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The girl can't help iIt
Interview with Jami Bernard of the New York Daily News

By Aaron Aradillas

Jami Bernard, with kitty

Jami Bernard is the coolest. Critic, humorist, breast cancer survivor, Ms Bernard--or Jami as she prefers--has been a film critic for the New York Daily News since 1993. (She was previously a film critic for the New York Post.) Her writing style is a mixture of the sexy, humorous, insightful--always my favorite combination. Having survived breast cancer, her writing has taken on a characteristic rarely seen in film criticism: wisdom. Jami says she always wanted a humor column. With her reviews and her Incredible Shrinking Critic weight-loss diary, I think she demonstrates that a movie review can be an outlet for whatever is on one's mind.

I chose Jami as my first female movie critic interviewee because my gut instinct told me it would be a kick to get inside her head. I was right. With her I'll-always-be-a-Queens-girl-at-heart honesty, her gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor, her love of all things junky and kung fu, Jami seems to have a lust for life. The girl can't help it.

A quick story about this interview. Jami achieved some notoriety earlier this year when her one-star review of Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ was splashed across the front page of the Daily News. It was a fair and thoughtful review. Naturally, no one wanted to hear what she had to say. The hate mail came pouring in. It all culminated with a cringe-inducing TV panel discussion moderated by Pat Buchanan. When I requested an interview she told me "yes" but was on guard against reporters requesting interviews as a ruse to get into a debate about the Passion. I told Jami I understood her feelings but I would feel uncomfortable if I didn't ask about the controversy. She said she understood and requested to see some of my published writings. This is when I started to panic. I didn't have any published writings to show her; her and Owen Gleiberman were my first interviews. I cautiously explained this to Jami in an e-mail and further expressed my enjoyment of her writing over the years. I ended the e-mail by saying, like her, I was an admirer of David Cronenberg's Crash. (She had picked it as the best film of 1997.) Her response was, "Ah, if you are a fan of Crash then, by all means, you are safe." The moral of the story: Fans of Crash need to look out for one another.


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Aaron:   First of all, how's your health?

Jami:   My health is fine, thanks! I've been cancer-free since my treatments ended in early 1997. Of course, any time I have the slightest ache or pain, I immediately and rationally conclude that it must be cancer metastasizing everywhere. I am not normally a hypochondriac, but having had breast cancer makes me a little jumpy at times. Among other lovely outcomes of cancer, I'm now an avid reader of science (for lay-people, like Timothy Ferris and Stephen Hawking). In a parallel universe (something I don't believe in, by the way), I think I could have been a great science writer. And that has actually reinvigorated my love of science fiction. When I was seeing I, Robot, after reading the Asimov short stories, it occurred to me with sudden clarity that I really, really like robot movies.

Aaron:   What movie-going experience made you think, "I want to write about movies"?

Jami:   To answer that question in a technical sense, the first time I thought it was imperative that I go on record about movies was when I was the assistant entertainment editor at the New York Post and I was editing Rex Reed. During the day, I'd see all the movies that came out, as many as I could get to in a row, and at night (because I worked the "swing shift," just like Goldie Hawn), I'd edit the copy for the section. Apologies to Rex , but everything he wrote seemed wrong-headed and infuriating. My love of movies naturally pre-dates that, but it had never occurred to me to make a living writing about movies, only that it was a good thing I worked the night shift so that I could spend my days seeing them in relatively empty theaters.

Aaron:   You went to Barnard College. What did you study? What was it like going to the movies during the "New Hollywood" era?

Jami:   I studied English lit and creative writing with the idea of writing novels and rounding out my income with the occasional magazine column. I studied film with Ann Douglas, who became my advisor on a special year-long writing project about being the editor of the campus newspaper (something I'd still like to turn into a novel one day). Going to the movies--that is, going out to the movies--was a rare treat when I was growing up, like restaurants, reserved only for special occasions. But I remember seeing The Graduate in the same theater that was rented out that year for my Intermediate School graduation, which I took to be a positive sign. Looking back at my high school yearbook, I am amazed to find that I "reviewed" my four years there as if it were a movie. And in college, I had a first date at Swept Away--um, not the Madonna version, you understand--and it was so exciting that I stayed with that boyfriend for quite a while and we are still friends today. Sitting next to him at that run-down theater on Broadway and 107th Street was so exciting--this exotic, wonderful movie, Mark's faintly damp hand in mine. It was quite a fusion of thrills.

Aaron:   What was your first job as a journalist and/or movie critic? How did you get it?

Jami:   I got a full-time job at the Post mid-way through my senior year in college. I went to school all day, then worked the 6 p.m. to 1 a.m. shift at the Post five days a week. My first bylines were on obits, then little news stories. I was a reporter and a copy editor on the news side before I moved into features, where I was an editor and wrote travel stories. I was still searching for what I could write there--I hated news reporting and was theoretically after a humor column, but the Post wasn't interested. In a way, I found my humor column with movies, because when a movie is bad it is easy to be entertaining about it. I filled in for Archer Winsten, the Post's second-string critic, when he was out with a heart condition (he was in his eighties, so it's not like I poisoned him to get the job). When Archer retired, I stayed on, eventually moving up to first-string critic, then jumping to the New York Daily News in 1993.

Aaron:   What have your relationships with your editors been like? What are the differences and similarities between the Post and the Daily News? Was your decision to "go across the street" from the Post to the Daily News an amicable one?

Jami:   I have almost always gotten along extremely well with my editors, having been one myself and not feeling the same resentment that classically exists between writer and editor. There are exceptions, of course--editors who were less educated, or who were frankly jealous of the movie critic's perceived freedom. Some were just bad managers of people. One editor slammed the phone down after speaking with me at Sundance and is said to have barked, "What does she think she's out there for, to see movies all day?" But I have had many editors I adored, or at least with whom I worked well. I have one editor who really can't abide the semi-colon; for him, I will rewrite and simplify sentences, although I don't agree with him.

The Post and the News are both tabloids in the sense of their size (as opposed to "broadsheet" like the Times, or "half-tab" like the Barnard Bulletin). When I worked at the Post, it was a wilder place, and there was room for all sorts of writing that didn't follow the dictates of the editorial page. I'm sure that is less true now, if not downright forbidden. The News is actually quite conservative in some ways. During my first week there, they wouldn't allow me to use the word "frisson" in a review. It really depends on who is the editor-in-chief, who is the features editor, what the current mandate is, and who are the readers.

My jump to the News was amicable, although the Post tried very hard to keep me. They gave me a giant raise and an up-front column, and asked me to honor the remainder of my contract before leaving. Mort Zuckerman, who owns the News, was very nice about it and said he'd hold the job for me until my Post contract was up, which was still months away. But the Post did a weird thing--they brought in Michael Medved, who is really a conservative commentator in the guise of a movie critic. They couldn't promote another critic over me, so Michael and I each reviewed the same movies for a few weeks, side by side, until I went in to the Post management and said--this is ridiculous. Just let me go now. And they sighed and they did. I had worked there 15 years, grown up there, and the Post was truly like a family, so it was very emotional to leave it. But there was no doubt that the News was a big step up into more serious journalism. Plus, they had a Sunday paper, which at the time the Post didn't have. And I got in during a time when huge salaries were being dangled as enticements.

Aaron:   Describe a typical week in your profession? How many movies do you see in a week? Where do you write your reviews? At home or the office?

Jami:   I work solely from home--it's in my contract--and that enables me to take advantage of my own natural writing rhythms and my fancy computer and electronic gizmos. I have a real love for gadgets and gizmos, and I'm always upgrading as an "early adopter." I like to write in the morning and late at night. Afternoons, however, are like a swamp for me. Screenings are set up for the critics at all hours, so I can never schedule personal things, especially in advance, for "school nights." I don't mind making that accommodation, although I suppose some would. Screenings are generally in small screening rooms in midtown, and most of them are during the day. I don't come home to write them up immediately, for many reasons--I like the movie to marinate in my brain, for one thing. And I am not quite as disciplined as you'd think, considering my prolific output.

Aaron:   What impact did the Kael-Sarris school of film criticism have on you, if any?

Jami:   People still get very heated on this subject. I've tried to steer clear of being a member of any particular camp. I believe in the auteur theory, but at the same time it doesn't apply to every director or to every era in Hollywood. These days, a producer is more likely to have the power, or the say-so of an audience marketing report that changes an ending. I enjoy movies viscerally in a Kael-like way, often going by gut instinct and valuing the sheer enjoyment in them over the way they fit into an oeuvre. Because I never studied film with an eye toward becoming a critic, I operate mostly out of a deep love (and sometimes tolerance) for movies.

Aaron:   What other movie critics do you read? Do you read critics in other fields?

Jami:   I read some of my contemporaries some of the time, and I like them for various reasons. There's no one critic I follow with devotion. I look mostly for writing style, because language is my main interest over movies. (Remember, being a movie critic is a writing job, not a movie job, for the most part.) David Denby is a really good writer, but the piece of his I enjoyed the most was one he wrote for New York magazine about stereo speakers. He was so into it! You can tell when a writer is in love with the subject. I worked with Dave Kehr for several years at the News, and I love his grasp of film history and his dry wit. No one can touch him on movie knowledge, really, even if I don't always share his taste. I also love reading my friends Stephanie Zacharek and Charles Taylor at Salon. I trust the intellect and research genius of Jim Hoberman. My colleague, Jack Mathews, often gets in some really good lines you'd never expect from him, because he is so gentlemanly and polite in person. I read a few other critics for amusement because they are so nuts. There are a few I read with my nose wrinkled because they are pompous and lifeless. In other fields of criticism, I like Clive James, and I read others when someone I trust so recommends.

Aaron:   You grew up loving the kung-fu epics that would play in the grindhouses. What was the appeal of going to a grungy theater in New York versus going to mainstream theaters to see more "respectable" movies?

Jami:   Ah, my love of junk and grunge and disreputable places! I can't explain it other than to say I'm comfortable with it, and that it may be the Queens girl in me. Those double-bills of kung-fu and exploitation flicks at the 42nd Street theaters in the '70s were just thrilling, kinda cheesy and a little dangerous and so, so much fun. Bruce Lee, you know. I loved the seriousness of his movies. They were jokey only to people who made fun of them, but they were all about avenging honor and doing the right thing against impossible odds. There's always real art hidden away in the most uninviting places. I remember seeing a cheap and really bad movie set in ancient Pompeii in one of those 42nd Street grindhouses, and one of the patrons yelled out to bid "two cisterces" for a naked slave girl for sale on the screen. Those theaters were also magnificently beautiful in their day, designed as movie palaces with ornate frescoes on the ceilings. Some of them have been made into, I don't know, Disney theaters or something. And others have been torn down. I grew up in New York where there is no such thing as a mall (and I don't count that thing at 34th Street), and there was no bland mall octoplex experience at those grindhouses.

Aaron:   What were the movie-going rituals when you were growing up? Was going to the movies a family activity or something you did privately in order to escape everyday life?

Jami:   As I mentioned, going out to the movies was almost unheard of in my family. There was no money for it. All my babysitting money went to ice skating in Central Park, which was a teenage obsession along with playing paddle ball in the playground. But I watched a lot of movies on television to the point of obsession. My father worked the night shift on the old postal trains--a holdover from the days of the Pony Express, by the way. He was even required to carry a gun. He'd be on the mail trains for two weeks, then home for a week, and when he was home, he'd be up all night watching '30s and '40s gangster movies. He loved westerns, detective stories, and films noirs. We'd watch the good stuff (Double Indemnity) and the bad stuff (Charlie Chan). When I watched during the day with my mother, it was '40s weepies. And, believe me, she wept. I used to make fun of her for crying over Pride and Prejudice. But you should see me with The Ghost and Mrs. Muir; I won't watch it with company because I cry so copiously at the end when it turns out Rex Harrison gave Gene Tierney the gift of living out her life before coming to reclaim her, even though she waited all those years for him.

It was a big deal to go out to movies. One of the first that I saw in a theater was West Side Story, which had a profound effect on me. (My mother had all the cast albums from all the musicals, and I therefore love musicals.) My first boyfriend and I snuck into Klute when we were underage and...oh my, I was frightened and turned on and awed and wanted Jane Fonda's haircut, too. It was so...adult!

Aaron:   What is your take on "director's cuts"? Do you think directors are screwing with our collective memories? Or, do they have the right to tinker with their art, like, say, writers and playwrights do?

Jami:   As a professional writer, especially for a newspaper, I know that my words are not carved in stone. Anything can be rewritten and usually made better by it. With movies, however, we always demand they stay as we remember them, because they are our own personal repositories for the memory of who we were when we saw them. Still, the concept of the "director's cut" promises hidden riches, maybe a Rosebud, the key to a director's soul. Occasionally, a director's cut is necessary, as when it restores what a heartless studio has taken out. I would love to see a true director's cut of The Magnificent Ambersons, for example. The recent restoration of The Big Red One is superb. Usually, though, it's just a marketing gimmick for the DVD release. I don't mind, but it usually amounts to nothing more than outtakes in so many cases. I hate when the geek factor comes in, as with fans who overanalyze that ending versus this ending, etc.

Aaron:   Is it important to separate the art from the artist? For example: Considering all the knowledge you have on the Natural Born Killers controversy, whose side were you on? Or, is the Stone-Tarantino conflict to close to you? Or, did you even take sides?

It's good to know a lot about a filmmaker in order to appreciate the resulting films, but knowing too much can sometimes be a liability. Quentin Tarantino is a good example. Having written his biography, I know a lot about him personally, and sometimes I watch a movie of his with an inner voice saying, "Oh, that's his obsession with whatsis, so it's not true inspiration, more like he can't help being himself, or, that shot is a payoff to a friend." To prove that I didn't take sides in the Stone-Tarantino conflict, I don't know what the hell you're talking about! I know I wrote about it, whatever it was, and I interviewed both of them, and they were impassioned, but...my primary interest is the movie I see, the part where I'm in my own little world in a dark theater and a dream state descends on me.

Aaron:   Let's talk a little about your books. In First Films you covered a lot of people. How did the idea for the book come about? Have you recovered from your encounter with Patrick Dempsey?

Jami:   First Films was my first book, and it was a good idea--to see if you can identify future greatness from a freshman effort. Very often, you can, especially with directors. Look at the early shorts of Scorsese or Tim Burton, and it's like seeing their whole careers spilling out. I used bits of celebrity interviews I had done while I was an entertainment writer at the Post to personalize the entries in that book. I don't remember precisely how I got the idea, but I remember telling it to the guy I was dating at the time, and his reaction was "Who'd want to read that?" Which shows why I broke up with him before the book came out. Then I heard from a mutual friend that he felt the book had been his idea...excuse me? If he had ever had a creative idea, it would have wafted out of his head in a cloud of pot smoke.

The next book, Total Exposure, came about because the majority of press inquiries I received on First Films were directed at a chapter on nude first appearances. The only book out there at the time on that sort of subject was a compendium of exactly when and where you could freeze frame on a left breast or a right buttock. I thought I'd write about how nudity affected individual careers. The book did extremely well and went into a second edition a few years later, but to this day, there is a reader assessment on amazon.com that says the book has too many words and not enough pictures. Imagine that! A book having too many words! I guess ideas and thoughts are dull next to left breasts and right buttocks.

Aaron:   In Chick Flicks you seem to cover almost every modern-day classic in the genre. Is the appeal of these movies that they honor the cliches of the genre or, is it more the labeling of these movies as "guilty pleasures"? For example: Why does a film like Lovely & Amazing appeal to both men and women, while Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood appeals exclusively to women?

Jami:   I used a pretty broad definition of "chick flick," because I included Silence of the Lambs, which is not only not considered a chick flick--there are plenty of women I know who refused to see it because it was "gory." It wasn't gory, in fact. There was only one gore shot. But it was so well done that the take-away is that it was graphic and grisly. To me, though, Silence of the Lambs is a great movie for women because it is so empowering. Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) is still a newbie at the FBI, and this case is a big stretch for her. It's about how she uses raw brain power to solve a case that will help other women. And there is a real, sexually charged relationship between her and Hannibal Lecter. He admires her intellect. He loves her, if he can love, because she engages in mind-play with him, which is better than foreplay, at least here. When Clarice goes to check out the first body they find, the men at the morgue stare at her and reduce her to just another gal. The serial killer would never devalue her like that, and they nearly always have a glass wall or a cage between them! When he reaches through the bars and touches her arm, it is a very sexual moment, without, of course, being truly sexy. He loves her. We trust he won't harm her. They share an intellectual connection that is deeply personal, the more so because he "knows" her from her shoes, her accent, and her handbag. This, to me, is thrilling filmmaking that is female-centric, hence, a chick flick. Ah, but you ask about Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood! I found it certainly less odious than its title. But just because it is about relationships and women does not mean smart women necessarily go for it.

Lovely & Amazing is a lovely and amazing movie, with really interesting female characters and stories. A side note about that movie: [regarding] the scene where Emily Mortimer stands naked and vulnerable in front of Dermot Mulroney and asks him to appraise her body--I had a big argument with my colleague Jack Mathews about her bush. Actually, "bush" was his term. I'd say "pubic hair," myself. I guess he's been seeing too many porn magazines where women shave and trim themselves because that's the style, but he thought Emily had used some prosthetic enhancement on her bush, because it was too wild to be natural. I argued vehemently. That's the way a natural bush looks! I interviewed Emily and the director and asked them, and, forgive my memory, but I'm pretty sure I was right and Jack was wrong. The details escape me now. I tend not to remember the details or the outcome of such an exchange, only that it was really fun that I have a male colleague with whom I can argue these finer points. Anyway, male critics were, I'm guessing, titillated by seeing a naked woman stand so open to inspection, and women critics loved it because of its daring, its truth, and the poignancy of how women with perfect bodies never feel perfect because they don't allow their actual imperfections to figure into an overall perfection; well, I believe in this, anyway. That it is a collection of the imperfections that make something perfect. In movies, as in men and women.

Aaron:   What is your relationship with Tarantino like now after you wrote his biography? What was his reaction to the book after it came out? Was he disappointed with your mixed reviews of both volumes of Kill Bill?

Jami:   The biographer's relationship with the subject is strange and multi-layered, and it seems to continue evolving in weird ways. We've been very friendly at times, yet there was a period where he wasn't speaking to me. Mira Sorvino even picked a fight with me on the beach at Cannes over it, although she was really grandstanding for a photo op at the time, and it was the insincerity and careerism of her attack that infuriated me. (Also, she claimed Quentin never confronted me on it because he "felt sorry for me" because I had cancer, and the idea that Mira got to own my cancer for that moment for the sake of getting press, let alone saying it loudly enough for strangers and press to hear, made me wild with fury.) But Quentin loved the book when it first came out and told me it was far preferable to the other two books on him that came out around the same time. My book was a "real" book, not a clip job or a quickie. I interviewed 90 people for it, including all the major players in his movies up to that time. What he didn't like was that his biological father (whom he had never met) tracked me down and gave me an interview after my book came out; I published the interview in Premiere magazine. I gave Quentin's mother a heads-up way before the interview ran so she could prepare him, and I got him his father's medical records so he could have that information, but he was hurt and furious. (His mother, by the way, is a fascinating person unto herself, but she had Quentin when she was quite young and not ready. If the two of them don't see eye to eye, it's understandable, if sad.) Anyway, Quentin and I have put it behind us, and we have occasional communication, the substance of which is not about reviews of his movies. I can't be a toady and only give him good reviews, after all. He was upset once when I said he had surrounded himself by yes-men, and that he had given a poor performance in Four Rooms. In sum, we're not actual friends, nor should we be. Too many critics get wrapped up in being "friends" with movie stars, and it compromises them.

My disappointment in the Kill Bill series is that it borrows from different kinds of martial-arts movies that I love and that I have no doubt Quentin loves, but that as clever and pretty as it is, it lacks the heart of the real article. I've just seen House of Flying Daggers for the second time, and that movie is not just spectacularly gorgeous, it's so full of deep, human feeling that my face trembles. I love movies that make me feel intensely, and the Kill Bill movies are worth a few chuckles and some admiration, but they don't move me.

Aaron:   Having survived cancer, do you find yourself getting impatient when a movie brings out cancer to tug at an audience's emotions, Patch Adams being the perfect example? Do you find movies like Terms of Endearment and One True Thing cathartic or shallow?

Jami:   Ewwww, Patch Adams! You know, I spoke to Robin Williams and I told him (with his permission) why some people hate that movie like the anti-Christ. Having had cancer, I don't want a comedian for a doctor, I want good, hard medical information. Williams was understanding about it, all things considered--I mean, he doesn't have to justify his film choices to anyone, and film critics (including me) are just behaving badly and pompously when they think they can give actors career advice. I recently saw Terms of Endearment again, thinking it would have no current-day effect on me, but at the end I sobbed like it was the end of the world. Really ugly, wrenching sobs. It's the scene where Debra Winger tells her older son that she knows he doesn't really hate her, so he shouldn't feel bad or guilty later: she leaves him a legacy, anticipating his needs, putting her own dying needs aside. I felt in that moment that, although I no longer have cancer, there is nothing to prevent its return, not all the love and planning in the world. We all live in at least a slight state of denial in order to get from day to day, but none of us is safe, and it's only those who have had catastrophic illnesses who truly know this. I don't want movies to take unfair advantage of this knowledge, and I don't want them to pander to us. Patch Adams was infuriatingly pandering, even dangerous, because it implied that quack medicine is what people really need, and that regular doctors are sterile and unfeeling. It's the quack doctors who mislead vulnerable sick people away from beneficial treatment. By the way, movies that portray the dying as saintly lose an extra star in the rating, as do those, like Patch Adams, that trot out children, bald from chemo, to try to force-feed emotion to an audience. Faux fois-gras, if you ask me.

Aaron:   Why do you think some critics let themselves get caught up in the hype and controversy surrounding the release of certain movies? I mean, was Crash really that difficult to decode?

Jami:   I remember all the critics hating Ishtar because it cost so much and fell so flat. But, come on. What a film costs and what it makes at the box office should be practically immaterial to a critic. I don't care much about the business side of a movie. The part where Dustin Hoffman and Warren Beatty are trying to compose at the piano and are bad at it was pretty funny, so the movie wasn't a total waste.

As for Crash, it was my favorite movie of that year, but I knew it was not for everyone. In fact, I could barely recommend it to anyone. I read the J.G. Ballard book it was based on, and I gave it considerable thought before reviewing it, because, yes, it was difficult material, at least in contrast to typical Hollywood fare. Cronenberg is a terrifically intellectual director, and I've loved all his movies except Naked Lunch. When I first saw Crash, I was mesmerized, aghast, and turned on. Is he doing what I think he's doing, I remember asking myself. And if so...wow. What a thing. Sometimes his movies are so weird and sick that I think people turn off to them automatically. But what is funnier and more insightful than a video game that plugs directly into the human spine, as in eXistenZ? Come on. It's not about the gore (or the sex and twisted metal in Crash). It's about the insight, often the humor. In Crash, I believe it was the intersection of humanity and technology, which is the theme of many of Cronenberg's movies. It was damn brilliant! And, yes, funny!

Aaron:   Why do you think move critics don't seem to burn out the way, say, rock critics do?

Jami:   I can't see myself ever getting tired of going to the movies, although I don't want to see really sucky movies all the time. The concert-going experience, on the other hand, is so enervating; a huge investment of time and energy and logistics. I liked rock concerts when I was in college, but there's no rock equivalent to seeing a DVD in your own home theater, for example. Imagine going to a concert every night when you hit your forties and fifties, or if you have a family at home. Whereas movies remain intensely personal and solitary, even in a theater. It's not usually a shared experience, unless, you know, an audience member is bidding two cisterces on a naked slave girl on the screen. Rock concerts require a commitment to community. Movie critics are more likely loners, happy to stumble upon a screening for one, if possible. Despite those quotes on ads from the non-critics we call "quote whores," no movie critic ever stands up and cheers. And this reminds me of one reason I prefer movies to live theater: I don't want that community experience of a live performance. I want the movie's delicious, chemical surface to isolate me in the darkness and pull me in at the same time. Yeah, it's fun to applaud a Jackie Chan picture with an audience, or to sit at Film Forum where a very knowing audience will chuckle appreciatively and a little self-consciously to prove they're in on every joke. But mostly I want to go into a trance, and when a movie is good, that's what happens. Do I get tired of this drug? No! And it's a legal high, not that I have anything against illegal highs!

Aaron:   So, what was it like being a critic in the weeks immediately following the release of The Passion of the Christ?

Jami:   All I can say is, oy. I realize that religion is a sacred cow, especially in this country, but I can barely comprehend the ignorance, intolerance, small-mindedness and meanness of so many people out there. (And they all seem to be POTC ticket-buyers!) I could go on at book-length on this subject, but I'm pretty tired of it. In sum, I'd say that most viewers have mistaken the movie for the subject matter, and you can't persuade them otherwise. They have no understanding of how movies are made or about the powers and decisions of the director, who, in this case, is also the writer. Simply by looking at this movie in terms of movie-making, it is fiercely anti-Semitic. I listed a few ways it achieves this in my review. And the backlash I received [see below] was almost entirely based on the assumption that I am Jewish, and that I didn't like the movie because it was Christian. I am not Jewish, in fact, and this is not really the place to explain all that. But neither is the movie Christian, if you go by the idea that Christianity is a religion of love. It's a cruel, hateful movie, unnecessarily sadistic, that plays to the cheap seats. Well, I'll spare you the details of why I don't like the movie.

As for the response, it makes me sad for humanity, and certainly for the future of film-going. People don't understand how to "read" a movie, and they don't want to understand. POTC is a political tool, just as surely as Fahrenheit 9/11, except, of course, that the Michael Moore movie wants to examine lies, while POTC wants to perpetuate them.

My feeling about this ties into my huge concern with the lack of critical thinking in America, as personified by the decrease in people studying science and in America's related fall in stature in the worldwide scientific community. Critical thinking and the ability to question and think rationally is important in film criticism, of course, but just as important in world affairs and everyday living and medicine and combating ignorance. That ignorance is prized in movies and in having an incurious, C-student as a president is not only shameful, it's dangerous. I don't personally believe in that treasured myth of "sin." But one thing that comes close to sin is being incurious, unless there's some medical reason for it, like depression or mental illness. All babies who are born in good working order and properly cared for and loved are endlessly curious from the moment they realize the world begins where the fingertips end. Ooh, sorry, got carried away there.

By the way, I received several thousand responses on POTC, and a good majority of the hate e-mail took occasion to call me things like an "ugly Jew" and to expound on why they are offended by the size of my nose. You would think they would be happy to find one person who resisted the craze for self-mutilation known as plastic surgery! But no, anti-Semitism is alive and well in the U.S., and although all Christians should hate that, it isn't so. Oh...another interesting thing that happened was I went on TV live with Patrick Buchanan, and although he was not rude to me, he asked the guest before him, a rabbi, the stunningly disgraceful question of whether the rabbi had accepted Jesus as his personal savior. What can you do with "TV news" like that? What is the point of accepting an invitation to public debate when there are so few forums for rational discussion?

[Editor's Note: The following are excerpts from hate mail received by Jami Bernard after reviewing Passion of the Christ:

  • "Self loathing UGLY Jew! You are cursed! Look in the mirror!"
  • "You are such a fucking nut! The Passion blames the Jews for Christ's death. What a surprise. That's 'cause the Jews did kill Christ, you lame-o!! Now go HOARD SOME MONEY...YOU LOUSY JEW!!"
  • "You get to put your objections on the front page because this and every other media is controlled by JEWS. You're a JOKE."
  • "Have another donut you anti-Christian bitch."
  • "Jews did kill Jesus...It's still the truth, plain and simple."
  • "You're a jackass. You media are 90% Democrat, 65% gay, and 90% anti-church."
  • "WHO THE HELL CARES WHAT YOU THINK. JUST ANOTHER JEWISH OPINION. YOU WOULD PREFER PORNO MOVIES."]

    Aaron:   Ever have any directors or screenwriters get angry at you because of one of your reviews?

    Jami:   Yes, and some of them have confronted me, either in person or by phone or e-mail. Directors tend to have the thinnest skin, and they remember some reviews line by line! One writer-director tracked me down at a film festival to complain about a one-star review. I agreed that maybe ONE star was a bit punitive, and, between you and me and your million readers on the Internet, it was punitive because he had ripped off It's a Wonderful Life in a way that neither added to it nor reflected ironically upon it nor quoted it in homage. He simply dumped it in the middle of his movie. I've seen many of this guy's movies since, and almost without fail, his screenplays are plodding and prosaic. The way every frame in a Martin Scorsese film is as one with all of film? Even in Scorsese movies that aren't as good as others? Well, with this other guy, it's like someone learning another language when he's too old to adapt. His movies feel unnatural. I don't know him personally, I don't have anything against him, I don't mind that he tracked me down that time. He just doesn't have the touch. I know I'm not the last word on what works and doesn't on film--believe me, I know that. But sometimes I do know, I really do, it's unmistakable. And, as I think I said, or implied, film critics are not, and should not fancy themselves, "friends" of stars and directors, even if you've had a nice dinner with one or converse by e-mail with another. If it really is a friend, you shouldn't review them. But I'm not here to be their friend. If I am guilty of name-dropping occasionally--and by the very nature of answering your interview questions, I am--then I am being at least a bit of a jerk already. Sorry!

    Aaron:   In 1991 you were up for a Pulitzer for criticism. What did it feel like to be in the running? Was it for your body of work that year or a specific review?

    Jami:   I'm embarrassed to have to set the record straight. The New York Post sponsored a Pulitzer application for me, which is not the same thing as being nominated for a Pulitzer, a distinction I didn't comprehend or appreciate at the time. It has probably fucked my chances of ever being truly nominated, more's the pity. Nevertheless, I was so excited that the Post thought enough of me to "nominate" me. It cost them time and money to do that. It was for a body of work, not a specific review.

    Only two movie critics have won the Pulitzer, which is annoying, because there are many really fabulous critics out there. And although writing for a tabloid is not always considered the pinnacle of journalistic success, there is a real art to writing in a way that is accessible to the average reader while putting across complicated ideas about how to view movies, and how particular movies fit into the larger scheme of cinema. All while being entertaining, because it is likely that the review itself is as close as most people will get to the movie being discussed.

    Aaron:   You were once the head of the New York Film Critics Circle. How did you get that position? Were you nominated? Do you have to campaign?

    Jami:   I was nominated for that position--I was surprised at the time--and voted into it. It was a glorious awards night for me--I was very funny as the emcee and got some priceless press, including a suggestion in the Village Voice that I be chairman every year because I was good at it. But I hope I never do it again. It was a lot of annoying work, like arranging a wedding all by yourself, including who you can seat someone next to and who you can't. I took improv classes at a theater for the year leading up to the dinner because I was too nervous to speak in front of an audience. As part of this campaign to get comfortable onstage, I started doing TV. My absolute first TV gig was a cable show hosted by Rod Lurie, who was a film critic and entertainment writer and who is now a director. But my first "mainstream" appearance was on the Joe Franklin Show. I bought a new velvet skirt for the occasion, but I had to throw it out afterward. I had stiffly kept my palms on my thighs throughout the ordeal, and I sweated indelible handprints onto the velvet. Now I'm a ham. I've been on most of the major shows including Oprah. I turn down TV appearances pretty often because they don't pay and it's just me or anyone filling empty airtime on issues that don't ultimately matter.

    Aaron:   What bad movie do you find yourself watching when it comes on TV?

    Jami:   That's a trick question, because although I do like a lot of bad movies, I don't watch TV. I have all the cable channels, but I only occasionally indulge in "The Sopranos," or "Iron Chef," something like that. It never occurs to me to turn on the TV, unless it's to leave on the Animal Channel so my cats and parrot have company while I'm away. In any case, I don't believe in watching movies on TV (if they are broken up by ads) or on airplanes. So I never turn the thing on unless there's a DVD in it and I have the time to watch a movie uninterrupted. I cannot watch movies made for TV at all; their slow pace and ridiculous scripts infuriate me.

    Aaron:   Is being a movie critic a job or a calling?

    Jami:   For some, like Dave Kehr, it's a calling. For others it may be a job. I guess I'm somewhere in the middle, because my main love is writing. If it wasn't movies, I'd be writing on something else, which is a good thing because I don't see a big future for film criticism, certainly not the intelligent, thoughtful kind that most critics yearn to write. Outlets are increasingly less interested in that kind of non-sound-byte criticism, which is why reviews tend to be shorter and artificially peppier these days.

    Aaron:   Is there a double standard in being a female critic in today's mass-media age? Do you think the opinions of female critics are not taken as seriously as men's opinions?

    Jami:   The overwhelming majority of film critics are male, but I wouldn't ascribe that to any one single factor such as a double standard. Cinephilia often arises from geeky cult interest, and women are less likely to go there at an early age. Plus, let's face it, many women don't like violence in movies. But I enjoy violence in movies, nudity, bad language, macho scenarios. In the same vein, I came to comic books late, and that is a traditionally male, geeky fascination. I have no interest in memorizing lists of famous movies or tech credits. Some people think that's what makes a good movie critic, the ability to spout back received information. To me, that's some form of autism. It has nothing to do with appreciating film, and can even be divorced from film appreciation. Yet, that memorization and one-upmanship is often a port of entry for adolescent love of movies.

    I do think that women bring a different perspective to critical thinking on movies that most men could never replicate. I'm not just speaking of women liking "chick flicks" or relationship movies and men liking action movies and violence. An example of what I'm talking about is female facility with moving in and out of points of view more readily than men, who can usually only identify with male protagonists. (This was addressed most famously by the feminist critic Laura Mulvey.)

    I really believe this is why so many men came down against Thelma & Louise, not necessarily because it had a feminist viewpoint that terrified them, but because they could not find a single character with whom to identify. They came away thinking men had been belittled because there were no sympathetic male characters, which wasn't even true--Harvey Keitel was sympathetic, even though he was all wrong to be the duo's savior. Rehabilitating them would defeat the purpose of the movie, which was set in a male-dominated world where these two women couldn't catch a break and couldn't fit in. And didn't want to fit in. One of the most telling scenes was when Susan Sarandon goes into the ladies' room at the bar and jostles among other women fixing their hair and makeup in the mirror. Yes, this is what you see in women's bathrooms. This is a female point of view, not an overarching one, just an example of a simple, everyday activity that is as familiar to a woman as, I guess, a man scratching his balls when no one's looking. This movie was made from a woman's point of view, not from a man's idealized idea of what a woman's point of view might be. Yes, lascivious truck drivers and clueless aggressors are everywhere, maleness is everywhere (oil tankers, jism-like sprays along the highway), and a woman so disposed can see examples of this everywhere her eye settles. That was Thelma & Louise's worldview, and that is why they really had no choice but to escape a world that would never accommodate them. I don't mean to read too much into this one movie; I'm only using it as an example of when a female critic doesn't even have to think twice about a point of view so organic, whereas a male critic might miss it entirely and be puzzled, and therefore angry. Women have been in the passenger seat so long that they have had ample time and opportunity to study the habits of the guys at the wheel, for their own protection if not for simple amusement. This does not cut both ways. Men still see women as "other," exotic, as someone to be photographed from the ankle up (the "leg-cam"), as someone who wears eye makeup to bed. Female critics are just naturally more alert to these errors of representation.

    Aaron:   What new trend or trends do you see happening in the movies in the next five years? Are movies getting better?

    Jami:   In many ways, movies are getting better, even as some may be getting worse. The indie films are constantly reinventing themselves, and there is so much excitement every year at Sundance, especially in the recent documentaries. I just saw Collateral this weekend, and was blown away by it--by the script, the camerawork, even by Tom Cruise's acting! Who'da thunk? There's not a moment wasted in this film, no casual encounters, no superfluous dialogue. And that's a big-budget Michael Mann film. And just a few weeks ago we had a tiny film from Mongolia, Story of the Weeping Camel, and it was beautiful and simple and moving and an amazing collusion of story and documentary opportunity. There are always going to be pockets of consolidation, where movies blend into one another with a depressing sameness. At the same time, there is always excitement in the film world, as far as I'm concerned, and it comes from all directions, even from a mainstream movie like Collateral.

    Related Links

  • JamiBernard.com (with links to her books, columns, pets, etc.).
  • Jami Bernard and a few of her colleagues at New York Daily News.
  • Some of Jami Bernard's movie reviews, compiled at Rotten Tomatoes.
  • Breast Cancer, There and Back: A Woman-to-Woman Guide, by Jami Bernard.