July 6, 2010

A Conversation with the Author

In early July 2010, after more than 100 posts, The Movie Projector observed its second anniversary. To mark the occasion, my good friend Alta Rigaud asked to interview me about the blog and the way I write it.

How did you start writing The Movie Projector?
Back in 2008 I started reading the blog Maximum Strength Mick by the San Francisco Chronicle movie reviewer Mick LaSalle. His blog was going strong then, and some of the questions he posed his readers were so intriguing that I started responding to them. I guess I had a lot of pent-up opinions about movies, because I found myself leaving very long comments on his blog. It seemed like once I started writing, I couldn't stop. When I found how easy it was to set up an account on Blogger at Google, I thought, "Why not put all this in your own blog, since you're doing all this writing anyway?"

Where do you watch the movies you write about?
I live in a rural area with only one movie theater. It's a bit of a drive to get there, and I don't really enjoy the experience of being in a theater audience anymore. So I watch my movies at home. Because of my preference for older films, I watch a lot on Turner Classic Movies. (I have satellite TV and a DVR.) Occasionally something I'm interested in will play on the Independent Film Channel, but not often. I used to watch AMC but because they now show commercials, don't always letterbox, and sometimes even edit the films they show, I avoid them unless it's something older that wasn't filmed in widescreen and isn't likely to be edited for content. I have a subscription to Netflix and watch a couple of movies a week from them. I also request movies from my local public library, which has a fantastic collection, especially of classics like those in the Criterion Collection. I get a couple of films a week from the library. I've only ever bought one DVD (Terrence Malick's Badlands because it wasn't available anywhere else) but otherwise never buy DVDs because I'm just too frugal (euphemism for cheap) to spend money on something I'll probably only watch once or at the most twice.

How do you choose your subjects?
I always write about a movie I've just seen, either for the first time or again after a number of years. You might say that certain movies ask me to write about them, so to speak. Sometimes I know while watching that I'm going to write about this film, if not, within a day or two at the most. I'll jot down thoughts while watching or shortly after and use those as a starting point. I don't try to cover the movies as thoroughly in an essay style as I used to. I found it was taking too much of my time and cutting especially into my reading time—I'm a compulsive reader (I like mysteries) as well as movie watcher. I've found that sticking to the review format tends to focus my thoughts and reduce the amount of time I spend on a post. One curious thing I've discovered is that I like to include a photo or two from the film in each post. I used to choose them after the post was finished, but now I like to do that soon after I start it. I've found that searching for the right images often acts as a sort of visual aid that either inspires me to keep on or moves me in a certain direction.

What do you look for when watching a movie?
For the total film experience, I look for a film that moves me on three different levels: emotionally, intellectually, and visually. The balance of these elements varies, and I find that extra strength in one or two of these areas can counter-balance a slight weakness in the other(s). But the really great movies, the ones I call masterpieces, have a strong effect on me in all areas—my heart, mind, and eye.

Do you have any principles that guide the way you write about movies?
I don't like the overly academic style of writing about film, the kind filled with jargon-laden abstractions. If I can't paraphrase what I've just read, then to me the writer hasn't really spoken to me, no matter how impressive the words sound. I try to avoid that kind of writing, although I know that my writing seems rather formal—even to myself—compared to some blogs I read. I admire a colloquial writing style in others, but it doesn't really come naturally to me. I do like to analyze, though. It's just in my nature. So when I watch a movie I ask myself how much I enjoyed it and then try to figure out why I responded to it the way I did and what in particular I liked or didn't like. I tend to write about movies I like, but occasionally I'll write about one that I didn't respond to so positively, usually because it's highly regarded and disappointed me. I find that doing that once in a while keeps my critical observations sharp. One quality I value in writing about movies is concision. The writers about film that I most admire, whether professional critics or amateur bloggers, have this. I try to get in, make my point, and move on without belaboring the idea or, as I read in some blogs, repeating it over and over in different variations. At the other extreme from the overly abstract way of writing about movies, I also try to avoid just recounting the plot of the movie at length. I try to summarize the plot in a paragraph or two. I've read some blogs that are just plot descriptions that go on and on and contain very little interpretation, and I find that approach dull. I'm especially fond of describing a particular scene and showing how it fits into the overall feeling or meaning of the movie. I enjoy doing that a lot.

How much research do you do for a post?
I make a point of relying on my own ideas and knowledge to write my posts. While I'm writing I do only factual research, mostly using IMDb and sometimes the TCM website or Wikipedia or reference books I have at home. I actually avoid reading any criticism of the film I'm writing about that I haven't previously read. The reason is that I want to present my own ideas, not repeat the ideas of others. After finishing, I may look for a brief quotation to support my ideas or to use as a lead-in. I must admit that I'm gratified when I find that a writer I admire saw the same things in a movie as I did, but I look upon my blog as a forum for my own ideas, not as a place to present things I've compiled from secondary sources. If I do refer to someone else's ideas, I make sure to give that person credit.

What's the hardest part of writing your posts?
I'm a perfectionist. I never just write and post. I tend to write a first draft (this is often done a couple of weeks before the post is published) and then make lots of revisions. Even after posting, I can't resist going in and tweaking a word or phrase here and there. I know the shelf life of any post is about until the next post appears, but I take writing seriously (I taught it for a number of years) and like to prolong the probably illusory notion that what I put into words will last.

Could you explain the RECENTLY VIEWED section of your blog?
After I'd been blogging a few months and was watching more films, towards the end of 2008, I started keeping a record of the movies I was watching and rating them in a notebook to keep them straight in my mind. I decided to add this section to the sidebar at the same time because I thought that knowing what movies I choose to watch and what I think of each one would tell the reader a lot about me, that is, about my likes and dislikes and my tastes and preferences. There was probably also the thought that it might inspire readers to watch some of these movies that I didn't write a post about. I know that I watch movies all the time because I was intrigued by what some other blogger wrote about them, or because reading about a certain movie reminded me I'd been meaning to watch it but never had and it was about time I got around to it.

I noticed that you also rate the movies in this section using a four-star rating system.
I decided to follow Leonard Maltin's four-star rating system because that's how I think of movie ratings. A lot of people prefer the five-star system, but for me that creates too many fine distinctions, and I have trouble enough making up my mind about anything. Having more choices would only complicate matters for me. I assign a star rating based mostly on how I respond to a particular film, but in my explanation of each rating I do acknowledge that some of my ratings reflect my own tastes and preferences, or that I think people with certain tastes or preferences would find a movie of greater interest than the general viewer. For instance, I gave Julie and Julia ***½, which was higher than most, because I'm such a Francophile as well as a foodie and a huge fan of Julia Child. Also because I was so relieved that Meryl Streep, whose performance looked almost like a caricature in the snippets used for publicity, not only got all the mannerisms right but also created a real three-dimensional character that was just beautiful to a Julia groupie like me who used to watch her original show on PBS. I'm basically a pretty easy rater except for the very highest **** rating, but then I don't spend time watching a movie unless I'm reasonably sure based on what I've read about it that it will appeal to me and is of an acceptable level of quality. I hardly ever start watching a movie then turn it off, even if I'm not having that great a time with it, so I guess I have a built-in risk aversion where films are concerned.

In the ABOUT MYSELF section, you say that your favorite films are the classics. Can you explain that statement?
About the middle of the 1980s I stopped going to the theater because I found the disrespectful attitude of many people in the audience too distracting, and by that time movies were available on VHS. Also it was getting rarer to see foreign language movies, which I've had a fondness for since taking film classes in college. I continued to read reviews of current releases and to follow the annual awards. By about 1990 I began to find that of all the movies released in a year, there were on average only two or three that really appealed to me, and then those didn't always turn out to be all that satisfying. (I'm talking mostly about American movies here.) It was participating in the best of the decade polls at Wonders in the Dark that really drove home the message that most contemporary movies aren't my cup of tea. I realized that my preference for classic films was genuine and not just a matter of being out of touch with what's out there. Only rarely do modern movies and directors, especially American ones, give me the kind of pleasure the classics do. Even the most highly praised ones often disappoint me.

Can you give an example of a well-received recent movie you found disappointing?
I just watched The Hurt Locker. Even though I'm not a big fan of combat movies, I thought it was a well-written character study of an almost pathologically obsessive personality who only feels fully alive in the midst of extreme risk, and Jeremy Renner gave a brilliant performance in the lead. But that shaking camera! Despite the movie's strengths, I had to force myself to watch it to the end and stop fuming about that camera. Hadn't the director ever heard of the Steadicam? Did she really think all that jarring was adding authenticity and tension to the movie? At a few points, when it seemed called for, this approach worked for me, but for the most part I found it intrusive and annoying, a constant reminder that somebody is trying to pull my strings and just won't let up. Couldn't she see in the rushes how much better the movie was in the few moments when the camera stopped shaking? Most of the movie obviously used planned camera set-ups, so to persist in that style was to me artificial in the extreme. To think that a movie whose main stylistic influences seemed to be The Blair Witch Project and Cops won the most prestigious critics' awards and an Oscar for directing just amazed me. I could only assume that the awards-givers responded to the timeliness of the subject and the perceived political stance of the movie (I couldn't tell there really was one beyond the generic idea that war is hell) more than to the actual experience of watching it. Anyway, that's why I prefer to catch up on the classics I've missed. There are still plenty of them out there, and I'm far more likely to enjoy them than most current features.

Do you subscribe to the auteur theory?
To a certain extent, yes, but mostly to predict the likelihood of my liking a film. I still prefer to judge movies on a case-by-case basis, although even that tends overall to support the auteur view of directors. A proven great director is clearly more likely to make a great movie than a mediocre director. Still, mediocre directors can occasionally hit the jackpot when all the elements fall into place, and great directors are still capable of making a stinker now and again. Terrence Malick has an unbroken record, but he's only made four movies. Fellini once observed that even the best directors tend to have a period of greatness that runs at most about ten years, and I think that was a very perceptive observation. And let's face it, moviemaking is much more of a collaborative process than the extreme auteurists are willing to grant. When I read a critic in The New Yorker call Samuel Fuller's Shock Corridor a "masterwork" a few weeks ago, I couldn't believe it. That was a movie I could hardly watch with a straight face, it was so shoddily made, so outrageously exaggerated and unrestrained, and to read a professional critic take it so seriously was for me an illustration of auteurism gone mad.

Is there a particular director whose work you have problems with?
I have a love-hate relationship with John Ford. There's no question the man knew how to tell a story (although he might have moved the camera around a bit more—to me he's almost the anti-Ophuls), and he made a large number of masterpieces. But he also made a large number of movies that are a distinctly mixed bag, with elements of greatness dragged down by elements that are cringe-worthy. In particular, I find many of his movies compromised by over-sentimentality and cornball attempts at humor. A couple of years ago I saw The Searchers for the first time. I know a lot of people consider this his greatest film, but something about it made me reserve judgment. A few weeks ago I saw it again, and there it was—those things that seemed out of place in a movie with so much greatness. Ken Curtis, Vera Miles, and Jeffrey Hunter when he is younger were horribly embarrassing in the unsubtlety of their characterizations. And that scene in the fort of the madwomen who've been rescued after years of captivity by the Comanches. Just dreadful. And the ending that comes from out of the blue with no motivation or explanation. Howard Hawks did such a better job with this kind of ending in Red River. On the other hand, there's Stagecoach, My Darling Clementine, The Grapes of Wrath, The Informer, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, and some that I think just miss masterpiece status—They Were Expendable, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, and Fort Apache. And even though I couldn't bring myself to give The Searchers a full **** rating, I still gave it ***½ for coming close.

Have you recently discovered any directors whose work you especially like?
I'd never seen a movie by the French director Bertrand Tavernier, although I knew of him, until a little more than a year ago. The first movie I saw by him, Coup de Torchon, was excellent, very dark and very funny at the same time. It's based on a novel by Jim Thompson. Then I saw A Sunday in the Country—a masterpiece—followed by Life and Nothing But, another masterpiece. He's especially good at evocative period settings, but he doesn't use that as a substitute for superb storytelling, characterization, and acting, or for creating an atmosphere that just emotionally pulls you in like a magnet. And he lets all these things work their magic without a lot of directorial intervention—what some call "invisible technique." I just saw It All Starts Today, a movie with a modern setting and a more contemporary semi-documentary style, and it was great too.

Who do you think is the greatest director of all time?
Of the dozen or so possibilities that come to mind, I would have to say, based on the number of masterpieces and near-masterpieces they directed and the overall consistency of their work, it's between Alfred Hitchcock and Ingmar Bergman. Hitchcock's more fun, but Bergman's deeper. I'd go with Bergman by a nose. My favorite Bergman film of all is Wild Strawberries. My favorite Hitchcock film is North by Northwest, which is also my favorite movie of all time.

What is the biggest thing you've gained from writing the blog?
It's inspired me to watch many more movies than ever before. I think of myself as a cinephile, yet I marvel at how many essential movies from my self-proclaimed period of interest, that is, 1930-1980, I have yet to catch up on. The blog is helping to give me the motivation to do this.