Confessions Of A Psycho-Critic

Reeling from holiday fare, a movie reviewer goes head to head with his id

On a recent visit to New York, I went into a used bookstore in Brooklyn and came out with a water-damaged copy of Confessions of a Cultist, a long-out-of-print anthology of reviews by the legendary Andrew Sarris. Most of the articles are taken from the Village Voice, where the tennis-loving critic held court for many years, beginning in 1962. But the most striking piece--sandwiched in between his Voice reviews of Jules et Jim and JFK's birthday party at the Garden (the one where Marilyn sang)--was an odd Q&A he transcribed for the now-defunct New York Film Bulletin. For this piece, which Sarris called "Dialogue of a Schizocritic," the godfather of modern film criticism--the writer who imported the auteur theory from France, who irritated (and inspired) Pauline Kael on a weekly basis for decades, and who helped countless baby-boomer cinephiles go pro with their passions--conducted a long and detailed interview with...himself.

Whether Sarris was merely looking for a convenient way to meet a deadline or for a novel approach to expressing the film critic's fundamental self-indulgence, I couldn't say. But as journalistic conceits go, this one seems, like so much of Sarris's work, pretty fresh to me in 2004 (as well as, yes, a convenient way to meet a deadline). You could even call it Sarris's version of a blog--conceived a good 40 years before blogs existed.

So, with respect and gratitude to Andy, I hereby borrow yet another of the auteur-critic's highly personal innovations, starting with his own first question to himself.

Holding his own (and a little of the other guy's): Troy Duffy (and Troy Duffy) in 'Overnight'
Holding his own (and a little of the other guy's): Troy Duffy (and Troy Duffy) in 'Overnight'

City Pages: Seen any good movies lately?

Rob Nelson: Probably, yeah. I have to think for a second. Frankly, a lot of this stuff goes in one eye and out the other. Like The Incredibles: That movie I had started forgetting long before it was over. Maybe that's how everyone responds to it; maybe that's part of the appeal.

CP: We often prefer our war movies to be inconsequential--if not soothing.

Nelson: You think The Incredibles is a war movie? That's funny. I guess I see what you're saying. I mean, a movie doesn't gross $225 million in less than a month by failing to address something that's on all our minds, whether conscious or not. Let's at least say it's yet another action movie where the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance [raises hands for emphasis]--which is just how that other blockbuster campaign was sold to the public. I suppose an academic critic would say The Incredibles is recuperative: It restores our shaky confidence in the incredible ass-kicking powers of family and country. Kids appreciate that message as much as any of us do--maybe more so.

CP: Plus, the movie looks wicked-cool.

Nelson: Well, obviously, yeah. I mean, the last, say, 20 minutes or so are pretty amazing even by Pixar standards. The cutting in the climactic showdown [sequence] is as fast as anything in Michael Bay [movies], and the particulars of the action are really complicated--but, moment to moment, it all makes perfect sense in a laws-of-gravity, spatial-orientation sort of way. For me, that last big action sequence is the point at which this totally artificial movie--this massive computer file--feels the most like cinema. You could say it's Eisensteinian montage for the 21st century--and that's just as much of a paradox as it sounds. 'Cause when you think about it, there's really no such thing as cutting in a computer-animated movie. There's no such thing as shooting, even. The Incredibles is just pure conception--like a moving storyboard.

CP: So you like the movie?

Nelson: I like the last reel a lot, but before then you have to sit through a lot of really formulaic stuff that has to do with how Hollywood sees the American family: workaholic and guilt-ridden dad, long-suffering but patient mom, confused kids. The story inevitably comes around to valorizing Dad's work, to including the family in it--as administrative assistants, anyway--and pardoning him for his neglect because, you know, the fate of the entire world hangs in the balance. You see it in every other Hollywood movie: It's the autobiography of a studio executive or any other power-tripping boss. Or maybe it's more universal than that. I suppose it would have to be in order to really connect [with the audience]. I'm reminded that my wife and I got in a huge argument in the car on the way home from the screening. As usual, it was my fault. I was...thinking about work.

CP: Did your kid see The Incredibles?

Nelson: Oh, no. We wouldn't take him to something like that. Way too intense for a two-year-old. We did take him to The Polar Express, though. His first movie--his first movie in a theater, anyway--and he loved it. I mean, he was held completely and utterly rapt--still as a statue for the full two hours. People say critics are a tough audience? Let me tell you: Two-year-olds are a tough audience. Our son is completely obsessed with trains right now, so that had to have been part of [what appealed to him]. But the movie is really something. Watching it, you feel like it's communicating directly to you--like it's monitoring your heartbeat.

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