The Amazing Adventures of Movie Mike
Aaron: What have your relationships with your editors been like? I know space at USA Today can be limited. How do you balance what you want to say with the amount of space you are given?
Mike: Hmmm, a loaded question. I've had my share of editorial Nurse Ratched's over the years, going back to my sixth grade teacher. On the short list of those who came close to being all-out psycopaths, she was the first--and thus prepared me for what was to come. Her most memorable hang-up was not allowing you to read paperback books; it could be The Bible, but if it were in paperback, she would take it away from you. I, of course, ignored her--to such an extent that she called my father in. His comment coming out of the meeting was, "Well, she didn't do anything for me." I already told you I got tossed out of 11th-grade English over how I wanted to write (which was a gift because it got me into the class of the best teacher I ever had: Ellis Lutz, who eventually left my high school to teach at Beverly Hills High and had Nicolas Cage in his class). The teacher who tossed me also called my father in, and he didn't like her, either (though I must admit that I eventually came to like her.) I had a Goldwater-ite ex-college cheerleader for senior English, and we were always at each other's throats. And when I was in college, the women editors tried to take the guts out of my copy some--though the worst confrontation (and the worst I ever saw anywhere) was Bruce Vilanch screaming at three femme copy editors and calling them three times to their faces the most obscene thing I've ever heard anyone say to anybody. All my run-ins have been with women--but the three best bosses I've ever had in my life have been women, and the woman editor I now have at USA Today is the best editor I've ever had. She was as well in the early 1990s until she took several years off to raise a child.
I try to be philosophical. I'm kind of a maverick in the profession, which is to say that a lot of the same idiosyncrasies that get me enthusiastic reader mail from pretty brainy people are also what make, I'm betting, other people (some also brainy) dislike or dismiss me. My editor in Detroit, who later became one of my first editors at USA Today, told me when I started: "Pretend you're talking to some guy in bar." And I thought: "Now this is something I can do." I've always been the class clown going all the way back to kindergarten (my teacher was worried about it), but if you can make readers laugh--that is, if the movie's tone or ineptitude makes wise-guy-ing it appropriate--you're set in the profession as long as you know, of course, something about movies in the first place. There are maybe a dozen acquaintances I think of when I'm writing so-called zingers, and if I know in my heart that a certain line would make them laugh, I don't take too kindly to someone else telling me they're not funny. Within four months in Detroit, I had the DJs on the rock stations quoting my zingers. (I got the job in the first place due to my AFI program notes, on which I was given my head. Which is not to deny that occasionally, someone's delete button saves me from myself.)
If you look at all the film critics who've made major marks all the way back to James Agee, you'll see that they had a lot of space to play with. So even if I were better than I am, I would still have the USA Today space crunch to deal with, and I could only be so good (which means not Agee, Kael, Sarris, Canby, Denby and on an on). I am convinced that the only way I escaped blackballing in the National Society of Film Critics' membership voting was due to the eclecticism of the home viewing column. When someone is whiplashing you with Sternberg and Robert Flaherty and a Western and a break-dancing movie on the same page, it's tough to say he's not doing the job.
My predecessor used to say that when writing for USA Today, he'd jot down the 20 points he most wanted to make, then spend the next half hour figuring out which 17 he was going to have to get rid of. All I can do is give a little plot and a little contextual history, then sprinkle in language or bent observations that are hopefully germane but definitely particular to me. A professional film programmer and good friend told me when Rain Man came out that I was the only reviewer in America who could have linked its premise (straight guy and strange guy in cross-country car trip) with Martin and Lewis doing the same thing in Frank Tashlin's Hollywood or Bust. That's what you try to do when you don't have space to play with: Find an off-the-wall observation (but a valid one) that tells a lot with a little.
Frankly, I don't know what I'd do if I had more space, other than probably enjoy writing more (which, by and large, is not nearly as much fun as programming was). But then I'd be viewing less. And I deal in volume--all those DVDs--and if you divide the number of movies by the days of the week, there just isn't time to get too elaborate.
Aaron: You seem to be one of a handful of critics who will go out of his way to mention when a film uses a pop song to good effect. I am thinking of your reviews of such films as 8 Mile, Almost Famous, and Boogie Nights. How important is the use of music in a film to you? Are there any recent movies that you feel have used music to great effect?
Mike: I'm very conscious of anachronisms in period movies and get driven up the wall when, say, a 1967 tune shows up in a movie set in 1963. Usually, given USA Today's space limitations, I only mention it when music is used very skillfully or very ineptly.
You know, going in, that Cameron Crowe is going to have too much love for music and respect for a given period to screw things up. Martin Scorsese is as good as anyone--always capturing the period but usually not utilizing obvious choices (and this is as true in The Aviator and Raging Bull as it is in movies set in the rock era). Jonathan Demme is outstanding--I think that with the possible exception of The T.A.M.I. Show and Woodstock (but here only if you take into consideration the non-concert stuff), Stop Making Sense is the best rock-concert film ever--but his movies of the last decade have kind of stifled his funk. I remember thinking that Adrian Lyne's movie of Lolita was extraordinary in its use of late-'40s tunes; someone really did the homework.
I didn't mind John Sayles using Bruce Springsteen for the "period" Baby, It's You because it was so anachronistic that you understood he was doing it to make a point. My recollection is that Wes Anderson's Rushmore made apt but not obvious use of pop. By this, a la Scorsese, I mean something that accurately reflects the period and is something the movie's characters might actually have been listening to--but nothing so obvious so as to make you think that the research crew simply looked at the five top Billboard tunes from a given year and plucked one out.
I sometimes get the sense that filmmakers use infectious tunes as a kind of crutch to "buy" an emotional response the movie can't supply itself. By far the best moment of the godawful Death to Smoochy is during the end credits with actors suspended to wires flying around to Jackie Wilson's exuberant "Higher and Higher." You just can't go wrong with that recording, unless you put it in The Merchant of Venice or something. But what it had to do with anything else in the rest of that movie is beyond me.
I think pop can really be overused--especially when you get the sense (whether true or not) that it's only being done to sell a soundtrack CD. I remember at the time loving how The Graduate used the Simon and Garfunkel tunes--and then lamenting how three-quarters of the movies that came out the following three-four years utilized the same kind of music "break" (if memory serves, I recall that John Wayne's Chisum, of all movies, was guilty of this). Usually, the better the director, the better the use of tunes. I remember how delighted I was when Stanley Kubrick used "Surfin' Bird" by the Trashmen for humorous and surreal effect during one of the key transitions in Full Metal Jacket. Either Kubrick was a Trashmen aficionado (I would like to think this) or he listened to an awful lot of 45s to find it.
The other thing is that if I still like the movie in spite of chronological "mangle," I can swallow the anachronisms. One of the worst good movies in this regard is the Alan Freed biopic American Hot Wax; it's all over the place in terms of what was popular when in the mid-to-late 1950s. But ultimately, the movie is so full of love for the music milieu portrayed--and the late Tim McIntire is so superb as Freed, even though he doesn't look that much like him--that I think, "Well, OK."
Aaron: Do you feel it necessary to stay in touch with pop culture in order to continue to be a good critic? In other words, have you reached a point where you find yourself saying, "These kids today don't know what good movies and music are?"
Mike: In theory, I think it's very important--but in terms of practicality, it's really tough, and I'm no longer very good at it. Sometimes, it's hard for me to believe that there've been two decades (the '50s and the '70s) when I really did manage to become a kind of a cutting-edge guy, even though I've always put in a lot of hours working every job I've ever had, which can really hamstring your ability to traverse the nooks and crannies.
I saw Roger Ebert concede not too long ago that he is not much of an expert on TV because a) if you're a professional moviegoer, you're going to be at a screening most nights; and b) he chooses, on his off nights, to keep up with his reading. Which, in his case, is a preference for fiction. I totally understand this. There are only so many hours in the day, and here, I'm not even addressing the conflict between being a film critic and being married--or to make it even tougher, having children who take part in sports and band practices and carpools and all that. This is not a job that lends itself to procreators, and there aren't many that are more family-unfriendly.
The point is, there are only so many hours of the day, and everyone has to make the choice of how to shuffle his or her own deck. I, too, much prefer reading to television--but in my case, I'm a non-fiction kind of guy (I probably read 10 non-fictions to every fiction I read, and when it's fiction, it's usually something old; right now, it's Sinclair Lewis's Elmer Gantry). I'm in my 53rd year of following the movies everyday, and I'm conscious of how much time I have left compared to the years I've put in up to this point. So in what discretionary time I have each week (and there's very little), I tend to view/read/listen to what I damned well want to without apology. And during baseball season, if I'm home, the Yankees are always on--even though I do maybe 3-4 things at a time while the game is airing (for instance, I spend an ungodly amount of time every week arranging and filing press releases for the DVD columns; I'm usually getting my feet wet for the future about 10 weeks ahead).
I made a conscious decision in 1962, when I was 15. I knew even then that I was going to have to give something up, and that it wasn't going to be movies, sports (though, alas, I've largely had to do this outside of sacrosanct baseball), reading, music, or political junkiedom. So that meant television. Of course, TV in the '60s was awful, kind of like a second division farm team for the movies. So it was an obvious decision to make. I never picked up the habit again, though these days, I sometimes become a fan of series TV when the respective DVDs come out, so I'm always two-three seasons behind in terms of knowledge. I do watch TV, but it tends to be Hardball or Meet the Press or ESPN Classic or something like that. Another example of giving up something else: Comic strips. I followed them religiously until 1964, when my local newspapers went on strike for two weeks. I got out of the habit and never went back.
In terms of music, I was already 33 by 1980, and what happened to me is what happens to a lot of people at that age: They get more interested in jazz and classical than they've been hitherto. In my case, I also started an archival recording project spanning 1935 forward, where I attempted to collect the major pop recordings from that period forward on audiotape--and subsequently doing an improved version on CDRs (I am up to 1972 as we speak). So that has mired me some in the past because when I take on a project, I usually go whole-hog.
The strange thing about covering DVDs is that you can be both retro and up to date at the same time. We're now seeing prints that are much, much better than what you could see in many cases theatrically when I was programming 25 and 30 years ago. When I saw Criterion's DVD of The Seventh Seal, I just couldn't (and can't) conceive of it having looked as good on opening night in Stockholm as it now looks in my basement.
I do, as we speak, want to fill in my gaps and explore what I don't know. But if you count the sports, I'm probably upwards of 9000 in VHS, laser disc, or DVD holdings, and I'm spending the early days of my new bachelorhood re-seeing a lot of films I haven't seen in 20-40 years. I've picked out three years (1930--because that's the first "real" year of sound; 1954--because that's the first full year where I was on top of movies for the entire 365; and 1960--because that's the first year of the '60s--though, as well all know, the real '60s didn't begin until JFK's death, the Beatles, and Dr. Strangelove all hit within about six weeks of each other). And I'm going through each title one by one and looking at the ones that strike my fancy. Also: I got that book 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die and am watching everything in it that I have (about 98%)--starting with 1930 forward but also going backwards any time I'm in the mood for a silent.
To get back to what I said before: There are only so many hours in the day, and today (a Saturday), I wiped out a five-hour travel/viewing package seeing the only advance screening in town of Son of the Mask. That kind of egregious time-waste makes you very protective of the day's remainder. Still, if this were an ideal world, I think critics should watch at least one movie per week per decade. It's like working out: You have to be toned.
And, one last thing: Whether I'm right about this or not, I do consider myself to be somewhat of a social animal. You at least have to try to get perspective, get away from all this nonsense at times, get a little romance in your life and try not to become a movie dweeb.
Aaron: As a Chicago lover--and Moulin Rouge hater--what is your take on the supposed re-birth of the movie musical? While everyone seemed to love Chicago, would it be safe to say that the reason Moulin Rouge divided audiences was because it was seen to be straddling the fine line between stage-bound, old-school Broadway musicals while embracing the quick-cut editing rhythms of the MTV generation? To paraphrase the Buggles: Did music videos kill the movie musical?
Mike: Personally, I think Chicago's numbers crunched so loudly because it got heterosexual men to go see it and enjoy it when they ordinarily wouldn't touch a musical. (I heard this again and again; "I usually hate musicals, but..."). There was lots of implied sex and scantily-clad lookers filling the frame; I think this wore down a lot of resistance, enabling that demographic to take a clear look and realize it was a good picture. Also cynical and not sappy.
Moulin Rouge was never going to be any more than a niche picture, and I'm surprised it even did as well as it did. If I want to watch a musical where no one can sing, I guess I'd rather go back to Paint Your Wagon, because at least Clint Eastwood doing "I Talk to the Trees" is funny. In terms of Baz Luhrmann, I admit to liking William Shakespeare's Romeo + Juliet because, for one thing, I thought he cast it so well. But otherwise, I found Strictly Ballroom unbearable from the get-go; if I recall correctly, I think it's winking at the audience in a kind of "aren't I cute" fashion within the first minute. I think Moulin Rouge is a totally soulless movie, and I think Damien Bona in the last Inside Oscar book was right when he said that had it won, it would have been the most hated best picture winner in Academy history. To me one of the great things about musicals, even the mid-level ones at MGM (say, an I Love Melvin) was the charm of the performers. And whatever else you want to say about Moulin Rouge, charming it's not. I'll give it points on décor, but of course, this is the kind of thing even routine Hollywood movies used to do well in the Technicolor era.
I think the musical was dead long before MTV. I think the money-losing extravaganzas of the late '60s (some of which were actually good; some underrated; some really awful) were the final blow. And the long stretch of the-Vietnam-That-Wouldn't-End and then two years of Watergate probably hardened resistance and forever relegated the form to quaintness. The only way to get around this is to fashion a musical that doesn't seem traditional or, worse, old-fashioned--the way Chicago and Saturday Night Fever did. But just because you can have a one-shot hit doesn't mean that you're going to regenerate an entire genre--any more than Silverado or Unforgiven brought the Western back.
Maybe if Ewan McGregor and Nicole Kidman hadn't reminded me of Donny & Marie when they stood together.
Aaron: As a critic do you feel movies have the right to tackle topics that some people would view as off-limits? For example: Do you think nihilism is a worthy subject for a movie? I ask this because I noticed you've praised the work of Larry Clark but didn't seem to connect with Gasper Noe's Irreversible?
Mike: Well, movies have a right to tackle anything they want--in theory--but as Charlton Heston once said (and God knows, I hate to agree with him on anything, but on this he's right), movies are one of the few or only art forms where the artist can't afford the tools of his craft. I used to be an exhibitor and had to worry about putting asses in the seats, so I probably have more sympathy than many in my current field with the backers who have to get their money back.
Like anything else, I don't think it's the theme or topic itself that's potentially off-limits--just the treatment or execution. I'm pretty open-minded but don't think, just to pick a stray example off a tree, anyone could make a comedy (or successful one) about child molestation. And even if one could, I don't think society would be less enriched if some authority figure in charge of purse strings would simply say, "I think you'd better put that idea in File 13."
If someone could pull off a good movie on nihilism, more power to him/her, but you still have to construct it in a way that is stimulating to an audience, and that isn't easy. The Larry Clark question is interesting. I'd like to sit down someday (I think) and re-see Kids and Bully together, and see why I so hated the first and liked the second. I was pretty floored when I liked Bully but thought Clark dramatized the story in a way that was, unlike Kids, focused. I thought Irreversible, which I didn't totally pan, was kind of a gimmick film--in that it depended upon being told backwards (though I do find movies that scramble time interesting). But I thought there really wasn't a whole lot in it--and that if you'd have taken the same footage and shown it in straight chronology, no one would have given the film the time of day. But I do think the rape scene does point up the disconnect between the film community and the other 99.5% of people who ever walked the earth--that is, the folks one of my editors (to my occasional consternation) calls "real people." Most couldn't conceive that a rape scene like that could have ever been filmed or that people would have paid money to see it. And it's not because all of these people are dull-wits, either. So I can see both sides on this issue--though, if you take it too far the conservative way, you really let the idiot claque take over. Like, say, someone who'd much prefer The Treasure of the Sierra Madre not have a downbeat ending or some such nonsense.