Matt Zoller Seitz.
Matt Zoller Seitz is a critic and filmmaker. He is the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com, television critic for New York magazine, and author of The Wes Anderson Collection. He lives in New York.
He was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1994, for his film criticism at the Dallas Observer. Since then, he has carved out a mobile and sturdy career, writing film and television reviews and essays for the New York Press, The Star-Ledger, The New York Times, Slate, Salon, and The House Next Door, which he founded.
His writing is characterised by the openness and ease of his prose, and his respect and affection for the general audience; a respect that does not hinder his ability to formulate and communicate advanced formal analyses.
He has expanded on this formal perceptiveness in his ongoing production of innovative short video essays on film history and style, produced for The L Magazine, Criterion, The Museum of the Moving Image, and elsewhere. He is also the director of the feature film Home (2005).
His latest book The Wes Anderson Collection is a compilation of chapter-length interviews with Anderson and short analytic essays by Seitz, addressing the director’s films one by one. Lushly printed, with original art and previously unpublished photographs, the book is also a generous index of Anderson’s visual and cultural influences.
This interview took place between New York and Melbourne, via Skype.
- James Robert Douglas
I. On Vindicated Beliefs
TLB: Could explain a little bit about the genesis of The Wes Anderson Collection?
MZS: What do you mean, like how the book came about?
TLB: I think it’s your first book, as far as I can tell. Is that right?
MZS: It is actually my second book. I wrote a quickie biography of Brad Pitt almost twenty years ago, and it paid for my move to New York.
TLB: Who published the Brad Pitt biography?
MZS: This publisher in Dallas—who normally published, like, baseball card collectors manuals—decided he was going to get into the celebrity biography business, and called me up one day and said “hey, I’ll pay you ten thousand dollars to write a biography of Brad Pitt, but you have to finish it in the next three months and there won’t be any royalties.” And I said that’s fine. My wife and I were about to move to New York, anyway, and we needed the money. And so I wrote it. It was that simple. I don’t even remember the name of the publisher, but they were local, and the guy operated out of an office in a warehouse district. It was really tiny. It was kind of a fly by night operation.
TLB: I’m picturing one of those very 1990s ‘the unauthorized story’ type biographies.
When I actually saw the finished product it kind of blew my mind, because it looked like a giant issue of Tiger Beat magazine.
MZS: Well, actually it was a big, picture driven book. I wrote the text, and I was trying to keep my self-respect, so it was like David Thomson’s Biographical Dictionary of Film, but about Brad Pitt. It was 1996 and he had just barely started to be taken seriously as an actor. When I actually saw the finished product it kind of blew my mind, because it looked like a giant issue of Tiger Beat magazine.
TLB: So, you were writing it as though it was traditional film criticism, doing an analysis of his roles?
MZS: I was determined that this thing was going to be a serious work of criticism of this actor’s career. You can actually buy used copies of it on Amazon if you want a few laughs. It’s funny, because there will be two or three pages of fairly intense analysis of his technical choices as an actor, and then it’s like “and then he met Jennifer Aniston and they began a whirlwind courtship”. Imagine if The Biographical Dictionary of Film was periodically interrupted by paragraphs from People magazine.
TLB: Has your assessment of Pitt’s career been borne out?
MZS: Yes. Actually, I was laughed at by a good many of my peers when they discovered that I’d written that book. In 1995 or ’96, people didn’t just go to Amazon and plug in somebody’s name and have everything they’ve ever written come up. It was something you had to know about, and people were discovering it. Occasionally people would write letters to NY Press—where I was a film critic from 1996 through 2006—and if they disagreed with me occasionally they would add something like “well, what do you expect from a guy who wrote a biography of Brad Pitt”.
TLB: Well, you were ahead of the curve on that one.
MZS: I’m glad that my completely sincere belief that he was a really good actor has been vindicated.
II. On Portraiture
TLB: So, The Wes Anderson Collection is your second book, then. As I understand it, the book was developed out of a series of video essays you were doing.
MZS: A few weeks after the video essays were published at the Museum of the Moving Image’s website, Wes Anderson emailed me. We hadn’t talked in a few years, and he emailed me to say, very humbly, “thank you so much for taking the time to do this series of video essays,” and “they were very insightful,” and “how are you doing?” and so we caught up a little bit after that.
Then not too long after that, this editor, Eric Klopfer from Abrams, called me up and said, “Hey, I saw that series of video essays. I’m a really big fan of Wes Anderson, and I’m trying to get my publishing house to do a book about his films, and I think you would be the perfect person to write it. What do you think about finding a way to turn these video essays into a book somehow?”
I don’t know at what point it became a book length interview with Wes, but that’s what happened. At some point the project mutated. Originally it was going to be a straightforward critical look at his work, and then it turned into a portrait of Wes the filmmaker in the form of a book.
And that’s what I’m doing now. The next book I’m doing is about Oliver Stone, and it’s going to be the same kind of book, but it will look different and feel different because it’s Oliver Stone rather than Wes Anderson. It probably won’t be as winsome and charming as the Wes Anderson book. It’ll be a much darker and edgier book. I can already tell it’s going to be different in terms of the content, because Wes is a very private guy, and he didn’t want to talk too much about his personal life. And I respected that, so it ended up being very much just a study of the work. But the Oliver Stone book is much more personal, and it’s more like a biography in the form of an interview. It’s going to be fascinating, I think.
But I felt from the beginning that this had to be a visual experience.
TLB: What was the thinking behind the final product form that the Anderson book takes? I was surprised, once I learned about it, that it would be a coffee-table-style book. This seems like an unusual way to present the material.
MZS: What I was trying to do was create a coffee table book that had the same feeling that you would get reading David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog, or The House Next Door: the way that you’d be reading an interview with a filmmaker, and maybe there’s a part where the filmmaker starts talking about their fascination with Charles Schultz, and then, lo and behold, there’s some frames from a Peanuts cartoon interrupting the text; and the conversation continues and after a while it turns toward Francois Truffaut, and there are a few stills from The 400 Blows or Wild Child.
I thought, well, this seems like a logical way to lay out a book if it’s a conversation. It’s a visual medium, so having a lot of pictures to augment the text makes sense. This is certainly a book that could easily have been published as a book-length interview with Wes. We could strip all the written content out of it and just publish that alone, and I’m sure that some people might have been perfectly happy. But I felt from the beginning that this had to be a visual experience.
III. On Close Readings
TLB: I’m interested in the interview process you had with Anderson. What kind of plan did you have before talking with him?
MZS: I didn’t really have a plan. I just thought that we would have a conversation. The only parameters would be that we set a time limit on each conversation—usually ninety minutes, sometimes we went longer—and that we would confine it to the film and to subjects related to the film.
I thought that might give the text a nice shape, if all the interviews were structured a little bit. But beyond that there was no shopping list of questions. There were certain things I would write down. For The Life Aquatic I wanted to know about his fascination with Jacques Cousteau and the origin of the sea creatures – which were stop motion animated, which is very unusual. For The Royal Tenenbaums I knew New York was going to be a big part of that discussion. But beyond that I didn’t have any specific agenda.
TLB: One of the things that I think is really interesting, when it comes up in the book, is how Anderson reacts to these close readings you’re doing to his texts. You record all these responses where he just goes “hmm” as his only answer to the statements you’re making. It’s interesting when an artist is confronted with a close reading of their work.
And on some other level you know that looking at it that way shuts down the complexity of looking at a work of art.
MZS: The kind of reaction you get really depends on the filmmaker. There are some filmmakers who are quite comfortable with that sort of question and others who aren’t comfortable with it for a variety of reasons. In Wes’s case, there are a couple of point in the book where he says “yes, that is more or less what I was trying to do”, or “yes, but there’s also this other thing.” And then there are other times when he literally shrugs. But the thing to know about Wes is that he is extremely adamant that he not propose, or endorse, any reading of his movies as the official one.
He’s really an absolutist about that, and it can be frustrating for a critic, or for a viewer, to suggest a possible way of looking at his movies. On some level you do want that validation – or at least you want him to say, “No, you’re wrong, here’s what it is.” And on some other level you know that looking at it that way shuts down the complexity of looking at a work of art.
I did a video essay for the Blu-ray edition of The Darjeeling Limited and Wes’s only note to me said, “I like this, but the problem is it sounds too authoritative. And I’m afraid that if we put this video essay on the disc as is, people might mistakenly believe that I personally endorse your reading of The Darjeeling Limited, and I don’t want them to think that.”
And I said, “Well, what do we do, then?” He said, “It’s all about your voice: it sounds to official. Is there anything you can do so that it sends the message that this is one guy’s opinion and it’s okay to have a different opinion?”
I asked a Criterion producer: “Can we just go into the studio and you have the complete printed out text of my narration and you just sit across from me in a chair and ask me questions about The Darjeeling Limited based on my script?” And that’s what we did, and we recorded it, and if you listen to it you can hear that it sounds like I’m just spontaneously coming up with all this stuff. It sounds like it’s the result of me being interviewed by somebody about The Darjeeling Limited. It’s very off the cuff and there’s parts where I’m stumbling, or trying to think of the right word. I’m saying the exact same things that I was saying in the more formal, written version, but it just feels different. I gave that cut to Wes, and he said, “Yeah, this is pretty much exactly what I was hoping for. Thank you, we’re done.”
So that’s a pretty long story, but I tell it to you because that’s Wes’s attitude about interpretation and critics. He’s not against it. In some cases, if he thinks you’re right, he’ll tell you “Yeah, I agree with you” or “I disagree with you.” But he generally tries not to comment one way or the other because he wants his work to be open to interpretation in the most literal sense.
He’s very, very forthcoming in discussing his physical process of making his movies, in some cases including the writing process: why this emphasis in a film and not some other emphasis. He’ll talk about that. But when it gets down to the core of it, like, “What am I trying to say? What does it mean? What are you supposed to take away from this?” he totally shuts down, because he just doesn’t want to go there. And I respect that.
The Wes Anderson Collection, by Matt Zoller Seitz. Published by Abrams. 336pp., 9780810997417.
It’s a different process talking to Oliver Stone, where you can sit there and talk for two hours just about a particular montage in one of his movies, and he’ll tell you exactly what he was trying to do. You’ll sit there talking about what worked and what didn’t, and ways in which he felt misinterpreted and misunderstood or vilified. It’s a completely different way of looking at it, and I don’t think one way is more valid than the other way. It’s the same thing with actors. Certain actors are very eloquent about their craft. For example, Alec Baldwin is incredibly eloquent. He could be, and maybe has been, an acting teacher. Whereas Robert De Niro is certainly a great actor, but if you’ve ever interviewed De Niro he often can’t or won’t talk about his process. And it doesn’t mean that Alec Baldwin is a better or more interesting actor than Robert De Niro. They just have a different way of doing it.
TLB: That’s interesting to me, particularly in a one on one context when you’re interviewing the filmmaker. In the Darjeeling Limited chapter Anderson talks about the process of creating his films. He seems to indicate that narrative directions or particular choices aren’t made with any ‘meaning’ in mind: they’re just the accretion of certain decision about what a character will or won’t do, or what will be interesting to happen next. Did your approach to the conversations change at that point, finding him resistant to this concept of meaning in his films?
MZS: Not really. I feel like the reason why I left that stuff in is that it illuminates him as a person. Also, it’s ultimately my book. So even if Wes doesn’t respond to my interpretations of his films, my interpretation is still going to appear on the page, where people can read it and agree or disagree with it. That’s my feeling on those particular parts of it.
In some cases he does respond, and in other cases he doesn’t. He’s very tactical and almost deflective about it. But I feel like this is something I don’t think people really understand about the book, because there’s only one of them. But when there’re more books I think people will understand. These books are: I am a portrait artist and I am painting a portrait of directors, in book form. And this portrait of Wes includes the fact that he does not like to answer questions about the meaning of his movies. I could have chosen to omit that stuff, as being ultimately not productive. But I feel like it is very revealing of Wes to have that in there. And I think it’s much more effective to have that in there than to simply summarise it at the beginning of the chapter, and say “I asked him a bunch of questions about the meaning of The Life Aquatic and he didn’t answer them.”
TLB: For me it’s also an interesting example of the work of criticism: that the writer develops a reading of a film that really is independent of what a filmmaker necessarily has to intend. This is something that I think people sometimes have trouble understanding about criticism, that it’s a creative work all on its own.
MZS: Right. And that’s something that I’ve tried to convey for almost twenty-five years now. I started doing this professionally in 1991. I went to school to be a novelist and filmmaker. I went to a visual arts high school; I was a painter, a print maker and sculptor. I made these very elaborate, anatomically correct reproductions of the human muscular system welded out of coat hangers. I made lithographs, I made etchings, and silkscreens and all of this stuff. The only reason I ended up studying writing rather than art was that I got slightly more scholarship money offered to me for my writing. If I’d gotten a couple of thousand dollars more in scholarship money to a particular school, I might have ended up as an artist.
I want the form that my criticism takes to be a creative expression.
What I’m saying is: I’m a creative person. I want the form that my criticism takes to be a creative expression. I don’t want it to be just an information delivery device. I want it to be fun, and colourful, and interesting.
My video essays in particular are kind of key. If you go back and look at these video essays they’re not all the same. In many cases the video essays are doing the same think I’m doing in The Wes Anderson Collection, which is painting a portrait of the genre that I’m exploring. The thing I did on zombie films is basically a zombie movie; it’s edited, and scored, and has the shape of and feel of a zombie film. The two-parter I did about Clint Eastwood and revenge is very deliberately edited in the rhythm of a Clint Eastwood film. It’s slower, and more meditative than my video essays are normally.
So if you go back and look at those video essays and then you look at The Wes Anderson Collection you go, “oh, of course, it’s all kind of the same thing.”
IV. On Representing Mental Processes
TLB: When you were speaking about the form of the book, you mentioned you wanted a multimedia aspect to go with the text. That reminded me of the technique you undertake in the video essays as well: drawing these visual connections around what you’re narrating.
MZS: Well, look at the conversation we’re having on the phone. We’re not in the same room, we don’t have any visual texts that we can refer to commonly as we’re talking, and yet as I talk to you, and as you talk to me, you mention a particular actor or particular film and in my mind I picture them, and the same thing with me talking to you.
The layout of The Wes Anderson Collection is the same idea. The conversation between me and Wes is the spine of the book, but the images that are appearing are keyed off of what I am thinking about as I am talking to Wes – in theory, what Wes is also thinking about, but I wouldn’t presume to guess what Wes is thinking about, because I’m not him. This book is a representation of my mental process.
There’s an aesthetic to the book and it’s my aesthetic, not Wes’s. When you read The Wes Anderson Collection you’re not getting Wes Anderson’s movies, you’re getting my personal response to Wes Anderson’s movies.
TLB: I was wondering about how you came to develop your video essay technique? The way you talk about it, it sounds like you’re aware of it as being an art form in itself. Were there any particular filmmakers or films that formally inspired these essays?
MZS: Well, certainly. I would say that Chuck Workman’s montages for the Oscars are a big influence on me. They’re very free-associative and playful. And Siskel and Ebert. On their TV show, everybody remembers them sitting in chairs and arguing about movies, but many people don’t remember that they used to do video essays. They were short: usually a minute or two minutes. But sometimes they’d do a long one. In a couple of cases they did whole specials that were about particular subjects. They did an entire episode about Spike Lee, one time, and they did a thing about misogynistic imagery in horror films. You can find these things online if you look for them.
A lot of my video essays are attempting something similar to that. I always carried those things around in my head, even as a print critic. I was thinking, “Wow, I wish there was a way I could do this that wasn’t just words on paper.” Usually in a newspaper or magazine you’d have the piece of criticism or article, and there’d be maybe one picture on the page, or maybe one big picture and two small pictures, and that was it.
For twenty to twenty-five years I would think, “God, I wish there was a way I could have an entire issue of Premiere magazine and it could just be about the films of Spike Lee.” I would fantasize about how I would lay out this special issue of Premiere magazine. Nobody would fucking buy it, if I did it, because it’s Premiere magazine, and that’s not why people buy magazines. But I thought, wouldn’t it be cool if you had an eighty-page special issue of a magazine deconstructing key sequences in a filmmaker’s work, and it’s mainly picture driven, and the arguments are illustrated, with some text commentary.
David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s books are kind of like that as well. I wasn’t able to do that until the early aughts, when I got a copy of Final Cut Pro, and my friend Kevin Lee walked me through the process of ripping DVDs. Once I realized, “Oh my god, this is so easy, anybody could do it,” suddenly I was off to the races. Kevin and I worked together on a couple of video essays where he interviewed me, and kind of used me as a source of commentary. We did one on They Died with their Boots On, the Raoul Walsh western, and we did one on Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales.
I kind of pushed Kevin to be more formally playful with what he was doing with the actual footage. I think it’s okay to fuck with the footage. I used to be a purist about that, that you leave the clips alone: you don’t cut them up, you don’t slow them down, you don’t freeze frame them. That’s boring. The video essay is not an exact representation of the film. If you want that, you’ll watch the movie. It’s a representation of my mental processes as I think about movies.
TLB: And you’ve completed a narrative feature. Is the creative process behind your visuals essays similar to that of narrative filmmaking?
MZS: In some cases. In fact a number of the video essays that I’ve done have been part of a series, and the running time of the series, if you put them together, is equal to that of a feature. The Substance of Style: all five parts of that are about seventy-five minutes long. I did another series of video essays where I consider Anderson’s movies film by film—those were edited by my friend Steven Santos—and if you put those together, that’s also about seventy or eight minutes of material. I’ve made basically two documentary features about Wes Anderson. They just happen to have run online.
So I’ve made, as a filmmaker—I’m just grouping things by common subject matter—at least ten or eleven feature length films. Two of the films had actors. One was Home, which I wrote and directed. The other was this low-budget exploitation movie I produced called Tinsel Town, which was not very good and thankfully is not easy to see. The others have been documentary films about film history and style.
TLB: It sounds like you don’t think of there being any difference between these video works and Home, insofar as the creative process goes. They’re two sides of the same coin.
MZS: I don’t feel like there’s a lot of difference structurally. Certainly if you’re trying to sustain people’s interest over a series of short video essays that are going to add up to a feature length statement, then you’ve got to have some sort of implied narrative structure.
The two-parter on Clint Eastwood is an example of that. That’s actually one of my favorites, and nobody talks about that one, but I’m really proud of it. It’s two parts, and part two is an answer to part one. Part one begins with Clint Eastwood’s Five Plains Drifter character riding in out of the desert, and it’s establishing him as this cool badass who comes in and seeks revenge. Part two is all about the hypocrisies and complications of that image, and some of the ways that he’s not entirely honest about what he’s doing.
You’re getting Clint Eastwood’s vision of Clint Eastwood, as I see it, and my vision of Clint Eastwood in parts one and two. And then it ends with Eastwood riding away back to the hills from whence he came. A lot of these things begin and end in the same place, but you’re thinking about things in a 180 degree different way.
V. On Practicing Criticism
TLB: You had a recent editorial about the importance of critics, in any field, addressing the formal qualities of the artworks they discuss. I gather that’s the impulse you’re following in these video essays.
MZS: I love movies for the same reason everybody else does, which is that I love to feel things, and I like to think things, and I like to go places that I’ve never been before, and see the world through other people eyes. But, ultimately, I’m a form guy. I’m a visual artist; that’s a part of what I do. I’m not just a writer.
Occasionally people will complain that my work is insufficiently analytic, or academically rigorous, to which I can only say: guilty. I’m never going to get tenure in a film department, because that’s not the way I’m looking at movies. I’m not doing a deep-dish, socio-historical analysis of a particular rhetorical development during a particular era. I’m more interested in what does it feel like to watch a Clint Eastwood movie? What does it feel like to watch a zombie film? What buttons are they pushing? How do repetition of certain themes and certain images condition us to react in a particular way? I want to take the work apart and see how it functions.
I feel like we’re depriving the public of candy by not writing about form.
That’s why I keep coming back to Bordwell and Thompson. They’re really looking at the fundamental building blocks of narrative when they’re analyzing the shots, and the cuts, and the duration of shots, and the camera movements, and how certain camera movements become fashionable at particular times in history. These are all really important things, and most critics are not writing about them. I feel like we’re depriving the public of candy by not writing about form. I think there’s a perception that if you’re writing about form you’re being academic, and quite the contrary. If you’re writing about the way the images work on you emotionally then you’re talking about the emotions as well as the images.
I did this thing last year, just for kicks. Every time I would watch Justified I would go through and take screenshots of my five favorite shots from every episode and I would write a little caption talking about why I thought they were interesting. People seemed to appreciate that. And people who seemed to appreciate it the most were people who were fans of Justified but didn’t think about it as a visual work. It’s something that I think it’s easy for people who studied film academically to take for granted, which is just because you had a number of classes where you sit there and study the images and talk about what they mean, doesn’t mean that every single person walking around in the world has that same ability.
If you go up to them and say, “You know the scene in the movie where those two characters have a fight, and one of them embarrasses the other, and then it cuts to a wide shot that makes the embarrassed person really, really tiny in the frame? That shot really tells you how they feel about themselves at that moment, that they feel really small.” If you have had even one film theory class you immediately know what that shot is communicating, but the overwhelming majority of people don’t know. They know it on some level—they feel it—but it’s not something they can pull out like a card from a Rolodex and say, “Here’s what this means.” And that’s why I loved Roger Ebert so much, because he did that. And Bordwell and Thompson do that; they’re giving people the tools to do that for themselves.
I’m not trying to spread any particular gospel. I want people to enjoy the texture of movies with the same gusto that I do, and for them to understand that’s it’s really not that hard. It’s like if you don’t know anything about cooking, and then you take one cooking class, all of a sudden your appreciation of food has been magnified beyond your wildest imaginings. That doesn’t mean that you’re going to get a job as a chef on the basis of taking that one class, it just means that you personally are experiencing food in a new and exciting way.
TLB: I’m interested in the nitty-gritty of being a critic as a job, and I just wanted to preface this question by throwing a quote at you, from an essay by Renata Adler, called ‘The Perils of Pauline’. It’s an analysis of Pauline Kael’s film criticism for The New Yorker and a brutal takedown of Kael’s late-career technique and work. Adler specifically writes about being a staff critic, and the intellectual wear and tear that takes place when a critic has to constantly apply themselves, week after week, to new works. So she writes:
The staff critic is nonetheless obliged, and paid, to do more than simply mark time between rich periods and occasional masterpieces. The simple truth—this is okay, this is not okay, this is vile, this resembles that, this is good indeed, this is unspeakable—is not a day’s work for a thinking adult. Some critics go shrill. Others go stale. A lot go simultaneously shrill and stale. A few critics, writing quietly and well, bring something extra into their work. Arlene Croce, a fine ability to describe. John Russell, a piece of education in art history. Hilton Kramer, something in the realm of ideas. A few others bring a consistent personal voice, a sort of chat whose underlying proposition is: this is what happened in my field today; here’s what I have to say about it; draw what conclusions you will, on the basis of your familiarity by now with my style, my quality of mind, and the range of my association, in short with who I am.
I was wondering whether you’ve encountered this dilemma at all, in your career. Especially currently, when you’re doing a lot of work simultaneously for New York magazine and for RogerEbert.com, and your video essays as well. Do you personally have a problem directing your attention to new works week after week?
MZS: Not at all. I love discovering new things. As a television critic, I have to make myself continue to pay attention to things that have been around for a long, long time. In a lot of cases the good shows are continuing to do interesting work, and they’re changing and evolving in interesting ways. But if they’ve been on the air five or six or seven years I might have mentally checked out. It’s not a reflection on the show, it’s just that I am constantly looking for the next big crush. I don’t know if that was your question, though.
TLB: Well, I guess I’m wondering whether what Adler says about this problem of attention rings true for you. Maybe there’s no effective way to phrase it. Do you find yourself having to sustain yourself in some way?
MZS: No, I don’t. I’ve never had any problem. My big problem is there aren’t enough hours in the day to do all the things that I want to do. In fact, I worry about physically burning out at a young age. It’s never a question about how am I going to fill my days, how am I going to fill my word-count.
I don’t begrudge anyone who takes the more straightforward approach, where it’s “Here’s what opened Friday and here’s what I thought about it, and should you go see it.” There’s a place for that, it’s just not what I’m interested in.
TLB: Well, a large part of the current job of a TV critic is the weekly recap of whatever program they’re covering. Some critics must dread having to apply themselves week after week, if they’ve come to find it not particularly interesting, or if it’s a poor season, or a dud episode.
Two pages from The Wes Anderson Collection.
MZS: I’ve certainly bet on some bad horses in my time, and I always approach recapping a show with great trepidation. Often the reason I will decide to recap a show—particularly if it’s a new show—is because I’ve seen the first two or three or four episodes, and I think, “Wow, this could possibly be a major show, and I would love to be among the first few people to really take it seriously as a work of art.”
Sometimes you get shows that are deceiving in some ways. I thought the first season of Homeland was excellent. It was really, really interesting. I didn’t recap every episode of that show, but I probably wrote about almost every episode of that when I was at Salon. Then I came over to New York magazine and they said, “Hey, we want you to recap Homeland for us,” and season two turned out to be kind of a train wreck. I decided not to recap season three, because I didn’t believe that it was worth the trouble. It’s the kind of show where I can see myself checking in one or two or three times during the season, but writing about it every week is just going to suck the life out of me.
I think the ideal situation would be if we were recapping shows after they were done, and only if we felt like there was a reason to. If I could clone myself, one of my clones would be off recapping every single episode of Treme, because I think Treme is a tremendous show, and it’s very ambitious in a whole lot of different ways and also problematic in a number of ways. It deserves that sort of close scrutiny, where you can really dig in to each individual hour of that show. But had I been recapping each episode as it appeared, I think I would have hated the show. It’s only at the end, when you look back at the whole thing, that you think “Yes, this could benefit from hour by hour scrutiny.”
I still don’t know if that answers your question.
TLB: I haven’t figured out a good way way to phrase it. I’m starting to think there’s no issue there.
MZS: Well, Renata Adler really represented a particular type of critic, which is the sort of self-styled harsh truth-teller. Her job was to come in throw cold water on everybody else and tell you why this thing you thought was great was not so great, and this person you thought was great is not so great.
I find that particular kind of criticism to be tedious, and not of much use. There’s a reason why people talk about Pauline Kael, and they do not talk about Renata Adler. It’s because Pauline Kael, for all of her infuriating mannerisms, and her blind spots, and her petty, vindictive crusades, was really getting at the essence of why people watch movies, and love movies. Pauline Kael’s criticism is not in any shape or form meant to be an academic representation of any sort of truth about movie going. It’s just Pauline Kael reacting to the movies, like a performance. She’s an actor, and she’s giving a performance as critic. Most of the great critics are that way.
I read Jonathan Rosenbaum, and there are many times where Jonathan Rosenbaum goes off on a tear about a particular movie—like 12 Years a Slave—where, I’m sorry: bullshit. Holding up a movie like Bobby as a great film, as he did, just seems ridiculous to me, and proclaiming that the film The World by Jia Zhangke was the best movie he’d seen in the previous two years. I thought that movie was interesting, but pretty far from a masterpiece. But, I remembered what he said about those movies, and Jonathan Rosenbaum’s opinion of those movies has become part of the experience of thinking about those movies for me. It doesn’t matter whether I agree or disagree with Jonathan Rosenbaum, what matters is the act of reading him. I feel that way about Pauline Kael.
I feel that way about Armond White, honestly, and Armond has been kicked up and down the street like a deflated soccer ball for the last couple of years. I still see people bitching about outrageous things Armond said in reviews ten or fifteen years ago. I would say, “Before you make fun of him for that opinion, pause for a moment and consider the fact that he said that in 1996 and you’re still thinking about it. And it’s not just because he’s ridiculous. If he were merely ridiculous you wouldn’t still be thinking about it.” It doesn’t matter if you agree with him or not, what matters is he has introduced an element of complication into your opinion which you thought was settled. That’s why you’re still thinking about it.
Manohla Dargis often will make assertions that I find problematic. I’ll want to just get on the phone and start arguing with her about it. But, that’s vastly more interesting than your simple thumbs-up, thumbs-down, two-and-a-half-stars, wait for the video kind of criticism, because there’s a person there.
TLB: Are there any particular things you try to project in your own criticism in that way?
The only question is how vividly does your work evoke you as a person?
MZS: I want reading my criticism, or watching my videos, or reading my books to be variations of the same thing, which is knowing Matt. They’re all just extensions of me. The only question is how vividly does your work evoke you as a person? I’m not interested at all in criticism that tries to separate the criticism from the critic, and tries to be objective, or pretends to be detached and coolly analytical. I’m not saying that there’s no place for it, but I’m not interested in that. I don’t want to spend any of my time on that kind of expression. Because I don’t think that it’s true to the way that life is lived.
Pauline Kael’s review of Casualties of War is one of the greatest reviews of anything that I’ve ever read. Again it doesn’t matter what you think of Casualties of War—it doesn’t matter if you think it’s a good film, a bad film, a masterpiece, a bomb, whatever—the review is this beautiful work of art in itself, and it’s really quite profound in how it expresses its opinions. The key part of it, which I think is the key to Pauline Kael, is she’s talking about the rape scene in the movie, and how the whole movie is about intentionally looking away, and choosing not to intervene in injustice, and what it does to you, and the guilt that it causes, and the way you carry that guilt around.
She has this parenthetical where suddenly she talks about being a young woman and walking down the street and hearing a woman disciplining her child—who is crying—and slapping the kid, and the kid cries louder, and she says she kept on walking. It’s Pauline Kael saying that you don’t have to have been to Vietnam, and you don’t have to have witnessed battlefield atrocities, and you don’t have to have been a party to a rape to understand what this movie is about. This movie is not just about that particular rape, it’s about something much more basic; and the way she illustrates it is by giving you a two sentence flashback to her own life. It’s just great, and it’s so unexpected. That’s the sort of thing where a lot of people who don’t like Pauline Kael will point to that particular type of thing as something they don’t like about her. Like, who in the hell cares about your childhood, Pauline?
Well, I do, and I think that particular digression really makes it one of the all time greats. And there’s not much of it; it’s very, very brief, and then she moves on. That review was published 25 years ago, in August of 1989, and I still remember standing in the Southern Methodist University bookstore at the magazine rack and reading it. I sat there in the aisle and I read the entire review, and then I bought the magazine. And I still re-read that review sometimes. It’s as great a work of art as any film that Brian De Palma has made, and I think Brian De Palma has made some great movies. I’m not saying that every piece of criticism has to be a work of art of the level of Pauline Kael’s Casualties of War review, but isn’t it great when it is?