his letter was clever–weirdly so–but was glad never to meet him. One year at Cannes he had a hotel room very near mine and we were together in the elevator a lot, but I don’t think he knew me on sight. And by the time I wanted to interview him about something–also in Cannes–he was very forthcoming. That’s the power of the Times, too: people don’t stay angry if they want to be in the paper.
Aaron: What was the nature of your relationship with your editors at the Times? Did there ever come a time when they left you alone?
Janet: I’ve been left alone and given an amazing amount of freedom, really. Part of why I don’t try to write long, ambitious essays and profiles is because the editing process can be so hair-raising. Daily reviews are copy-edited and that’s about it. Fine with me.
Aaron: Until 1993, you worked with Vincent Canby. What was your relationship like with Mr. Canby? How did you decide who would review what film? He seemed to pride himself in not getting into critical feuds.
Janet: I loved him very, very dearly. He was a wonderful friend and mentor to me. He was an amazingly courtly and gentlemanly character–but obviously he could shred somebody if the situation demanded it. It was a lot of fun to go out to dinner with him and hear him do that. And he could be hilarious about the foibles of the film business; he didn’t suffer fools–or publicists–or bad writers, and sometimes fellow critics–gladly.
We made a wonderful team, I think. He was very secure about his wisdom and his position, which meant that he wasn’t afraid to give me a break. He behaved as if he were proud of me when I did something well, at least in the beginning, and I can’t tell you how encouraging that was. When it came to dividing up assignments, he’d do what he wanted–every Woody Allen film, for instance–but we didn’t overlap that much. Sometimes I would be frustrated or disappointed. Not often.
We were friends until he died. I remember being with him in the last room he would ever inhabit, a sunny hospital room, wondering how the world could go on without him.
My very favorite story about him: We had dinner at Sardi’s one night and then walked across the street to Loew’s Astor Plaza to see The Godfather, Part III. I was reviewing it, and I told him I was excited. “I think I’d rather be excited on the way out,” said he.
Aaron: According to John Pierson’s chronicle of the independent film movement, Spike, Mike, Slackers, & Dykes, you are credited as inspiring the name of his film-funding company Grainy Pictures. You used this phrase in your many positive reviews of independent movies like Clerks and Go Fish. At the time, did you think that the indie sensibility would eventually morph into a strand of Hollywood filmmaking? What did the indies of the early-90s provide that audiences weren’t getting from the rest of what was being released into the marketplace?
Janet: No, I don’t think that when I first laid eyes on Kevin Smith–haunting a Clerks screening and looking like a nervous wreck–I could have imagined that he would go on to become a mogul and comic-book kingpin. (I couldn’t have imagined that we’d become pals, either. But we did. He calls me Mas.) And what the indies of the early nineties–a lot of them Miramax indies–was so clearly superior to Hollywood product that it was clearly going to last. But this kind of film wasn’t necessarily going to wind up in the mainstream. By and large, I don’t think it has.
Aaron: The last year you were a movie critic was hailed as a breakthrough year for new and daring movies that were being embraced by audiences. In 1999 we saw the release of Go, Election, The Matrix, The Blair Witch Project, American Beauty, Boys Don’t Cry, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, and Magnolia. Obviously, this moment didn’t last. (The Best Picture nomination of The Green Mile was the first clue. The Best Picture win for Gladiator the following year was another.) How do you feel about the current state of movies?
Janet: Gladiator???? All I can say is that I started to watch Troy and thought it was awfully close to the Monty Python version–hilarious for all the wrong reasons. I have no patience for much of what comes out now. And I do walk out, whenever I feel like it. A little bit of The Grinch goes a long way.
Aaron: What was it like being on the jury for the 2000 Sundance Film Festival?
Janet: What a blast. I was crazy about that group of people (that’s when I got to know Kevin) and we enjoyed the whole process. I was the one who insisted on making it a tie, I think. At least I was loudest about it. We knew we had to give Girlfight the top prize–come on, this was Sundance–but I didn’t see why we couldn’t give it to You Can Count on Me as well. A good solution, in the end.
Aaron: In 2000 you became a literary critic for the Times. What made you change from movies to books?
Janet: Because frankly I wasn’t doing so well with movies. I was experiencing severe burnout after 23 years and knew it. The death of my father changed my life drastically–that was in 1998–and I just didn’t function as well after that. So it was time. I didn’t initiate the change directly but I certainly brought it on. In retrospect, I’m very grateful that it ended when it did, because I think otherwise I would have become less and less effective with more and more movies to overwhelm me.
I had no interest in reviewing books, except occasionally. I wanted to quit entirely. But I had so much vacation time–months and months–that they asked me to wait and reconsider. While I was waiting all I did was read anyway; that’s my idea of a good time. So when a book reviewing job came along, I thought it might be fun. And it is.
Aaron: You wrote a couple of articles for Premiere after you stopped being a movie critic. My favorite is your on-set report of 8 Mile. How did you get this assignment? What were your impressions of Eminem? What did you think of the film when it came out?
Janet: A friend of mine is editor of Premiere (Peter Herbst–my office-mate at the Boston Phoenix!) and he asked me if there was any story I could write for them. Watching the making of 8 Mile was the only thing that interested me. I knew Eminem could act because he acts so well on his records, and I had a lot of admiration for Curtis Hanson. It seemed a fascinating combination. So off I went to Detroit. I was the only reporter on that set, I think. It wasn’t immediately clear elsewhere that this would be an interesting movie.
Anyway, Eminem–Marshall, as he was to the film crew– was extremely focused. He was also extremely suspicious, and I don’t think he had been warned that a journalist would be around. So I just watched him do take after take after take in that tiny basement, with the whole crew crammed into it. And I could see not only how much the camera would love him, but also how interested he was in learning from Curtis Hanson. He was very open to suggestion and not afraid to ask questions. It was impressive humility, under the circumstances.
I met him then but he didn’t want to talk until later. When I finally interviewed him, he turned out to be extraordinarily nice and forthcoming. And he seemed surprised, even incredulous, at the idea that this would be one hell of a performance. Didn’t surprise me, though. Not at all.
Aaron: Pauline Kael once said it would be easier for her to live without movies before living without books. Do you agree?
Janet: I’d have a harder time without books, I’m afraid. My interests have shifted. But the trouble with books is that nobody wants to talk about them. Go into a room as a film critic and you start an instant conversation. Bring up a book and you’re lucky to find somebody else who knows it.
Aaron: Finally, how selective are you when going to the movies now that you don’t have to go? Do you find yourself being as critical of movies now that you don’t have to write a review?
Janet: Well, I hate going to the multiplex. The only times I’ll do that is for a really huge hit, and that hasn’t happened in a while. I do a lot of catching up when they get released as DVDs. When I was reviewing films I was always startled by people who’d see a film a year after it came out, when it finally got to television. Now I don’t think it’s so strange.
BUT: I was lucky enough to get involved with the building and operation of a three-screen, not-for-profit theater in the town where I live. It’s called the Jacob Burns Film Center, and I’m president of its board of directors. Amazingly, someone called me out of the blue and asked me to get involved with this right about the time I stopped reviewing. Perfect timing.
I’m there a couple of times a week, and that’s how I do my filmgoing. We show all kinds of things and often have somebody connected with the film come out here; I do a lot of interviews with our guests and the audience. The variety of films is wonderful: this week, for instance, I saw A Place in the Sun and spoke with George Steven, Jr.; tomorrow night we’ve got the new Woody Allen film; next up is Robots with Chris Wedge. There’s something different going on there every day.
And do I find myself as critical as I used to be? Yes and no. What I used to be, by some people’s lights, was not critical enough; critics are liked best when they either love or savage films and entirely abandon the middle ground. As a critic, I often saw good work in the midst of bad films and made sure I said so. Not everything about The Phantom Menace is as bad as Jar Jar Binks.
But as a civilian moviegoer, I am more critical. I don’t like my time wasted and I have less patience with things that don’t work or just aren’t very interesting. So I’m more selective about what I see. And I understand now, after all these years, why non-critics are not wrong to wonder, first and foremost, whether they ought to go.
Criticism helps in these decisions, but there’s just too much of it. The business of being a film critic has a popularity that it didn’t have when I started out; really, back then, there weren’t very many of us. I think that the Internet will be as much of a challenge to critical overkill as it has been to news coverage, because the means of being a film critic is available to anyone who can attract attention to a website. People used to ask me what qualified anyone to be a film critic. Nowadays, I think, it gets harder and harder to have a good answer.