Reel time with David Edelstein

By Aaron Aradillas

One of the advantages--or disadvantages--of the Internet is its ability to make everyone equal. There is no real hierarchy on the Internet. (There are "personalities," but basically anyone can respond to someone else's post.) This is especially true in the coverage of entertainment, particularly movie criticism. The Internet allows everyone to be a critic. With the glut of spy reports from early test screenings, reviews by alias-loving reporters, and blogs dedicated to giving one's opinions on everything, it is a challenge to draw attention to your views amidst all the others. People like James Berardinelli, with his Reel Views, the fun folks at Film Freak Central, and Stephanie Zacharek at Salon have done admirable work in getting online movie criticism to be taken seriously.

Then there's David Edelstein at Slate. Writing for the online magazine since its launch, Edelstein has developed a loyal following on the web as one of the best movie critics of the Interactive Age. Having spent the 1980s and the early part of 1990s writing for print publications like the Boston Phoenix and Village Voice, Edelstein brought his well-honed journalistic skills to the relatively uncharted area of online journalism. (He also reviews movies for NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross and CBS Sunday Morning.) His reviews are at turns funny, enlightening, and not a little infuriating at times. (Critics who are infuriating and enticing are a rare breed. Critics who just infuriate are a dime a dozen.)

In this in-depth interview Mr. Edelstein opens up about movies and much more. He talks about vigilantism, politics in movies and criticism, and his relationship with the late Pauline Kael. You'll find his answers to my questions to be as thoughtful and revealing as his movie reviews.

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David Edelstein, Summer '05

Aaron:   What was the first moviegoing experience you remember leaving a lasting impression on you?

David:   In grade school, I was a horror geek. I built monster models and subscribed to Famous Monsters of Filmland. The movie that changed my life was The Bride of Frankenstein. I couldn't believe that here was a black comedy--spilling into camp, although I didn't know what camp was--that had all the horror and sadness of the original Frankenstein. I loved the far-out German Expressionist sets and James Whale's fruity angles, but it was Karloff who moved me most. He made the monster's loneliness so intense, and when he talked, it didn't diminish the performance. I still love Karloff--even in really rotten movies--for that mixture of monsterliness and grandfatherliness.

In hindsight, I see that I was always attracted to a mixture of tones. When I was ten or eleven, I saw a production at the Hartford Stage Company of Jean Anouilh's Waltz of the Toreadors. It was a bedroom farce, still one of my favorite genres. But at some point late in the play you just got walloped by the sadness--almost the tragedy-of these peoples' lives. In his introduction to House of Blue Leaves, John Guare writes that he had the same feeling seeing Dance of Death and a Feydeau farce over two nights at London's National Theater, and he tried--very successfully--to combine the genres in one play. I love that tragi-farce "house party" genre--obviously The Rules of the Game, and my favorite Bergman picture, Smiles of a Summer Night, which I saw when I was 13 after going to the Sondheim musical version on Broadway. Twelfth Night and A Midsummer Night's Dream are in that mode and made a huge impression on me. And, of course, Chekhov's plays, which I like done comically so that the tragedy kind of bubbles up from below.

Aaron:   Where did you go to school and what did you study?

David:   I was a theater guy--a big ham--and went to the same drama camp that's in Todd Graff's Camp. Actually, it was its predecessor, Beginner's Showcase, in Georges Mills, New Hampshire. The clown who ran it (he was literally a clown) became a fugitive from justice and the camp moved to New York and was renamed Stagedoor Manor. Todd was there when I was--he played the Artful Dodger to my Fagin. He was a great showbiz kid. I love actors. People who are less defended can be very freeing to be around. Maybe I identify with exhibitionists.

As an undergrad, I went to Harvard and studied mostly theater and dramatic literature, although I did take a few film classes--one with Stanley Cavell, who had a genius for translating the commonsensical into the convoluted. I also took classes with a voluble Serb named Vlada Petric. He was nuts and I loved him. It was great to watch movies in his class like Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors--really flamboyant bags of cinematic tricks. Vlada and I went into Boston once to see Days of Heaven. He picked the seats and in the middle made us move to different ones for a different perceptual experience. He'd sit there whispering, "Ah, ontological authenticity," or, "Mmmm, kinesthesia." I lost some respect for Vlada when he attacked The Lady Eve--probably my favorite movie of all time--for being "uncinematic." The camera placement is brilliant, and how can you call something "uncinematic" that has some of the greatest comic performances on film? For his part, Vlada didn't love the direction my criticism took. He would sigh, "You're another bourgeois impressionist." It was the bourgeois part I resented, because I was infatuated with Hunter Thompson and wanted to be a gonzo impressionist.

Aaron:   How did you get your first professional job as a critic?

David:   I was finishing school, and a friend told me that Carolyn Clay at the Boston Phoenix was looking for a third-string theater critic. I got a try-out and then voila: I was a professional, earning a grand $35 a review while teaching on the side. Carolyn was a blast--I've never since had an editor who'd add puns to my pieces. Then the film section needed a fourth-stringer and Stephen Schiff gave me a shot. Schiff was a huge influence on my voice. His style back then had a lot of Pauline Kael, but it was more fluid and magisterial, and he knew how to let the air out with snarky punchlines. Owen Gleiberman was second string and was very supportive, too. I still recall, fondly, Donkey Kong, debate about movies, and endless pints of Bass Ale with Owen after the section was closed. David Denby and David Chute had been at the Phoenix before my time, and Mike Sragow came at the end of my tenure. I missed my pals Charlie Taylor and Stephanie Zacharek by a few months. It was a great place to apprentice.

Aaron:   You've written for alternative weeklies (Boston Phoenix, Village Voice), magazines (Rolling Stone), daily papers (New York Post), and now online for Slate. What have your relationships been like with your editors?

David:   Unusually good--I've never gotten much pressure to write short or get quoted in ads or any of the crap I hear from colleagues. At the Village Voice, my editor Karen Durbin had pretty firm leftist-feminist politics but was such a crazy hedonist that it never got in the way. My goal was always to shock her and make her laugh--and she probably let me get away with too many sophomoric things. But hey, if you can't be a hot dog when you're 25 years old at the Village Voice...! And Karen appreciated that I worked very hard. In the days before I had a computer, I'd hide under a desk when the guard locked the place at midnight, so it was just me and the rats until eight in the morning.

When I applied to the Voice, the hope was that I'd write about both film and theater. The theater editor at the time told me she liked my stuff, but that she'd done a "purge"--her word--of white heterosexual Jewish males when she took over and would have used me in a second if I'd been female or African-American or gay...But I don't want to Voice-bash. I saw the sense in what she said, even though, paradoxically, I think it produced a section that was too homogenous in its aesthetic. In the film section, J. Hoberman and I were both white hetero Jewish males but we couldn't have been more different in our taste and temperament. Jim was an extremely friendly and generous colleague.

Then Jane Amsterdam hired me for the New York Post, and I went because they paid me three times what I was making at the Voice and I was broke. It obviously wasn't a great fit but no one--except the occasional reader--complained about my politics. Which was a change from the Voice, by the way. A copy editor did tell me I had to "think in shorter paragraphs," which seemed crass. But he was right. In a tabloid, you have to make your points faster and with more punch. As for Slate, they simply couldn't be nicer or more supportive. Pretty boring, huh?

Aaron:   Describe a typical workweek. How many movies do you see in a week? How do you decide which movie will get a full-length review or a mention in your blog? One would assume writing for an online magazine wouldn't require the usual "going to the office" rituals.

David:   I never see as many movies as I want to--maybe four a week, which is nothing given how many open. I have two daughters--seven and almost three--and a wife who works long hours as a book editor, and I want to be home in the evenings whenever possible. We live in Park Slope, Brooklyn, so going into Manhattan takes 45 minutes. Plus, I'm a slow writer--it takes me a while to get into the "zone." I spend a lot of time at Starbucks and a neighborhood place called Gorilla Coffee. It's too bad that coffee is both a diuretic and a laxative, because I like to write in coffee shops. My favorite scene in A Movable Feast is when Hemingway sits down with a bottle of wine and starts a story and looks at a pretty girl a table away and writes a bit and then looks up and the pretty girl is a fat guy and then writes some more and looks up and the place is deserted and then writes some more and it's full of people for what you'd now call happy hour. The story is finished and so is the bottle of wine, and then he switches to whisky. Heaven! Except I can't drink alcohol and write, alas...Anyway, I'd love to go into the office more and kibbitz but they won't give me a desk. I've only been at Slate nine years… [INSERT SUITABLE EXPLETIVES]

My column "Reel Time" is hardly a blog. It came about because I used to do one film column a week with three or four reviews of varying lengths--maybe one long review and a paragraph or two on other movies. I love that form, because it's so flexible. But then Slate decided that each review should be separate, so I asked if I could also do something "bloggier" like my colleague Dana Stevens' "Surfer Girl." The most fun thing about "Reel Time" is doing contests. It's not a regular feature--it has to be inspired by something that comes up in a review, like a bad twist ending or a mismatch like Samuel L. Jackson and Yoda or Judith Miller going to jail. The responses are just amazing.

Aaron:   What was your first introduction to Pauline Kael's writing?

David:   I adapted and directed the musical 1776 for an eighth grade American history class. Then I was in some doctor's waiting room and there was a New Yorker in which Kael tore the movie apart. I thought she was a big nitpicker. But then I read her review of Sleeper--which I'd seen about five times--and I was blown sideways. She captured what made it great, and she deepened my love for it. She seemed to be watching movies with a higher level of consciousness, moving back and forth between her own responses and what was on the screen better than anyone I'd ever read. Better than anyone I've still ever read. She was amazing on actors. And she was so funny. There's this anti-intellectual idea that if you analyze a joke you kill it, but if you're brilliant enough, you can make the pleasure of the joke last forever.

There were many other influences on my writing, but around the time I started doing reviews the confluence with Kael was surreal. In Boston, I went to the film of the Pinter play Betrayal, which I'd disliked on Broadway--even with Blythe Danner--but wanted to see with English actors. There was something so suffocating about it that I fled after half an hour. A few months later, Kael wrote that she walked out at about the same time.

Aaron:   Being a fan of her writing, what was your first meeting with her like?

David:   For some reason, she was asked about me in a couple of interviews and gave me mixed-to-favorable reviews. But then about a year after I got to the Voice she introduced herself in a screening line and I couldn't fucking believe it. I would never have had the guts to approach her. I visited her at the New Yorker and her first question was whether I loved writing, and I said no, it was agony, and she looked at me sadly. After that, I'd say hello at screenings, but we weren't close. I do remember seeing her jump about three feet during a sudden bit of violence in Mona Lisa.

Several colleagues told me to keep my distance from Kael--not so much because of her evil influence, but because they said it would hurt my reputation to be seen with her. It wasn't a good move politically to cite her favorably at the Voice, where everyone hated her and was glad to be rid of her pal Wolcott. It didn't matter how great Wolcott's TV column was; he wasn't with the program. When Philip Lopate wrote an article about Kael in New York Woman in early '86, he put a photo of me in along with other Friends of Pauline. I freaked and called him up and said I'd only met her a couple of times--which was true--and to please, please not tar me with that brush. He was nice--he took my picture out. Then I felt like a total spineless jerk, liked I'd groveled before HUAC or something, so I called the editor and told her to put the photo back. The die was cast.

I didn't spend any real time with Pauline until we'd both quit reviewing. Well, she quit. The Post decided not to renew my contract. So it was easier to visit her in Great Barrington. We'd go to a lot of movies. But the biggest treat was talking with her about plays, including my own. I said this at her memorial service--that she always told me to make the characters smarter, even the dumb ones, and to let them surprise me. So much of what she loved was based on surprise. Not cheap surprise--surprise with the underlying idea that life is always bigger and more complex than it is in the work of more programmatic or thesis-driven artists.

Aaron:   What was your two's biggest disagreement, whether it be over a genre, actor, or director?

David:   Interesting subtext to this question: "Can you prove you are intellectually independent?" There were times when I thought she was impatient with more depressive, fatalistic kind of work. But even as I write that, I can think of counter-examples. We talked a lot about O'Neill--The Iceman Cometh, Long Day's Journey, and they're as depressive and fatalistic as you can get. The key is that the characters are so vital. She certainly was right to be suspicious of misanthropy or self-pity when it congealed and turned reflexive and reductive. Horror is a very reductive genre, which might be why she didn't like it. Or it might just be that she didn't like to be worked over by artists whose personalities she disliked. She could admit that Psycho was a masterpiece of sorts, but she hated being in the grip of Hitchcock at his most sadistic.

I was furious at her review of Shoah and told her so. I wasn't angry that she hated it: She was outraged when filmmakers made their subjects look foolish or one-dimensional. Fair enough. But when she accused Lanzmann of being able to find anti-Semitism anywhere--when he had found it in Poland in the backyard of a death camp...No. Sorry. I thought Roger & Me was a terrific movie and she didn't. It was upsetting when it came out that Michael Moore had fudged the chronology in places, because that film was so thrilling to see after nine years of Reagan/Bush I and an almost complete absence of dissent in mainstream culture. Certain directors like Phil Kaufman she thought should be supported even when they made missteps. Kaufman is a stupendous filmmaker, but Henry and June was embarrassing, and the way he treated the Marquis de Sade as a martyr for free expression in Quills was horrible.

We disagreed on some things. It wasn't unpleasant if it was one-on-one and she liked you. I was there one time when her grandson, William, was about 12, and she said something about a movie they'd seen together and he said, "Duh, grandma." So after that one of my favorite things was saying, "Duh, Pauline." But, you know, I wasn't there because I wanted to challenge her. The great critics I've been lucky to get to know--Kael, Robert Brustein, Hoberman--are people I wanted to learn from.

Sometimes I wished Pauline and I didn't agree so much. I liked Kelly McGillis when she started out, although she got terrible. Pauline thought she was phony from the get-go. Then one night I was watching her in a TV movie where she played a psycho and I called Pauline and said, "Turn on the TV and see Kelly McGillis giving a great performance!" So Pauline did and mentioned it favorably in an interview and that was that in terms of my ever writing about it. People would say, "Oh, we know where you got that opinion."

Aaron:   Let's address the "Sons of Pauline" label head-on. What was your immediate reaction to the "Paulette" label, and how did Ms. Kael feel about it?

David:   It's a lazy tag. Yes, there are colleagues of mine who have an aesthetic that was influenced by Pauline. Of course. But what Pauline valued most was liveliness and surprise and people who did fresh thinking. She was always eager to hear things she hadn't thought of. She had friends like Wolcott, Roy Blount, Elvis Mitchell, Veronica Geng, Stanley Crouch, Robert Towne, Jim Toback, Marcia Nasatir. They were devoted, but they were hardly sycophants. She was pissed off when people sounded too much like her in print--especially when they had far different sensibilities but had ingested--that's her word--her style, which came out of effrontery at a time when few critics, let alone women, wrote like that. Effrontery and jazziness--a great combination.

I tried to confront this head-on and raise the issue with Charlie, Stephanie, and Armond White in the last Slate Movie Club, but they didn't take the bait, and a lot of readers complained that it was all too inside baseball. But figuring out what Pauline meant to my writing and my aesthetic is important to me.

When Pauline was writing, she never discussed a movie or a vote at a critics' society in advance. Not with me, anyway. Never. Let me say that again: Never. People like my friend David Denby--who has written a lot about Pauline's nefarious influence since her death--would often call me up to chat about particular movies or what we'd vote for at a National Society of Film Critics meeting. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Awards are bogus anyway, and that kind of politicking is fun. But with one exception--Casualties of War--Kael never told me how she felt about a movie before she reviewed it. And with Casualties it was only because I bumped into her after a screening and she was so shaken up.

I don't want to sound like a crybaby, but I almost never go after other critics. Why do they still harp on Pauline? Are her friends that powerful? Am I that powerful? Many critics characterize her as a sensation-monger. But two of her favorite filmmakers were Renoir and Satyajit Ray. She was a Henry James nut. A writer in L.A. opened a review of Sin City by attacking Pauline. She said it was just the sort of empty, stylish violent movie that she would have turned cartwheels over. Pauline was notoriously hard to predict, but I'm pretty sure she'd have loathed Sin City. She wasn't into comics, and she hated sadistic violence used for kicks. She made distinctions between violence that intensified your emotions and violence that was just meant to be a turn-on all the time. So what was this writer talking about? It was like shadow boxing!

I agree with Craig Seligman that we should start to think of her as a great American essayist and humorist, like Mark Twain. Let's take her out of this fractious film-critic thing. I wrote to Kent Jones when he said in a Sarris profile in Film Comment that Sarris and Kael never stopped battling after she wrote her essay "Circles and Squares" in 1963. I like Kent, but he's wrong. Kael never wrote a word about Sarris again. He went after her year after year after year--even after she died. But it was Andrew who was so stung that he could never let it go. Pauline pointedly didn't include "Circles and Squares" in her ultimate collection, For Keeps. That was a gesture that I don't think Andrew appreciated.

Aaron:   Let's backtrack a little. What was it like going to the movies as a kid? Was going to the movies a family-oriented event?

David:   No. Those were the days when you dropped off your kids. I went with my friends or my younger brother or alone. But my mom used to come back from grown-up movies like The Graduate and tell me about them; I remember long nights of her telling me the plots of stuff like Straw Dogs! I always remembered seeing Straw Dogs, even though I hadn't! We did have an early movies-at-home service in the '60s called Pay TV. You got a decoder box and you dialed in a number and it converted these little buzzing crickety posterized boxes into images. I saw a lot of Don Knotts comedies on Pay TV. Before the feature started they'd show a drawing of a theater curtain and play Copland's "Fanfare for the Common Man," so whenever I hear that now I think of Don Knotts. The best part was that on Saturday afternoons the feature was preceded by an episode of an old serial from the '40s or '50s-sci-fi, Westerns, African adventures. I loved the cliffhanger endings and was always so angry that they'd cheat when they reshot it for the beginning of the next installment. Also, every Saturday night I got to stay up and watch Chiller Theater, all the Universal monster pictures with an occasional '50s sci-fi thrown in.

As for theaters, sometimes I'd go to downtown Hartford and see the latest horror double bill--a Hammer movie or Count Yorga, Vampire or House of Dark Shadows. I love Dark Shadows. That probably demolishes what critical reputation I have right there. As a rare treat my parents would let the babysitter take me to the drive-in to see triple bills like Horror House, Cry of the Banshee, and The Crimson Cult. The best thing was seeing a midnight show of Freaks and Night of the Living Dead in '71 or '72. Nothing was ever the same after Night of the Living Dead. On the more conventional front, we also had a local Cinerama, where they played "big" pictures like Marooned and Ice Station Zebra and Battle of Britain and 2001 on the biggest curvy screen. The size of the screen always made the movie worth watching--even Ice Station Zebra.

Aaron:   You were a teenager in the mid-to-late 1970s. How aware were you of the revitalized American movie culture?

David:   It's too bad I was born in 1959 and didn't see movies like Bonnie and Clyde when they opened--not to mention missing out on all that counterculture free love. But my parents let me see big pictures like Patton, M*A*S*H, Little Big Man, The French Connection, Dirty Harry, The Godfather, The Conversation, and Taxi Driver. I was shaking after I saw Nashville. There were plenty of bad films in the '70s, but the distance between them and what was happening in the country was so short. People talked about films with a different kind of urgency. Now, it's TV that they talk about that way. I also remember thinking that every film seemed to be flouting some new taboo. You had these profane, morally ambiguous protagonists in Patton and The French Connection. You had an unprecedented mixture of surgical gore and irreverent humor in M*A*S*H. You got messy stuff that hadn't been over-processed. There was as much excitement about what would come next as about what you were seeing. I guess that's happening in TV, too.

On to Part 2 of David Edelstein