The Amazing Adventures of Movie Mike
Aaron: You are on record as saying that Star Wars is overrated while Return of the Jedi is underrated. Please explain this rather provocative stance. Some SW fans might take exception to any film with Ewoks in it.
Mike: Well, one can make a statement like that and still think the first is better than the second--it's just a question of proportionality stemming from the respective reps of each. The remark you quote was my immediate reaction after seeing all three again when the spiffier, messed-with versions played theaters years ago. Maybe I would change my mind today, on another run-through. But I will tell you I did have a better time at Jedi on that go-round. For one thing, I thought the actors had gotten better.
I'm going to punt here, though. I'm not the right guy to really talk to about these movies, which will, of course, cause me problems when Revenge of the Sith comes out. Ironically, I gave Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones (particularly it) higher ratings than most because I went in regarding them as just any old movies. I didn't have the nostalgia baggage so many did. Based on the last 45 minutes, which I thought really redeemed the movie and pulled it out, I regarded Clones as a pretty good Ray Harryhausen pic from 1958, not a comedown sequel to the Second Coming.
When people say, "it's generational," to refer to to anything, they're to some degrees right. I was 30 when Star Wars came out. I had seen storefront windows busted up in political protest at NYU during Vietnam and working in the Library of Congress on Capitol Hill during Watergate. So, how much was Star Wars really going to get to me after seeing real history first-hand? What's more, I didn't have a single friend--many of whom were every-night moviegoers; we had two great commercial rep theaters plus the AFI at walking-distance disposal--who was crazy about it. That doesn't mean they hated it, but it wasn't like a new Altman or a new Jack Nicholson. In fact, the only adult I knew who was crazy about it (a nice guy, let me add) was a relative-by-marriage whose mind never got out of junior high on a lot of levels.
One thing about Star Wars: I just couldn't get excited about the actors. I mean, this was before even Harrison Ford got good. And if Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher were so interesting, why did their subsequent careers go so immediately south? Also: George Lucas's American Graffiti is still one of my favorite movies of all time, with all those great performances (I saw it really early in Denver, where Universal had initially dumped it, long before it got a Washington first-run engagement). So Star Wars was a disappointment to me the way the Matrix movies were after the Wachowski Brothers had done such a marvelous job with Bound, which I think is better than the best parts of all three Matrix movies put together.
I do think you are a product of the movies you grow up with, and it's one of the things that make the movies great if you don't let it hamper you. I also think that the Star Wars contingent probably puts unrealistic expectations on the current sequels, though it would certainly help matters if Lucas got better at directing actors. (A really smart guy I sat next to at work told me as long ago as 1973--long before Star Wars--that Lucas, by basis of the fact that the weakest scenes in Graffiti were the few that involved adults, had yet to prove he could direct adults. I never forgot that.) As to my own formative years, I can look at The Searchers and Rear Window, and Rebel without a Cause today and feel in my marrow that they're still great (it helps that history and film literature concur). But my stock line about nostalgia has always been: "If I were a slave to my taste a child, Rory Calhoun would be the greatest actor who ever lived. And he isn't."
The other thing about my personal taste: I have a fairly low tolerance for certain kinds of fantasies (people who gravitate toward journalism like train wrecks and savings-and-loan scandals). But I love fantasies grounded in reality--like, say, time-travel romances; I'm continually disappointed that no one ever came up with the $150 million to do Jack Finney's Time and Again right. And I have come to love E.T., after having resisted it initially. But I probably have it in a little for space fantasies because I've seen the irreparable social harm 30 years of fantasy gorging has done to the movies--to say nothing of spawning generations that grew up playing video games instead of reading books. I have two teenaged sons and I fear I know of what I speak.
Again, this makes it sound as if I have it in for Star Wars, but I don't. It's just that they're just any old movies for me.
Aaron: What are your duties as an editor of Leonard Maltin's Movie & Video Guide? Is there any chance you can get him to see the light on Taxi Driver or Memento?
Mike: They have changed over the years. Leonard and I met through a mutual friend when we were both at NYU; I am three-and-a-half years his senior, so I was in grad school and he an undergraduate. At that time the first movie guide had come out and, ironically, I had reviewed it (favorably) at Ohio State. He did not know if there'd ever be a second edition--as hard as it is to believe now, I think there was a five-year gap between volumes 1 and 2--but asked me if I'd like to work on a follow-up if the project came through. I, of course, said yes. We had hit off immediately: The Jerry Lewis connection was one thing, but we were both also monster Louis Prima fans before Louis came back into super-vogue. There is no nicer person than Len and (it's possible some people aren't aware of this), he's a very funny guy. I love his sense of humor, which is another way of saying that he laughs at my wisecracks. And yes, he had the beard even when way back when.
Years passed, and I was on the AFI Catalog in the Library of Congress when we got the go-ahead. The deadline was brutal: I did about 600 entries in NO time (far more than I ever did for any other edition). I didn't realize at first that Leonard and I disagree a lot on movies--probably because it was 1973, and we're very much in taste-synch up to the early-to-mid 1970s. So over the years--and this is not a subject we broach very much, and when we do, it's usually by me--we have agreed to disagree. My joke to him is that the first thing I do is look up my 10-best list from the year before, just to make sure that they all have the **1/2 ratings I'm expecting. This is what Ghost World got, and Ghost World (with Mike Leigh's Topsy-Turvy the only close runner-up) is my favorite movie of the past 6-7 years. My stock line is: "Ghost World brings out the teenage girl in me, which is not an easy thing to do."
We do have one running gag: Billy Wilder's Maltin-panned Kiss Me, Stupid is my all-time cause celebre; I saw it five times first-run and thought it was a masterpiece from the get-go despite being one of the worst reviewed movies of the decade. I have thoroughly enjoyed watching its rep grow 500-fold in the years since (though it was always admired in Europe). So forget Taxi Driver and Memento; my futile Leonard begging predates both of those films, and Len won't budge on it.
I've only known one other person in my life who might know as much about movies as Leonard, so my respect for him is boundless. But I do think the divergence of our taste tells you a lot about our personalities. He is old-school and totally without a mean streak. I get pissed off easily, was voted "class nuisance" in ninth grade (now there's a resume-maker), love screen cynicism, and am of schizophrenic-school. I mean, what can you say of someone who has one foot in the '50s, one foot in the '60s and thinks the '70s were the movies' best decade (or at least the 1967-77 period)?
These days, Leonard sees an awful lot of new-to-the-year movies, so in recent times I've been assigned a lot of the dregs that even he won't endure. Which is OK by me because you can be funnier on those titles--and Leonard, unlike USA Today, doesn't cut a lot of my so-called zingers. (A huge percentage of the truly off-the-wall--or if your prefer, "sick"--Maltin entries are mine.) Sometimes, he will go over a list of titles with me before hand, to see which ones on which we're in basic agreement. If we are, I might get the assignment. Very occasionally, he will be uncomfortably aware that his opinion, vis-à-vis a specific title, is in a vast minority, and he may ask me, if I'm of the majority view, to do it. So I think that speaks well of him.
By the way, I was supposed to work on Len's just-published corollary guide covering vintage titles (1960 backwards to, say, Thomas Edison screwing in a light bulb). But the tight deadline coincided exactly with the period when I was moving 9000 movies et. al. into a new house, so I had to say no. It's the greatest disappointment of my professional career.
Aaron: What new trend or trends in movies do you see happening in the next five years? Are movies getting better?
Mike: I think what we've seen the past few years will continue in spades unless something economically catastrophic occurs to spark the charting of some new course. Mainstream movies will continue to be generally awful for the first 44-46 weeks of the year, and the movie years that turn out to be good when all is said and done will not have seemed so until the final two months come to the rescue and pull them out. I think grownups--I mean people to whom a bank will loan money--will go less and less to the movies in theaters but find their love for movies renewed by bigger home screens and better sound systems. (One of my neighborhood theaters just raised its bargain matinee price to $7.00--and for this, I'm going to sit through Coke ads and 20 minutes of trailers for stupid comedies? After I've had to go up and tell the projectionist that the show was supposed to have come on eight minutes ago? Or struggle to find a person in charge when there's been a mis-frame on screen for two minutes? Or, as happened to me just the other day at a huge multiplex--they had no popcorn?) A colleague of mine--also a member of the National Society of Film Critics--said to me not long ago that he really wonders if people will even be seeing movies in theaters in two generations. I won't so far as to suggest this; teenagers will always be longing to get out of the house.
This said, I think DVD is kind of at its peak right now until the next technological advances kick in and we begin the recycling process (as we did VHS-to-laser, then laser-to-DVD) again. I mean, how many commercially viable catalogue titles are left now that rights to the John Wayne Batjacs (including The High and the Mighty) have been finally negotiated? Obviously, there are many Holy Grails left--but not enough to sustain the flood of oldies (believe me, I'm not complaining) we've seen the past couple years.
I think the big change in movies--and it's now been this way for years--has been the collapse of the mid-range release. In other words, I'm not really a nostalgist: I think the best movies of one year can pretty well compete with the best of another. But I have a 1949-to-1990-something run of the old hardback film annual Screen World, and I can leaf through them at least into the late 1970s and find 120-140 movies each year I'd like to see or re-see. Now, a lot of them would not be great or even successful, but they'd have some component(s) to make them of interest or a compelling curio. The way it works today, you reach a certain number of good releases, and the elevator falls about 200 floors. Last year ended up being a pretty solid year overall, thanks to a strong finish. But 70% of 2004 was about as bad as it gets, though I am of course talking about Hollywood product (which at least in theory is supposed to rule the world).
Sociologically, the movies are the most diverse they've ever been (albeit on a low budget), which is what's largely saving them now. But when people talk about this kind of diversity, they never talk about the wide choice of genres there used to be for the everyday moviegoer: the costume dramas, Westerns, historical movies in general, film noirs and musicals we basically never get anymore. All the eight trillion dumb comedies look the same, all the urban thrillers look the same, all the coming attractions look and sound the same (with the audio tracks that are like getting slammed repeatedly on the head with a 2-by-4).
You see the trailers for these things and know they're going to open big...and also know they're going to take 50-60% box office drops on week two. I was so amused a couple years ago when apologists starting advancing the line, "Well, today's youth likes to see these movies opening week to enhance their social standing, so it's normal that that the grosses would quickly fall off to substantial degree." About the time I was hearing this, guess what? Finding Nemo and Pirates of the Caribbean actually did sustain themselves. And guess what? Those were only the two commercial movies of the period that really delivered the entertainment goods--and the only two that any even half-assed exhibitor would know automatically were going to fly. Gee, what a coincidence. What brain surgery or rocket science to figure out.
Aaron: Finally, after dedicating your life and passion to movies, what do you think your legacy will be?
Mike: I'd like to think that because I started so young, I've not only been a product of my Boomer era (i.e. present at the creation--and fervid enthusiast of--rock and roll) but also first-hand appreciative of what has occurred in entertainment long before then. I mean, can you imagine: When Entertainment Weekly did its poll of the top entertainers of the 20th century, Madonna finished above Frank Sinatra. And Bing Crosby didn't finish in the top 20, even though he's the most important entertainer of the century's entire first half by such a huge margin that it would be tough to say who'd be in second place (Al Jolson, probably). [Ed's note: The EW poll of top Entertainers that Mike mentions only covered the last 50 years of the 20th century--the Pop Culture years. This is why Bing Crosby did not make the list.] So I've brought an unusually rich perspective to this profession, though the great thing about living in a city as brainy as Washington, D.C.--with its emphasis on history of every kind--is that you meet an awful lot of people whose taste also covers the waterfront.
When I was programming, I tried (in some cases, rabidly) to mix my calendars up in an especially eclectic way. That is, to make the case that, given the right context, the movies being shown were "all our children," whether the lead actor was John Gielgud or Roger Maris. I always used to joke that my idea of a perfect calendar would be one that featured retrospectives on Chekhov and Phil Harris. And I try to bring the same eclectism to my home viewing columns.
I wasn't the first newspaper writer to have one, but I was early enough to qualify as a pioneer. Everything led to this dream (other than the fact that it completely takes over your life) assignment. First, I followed, in elementary school, the sale of the pre-1949 Hollywood films to local TV stations in the mid-to-late 1950s, hooking Boomer kids on to old movies. Then the flood of network movie presentations, beginning with NBC's Saturday at the Movies in fall, 1961--the year the post-1949's got sold to local stations (and I worked for years at one) as well. Which created the base for large-market repertory theaters a few years later and the heyday of rep (years and years of my life spent there), which lasted until Beta and VHS. Which led to a lot of executives and underlings in the various studios' "Classics Divisions" moving over to home video.
I was there for all this and have tried to reflect all this history in my writing without being stuffy about it. It'll be 20 years this summer that I took over the column. In 1991, the weekend of Desert Storm, they didn't run it; another time, in the early 2000's, they got a space crunch one week and ran it only on the USA Today website. But in both of those cases, I still delivered a column, so from my point of view I feel like a minor league Cal Ripken. Through vacation, childbirth, death in the family, divorce mediation and moving, I've ground one out (and since December 5, 2003, two) above and beyond being senior movie critic. I don't know how long I can continue to do it, but if there's one thing I'd really like to take a lot of credit for, this is it. It hasn't been easy, and it cost me my marriage.
No doubt the bad news for some is that, because I did start so early, I'm not that old even now--and now that I'm getting divorced and my children are approaching the twilight of their teens, it's going to be easier to focus. So even though the Friday column's 20th anniversary and my 40th high school reunion will coincide almost exactly this summer, I'm likely to be around for a long time.
(And speaking of long, I realize I've filled a book here. Maybe it's the fact that my space limitations at the paper are such that I just couldn't resist this dam burst, which has surprised even myself. But this has been a welcome chance to answer questions only my friends have ever asked before.)
The movies have taken a lot from my "real life" (such as it's been) but they've given me a lot, too. It would be enough just to brag that I was fortunate enough to have been at a Northern Virginia Roy Rogers Restaurant in the late 1970s when a teenage punk knocked Roy's hat off by hitting him in the face with a pie, and Roy yelled (over the mike), "Let me at that little son of a bitch." But thanks to the confluence of my programming and then journalistic career, I did literally get to "talk baseball" with both Cary Grant and Akira Kurosawa. Not a bad epitaph for a small-town Midwesterner--and I'll take it.