How did you get started as a film critic?At age 14 I read about the 50th anniversary of "Birth of a Nation" in the New York Times magazine and it interested me greatly. A friend who was already serious about movies, the amazing Howard Roller, told me that the Museum of Modern Art was showing a retrospective of Griffith's films and we should go. When we arrived the lines were around the block and we failed to get in. So we resolved to come back the following Saturday to see "Intolerance", which my friend assured me was even better than "Birth of a Nation". We arrived hours early. The only fellow ahead of us in line was an old actor who explained that he could attend the show because he was "presently at liberty". Arthur Kleiner was accompanying on the piano and it was my first experience of a silent movie on a big screen with an appropriate accompaniment, with tinting, and at the correct speed. One hour into the feature I began gradually to build within to a great epiphany - I could intensely understand the rhythms and organization of the expressions of the film and I could feel the complexity and clarity of the voice of the filmmaker. Before the movie was over I was certain that I was going to dedicate myself to the making of movies, and I have always viewed criticism and creation of movies to be almost indistinguishably related enterprises, at least for me.
What was your first meaningful moviegoing experience?
I do not remember my first movie, Disney's Peter Pan, though I do recall strongly my second, a rerelease of his Pinocchio. I remember at the age of six or seven visiting my grandparents in Chicago and seeing Old Yeller in a Loop movie palace. Like everyone else, I cried, although I was aware that it was a different sort of crying than in real life, and a better one. A weird recollection is of seeing Edward Bernds' Quantrill's Raiders at a drive-in (probably my first movie at a drive-in) and being shocked - shocked! - that near the end of the film one of the heavies shoots his girlfriend dead. I was outraged - you couldn't kill a woman, not at the movies!
What was your first published review?
Believe it or not, it was Jean Renoir's Boudu Saved from Drowning upon its first US release in 1968. It was for the University of Chicago arts paper, the grey city journal, and where I wanted to write about it very earnestly, no one else had any interest, so I got my chance.
What movie would you have liked to review had you been a critic upon its initial release?
I never think of things like this. It's like wishing you had bought a stock that made a mint, pointless wishful thinking. However, there is perhaps one instance which was most influential upon me and not such fantastical thinking. In 1967 Orson Welles' Chimes at Midnight was being released in New York city in a single theater under the title "Falstaff". Howard Roller said it was imperative that we rush to see it. Although I was well aware of Welles as an actor and had of course heard of his movies, I don't think I had actually seen any at that time other than perhaps The Stranger on TV. Bosley Crowther had taken the trouble in the New York Times to pan Welles' movie both out of Cannes and on its NYC debut. Howard said to me, when it comes to Orson Welles, you have to trust him more than you do any critic. So I went and found the film a genuine and transformative masterpiece. (it's possible that in terms of the last couple decades of commercial cinema, it is also his most continuingly influential, far more than Citizen Kane - look at "300" or John Woo's Red Cliff for confirmation.) So I learned that one has to make up one's own mind and not substitute a critic's judgments for one's own. I would have loved to have written about Falstaff to correct the complete misunderstanding of it, and I always felt as a critic that it was essential to encourage all readers to see for themselves. I hate being employed as consumer guidance...
What movie are you embarrassed to admit you love?
Probably none at all. Why be embarrassed about love? Of course I rationalize that things that please me are also art. I'm partial to Raoul Walsh's musical College Swing though you won't get me to concede that it isn't the film of a great filmmaker. I suppose I am embarrassed by the horrid racism of Birth of a Nation even though it is indubitably the fountainhead of all cinema. I do feel that the deleterious consequences of that movie are the film's responsibility but also that it doesn't diminish its genius.
Name a film you think everybody should see.
Everybody should see as much as they can. Variety and breadth of experience is what life is all about, and cinema no less.
What’s the most common question you’re asked when someone discovers you’re a film critic?
What's the best movie ever made? (ready answers for parties: Rules of the Game or The Searchers or Intolerance or Sunrise)
What’s the most controversial review you’ve written?
I panned A Clockwork Orange when it was new in the then new Chicago Reader, which put the review on the front page with a brilliant graphic mimicking the film's ad campaign. I always had a policy as a critic to try to find as often as possible a film to write about that I truly liked, since I believe that only positive reviews make a genuine contribution to understanding the value of things. But pans are what the audience likes best, it caters to their love of spectacle and conflict, and my bad review was serious and aggressively argued. No one noticed that for weeks before and weeks after I had conscientiously chosen to write only good reviews of what I felt were good pictures. I was the guy who put down Stanley Kubrick. So it gave me a local reputation that being as opportunistic as anyone else I built upon. Another controversial review was of Rich and Strange in which I rather heedlessly discussed in part in terms of George Cukor's sexuality which I discovered outraged many who argued I had betrayed his privacy. However in 1981 it never occurred to me it was a secret. Cukor did never come out, although he also never hid. I asked him if he minded what I had written and he graciously smiled and said he liked reading what I had to say.
Is there a genre or era you have a particular affinity for?
I am partial to Hollywood personal filmmaking in its greatest period from say 1925 to 1964. I also greatly valued the explosion of films from Europe and Japan in the 60s and 70s. I was never a strong partisan of the 1970s Hollywood rebellion, although some good movies came out of it. I try not to have genre prejudices. Duke Ellington said everything that needed to be said about categories, genres and niches when he said there were only two kinds of music: good music and bad music.
What is your process in approaching a review?
To try to express the truth of my own experience and to connect that to what I perceive is the voice of the filmmaker as expressed through his/her craft. The purpose of criticism to me is to endeavor to elicit the characteristics of that which is "the good", what it means and how it is expressed, and to communicate to the reader some sense of my sense of the complexity of theme, emotion and expression.
Do you like to discuss a movie with other critics immediately after a screening or before writing a review?
Not since my early days when I discovered that colleagues on a daily deadline (when I was on a weekly) would poach remarks. So I prefer to keep my own counsel. Also, I mistrust reflex reactions and prefer to let thoughts and feelings marinate.
What other film critics, past or present, do you admire?
Otis Ferguson, James Agee, Manny Farber were the ones I was most prone to imitate. Andrew Sarris for me supplied not only my raison d'etre but also an education in some values I feel have been lost over my lifetime, things like gallantry, which is never mentioned anymore, let alone understood. I remain an orthodox auteurist of Andy's school, going back to his seminal film culture issue which I had memorized by the time I was 18. When I was very young I was brought into movies by writers like Arthur Knight, Stanley Kauffman, Paul Rotha. I admired Robin Wood and Roger Greenspun. I loved reading Pauline Kael like those who used to wait for the next installment of a Dickens novel, although she was more a stylist and an incomparable temperament than a true critic. I do remember a terrific sense of fulfilled identity when Judith Crist published her top 10 and worst 10 movies of 1966, and more than half of each list was the reverse of my own.
Is there a classic film you’re embarrassed to admit you’ve never seen?
There isn't much I've missed. I recently caught up with Louis Feuillade's Les Vampires on DVD, and I rarely watch DVDs, or television for that matter. I hadn't the time to see it when it was revived by the New York Film Festival in the 1960s. I suppose the closest thing to something considered a classic that I haven't watched is probably Stan Brakhage's water window baby moving
What’s the worst film you’ve ever seen?
There is no such thing. There is never a bottom to anything in life as far as I can tell. The whole concept of the worst film one has ever seen is rooted entirely in the notion that one's immediate experience is all that exists in life. Pauline Kael once quoted an anonymous stranger she supposedly overheard saying, "things have got to get worse before they get worse", and I think that addresses the issue.
If I weren’t a film critic, I’d be a…
I've been so many other things besides a critic that I can't imagine that there is anything else I would want to be at this point. Of course things always remain undone. I was a trial lawyer for much of the time I was writing my most worthwhile criticism back in 1978-1981 so I never had much opportunity to consider anything beyond wishing I had made more movies than I worked on.
In the age of digital media and blogging, where is film criticism going and where should it go?
Damned if I know. There seems to be a generalized devaluation of individuality in which aggregations of opinion carry more weight than personal thought, although I think that has more to do with the affinity of current media for algorithms to sell and market, since that's all anybody seems to create any more. I do believe that there is an entirely new aesthetic imminent although I haven't heard anyone yet describe it plausibly, let alone insightfully. I think it is in process and hasn't actually evolved yet. I do believe that one vital function of criticism is leadership, and that leadership, as I wrote back around 1970 with more prescience than I had dreamed of, now seems to consist of elbowing one's way to the front of the line of the followers.
To the public at large, what purpose does a professional film critic serve?
A source of new ideas?
What’s the best part of being a film critic and the worst part of being a film critic?
Enjoying the continuing lashings of new stimuli and having the luxury of making sense of it. The worst part is what those stimuli most often consist of and failing to make sense of it.
Name the worst sequel ever.
Pass. It's been a long time since I’ve seen a bad sequel because I don't watch them. However I often find sequels to be superior to their overrated originals and very underrated in consequence. I hated The Exorcist but loved John Boorman's, Part II.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about film critics?
That we are just like they are.
What would you say to the old saw that critics are frustrated artists, punishing those who do for doing?
A good critic is an artist, a bad critic is not. All artists are frustrated. It's in the nature of the vocation. As for punishment, I think often the audience projects its own impulses onto not only the artists (and actors) but also the critics, who are at base also performers like everyone else.
Are movies better because of film critics?
Maybe a little, sometimes. I don't think that one makes a better movie thinking about critical reaction, but I do believe that having a critical faculty in creation can be a very liberating thing.
In your opinion, have you ever written something that had a measurable impact?
No, not by any rigorous light. I do enjoy the way people of a certain age come up to me as strangers and quote me passages I wrote thirty or more years ago that they have not forgotten, whereas I wouldn't have remembering writing it an hour after turning in the copy. It’s appalling how responsible one can be for the impact of things one has barely noticed.
What advice do you have for aspiring film critics?
Never stop learning, not only about movies but also other arts and above all about life. It is also a good idea to pursue other creative endeavors. A critic should be exceptionally sympathetic to the vicissitudes of the artist. Few people realize this but it is in fact even more work to make a bad movie than a good one. Trust me on this, I know.
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