This interview with Pauline Kael, conducted by
the critic Francis Davis, was one of the last with the longtime New Yorker
movie critic, who died in September. Here, Kael discusses her tenure at the
magazine and her relationship with the editor William Shawn, her early days, and
movies, from The Big Sleep to Deep Throat, the directors she has
known, her disappointment with recent cinema, and her renewed interest in
FRANCIS DAVIS: When you liked a movie, your enthusiasm was contagious. I remember being in college in 1966, when Jean-Luc Godardís Masculine-Feminine came out, and desperately wanting to see it after reading your review in The New Republic. I subsequently read that this was one of the reviews that convinced William Shawn to bring you on at The New Yorker.
PAULINE KAEL: Yes. Godard was one of the reasons he hired
me. William Shawn went to the movies often but rarely sat through an entire
movie, because, he said, he couldnít stand brutality or bloodshed, and he
would leave at the slightest hint of violence. So he saw the beginnings of a lot
of movies, and he realized that there was something to Godard. And I had been
writing very lovingly about Godard.
Your review of Masculine-Feminine was as much
about the directorís relationship to youth culture as it was about the movie.
I was often accused of writing about everything but the
Itís just surprising, since one doesnít imagine
William Shawn being very tuned in to youth culture in 1966.
He was interested in a surprising number of things. Itís
funny, because he took very dowdy attitudes toward what could appear in the
magazine, but he himself was very alive and alert to all sorts of things. He
often argued with me about how I shouldnít review a particular movie because
it was brutal or dirty, or one thing or another. He wanted some sort of
censorship imposed, but he couldnít, rigorous man that he was, impose it. So
he tried to talk the magazineís writers into censoring themselves, and I
didnít go for that. But he went to see all sorts of things and was quite open
in what he responded to. He followed Richard Pryor from the very beginning of
his night-club career, and when you consider how pristine the language in The
New Yorker had to be, youíll see how remarkable it is that William Shawn
enjoyed listening to Richard Pryor.
According to legend, the only movie he ever talked you
out of reviewing was Deep Throat.
Thatís right. And I should have put up more of a squawk,
but I had gotten so tired of battling with him. I couldnít convince Shawn that
a porn movie was worth writing about. He thought it was just some perversity on
my part that I wanted to cover Deep Throat.
Did you think it was a good movie?
No. But I very badly wanted to write about it, because, for
all that was being written about it, nobody was really dealing with what was on
the screen. I think half of the reason that people become interested in movies
in the first place is sex and dating and everything connected with eroticism on
the screen. And I felt that not to deal with all of that in its most naked form
was to shirk part of whatís involved in being a movie critic.
When you started at The New Yorker, you wrote
every week for six months and then gave way to another critic for the rest of
the year. Was it ever suggested to you, by Shawn or anyone else, that you could
use those six months off to do other pieces?
It was tricky. I had to go out and make a living for six
months of the year. I had to go out and teach somewhere, generally, because if I
wrote about new movies it would be in conflict with what was being said in The
New Yorker. A few times, I tried to work on pieces that I was unhappy with.
Iíd love to have written more about eroticism in the movies. I think itís a
great subject, but it was tough to write about it at all with Shawn. I had a
real tough time with him when I wrote about Tales of Ordinary Madness,
the Marco Ferreri version of Charles Bukowski, about a girl whoís virtually a
mermaid. Itís an amazing movie, with some scenes that are quite erotic. I had
to put up a terrible fight to get it in. Shawn wanted to know if the critics for
other magazines were covering it. I said that shouldnít be our standard for
what we covered in The New Yorker. But it was hard to convince Shawn that
I wasnít pulling some sort of swindle by sneaking material into the magazine
that he felt didnít belong there. He felt he was holding the line against the
barbarians, and to some degree I was a barbarian.
He made it very hard to write about certain aspects of
movies. Nobody, really, has done a very good job of writing on a sustained level
about the way movies affect people erotically, and about the fact that they
became popular because theyíre a dating game. People love movies for that
reason, because they excite them sexually. They go to them on dates, and they go
to learn more about how to behave. I never got a real crack at writing about
that. It was awful having to fight with Shawn, someone who was so revered and
whom I admired. But I was writing about a popular art form, and the magazine had
gotten a little stiff.
Did anyone ever ask you why you were wasting your time
reviewing films and encourage you to think bigger?
No. They thought I was awful for panning the kind of movies
I panned, the earnest movies, whatís now called the independent filmóthe
movies that have few aesthetic dimensions but are moral and have lessons and
all. There was a great deal of sentiment for that kind of movie at The New
Yorker, and from its readers. This was, after all, in the sixties and
seventies, and New York was still full of a lot of refugees from Hitler, and
they took movies very seriously and morally. And my frivolous tone really bugged
them. Today, thereís so much more of a feeling for films as aesthetic objects
rather than as morally improving objects. But I was writing for a magazine that
stood for moral improvementóNew Yorker editorials during my years there
could be so abstractly moralizing. There were things there that were so at odds
with what I was doing that it amazes me that I lasted.
There are a few other things I wanted to ask about you
and Shawn. Everyone knows he objected to your use of what he considered crude
language. But did he ever think that something you said about an actor or
director was too cruel? Like when you described Dyan Cannon as ďlooking a bit
like Lauren Bacall and a bit like Jeanne Moreau, but the wrong bitsĒ?
Dyan Cannon roared over that one, Iím happy to say.
Sheís a very smart, very lively woman, and she was very sweet about it. I
donít recall if Shawn objected to that, but that was the sort of thing he
often did object to. I sometimes gave in, because I thought maybe he was right.
You know, sometimes you leave out things that seem part of the story youíre
telling, because you donít want to hurt people. That makes sense.
The only time that Shawn held up my copy, that he didnít
immediately print something I had turned in, was when I wrote my criticism of Shoah.
Shoah was one of those movies that was tricky,
because not liking it meant that you were being insensitive to the Holocaust.
Thatís right, and the Holocaust was something that
readers of The New Yorker were very sensitive aboutóas they were about Rain
Man and other movies about illnesses. There are no possible butts of jokes
at a certain point in movies. Thereís almost no one you can make fun of now.
The womenís movement, in particular, has added many taboos. You canít have a
dumb blonde anymore, and the dumb blonde was such a wonderful stereotype. There
were so many great stereotypes.
Like Franklin Pangborn, the actor who always played
what used to be called a ďpansy.Ē
What a delicious character. I donít know whatís wrong
with that, although I suppose many people could tell me whatís wrong with it.
But I think the only thing to do is make jokes about your own failings. I
donít know what else I can do about being short.
You once said that you wanted to write about movies
the way that people actually talked about them when leaving the theatre.
Yes, the language we really spoke and the language of
movies. I didnít want to write academic English in an attempt to elevate
movies, because I think that actually lowers them. It denies them what makes
I assume that your first moviegoing companions were
your parents and your brothers and sisters.
Yes, it was a big family and I was the youngest, so I saw
movies on my parentsí laps when I was very young. By the time I was about
eight, I started going with other little kids or with my siblings. But, in later
years, I would remind them of some of their reactions to the movies we saw, and
they didnít remember the movies at all. I was terribly let down by that,
because I always assumed that movies had meant as much to them as they did to
Petaluma, California, where you grew up, was farm
country in those days.
Chicken-and-egg country, primarily. But it had a couple of
movie theatres, and it was close to San Francisco, where our parents would go
for music and theatre. There was always a lot going on not too far away. As
kids, we thought it was a dry, desolate, nothing place. But as you get older you
realize itís not a bad town at all. It was used in American Graffiti,
and itís been used in a lot of other movies.
Your grandfather worked for Levi Strauss?
Thatís right. He took orders for them. He had travelled
around Europe and the Orient. He spoke a number of languages and was a very
cultivated man, and he followed his children to California. I was always told
that, in Poland, he had worked for a king, buying art objects. And he went to
work for Levi Strauss, which, in some ways, was the equivalent of working for a
king. I heard nothing but good about Levi Strauss when I was growing up. And I
wore practically nothing but jeans.
Did you and your family see pretty much everything that
Everything that came, sure.
And it was usually a double feature?
Unless it was Ben-Hur. Often there were two light
comedies with actors like Ben Lyon and Bebe Daniels, and people had a good
timeóthey didnít expect to learn a lesson when they went to the movies. The
dialogue was fun in those early talkies. It was very naughty, and not at all as
heavy-handed as dialogue is now.
When you started dating, were there actorsóor
actresses, for that matteróthat you had crushes on? And that the boys you
dated inevitably failed to measure up to?
I donít think so. For one thing, I tended to like comedy.
My favorites were the Ritz BrothersóIím really crazy about dancer-comedians.
Theyíre almost totally forgotten now, though every once in a while Jerry Lewis
does a tribute to them, and I suppose thatís one way of keeping their names
alive, though I wish it were somebody else doing it.
But I loved things that had a faintly surreal comic
quality. I never liked Chaplin, because he made me cry, and I didnít want
maudlin feelings at the movies. I was very skeptical of Chaplin, because I
thought he pushed too hard. In some ways, he did what Spielberg has been doing:
he pushes buttons. And because people like that button pushing, they think
Spielberg is a great director. But heís become, I think, a very bad director.
Even his best work in Schindlerís List is very heavy-handed. And Iím
a little ashamed for him, because I loved his early work. I loved The Sugarland
Express. And 1941 was a wonderful comedy. It didnít make it with
the public, but he should have had enough brains to know it was a terrific piece
of work and to not be so apologetic about it. Instead, he turned to virtuous
movies. And heís become so uninteresting now. I think of the work he did in E.T.
and Close Encounters, and I think that he had it in him to become more of
a fluid, far-out director. But, instead, heís become a melodramatist.
Did you see Saving Private Ryan?
I did. And I was disturbed by the later part, which was so
much like the old wartime moviesóthe sentimental variety. The first part was
quite brilliantly effective, but I didnít think it was a good picture. I felt
as if Spielberg was bucking for awards, to the point where his people seemed
outraged when they didnít win them. As if they deserved honors for their
You majored in philosophy at Berkeley. Was that with an
eye toward teaching?
No. I applied to law school and was accepted. But at the
last minute I thought, What am I doing, I canít face law school, and I canít
face more of the academic life. There are times when you know youíve had a
bellyful of the academic life.
I assume youíve received teaching offers over the
years, from film departments.
Yes, a number of times, when Iíve lectured at colleges
Iíve been offered teaching posts. And I was sometimes tempted, because itís
a secure living. But I loved writing. I really loved the gamble of writing, the
risk-taking. I loved the speed of it, the fact that you had your say and moved
on to something else. Iím a very fast person in temperament, and a very fast
writer. A weekly was great for me, because, by the time something I wrote was
printed, I was already working on something else. That was why I couldnít
function in Hollywood, when I went to work there. Nothing ever seemed over and
done with. You would nag over the same material endlessly, and I hated it.
Early on, you wrote some radio plays, didnít you?
I wrote some plays that were done on radio, although they
werenít intended for radio. I regretted that one or two of them appeared on
KPFA, in Berkeley. Iím not interested in talking about them. I thought then
that I had a gift for playwriting, and friends of mine thought so. But I think
now that I did not have an imaginative gift. I think Iím ideally suited for
criticism, that it satisfies something in me, and that it has the right kinds of
creative elements for me.
Before you began publishing regularlyóand even for
years afterwardóyou worked at various other jobs. You ran a repertory cinema,
you wrote advertising copy, you worked in a bookstore and as a seamstress and a
cook. Some of those were menial jobs, but almost any of them promised a better
living than writing, and you had a daughter to support, so what compelled you
To write? I donít know. It was insane. For years, I was
writing for magazines that paid almost nothing, and I was making a few hundred
dollars a year by placing pieces in them. Then there was the mild insult of
writing for a magazine edited by Amiri Baraka, which paid, as I recall, two
dollars per thousand words.
This was Kulcher?
Thatís it. Thatís what Kulcher amounted to, two
dollars per thousand words. I wrote for a number of other magazines that paid
comparably. I mean, Partisan Review was high-paying: I got something like
sixty-four dollars for a long article. It was impossible to make a living at the
kind of writing I was doing, particularly because I was on the West Coast, and
when I got assignments from magazines and papers in New York they would often
reject what I wrote and not pay me any kill fee, because I was across the
country and unlikely to bump into them. For a long time, I didnít even know
there was such a thing as a kill fee.
At the very beginning of your career, when you were
reviewing movies on the radio in San Franciscoósome of the material collected
in I Lost It at the Movies, your first bookóyou came across as someone
intent on undoing damage.
I was often disputing what the New York critics had
written, and doing it as a way of alerting people to good movies I thought might
pass them by, like The Golden Coach and Fires on the Plain.
Your nemesis was Andrew Sarris, another influential
movie critic of your generation, who for years wrote for the Village Voice.
Your biggest disagreement with him was over the so-called auteur theory, which
originated in France and which he more or less imported to the United States.
Well, the auteur theory originally meant something quite
different from what people understand it to mean now. What it originally said
was that a director conferred value upon a filmóthat if a director was an
auteur all of his films were great. I think the public never understood that,
and neither did most of the press. It was an untenable theory, and it fell from
sight. Itís now taken to mean that a director is vital to a film, and of
course this is true, but itís something that everybody has always known. I
mean, everybody knew that Howard Hawks was terrific. We went to see To Have
and Have Not and The Big Sleep the day they opened, and there was an
excitement in the theatre, because we all knew that these movies were special.
They were smart, and lots of movies were so dumb.
But that didnít mean that all of Hawksís movies
No, because he also made a lot of very bad movies, like Monkey
But the auteurists would argue that Hawksís methods in
Monkey Business revealed something about the approach he took in those
other, great movies of his.
But itís sometimes discouraging to see all of a
directorís movies, because thereís so much repetition. The auteurists took
this to be a sign of a directorís artistry, that you could recognize his
movies. But it can also be a sign that heís a hack.
For all your differences, I always thought that you
and Sarris were alike in many ways.
We both loved movies. We had that in common, and I enjoy
reading him as I enjoy reading very few critics. He has genuine reactions to
movies, and many critics donít. But our taste in movies is so radically
different. He really likes romantic, classically structured movies. He had very
conservative tastes in movies; he didnít love the far-out stuff that I loved.
Heís a man who likes movies like Waterloo Bridge, movies that drive me
crazy with impatience. Itís funny that he should have been at the Voice,
and the voice of an underground paper. I think I would have been much more
suitable to Voice readers than he. We were at the wrong placesóitís
one of those flukes of movie history.
Did you ever meet Alfred Hitchcock?
Yes, and I didnít have a very good time, because he
wanted to talk about movies but hadnít really gone to see anything. His wife
had, and she was very knowledgeable and very pleasant. I liked her a lot, but he
kept breaking off to talk about his wine cellar and his champagne collection. I
got very distressed when we talked about actors, because he had often cast
people not after seeing them in pictures but from seeing them on a reel of film
that their agents brought him, so that he saw only little highlights from some
of their roles. He didnít know the possibilities of some of the actors, and
this was reinforced by his feeling that he shouldnít improvise. Directors
should not be allowed to improvise, he said, even though he had done a lot of
improvisation earlier in his career, and it was some of his best work. I think
part of the rigidity of his later pictures was from his feeling that everything
should be worked out in advance, which didnít allow for any creative
participation by the actors. You feel the absence of that participation in
movies like Topaz and Marnie and, I would say, all of his later
movies. He was quite rigid, almost like a religious fanaticóno one should
improvise, the director should have everything planned out in advance.
Do you think this harmed performances, like Sean
Conneryís in Marnie?
Sean Connery I particularly asked about, because I was
puzzled why he was so wooden in Marnie. Hitchcock said, Well, that man
never could act, you know, he could only play 007. And I was astonished, because
Connery was giving some of his greatest performancesóI shouldnít say his
greatest performances, because I think he became even better later, when he did The
Man Who Would Be King and some of his later films. But he was already doing
marvellous work in that period, and Hitchcock didnít seem interested in it at
allóhe didnít seem interested in actors.
On the other hand, do you think some directors take
the idea of improvisation too far? James Toback, for instance.
I think Toback is immensely gifted, but I donít see that
heís developing as a director. I think he takes it too far in terms of not
working out the script, letting the actors say what they want to say and develop
their characters. I loved the kind of improvisation Altman did in things like Nashville,
where he blended the actorsí experiences with the charactersí. Toback
isnít that gifted and isnít that patient. He tends to take all kinds of
risks, and then he tries to put the picture together in the editing room. And I
donít think the results have been interesting enough.
We were talking earlier about Jean-Luc Godard, whose
early movies you wrote about so enthusiastically. What was he like?
I spent social afternoons with him early in his career, and
he was very amiable. His English wasnít great, but it was good enough to
communicate, and there would be other people around who would help sometimes
with a word or two. We had a good time talking about movies. Later, he became
quite hostile, and I donít know if this was because his more political films
didnít please me in the same way that his earlier films had. Itís always
painful to get to know a director, because they almost always take it very
personally when you donít like a film. No matter how much you loved their
other work, a negative review takes precedence in their thinking.
Were there directors, though, who would just let
criticism bounce off them?
They didnít let it bounce off them, but some of them were
gracious about it. John Boorman was incredibly kind. I felt absolute misery on
one occasion when Iíd seen a film of his and then we met for drinks and I
tried to avoid the subject of the film, and he told me years later that he
understood my agony. Some performers have been extremely kind. Barbra Streisand
was incredibly pleasant when I gave her a very rough review in Funny Lady.
She phoned to make me feel better, which is unusual for an actor to do.
Generally, they become really hostile about almost anything negative you say. I
mean, one line in a review thatís otherwise positive and they never forgive
One last question about Godard. Iíve recently watched
many of his early movies again, and Iíve found that, with the possible
exception of Breathless, they didnít really hold upóeven though I
still think of them as great movies for their time. Youíd think the idea that
a thing of beauty is a joy forever would be true of movies.
I donít think it is true. I think movies are a popular
art form, and they can mean a great deal to us at the timeómean something
newóbut they get stale very quickly, as what they do is imitated. You canít
underestimate Godardís journalistic side. He was commenting on his time.
Altmanís films may hold up betteróthe big ones. I think Altman has made a
fantastic number of great movies, or very good ones. But his arenít
journalistic, finally. Theyíre like watching several TV stations at once. I
donít know how to account for the fact that when heís good, heís superb,
and when he isnít good, heís nothing.
You were famousóinfamous, some might sayófor never
seeing a movie more than once. But now you haveó
More time? I still donít look at movies twice. Itís
funny, I just feel I got it the first time. With music itís different. People
respond so differently to the whole issue of seeing a movie many times. Iím
astonished when I talk to really good critics, who know their stuff and will see
a film eight or ten or twelve times. I donít see how they can do it without
hating the movie. I would.
So you havenít broken down and decided, Iím going to
watch Nashville again today?
No. I was thinking about it, because this new DVD format is
supposed to be coming out, and because I just read an absolutely splendid
article on Nashville that was downloaded from Salon. Itís by Ray
Sawhill, and I think itís the best piece on movies Iíve read all year. It
recalled for me the excitement I felt when I wrote about Nashville,
twenty-five years ago.
Do you check the Web for reviews?
They get downloaded for me by friends. Iím a mechanical
idiot and always have been. Thatís why I wrote by hand. It became sort of an
organic process, but I think it was an excuse so I wouldnít have to learn to
operate the machinery.
Iíve heard that youíve been watching a lot of TV.
I watch a few programs regularly. ďThe West WingĒ and,
letís see, ďSex and the City,Ē but not much else. Theyíre more
interesting than most of the movies Iíve seen lately.
Iím surprised that you didnít mention ďThe
I loved the first season and watched it religiously. I
thought there was marvellous stuff in it, especially from Nancy Marchand. She
was such a surprise in that role. But it seems to have gotten rather crude and
routine. It gets talked about more than it deserves.
How did the first season of ďThe SopranosĒ stack up
against the first two Godfather movies or GoodFellas?
It stacked up well against GoodFellas, which I
thought was pretty weak. But The Godfatheróthatís like comparing each
new movie to Eisenstein. The first two Godfathers are perhaps the best
movies ever made in this country. Itís unfair to ask a TV series to live up to
that. But ďThe SopranosĒ had a quality of its own. It had its own humor. The
leading man had such a wonderfully vulgar charm. Watching the rise and fall of
his gut was enough to keep you amused from week to week.
How does ďThe West WingĒ compare to something like Primary
Pretty well, even though there have been some pretty weak
episodes. But itís a good show. The women are beautiful, and theyíre
actresses who generally donít get good roles. Itís got more going for it
than any other program I know of on TV at the moment.
Primary Colors is really a very entertaining movie,
and I hadnít been led to think so from the reviews. I was surprised to find
that it had perhaps Mike Nicholsí best work in it. Heís not a director Iím
ordinarily very enthusiastic about, and it had an unfortunate script, but
Nichols brought style and pacing to it, and God knows we can use some style and
pacing in movies now.
John Travolta is an actor who has so much truth and
earnestness in him that you sometimes donít know whether to take him straight.
But heís a wonderful actor. His performance as Clinton, in Primary Colors,
was a joyous performance, and a difficult oneóit wasnít just a matter of
impersonation. But Iíve also seen him in dumb movies where I couldnít
believe he approached the material with such sincerity. He plays simpletons and
does it with such heartfelt feeling that he carries you right along. Iíve
noticed that when he appears on TV talk shows thereís a tendency for the hosts
to patronize him a little bit, because the assumption is heís not a very smart
guy. But, whether heís smart or not, heís a remarkable actor.
Do you think his being a Scientologist has something to
do with that?
Probably, but they donít patronize Tom Cruise.
Letís talk about ďSex and the City.Ē
I think itís terrific. It feels new, because in the past
they wouldnít have dared to put material like that on televisionóthose girls
discussing men the way that men discuss women, and going pretty far. There are
episodes that really break me up, that I canít get out of my mind.
Do you think that television now pulls off things that
movies, for whatever reason, no longer seem able to do?
Well, no, movies have already done those things and canít
keep doing them over and over. Thatís why I have no interest in seeing the big
epics, like Gladiator. They redo the epic movies I grew up with, like Ben-Hur,
and I donít want to see them again. Itís the same basic material. You
canít make a movie out of it anymore, but you can make a very good half-hour
There was recently a Newsweek cover story about
Michael J. Fox and Parkinsonís that featured a sidebar on you. A mutual friend
of ours told me that you complained that they had left out the funny things you
had to say about being afflicted.
I think I was a little unfair to themóthey would have had to bring in some jokes I made about the disease. People want to take these things lugubriously, and they want you to be a victim. I donít feel like a victim. Iíve been very, very lucky. Here I am with my legs writhing, but I donít feel as bad about the Parkinsonís as I did a few years ago. Iíve learned to control it somewhat. The trouble is, you use up your years on the medication, and you know that the side effects are going to take over hideously.
I assume that the Parkinsonís was the reason you
retired from The New Yorker.
That, plus the fact that I suddenly couldnít say anything
about some of the movies. They were just so terrible, and Iíd already written
about so many terrible movies. I love writing about movies when I can discover
something in themówhen I can get something out of them that I can share with
people. The week I quit, I hadnít planned on it. But I wrote up a couple of
movies, and I read what Iíd written, and it was just incredibly depressing. I
thought, Iíve got nothing to share from this.
One of them was of that movie with Woody Allen and Bette
Midler, Scenes from a Mall. I couldnít write another bad review of
Bette Midler. Iíd already panned her in Beaches. How can you go on
panning people in picture after picture when you know they were great just a few
years before? You have so much emotional investment in praising people that when
you have to pan the same people a few years later it tears your spirits apart.
And Woody Allen didnít deserve to be as bad as he was in Scenes from a Mall.
I donít feel great enthusiasm about his recent movies, but I thought parts of Husbands
and Wives were quite stunning. I loved Judy Davis. But nothing of his that
Iíve seen since has really excited me. You canít explain some of these
things, except that itís the wrong material, the wrong costars, everything
goes wrong in a movie when something goes wrong, and itís just too damn
depressing to spend your life writing about that.
Youíve often surprised interviewers by telling them
that your favorite decade for movies was the nineteen-seventies.
I love the fact that I wrote about movies in the seventies,
when there were directors coming along who really brought something new to the
medium. Just think, I got to write about Godard and Truffaut, and Altman and
Coppola, and movies that people donít even talk about, like Hal Ashbyís The
Landlord, which was a wonderful movie. Then, suddenly, everything we hoped
for from movies went kerplooie. A good movie brought in terrible consequences. Jaws
is really a terrific movieóI laughed all the way through it. Yet it marked
something. Then, with Star Wars coming on top of itóthat awful Star
Wars, and its successorsómovies have just never been the same. The
direction in which we thought they were moving, theyíve gone the other way.
There are hardly any small movies that people go to, and
some of the more interesting ones they wonít go to. I loved Three Kings,
which I thought was probably the best American movie I saw last year. But it
didnít have much of a following, even with George Clooney in the lead, and he
was very good. Larry Kasdanís Mumford, which was dismissed in the
press, I thought was a charming movie. But for some strange reason we donít go
to charming, light movies anymore. People expect a movie to be heavy and turgid,
like American Beauty. Weíve become a heavy-handed society.
I keep seeing movies I think are interesting that nobody is praising. People did latch on to The Matrix. I would find it very hard to explain why I liked it so much, but I think itís awfully good. There are movies that are really entertaining, and I donít know why theyíre so entertaining. Magnolia was one of them. There are a number of movies that Iíve liked for rather strange reasons. There was one that had very good fast cuttingóHigh Fidelity. The ends of the scenes seemed lopped off in a way that really worked. It gave it a little pulse. By the end of it, I really was having a good time.
I love movies that are more exploratory. I loved a French
movie from a few years ago that very few people saw, a Bertrand Blier film
called My Man, which got almost no press, but had something of the
qualities of Last Tango. There arenít very many movies that get at
something new. Itís very hard to get people to go see movies that arenít as
well publicized as The Perfect Storm or The Patriot. I canít
believe people I know go to see those movies. What do they get out of them?
It does seem like thereís a party line on certain
movies now, as though nobody wants to be the odd man out and say, ďWait a
minute, this movie stinks.Ē
I think youíre right to some degree. There are some good
critics at the moment. But there is a pack mentality. It affects the small-town
critics more than the individuals on Salon or Slate. I sometimes
read these really very well-educated men writing their hearts out on crap, and
Iím depressed because theyíre wasting so much first-rate intellect on such
low-grade material. Thatís one of the reasons I quit. I just felt I couldnít
go on doing that.
Itís difficult to be a critic of mass culture. You write
about so much crap that you begin to be contemptuous of what youíre writing
aboutóat least, a lot of critics are, and they hope for something more
interesting to do. You canít fault them for that. But they donít do justice
to what theyíre seeing. They donít seem to be sensitive to whatís on the
screen. I donít know how so many people could have panned so many brilliant
movies. I mean, the best movies of our time have been panned, and there
doesnít seem to be any excuse for itóthe critics have had training in film,
theyíve gone to very good colleges, and they donít seem able to
spontaneously recognize quality.
When you say that, two movies I immediately think of are
Brian De Palmaís Casualties of War and Pennies from Heaven, with
Steve Martin and Bernadette Peters, both of which you were practically alone in
I canít believe those movies didnít get more press
support. It seems inconceivable that people could work in a medium and not see
the qualities in Casualties of War. Sean Penn gives one of his finest
performances in it, Michael J. Fox is amazingly good, and they play off each
other beautifully. De Palma uses the foxholes as if they were an ant colony: we
see everything thatís going on in a large area, and then it narrows down to
the horror of what the soldiers do to one particular girl. Iíve never seen a
war movie that was as beautifully felt, with the exception of a classic like Grand
Illusion. You feel it when you see it, you know this is something new, and
that itís saying something new.
The same thing is true of Pennies from Heaven.
Dennis Potter wanted his material done in MGM-musical style, and finally it was,
and the movie was attacked because it wasnít like the television version.
Itís heartbreaking when something really gets done right and doesnít get
support. You really need enormous press support for something thatís difficult
and complex, and Pennies from Heaven didnít get it. You begin to
despair when people do their finest work and donít get credit for it.
How do you see movies at this point? At the local
multiplex? Advance cassettes?
Both ways. A lot of directors whose work I was kind to send me videos when they have new pictures coming out. Surprisingly, so do a number of people whose work I was not kind to, because they want my opinion and they know I canít do them any harm. Thatís a very funny development. I live in a community that has four screens, and they change pictures pretty quickly. So I get to see most things I want to. I find that Iím not really eager to see a lot of the films, and sometimes I have to prod myself to go see them. Most of them are bummers. Theyíre the same ones playing across the country, because the movie companies discovered it was more economical to play movies all over at the same time so they can advertise them on television.
Itís like the scene in Truffautís Day for Night,
when the director and his crew want to go to the movies and every theatre is
showing the same thing. But at least itís The Godfather, not Gladiator.
No, I wouldnít mind if they went on playing that for a few weeks. Thatís a wonderful movie. Iím thinking particularly of the second one, when you see how it fits in to the first, when Robert De Niro as the young Don Corleone walks the streets of old New York, and that sequence where he shoots the padroneóitís so brilliant, itís stupefying.
Do you miss having a forum to share your perceptions
Sharing is a nice way of putting it. I loved writing about things when I was excited about them. Itís not fun writing about bad movies. I used to think it was bad for my skin. Itís painful writing about the bad things in an art form, particularly when young kids are going to be enthusiastic about those things, because they havenít seen anything better, or anything different. I mean, if you were writing about The Perfect Storm, you would have to consider that for many kids itís the first time theyíve ever seen something like that, and theyíre all excited about it, and all of their buttons have been pushed. Theyíre going to be very angry if they read a review by someone who doesnít respond to it. I got a lot of that kind of mail from young moviegoers, high-school and college kids, who couldnít understand why I wasnít as excited about things like The Towering Inferno as they were. And there are Towering Infernos coming out all the time. The people on television who got excited last week about The Patriot are getting excited this week about X-Men, and theyíll get excited next week about something else. But if you write critically you have to do something besides get excited. You have to examine whatís in front of you. What you see is a movie industry in decay, and the decay gets worse and worse.