An Interview with David Edelstein
It would be hyperbolic to call David Edelstein’s work during his nine years at Slate pioneering. Still, as one of the first mainstream film critics to emerge out of net journalism, he could be fun, immediate and strange in a way that might elude A.O. Scott, one of his good friends. He structured his film criticism in the form of a blog, called “Reel Time.” And he hosted contests with his readers asking them to name the worst lines ever from biopics. (The winner: “Come on, Hitler, I’ll buy you a glass of lemonade,” from Max.) He was funny without being obnoxious, astute without being pompous, the kind of film geek who is fun to listen to only because he doesn’t need to prove himself as the smartest kid in the class.
Here’s my favorite Edelstein moment from 2003:
Last Sunday, as I watched the nice German drama Nowhere in Africa (Zeitgeist) win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film, I could imagine Spike Lee saying, "Wouldn't you know it? First movie set in Africa to win an Oscar in years and it's about Jews in Africa." Now, if he did say that -- and I might be off-base; for all I know he said, "How great to see a movie about Jews in Africa win an Academy Award!" -- he'd have a legitimate beef. But the movie is fascinating, too, as Driving Miss Daisy (1989) was, for what it says about the liberal Jewish longing to bond, retroactively, with the black "help": to say, "We might have been higher up the social and economic ladder than you were -- we might even have found ourselves in the uncomfortable position of exploiting you. But we were big-time victims ourselves." In its picturesque, genteel, unforced way, Nowhere in Africa makes the case for respect and harmony across this scary racial chasm.
Since the beginning of last year, though, Edelstein, 48, has been writing for New York magazine, where he says he’s lucky to get more than two e-mails a week. He has the same style, the same personality, but he’s no longer as connected with his audience. But he’s also branched out, becoming a familiar presence on CBS Sunday Morning and NPR’s Fresh Air. We met at the Broome Street Bar in Soho on July 6, where he downed several Diet Cokes. Since he started appearing on television, he says he’s been avoiding beer. He doesn’t want his face to get too fat for the small screen. We had a good three hours together and then he bought us both a shot of bourbon and in talking about the various brands of bourbon with our waitress brought to mind Paul Giamatti’s oenophile from Sideways. For what it’s worth Edelstein is far more self-effacing, and arguably more prone to righteous anger. Could you imagine Giamatti -- or for that matter Roger Ebert -- saying the following?
The great movies inspired by Vietnam and Watergate, the movies about paranoia and government intrusion, didn’t really start coming out until the era was ending. I’m thinking of The Conversation, Marathon Man and, of course, All the President’s Men. Are we dealing with the preoccupations of 9/11 and the Iraq war now with movies like War of the Worlds and Children of Men?
Well, yes. I think artists began to process it almost immediately after it happened. I don’t think anyone yet though has the kind of historical perspective that obviously we will have in 10 years when we see how all this plays out. We’re still in the middle of it. We’re still making films that are as much acts of therapy, in some ways, as they are cogent distillations of what it is we are going through as a society.
A movie like War of the Worlds struck me as an attempt to do what the movies of the ’50s did, to get into our nightmares, to recreate how blindsided we were. [It] brought that back into the present tense. Because we have this marvelous capacity to push [that feeling] down, especially in this country where the president says, “Keep shopping,” where the mayor says, “Keep shopping.” Where they say, “The air is safe to breathe,” and people are dying now. We depend especially on the popular artists, the Spielbergs and the Michael Moores, to bring this stuff back to the present tense.
I thought Children of Men was our first true Iraq war movie, especially the final sequence in the ghetto which looks like downtown Baghdad. The battle scene is shot similarly to the battle scenes in Saving Private Ryan. And I thought it was interesting that all this came from a Mexican director, Alfonso Cuaron.
For better or worse. I wrote about this briefly, but Chris Orr in The New Republic did a great job of saying that really the theme of illegal immigration, of crackdowns on illegal immigrants, which is uppermost in the mind of a Mexican director, did not really suit the P.D. James book. It’s sort of weird that a country whose population is dwindling and would presumably need labor would at the same time be cracking down on its immigrant population.
That said, think of how little footage we’ve seen of Iraq. Think of the first Iraq war. The first Bush administration kept the cameras [out]. We have no idea what happened there. All we saw were the scuds, the blinking lights [on CNN]. Journalists are afraid to show that stuff now. The only place you’re going to see that is…
YouTube, yeah. Al-Jazeera. Fahrenheit 9/11. It doesn’t make it on our national stations. What does it tell you that we need a movie to remind us that [Iraq] is a physical place? That when you shoot a gun, when you fire from a tank, there are disgusting, horrific consequences? We live in this dream reality. It’s so bizarre that I turn to documentaries like Iraq in Fragments to get myself out of this dream reality that we live in. Are we the most opiated nation in the history of the world? It’s no wonder that we have this stream of films like The Matrix or The Truman Show that’s somehow about the fact that we lost touch with reality. Daniel Menaker had a great phrase of this idea that we have to break through into the real, because everything feels like a simulation. When 9/11 happens, it hits us much harder than it obviously hits the people in Baghdad. This isn’t supposed to happen here. We live in a bubble. We’re insulated from the world. I’ve made a lot of the meaning of movies like Hostel, Babel and even Borat, how they’re movies that exploit our fear, our sense as Americans that we’re just spectacularly ignorant of other cultures. We both feel that we are in the best country there is and that we’re superior to other cultures and yet we are grotesquely ignorant of every other culture and every other language.
28 Weeks Later is really our first Iraq war movie. As in the ‘60s, zombie movies lead the way. Bob Clark made this movie called Dead of Night about zombies returning from Vietnam. George Romero’s Night of the Living Dead was more about the civil rights movement. 28 Weeks Later is about this plague, this contagion, in this country, in this green zone. Americans on the inside and the zombies on the outside. And of course all hell breaks loose. And no one can tell the difference between who’s a cannibal zombie and who’s a normal person. You could say Islamo-fascism is just as contagious, but the Bush administration has had a more effective delivery system for spreading violence than Osama bin Laden’s. They’ve spread the violence. They’ve been the carriers.
Let’s talk about Michael Moore and Sicko. I was cool with the first half, the take down of these profit-based insurance companies, the cheap shots at Hillary Clinton and Bernie Tauzin. It was the second half that presented the health care systems in England, Canada, France and Cuba as a Utopian vision that bothered me. I’ll contrast that to the third season of the television show, “The Wire,” in which the filmmakers imagined a Baltimore district in which drugs are legalized. Though the writers made it clear that drug legalization would cause murder rates to fall exponentially it pulled no punches in presenting this little street where you could get drugs as a hell on earth.
The basic rule of argument is to be able to make the best possible case for the other side. Michael Moore will never do that. He is not secure enough. He has a sort of demagogic streak and he’s a populist. It doesn’t mean his overall cause isn’t right. It means that those of us who -- you’re younger than I am -- but those of us who lived through the ascendance of Rush Limbaugh and wished that we had a blowhard we could call our own, someone who represented our side as effectively [have one]. I’m not equating Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore. I think if you fact-checked Rush Limbaugh every single day, you would see he is nothing but a lying tool. If you fact-checked Michael Moore you would find that he plays fast and loose with chronology, he doesn’t accurately represent the other side. He’s a master of the cheap shot, which I don’t think is necessarily a bad thing when it comes to the way our president misspeaks.
He’s a polarizing figure by which I mean he polarizes me. I’m enormously suspicious of him. At the same time this movie will change the terms of debate in this country on health care. I was talking with a colleague about this the other day. For now, the ball is in their court. For so long, it’s been “Universal health care! Ooh! Socialism! Ooh!” Now the ball is in the court of the politicians, the Democratic politicians running for president and the insurance companies and the managed care companies. They have to tell us why universal health coverage can’t work here. That has not been true. I don’t know what your insurance is like, but I’ve had payment refused for the most absurd reasons. My wife does it, because I get too angry. I’ve been on the phone for hours and hours over the most ridiculous little things. The system is structured to make you tired and give up eventually. Michael Moore has captured that. You have to look at the people coming out against him. They’re bought and paid for.
I’m just thinking about this now. Thank God for Michael Moore. Thank God he got up there at the Oscars and said, “This is a war for fictitious reasons.”
Look, the parts about Canada, England and France irritated me. The part about Cuba enraged me. Why wasn’t it somewhere in his mind that maybe the reason all his people are getting the treatment they’re getting in Cuba may have something to do with the fact that he’s Michael Moore and Castro knows how to control the message.
It would be an immeasurably stronger documentary if he had at some point said, “Look, I’m getting the red carpet treatment and I know it.” It would also be historically accurate for him to say, “As bad as Castro is, we made him worse with our economic warfare against him.” You waited for that little disclaimer about civil liberties. And it doesn’t come. What you actually get is him making fun of this image of Castro as this Satan, this communist, socialist demon. Let me say this, “Who the fuck else in your local multiplex is saying that?” Why can we turn on your TV and hear the crackpot voices of the right, constantly, night and day, and you never ever hear anything like that, any crackpot voices of the left?
He goes too far in that instance, and he weakens his own case. But his case is so strong.
Well, even when he’s in France and he’s hanging out with these white middle class Americans who go on about how wonderful their health care system is I was annoyed. Maybe he could chat with some Muslim immigrants there. Maybe they like their system. It would be nice to hear one of them say it though.
Well, one would like to be able to trust a documentary director that he or she has surveyed, and cast a net very wide, so that it doesn’t become, vis-a-vis weapons of mass destruction, cherry-picking. One does not have that assurance with either Dick Cheney or Michael Moore, but I’m more apt to believe Michael Moore. Granted that’s an extreme. It’s like with Borat, in a way. There’s something very appealing, in a way, with the bull in the China shop. There’s this myth in our culture, that it’s a raucous, uninhibited culture. I think it’s much more of a china shop than people believe.
Do you think Michael Moore could have come out of another country? He’s extremely popular abroad, but there’s something essentially American about him.
I think he could have. I don’t know what the connection is in other countries between the documentary filmmaker/journalist and the political clown. I know Dario Fo in Italy. I know his work quite well. He’s a public figure and is in this sort of great tradition of the court jester. You can go back to Mark Twain, Will Rogers and Johnny Carson, though not at the same level. There’s a tradition of the angry jester, razzing power.
For what it’s worth, Dick Cheney seems more outlandish than anything Oliver Stone or anyone else could have created.
I would say Darth Vader, but no. Dick Cheney is so much scarier than Darth Vader. There is something subterranean about him. We don’t know what is under the surface of that man. There was always something very comforting about Nixon. My mom’s a psychiatrist and so is my grandfather. Those of us who are armchair psychiatrists, we were Nixon agonists. We loved psychoanalyzing him. We looked at him like a great Shakespearean figure, like Richard III. Bob Woodward said that Nixon is the gift that keeps on giving. Now we know he was a raging alcoholic in addition to being a paranoiac. At the same time he was more grounded than Dick Cheney.
There are precedents of George W. Bush, the idiot child-president who doesn’t know what he’s doing. He’s like Peter Sellers’ president in Dr. Strangelove.
No, he’s far worse than that.
The part where he’s talking to his Russian counterpart on the telephone. “Yes, I understand Dmitri…”
No, I must disagree. He’s a much more terrifying character in and of his own right. You have the combination of someone who’s been insulated and protected his whole life by Daddy and by Daddy’s power and who at the same time hates Daddy and needed to prove himself against Daddy. The fragility of his ego, not to be able to admit other opinions, other views. “I’m the decider guy.” He’s scary. I had problems with American Dreamz because it presented him as this nice buffoon. That gives him too much credit. He’s a perfect storm.
But Cheney. Remember Men in Black. They’d shoot someone’s head, the head would split open and this big black insect would crawl out. That’s what I think of when I see Cheney. There’s no way to account for him on a terrestrial level. I know it sounds like I’m being facetious, but I’m really not. I actually find it easier to imagine an insect coming out of his head than to think, “What are the human forces that shaped him?” The man is just entrenched in evil and slime.
With the exception of Shortbus, we’ve never had anything like Cuaron’s Y Tu Mama Tambien. We’ve never had sex in an American movie as just a natural part of the human experience.
You have to see Lady Chatterley. A wondrous thing happens in this movie. It’s two hours, 45 minutes. It’s long. I’m not saying it is the best thing you’ll ever see. There are I believe four sex scenes. They’re all different. And each happens at a different stage in this relationship. The first one is very powerful and intense but also awkward. There’s giggling. And you get to the end where there’s very little movement, but there’s just a connection, a sharing, just a back and forth motion. You actually watch this relationship progress as much through the sex, if not more, than through the dialogue. That is something that filmmakers, dramatists, never had access to in this country. To show how people work out their various emotional and psychological issues in the course of their lovemaking… It’s an untouchable for Americans.
Did you like Shortbus?
It made me damn uncomfortable. (laughs) I’m straight. I don’t know. I’m way too straight. My wife says I’m not pansexual enough. My wife says, “You really should have had a gay experience.” And you know, I don’t believe it’s a choice. I think you’re wired.
I think it’s more fluid, but hey…
Well John Cameron Mitchell speaks to that. And there’s no one like him. In Hedwig and the Angry Inch and Shortbus. There’s no one doing that kind of thing for American audiences.
You have that in Almodovar.
To a degree and it’s filtered through Catholicism. That’s a whole separate baggage. When people talk about smutty American movies, they tend to point to the Farrelly Brothers like There’s Something About Mary or American Pie. I happen to think they’re both really good movies, Mary more so. But they’re all about male adolescent sexual embarrassment. They’re about men or boys of a certain age, either adolescents at heart or actual post-pubescents who are very anxious about their bodily functions, who are worried about eruptions, who are worried about hard-ons and ejaculations and being exposed. That is American sex comedy.
Everyone is talking about Harry Potter’s first kiss with this incredibly sexless Asian girl with whom he barely has two words of communication. They share this incredibly chaste kiss and everyone is like “Ooh, Harry Potter!” It’s not like she goes down on him. He’s supposed to be 17-years-old and everyone is like “Ooh!”
I remember your comment about the sex scene in Brokeback Mountain: Where are all the bodily fluids?
That was sex as sanctification. I don’t buy that. It was done on an entirely Platonic level.
It struck me as a gay sex scene written by a woman. It had no understanding of male animal desire.
That’s why my wife loved it. It’s a chick flick. Well the movie didn’t take place on that plane. It was the apotheosis of gay sex. It was gay sex as set against purple mountain majesties. It was set in this phony Americana, this exultation of the cowboy. It might have been the only way Americans would see a gay movie. These things happen in stages. I wrote a book with the gay producer Christine Vachon. She had a hit with Go Fish. She was trying to figure out why nothing she did had any chance of breaking through in the mainstream with anything that was gay. Not even Boys Don’t Cry was a real hit.
What I loved about it is that you felt the visceral joy this person felt with every step he/she took in becoming a man, and even as you felt that joy, you had this sense of horror counterbalancing it, because you know how the story ends.
That was in that performance, that sense of discovery. “This is how my body is supposed to go. This is a cowboy hat.” A cowboy hat meant something so different for her than it meant to the average guy putting it on. For her it was liberation. She was so happy to be a cowboy, she didn’t understand that with that culture came this murderous oppression, these people who will do anything to deny this sexual fluidity. I guess it’s probably scarier to most people than Brokeback Mountain.
You really have to see Lady Chatterly. There’s a great moment after they make love outside and he comes back in and she points to his penis and says, “It’s so small now.” And he looks down and laughs and she laughs. Would any American actor ever allow themselves to show his penis after sex and have a woman point to it and laugh and say, “It’s so small?” Say what you will about the French, their hang-ups are different than ours.
If you think about all the great American directors from the ’70s on, from Scorsese to Rodriguez, they all do violence, but they don’t really do sex.
It’s all about penetration. The explosion of blood is the cum shot. It’s all been part of our history, from the Puritans on. We tend to get our jollies burning witches, the sexually active people. And that’s been true in England and it’s been true here to a great extent.
One problem is that we don’t really have a completely adult cinema in this country anymore. When movie chains and newspaper chains refused to carry what in the old days had an X and now have an NC-17 rating, when Blockbuster won’t carry it, they send out the message that there’s something shameful about a cinema for grown-ups, a cinema of sexual frankness, something you couldn’t take your 13-year-old to see. It’s this weird chasm. I don’t know why people don’t make more of an issue of this. What’s wrong with a cinema for grown-ups? The feeling is that kids could sneak in. It comes out on DVD. Everyone has access to it. Fuck parental controls. Kids know how to get past that. We have to make sure that anything grown-ups see, kids have to be able to see too.
When I saw Rescue Dawn I assumed it was an R movie, but it was PG-13.
Yeah. I thought those torture scenes were R-worthy.
Torture, hey. We get that on 24 every week. Torture’s mainstream, baby. Bring it on. The bar has certainly been moved in certain areas. It’s been moved in that department.
I’m actually a fan of Tarantino. I like violence in movies.
I want to talk about Tarantino. I love everything that guy does too. Absolutely everything. But I am curious, because like you, I hated Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers. Why do I not have that much a problem when I see John Travolta accidentally blow some kid’s brains out in Pulp Fiction or Kurt Russell slice off women’s body parts with his car in Grindhouse, but I do have a problem seeing a cop threaten to slice off Juliette Lewis’ breasts in Natural Born Killers?
Well, the violence in Pulp Fiction is sudden, horrific black comedy, but it’s not orgasmic. It’s not meant to get you off.
It’s orgiastic in Kill Bill.
Kill Bill is a different order of movie. It’s in a tradition of chop socky movies that are conceived on the same level of a dance musical. It is so stylized, it is so divorced from the real world, that I think one could experience it at a far different level. I’m looking at choreography. I’m looking at splatter. I’m looking at the arc of the blood. I’m looking at the colors. I’m looking at the backgrounds, the way people move, because I’m looking at people who trained really fucking hard. People who see that and see it as representative of actual violence, there’s no way they could accept that. I enjoy Bruce Lee, or Jackie Chan -- though Jackie Chan is rarely lethal… John Woo, though John Woo is really overrated. Peckinpah! There’s a level of abstraction there. A great filmmaker will be able to use our discomfort and play with that idea. He’ll be able to go back and forth between elating us and upsetting us, will loathe the violence in a certain way. Tarantino is not able to do that in the big blow-out scenes. They were orgiastic. You were laughing at it. It’s Gene Kelly. On the other hand, the first scene with Uma Thurman and Vivica A. Fox, and she kills her in front of her daughter. It’s horrible. She says to her, “When you grow up you can come for me.” And we see a Japanese-style animated sequence later when we see Lucy Liu’s parents murdered. He’s taking things that are in the collective unconscious in violent video Grindhouse geeks and he’s playing with them but with real emotion. He’s trying to see what drew him to it.
He’s elevating trash to canonical status?
I wouldn’t say he’s canonizing it, because it’s a very living thing. Think of Kurt Russell as John Carpenter’s John Wayne in Escape from New York and The Thing where he was this hip, macho action hero. And Tarantino uses him in the way John Ford would have used Wayne in The Searchers, in this case going much further, making him a macho, misogynistic, psychopath. Tarantino is trying to explore his own relationship to that Kurt Russell character, his own feelings about violence towards women. He’s so loving to the women in that movie. His camera caresses them. He makes them appealing on every level. And he juxtaposes that with this disgusting figure out of American movie myth.
The first time we really see Russell he’s devouring nachos at a bar.
Appetite. Male appetite. He watches these girls, sees this girl on a billboard, much as men in this culture watch women. I’m not saying you can deconstruct the whole thing because Tarantino works from his gut. People speak of Tarantino as if he’s this newest level of decadence in our culture. Then there’s Jackie Brown, where there’s barely a drop of blood. That’s a hang-out movie. There are scenes of conversation, people talking and relating, even the sick fucks, even the stupidos.
I probably shouldn’t say this, but I really appreciated Jackie Brown, really appreciated its beauty and magnificence when I saw it high. I hadn’t seen it high the first time and I loved it. When I saw it high I never wanted it to end. It was the ultimate stoner movie. The violence in the movie was for the most part off-camera, for the most part pretty upsetting in its implications. In no way are you supposed to get off on the violence in that movie. [The violence] is absurd, it’s sudden, it’s horrific. Even Samuel L. Jackson’s death is presented as a betrayal. And the death of Robert De Niro is disgusting. And obviously the death of Bridget Fonda is hauntingly absurd. Poor Chris Tucker is the other one. I’m mystified by the level of hostility to Tarantino among serious film writers as well as mainstream film critics.
His women are just these unbelievably hot figures walking around in these “Fuck me” outfits, and yet he has them saying absolutely brilliant, witty things.
He’s acknowledging that their sexuality, their independence, the fact that they’re not bimbos, creates, in certain kinds of male onlookers, resentment bordering on fury. Maybe he’s using his own misogyny. He’s always cast as sexual sadists in Rodriguez’s movies like From Dusk Til Dawn and Grindhouse, who would like nothing more than to rape and murder a woman and who gets killed, gets punished in some horrible disgusting way. Maybe that’s how he sees himself. Well, here’s the question: Does it defuse it? Or does it create more of an appetite for violence against women? I suspect the answer is a little bit of both. The balance changes from film to film.
That brings us back to Natural Born Killers and why you hate that movie so deeply.
Because Oliver Stone turns serial killers into existential heroes. Because he raises them to a mythic plain where we’re supposed to see these Ayn Randian exalted individuals, rock and roll conquistadors. We’re supposed to rock out to the carnage. There’s a moral indifference in that movie. There’s a way in which Stone colludes with the characters in that movie in a way I haven’t seen in any other movie.
When that movie influenced some kids to commit a crime, and John Grisham came out and said…
You said you came close to supporting that case [in which the victims’ families sued Stone].
I didn’t think Stone should be prosecuted, but it was a close call.
Why was it a close call?
Because I do think that the movie romanticized and glorified mass murder. I also thought it was an aesthetic assault. I thought it was an assault on every level. He was bludgeoning us with all these goddamn different film stocks and styles. It was a methamphetamine addict’s movie. There was no moral center of gravity. It made me hate him in a way I’ve very rarely hated a filmmaker.
Natural Born Killers. I couldn’t even sit there while it was going on. I got up and walked around the back of the theater. I was so upset. I didn’t want to leave because I felt like I had to see the whole thing if I was going to denounce it. And I was going out with this girl at the time and she said to me [in a whiny voice], “I don’t understand. The Godfather was violent.” And that’s how I knew I wasn’t going to end up with that woman. Anybody who could dismiss my horror, my physical visceral fury at Natural Born Killers by saying, “The Godfather is violent.” No, there were plenty of reasons why we broke up. That and the fact that when we saw The Lady Eve, my favorite movie, she says, “I don’t get it. It’s not so good.” Also, she was bored by McCabe and Mrs. Miller. Three strikes.
I think of Steven Spielberg as an idiot savant. He has very limited political sophistication, but he has a genius for story-telling.
That may be true. I’m not sure he’s a thinker. He’s a very smart man. He understands his own gifts and understands the gifts of other filmmakers. Is he a genius? He’s certainly smart enough. Who is a great thinker as a director?
I don’t know if Bergman is a great thinker.
Maybe. I think Bergman had a lot of blind spots as a director emotionally. I would be hard-pressed to come up with a director that I thought was a first-class intellect. The smartest ones probably didn’t make the best movies. Altman wasn’t a brain.
Altman was the opposite of a brain. He was a real moron in his interviews.
Some of that was just him being gruff and taciturn. I don’t know if he was as dumb and disengaged as he pretended to be. But again, I don’t know. It’s not my place to judge their intellect necessarily. I think Tim Burton is a really brilliant guy, despite his babble, his verbal diarrhea. At the same time I think he has some personal, emotional limitations, but it’s not my place as a critic to psychoanalyze him or assess his IQ, unless it has an impact on his work.
Actors are better now than they were just 15 years ago. But are there any out there that are so bad you wonder why anyone hires them?
There are a lot of sort of bland American juvenile actors -- Josh Hartnett, people like that -- I don’t really understand the appeal. I don’t know. Maybe he hasn’t been tested.
Well, I’ll give you an example. I never really understood the affection that is lavished on Dustin Hoffman.
He’s always been schticky. Dustin Hoffman was always a character actor, who by a fluke of casting became a very influential leading man. He was much more the type to put on fake noses and do fake voices. He’s very funny and clever. I loved his Willy Loman, even though he’s nobody’s idea of a Willy Loman.
It’s so much easier to think about people I like than people I don’t like. There’s going to be a long 18-minute gap on your tape. There are people I want to see more of. Like Topher Grace or Josh Hartnett, or whose that guy married to Demi Moore -- I don’t know these people that well. I haven’t seen them. I know they get a lot of parts. I can’t remember them. One thing we don’t see enough of these days is actors taking risks and falling on their faces and directors encouraging them to do that.
But are there any box office stars like Bruce Willis, or Denzel Washington or Tom Cruise whose appeal you just don’t get?
Well, Cruise I’ve never understood. I see megalomaniac when I see Cruise. That was exploited well in the Paul Thomas Anderson movie, Magnolia. But in that case, Cruise was just a little too knowing. He knew that was what was being used. It’s like Sylvester Stallone playing a blowhard. He doesn’t have to try. There was a movie Rhinestone where he had to play an obnoxious guy. Sylvester Stallone playing an obnoxious guy was obnoxious.
That was the problem in Vanilla Sky with Cruise. He was playing a narcissist, narcissistically.
Cruise’s instrument isn’t open.
He’s a charming high schooler.
He was a lot more charming when he was a high school kid in Risky Business. There’s a lack of flexibility in what he does, a lack of courage. I know people who really liked him in Collateral. It was a very interesting use of him, but I didn’t buy it.
I’m striking out on this question because I’m such a stage door Johnny. Here’s the thing: I love actors. I love them. I think of them, most of them as in a different race. I never had posters of them on my wall, but I had posters of them on the wall of my mind. I grew up loving all the great horror actors -- Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Vincent Price, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee -- and then I moved on to TV actors. Patrick Macnee on “The Avengers” was the epitome of an imperturbability that I wanted so much, and envied so much and knew I would never have. They’re fantasy objects for me. It’s very personal. It’s been a long time since I saw a lead performance in a movie that I was just really dissatisfied with. Maybe Demi Moore in Mr. Brooks. She was so tight and humorless. She brought so little to it, so little drive. I felt like I was watching one of those old Joan Crawford performances. Such joylessness. Even when you’re playing a joyless character, you can tell if they enjoy it. Jennifer Jason Leigh has been all over the map in recent years, but I know that it means something to her. I’ll always see her again. I look forward to seeing her again. There are people I just want to see more of.
Okay, there we go. A.O. Scott, a few years ago, wrote an appreciation of Pacino and he took me to see Salome on Broadway. I thought I was watching a man at the end of his talent. He had nothing more to give us. Every single line-reading is predictable at this point. I was watching cable the other day and he was in this movie called Two for the Money with Matthew McConaughey. He never effaces himself anymore. He never breaks out of his characters.
There are certain actors, like Alec Baldwin, who become interesting once they stop being cast as handsome leading men.
Baldwin’s really a comedian. He loves being a clown. If you’ve ever seen him on SNL… He’s always the best host. He’s a showman. There are certain actors who are wasted in our tradition of American naturalistic acting. He’s one of them. Christopher Walken is a showman. He’s a weird showman. When you see him in Hairspray… Why hasn’t this man been in one musical a year? The way he moves! The way he does patter! Our musicals would be so much improved, enriched, if they had been created for Christopher Walken. I wish he had a bigger part in the movie.
I met Brittany Murphy at the Los Angeles airport once.
Is she as much as a dingbat as she seems?
She’s extremely charismatic. These people who seem like nothing in the movies exude a weird presence the minute you see them in person.
You take it for granted. I remember the first time I was working on a TV show that never got made. We were rehearsing, taping it. Afterwards, I was watching it. And I was looking at this big round dead face on the camera - mine! - and I was going, “Express something! You idiot!” It was this blob of nothingness. Then all of the sudden the tape ended and this face came on the screen. It was C. Thomas Howell. Remember that incredibly bland kid from the ’80s? This actor I had little regard for... But, unlike me, he had a face that held the camera.
I went back to school in the early ’90s for playwrighting and I was at a theater institute. And I trained alongside actors. They seemed like they were different beings altogether. First of all, they spent the entire day thinking about their bodies. They were getting to know their instruments. They were doing dance, they were doing voice, they were doing acting. They just carried themselves in a different way. You have to be able to read an actor instantly. Not everyone can do that. Not everyone can express themselves the way an actor can. Not everyone is trained to express themselves the way an actor can.
Do you think better-looking people may be naturally better actors? By being better-looking it may be easier for them to be less self-conscious of their bodies, to use them more effectively.
Well, first we have to make a distinction between men and women, because there is a huge double standard both in theatre and in Hollywood. Historically, we always gravitate towards beautiful people. It’s the ability to read somebody, it’s the expressiveness as much as everything else [that makes a good actor]. I knew an actor in college who unfortunately I don’t think respected it enough to pursue [the craft], although somehow he has remained on the fringes. He had something of what Brando had, the ability to portray finely chiseled emotions, hugely. He could be huge without characturing. Some people are just born with it. It’s not like Amadeus where you’re born with it therefore you’re a genius. You have to work at it. You have to work like hell at it. Yes, they’re beautiful, but beyond that they’re expressive. We want to look at them.
Well, let’s talk a little bit about musicals. Because we’ve had something of a revival, and so far I haven’t been very happy with them. I didn’t like Dreamgirls at all…
Dreamgirls was awful.
And I was annoyed when I was watching Chicago that they kept cutting away from the dance numbers.
That’s because none of the dancers could dance. Hairspray is chopped up too. And the music isn’t as good. The most obvious reason was that Broadway music was popular music. During the great age of the Broadway music, that was the stuff that charted. When we got the great age of rock and roll, we didn’t have any rock and roll movie musicals.
Musicals represent this problem no one has been able quite to solve. One set of conventions is outmoded and no one has found another one. What probably bothered you about Chicago is they tried to make them more kinetic, the Flashdance style of dancing. The problem with that is there’s nothing more thrilling than just watching a body in motion, watching a body complete a move. You watch a tape for 45 minutes of Fred Astaire and Donald O’Connor and Rita Hayworth and you think how could they possibly sustain this, and they do. The miracle quotient increases. Once you start dividing that up -- an arm here, a leg there -- once you start creating the dancing in the editing room then you really take away the real miracle of the movie musical. Audiences lose their capacity to watch something. Hairspray is so fragmented, so chopped-up you realize they don’t trust their audience to be able to watch a dance, a single move, from beginning to end. They have to punch it. The editors in there are saying, “We have to sell this.” They don’t sell this through acrobatics, through hiring the best dancers and choreographing them beautifully and figuring out some wonderfully fluid staging. That’s not going to have an impact the way it once did.
It still seems strange to me. The only really old movies you can still get young kids to watch and like are the old musicals. And kids love Disney cartoons.
Which are probably our musicals. The best musical I think I’ve seen in the last 10 years was South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut. That was a great musical. It delivers all the pleasures of a conventional dumb Broadway musical, and yet it’s obscene and satirical and silly and rude. It’s the best of both worlds for a Broadway musical queen like me. It gave me an enormous pleasure to see all the old conventions done right - much more right, by the way, than in Hairspray, which was composed by the same guy Marc Shaiman. The conventions are done exactly right, even if they are double-edged. The songs are beautiful. The songs are hilarious. I still sing, “Kyle’s Mom is a Bitch” around the house. (Starts singing the song.) My wife won’t let me sing it in front of the girls.
What satirical musicals are there now? Even in the ’20s you used to get things by Gershwin like Of Thee I Sing. You used to get these wonderful satirical musicals that functioned on both levels. The music in Hairspray is dreadful. It has no character whatsoever. Every number is in the same manic key. Every number is intended to be a showstopper. There’s no downtime. The one number that is a slower, gentler number is the best thing in the movie.
One thing I like about your work, is that you tend not to get terribly exercised about Hollywood clichés.
Some would say that means I’m cynical or maybe soft.
Well Elizabethan plays had their own clichés of people marrying outside their class, which didn’t reflect reality in any way. But we don’t care about that when we watch a Shakespearean comedy. Why can’t we think the same way about the fat guy ending up with the hot chick?
It depends on how conscious it is. And how careful the filmmaker is. It can be done in a lazy reflexive way, or a knowing, compassionate way. Every stereotype is a stereotype for a reason. A good director rather than back away 180 degrees, will instead turn stereotypes over inside out, try to figure out how they got there in the first place. Genre is a wonderful thing, it’s a structure with a set of conventions. The most interesting directors, the Tarantinos, know the rules and have fun playing with them. If all you want to do is reproduce them, you’re going to have a problem.
If it’s the fat guy with the skinny girl and nobody remarks on it then it sustains the status quo in a bad way. Women are held to an insanely different standard than men, and in Hollywood it’s far worse. When you see these lovely actresses diet themselves down…
And then get cast as the plain girl.
And then get cast as the plain girl. In the old days women took Belladonna to make their eyes sparkle. Women have been taking drugs like corsets, killing themselves literally. It’s our job as critics to point out that this is not a good thing. I never made fun of an actress for being chubby.
Inside Man. There’s a recent genre film. It works because everyone is conscious of the fact that they’re in a genre film.
That was a fun movie because Spike Lee has really done himself a disservice by inserting so many placards in his movies, by making it impossible for you to forget for a moment that you are watching a Spike Lee Joint. There was a movie he wanted to give the audience a good time and take himself out of it.
It’s his only well-plotted movie.
Talk about a very problematic figure, Spike Lee. Talk about feeling divided on someone.
Can you forgive him for his anti-Semitism in Mo' Better Blues?
Look his dad is a black musician and probably ran afoul of Jews in the music industry that did not represent my people well. Spike’s dad married a Jewish woman which apparently drove him crazy. He admits he’s a racist. He admits his films have an agenda. My complaint is that it upstages everything else.
That’s not true. He actually says that if you’re a black man raised in a racist society, you see everything in terms of race which means you can’t be a racist.
I’m excited for the next Spike Lee movie and the one after that and the one after that. I am not satisfied really, completely, with anything he’s done up until now. I’m waiting for the great Spike Lee movie. It will be the one where he loses himself more in the material.
He’s a very stylized director. The opening credits of Inside Man are great fun.
It’s different when he’s doing style for its own sake. He’s the short guy trying to prove himself. He directs like a short guy. Forget the black thing. He directs like a guy trying to prove his potency. “You’re the man, okay. You’re the man. You don’t have to remind us of that. Enough.”
There are three movies from the ’80s that if they come on television and I see them, I feel an immediate rush of joy: The Breakfast Club, Stand by Me, and The Princess Bride.
Time will treat those movies extremely well. What will not be treated well is that for everyone of those -- unlike, I’m happy to say, now -- there were between 20 and 100 imitations. That was the problem with being a film critic [in the ’80s]. I have issues with each one of those movies, but they were estimable works overall.
I don’t think anybody much older or much younger than me can love them in quite the same way. By that same token, I can enjoy an Astaire-Rogers musical, but I can’t love those movies in the same way someone born in 1925 could.
Wait a minute. I could love them too. But I’m emotionally very detached from the Art Deco stylizations of a movie like say Top Hat, which for someone like Pauline Kael, someone of her generation, were an enormous release. The Marx Brothers, as amazing as they are, never helped me cope with life the way they do for Woody Allen at the end of Hannah and Her Sisters.
The Princess Bride is a nerd’s daydream of a fairytale princess. It’s a way for a nerd to get into that fantasy in a way you can’t get into if it’s presented straight, because it’s done in a Jewish wisecracking style. It’s closer to us than the Errol Flynn movies. I understand in some cases those movies can mean literally the difference between life and death for a lonely and alienated adolescent.
That’s what the horror movies were for me, like Bride of Frankenstein. The movies about the freaks who die at the end, but still make their presence felt. They were enormously important for me. I think the level of sadism was a release too for my own anger and anxiety. I attempted to do a psychoanalysis of it recently in a book out now called The X Factor, a survey of film critics of what turned us on as kids. I sort of came to terms with why I responded to movies that now when I look back come across as misogynistic, sadistic and reactionary in the extreme. It doesn’t mean I don’t still look back on them with some affection. But I had to exorcise some of their influence.
Tell me a little more about your love for these horror actors.
These were not he-men. These were people who either hid behind clothes or who had monstrous appendages. There’s a whole generation of geeks that really loved the vampire movies. “Wouldn’t it be great to have a cape you could hide your erection behind?” I think it happens with everybody.
Those of us who have decided for whatever reason that the world is a deeply imperfect place, that reality is terrifying, attempt to live through, to cope through objects of fantasy, through movies. Our greatest hope in the long run is to grow up and look back at those fantasies and see how they helped us grow, they helped us overcome but that in some ways they may be limiting to us later in life as we seek to understand the greater complexities of the world. Maybe that’s what critics are there to help them do.
It all begins with the fan magazines my daughter pours over now with Hilary Duff. It’s perfectly understandable that it begins with that.