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Lisa Schwarzbaum interview, pt. 2

By Aaron Aradillas


Aaron:   You mentioned earlier that you're a TV addict. What do like about TV? Are you an HBO junkie? Do you discriminate between regular network TV and cable programming? Is reality-TV the end of the medium as some critics claim?

Lisa:   At its most involving, television is unmatchably intimate. Also unmatchably influential. (The late, great Dennis Potter, who wrote Pennies Fom Heaven and The Singing Detective, said he loved working in TV because it's "the medium of the occupying power.") Some of the best writing anywhere is done for television--not just the gems of HBO, but the run-of-the-week 10pm dramas on network TV, 90 percent of which, I'd say, are better than 90 percent of the run-of-the-week movie screenplays we consume today.

I love TV because budget and deadline realities teach its practitioners to work efficiently and concisely; because it values the ensemble over the star; because it's egalitarian by nature; and because even when it's crappy (and of course there's plenty of crap filling all those channels), it tells us something direct and immediate about ourselves and the times we live in. Cartoons, sitcoms, the way sports and news are presented--they're direct expressions of political and cultural temperament. No wonder even the dorkiest old sitcoms are beloved for their time-capsule charms. By the same token, I don't think reality TV is a dire development by any means. Some of it really interests me (Survivor, The Amazing Race, American Idol, America's Next Top Model) and some of it interests me not at all (The Apprentice, all those bachelor and bachelorette games), but I'm sure the wheel of fortune will turn again and something else will take its place, until America's Biggest Loser looks as dated as an eight-track tape. (Speaking of game shows, I had a perishable moment of fame a year or two ago as one of the trio of Wise Men assembled as a lifeline for stumped contestants on an episode of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? Our team had the honor of being the first brain trust to supply incorrect information.)

Incidentally, my TV obsession for the past year has been HGTV and its home and garden shows. Much to the surprise of this passionate fan of The Office in its brilliant original BBC form starring the unsurpassable Ricky Gervais, I also love the great American version with Steve Carell. I am (of course) a nightly devotee of The Daily Show and (the first 20 minutes of) The Colbert Report; I prefer Law & Order SVU but will watch any L&O, any time; I've adopted Grey's Anatomy and Prison Break as this year's follow-throughs; and I am bored crosseyed by Desperate Housewives.

Aaron:   You achieved some notoriety among readers for your scathingly negative review of Fight Club. (Personally, I fall somewhere between your disgust and Peter Travers' blind devotion. I already knew fascism was bad when I entered the theater.) What are your feelings about the movie now that it is considered by some to be a misunderstood classic? Have you seen it again since it came out?

Lisa:   I think it's being called a classic for reasons I didn't misunderstand: Boys love the swagger and "outrage" of the nihilistic male-on-male violence, and Chuck Palaniukheads are ardent. But I freely admit that I should see it again and reconsider. Am I right or wrong in thinking that David Fincher's work is wantonly sadistic? I'll get back to you.

Aaron:   Let's talk Frank Miller's Sin City. Some might interpret your review as being a little on the defensive side. You write, "Faithfulness, a virtue in personal relationships, is overrated when it comes to movie adaptations of comic books. The devotee who is betrothed to the pages of a particular, ardently loved graphic novel-sequential print-art event, multipage transportable visual diversion, whatever-is the devotee advised to reread that book, through sickness and health, for guaranteed fidelity of experience." You later write, "Call me a non-fangirl, but if the sacred works of Jane Austen can stand up to freewheeling reinterpretation, than so, too, can heavy-breathing pages about trussed-up little girls and a vile-smelling cartoon pervert known as Yellow Bastard." My immediate response as a non-fanboy is to point out that the works of Austen don't come accompanied with a visual component. It would seem that the slavish recreation of Miller's visuals is key to the movie's success. I'm not arguing against "freewheeling" interpretations when it comes to adaptations. However, I do feel reinterpreting the Sin City books would render the movie pointless.

Lisa:   Yes! Exactly! The movie is pointless! As I guess is becoming clear as we chat, I don't believe that everything needs to be adapted, or ought to be, or really can be. Hell, if you want something exactly like the graphic novels, why not read the graphic novels? What's the triumph of miming the page? Everything I value about The Lord of the Rings (yes, that again) or X-Men 2 is what I find lacking in Sin City. Which is to say, an artistic energy of its own as a work of cinema.

Aaron:   Do you think there's a double standard in being a female critic? Is there a boys' club atmosphere among critics' circles that makes it difficult for the opinions of female critics to be taken seriously? I found it interesting a couple of years ago to see how the critical response to the Jane Campion feminist thriller In the Cut seemed to split down gender lines.

Lisa:   I wasn't with my gender on that one; I thought In the Cut was dreary, damp, and self-consciously neurotic. But to go back to your second question, I, uh, hell, I have no idea. I tend to think critics are taken seriously--or not--on a byline-by-byline basis, male or female. When we all get together in our "clubs" and "circles" there are more men in the room than women, certainly (I'm thinking about our award-voting meetings), but I'm not nearly as aware of a gender split as I am of a children-of-Kael affinity group. As for your first question, what do you mean by double standard?

Aaron:   "Double standard" might be the wrong phrase. Let's put it this way: Your negative review of Fight Club might be dismissed because of your gender, while a male critic's negative review might be taken under consideration. I'm speaking of readership.

Lisa:   Although you know what? If I were a critic known for my love of splatter flicks, or kick-boxing epics, or, oh, I don't know, Spanish telenovelas, then I don't think gender consideration would enter into the discussion at all. Readers would be all "ooh, Lisa doesn't dig Fight Club, which is interesting 'cos she's such a connoisseur of pulp cinema" rather than "ooh, Lisa is a wimp chick, where's Owen when we need him?" (Not that I know where she stands on the title, but I doubt anyone would pigeonhole my pal and colleague Manohla Dargis as too chicky to take on Fight Club.) I truly don't think (or maybe I just don't want to think) that a whole sex might be undervalued on the basis of a positive or negative review for a movie with an inherent male or female viewership base.

Aaron:   Until recently you had the market on reviewing Wes Anderson movies while Owen still has the market on Oliver Stone. Care to share your thoughts on The Doors, JFK, Heaven & Earth, Natural Born Killers, Nixon, U Turn, or Any Given Sunday? (You'll note I left Alexander off the list.)

Lisa:   That market-share division is less rich with subtext than you might think. I do like Wes Anderson's work a lot (less so Life Aquatic) and Owen does like Stone, but it's kind of an aberration that we haven't mixed up the coverage more, since Owen and I tend to track that sort of thing--you know, who wrote about the last Woody Allen, or Jodie Foster movie. Then again, I probably like Anderson's stuff more than Owen does, and vice versa. There's something about Stone's assertive bluster and brawn that can feel more like assault than assertion if I haven't prepared by getting enough sleep, doing stretching exercises, etc.

Aaron:   In 1999 you were one of the many guest critics to step into the balcony for the late Gene Siskel on the re-tooled Siskel & Ebert. (I remember a lively discussion on the finer points of the Holocaust comedies Life is Beautiful and Jacob the Liar. You went against popular opinion and preferred Jacob the Liar.) How did you get the call to be a guest critic? Mr. Ebert doesn't strike me as someone who would have a subscription to EW.

Lisa:   Are you kidding? Roger has a subscription to everything. He's amazingly media-forward and techno-forward, an early and knowledgeable devotee of the Internet, digital photography, and related gizmos. I got the call because Roger and his team were casting a wide net as they tried to figure out how they wanted to shape the next iteration of the show. I had a great time; Roger's a pleasure to play with. I got to have my thumb photographed for up/down purposes. And for the purposes of a mass-market "Ebert & [insert name here]," they probably chose the right guy in turning Richard Roeper into a movie critic.

By the way, I'd prefer the Jerry Lewis telethon to Life is Beautiful.

Aaron:   In 2000 you wrote a great cultural analysis about the emerging of Extreme Entertainment that started with the success of There's Something About Mary and continued with Eminem, Tom Green, South Park and so on. Six years later, with the success of Fear Factor, The Shield, and The Passion, how do you feel about the state of the culture of entertainment?

Lisa:   Here's my new, freshly squeezed metaphor: Sometimes people crave extremely spicy food because their tastebuds have become dulled and they can no longer distinguish "simpler" tastes. I think the louder/rougher/realer/angrier school of pop cultural entertainment today supplies that extremely spicy food, formulated for a benumbed populace.

Aaron:   You were one of the earliest supporters of the Iranian film movement. I seem to admire your admiration more than the actual movies. What do films from Iran offer that you can't get from other parts of world cinema?

Lisa:   For me, the most exciting aspect of world cinema is its specificity--how aesthetic sensibility is rooted in place: Only Bollywood could have birthed Bollywood movies, only Hong Kong could have whipped up Hong Kong action, only Finland could produce Aki Kaurismaaki, etc. (Conversely, one disappointing byproduct of globalization is the Miramaxizing of national cinema into exportable "product" that won't scare off Academy Award voters.) I'm drawn by temperament to art that appears to work within structure, and stricture, only to find brilliantly creative ways to circumvent limitations: the sonnet form, the fugue, a ban on depicting X, Y, or Z. Was it because of or despite a limitation of freedoms that modern Iranian cinema flowered? Whatever the impetus, I respond to the Iranian aesthetic of modesty cloaking passion.

Aaron:   You are the resident go-to critic when it comes to covering the Cannes Film Festival. What is it about the craziness of Cannes that marks it different from other festivals?

Lisa:   Resident at EW, you mean, because there's a whole passel of important American critics who have been covering the festival far longer than I have--Roger Ebert, Ken Turan, John Powers, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Dave Kehr, J. Hoberman, and Amy Taubin among them. This May will be my tenth immersion in the madness--baby stuff compared with, say, the track record of Time's Richard Corliss. But a decade is certainly enough time to be able to articulate what makes the air in Cannes so highly charged: For twelve days, everything feels new, foreign, glamorous, and ardently important about cinema, and everyone is keen to get in on the discovery of the moment first. I'm speaking of the thousands of journalists waving their entry credentials, but the same holds true for the thousands of market attendees, celebs, gawkers, and regular civilian movie lovers who cram the streets pleading and shoving for tickets. (My first year, I saw a rioting stampede charge a screening of an Abel Ferrara film few would pay to see.) Here you are in the dazzling light of the south of France, with the accumulated history of half a century of Cannes glitzmoments hanging in the soft air, and everyone runs from screening to screening--or reception to reception--as if his or her entire identity depended on it. It's nuts, and marvelous, and touching, and infuriating, and inspiring, and indescribably exhausting in a way that awes me about cinema all over again, every year.

Aaron:   What movie character do you most identify with?

Lisa:   I am the child that Albert Brooks and Holly Hunter should have had in Broadcast News, grown up to become Allison Janney.

Aaron:   Finally, what do you see happening to movies in the next few years? Are movies getting better?

Lisa:   One aspect I'm particularly interested in is how a movie fills a screen. And one thing I see changing is the very composition of the frame. You know the stats: The DVD market has become more important than the theatrical market, which means more and more people are watching their movies at home. Most people, however, still watch those movies on average-sized TV screens where the enveloping neurological experience of movie-theater-sized viewing (not to mention big-group viewing) is undeniably diminished. I guess this is a long-winded way of saying that I see movies becoming more regularly scaled down in visual scope--more TV like, come to think of it. (There will always be cinemascopic epics. And they will always lose power on a TV screen.) At the same time, video and DV vocabulary is becoming more expressive as filmmakers learn how to use the video medium as an art, not just an economy. And I think we're just beginning to see the possibilities of DV art. One closing point: There's been a boomlet recently in movies constructed from fractured narratives (Syriana is this year's showiest example). I don't have a prediction, but I'm curious to see if and how that trend continues and develops. Just as I easily tire of movies where spectacle overpowers character and emotional content, so I'm underwhelmed by movies whose storytelling fanciness draws attention to its own cleverness. This preference by no means mires me in a classical past--it just anchors me as I look optimistically to the future. Happy 250th birthday, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.