Confessions Of A Psycho-Critic

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

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.

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.  

CP: It looks lovely on the big screen.

Nelson: The images are so soft and inviting; the movie really is like a children's storybook come to life. It's funny: I think the film's complete success in capturing the warm, pastel look of [author/illustrator Chris] Van Allsburg--with its inherent sadness, its feeling of elusive nostalgia--is what's to blame, ironically, for the fact that [the movie] is not at the top of the [box-office] charts. The quote-unquote state of the art in animation, if not movies in general, is crisp and clean and fast, with lots of bright colors and zero time for reflection--like The Incredibles. And that's definitely not The Polar Express. But it's interesting that [Express] actually seems to be rebounding at the box office. That never happens with a movie of its size.

CP: Okay, enough of the kids' movies. Anything out there for adults?

Nelson: Well, there's Closer. That's an adult movie.

CP: And...?

Nelson: You just want me to point my thumb, don't you? Okay: Thumbs up [raises his thumb, laughs]. I like it a lot. There's plenty in it that's interesting--and all four actors are drop-dead beautiful, obviously. But what I like most about it is the way that it uses ellipses. No clarification, just bam: You've suddenly skipped ahead several weeks or months and you have to scramble to get your bearings on the relationships. The ellipses have a way of suggesting that any one of us would look like a sexual predator if you take the so-called healing power of time out of the equation. Like, first scene I'm in love with Kindra, second scene I'm all of a sudden dating her best friend, third scene I'm back with Kindra and the best friend is marrying my best friend, et cetera. The only thing that makes this behavior remotely bearable in life is that...we forget. Most of the time, anyway. In the movies, it's entertainment.

CP: The dialogue is great in Closer.

Nelson: It is, but you know what? It has nothing on the dialogue in Overnight--and that's a documentary! The guy who the film is about--this young filmmaker Troy Duffy from Boston--is a real menace, one of the great antiheroes of nonfiction film. But the lines he writes for himself on the spot are kind of brilliant--in a sick way. He seems to be channeling Al Pacino in Scarface; literally everything he says is outrageously crude--and unforgettable. You sit there gape-mouthed; you can't believe what vulgar, hateful whopper he's going to come up with next, what greedy and amoral and stupid thing he's going to do in the name of his nonexistent art. It's like the Cinema of Cruelty--like [Neil] LaBute and [Todd] Solondz--remade for the "year of the documentary," for the era of George W. Bush. They say I Heart 4 Huckabees is a zeitgeist movie? This is a zeitgeist movie all the way. Or I should say: a goddamn fucking zeitgeist movie.

CP: But you do "heart" Huckabees, right?

Nelson: Oh, God, yeah. Amazing film. It totally alters your consciousness; you walk out in a daze, like you've been hit with that big rubber ball. Sorry--I just realized I've been talking like Pauline Kael, saying you all the time as if a movie affects us all the exact same way. I should say I: Like I walked out in a daze. I suppose that's an especially important distinction here, because not everyone wants to walk out of a movie in a daze. Me, I think that's the mark of a truly great movie. Plus I've been sober for almost 10 years, so I'll take my altered states where I can get 'em.

CP: So Huckabees will make your Top 10?

Nelson: I'm thinking it'll be near the top. I haven't really started working on my list, but off the top of my head I'd say that the movies that have been most indelible for me this year are the gonzo ones like Huckabees--as befits a crazy year, perhaps. I mean, Spike Lee's film [She Hate Me] and Bertolucci's film [The Dreamers] and the James Toback movie [When Will I Be Loved]--those movies are almost pathological, but man, they're really audacious, really funny, really honest. I could easily imagine a list of 10 films that includes only the great crazy movies of the year. That movie Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle is crazy--disreputably crazy, unhinged, hilarious. And it's kind of radical, too. Some of the lowbrow horror films this year have been really cool. But I like Collateral quite a bit and that's a big Hollywood movie. And I'm anxious to see the [new] Scorsese film [The Aviator, about Howard Hughes]; that's being touted for Oscars. I'm a hardcore Marty [Scorsese] fan--even among Marty fans, I'm hardcore. And [The Aviator] is about OCD [obsessive-compulsive disorder], so I feel I can relate on at least two levels.  

CP: On at least two levels?

Nelson: Yeah: I mean, speaking as someone who suffers--and benefits--from OCD, I think I can identify somewhat with Howard Hughes's OCD, with Marty's [OCD], with Marty's identification with Hughes's OCD, and then, simply, with my own. Did I leave anything out?

CP: Funny. On the subject of OCD: Finding new ways to catalog your voluminous video collection, are you?

Nelson: How'd you guess? Okay--this is going to sound really perverse and, like, knee-jerk contrarian or whatever, but I'm really into VHS lately. Part of it is that I'm trying to liquidate my tape collection--so I've pared it down to like 100, 125 tapes that I adore, that I can't replace. Like a lot of movie lovers, I'm a terrible fetishist--or a narcissist, probably both. My 20-year-old tape of The Man I Love? You'll have to pry that out of my cold, dead hands.

CP: Like Charlton Heston would say.

Nelson: Right. Plus I think Los Angeles Plays Itself has given me a weird new appreciation for VHS. [Director] Thom Andersen certainly couldn't afford to license all those clips from Los Angeles movies, and a lot of them aren't [commercially available] on video anyway, so he just used his own tapes, many of which look like third- or fourth-generation dubs from 20-year-old recordings of late-night TV broadcasts--on UHF channels. You see [Los Angeles] projected on the big screen and it looks like every lamppost in those old clips is quivering--like there's an earthquake and it's about to fall over. And that has a weird, unique kind of charm. DVD certainly doesn't do that. Plus, these are quivering-lamppost times we're living in, so it works.

CP: I'll have to take your word for that. Anyway--this was fun. We should do this again sometime.

Nelson: Definitely.

CP: Really? How 'bout we do it every week?

Nelson: Hmmm... I don't know. You'd probably have to talk to the editor.

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