Entertaining weekly
An interview with movie critic Lisa Schwarzbaum

By Aaron Aradillas

In the history of movie critic partnerships (Corliss and Schickel, Scott and Dargis), Entertainment Weeklyís Owen Gleiberman and Lisa Schwarzbaum have been providing the most stimulating insights into movies for over a decade. In the summer of 2004 Mr. Gleiberman became the first subject in this continuing series of in-depth interviews with movie critics. Ever since then Iíve wanted to interview the other half of the critical team from EW. Now, that time has arrived.

A little taken aback by my request to interview her, Ms. Schwarzbaum turned out to be an engaging interviewee. She steps up and answers my questions with the combination of wit and grace that mark her best reviews. From her early years as a critic of classical music, to her fondness for the craftsmanship of magazines, to the pros and cons of TV, Ms. Schwarzbaum allows us to understand what makes her one of the most intelligent critics working today. We can only hope that she and her co-critic at EW continue to provide their brand of two-pronged insights into movies--and pop culture--for a long time.

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

Lisa:   I didn't grow up in a movie-going family, so it wasn't so much the going out as the staying home that made an impression: I was an indiscriminate repeat customer of WOR-TV's Million Dollar Movie, a New York-area television program that broadcast the same film every night for a week at a time. (I watched alone, or with my younger brother; I didn't grow up in much of a TV-watching family, either, and now I'm an addict.) To this day, for me and an army of other Boomers, "The Tara Theme" brings to mind Gone With the Wind only as an afterthought: More to the point, it was the musical signature of our favorite Sputnik-era culture-shaping TV programming. Anyhow, decades later, it's still easy to pick the two Million Dollar Movie movies that affected me most: Roger Corman's Pit and the Pendulum (1961) made me vomit from fright. And Joseph Losey's The Boy With Green Hair (1948) haunted me deeply for un-analyzed reasons I thought were mine alone, but turns out (I discovered when I wrote about the experience in Entertainment Weekly) to be shared by a generation of fellow MDM alumni.

Aaron:   I read you went to Sarah Lawrence. What did you study and what were your college years like?

Lisa:   I majored in music--to be exact, I "concentrated" in music, since Sarah Lawrence didn't have majors (or exams, or grades, or requirements). I studied piano, viola, music theory, music history, composition, and conducting. I sang in a chorus that traveled to Europe for a month-long concert tour. I wore black garments. I took classes in fiction writing. I made my own yogurt. I took a course in oxyacetylene welding since I admired the sculpture of David Smith. I wrote in blank notebooks with a leaky Rapidograph pen. You know, the usual.

I also experienced a lightbulb moment of Aha!, the summer between my freshman and sophomore year, with an assist from my mother, who suggested that I write about music just as I was coming to terms with the reality that I didn't have the skill or interest to become a professional musician. I should back up and say that I have always written, since grade school--poetry, fiction, high-school-newspaper journalism, high school literary magazine--and my pals were always the newspaper boys. But it was my mother who identified a way to synthesize my interests. After that, I began writing about music, and dance, for the Sarah Lawrence newspaper.

Also, during that time I competed for and won one spot among twenty college-student Guest Editors who would spend a month interning at Mademoiselle magazine, and I had the great luck to be assigned to the arts and entertainment pages presided over by the legendary editor Leo Lerman. The experience was brief, but the effect--a lifelong love of magazine writing--has shaped my professional life.

Aaron:   What makes feature writing in magazines special for you?

Lisa:   When I was a girl, my mother subscribed to McCall's and Vogue. Every month, the former provided meat-and-potatoes household service, practicality, and common sense. Every month, the latter offered fantasy, artistic experimentation, aspiration, and astonishment of writing, design, photography, and composition. I loved both publications. (Other home deliveries: The New Yorker, Popular Mechanics, and The Readers Digest--preferred bathroom reading provided by an annual subscription from my grandmother.) I still love those qualities about magazines--every month or week a new little universe. Each magazine with a purpose, a look, a style, a front and back cover, a thing to hold. Each article (and illustration and photograph and short story and essay) a thing declared, defended, and concluded. Perfection. Funny, as a writer I'm sometimes exasperated by the editing process (monthly magazines, and women's monthly mags in particular, are prone to poke and tweak and torture a story to death by blandness). But as an editor--for a time in the 1980s I was the editor of The Dial, the national public television magazine--I adored working with graphic designers and art directors to shape each "book."

Aaron:   You might be the only critic I know of whose background is in covering dance and classical music. Some people might view these as more reputable art forms to critique. What were you able to take from them that you could use in reviewing movies?

Lisa:   Do you really know anyone who actually believes today that movies are a less reputable art form to critique than dance and classical music? Or are you saying that defensively, assigning high/lowbrow heights that don't apply? Relax, Mozart and choreographer Mark Morris aren't scary. There's plenty from my days of writing about dance and music that I still regularly draw on to write about movies, particularly as I consider the movement, rhythm, harmony, and dynamics of a work. Also, my ear-training and knowledge of classical repertory is a help when it comes to considering the use of music in any particular film. There's a whole essay to be done just about the use of Mozart's music in movies, with particular attention paid to the trio from "Cosi fan Tutti"--the hardest working mood music in showbiz.

Aaron:   Does your appreciation of classical music allow you to spot when a filmmaker is putting on airs when they place a seemingly "refined" piece of music on the soundtrack to give their movie a cachet of "class?"

Lisa:   Are you sure you're not being squeamish--or maybe just shy--about stuff written by dead guys who may or may not have worn wigs? Classical music isn't primarily the province of the "classy" (whoever they are in the filmmaking world--Woody Allen? Walt Disney?) any more than classical literature is primarily the province of the BBC. It's just--music, as accessible to you and me and, oh, I don't know, Eminem or Kenny G. So when I hear a familiar cadence in a soundtrack--a fragment from Mozart's Requiem, a hunk of Orff's Carmina Burana, a sampling from Satie's Gymnopedies (to name three favorites from the movie soundtrack repertory), I think, what does this hunk of Orff mean to the filmmaker? Is the music being used creatively as a vital artistic element in its own right? (I can't, for example, imagine Apocalypse Now without the thunder of Wagner's "Ride of the Valkyries.") Or does the music mask a narrative weakness and serve primarily as pretty aural putty?

By the way, I'm still pondering the implications of Terrence Malick's arresting use of Mozart's Piano Concerto #23 in The New World--a pointed decision to juxtapose the serenity of ordered, peak-of-culture Old World music against scenes of much wilder beauty and newness.

Aaron:   What does classical music offer you that you can't find in pop? What part did pop music play in forming your tastes?

Lisa:   Let me work backwards here. I grew up listening to the Top 40 countdown on radio just like any other bird in love with The Beatles (specifically John, of course, the Thinking Girl's Beatle) and their Merseybeat contemporaries. (Freddie and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman's Hermits, the Dave Clark Five--I've still got the vinyl, and the turntable to play it.) I was also deep into folk music (Phil Ochs, Joan Baez, The Weavers--remember, I dressed in black). Then there were the years of Procol Harum, The Incredible String Band, Tim Buckley. Oh, and Cream.

The canon of classical music though--Brahms, Schubert, Beethoven, the biggies, and Mozart above all--fills me with the joy of passionate emotion organized into tonal order. Like an exquisite math. I don't know how else to say it. Maybe I can play you a Bach fugue?

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

Lisa:   The short answer is, little. I read Kael's reviews in The New Yorker, and I thought she was a jazzy writer--a knockout writer, really--with marvelous (and sometimes marvelously wacky) enthusiasms. But her tastes didn't shape my tastes, nor did her critical writing style inform my style, and I knew nothing of Jets vs. Sharks, Paulettes vs. Sarrisites, until much, much later in my professional career. Anyway, at the time I was reading Kael, I was writing about dance and music and was much more influenced by the critical confidence and literary brio of New Yorker dance critic Arlene Croce, not to mention by the high-wire panache of Janet Flanner, writing her delicious "Letter From Paris" under the pseudonym Genet. For me, Flanner's description of the murder scene on which Genet--the original Jean Genet--based The Maids is one of the great set-pieces of cultural reporting.

Today, Andrew Sarris's organizing principle of auteurism makes much more elegant sense to me than Kael's va-va-voomy visceral judgment calls, her insistent loves and hates. But what I don't get is this: years after Kael's death, why are we still talking about Kael vs. Sarris as if choosing a team color is Topic A? As if, indeed, any serious movie critic must declare a team in order to play? Why does the mention of Kael, in particular--and the declaration for or against on the part of an army of male critics (it's predominantly men who get het up about the subject)--still generate so much ink? I'm being a little provocative here for the sake of, oh, I don't know, pantsing the keepers of the flame, but I'm also serious: The humorless orthodoxies of the competing teams baffle me.

Aaron:   You joined Entertainment Weekly in 1991 as a senior writer. You became co-movie critic with Owen Gleiberman in 1995. How did that expansion of your duties come about?

Lisa:   I was already writing critical pieces about books, television, and theater. And I was writing movie feature stories. And the number of movies released each week was increasing to the point where no one human could write every review, not even a human as unflaggingly productive as Owen. Then luck and fate made an appearance: A senior editor, David Hajdu, suggested I might try coming in to the movie section as second-string critic. I did. The graft took better than I ever could have imagined.

Aaron:   Describe a typical workweek at EW. How many movies do you see in a week? How do you and Owen decide who reviews what? Where do you do your writing?

Lisa:   There's a kind of wave motion to the EW work week. Monday and Tuesday are busiest--the crest--since that's when we close pages. I'm a down-to-the-deadline (or, er, a tad-past-the-deadline) type, so at the start of the week I'm writing (or about to write) all day, or working with my editors and making revisions. I happen to love my office at the magazine, which has a door I can close and a view of the Hudson River that can't be beat, so I tend to do a fair amount of writing there, but sometimes I also file from home, and then come into the office for editing. The rest of the week I'm at a lot of screenings--maybe an average of four a week (which means sometimes seven and sometimes two). I became a co-equal lead critic some years ago, and Owen and I alternate lead reviews each week, then divide up the rest of the week's assignments, overseen by our section editor, Marc Bernardin. The shorthand is, the work balances out. It's a notably cordial and collaborative assignment process.

Aaron:   How do you feel about the grading system at EW?

Lisa:   Letter grades, numbers, stars, apples, tomatoes, thumbs, drawings of little men tipping their hats--no matter the system, there's something undeniably weird, not to mention presumptuous, about assigning a movie a quantitative value. But that said...I feel fine about the grading system at EW. It's a guideline for readers, not a final exam grade; it's a shorthand, not an analysis.

I'd add that the hardest half-steps for me to gauge are probably those between a B and a C, where the gradation feels so slippery. That I reserve the dreadful grade F for movies that are not only badly made, but also reprehensible. And that nothing is more exciting, either as a movie lover or a movie critic, than to see something to which I respond with an A.

Which reminds me: You may notice that the movie section of EW has never handed out an A+, although other review sections in the magazine have done so. Why? Good question. The tradition was established before I came on board--something about preserving a Platonic ideal, something no actual movie could attain, I think. Then a year or two ago when we began our "Ask the Critic" column, I answered a reader question about the matter by announcing grandly that I intended to break that tradition at the right opportunity. But...I didn't. Because after so many years, and so many good films in the past, how could I pick one in the present above all others to be the first A+?

Of course, now that I say this to you I think, jeez, that's nuts. Just do it. So who knows?

Aaron:   Along with reviewing movies for EW you also sometimes do reviews for the Stage section. What do you get from the theater not found in movies? What adjustments do you make in reviewing a stage production versus a stage-to-screen adaptation.

Lisa:   I love how stage actors have to think on their feet, literally. I like the live-ness of stage, and the scale of it--the drama is at once bigger than movie "real life" and squished onto a stage that's more confined than movie "real life." When I write about a stage-to-screen adaptation, I want to study how/if the production stands on its own as its own art form.

Aaron:   Can you provide an example of your different reactions to seeing both the stage and film version of a play or musical?

Lisa:   Sure; two productions come to mind immediately. Everything delightful in the theatrical experience of The Producers on Broadway--all the manic inventiveness of Mel Brooks, the too-muchness and wily spritz of Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick--feels misaligned in the movie version. Every gesture is too big, every reaction shot is too close, and what was bright, festive, and loose on stage actually appears claustrophobic on screen because the performers are playing to a non-existent balcony. Susan Stroman is an inspired theatrical director and choreographer, but in making her first movie, I think she was at a loss about how to move the action off the stage. Or conversely, how to contain the action within the film's frame. On the other hand, Mike Nichols took Angels in America, with all its unique theatrical grandeur, and translated Tony Kushner's modern stage epic into something fluid and authentically cinematic--yet authentically Angelic.

Aaron:   What other movie critics do you read?

Lisa:   The answer to this question always feels to me like a shout-out to friends, a suck-up to influential people, or a settling of scores with adversaries. The question I'd always love to hear critics answer instead is, what else do you love to do, read, or read about. So I'll answer my own question: I love the fiction of Dawn Powell, John Fante, and the short stories of Laurie Colwin. I have a strong interest in graphic design and typography (I've studied letterpress printing, papermaking, and bookbinding), with a corresponding collection of books about books. I'm just getting involved in gardening, so I've got a stack of stuff to read about mulch, ripped from the pages of magazines. (I'm a huge fan/scholar of women's mags, shelter mags, design mags.) I like to take hiking vacations to places far from screening rooms--Morocco, Iceland--so I've got a shelf of Lonely Planet guidebooks. I own a cookbook, but I use it mostly to weigh down the stuff about mulch ripped from other publications.

Aaron:   Usually around this point of the interview I ask if you've ever had any screenwriters or directors confront you about one of your reviews. You have the distinction of being singled out most recently by writer-director James Toback for your review of When Will I Be Loved. While I'm a fan of the movie (and am a fan of Toback's work in general), I found his attack on the petty side. How did you feel about being singled-out? Did you ever hear from Barry Levinson for your mixed-to-positive review of Liberty Heights?

Lisa:   Filmmakers are artists, and artists, by chemical composition, are often sensitive, unruly, quick to take hurt, provocative, impassioned, all that stuff. I know that. I was mortified by Toback's gossip-column sexual comments about me--who wouldn't be? Critics are human too. But then I reminded myself that I haven't met him, he hasn't met me, and so the "me" he was attacking isn't me, Lisa--someone who is actually quite pleasant and reasonable. I continue to be interested in Toback's work, by the way, whether or not I have trouble with it.

As for Barry Levinson, you're referring to the movie about his Jewish roots in Baltimore, which he made after Sphere, which I described as a matzoh ball. I also said Dustin Hoffman's character seemed Jewish. After which Levinson called me anti-Semitic. In the New York Times. The only thing that pissed me off about that ludicrous accusation was that the Times reporter, Bernard Weinraub, didn't have the journalistic courtesy to call me for a comment--nor had I heard from Levinson, ever--and so the first time I learned of my alleged transgression was by reading the paper. (The New York Post was much classier about offering me an opportunity to respond to Toback.) Anyhow, now it can be told: I am probably one of the most Jewishly-educated, ritual-familiar, Hebrew-literate, synagogue-interested of any of my Jewish colleagues, and I'd be happy to daven with Levinson any day.

Aaron:   On occasion you and Owen will do a point-counterpoint review of a certain movie. (The X Files, Dancer in the Dark). You did this for The Passion of the Christ. What was it like being a critic in the weeks immediately following the release of The Passion, especially since you gave it a negative review?

Lisa:   The sad, simple truth is that every single critic with a Jewish name I've talked to who happened, like me, to have written a negative review of The Passion of the Christ had the extremely unhappy experience of receiving anti-Semitic hate mail from outraged readers. Real anti-Semitism this time.

Aaron:   You were a fan of the Lord of the Rings movies right from the beginning. You also were not a member of the Tolkien loyalists. In the opening of your review of The Fellowship of the Ring you state, "...remembering the ferocity of high school classmates-boys, mostly-who steeped themselves in Elvish arcane while the girls wallowed in Salinger and Sylvia Plath, I open by saying that I have never read the fantasy series by the tweedy British scholar J.R.R. Tolkien." Is it safe to say you prefer the intimate connection one has with a piece of entertainment over the rabid fandom that is found in certain parts of pop culture? On a related note, did you ever read the Tolkien books after the final movie was released?

Lisa:   Not necessarily. I've been a rabid fan of Survivor on television, and of Curb Your Enthusiasm, and The Office, and I'll talk about what Jon Stewart said last night at any time, with anyone. I'm also a rabid fan of South Park: Bigger, Longer, Uncut. And I can recite every TV episode of Monty Python. I just didn't read Tolkien (I still haven't), and I'll confess something else, too: There was a fanboy in my high school who had a crush on my best friend, and he used to leave notes for her in Elvish written on the desk in English class. She wasn't interested in him. I learned Elvish just so I could mess with his head and answer on her behalf. I still know this boy, and she's still my oldest friend.