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The only looming boy in New York City
An Interview With Glenn Kenny

By Aaron Aradillas

Glenn Kenny is a good sport. I write this because he was more than willing to indulge me in responding to my aggressive rebuttals to some of his reviews. Mr. Kenny's good-naturedness is just one of the things you'll discover about him in this dishy, engrossing, and very funny interview.

Joining Premiere magazine in 1996 as an editor and shortly thereafter becoming the lead movie critic, Mr. Kenny has brought an encyclopedic knowledge of cinema to arguably the best movie magazine on the stands. His knowledge of movies is matched by his knowledge of movie criticism, which is matched by his reporter's skill at observing human nature. Whether discussing his ignoring his parent's drive-in make-out sessions in order to watch Ryan's Daughter, or revealing his nickname for Renée Zellweger, or his views on "director's cuts," you'll find Mr. Kenny's no-bull approach to everything quite refreshing.

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

Glenn:   In family legend, I am remembered as responding positively to Psycho in 1960, sitting between my parents at a drive-in theater at the age of one while my mother was pregnant with my younger sister--this anecdote is used to explain a lot of our characteristics. But obviously, I don't actually remember that. I do remember, at the age of six or seven, my mother inviting me to stay up with her to watch The Haunting on network television. My mom was only about 25 at the time, my dad was working nights, and she didn't want to watch this horror movie on her own. It absolutely terrified, but also entranced, me. It's funny--my memory of what I considered the movie's most terrifying moment, the reveal of Mrs. Markway (Lois Maxwell of Miss Moneypenny fame) after Nell Lance (Julie Harris) climbs up the spiral staircase, is completely different from what actually happens in the film. In my memory, the shot is from the bottom of the staircase; the camera's point of view is that of someone lying on his/her back, on the floor, and there's a slam-zoom up to the ceiling as a panel from the ceiling is removed from within and Mrs. Markway's screaming face appears. In the film itself, there's no zoom--the camera's up at the top of the staircase with Nell, Mrs. Markway doesn't scream, etcetera, etcetera. And yet that false memory is my most vivid recollection of the film. As Gaston Bachelard said, "The dream is stronger than the experience." (The artist and musician Peter Blegvad created a series of drawings of objects and creatures as he in turn imagined, observed, and remembered them. I suppose with CGI an artist could do something similar with key moments from films.)

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

Glenn:   I attended what was then William Paterson College, a small state school in Wayne, N.J. It has since metamorphosed into William Paterson University, necessitating, I suppose, a change of its non-official slogan from "We Party Constantly" to "We Party Unceasingly," or some such thing. But seriously...it was a pretty good school and the cultural atmosphere at the time I was there--from '77 to some haze-shrouded period in the early '80s--was pretty great. My major was English Lit, and the faculty in that department was well-regarded, solid. A couple of the professors were stolidly right-wing, a couple others were weepy, or not so weepy, old Bolshies, and they all kept up a running debate in the Op-Ed pages of the college paper The Beacon, which at the time was one of the best college papers in the state and was the first extracurricular organization I joined and the only one I stuck with. As for the cultural atmosphere, the music department did some incredible things--Raymond des Roches, the founder of the New Jersey Percussion Ensemble, was a professor, and he was instrumental in mounting a performance of Charles Wuorenin's "Percussion Symphony" at the school that still resonates with me today. The jazz department was great, but I earned its I suppose eternal enmity by giving a snotty Beacon review, way back in '77, to the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis group, a review in which I criticized Lewis for the small size of his drum kit. That, I suppose, was the most "rockist" critical pronouncement I ever made, and a hugely stupid one. The great rock group The Feelies lived in nearby Haledon; one of the art instructors at WPC was married to a member of the group, and designed the cover of their debut album Crazy Rhythms. (The first piece I ever published professionally was a review of a Feelies show at a Haledon bar, in Musician magazine. And incidentally, the real Haledon bore very little resemblance to the imagined Haledon in Rick Moody's Feelies-inspired novel Garden State. Which is just an observation, not a criticism.) The Film Studies prof there was the art critic Gregory Battcock, who had a fabulously indolent approach. He knew that most of the students in the course were after easy As, and I suppose he didn't disappoint, but he would tweak them every now and then by, say, screening Warhol's almost unwatchable Kitchen, of which he owned a spliced-filled print. (Battcock was horribly murdered in 1980.) I had a lot of fun and learned a lot, but I was a pathetic student for the most part--arrogant and poorly focused. Like "Papa" in that song by the Temptations, I spent far too much of my time chasing women and drinking. I never got a degree, as a matter of fact. I would not recommend this course of action to anyone actually planning on a career in journalism or criticism at this moment in time.

Aaron:   Did you always want to be a critic? Did it matter what you were critiquing?

Glenn:   I believe it was Paula Abdul who said, "No one grows up wanting to be a critic." I think she's right, but not for the reasons she thinks she's right. Criticism is fundamentally an adult concern--it doesn't occur to children, necessarily, to want to engage in analysis and assessment of art as a profession. It's more likely that a child grows up wanting to be somehow famous--a movie star, a singer, a Laker Girl, an American Idol judge, what have you. That said, I took to writing at a very early age, and criticism was a form that I felt very comfortable with as I began writing it. The initial urge was to defend my own taste in music, which in my teens was unusual to the point of seeming affected, which maybe it was. Imagine being a 14-year-old in 1973 and trying to defend Eno's Here Come The Warm Jets to a bunch of Deep Purple fans. This is actually hypothetical--the Deep Purple fans were not interested in having the conversation, and my closest friend at the time had zero interest in contemporary rock of any stripe (and still does not, God bless him). The closest I got to such a situation was trying to "explain" Kevin Ayers' The Confessions of Dr. Dream to a nice bookish girl who I had a few dates with in my sophomore year of high school. Anyway, you get the idea. When I started writing about music professionally, the defensiveness had turned into something like a sense of mission, which I think gave my early Village Voice pieces--I started writing freelance for the paper in 1984--a nicely geeky, enthusiastic quality. In fact, I didn't file a negative review for the Voice until then-music editor Doug Simmons sent me to a Tears for Fears concert in 1986; said notice ended up being titled "Schlock Therapy." (The band actually brought that fucking monkey from the "Everybody Wants To Rule The World" video up on stage to dance as they performed the song. These, indeed, are the things I can do without.) I had really enjoyed practicing vituperation in my college paper writing, but I wasn't very good at it. I got better. As far as it making any difference as to what I was writing about, well, you bring different skill sets and I think different ideological baggage to whatever medium you write about. Beyond making adjustments for that, I can't say that writing about music feels better or worse than writing about films feels better or worse than writing about books. The only thing that would make a difference were if I were presuming to write about something I have no real knowledge of. No way could I bluff my way through a ballet review, for instance. Fortunately I'm not called upon to do many of those. Finally, I'm with Manny Farber, who said, "I can't imagine a more perfect art form, a more perfect career than criticism."

Aaron:   What impact did the Kael-Sarris brand of movie criticism have on you?

Glenn:   As someone whose fascination with film was initially based in a genre, and hence, as someone who was attracted to film qua film rather than film as a manifestation of the larger popular culture, I was something of a Sarrisite by disposition. Before delving deeper into this potentially vexed subject, I want to talk about the first book on film I ever read, which was Carlos Clarens' An Illustrated History of Horror and Science Fiction Films. I stole my school friend Allen Siegel's copy back in 1969 or so, when I was ten. I devoured the book and was obsessed with the idea of seeing, if not every film discussed in the book, then at least every film there was a still from in the book. (A quest that continues to this day--as I write this, I'm about an hour away from embarking to BAM Rose Cinema to catch a screening of Tod Browning's 1936 The Devil Doll!). Clarens still strikes me as an exemplary critic--informative, clear-eyed, authoritative in his judgments but never ostentatious in his pronouncements of them, possessed of an enormous erudition that he wears quite lightly. J. Hoberman is absolutely right, in the introduction he wrote for the 1997 Da Capo edition of the book, to call it "a beginner's history of the movies." A single sentence could set you off on the journey of a lifetime, e.g., "Obviously, Roger Corman is no Ingmar Bergman nor is he Luis Bunuel, both of whom he openly admires." Who's this Bergman, who's this Bunuel, and why does Corman admire them, my ten-year-old self asked. Clarens' passages on Lang and Dreyer were also fascinating, exhilarating. Years, in some cases decades, would pass before I would be able to see Vampyr or Day of Wrath or Lang's Dr. Mabuse films. But Clarens' book placed them at the forefront of my cinematic consciousness. As we know, Kael wasn't big on horror, and I doubt she would even take vaguely seriously the surrealist critics, whose ideas concerning the cinema as narcotic also influenced my sensibilities. Sarris' Americanization of the politique des auteurs created a critical atmosphere somewhat more sympathetic to those sensibilities--although I'm sure André Bazin would disapprove.

An Illustrated History of Horror and Science-Fiction Films

But let me try to back out of this particularly murky swamp of cerebration I seem to be wading into and address the immediate matter at hand. While I aver that my disposition made me more attracted to Sarris than Kael, the whole question of preference is sometimes merely a matter of who got to you first. (The Jesuits, of course, understand just how crucial this is.) I was chatting with a critic friend just the other night about your question, and he remembered being 14 and reading Kael's essay "Circles and Squares: Joys And Sarris" and seeing it as such a convincing demolition of Sarris that it was years before he even approached The American Cinema--which I was immersed in at probably exactly the same time he was reading Kael. While American Cinema didn't exactly convert him, on reading it he did see that Kael's piece, like so much of her "Raising Kane," was largely based on deliberate misreading and malicious speculation. (The apogee of the latter as Kael practiced it is this sentence from "Raising Kane": "There's a scene of Welles eating in the newspaper office, which was obviously caught by the camera crew, and which, to be 'a good sport,' he had to use." Which of course is complete bullshit, it was called as complete bullshit, and Kael never budged on it.) All that notwithstanding it was Kael who had been the galvanic experience of criticism for him. (I understand that by taking issue with Kael I'm in danger of getting a verbal flaying from Greil Marcus in a future "Real Life Rock Top Ten" column, but that's something I'm just gonna have to live with.) As for the politique des auteurs, although it could be argued that it enlarged the sorry cult of the director, and hence helped create the sorry state of affairs in which The Mighty Ducks got advertised as "A Film By Stephen Herek," it should be remembered that Sarris himself never proposed it as an absolute--he wasn't like Schoenberg saying that the twelve-tone system was the answer to all musical challenges and that no other method could be considered acceptable from that point on. He offered it as a perspective. There's this old TV documentary about what it calls the auteur theory which opens with Robert Mitchum telling a story of working with Raoul Walsh, who is one of Sarris's "Far Side of Paradise" directors, I believe. The picture was 1947's Pursued, with Teresa Wright, and Mitchum describes with great relish how Walsh would turn away from the camera and roll a cigarette as a take began, and so on, really highlighting Walsh's seeming indifference to the proceedings. Mitchum's punchline is pretty much, "So there's your auteur theory." And he's Robert Mitchum, so of course he's persuasive to the point of being seductive, and the reflex reaction is, "Har dee har har, them egghead critics sure are a bunch of jackasses," or something to that effect. The only problem is, logic dictates that one arrives at an estimation of Raoul Walsh's films by actually watching the films--all or at least most of the films--rather than acting in precisely one of them. Which is not to say that one can automatically assume that whatever's up on the screen which is of value was put there by the director. I have a couple of screenwriter friends who told me that a couple of the lines that were singled out by critics and audiences for being particularly lame within a generally well-received picture they wrote were in fact the interpolations of, yes, the director. I'm still glad to have auteurism in my tool kit.

Aaron:   In you review of Cameron Crowe's Almost Famous you wrote, "It's the story of my life" In what way was the Crowe film autobiography? What role did music play in forming your critical tastes?

Glenn:   I think I was overstating a coincidence or two in order to make a facetious excuse for being so utterly taken with the film, which I'm still taken with. First off, music has always been hugely important to me, and when I say always, I'm not kidding--the first Christmas gift I ever asked my parents for was the new Beatles album, when I was five, and they came through, getting me Beatles '65, which was released in the fourth quarter of '64. As for Almost Famous and the story of my life...I had started reading Creem in the '70s, and Lester Bangs' "Let Us Now Praise Famous Death Dwarves," one of his famous showdowns with Lou Reed, just killed me. Mainly because I just couldn't believe that you could get away with something like that in a "real" magazine. So like Crowe, I was a huge Bangs fan, and I would run into him every now and again after he moved to New York--at the Iggy Pop Palladium show in October of '77, where I gushed to him that I wanted to be a writer, for instance. Then I went to see one of his bands, pre-Birdland, I think, and he complimented me on my Felix the Cat t-shirt. That was big. So I was basing my affinity for the film somewhat on the lead character's Bangs-worship and solicitation of Bangs-advice. I think the autobiographical similarities end there. I did not, for example, go on to be deflowered by a trio of groupies who looked like Fairuza Balk, Anna Paquin, and Bijou Phillips. Alas.

Aaron:   You were a music critic during the second half of the 1980s. What was it like covering music during a time some music scholars view as a period of overproduced product? Like the independent film movement of the 1990s, was the best place for discovering music in the college and alternative scene?

Glenn:   Not necessarily, given my tastes, which tended as much toward art-rock as "punk" or "alternative"--CNN Headline News "Buzz Bench" regular Joe Levy once made a crack to me about my Robert Wyatt newsletter, which FYI never actually existed. One of the pieces of music criticism I remember really vividly and which made a huge impression on me was Michael Bloom's review of the first Art Bears album in the VIllage Voice in '77; that, combined with Simon Frith's declaration in Creem that his brother Fred was "the greatest guitar player in the world" got me into exploring that whole arena of music, some of the players of which cross-pollinated with the remnants of the post-punk NYC scene, culminating in a strange moment wherein a lineup of the Golden Palominos featuring Peter Blegvad (late of Slapp Happy), Jody Harris (late of the Contortions and Raybeats), etcetera, could wind up playing a very mainstream venue like The Felt Forum, if memory serves correctly. Sasha Frere-Jones said in an interview recently that there's always been, and always is, great music around. My tastes don't always jibe with his, but I think his perspective is absolutely correct, and I never had a hard time finding stuff I was enthusiastic about. A lot of it was in the college rock realm, sure--I reviewed the Pixies' Doolittle in the Voice, for instance--but not all of it. The trick for me was to follow the record stores, some of which have become legendary across the land--from Soho Music Gallery back when John Zorn and Anton Fier et al. actually worked there, to Rocks In Your Ears when local legend Manny Maris was behind the counter, to Manny's own subsequent shop, Lunch for Your Ears, to the great Downtown Music Gallery where Bruce Lee Gallanter and Manny hold court. Places like that have provided a certain core continuity to my existence, providing consistent depositories for my disposable income. All the spending has been largely worth it, I have to say.

Aaron:   You joined Premiere magazine in late 1997. Your role has evolved from Contributing Editor, to movie critic, to Senior Editor. How did you come to be a part of the magazine?

Glenn:   Actually, it was in June of 1996 that I was called over here. After a fairly well-publicized instance wherein an executive at Hachette heavy-handedly attempted to insert himself into the editorial process (that would be David Pecker, now happily ensconced at American Media) and motivated about a half dozen staff members to resign, Jim Meigs stepped into the Editor-in-Chief spot. I had worked with Jim at a magazine called Video Review back in the mid-'80s and we were both big fans of Premiere when the magazine debuted. Jim had gone from VR to gigs at Entertainment Weekly and US Weekly (back when US still had words in it) and I had done some sporadic freelance work for him at both places. In any case, he was a little short-handed when he took over at Premiere and he asked me if I wanted to come in and do some editing, on a freelance basis, for a spell. His timing was propitious; I was coming off a pretty lucrative two-year run of freelancing, but I wasn't breaking through to the level I wanted to get to and actually felt that I was about to stall. So I could approach the gig as a point of entry into the next phase of my professional life or something to tide me over until said next phase actually happened. It was an editing gig, basically; a special section here, helping out with a department there, and so on. Jim was going through the inventory and he came upon a piece that had been commissioned two editors before him--David Foster Wallace's essay on David Lynch, centered around Wallace's visit to the set of Lost Highway. It had been assigned by Susan Lyne, it had come in, in gargantuan form, and Kristen van Ogtrop took a stab at reducing its mass. Premiere had published very long articles before, but this one flummoxed a lot of people, particularly on account of the footnotes. In any case, Kristen was on her way out--not because of the Pecker thing, she had got a more genial (I presume) gig at Home and Garden or some such title--and Jim was aware that I had actually read all of Infinite Jest, so he handed me this massive manuscript and had me look over Kristen's cuts, and then told me to contact Wallace and "mollify" him about the massive cuts and, having done so, commence with a line edit. This, in the event that anyone is even remotely interested, is why Kristen is nicknamed "The Blunt Machete" and I am dubbed "The Mollifier" on the acknowledgements page of Wallace's A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. In any case, the mollifying went pretty well and Dave and I had a really good time working on that piece, as we also would, up to a point, working on the piece he wrote for the September '98 issue of the magazine under a dual pseudonym about the AVN awards. In any case, "David Lynch Keeps His Head" (Sept. 96 issue) proved to be a pretty big deal--got nominated for an ASME award and all that--and I think that convinced Jim to put me on staff, which he did in January of '97.

Once I got on staff, I went from Contributing Ed to Senior. As far as becoming the magazine's film critic, well, Premiere took a couple of approaches to film criticism prior to the Reviews section as it currently exists. In the early years it ran concurrent columns by J. Hoberman and David Denby, with Hoberman examining indie or underground fare and Denby doing an appreciation of films or film stars past--his column was called "Rear Window." When I started there the magazine had Todd McCarthy, the critic for Variety, reviewing a single movie on a single page every month. And Todd is fantastic, of course, one of the smartest guys in the game, but the format sort of didn't make sense, especially in the front of the book where you've got Previews and all these other sections dealing with multiple pictures--even Libby Gelman Waxner usually covers a bunch of films in her redoubtable "If You Ask Me" columns--and then, boom, you've got this single page with a single essay about a single film, and that's the reviews section. And I believe Todd's workload at Variety was such that it wouldn't be possible for him to do more than he did. Jim really wanted a full-fledged reviews section that could be done in-house. Problem was, we're a monthly. Even with advances in magazine production, we've still got the lead time to deal with...Oh, wait. I see I'm getting ahead of your next question. Please, after you...

Aaron:   Premiere is a monthly magazine. Obviously, its schedule differs from a weekly magazine. What's your work schedule like? How many movies do you see in a week? Do you get to pick and choose what you critique in your review column? Does your routine change when you're assigned a profile article?

Glenn:   Well, as I was saying, when we were conceiving a multi-film reviews section, we were very concerned about access to pictures. With the bigger, mainstream releases, the prints are sometimes still wet when they hit theaters. You can usually see foreign and independent pictures comfortably ahead of their release dates, and I think one could put together a healthy reviews section strictly covering such pictures, but we didn't want to do that--it would feel like we were in some way ghettoizing the section. Now you see that every couple of months or so there will be a reviews section that subsists solely of indies or foreign-language films. But when we conceived the section--Jim, Senior Editor Tom Roston (who's still my editor on the section) and myself--we had a kind of (if you and God will forgive the phrase) "If you build it, they will come" attitude about it--that if the section established its legitimacy quickly enough, studios would make a special effort to get us access to bigger pictures. Which became the case, I'm happy to say. So as to my schedule, it varies. I'll watch from one to three movies every weekday--that's counting DVD stuff, because I'm also the editor of the magazine's Home Guide, which covers that area. (An area that I think is vitally important for any movie critic to be on top of. When Susan Sontag pronounced the death of cinephilia in '97, she was really pronouncing the death of cinephilia as she knew it. DVD is the present and future of cinephilia--its miniaturization, as it were.) When we're preparing a list of movies to review, it's based not so much on my preferences as on what actually can be reviewed. As established as the section is, that's still the main factor in terms of what gets in there. We try to leave the section open for as long as possible so that in the event that a movie we really want is being screened, or can be screened for us, we can jump right in and do it. Every month is its own negotiation, and there's always drama. There's usually enough "give" in my schedule that if I'm going to do a profile or something it doesn't present much of a problem. Mildly ironically, attending film festivals is usually what necessitates a big shift in scheduling. At the moment I'm trying to prepare two months worth of material so I don't have to worry about anything else while I'm in Cannes for ten days in May.

Aaron:   One of the earliest articles you did was a scathingly funny profile of Harmony Korine and the controversy surrounding Gummo. When Korine said if he couldn't make the movies he wanted he'd find something else to do, you wrote, "Check this space in ten years." It's been eight. Have you re-evaluated his work? While I hated Gummo I found Julien Donky-Boy to be a major improvement, in particular Werner Herzog's performance.

Glenn:   Well, he's kept his word, hasn't he? He hasn't done a "proper" "film" since J D-B. And I don't think he was coerced into making that video of David Blaine in a box on top of London Bridge. So yeah, I guess we can relax and say that Harmony's the real thing, which of course leaves open the question of what that thing is. I thought Julien Donkey-Boy had some real beauty in it, and Herzog's presence was remarkable, but it didn't amount to much in the end. Gummo was repugnant, but you couldn't say it lacked impact. I'm very glad I interviewed the guy before his "novel," A Crack Up At The Race Riots was published, because I probably would have punched him. Which could have led to a video, of the "bum fight" sort he was reputedly doing for a while. Sweet. For what it's worth, I see a very strong Gummo influence on Jackass and Viva La Bam and all that other let's-fuck-shit-(and ourselves)-up television. Even in the loathsome Punk'd, as a matter of fact. As for Ken Park, whatever Korine's contribution to it was, it's still Ken Park. It's interesting--he's managed to work so sporadically that one almost eagerly anticipates what he's gonna do next and when he's gonna do it. Out of rank curiosity if nothing else. Maybe somebody should team him up with Vincent Gallo...But the thing is, we're still talking about Korine eight years later. I pulled out the ish with the Korine piece in it (December '97), and elsewhere in the front of the book there's a mini profile of the directing team The Pate Brothers. And a collective "huh?" is heard from the readership of rockcritics.com. Well, it so happens the Pate Brothers were the creators of Deceiver, a film--and I quote--"surrounding the murder of a prostitute (Renée Zellweger, whom Josh is currently dating)." Reading that, I wonder if the Wegs, as I took to calling her years ago, would even recognize poor Josh if she were to run into him today, which is hardly likely (her running into him, that is) since, if IMDb is correct, he was last seen producing episodes of Dragnet, Dick Wolf's only failed series in years. Damn, Hollywood is a tough town. By the way, kids, that bit of snark above is something you should NEVER DO as a professional journalist. For all I know, the Wegs and Josh have remained the best of platonic pals through thick and thin (although were that the case you'd think that she'd have done a cameo on the aforementioned Dragnet or made some such gesture of good will) and making snotty remarks like that could conceivably raise the ire of the Wegs so that she'd write a letter to Premiere or not do a cover the next time we ask or something. (So, for the record: Just kidding, Josh and Renée! [OK, not so much to Josh.]) The most mortifying example of this sort of thing was in Rolling Stone 12 or so years back, when Journey's Steve Perry was making his nth solo "comeback," and the Random Notes writer commented to the effect that the only person those days who would possibly find such news thrilling would be Steve Perry's mom, whereupon the pub and the writer were beset by a veritable tsunami of angry missives from Journey/Perry fans accusing the pub and the writer of the grossest sort of insensitivity because Steve Perry's mom was dead, for God's sake. So don't do that.


On to part 2 of Glenn Kenny