Film for Art's Sake

The first film review ever printed in Sweet Potato proved uncharacteristic of the paper's critical rigor. Defending The Blues Brothers in July 1980 (in a column directly preceding a two-page color ad for the movie), then-associate editor Randy Anderson wrote: "It's sad that certain critics have labeled The Blues Brothers a 'race movie,' maintaining that the black stars are being exploited by those two impostors, [John] Belushi and [Dan] Aykroyd. Horse feathers. The movie is just silly summer fun."

This false start notwithstanding, movies were never innocuous or insignificant in City Pages. Just three months later, cineaste Tom Baglien reeled around the "European art film" vis-à-vis American auteurs Paul Mazursky (Willie & Phil) and Woody Allen (Stardust Memories)--the latter in his view having "moved away from satire to preening, self-serving misogyny and misanthropy"--and the City Pages style of film criticism was born.

City Pages has almost always taken pop cinema more seriously than the competition--and more so than some of its own readers as well, judging from the number of "lighten up, it's only a movie" letters that have come in over the years. Naturally, negative feedback of this sort has been a source of pride for the paper. Erring mostly on the side of ambition, the film section of the Eighties abided by the alt-weekly ethos in general by providing a weekly alternative: covering those foreign, independent, and revival films to which the dailies wouldn't give the time of day, and writing in greater depth about Oscar winners, blockbusters, and big-budget flops. Plot summaries, star ratings, and formulaic analyses of acting and authorial intent were verboten at the paper under the assumption that they could easily be found in other publications.

When Baglien split town for New York in 1981, City Pages had the good sense to steal the Twin Cities-born, Madison film-schooled Phil Anderson away from the Twin Cities Reader. "I wish that postman would stop all the ringing and just deliver the goods for a change," Anderson opined in his inaugural column about the remake of The Postman Always Rings Twice. "I wish all the now-generation directors so enamored of American Forties film noir (like Paul Schrader, Martin Scorsese, Walter Hill) would stop trying to re-create the gone past and work on the present and future." This is polemical film reviewing at its best, although it was often in the apportioning of space that Anderson exerted his politics. "I could rhapsodize for pages," he gushed apropos of a Satyajit Ray retrospective--whereas Mommie Dearest was deemed "not worth wasting any more dead trees on." Likewise, Anderson was happy to avoid both Top Gun and Fatal Attraction during the Hollywood megaboom of the mid- to late-Eighties, instead effusing at length about the likes of Robert Bresson and Chen Kaige, or issuing a gutsy dis of Emir Kusturica's much-acclaimed Time of the Gypsies. ("If there were an American movie called Time of the Chippewa or Time of the Wetbacks, would we find it exotic and colorful?")

Aside from an arts editing stint at Skyway News from 1983 to 1985 (during which time Michael Phillips, Pat Aufderheide, Edward Staiger, and P.D. Larson capably held down the fort), Anderson pretty much was the City Pages film section throughout the Eighties and early Nineties. This is to say that he not only took Spielberg and Lucas to task but took account of the rise and fall of local rep cinema and Film in the Cities; the wave of made-in-Minnesota movies (everything from Wildrose to Drop Dead Fred); the emergence of the Coen Brothers as artists of international stature; the many worthy auteur retrospectives at the Walker Art Center; and whatever foreign treasures the U Film Society's Al Milgrom had made known to him by deadline. "He shows masterpieces practically without warning," Anderson wrote in a mostly flattering profile of Milgrom in 1982, "and then lambastes those (often local critics) who don't see the film or recognize its worth." Some things never change, to be sure, including Anderson's talent for demonstrating knowledge and opinion without making a performance of it.

The silver lining on the cloud of Anderson's seven-month sabbatical to Sweden on a Fulbright scholarship in 1992 was that space in the film section was made available to Terri Sutton, a music critic who not only made the switch to movies while keeping her wit(s) but also, along with Judith Lewis in the early Nineties, managed to upset the local film critics' boys' club in the best way. The fact that both Sutton and Anderson remain regularly present in these pages is a mark of the dedication that the paper has managed to attract over the years, as well as a gift to readers who have looked to their reviews not to find out whether particular movies were "good" or "bad" but whether they were worth thinking about. Again and again, they were.


A free Sweet Potato T-shirt to the person who can answer the following question: What three actors in what three movies released this summer said, "I'm getting too old for this shit"?

Randy Anderson, September 1980


Rather than manipulating audiences, coercing them with ideas made attractive by stories, [Jean-Luc] Godard wants people to question what they're seeing.

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