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A Matter of Opinion

A Matter of Opinion

Articles - Directing

"Everybody’s a critic," or so the
old saying goes. Everybody except David Manning, the non-existent
critic who supposedly showered superlatives upon several pallid
Columbia Pictures releases last year before the charitable Mr.
Manning was revealed as fictitious. Even when critics prove authentic,
respect for their analytical abilities remains elusive. In a 1968
anthology of movie criticism, Richard Schickel jokingly noted
that “being a critic of films ranked somewhere below playing
the piano in a bordello.” More than 30 years later, their
ranking may be somewhat improved but even the finest film critics
are facing daunting adversaries. The erosion of print in the sound
bite era, the glut of uninformed reviews populating the Internet
and the uninspired quality of major studio releases have all taken
their toll. Kenneth Turan, David Sterritt and Roger Ebert form
an illustrious trio of critics who are all realistic about the
state of contemporary cinema while their reviews consistently
reflect a hopeful optimism that another great movie may be just
around the corner.

Kenneth Turan

The red carpet may be rolled up and every starlet
in town may be wearily kicking off her Manolos, but the premiere
isn’t really over until Los Angeles Times film
critic Kenneth Turan serves judgment with breakfast. Even the
most mindless summer blockbuster is treated to an
inspired, intellectually discerning review by Turan,
also a regular commentator for NPR’s “Morning Edition.” It’s
the rare journalist who can boast of co-authoring actress Patty Duke’s
memoirs, as well as exploring aesthetic agendas in his latest
work, Sundance to Sarajevo: Film Festivals and the World They
Made
(University of California Press).

Mark Griffin (MM): When you
sit down to write a review, do you have an ideal reader in mind?

Kenneth Turan (KT): I don’t
think that it’s possible to do this without writing for
a reader who will share your sensibility.

MM: Are today’s movies, particularly
the mainstream studio features, too preoccupied with technology?

KT: Well, I think it’s a danger because
if you throw enough money at most problems, you can solve them.
The danger is that if they concentrate on that and get that right,
they think they don’t have to worry about whether the script
is good or whether the story is good. Atom Egoyan used a digitally
enhanced shot in The Sweet Hereafter. He was unsatisfied
with the rate at which the bus was sinking and he re-did it digitally.
So technology doesn’t have to be the enemy, or only for
stupid films.

MM: Thanks to the video revolution, do
you think the general populace is more film literate now or just
having fun with all of the gadgetry?

KT: I think they’re having fun with
all this gadgetry. On the part of the younger moviegoers that
I talk to, there doesn’t seem to be a real passion to use
all of this accessibility to investigate older films. This is
a group that thinks older films are films from the ’70s
and ’80s. Going back to really look at the ’20s and
silent films, or even the ’30s and ’40s, there’s
not a lot of interest in doing that. And I think it’s a
waste of a great opportunity. I mean, you can see these films
in your home now.

MM: In the undiscovered gems department,
who are some moviemakers deserving of more attention?

KT: There’s a Scottish film I really
loved that came out a few years ago called Ratcatcher
(1999) [by] Lynne Ramsay. I thought Ratcatcher was in
some ways the best film of the year. It was really thoughtful
and intriguing. Hardly anybody saw Ratcatcher, but I
think we’ll definitely be seeing more from her.

MM: Emerging performers?

KT: There are so many. The publicity machinery
is so enormous that even if someone just pops up all of a sudden,
they’re ‘discovered.’ There’s a young
actor named Ryan Gosling who was in the film at Sundance that
won the Grand Jury Prize, The Believer. It had a Showtime
run and it’s about to be released theatrically. I’ve
seen him in a couple of other films since and he’s very
talented.

MM: In the last few years we’ve
witnessed an epidemic of rampage killings in our nation’s
schools. After each tragedy, we hear rumblings about the detrimental
impact that Hollywood issues/47/images can have on impressionable young
minds. Should moviemakers be assuming some of the blame?

KT: Is it only Hollywood’s fault? Of
course not. I don’t have any empirical data, but I tend
to feel that Hollywood is contributing, or certainly not helping.
We run in a society that believes that seeing things on film can
help sell things—the entire commercial world, the advertising
world. We feel on the one hand that the moving image can influence
what people buy and how they act. But then people want to say,
“No, in this case it’s nothing. Yes, we can get people
to buy soap and cars but influencing them to become violent, we
can’t do that.” It’s not very convincing to
me.

Hollywood is fearful of getting stuck with the whole
blame and the whole blame is definitely not theirs. So Hollywood
ends up going into complete denial and saying, “We have
absolutely nothing to do with this.” It’s easier to
blame Hollywood than to blame divorce or latchkey kids or uninvolved
parents or gun control laws. So I think Hollywood does become
a scapegoat, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have
some responsibility.

MM: The greatest director of all time
according to Kenneth Turan is…

KT: Can’t do it. There are just too
many. Maybe my mind just doesn’t turn that way. I can pick
favorites. I think in many ways my favorite director is Orson
Welles. I mean, I think “greatest” is a tricky question
and I don’t even know if it’s possible to answer,
but “favorite” is more manageable and Orson Welles
is my favorite director.

MM: What made him so good?

KT: He had such a grasp of the moviemaking
process. There’s so much brio and enthusiasm. Not only filmmaking
skill but delight in filmmaking skill. He just takes your breath
away. I share your enthusiasm for the Golden Age of Hollywood.
That was a great moviemaking period. We’re not in it now.
The economics have changed and the audience has changed. We’re
paying the price for that change.

David Sterritt

He may be smart cinema’s most enthusiastic
champion. The inexhaustibly animated David Sterritt has been reviewing
films for The Christian Science Monitor for over 30 years
and still hasn’t lost an ounce of obsessive interest in
the well-made movie. Sterritt’s criticism has appeared in
an impressive array of publications including The New York
Times
, The Washington Post and Film Comment.
A professor of theater and film at Long Island University, Sterritt
has published several books honoring such cinematic masters as
Jean-Luc Godard, Robert Altman and Alfred Hitchcock.

MM: After the events of September 11th,
do you think the new political climate will force movies to grow
up?

David Sterritt (DS): In a word,
no. I have yet to be convinced of any lasting, substantial changes
in the wake of 9/11. Immediately there was talk of how this was
going to make us all more serious; it was going to make us grow
up and our media were going to reflect this. From the [beginning],
I was kind of skeptical of that view. I think that our media could
stand to do a lot of growing up but that doesn’t mean that
it’s going to happen any time soon.

MM: Everyone is talking about how “daring”
cable television has become.
The Sopranos, Sex in
the City and Queer as Folk are supposed to be smashing
taboos and pushing the envelope. Do you think that might encourage
feature moviemakers to start taking more risks?

DS: One of my crusades throughout my career
is I just wish the movies would be more adventurous—would
take more risks. The kind of inertia that is bred by the huge
financial stakes of Hollywood type filmmaking is to not take chances
and to see what sells and then build on that. So there is this
tension between people like me who want more risk-taking and more
adventurousness and the studio attitude.

The studio attitude is, in fact, supported every
step of the way by most popular tastes. Most people usually go
to the movies just for an evening’s entertainment. They’re
not looking for more than that and Hollywood has relied on generic
formulas throughout its history. The dynamic of generic studio
filmmaking is to provide the right combination of sameness and
difference.

When real changes come along, it’s very often
through some film that the studios made sort of reluctantly. Star
Wars
was a movie like that. In the middle ’70s science
fiction was considered box office poison. Lucas was able to make
that movie because of two reasons: one, he had made American
Graffiti
, which had been a smash hit and everybody thought,
“Well, maybe he’ll do it again.” And two, he
kept the budget low. Only with that combination was Lucas able
to make his movie, which then became the most profitable, biggest
grossing movie of all time at that moment. So often these movies
that change everything are made by people who are semi-mavericks
with a vision.

MM: Name one film critic that you are
always compelled to read.

DS: If I’m going to choose one,
it’s going to be a close friend of mine. I respect him to
the skies and that is Stuart Klawans in The Nation. Stuart
is just an extraordinarily thoughtful critic. He’s a superb
writer: He thinks deeply about things and yet does not burden
us with that but rather lets us have the benefit of that through
eminently readable prose. If I had to choose one film critic right
now to take with me to a desert island—well, it would be
a female critic—but leaving aside extracurricular considerations,
it would be Stuart.

MM: According to David Sterritt, the
greatest director of all time is…

DS: There are so many possibilities. I’ll
tell you who my personal favorite is and that’s because
I think he’s the most important: Alfred Hitchcock.

MM: More important than Welles?

DS: I would choose Hitchcock for three reasons:
One, his influence has just been vast… filmmakers all over the
place continue to borrow from him so much. Hitchcock is an astonishingly
entertaining filmmaker. Even his deepest, most profound works
tend to be a lot of fun to watch and audiences love them. Also,
the third and most important thing is that he truly is a kind
of philosopher-poet who happens to be working in the medium of
motion pictures.

A movie like Psycho—a smash hit when
it came out—remains unbelievably popular today. I show it
to students all the time and it always makes a big hit. So, here
it is now 42 years after it was made and it still absolutely takes
them in and gives them a sensationally entertaining ride. I can
think of few works of the past half century that have the profundity
that that movie has. It’s just astonishing on every level—from
the verbal to the cinematic to the photographic to the narrative.
All of those levels are superbly integrated. It’s a profound
work about the human condition. Psycho required many
viewings before I started to notice things like the fact that
the first thing you see when the camera comes into the hotel room
in the beginning is the bathroom of the hotel room. Later on,
when Marion is driving to the Bates Motel and it starts to rain
and she puts the wipers on and they’re slashing back and
forth across the windshield, you have water and blades! Scholars
and obsessives notice these things and write them down, but things
like that probably have at least a subliminal impact on the casual
Saturday night moviegoers seeing the movie for the first time.

Roger Ebert

Never underestimate the power of the thumb. Particularly
when that digit belongs to Roger Ebert, the most recognizable
film critic on the planet. Moviegoers ordinarily indifferent to
auteur theories will peruse Ebert’s reviews in the Chicago
Sun-Times
or tune in to his syndicated series Ebert &
Roeper & the Movies
, which features
some engaging “thumbs up, thumbs down” banter
between Ebert and fellow Sun-Times reviewer Richard Roeper.

Never one to rest on his Pulitzer Prize-winning
laurels, Ebert recently began writing essays extolling
the virtues of a select group of vintage and
contemporary films, entitled The Great Movies (Broadway
Books).

MM: The Great Movies includes four titles
directed by cinematic maverick Billy Wilder. Do you think the
reason Wilder’s films have endured is because they’re
flavored with what you’ve described as a “dubiousness
about too much sincerity”?

Roger Ebert (RE): That’s
part of it. They’re ironic, and irony is in. Sincerity is
out right now, which is why at the moment Capra is not too fashionable.
Although everything comes around again, you know. I think there’s
another element, though. If you look at these great movies and
see which ones seem fresh today, they’re the smart ones
that do not seem to take the audience for granted or condescend
to the audience.

Movies that are really smart and assume that the
audience is intelligent are more timeless and I’ll give
you some examples: Citizen Kane, Trouble In Paradise
by Lubitsch, just about anything in the great period of Preston
Sturges or Luis Buñuel. Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove
has not dated, nor has Some Like It Hot. Those two comedies—you
could open them in any theater in the country and people would
have more or less the same reaction that people had when they
were new.

MM: It’s been said that highly
literate, cynical screenplays like
All About Eve and
Sweet Smell of Success probably wouldn’t be bankrolled
today.

RE: You know, I might have agreed with you
if I’d spoken to you this morning, but I just saw Changing
Lanes
, the new film by Roger Michell, which is co-written
by Michael Tolkin. It’s about two people who are having
a bad day. Their paths cross with a fender bender and they are
are both people with problems with anger. A dumb movie would have
one angry person pursuing an innocent person and making life a
nightmare. This is more of the case of two angry people who are
engaged in what becomes an escalating personal struggle during
the course of the day. There is a speech in it by Amanda Peet,
who plays Ben Affleck’s wife, that is a speech that Wilder
could have written.

MM: That’s high praise.

RE: [Peet] says, “Did you know that
my father had a mistress for the last 20 years? My mother knew
and she never said anything about it because she thought it would
be kind of hypocritical to accuse a man of cheating when the comfortable
lifestyle that she enjoyed was based upon the fact that he made
all of his money by cheating and she knew that when she married
him.” The way that speech is written, you know Tolkin wrote
it. It’s kind of like In The Company of Men.
Neil LaBute is also kind of in the Wilder tradition, not that
he makes comedies, but he really does have that almost shocking
adult honesty about the world.

MM: So, after seeing something like Changing
Lanes, you’re not concerned about the dumbing down of studio
product?

RE: Oh, studio product is dumbed down, but
it’s not made by dumb people. And every once in a while
they just have to make a smart movie in order to maintain their
sanity.

MM: Star Wars is also included in The
Great Movies and although you refer to it as “a masterpiece,”
you allude to the fact that it’s been singled out as the
picture that warped the industry by creating a blockbuster, mega-merchandising
mentality. Is it fair that one movie should take the blame?

RE: Well, blame or credit. A lot of people
would think it’s credit and other people would say that
it was Jaws, really… The studios didn’t pay much
attention to summer. Now, of course, it’s the prime box
office season.

MM: So it would be terribly unfair to
frame
Star Wars as the culprit that changed everything?

RE: Things were going to change. You know,
there were certain marketing patterns that are probably more responsible
than any given movie. Films would open in a couple of major markets
and would gradually percolate across the country in the months
to come. Bonnie and Clyde was on the cover of Newsweek
at least three different times over a period of nine months as
it got to be a bigger and bigger and bigger hit. At one point,
Faye Dunaway was on the cover and there was a cover story—I
think in Newsweek—about Theadora Van Runkle’s
costumes. There’s a story about how Jack Warner didn’t
even hardly want to release it and that was a movie where word-of-mouth
built and built and it just hung on and opened in more and more
theaters. Today a movie does not get a second chance like that.
It either performs in the opening weekend or it doesn’t.
The problem is now that the overhead for the marketing campaign
is so high that they have to reach a broad audience very quickly
and that militates against quirky movies or difficult or original
movies. MM

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