The Amazing Adventures of Movie Mike
Aaron: What impact did the Kael-Sarris school of film criticism have on you?
Mike: Sarris, yes; Kael, no--which, of course, differentiates me from so many of my peers. I was introduced to both of them in the mid-to-late '60s--though Kael first--when I bought the paperback of I Lost It At the Movies. I thought it was all over the place. Colorful writing, yes, and she was great when you were in synch with her--but with about as many blind spots as grains on the Mojave. I could never figure out what unified what she liked with what she loathed, other than perhaps the condition of her stomach the day she wrote a particular piece. And with most critics (even the ones you don't like) you can.
When I bought what was probably the only hardback copy of Sarris's The American Cinema ever to reach a Columbus bookstore (and I still have it), I felt I was listening to a master. I had huge gaps in my knowledge at that point but was versed widely enough in Ford, Hawks and Hitchcock for me to think his "Pantheon" made a lot of sense (and enough in, say, John Huston--on the negative side--to think, "Great; someone finally has the nerve to say it"). Of course, Sarris also dismissed a lot of my favorite directors (Billy Wilder [whose slam he later famously recanted] or Elia Kazan and William Wyler, to name three). But in disagreeing with him, I could still see where he was coming from and appreciate it; Sarris has never ever pissed me off, even when he said something I thought was crazy. The only thing better than his print tutorials--which is what I've always thought his reviews are--are the tutorials he gives in person when he speaks. I once saw him enthrall a full house at the AFI speaking about Jean Renoir when a lot of people in the audience couldn't possibly have seen all or even many of the films in question.
I used to work next to a very smart guy who pointed out that the auteur theory was plotting a revolution--and that in a revolution you always overstate your case for effect. The other thing to remember--and I wish more people would actually read the damned introduction to his book--is that Sarris never called every director an auteur, which is why the directors who ultimately matter (but who, in a given year, do not always make the best films) are the ones whose personalities managed to rise to the top no matter which studio employed them. Look at Hawks in the '30s: Scarface for Howard Hughes; Twentieth Century at Columbia; Barbary Coast and his share of Come and Get It (which, to the eye, seems fairly easy to differentiate from Wyler's--or at least we thought so at NYU) at Goldwyn; The Road to Glory at Fox; Bringing Up Baby at RKO and so on.
I do think Kael had her finger a little more on the pulse during the early 1970s, which I think has a lot to do with her influence (as well as, of course, her ability to write up a storm). She certainly appreciated Coppola and Spielberg more than Sarris did in the early days and liked early Scorsese (oddly, I can't recall where Sarris stood); I think Kael and Sarris were probably equal co-champions of Altman, though, of course, she had more of an "in" if Altman was showing her Nashville from the beginning. There's no question that her writing is a huge reason the movie atmosphere of the era is infinitely more exciting than we are ever likely to see again. Ironically, she was one in a long line of critics you were not allowed to write papers on at NYU (though with Sarris you could). This, of course, did nothing but point up--again--NYU film school's rampant myopia when it came to questions of life as it is actually lived by real human beings.
Kael's Last Tango in Paris overkill, her nonsensical devaluation of Orson Welles' contribution to Citizen Kane, and continued championing of the latest Brian De Palma trash made it easier for me to tune her out, but we were just never in synch anyway. I read an interview with Sarris once where he said--I'm paraphrasing from long memory, so don't sue me--that Kael's approach was to sit in front of an empty screen and say, "regale me," whereas his own was to try and figure out filmmaker influences and "reasons" and where the filmmaker was actually coming from, which he thought was a much more rewarding way to view film. I do, too, and if I had to look at them any other way, I wouldn't have spent a month, much less a lifetime, with the movies. There are just too many things in life that are as interesting or even more so.
I'm not out to assault Kael because a) I don't think there's anything more boring than fights between critics; and b) there's no percentage in it because you make too many enemies. But since no one has ever asked me about this topic and probably won't again, I'll offer a few more observations.
Sarris had a huge influence on my taste, though I suppose I can no more see anyone going totally nuts for twilight Max Ophuls than I can see anyone doing so for a lot of what Brian De Palma does. But I don't see him or anyone else as an influence on my writing, and I doubt that any other film critic would want to claim me. My favorites have been Sarris, Vincent Canby, David Denby, A.O. Scott, Owen Gleiberman and the books of Danny Peary. I love reading Roger Ebert, though we agree maybe 35% of the time. I don't get to see Joe Morgenstern much because I quit reading the Wall Street Journal around the time its editorial page cruds were going out of their way to beat up on Bill Clinton. But I like him (as I did when he was with Newsweek in the '60s), and I have fond '60s memories of Renata Adler from her year at the Times. I used to love "talking" movies with Thelma Adams, a terrific person, but never saw her much in print. And I like reading my buddy Jack Mathews in the Daily News because he approaches movies like a no-bullshit sportswriter, which is what I think newspaper reviewing ought to do.
Man. I've certainly shot my mouth off enough, haven't I?
Aaron: Describe a typical week at USA Today. How many movies do you see in a week? Where do you do your writing, at home or the office? Where do you like to sit in a theater?
Mike: Sometime between every Thursday afternoon and Friday afternoon, the ad agency that handles the studios in Washington sends out the next week's screening schedule. It determines your life and the life of your family members, who have to adapt as well. Or to construct a newspaper analogy, the schedule is the ads, and the rest of your life (including personal life) must be the "copy" to be constructed around them.
In New York and LA, the studios have their own screening rooms, and most movies (even most bad ones) screen multiple times, allowing newspaper reviewers to assemble a workable itinerary. The collective movie press is strong enough in those cities--or at least, it used to be--that to do otherwise would result in a Manson Family response; "Pigs die" would be written on walls with the blood of studio personnel. But everywhere else in the country (Roger Ebert's situation presumably excepted) movies often screen only once--and often only once against a second movie that is also screening only once.
Why? Well, until the dynamics finally switch during the last six weeks of the year when movies for grownups finally start to come out, the studios basically don't want you to see a movie until as late as they can show it--while still avoiding the stigma of a "cold" opening, which is the worst stigma a movie can have. This is because most movies (and certainly most movies of the modern era) recede in estimation the more days that pass by. How many movies did I see last year that got better in retrospect? Well, Million Dollar Baby--and maybe there was even another one.
So there are two things that dominate everything else vis-à-vis my schedule: the screening lineup in general and the inevitable movie that doesn't screen till Tuesday night at 7:30 (when all final Friday review copy is due to my editors at 12:45pm Wednesday). So counting time, seeing, and then quickly writing up a single movie often dominates my entire block of, say, 5pm Tuesday till 12:30pm on Wednesday. Unfortunately, counting two weekly DVD columns and 1-2 other first-runs that I'm also reviewing, I have to be on top of 12-13 movies total. (And this guarantees you're always going to be working on a vacation because you'll never be able to work ahead and be on top of 24-26 movies in a single pop. At least I can't; in terms of DVDs, you don't even have all the product you need more than a week in advance.)
As far as I know (and this is borne out by DVD flacks), I probably cover DVD more than any theatrical reviewer and theatricals more than any other DVD reviewer. The tug-o-war between the two is extraordinary, and the time expenditure for it all broke up my marriage. There isn't much distinction between the regular week and the weekend. Counting commuting time to see each theatrical screening (90-to-120 minutes each way), it takes a pretty long day to do one movie: that's commuting, seeing the movie, writing about the movie, editing it after editors' suggestions, and dealing with the PR people who handle the movie. Doing the Friday DVD column takes about three days a week, and the fact that the better part of two of those days is my weekend doesn't alter that fact. The easier Tuesday DVD column I can often do in half-a-day because I sometimes recycle old material--though the one running tomorrow (as I write this) took about six hours because of fresh viewing. It varies.
I work at home almost exclusively because this is where all the DVD equipment, 57-inch TV, and surround speakers are. Depending on what time I got to bed, I usually rise at 8am and write till 4pm--constantly interrupted by emails and phone calls from PR folk for both theatricals and DVD. But that's only if there's not a screening. If there's a 10:30am, I'm out of here by 8:15 and back by 3 if I've taken 15 minutes for lunch. If there's a 2pm screening, I'm out of here by noon and back by 6pm. If it's a nighttime screening, I'm out of here by 5pm and back by (depending on the movie's length) somewhere between 11pm and (if it's a super long movie like The Aviator) 12:30am. Weekends are spent catching up on the first-runs my colleague Claudia Puig reviewed, though I'll sometimes catch one of these mid-week at a nearby multiplex (say, 4:50pm show) or on late Friday afternoons. Re: Friday-Saturday-Sunday nights, I spend at least two of these watching DVDs (as I do week nights when there isn't a first-run screening), though during baseball season I relax this some (I get the Yankees' YES Network via Direct TV, and the games they don't broadcast, I listen to on my laptop).
Somewhere throughout all this, you have to read books, read newspapers, keep massive files on upcoming theatricals and DVDs, see non-work-related movies for your own edification and crucial education, talk to your kids and not become such a dweeb that you have no social life or friends. Plus I've been involved for 24 years in a huge (first tape, now CDR) recording project to chronologically collect the Billboard hits and concurrent historically important tunes--and that has taken a lot of time. But that's another story. And did I mention working out at the gym? Well, that comes and goes.
Last year was one of my worst years ever for productivity because I spent most of it moving all my holdings--which, for starters, wiped out about 35-40 weekends. But I would say that in a good normal year, I see 380 feature films, of which 200 are that year's current releases--which does not count DVD commentaries and related featurettes, the sports DVDs I write on, the vintage-TV DVDs I write on, PBS documentaries under 70 minutes and so on.
If you're a national critic, there is only one week out of 52 when movies don't open: the first week of the year. Otherwise, there are people whose jobs it is to make sure there's no "down time"--a massive change from what it used to be when I first began doing this when you could easily squeeze out 6-7 weeks a year to have a "life."
In terms of where I sit in the theater: it's somewhere between two-thirds of the way back from the screen and the middle. But I really don't think it matters anymore now that the so-called "moviegoing experience" (in anything but a Landmark Theater or a specialized auditorium like MOMA's or the AFI's) is among the most unpleasant of all life experiences. You know: shows that come on ten minutes late, the bombardment of ads, 20 minutes of trailers for films you don't want to see--half of them with Ashton Kutcher; projectionists you can't find when there's a mis-frame; projectionists who hit a button so we get oldies rock and roll during the end credits of Troy--which happened to me--instead of what the composer composed.
But with DVD, it's all new and wonderful again.