By Aaron Aradillas
If Siskel & Ebert taught us how to argue, and Pauline Kael taught us how to read and write–and think–about the movies, Owen Gleiberman is a one-stop critic who provokes, angers and, above all else, entertains. Writing for Entertainment Weekly since its launch in 1990, Mr. Gleiberman has cultivated one of the most distinctive critical voices in America. At turns funny, perceptive, infuriatingly dismissive, he is the critic I turn to first to see if my opinions match up with his. It’s not that he is never wrong–far from it. Blow Out sucks? I don’t think so. It’s just when you disagree with him that you find yourself re-examining your interpretations of what you thought of the movie. He’s that good.
When I approached the editor of rockcritics.com, the always-optimistic Scott Woods, about doing rockcritics.com-style interviews with movie critics, he asked who I wanted to interview first. My answer was immediately Owen Gleiberman. I knew if my interview turned out half as good as I imagined, it would set the standard for all other interviews. It did. It has. Mr. Gleiberman’s enthusiasm for this project has convinced me that there is no telling where this endeavor could go. You will find his answers to my questions to be balls-out amazing–funny, provocative and always honest. Whether discussing politics, music, meeting Pauline Kael, or Brett Ratner’s remake of Manhunter, you will be at once stimulated and enthralled by one of the best critical minds.
Special thanks must go to a few key players behind the scenes. Ken Tucker at EW for forwarding Mr. Gleiberman’s e-mail address and allowing this idea to turn into a reality. Mike Miliard and his interns at the Boston Phoenix for tracking down archived movie reviews of Mr. Gleiberman’s early days. And a special shout-out must go to my little big sister, Elaine, for spending her weekends in New York City putting up with the stacks–and the staff–at the New York Public Library. She tracked down some crucial, hard-to-find early movie reviews that helped open a whole line of questioning.
Aaron: What movie-going experience made you think, “I want to write about movies?”
Owen: The closest I came to having that lightning-bolt moment was probably seeing Carrie the day it opened in 1976. It was the Friday after Thanksgiving my freshman year of college. I was home with nothing to do, so I went to the mall to see a movie. I’d never even heard of Brian De Palma, but something in Carrie just spoke to me. It was such a gleefully sadistic yet tragic fairy tale, just so extreme in its trickery and emotions, that it got under my skin in a way that no movie ever had. Especially that shocker of an ending, with Carrie’s hand poking out of the grave. I literally jumped out of my seat with terror, and so did half the audience. When the movie was over, I couldn’t stop thinking, or talking, about it. It was as if I somehow had to prolong the high of watching Carrie by explaining the experience to myself.
A week or so later, I was sitting in a friend’s living room, and on the coffee table was a copy of The New Yorker with Pauline Kael’s review of Carrie in it. I’d never heard of Pauline Kael either, but I started to read the article just to kill a few minutes. I’d never read anything like it. She seemed to be right inside my head, describing, quite literally, every detail of what I’d felt as I watched the movie. Pauline’s writing is a little like crack. You want more. At the time, I didn’t think, “Gee, I’d like to write movie reviews too,” but that pretty much planted the seed.
Aaron: I read you went to the University of Michigan. What did you study?
Owen: I was the world’s most delinquent English major. There was a class in American novels that I loved–I did my thesis on Norman Mailer–but most of what you read when you’re an English major is, unfortunately, old and English. Call me an ADD victim if you must, but there were many, many things I wanted to do in college that came higher on the list than trying to make sense of Beowulf or wading through 800 pages of the dry taffy that is Charles Dickens’ prose.
Aaron: What was it like being in college during the final days of the ’70s movie culture?
Owen: By the time I was in school, the New Hollywood was really over. That was a boon to the college film societies, which could sort of cherry pick and program all this amazing stuff that had come out over the previous 10 years. There were literally a dozen films groups on the U of M campus, and so every night was a cornucopia: Altman, Scorsese, Bertolucci, Bergman, Fassbinder, Woody Allen, John Waters, Ken Russell, the very-trendy-at-the-time Lina Wertmuller, plus everything from classic Hollywood and all the oddball stuff in between–underground films and Sweet Sweetback and counterculture ephemera like Putney Swope and Trash. This was the last moment before video, and you would see a lot of the same people going to these films, all the grungy demented movie buffs who turned worship of cinema into a kind of geek religion. It was all very public, yet very private, too. If you went out on a Saturday night to catch a new Werner Herzog film and then His Girl Friday, and you happened to be seeing both of these films by yourself–which I admit wasn’t unusual for me–then you might as well have been wearing a T-shirt that read, “I’m going to this movie instead of getting laid.” Somehow, though, that made it part of the crusade, the holy cause of film fanaticism.
Aaron: Did you write for your college newspaper?
Owen: Yeah, the Michigan Daily. It was a broadsheet with a very lively tradition. In the early ‘60s, Tom Hayden had basically launched SDS through editorials he’d written for the paper. All of us who worked for the Daily got the best jobs, whereas the journalism majors were still doing classroom exercises like “How to Write a Lead.” As a university, Michigan was such a huge unwieldy place, with something like 20,000 kids, that you pretty much had to find a niche. Mine was running the arts page of the newspaper and writing reviews, something I enjoyed and had a knack for, though it honestly didn’t even occur to me until the end of school that I could actually turn it into a career.
Aaron: How did you get your first professional job as a critic?
Owen: In my junior year, I’d gotten to know Pauline Kael, who cultivated friendships with a lot of young writers. I was friendly with her over the next few years, and though our relationship didn’t last, she helped me to land my first job by alerting the film critic of the Boston Phoenix, Stephen Schiff, that I existed. He liked my stuff and hired me, and I moved to Boston and worked for the Phoenix, which at the time was one of the very best of the alternative weeklies. I was there for most of the ‘80s.
Aaron: Do you remember the first movie you reviewed?
Owen: Yes, it was American Pop, a particularly wretched Ralph Bakshi cartoon! I remember that I went to a publicity lunch with him, and when I asked why on earth he had used Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” as an example of “punk rock,” steam started to come out of his ears. He practically leaned across the table and punched me.
Aaron: Tell us a little about your relationship with your editors. What were the advantages and disadvantages of going from the I-can-write-whatever-I-feel-like of the Phoenix to the no-swearing-allowed-in-the-text restrictions of a national magazine?
Owen: I’ve had great fortune when it comes to editors. At the Phoenix, Stephen Schiff, a sensational writer who is now, incidentally, a thriving Hollywood screenwriter, taught me a lot about how to be a professional critic. As far as restrictions at Entertainment Weekly go, there are none. True, I can’t swear in my copy, but most critics who make a point of doing so, like Peter Travers, sound like sixth graders straining for street cred.
Entertainment Weekly was a blessing from the start, in that it has never, ever tried to impose any sort of corporate house style on its critics. We write with complete freedom and always have. EW had a notoriously rocky launch, and the critics, at the time, were under particular scrutiny by the executives, who worried that we weren’t mainstream enough. That certainly created a pressure-cooker atmosphere, yet even at the time, it’s not as if they swooped in and asked us to change any of our opinions, or our prose. I’ve always had great editors at EW, in part because the spirit of smart and lively criticism was built into the magazine’s DNA. The editors all get that. It’s not just that they don’t interfere with our freedom. They go out of their way to protect it.
Aaron: Describe a typical week working at EW. How many movies do you see in a week?
Owen: No more than 5 or 6. I’d go fucking stir crazy! Seriously, there is so much product coming out now–between the studios and the independents, it’s 10 movies on an average week–that if you tried to be a completist and see absolutely everything that opens, I think you’d lose all perspective. Even for those of us who do this for a living, it’s important to do something besides watch movies. I try to get to anything of even the mildest conceivable significance. I see movies at screenings, and lots of times after they open as well. I find that’s a way to keep the job fresh, by catching up with something when you’re truly in the mood to see it. EW is an amazingly fun place to work, because everyone in the office–not just the writers and editors but the researchers, the design folks, even the ad staff–is, like, cuckoo for pop culture. I spend several full days a week in the office, closing my pages, but as far as writing goes, I do virtually all of it at home, frequently at odd hours. I’m a night person, and prefer to write from, say, 10:00 p.m. to 4 in the morning.
Aaron: As an admirer of Pauline Kael, what was your first meeting with her like?
Owen: Thrilling and scary. It was New Year’s Day of 1980. I was visiting New York and had arranged to meet her in her hotel room at the Royalton. I’ll never forget the first thing she said to me. She was getting ready to vote the next day at the annual meeting of the National Society of Film Critics, and when I asked her what she thought would win Best Picture, she poked her face right into mine and said, with that insinuating singsong of hers, “Well, I hope to God it’s not Kramer vs. Kramer!” I had loved Kramer vs. Kramer–still do–but at that point you somehow didn’t dare say, “Gee, I thought it was pretty good.”
Pauline was brilliant and charming in every way. She took me out to a Chinese restaurant that seemed, at least to me at the time, like the fanciest place I’d ever seen–I was just a rube from Michigan–and I recall that she insisted we not order any appetizers (“I think they’re a drag!” she said). She questioned me about everything, and she was just the most tremendous gossip. Her favorite word in the world was “whore,” which she applied to so many different people that you sometimes had to think for a moment about whether she was using it literally or metaphorically. I think in Pauline’s eyes, there really may not have been much difference.
Aaron: Would you two ever bother debating Kubrick?
Owen: Pauline didn’t want to debate. She had a thousand witty ways of defusing a disagreement, passing over it and, in a strange way, making light of it. She would treat certain tastes you had as affectionate little indulgences, saying things like, “Oh, honey, you always had a weakness for those corny film noirs!” But the bottom line was that you had to mesh with her in certain key areas or she wasn’t going to bother hanging out with you. You could hardly be around Pauline Kael saying things like “I thought Blow Out sucked” (which I did) or “You are so wrong about Stanley Kubrick!”
Look, Pauline was more than a great critic. She re-invented the form, and pioneered an entire aesthetic of writing. She was like the Elvis or the Beatles of film criticism. Yet part of the complexity of her personality is that she was a pathological truth teller on the page who was capable of deep manipulation as a human being. She needed to be surrounded by admirers, and she knew just how to play them. At the end of 1983, I got a freelance gig writing for a little paper in New York that Clay Felker had started–it was called the East Side Express–and Pauline told me flat-out that she didn’t like my work for it. She said, “You must be getting much better editing at the Phoenix.” Well, here’s the deal: At that point, I was hardly getting edited at the Phoenix at all. Whatever your opinion of my stuff, it wasn’t really any different in the two papers. Here was the difference: At the East Side Express, I was writing for the first time as a lead critic, reviewing the big movies of each week. So Pauline could see, in a way that she hadn’t before, how truly different our tastes were–the way, for instance, that I raved about a film like Star 80, which she found morally revolting. So she withheld her praise to guilt-trip me into falling in line. That’s when our friendship ended.
Aaron: What was your reaction to James Wolcott’s decision to “name names” in his article about the alleged Paulettes?
Owen: Jim’s a friend, and I won’t speak for him, but look, what he talked about in that column was true. The Paulettes know who they are, and even after her death they remain a smug little circle, bound by certain kneejerk attitudes and tastes. You can’t tell any of them that Blow Out sucks, either–at least, not if you want to have an interesting conversation. The irony, to me, is that most of them are good writers. They’re just scared of what true independence means.
Aaron: In a good number of your reviews, you talk about the punk aesthetic and how it relates to certain directors. As a teenager in the ‘70s, how did you balance your appreciation of punk and disco? Were you a punk kid or a disco boy?
Owen: Neither. I was a badly dressed Midwestern geek who happened to love both. With all due respect, one of the things that really pisses me off about America these days is the way that so many people feel compelled to put their passions into slots, as if taste were a matter of choosing sides. I was a music person–and, in fact, a musician–long before I was ever a movie buff, and my taste has always been all over the map. Growing up, it never seemed remotely odd to me to love Chic and the Spinners and Donna Summer and Sylvester, and also the Sex Pistols and the Ramones and Iggy Pop (my hometown boy!), plus ELO, Led Zeppelin, Supertramp, the Velvet Underground, and the Carpenters. To me, the Velvet Underground’s “What Goes On” is one of the greatest songs of all time, and so is Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home.” Is that a contradiction, or is it simply not being a lame music fascist?
I was in college during the New Wave years, and I loved a lot of the music. I guess I respond to the rage of punk, since there’s so much out there to be angry about. My favorite Sex Pistols song was always “No Feelings,” since I think it expresses the neurosis of our time. But the punk subculture itself I loathed beyond description. To me, it was the ultimate in American hypocrisy: All of these scruffy kids flaunting their “rebellion” and “individuality” and saying fuck the corporation, yet they were so rigid in their attitudes, in the whole cosmology of what they deemed cool or contemptible, that hanging out with them was more oppressive than spending time in the snootiest country club. I imagine that if I were younger, I’d find the anti-WTO protest kids obnoxious in much the same way.
Aaron: There are more movie soundtracks than ever. So why does it seem that only a select number of directors know how to utilize music in their movies?
Owen: It’s a gift few artists have. One of the revolutionary forces in entertainment over the last 25 years is the way that Hollywood became driven by the synergy of the movie and music industries. It really started with Saturday Night Fever. From that point on, movies were perceived as marketing tools for soundtracks, and vice versa, and this had the effect of turning youth movies, especially, into 90-minute rock commercials. In terms of using music creatively, how much freedom does a director have when he’s basically handed a script and told, “Your job is to sell this track by Jimmy Eat World?” And if the filmmaker is one of MTV’s whiz-kid shills to begin with, there’s not going to be much creativity going on.
Aaron: As one of the few critics who makes a point of noting the contributions of music in certain movies, why do you think most critics seem to ignore the contributions of a perfectly chosen song selection? I mean, movies like Mean Streets, Blue Velvet, and Almost Famous wouldn’t have the same impact without their soundtracks. Yet it seems so few critics comment on music in the movies.
Owen: I guess a lot of film critics don’t feel as if pop is really their domain of expertise. Personally, I’ve always lived for those moments in movies that are musical-dramatic epiphanies. The form, if that’s what it is, was really born in Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising–both Scorsese and David Lynch were hugely influenced by its fusion of darkness and Top 40 beauty–and the great filmmakers are still out there doing it. Wes Anderson, as much as I deplore his synthetic irony, is a wizard at using songs to conjure a mood. I’m haunted by the way that he used the Elliot Smith song “Needle in the Hay” in The Royal Tenenbaums. There are just too many examples to count. At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, there was an experimental biography called Tarnation that does for Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman” what Blue Velvet did for “In Dreams.” I love movies that tap the kind of hidden rapture you can feel for pop–like, say, the musical collage that Trent Reznor helped orchestrate for Natural Born Killers, which turns that entire movie into a pure acidhead opera. It should have started a whole Leonard Cohen revival. Incidentally, there’s a song on the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, “Allah, Mohammed, Char, Yaar,” that in the context of the climactic prison riot is like a bizarre omen of America’s war with Islam. It’s an embodiment of the chaos we were about to face.
Tarantino, of course, is the ultimate modern maestro at meshing music and image. I thought he did an inspired job of that in Kill Bill–Vol. 1, where he reconfigured all those great ‘60s and ‘70s soundtracks so that the whole thing played like a B-movie dream. Nancy Sinatra singing “Bang Bang (My Baby Shot Me Down)” cast this incredible mood over the whole movie. One of the disappointments, to me, of Kill Bill–Vol. 2, much as I liked the film, is that the use of music wasn’t nearly as revelatory. This year, what may be my two favorite moments in movies are both centered on music: that great last scene in Before Sunset, in which Julie Delpy seems to bring Nina Simone back to life before your eyes, and the moment in Garden State where Zach Braff and Natalie Portman kiss for the first time to the sound of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Only Living Boy in New York.” What can I say? I’m a deep-dish sap, and that moment was just so gorgeous and perfect that the movie soared.
Aaron: What music are you listening to?
Owen: Well, I admit I’m pretty mainstream, and a little out-of-it when it comes to current stuff. I think Pink is sensational–her songs are raw and primal yet full of hooks–and I love exactly one-half of the Outkast double album: The Love Below, which is basically André 3000’s half. That’s a brilliant song cycle, just the zestiest and most romantic funk-rock fusion since the vintage days of Prince. Speakerboxxx, on the other hand, I think is highly overrated. Too much rhythm, not enough melody. I say that as someone who has always preferred Earth, Wind & Fire to George Clinton, so mock me as you feel fit. I adore Fatboy Slim, and I liked the Strokes’ first album, and in general was heartened to see the way that the whole Strokes/White Stripes/Vines thing sort of tilted rock back from the abyss of thrashy rich-kid doom it had been mired in ever since grunge went platinum. To me, the great tragedy is Courtney Love. She’s become such a cringing self-parody that people forget what a truly great rocker she was. I think she was more electric, in her Live Through This heyday, than her husband.
My biggest problem with music today is that no one is writing unironic romantic songs anymore. I don’t mean romantic like Frank Sinatra. I mean romantic as in, say, “Rosalita” or “She Drives Me Crazy.” Are we all so hip now that the simple declaration of love in a pop song has become hopelessly declassé–the province of the warblers on American Idol? I mean, I can’t sit around listening to that whiny fuckin’ noise they call “emo.” Whoever invented that term deserves to be shot on sight. Music with emotion?–it’s like saying water that’s wet. More and more, I admit that I’m a retro guy, increasingly possessed by the music of the past. There are two artists I’ve become almost religious about, and they are never off my CD player for long. One of them–please don’t laugh–is ABBA. I think their best music, and indeed their whole sound on songs like “Under Attack” and “Super Trouper,” is just transcendent. They have the melody, and the underlying faith, that I think has been drained out of pop in the era of the corporate hard-sell. The other artist who has come to possess me in recent years is the aforementioned Nina Simone, whose albums are, to me, like some epic novel of ecstasy and despair. You never know where she’s going to go–each song is a journey into her mood of the moment–and her voice has such lordly power, so much soul and anger and tenderness, that she seems to me the most intensely human of all 20th-century vocalists. I first got into Nina Simone, incidentally, through a movie–it was the use of “Sinnerman” (still my favorite song of hers) during the big reverse-heist sequence in the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair. I thought what was brilliant about Richard Linklater’s use of her in Before Sunset is that it seemed as if he was turning the legendary eccentricity of Nina Simone’s performance style into a metaphor for love in all its glorious imperfection.
Aaron: Do you still get upset when a director puts out a “director’s cut?”
Owen: I’m over my testiness on that issue–one has to accept reality–but I still think that people are duped into believing that all this repackaging is more creative than it is. It’s really a prestige form of merchandizing, a way of making old product look new. And I hate the idea that directors are now almost proud of the fact that they save their edgiest scenes for the DVD. It seems as if that’s a rationalization for not fighting the creative battle when it should have been fought. To me, it was a bad joke when they put out Bad Santa as Badder Santa, the uncut, super-naughty version of a movie that was celebrated for being so naughty in the first place.
Aaron: Are there any director’s cuts in your opinion that improve the movie? For example, James Cameron’s extended version of The Abyss is often said to be better than the theatrical version.
Owen: Hey, I liked the theatrical version. But do I really want to spend an entire evening watching The Abyss, again, with an extra half hour? To me, that is just pure drooler mania. Look, it’s fascinating to see scenes that filmmakers decided to drop, but when I’ve watched director’s cuts of movies I love, such as Boogie Nights or Manhunter, I have always preferred the original, perhaps because it’s the one that I already know in my bones.
Aaron: What other movie critics do you read? Is there any critic you turn to first to see if he/she agrees with your opinion?
Owen: The critic, apart from Pauline, who has had the most influence on me, and who I still turn to with singular excitement, is David Denby. He just has this magical ability to write so that every sentence gives you a surge, a little tingle of perception. Reading him in New York magazine back in the ‘80s, I learned something from Denby that has served me well at Entertainment Weekly–namely, that you can write something that’s relatively short but that still has great fervor and impact, that’s built to last.
Which is not to say that I always agree with him. Far from it. David’s a good friend, but I think where I’ve always parted ways with him–to me, it’s close to a generational difference–is that I accept nihilism as a totally serious point of view, and he’s more welded to the old verities; he thinks of nihilism as trivial. I think that’s the reason he has always been a little standoffish about movies like Blue Velvet, or turned up his nose at Natural Born Killers. He has the whole “responsible” point of view that says a film shouldn’t revel in madness or violence or sadomasochism, feeding it to you directly from a madman or a killer or a sex addict’s point of view. Whereas I say, Why not? I think that movies have a singular power to take us inside forbidden states of mind. To me, a film like Irreversible is 10 times more vital and interesting than, say, Michael Mann’s Collateral. I mean, we’re now fighting a form of terrorism that is driven by major elements of sociopathic fury. You really almost have to go over to the other side–to dive into the minds of the depraved–if you truly want to understand it.
But the sign of a great critic is how much you get out of him or her even when you disagree, and I love reading Denby even when I think he’s dead wrong. Beyond that, I always turn to David Ansen in Newsweek, Godfrey Cheshire in the Independent Weekly, Peter Rainer in New York magazine, Stanley Kauffmann in The New Republic–he’s in his 80s, yet I savor him for his eternally youthful individuality–and also the two critics of the New York Press: Armond White, who has levels of vision and insight that are every bit as staggering as his bizarre intolerance, and Matt Zoller Seitz, who infuses every sentence with his love and knowledge of film. Lately, though, I have to say that Matt’s been far too kind to too many middling movies. I always love reading my witty and trenchant colleague, Lisa Schwarzbaum. We’re so different as writers, yet the secret of our partnership is that we have much more in common as critics than a lot of people realize. We both possess major bullshit detectors. I also have to say that the guys who work at my great local video store, World of Video in Manhattan, are some of the sharpest movie watchers I know.
Aaron: Is it important to separate the art from the artist? For example: As a fan of both Stone and Tarantino, did you take sides in the controversy over Natural Born Killers?
Owen: No, I was on the side of the movie. I saw it again the other night, by the way, and it remains the great fever-dream spectacle of our time. Besides me, I think Stanley Kauffmann was the only critic who really got it. To address the larger point behind your question, I think it’s important not to let your attitude towards the artists you like develop into a rigid allegiance. Even the best critics can fall into that trap (look at Kael when she wrote about De Palma or Robin Williams), but the beauty of a great movie is that it can come from anywhere, or anyone. It’s important to be able to say, “I liked Kill Bill, but please–it’s no Pulp Fiction,” or to praise What Lies Beneath as a big, glossy, Hollywood thrill machine that just happens (in my opinion) to be scarier, and better crafted, than anything Dario Argento ever made. Or–and I say this with sadness–to admit that Gangs of New York was a turgid, incoherent mess. I worship Martin Scorsese’s best films, but we can’t devote our lives as critics to buffing his legacy.
Aaron: Ever have any directors or screenwriters get angry with one of your reviews?
Owen: Years ago, a famous and brilliant actor (for his sake, I won’t name him) wrote me an anti-Semitic letter when I panned the movie that featured his big Oscar-winning performance. And I once got the funniest phone call from Dustin Hoffman. Writing about his acting in Wag the Dog, I praised him to the skies, noting that while the character may have been based on Robert Evans, his whiny egomania was “pure Hoffman.” Hoffman thought that I was libeling him as an egomaniac. Directors and writers, though, have tended to be friendly rather than nasty. I think they’re less sensitive than actors, and they’re geared to take criticism with a grain of salt–unless, of course, you’ve just hailed them to the stars, in which case you’re the finest film critic in America.
Aaron: Let’s backtrack a little. What was it like going to the movies when you were younger. Did your parents restrict what you saw? What were the family dynamics that helped shape a future movie critic?
Owen: In a strange way, I was the anti-Paul Schrader. My parents were so loose in disciplining my viewing habits that I think I was corrupted from an early age. Seriously, in the late ‘60s, my folks, for no good reason, went on a drive-in-movie binge, always taking me and my younger brothers along, and so when I was 8 or 9 years old, I was sitting in the backseat at drive-in theaters watching movies like The Graduate, Rosemary’s Baby, and The Boston Strangler. There was one particularly sleazy exploitation movie we saw called The Penthouse, in which a British couple were terrorized by these thugs. I found all of these movies a little disturbing, but mostly mesmerizing, and I can’t deny that it had an effect on me. I think it fed my feeling that the cinema was this dramatic taboo world where the curtains would part to reveal things of great forbidden awe. Of course, I was also watching Godzilla on TV, and trooping off to matinees to see Mary Poppins and Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. In the case of the latter, I couldn’t figure out why they changed the book! At 8, I had yet to understand the mental processes of Disney executives. For all of that exposure, I didn’t become a true movie buff until I got to college.
Aaron: In your review of the Abbie Hoffman biopic, Steal This Movie, you wrote, “I was a burn-down-the-establishment Marxist revolutionary when I was 11.” What kinds of politics were practiced in your house, and did politics inform your apprecation and criticism of the arts?
Owen: My father is a real pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps guy whose politics are somewhere to the right of Archie Bunker’s. I always reacted against that, and growing up in Ann Arbor, I formed a romantic attachment to the counterculture when I got into junior high. It was 1970, I was friends with the only hippie kid in school, and I just loved going to head shops, reading underground newspapers (mostly because they had great comics), and feeling spiritually allied with all of those noble draft dodgers. My favorite book at the time was the published transcript of the Chicago Seven trial, which I read over and over, savoring all of those skewed Oedipal battles between the saintly yippie protestors and Judge Julius Hoffman, that living incarnation of The Man.
At the same time, the junior high I was going to was mired in racial tensions, and I saw how pious and, at times, downright weaselly a lot of leftist types were when it came to the really tough issues. I knew that my own feelings were anything but noble, and so, growing up in a place as righteous as Ann Arbor, I guess I questioned the certainties of liberal dogma. I was really, I guess, always a centrist at heart, which is why I loved Bill Clinton and felt that he was really assaulted, unfairly, from every side.
Aaron: Has any film ever come close to capturing the contradictory nature of the ‘60s?
Owen: Not really. It was movies that helped shroud that era in myth, and I don’t think there’s ever been a drama that got totally past the signifiers (the long hair, dope, protest signs, etc.) to capture the ego that drove people on their so-called spiritual quests. The one movie where you really kind of see it is Woodstock. It’s not just the music and the groovy vibes but the fantastic oxymoron of it all: these mellow middle-class kids just trashing all their bourgeois comfort for three days and nights, swimming in the mud, and feeling like it’s a revolution because they didn’t kill each other. You see the ego of the counterculture in Woodstock, and also its genuine beauty.
Aaron: Why do you think movie critics don’t seem to burn out the way that, say, rock critics do?
Owen: I like your coy use of “say”! I mean, this is rockcritics.com, right? Look, some of my best friends are rock critics, and I salute their valiant attempt to treat pop music as an art form like any other–that is, one you could theoretically be writing about when you’re 85. But I also feel their secret pain, because let’s be honest: You have a fundamentally different relation to the hormones, the anarchic smash, the whole youth/fashion/rebel-yell essence of rock & roll when you’re in your 20s compared to your late 40s. Oddly enough, rock critics who thrive in the profession well into middle age often end up becoming more enthusiastic as they get older–it’s as if they were scared of being left out of the next big thing. Suddenly, you’ve got these geezer geeks climbing over each other to see who can most fully embrace the band that’s too cool for the room. It’s not that I think they’re dishonest, exactly, but that their enthusiasm can seem awfully academic.
Now, you could easily turn around and say that film critics face a different version of the same problem. A lot of movies are aimed at 15-year-olds. Like, say, bad slasher films or the American Pie series. The difference is that when I write about that stuff, I can look at it for what it is, and even enjoy some of it, without having to pretend that it’s anything other than trivial megaplex trash. Most of the movies that end up dominating the culture, even during the summer, are still made very much with adults in mind–like, say, The Bourne Supremacy or Spider-Man 2. And the independent film movement (I hate using those words, but you’ve got to call it something) has kept maturity in movies alive. Just look at films like Before Sunset or Maria Full of Grace–or, earlier this year, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. One movie like that can, overnight, restore the faith of a critic who has been stuck reviewing one too many tween-princess fairy tales. I think that’s why the burnout factor is less.
Aaron: Why do you think some critics let themselves get caught up in the hype and controversy surrounding certain movies? I mean, were Gigli and Swept Away really as bad as some critics say?
Owen: No, although I’m not going to sit here and mount a big defense of them. Certain films, like those two, become targets for official whipping by the media, and I think there’s a paradoxical reason for it: That sort of piling on is really a product of the hype culture. A lot of writers feel secretly guilty about the fact that they spend so much time shilling for things, and so when a movie comes along that you’re officially allowed to bash, everyone works off their shame–and displays their cred–by getting in a good whack or two. It’s all very lame, because it’s the same groupthink that led to the ritual overrating of this or that in the first place.
Sometimes, too, the media does Hollywood’s dirty business for it, such as declaring Catwoman the worst movie ever filmed–all those “kitty litter” jokes–because the industry, in truth, is made extremely nervous by the prosect of an African-American actress like Halle Berry becoming the anchor of a franchise. I mean, really: Catwoman was a mediocre comic-book movie, to be sure, but Halle Berry herself was every bit as good in it–as witty, as crazy-sexy–as Michelle Pfeiffer was in Batman Returns. Yet she was just lambasted.
Aaron: How do you feel about the grading system at Entertainment Weekly?
Owen: It’s never been my favorite thing, yet there’s no denying that it’s useful and fun, and, obviously, it’s something that I accept and stand by every week. I have a theory about the grades that I’ve never talked about, which has to do with the guy who came up with them in the first place, the magazine’s co-creator and original editor, Jeff Jarvis. Before launching EW, Jeff was the TV critic for People magazine, which is where he trademarked the use of grades for reviews. He was a good critic (he’s now a prominent blogger, by the way), but I think he was a little defensive about the profession, as many critics are. When you review pop culture for a living, you get a lot of people–letter writers and so forth–saying things like, “Who gave you the right to pass judgment?” There is, in a lot of people’s eyes, a snooty, schoolmarmish aspect to the profession, and I think Jeff sort of said, almost unconsciously: “You think I’m a schoolmarm? I’ll show you schoolmarm! I’m gonna grade your damn ass!”
I think the reason the grading system works so well at Entertainment Weekly, and in a strange way has helped to keep those of us at the magazine honest, is that it wouldn’t work at all if we permitted grade inflation. I mean, just look at the star ratings in certain publications–for example, one very prominent rock & roll magazine that I won’t name. Just about everything gets at least three stars. It’s a great big galaxy of hype. People trust the grades in EW, because we’ve remained judicious about them. An ‘A’ still means something. So, of course, does an ‘F,’ a grade that you can employ almost percussively at the end of a particularly scathing review. It’s like a rim shot to the balls.
Aaron: What was it like being a juror at Sundance in ‘98? Were Vincent Gallo’s accusations against Paul Schrader for dismissing him as a “model” founded?
Owen: I think Paul may have had a slight problem with Vincent Gallo’s ego, as a lot of people do. Personally, I thought Buffalo ‘66 should have taken at least one of the prominent awards, but it wasn’t as if Schrader “blocked” it or something. There simply weren’t enough jurors who agreed with me. We had our clashes, but ultimately, it’s all about voting on slips of paper, as it is in the year-end awards from critics’ groups. A lot of people think that we sit around yelling at each other about which film is better, but look, you’re not going to convince people to like something if they don’t already.
Being on the Sundance jury was a lot of fun, in no small part because it’s a festival I really believe in. It comes in for a lot of razzing, especially from the trendier snobs, because it’s gotten so glitzy now, but really, what are people complaining about? The interface between Hollywood and the indie movement isn’t a bad thing; it’s what has saved Hollywood, at least creatively. What we’re talking about at the end of the day is all the great filmmakers who’ve emerged from Sundance, people like Mary Harron, Todd Solondz, P.T. Anderson, Kimberly Peirce…you know who they are. The year that I was on the jury, Pi was in competition, and by giving Darren Aronofsky the director award, I think we helped, in a small way, to propel his career. He’s an amazing artist, as Requiem for a Dream proved. Interestingly enough, the movie that we on the jury unanimously agreed was the best we’d seen–the slam-poet-goes-to-prison drama Slam–was pretty much reviled when it came out later in the year. I still think it’s a superb film, and very misunderstood. It was about this guy taking responsibility for his actions even though what happened to him (getting tossed into prison for a small bag of weed) was incredibly unjust. That’s a moral situation I’ve almost never seen a movie deal with.
Aaron: In 1999, you were the chairman of the New York Film Critics Circle. How did you get that position? Do you have any influence on how other members are going to vote?
Owen: Are you kidding? It’s the job no one wants, and so pretty much anyone who volunteers for it can be chairman. Your main task, apart from presiding over a few meetings, is to organize and host the annual awards banquet, which is sort of like putting together a wedding and a celebrity photo shoot during a single hectic week. It’s insane, but a lot of fun at the same time. I made one faux pas during the ceremony–I introduced Michael Moore, one of the presenters I’d lined up, as “Roger Moore”–but other than that, things went smoothly.
Aaron: What was it like being a movie critic in the weeks immediately following the release of The Passion of the Christ? How bad did your mail get during that time?
Owen: A lot of it was ugly. I found it exciting, and also depressing, to be a critic during those weeks. The movie, which I think was unjustly trashed in much of the media, was a true, organic phenomenon, and these days that’s all too rare. Too many journalists wrote about it, and continue to, like it was some freakish red-state phenomenon, as if the movie’s jaw-dropping popularity came down to nothing more than all these Bible thumpers trooping off to the multiplex like a mass cult. And the whole notion that Mel Gibson’s film was to conservatives what Fahrenheit 9/11 is to liberals is incredibly specious: Plenty of people saw The Passion of the Christ, and were moved by it, who were to the left politically and simply responded to the bloody rapture of what Gibson was attempting to do.
I wrote what I felt was a mixed-to-positive review of the film. In contrast to a lot of critics, I said that the violence, in particular, was valid–an attempt to re-imagine the depth of Christ’s sacrifice for a modern audience. It was hardly just glorified S&M. Yet I got attacked by a lot of readers, and a far-from-trivial chunk of the mail was anti-Semitic. I addressed some of it in an Ask the Critic column in Entertainment Weekly–specifically, the notion, repeated in letter after letter, that the magazine should have had someone who is Christian review the movie. I dismissed that as simple prejudice, but what I actually wish I would have written was this: If you believe that a person who is not of the Christian faith can’t appreciate The Passion of the Christ, why is it automatically okay to write about the movie if my last name happens to be St. James? I’ve known very few people in my lifetime, of any religion, who I consider to be true believers. Technology and advertising has made this an increasingly secular, if not blasphemous, culture, despite the number of people who may worship on Saturday or Sunday. In America, what a lot of people believe in before anything else is the holy power of shopping. So the notion that a Jewish person couldn’t really “get” The Passion of the Christ but that being a Christian by birth gives you a free pass to understanding I found hypocritical in the extreme.
Incidentally, I got even more mail when I attacked the notion, first put forth by Gibson himself during that Diane Sawyer interview, that The Passion of the Christ wasn’t anti-Semitic any more than Schindler’s List was anti-German. To me, the subtext of that analogy was more anti-Semitic than anything in the movie–the whole notion of suggesting that the Jews who were involved in the killing of Christ were the moral equivalent of Nazis. To me, it’s obvious that Gibson, under a fig leaf of tolerance, was saying just that. But readers didn’t want to hear it.
Aaron: I have to ask this. What was it like being a guest on The O’Reilly Factor?
Owen: Surprisingly easy. The fundamental thing to understand about Bill O’Reilly is that he’s an actor. I’ve been on his show twice, and from the moment I walked into the studio, I picked up from his body language and his general demeanor that he’s a pussycat–a genial, well-behaved Irish boy. He’s an armchair firebreather, a guy who taps free-floating resentment and then packages it, serving it up as political ideology. That’s what all of right-wing media does, and why the liberals can’t come up with a successful equivalent. The liberals are selling the issues first (as they should be), rather than exploiting the underlying rage that those issues provoke. Anyway, I found that the key to sparring with O’Reilly is doing exactly what he does, staying on message. Both times, he’s tried to throw me by pronouncing my name wrong–he says “Gleeberman” instead of “Glyberman.” But people sound awed when you tell them that you’ve been on O’Reilly. It’s, like, I entered the belly of the beast and lived.
Aaron: What TV shows do you watch?
Owen: Well, I guess the most immediate answer to that is that I’m a junkie for everything that isn’t fiction. I crave the news in every form, from the honorable to the ridiculous. I watch The News Hour on PBS religiously, and since I love to see people argue–I think it’s far more dramatic than most scripted dramas–I have what is probably an unhealthy addiction to punditry. To me, the best hour on television is Real Time with Bill Maher. Maher has the most exciting comic mind since Richard Pryor’s–the monologues he does at the end practically set the air around him on fire–and the fighting on his show is just tremendous. If I’m zapping around, I’ll hop between the cable news shows, the music-video channels (I have a particular affection for VH-1 Classic), and the Food Channel, which I find redemptive because it captures this down-home American sensuality that is blissfully free of all pretension. Emeril Lagasse is a real hero of mine. If you can get past the “Bam!”s, he’s a total artist of presentation.
Beyond that, I would say that I’m the TV equivalent of an art-house snob, in that I have an utter reverence for a lot of the stuff on HBO, to the point that it’s ruined me for everything else. I mean, really, after you’ve plugged into Curb Your Enthusiasm, a comedy that’s willing to touch the third rail of hilarity and truth, how much patience are you going to have for Everybody Loves Raymond? I’m as obsessed a fan of The Sopranos as you’ll find, and that just makes it all the harder for me to accept the “edge” of, say, C.S.I. Of course, one of the things that makes The Sopranos such an anomaly is that on cable it’s a major American cultural event, yet if it were a movie it would be an acclaimed indie struggling to make $18 million.
Aaron: Have you any theories on how The Sopranos is going to end?
Owen: It’s not something I ever think about. The truest fans of that show know that the real drama isn’t in who gets whacked, or whether Tony and Carmela are going to stay together, but in how it all unfolds, moment to moment, as filtered through the happy, furious, and anxious ripples of Tony’s mind.
Aaron: Besides Project Greenlight, do you watch any other reality shows?
Owen: There are really only three that have won me over. The Apprentice, I think, is the first one that has really worked as a sustained drama, in part because it’s got a figure of true stature in Donald Trump. The grand joke of his presence is that all his tackiness and chutzpah looks almost moral in an era of invisible corporate duplicity. Fear Factor, with its real-life grossouts, is an amazing show–the most amazing thing about it is that you’re actually watching it on prime-time television–and my guilty pleasure is EX-treme Dating, in which two L.A. airheads who may or may not deserve each other have a night out on the town, with one of them getting lines fed through a microphone by the other’s exes. It’s not sleaze, exactly, though it’s certainly plenty sleazy. It’s the porn of private thoughts.
But let’s make no mistake: The trouble with reality TV isn’t that it’s garish and, for the most part, as orchestrated as a Popeil infomercial. It’s that it’s replacing everything else. It would be next to impossible to have a comedy like Seinfeld now, or even Will & Grace, because the studio machinery that allowed those shows to be nurtured into successes has been effectively dismantled. The machinery is now devoted to the lottery, which is basically what reality TV is. American Idol is a celebration of homogenized bad singing because if the singers were any better, you wouldn’t have a chance of becoming one of them yourself. Even a top-notch reality show like The Apprentice is posited on the fantasy that that person up there could be you, winning all that money and fame. In its very form, reality TV replaces empathy with acquisitiveness, indentification with narcissism.
Aaron: In an all-too-rare instance of you writing something other than movie criticism, you wrote about Eminem in the Best and Worst of 2000 issue of EW. How did you get that assignment? Did you actively pursue it? In a year where a lot of ink was wasted on how “dangerous” his lyrics were, yours was one of the few pieces that seemed to truly understand the importance and impact of his rhymes.
Owen: I volunteered for that piece, and the editors were happy to have me do it, because he was our number two Entertainer of the Year, I was a major fan, and the magazine needed someone who could truly testify to why Eminem had connected in such a potent way. He really does feel like the last true rock star, or something. And, of course, the fact that he goes over the line is part of it. My favorite song off his last album is “Superman,” which is just such a hypnotic and scathingly honest expression of how male pop stars can feel about women. Yet because Eminem is willing to declare all that stuff out loud, he sounds scandalous. What can you say about the seduction of his rhythms, his Shakespeare-as-thug poetry? He really is extraordinary, though I’m not sure where he’s going to go now that he’s spent an entire album meditating on the agonies of fame. 8 Mile, incidentally, was even better to me the second time, though I think Eminem, sensational as he was in it, has been smart to treat his movie career as a one-shot deal. I’m sure that he’s had plenty of offers, but he’d have a hard time topping or even matching what he did there.
Aaron: What bad movie do you find yourself watching when it comes on TV? For example: Ever come upon Eyes Wide Shut on HBO and start watching?
Owen: I did watch it on TV a second time. I had to, being such a Kubrick fanatic, and, sadly, it looked just as bad, if not worse. This idea that 20 years from now everyone will wake up and realize that Eyes Wide Shut is a masterpiece is just hogwash. My supreme you’ve-gotta-keep-watching-it-once-it’s-on guilty pleasure is, believe it or not, Baby Boom with Diane Keaton. I found it totally synthetic and icky in the ‘80s, but now, there’s this weird kitschy fascination to the way that it deals with the whole women-can-have-it-all mystique. I love the way she decides to market Country Baby baby food. It’s like the movie was feeling its way towards Martha Stewart.
Aaron: As a Manhunter fan, what was your reaction to the decision to remake Mann’s masterpiece with Brett Ratner as the director? I mean, how can you top “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida”?
Owen: You really can’t, can you? Talk about a great use of music: the ugliest rock song of all time to accompany the world’s most self-loathing serial killer. I admit that I was curious to see Red Dragon, since I think it’s easily the best of those novels, but look, getting Brett Ratner to direct a dark sophisticated thriller is like asking Michael Mann to do an Adam Sandler movie. Were they nuts? Ratner was in over his head, and so instead of the “re-imagining” they promised, he simply did a paint-by-numbers, shot-by-shot Xerox of Manhunter. By the way, I consider Mann’s film to be the great thriller of the last 40 years.
Aaron: Are you still a Star Wars believer?
Owen: I never was. I was 18 when the movie came out, and I saw, overnight, the way that it was going to change the culture, elevating the very notion of popularity into a new form of homogenization. I did, however, think that it was a terrific movie–no more, no less. The Lord of the Rings films, like Star Wars and its sequels, represent something to their core audience that has never meant anything to me: a desire to belong to this club of the faithful. I don’t like big, noisy clubs. That’s one of the reasons why I became a film buff in the first place.
Of course, I recognize in hindsight that Star Wars was such a huge phenomenon because it tapped something deep inside people. Luke Skywalker’s story became a projection of every viewer’s desire for personal power, and in that sense the movie, along with Rocky, expressed our collective yearning, as the ‘70s waned, to “be strong” again. It helped lead to Reaganism, which in a sense we’re still stuck in. As much as movies have the right to be fantasies, it becomes a problem when people are sitting in a theater, or in a Presidential situation room, feeling overly strong about something that they’re not actually doing. In the years since Star Wars, a steady diet of fantasy has helped to give us a country that’s addicted to escape and illusion. Lack of fantasy is resented, but a cowboy act as threadbare as George W. Bush’s is accepted by a lot of people as the real thing because it perpetuates the fantasy. Do I blame Star Wars for that? It certainly didn’t help.
Aaron: Do you still have faith in Scorsese?
Owen: Yes, but I admit I’m losing it. Of course, I have hopes for The Aviator, but my problem is this: I think his movies have been lousy in the last few years because he’s become this perilous control freak. I don’t mean personally. I did a feature on him a number of years ago, and he’s a lovely guy. I mean that he overthinks and overplans things, like someone who’s got writer’s block because he’s terrified of not producing a masterpiece. To me, Scorsese’s best film of the last 12 years is Cape Fear, a thriller for which he saw himself as a director-for-hire. I think what he needs to do is to go out there again with a handheld camera, preferably DV, and just let himself go, making a movie on the fly. He needs to get in touch with the joy of cinema again, instead of all this planned mastery.
Aaron: As a believer in Steven Spielberg–and an early defender of Saving Private Ryan–what are your feelings about critics who feel the need to qualify their appreciation of his great “serious” work?
Owen: Perhaps they’re sheepish about their own responses. No one talks about it, but over time something very strange and dispiriting went on in the reaction to Saving Private Ryan. It was something that went far beyond Harvey Weinstein’s Oscar politicking, though that certainly didn’t help. I first saw the movie at a critics’ screening and was absolutely blown away by it. I then went to see it on opening weekend with a huge audience at the Ziegfield Theater in Manhattan. As the closing credits rolled, no one got out of their seats. No one could. You could just feel the overwhelming effect the movie had had, the cathartic, almost religious power of it. We were stirred, amazed, terrified, wiped out.
But if you bring up the subject of Saving Private Ryan today, all anyone will ever say about it is, “The first 20 minutes were incredible!” Then, more often then not, you’ll hear the rest of the film denigrated. This myth sort of took hold that the movie had a bad script, and that after that cataclysmic D-Day sequence you had to sit through a grab-bag of World War II cliches. There’s no sense in people’s recollections of the way that war was like a mystical snake in that movie, one that kept slinking around the corner. To me, the scene near the end where the German soldier knifes Adam Goldberg to death, almost as an act of consummation, was Spielberg’s finest moment ever as a filmmaker. You saw the secret underbelly of the horror of war–namely, the gratification of war. At this point, however, Saving Private Ryan might as well be retitled The First 20 Minutes. It’s almost as if people didn’t want it to be a great movie anymore, as if a film of that artistry and magnitude had become inconvenient, somehow. I don’t want to overstate this, but I think there’s a parallel, at least in spirit, in the attacks on John Kerry’s war record. They’re so unfathomable–I mean, these leaders with their deferments 35 years ago, who now have the nerve to tacitly cheer on the smearing of a man’s courage. That’s not just shameless; it’s blasphemous. Yet it’s all part of the way that everything gets reduced now, put in its place.
Aaron: I notice you have the market on Oliver Stone while Lisa Schwarzbaum has the market on Wes Anderson. Care to express some of your feeling about Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums?
Owen: I think Wes Anderson, gifted as he is, represents a virus that could kill movies. He’s all irony and mockery and stylization. It’s my belief that he’s the first major filmmaker–I’m not counting TV hacks–whose aesthetic is derived from the spirit of television commercials. Rushmore, which I’ve seen twice, I despise beyond description. I don’t believe a minute of it, and the way that the movie celebrates (ironically, of course) its hero’s terminal smugness is, to me, the worst sort of poseur solipsism. It’s canned vengeance with a great soundtrack. I did think that Anderson showed growth in The Royal Tenenbaums, though the big “sincere” moment at the end, when Ben Stiller decides that he wuvs his daddy after all, fell absurdly flat. To me, Anderson paved the way for Napoleon Dynamite, which is the virus to the fourth power. I’m genuinely depressed by that movie’s success. The name of the virus is attitude. It shouldn’t be–it can’t be–a worldview.
Aaron: I saw that you had Hitchcock’s Psycho on your All-Time Ten Best List. What do you say to critics who belittle the movie because of the infamous “doctor’s explanation” scene?
Owen: I think the critic you must be talking about is Pauline Kael. She called it Hitchcock’s “worst scene.” She missed the genius of it, though. It is a terrible scene–entirely on purpose. We listen to this psychiatrist who looks like Raymond Burr’s insurance-salesman brother “explain” Norman Bates in stilted late-’50s Freudian jargon, and we’re lulled into thinking, “Okay, I get it. I understand Norman, and this guy’s a dweeb. The nightmare’s over.” At which point Hitchcock springs the single creepiest moment in any studio-system film: Norman seated in the insane asylum, with his mother’s skull superimposed upon his grinning face for a near-subliminal instant. We’ve been had, and it’s the greatest joke: The shrink’s explanation meant everything…and nothing.
Aaron: You once talked in an “Ask the Critic” column about how, considering the state of world politics, movies should be more politically oriented than they ever have before. Do you think with the wave of political documentaries, The Bourne Supremacy, The Village, even the airport-is-really-a-fun-place-to-hang-out fantasies of The Terminal, movies are lurching, hesitantly, toward political enlightenment? Are filmmakers–and audiences–addressing their fears without even knowing it?
Owen: I wish I could say yes, but to think so would be dreaming. Look, Hollywood, in terms of the movies it makes, has lived in denial of 9/11 ever since it happened, and the press, in a strange way, is now in denial of that denial. Every so often, I’ll come across a think piece about how the “darkness” of several recent films is actually a reflection of the anxiety of the post-9/11 world. But that’s nonsense, frankly. There have always been dark movies–like, say, The Silence of the Lambs, which came out in 1991. Did that reflect the anxiety of the post-9/11 world? The Terminal, if anything, was Spielberg burying his head in the sand, killing time before he makes his proposed movie about the kidnapping of the Israeli athletes during the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich. If he ever does dare to make that film, I think it could be even more controversial than The Passion of the Christ. And it could burst the gates wide open in terms of how we expect movies to deal with our current crisis.
Admittedly, these issues–of terrorism, global culture clash, and America’s place in it all–are supremely difficult for a movie to treat. Yet I think the reason that Hollywood, three years after the fact, has scarcely begun to get a grip on 9/11 is that we no longer have an entertainment industry geared towards textured realism. I’d like to see somebody make a serious movie about the CIA–the equivalent of the muckraking populist thrillers of the ’70s. Where’s our global version of Chinatown, or even our black-ops Serpico? I had mixed feelings about Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate, a movie that seemed to believe that pointing the finger at Halliburton-style military-industrial corruption was a daring stance, instead of just a variation on the same old corporate villainy we’ve seen in bad thrillers for 20 years. Nevertheless, the film was intriguing around the edges, and I do give Demme credit for cracking open the door of topicality. Let’s see what happens now.
Aaron: Finally, what new trend or trends do you see happening in the next few years? Are movies getting better?
Owen: Here’s why I’m pessimistic…and optimistic. We’ve got this great, thick, rich, blooming garden out there of completely amazing filmmakers. Every year, new ones bloom–like, say, this year, Joshua Marston, who directed Maria Full of Grace with a purity that makes me think of the Italian neorealists, or Chris Kentis, who made Open Water for under $200,000 with such superlative teasing finesse, or Michel Gondry, who did such a brilliant job of animating Charlie Kaufman’s great script for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. You also have this phenomenon of crossover, with former indie directors now helming big studio and even franchise movies, and doing 10 times as good a job of it as the old hacks did. Call it what you want–Steven Soderbergh syndrome?–but I’m all for it. Creatively, these people are saving the industry. Look what happened when Richard Linklater made School of Rock. In its high-concept way, it was an ecstatic movie. I know that The Bourne Supremacy is just a crafty concoction, but the wizardry with which Paul Greengrass directed it gave it a mood of existential excitement that makes me feel as if he could do anything.
So what’s the problem? Let me violate the ultimate critic’s taboo and say: It’s the audience. At the megaplex, everyone is addicted to fantasy and special effects and mad-dog action and so-dumb-it’s-smart comedy, and with rare exceptions they won’t turn out for anything else. Some of the films I’m talking about are superb–I’m not knocking escapism–but the lifeblood of movies, at least to me, is that they reflect back to us the drama of our own lives. Not the cartoon version of how we wish things would be, but the beauty of how they are. If movies stop doing that for the mass audience, then they stop being collective dreams. And we’ll all be the emptier for it.