MOVIE BLOGGER SUMMIT PT. 2: The SIREN and the SLIFR on RUSSIA, CRANKY CRITICS, THE JOYS OF BLOGGING, COPS, ROMANCE, SKULLS and THE PERSONAL TOUCH
When last we left the discussion between myself and Farran Nehme Smith, the Siren, as Farran is well known around the Internets, got off a nice little jab at those in the moviegoing community who somehow place more value on the obsessions of fanboys than those of, well, fangirls— “Excuse me, but your fantasies about being a scientist in a really cool iron suit are not any more serious than my fantasies about Manolo Blahnik. They’re just not.” And with that we published our little get-together in the hopes that her readers as well as mine would find the option of keeping our company as enjoyable as we did in keeping each other’s.
Well, a funny thing happened on the way to the comments forum. Once posted, our conversation started getting the kind of notice from other readers and bloggers than one can never plan for nor expect, but that is always welcome and satisfying if and when it does come. David Hudson and the kind folks at MUBI were the first to highlight our summit, bringing with them exactly the kind of look-ins that dreams are made of. The piece ran all during the chaos and happiness of my birthday week, and in the midst of that week I got a note from Farran pointing me to some other well-known (and entirely unsolicited) voices that joined in the promotion of the interview, including James Wolcott and Tom Shone.
But perhaps the most gratifying comments came via Glenn Kenny who, after a protracted bit of nastiness involving his comments thread (and those on other sites as well) seemed particularly grateful for the tone of the talk between the Siren and I in his post entitled, "Looking for a Good (and Civil!) Read This Weekend?”:
“Then allow me to direct you to Dennis Cozzalio's ever-wonderful blog Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule, which you ought to be going to regularly anyway. Although I myself have been slightly amiss, or else I would have directed you to this sooner: A "Movie Blogger Summit" between Dennis and the wondrous Farran Smith Nehme, known to the millions as The Self-Styled Siren. The two discuss their blogging origins, aesthetic affinities, aesthetic differences (My Lovely Wife had to walk me to the fainting couch after I was reminded again that the Siren, beloved of us both, has no love for Once Upon A Time In The West) and so on. The duo chatted on Skype back in May, and Dennis lovingly transcribed the proceedings. And it's good, good stuff, and a real tonic for me personally at a time when, for reasons you'll forgive me for not once again dredging up, I had started to perceive the internet as some kind of combination lunatic asylum/cesspool.”
What was great about Glenn’s post was not just the props offered regarding our respective sites, but the fact that the comments thread quickly became yet another fascinating discussion between a group of people, including Glenn, Farran, Bill Ryan, Tom Carson, Kent Jones, Jean-Pierre Coursodon, Keith Uhlich, Hollis Lime and Lazarus, all of whom are in the mix because they love the movies and love talking intelligently about them. (I even got in on the conversation for a bit, once I was alerted to it, but I began to feel like I needed a life preserver.) It was as if the post came to exist as a proving ground that smart talk doesn’t have to get stamped out when bilious posturing threatens to take over the conversation and trample everyone’s spirit in the process.
And this notion did not escape the notice of some notable readers who did not join the chat but were inspired by it anyway. This past Monday Richard Brody, gatekeeper of the movie blog at no less than Pauline Kael’s old stomping ground, The New Yorker, gave everyone involved at Glenn’s blog the grandest possible review. Using Paul Brunick’s superb (and even-tempered) overview of the state of online film criticism as a reference, Brody expressed his own satisfaction at being able “to point directly at the kind of wonderful discussion—or, more precisely, a discussion about a discussion about a discussion—that is among the best examples of film criticism I’ve read all year. (Italics mine, Mr. Brody—you have my undivided attention):
“Here’s the story: two of the best bloggers around, Dennis Cozzalio (Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule) and Farran Smith Nehme (Self-Styled Siren), had a discussion via Skype about movies, their blogs, and themselves, and posted the transcript of the first part of it at the former site. On Saturday, Glenn Kenny, whose blog Some Came Running is the one I read most frequently, for his trenchant, wide-ranging, and deeply personal writing about movies, posted a heads-up about that talk. (That’s level two.) The commenters to the post—including Glenn, the two writers who are its subject, the great critic Kent Jones, Jean-Pierre Coursodon (who co-authored a vast history of the American cinema with Bertrand Tavernier), Tom Carson of GQ, and a writer whose name was unknown to me, Hollis Lime, who cuts to the heart of the subject with an exhilarating precision and energy. The subject, aptly, is Sergio Leone; in particular, Once Upon a Time in America; very precisely, the director’s depiction in that film of the protagonist’s rape of the woman who is his lifelong love; and, in general, what it suggests about Leone’s attitude toward women, and how the morality or immorality of the events shown in a film, and the director’s apparent attitude toward them, influences the aesthetic evaluation of it. And I’m not jumping in right now, just pondering in admiration and calling attention to a conversation that merits attention from anyone who cares deeply about movies. It’s an exemplary trove of critical insights, and it’s exactly the sort of thing that debunks, in practice, the handwringing about the Internet killing film criticism, or writing, or thinking.”
After spending the first half of the year listening to Richard Schickel wearily trash the entire practice of film criticism, with special toxicity reserved for those who dare to practice it online in this age of crumbling and reconstituting models for what film criticism even means, Brody’s comments were much appreciated, like a bracing shot of tonic water to a thirsty traveler. But Brody’s words also felt like the best kind of validation and support from someone who is able to understand how the world is changing and is willing to highlight examples of what he finds worthy without being threatened or needing to condescend to it. It hasn’t gone unmarked how much it means to writers like Farran and me to be recognized by people like Glenn Kenny and Richard Brody, generous writers who know their stuff. But even more gratifying was their descriptions of how our conversation organically branched out into an example of interactive film criticism that highlighted how the practice can work on the Internet and the value it can have for those who choose to stay outside the actual conversation and simply read it instead, whether on the computer or printed out.
So on behalf of Farran and myself, I’d like to thank all of the above mentioned writers who took it upon themselves to call attention to something they thought worthy of their time and that of their readers, as well as everyone who has offered their comments and support at my site, Farran’s, and on all the other social networking venues by which we can be reached. As I told a disbelieving Schickel at that film critics panel back in March, everyone whose name you see here is in it for the love of the movies— in some cases the absence of pay may be an uncomfortable fact, but it hasn’t kept any of us from spending long hours writing what we had to write. I am so grateful for Paul Brunick’s essay (part two of which is in the upcoming issue of Film Comment) for many reasons, and one of the big ones is the way Paul pointed out what should have been obvious before—that our most revered critics didn’t just pop out of an egg somewhere and start writing in high-profile venues. Andrew Sarris didn’t just appear on the scene, his typewritten copy of his adaptation ofles politiques des auteurs under his arm and ready to be lapped up by film culture. He spent many years writing for no (or very little) money before he ever built up the intellectual muscle to carry through with his most famous work. Pauline Kael wrote program notes for a Berkeley rep house—gratis-- and held down every menial job under the sun while writing spec pieces years before she ever landed her first paying gig. Why, I’d even venture to guess that Schickel himself had dues to pay before his writing career got started, a trade which eventually landed him within the walls of Castle Eastwood as the star’s official biographer. Another fairly sharp observer of the human condition once repeatedly posited, in one of his many moderately regarded books, “And so it goes.” And so it does. And so it will. Please enjoy now part two of a mutual interview, a blogger’s summit between myself and Farran Nehme Smith. The coming-to-the-end part makes me wish it could just go on and on. I hope you’ll feel the same.
DC: I remember beaming like a proud big brother when I first heard of your opportunity to work with Lou Lumenick and Turner Classic Movies on the ”Shadows of Russia” series. There are so many things I want to ask you about this, and I feel like we could easily spend the rest of our time talking about it, but I’ll try to be concise. When you announced the series, you thanked Jack Warner right alongside Lou and TCM. Why Jack Warner, and why Russia?
FNS: That was just me being mischievous, because it was—Warner probably considered it one of the biggest mistakes he ever made producing a movie called Mission to Moscow. He did it for purely patriotic reasons. At one point he was claiming he had done it more or less at the direct behest of the Roosevelt administration. When he was hauled up in front of HUAC, he backed off of that somewhat. Mission to Moscow was the genesis of the whole “Shadows of Russia” series. I wrote an obituary/tribute for Cyd Charrisse, and she has a very brief part in it as Galina Ulanova, the great Soviet ballerina, and I mentioned having always wanted to see Mission to Moscow. Lou popped up in the comments thread and started talking about what a weird movie it was, and we continued the conversation via e-mail, batting back and forth the idea of having a series that would focus on the almost schizophrenic attitudes that you had toward Russia in American movies. There were the earlier campus comedies of the 1930s where they were making light of Russia; and then you had movies like Ninotchka; then you had red scare stuff; then you had “Oh, our buddies, the Soviets,” and then, wham, after the war all of the sudden they’re the Evil Empire. So we just thought to look at them on a timeline, or even to group them by theme, which is what we ended up doing, would be really interesting.Mission to Moscow was sort of a personal obsession of Lou’s for many years, though. It was very hard to find a screening, and when TCM showed it, it was often at weird hours of the night. He just really wanted to try and get it in front of a wider audience as an important historical artifact, and also as an interesting movie. It was directed by Michael Curtiz, and Jack Warner really came to bitterly regret ever having made it. (Dennis Laughing) He said something along the lines of, “It doesn’t pay to stick your neck out—You’re a dead pigeon either way.”
DC: Thinking about this movie and later stuff like Bonnie and Clyde, I get the feeling maybe he had lots of regrets.
FNS: I don’t know. I think he basically liked himself. But Mission to Moscow definitely turned out to be a pain in the ass for him. So the wisecrack was just me saying, “Hey, Jack, at least it benefited somebody, even if it took almost 70 years!” (Laughs)
DC: Going into “Shadows of Russia,” did you have a lot of background knowledge about specific areas of inquiry about Russia that spurred your interest in the project?
FNS: No, it was just another one of my weird intellectual hobbies, that’s all! (Laughs)
DC: That’s how we learn. At least that’s what my old woodshop teacher used to say, but there was usually blood flowing whenever he said it.
FNS: I had always really liked a lot of Russian literature in translation—I don’t speak the language. And Russian history was always very interesting to me. And I guess too it was—Growing up in Alabama there was also a certain rebellious element to it. Everybody kept telling me Russia was bad, bad, bad, evil, evil, evil, and it was like, “Okay, that sounds great to me.” (Laughs) “Let me check out a few books!” That’s the kind of cussed person I was.
DC: Were there shadowy figures following you home from the library and monitoring your comings and goings?
FNS: No, no, everybody knew I was weird. Nobody wanted to bother. (Laughs)
DC: I guess weirdness has its advantages then, after all. Well, personally, it was really fun for me to see you on TCM. I didn’t catch nearly as many of the movies as I would have liked to, but what I did get was a strong sense of the movies that I wanted to pursue if I missed them there. A lot of what ends up resulting from projects like this that we take on or create for ourselves—and certainly this was one of the most ambitious projects I’ve seen from anyone in our specific circle—or from even just writing about things that everyone else isn’t beating to death—You don’t expect your audience, however it is constituted, to necessarily look at things in the same way you do so much as to just raise the level of awareness and pique people’s interest in something they might not have ever considered before so they can find out about it and develop their own thoughts. Whenever I write about something I know isn’t on everyone’s radar, that’s what I always hope happens.
FNS: Definitely. All right, shifting gears—Oh, gosh, I’ve been waiting for this question. (Laughs) And without preamble, your readers know exactly why I’m asking. If you could force Richard Schickel to read just one of your blog posts, which one would it be?
DC: Wow. You know, I had to think about this for a while, because I suspect that a lot of what I’ve written would probably just confirm his every horrific stereotype about online writers.
FNS: Oh, I don’t think so at all! (Laughs)
DC: Well, maybe I’m feeling a bit touchy and paranoid. But when I was thinking about it I realized there are probably several things I would want to show him that would provoke an argument, and I’m not sure anything would be achieved other than the satisfaction of my inner imp. There were, however, a couple of things that jumped into my head when I first saw the question, and one of them was a write-up that I did in 2008 when Joe Dante had brought a series of movies to the New Beverly Cinema. In addition to a long series of films he had hand-picked to showcase the movies he loved and that were influences on him, he also brought along this gigantic, lumbering beast he had created with Jon Davison back in 1968, when they were both in college, called The Movie Orgy.
It was a bizarre, free-associative collection of clips that he and Davison had put together on 16mm with physical splices—AVID digital editing was still a dream that nobody had dreamt as yet—and yet these guys were putting together exactly this kind of wildly allusive, id-connected visual collage, with clips and references to old and forgotten TV series from the ‘50s. They were messing with the form and structure of these shows in a really explosive way, highlighting political humor of its time that’s now 30 or 40 years past its sell-by date. I’d interviewed Joe before he screened the film, which runs just shy of four hours in its shortened version, and he was very nervous about the way people were going to react to it, or if they even would react to it. He thought, Well, we did this when we were beery college kids for other beery college kids, and who knows what an audience in 2008 is going to think of this. Well, the theater was packed—the screening was free because the movie was one big four-hour rights violation—but also because the audience was smart enough to know they were going to see something that had been kind of vaguely remembered and whispered about for 40 years or so, something no one had seen in all that time, including Dante. Well, the place went nuts for it. The Movie Orgy turned out to have structure, rhythm, a sensibility— it wasn’t just a bunch of junk thrown together, and you can clearly see in it the roots of Dante’s sensibility as a film director. He was so happy with the movie’s reception at our screening that he ended up taking it to the Venice Film Festival later that year, where again it was a big hit and a hot ticket. (Farran Laughs). To see Joe Dante come out of the New Beverly that night was such a delight. I wrote about the movie and the evening, and I feel like the piece I produced—As often as I’ve tried to convey the feeling of experiencing a movie in my writing, The Movie Orgy was one of the most difficult things I’ve ever written about in simple terms of trying to capture and communicate not only what was in it and how it worked, but what it was like to see it. I feel like I met my goals with that piece, so maybe that would be one that I would offer to Mr. Schickel. Another might be a back-and-forth discussion with fellow blogger Bill Ryan that lasted a week last summer upon the release of Inglourious Basterds.
FNS: Oh, I remember that!
DC: It was a really interesting movie to dig into, not only because of the stuff that was in it but because of the things that were perceived to be in it, the things it was perceived to be about. What went on there might go a ways toward dispelling or refuting some of Schickel’s negative ideas about us cellar-dwelling film bloggers. (Farran Laughs) At that film critics panel last March, Schickel was so offensive in his degrading characterization of the blogging community in general—we all breath through our mouths, apparently—but he made specific disparaging reference to Harry Knowles. Taking issues with what Knowles writes, or how he writes, or why he writes are perfectly valid points of conversation. But Schickel went off on a tirade, wondering out loud why anyone would pay any attention to anything he said because “he’s a gross human being.” Thank God for Peter Rainer, who piped up and said, Richard, take a look at us. We’re not exactly beefcake up here either! I came away from that panel realizing he’s not interested in discussion—he’s burnt out and cynical and he’s cranky because not everyone is as sour as he is. I also wrote a piece in defense of Pauline Kael which I would direct his way just to annoy him, because he spent the evening being as hostile to her and her memory as he could possibly be.
FNS: I remember that piece too. That was one I thought was particularly good.
DC: Thanks. I get kind of defensive about her sometimes. I realize she’s not perfect, but she really did write like no one else, she was exciting to read, especially for someone who hadn’t read a lot of real film criticism before, and she was the gateway into understanding how to express myself about movies. Discovering her book Reeling was a life-changing experience for me. So if Schickel could put up with reading any of those, I’d send them to him without hesitation.
FNS: Maybe we should just spam him.
DC: You know, I knew there was a good reason for hanging out with you! And there are an awful lot of them, as I’m discovering talking to you “in person.” But one of the things I love to think about when I think about your site, and you in general, is the level of respect that you’ve managed to achieve as one of the oft-disparaged online film writers. What are you thoughts about the high profile you enjoy?
FNS: Okay, I’ll tell you what I think about. I think about John Nolte of Big Hollywood-- bear with me here. Sometime back John got attacked by a liberal blog called Sadly, No!, which has a fairly big following. They won a Weblog Award a couple of years ago. His response was to say he wasn’t gonna take any kind of stick from guys who had less traffic than his local Home Depot enjoyed. They actually have pretty good traffic, and I remember reading this and thinking, well, if they’re Home Depot, then I’m the corner bodega. (Both Laugh) I have this thing called Stat Counter, and if I star getting uppity all I have to do is just click on it. It’s certainly much higher than it was even two years ago, but it’s not a high-traffic blog. Realistically, it’s never going to be. What I do really enjoy and appreciate is the kindness and respect that I get from fellow film writers. I gather that the blog is fairly widely read by other people who write about film, and that gives me an enormous amount of pleasure. And also I have a fairly consistent group of very knowledgeable, articulate commenters that come back time after time, and also people who prefer not to comment who occasionally just e-mail me—“Hey, I liked this,” or “I really liked that,” which is also extremely nice. I have a lot of people who have sent me DVDs of hard-to-find movies over the years. That’s also really great. And I also now have a group of personal friends that I’ve met through the blog. So all of that has been extremely rewarding.
But I think the best use that I was ever able to put the blog to was the Film Preservation Blog-a-thon that we did back in February with Marilyn Ferdinand of Ferdy on Films. We raised $13,500 for film preservation, and it was definitely my proudest moment as a blogger, that I was able to be a part of that with so many different bloggers participating, so many different people donating. It was an immensely satisfying thing, and it made a lot of other stuff worth it.
DC: It’s putting your money where your mouth is, something that so many of us don’t do or don’t think creatively enough to do with the situations presented to us. That was a really spectacular gesture and achievement, and it really speaks volumes to your commitment and your passion for what you’re writing about, and I for one was very grateful for it. Congratulations. (Just a few days after this interview was recorded, there was revealed in the New York Times news of 75 silent films previously thought lost that were discovered in New Zealand and are being restored through the efforts of the National Film Preservation Foundation. Two of those 75 films were directly sponsored by the grass-roots fund-raising efforts of Farran, Marilyn and others. -- Dennis)
FNS: Thank you! Okay, it’s my turn to field a question. This is a good one. In the past you and I have joked about the areas where our tastes diverge.
DC: Claudia Cardinale, if you’re reading this, stop reading!
FNS: (Laughing) I’m so sorry! I do find her very beautiful—extremely beautiful. And I love her voice too—she had that beautiful, throaty voice.
DC (momentarily drifting): Yeah…
FNS: She just… kind of… can’t do much with it. (Laughs) But I do love reading your posts about movies that I would never seek out or even movies that I didn’t much care for myself. So if you could give me a homework assignment—Okay, Farran, you have to watch one movie totally out of your comfort zone, what would it be? And would you let me do the same?
DC: Oh, absolutely. That’s the kind of homework I love! Me first!
DC: I came up with three really good suggestions, so if you’ll indulge me I’ll give them all to you and then choose the best one. The first one—And again, I don’t know if you’ve seen these movies or not—is a movie Peter Yates directed in 1973 called The Friends of Eddie Coyle.
FNS: That one I have not seen yet.
DC: It’s a very low-key, somber character drama about a two-bit hood who’s looking to redeem at least a part of himself and everyone he thinks he can trust is, um, not so trustworthy. It’s got a very interesting, haunted quality—it’s not pitched toward garish violence or the kind of hard-boiled strutting you sometimes get in thrillers from this period, or, say, in some Scorsese films. It exists in the same space with a lot of gritty early ‘70s crime dramas, yet it’s almost recessive when compared to something like Charley Varrick. I really think that you would like it, so I guess it’s not particularly out of your wheelhouse; it’s just the kind of movie you don’t often write about.
The other one, from about the same period, is the diametric opposite of a quiet, devastating picture like Eddie Coyle-- it’s called Freebie and the Bean.
FNS (Laughs): I have not seen that one either!
DC: All I will tell you is that it is directed by Richard Rush, who went on to direct The Stunt Man.
FNS: I love The Stunt Man!
DC: The Stunt Man is terrific, and you can see its ancestry clearly in Freebie and the Bean, yet the early movie is definitely absent The Stunt Man’s playful philosophical/metaphysical tendencies. James Caan and Alan Arkin are mismatched buddy cops—In fact, the whole buddy cop genre might have its roots squarely in this movie. It is full of the kind of coarse, borderline racist banter that you would expect from a movie comedy born in the era of Archie Bunker, and it is, if you’ll forgive my coloring your first impressions, hilarious. It’s full of great car chases and crashes—everything a 14-year-old boy needs (that’s how old I was when I saw it)-- and Caan and Arkin make a great comedy team.
FNS: Well, I must say, you’re being very kind to me so far, Dennis. These choices do not fill me with dread. I was somewhat afraid—I mean, a lot of people were writing about The Friends of Eddie Coyle when it came out on DVD, and I might even have it somewhere in the depths of my Netflix queue. Freebie and the Bean I hadn’t considered. But I was somewhat afraid that you might seize the opportunity to assign me Cannibal Holocaust or something!
DC: Oh, no! I’m not that sadistic. And I’ve never actually had much desire to see that myself, so—
FNS: Okay, so your goal was not to give me a complete nervous breakdown. That’s good! (Laughs)
DC: No, no! My last suggestion, though, maybe will push the envelope a little bit. It’s a documentary of sorts, mixed with extensive recreations, shot in 1922 called Haxan: Witchcraft Throughout the Ages.
FNS: Aha! That one I have seen.
DC: Damn. I thought I might have got you with that one. I remember people looking quite stunned as they stumbled out of the theater where I saw it last year. It’s a fascinating, troubling, creepy movie, funny in a lot of ways, but thoroughly compelling in the way it documents the way Satan has been represented in art and in our societies. I’ve never seen a movie like it. What did you think of it?
FNS: I liked it quite a lot, actually. Visually it was extremely interesting. The way it assaulted you with this imagery, I felt like my brain had been rearranged. I don’t know that I would ever cite it as a deep, personal favorite, but I certainly wasn’t sorry I sat down and watched it. So it sounds like I’m going to get Freebie and the Bean. Car crashes! No grindhouse classics for me!
DC: No, I knew that going in.
FNS: Well, I would have done it, just out of pride! (Laughs) I might have sent you the therapy bill afterward, though.
DC: Well, I’ve seen some things lately that have really put me off in that particular genre, so I wouldn’t dream of forcing the issue.
FNS: Thanks! Okay, for you, the first movie I would have to track down for you, and that one is The House on 56th Street (1933)*, which is an old Kay Francis movie directed by Robert Florey, who did The Beast with 5,000 Fingers, which you probably have seen.
DC: Yes. Anything with the word “beast” in the title, odds are good I’ve seen it.
FNS: It’s very much a women’s picture of the time—Kay Francis suffers a great deal down through the years in this house. They showed it as part of the TCM Kay Francis month last year, and I was really impressed with its tight visual imagery and the classical way her tragedy progresses. I had heard it described as treacly or whatever, but I didn’t find it that way at all, so I’d be really interested in what you thought of it. But as I said, it’s not on DVD, so I would have to scour eBay, but I’m more than willing to do that for you.
DC: Does it show up on TCM with any kind of frequency?
FNS: It does not. One of the things that was so delightful about that month for Kay Francis fans was that it brought together a bunch of movies that they don’t have in heavy rotation, you know, things that they show every once in a while. The second one is Le Fin du Jour (1939) which is directed by Julien Duvivier, and that one I do have a copy of. It was sent to me by David Cairns who is, as we know, very evangelical on the subject of Julien Duvivier. It was probably taken from a VHS that was recorded off TV, so the print is not going to wow you, but I really think the movie might. It’s about actors in an old folks’ home and it’s really quite marvelous. There was one more, and that was a movie I loved as a child and still love—it still works really well for me—called Back Street (1941) with Margaret Sullivan and Charles Boyer.
FNS: That one you’ve seen?
DC: I think my grandmother sat me down to watch that when I was maybe nine years old, but my memory of it is so vague that my next viewing of it will be a total surprise. I would definitely be up for another swing at Back Street.
FNS: Even when they made it in 1941, the whole theme of a woman having to be kept in the shadows was sufficiently old-fashioned that they had to set it at the turn of the century. For me it still works really well, but it is absolute full-throttle romance and unabashed sentiment, so really—-
DC: Well, God help me, I’m totally susceptible to a movie like So Dear to My Heart, so—
FNS: Oh, that’s a man’s movie!
DC: Yeah. So really, I’m a pretty easy mark when it comes to overarching sentiment. Back Street might be just the ticket. All right, my last question. Since we’re talking about movies we enjoy, wondering how the other person might feel, name a movie that you think would surprise the readership of Self Styled Siren to find out that you like or enjoy?
FNS: I had to think about this one really hard, because if you’ve been reading me for five years you probably do have a pretty good bead on my tastes. It’s not that I think of myself as predictable, but I think I do have a set of criteria that’s fairly consistent from movie to movie. And then there’s an extra number of elements that are liable to take me from just admiring a movie to actually loving a movie. The only time I can really recall getting surprised reactions from people was when we were asked to do a list for 10 favorite foreign films for a survey that Edward Copeland was doing. One of the ones that I listed was Bullet in the Head. There were a number of people who were, like, “What?!”
DC (laughing): I think I was one of them!
FNS: Not only that I liked the movie, but that I liked it enough to put it in my top 10! I thought it was a tremendous movie. But actually, if you think about it, maybe it’s not that strange. There is a very strong romance in there, there’s this big historical canvas, there’s this sweeping story about friendship, the camerawork is gorgeous, there’s some very strong and dark political themes in it. So I guess it’s not so very surprising, but I very much doubt that people would see that that was playing at the New Beverly and immediately think to take me as their date! (Laughs)
DC: It’s the whole playing loose and free with human skulls in the movie that probably throws people off in thinking it might be for you.
FNS: Is that available on DVD?
DC: It was available from Tai Seng video back in the late ‘90s, which is where I got my copy, but that edition looks like it may be out of print. There is a spiffy new(er) version available from HK Film, however, which is probably pretty nice.
FNS: I’d love to see it again.
DC: Well, your birthday is coming up, right?
FNS (Laughs): Okay, this is it, the last question. Your posts frequently touch on the personal, sometimes in a very deep way, and I’ve always found that it enriches your film writing for me as one of your readers. So what would you say to those who maintain that the personal element has little or no place in serious criticism?
DC: It’s about the myth of objective journalism and whether you still buy into that or not. There really is no such thing. If you’re talking about news reportage, it’s really just a matter of how deeply the bias is buried. Objectivity is something to be strived for in news journalism, especially these days when networks like Fox News, and to a lesser degree, CNN flaunt their bias as a matter of course. But I don’t put much value on objectivity in film criticism. Objectivity in film criticism is a plot summary and a list of cast and credits. I think film criticism is at its best when the author invests himself in the subject at hand. You don’t have to get deeply autobiographical or take up a lot of time searching your own back story, but I don’t understand how that element of the personal can be anything but helpful and illuminating toward setting the general context for a writer. That’s one of the best things about following someone’s blog with passion and interest and a keen eye—after a while you accrue this sense, like you were referring to earlier, of what the person’s tastes are, how they think. All of that comes from being open to the idea of putting a little bit of yourself in your writing. Now, there’s a difference between finding the personal in an essay and reading someone who writes, “Well, I grabbed my Doritos and my hot chocolate and sat down for another screening of Casino in my brother’s den where he’s got the 60-inch plasma.” (Both Laughing)
FNS: Or someone who’s already probably come up too much here bringing up how he lost his virginity while he was interviewing a director! (Laughing) That’s a whole new dimension—the film review as a vehicle for sexual boasting!
DC: Right! The Penthouse Forum of film criticism! But seriously, folks, Pauline Kael, in early reviews and even in The New Yorker, often got called out for doing exactly what we’re talking about—writing in an autobiographical context about her life experiences and using that as kind of an introductory text. One example that stands out is her review of Frederick Wiseman’s High School. She spent a lot of time, really—certainly more than was usual—talking about some of her experiences in high school and how they were brought flooding back by the images and the situations that Wiseman captured in his film and, of course, how that informed her reaction the movie and what she felt it was saying. When I first read the piece I thought that was a brave thing to do. Now we live a culture where everybody airs out their underwear in public and so maybe that kind of personal examination in a review has been devalued in that it’s not particularly unusual. But for me there’s really no other way to go about it. I’m not enough of an academic to stand on my intellectual prowess and claim a great knowledge of film theory. A lot of what I write about comes specifically from how I learned to love movies and what they mean to me and how the important people in my life shaped my feelings about them. I see so much of the same in the writing you do, and I think we both just have to hope that translates somehow into something interesting for the reader. And if people are reading on a regular basis, then I guess we have to say, yeah, it’s getting across.
(Look for my review of Julien Duvivier’s Le Fin du Jour, the movie that actually came in the mail from Farran—not Back Street-- coming soon. I hope also to soon be able to link to, if not a full review, then at least Farran’s sure-to-be-animated comments about Freebie and the Bean. Thank you, Farran, for making this blogger summit such an enjoyable experience!)
* Peter Nellhaus sent me a message mere moments after this interview posted alerting Farran, me and everyone else to the fact that The House on 56th Street is indeed available on DVD from the Warner Archives Collection. Thank you so much, Peter, for passing along the info!