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Against Consensus: An Interview with Film Critic Charles Taylor

It’s a shame not to be able to hear such a strong critic week in and week out.

Against Consensus: An Interview with Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor was dismissed from his duties as a Salon critic in February, 2005. At the time, Salon editor Joan Walsh chalked up the decision to simple economics: their publication had just 22 editorial employees and could not justify employing three film critics. This was disappointing news for regular Salon subscribers and a harbinger of declining standards. Although Taylor’s colleagues Stephanie Zacharek and Andrew O’Hehir continue to offer insightful cultural analysis and film criticism, a casual perusal of Salon post-Taylor reveals feature articles that are elaborately disguised press releases pandering to the studios. Gossip, box office reports and hype don’t address whether a film has merit as art or entertainment. The latter was Taylor’s specialty; he called it like he saw it, often employing the sorts of provocative turns of phrase that spark arguments in parking lots.

He trounced Clint Eastwood’s Academy award-winning Million Dollar Baby: “A compendium of every cliché from every bad boxing melodrama ever made, [it] tries to transcend its cornball overfamiliarity with the qualities that have long characterized Eastwood’s direction—it’s solemn, inflated and dull.” And he stood up for Brian De Palma’s Mission to Mars when other critics were lumping it in with sludge like Red Planet. “Mission to Mars is not what people expect from a mainstream science-fiction extravaganza,” Taylor wrote. “It’s intimate and tender and hushed, done in long, quiet takes that not only allow the actors to establish a rapport but also allow us to feel as if we’re floating in space with them.” Such vivid commentary affords readers a pathway into movies. He’s gotten to the heart of Robert Altman’s films as eloquently as anyone, and his review of McCabe and Mrs. Miller is an example of how to write about a work that “permeates you” without falling into adjective-strewn hero worship. “Emerging from [the film], I always feel like the town drunk who attempts a jig on the ice in one scene: drugged, unsure of my footing, as if one step would send the whole enterprise crashing to the ground,” he wrote. “I try to clutch the images to me even as they seem to evaporate like smoke.” But as with contrarians like Pauline Kael, sometimes Taylor’s brazen wit felt like a swift kick to the solar plexus. “A critic who can’t recognize the visual rhapsody of [Mission to Mars] is about as trustworthy as a blind dance critic,” he wrote. When opinions are stated so forcefully, it’s bound to piss off some readers. His loathing of The Thin Red Line exclaimed that through “incompetence or willful perversity [it] dispenses with plot, characterization, dramatic structure and emotional payoffs in favor of the sort of painstakingly composed pictorial diddling that invariably gets critics frothing about the director’s ‘indelible’ images.” Some Terrence Malick fans have never forgiven him, though frankly I don’t think he gives a damn. Like all critics who are worth reading, Taylor does not demand agreement, only engagement.

It’s a shame not to be able to hear such a strong critic week in and week out. But an account of Taylor’s fate is more than just a story about an unlucky guy who got fired, or a readership denied his distinctive voice. It’s a chance to explore why particular decisions got made at major publications, and understand why behind-the-scenes forces (be it the editors or their corporate bosses) are inclined to resist opinions that go against consensus.—Jeremiah Kipp

How did Salon begin and when were you brought aboard?

My first professional writing job was at the Boston Phoenix. I started there in the fall of 1985. A bunch of people from the Phoenix, Joyce Millman and Scott Rosenberg among them, went to the San Francisco Examiner. When there was a newspaper strike in San Francisco in the mid-1990s, those people and others from the Examiner were involved in putting out an online version of the newspaper and that evolved into the online magazine Salon.

At that time, my wife Stephanie Zacharek and myself were living in Boston. We each had other jobs. Even though we were writing for good places, they were small, didn’t pay anything, and our writing wasn’t really getting seen. We felt we were batting our heads against the wall, and were thinking about throwing in the towel as writers. That’s when Joyce Millman called us and said, “I want you two to write for Salon.”

Our attitude walking into this was, “The Web?” But as it turns out, online writing has more of a life than newspapers. You write something online, and three or four years later you get people who have found it and write to you about it. There is a never-ending dialogue, and you get feedback, which you don’t in print, or at least you didn’t when writers didn’t have an e-mail address listed.

We started contributing to Salon regularly. In 1999, we moved to New York. Stephanie was put on staff and I was put on contract.

Can you explain the difference between being on staff and on contract?

In my case, my contract gave me a weekly or bi-monthly set fee. I was expected to do a certain amount of work for that: seven or eight pieces a month. It’s like being a regular freelancer. In the spring of 2000, I was let go from the contract because that was when the dot-com bubble burst. There were a lot of layoffs. I was one of them. But Salon said, “We want to keep you on freelance, paying you piece by piece.” I did that for a while. I was put on contract again about two years later, I was put on staff in April 1, 2004, and I was fired in February 2005. That’s pretty much the chronology.

What would you describe as the tone of Salon?

Then or now?

Let’s say then.

Apparently, there’s this phrase in consulting circles: “Personality Driven Publication.” The personality was David Talbot’s. He was the founder and chief editor. I will always be grateful to David Talbot for starting that magazine and giving Stephanie and I a place to write. There was an enormous amount of freedom. The attitude was, “We want people to write about what they’re interested in. We don’t care about the prevailing whims. We want to know what turns you on, and we want you to deliver on that.”

Little by little I was pushed, and not in a bad way, into writing in other areas. I started covering music, then movies. I had these wonderful editors: Dwight Garner, who is now at the New York Times Book Review, and Laura Miller. Every writer should have an editor like her once in their life, or more than once. But she would prod me to write pieces on books I didn’t think I’d be interested in, and say, “Do this!” Later, I had Andrew O’Hehir and Suzy Hansen as editors, both of them just great to work for.

On one occasion, Talbot called me up. He knew the whole Bill Clinton impeachment process outraged me. On the Friday before Clinton’s grand jury testimony was being broadcast, he said, “I want you to watch this and write about it as if it were a performance. Not as if Clinton is lying, but just tell us how he did.” I watched it. It was on from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. I had to get the piece in by six, and I sat down at 2 and had 4,000 words by 6 p.m. From there, they asked me to start doing political stuff, which I did whenever something caught my fancy.

That’s a long-winded way of saying they encouraged your interests and tried to bring out things in you that you didn’t know were there.

How did Salon change?

It did change. They had to reconfigure themselves to a certain extent to stay afloat, and they decided that it [had to be] a news organization. While Talbot was still at the helm, there was a realization of the intimate connection between the prevailing politics of the day and the social tone of the culture. It was all part of this mix. As he started to hand over the reigns to others at Salon, a news mentality took hold. It was a mentality that deemed culture secondary.

The new Salon became very concerned with what Daniel Okrent of the New York Times once called, in an excellent phrase, “the overwhelming meaninglessness of being first.” They wanted to be timely, which I can understand for a publication, but it became very reactive and there became less and less of a chance for writers to reflect on subjects. In terms of movie coverage, Salon fell into line with a certain mindset: if a movie opened, and you didn’t have your piece in, it was a dead issue.

How did that problem specifically relate to you?

In the spring of 2004, I was told they wanted me to do less reviews and that they wanted me to write about the zeitgeist. But you cannot predict the zeitgeist. You have to see what happens and how it shakes out. A movie might open, and two weeks later connect with something in the culture, and that’s the time to write about it. But they didn’t want to wait. They wanted it right away. I think that was one of the ways it changed. Another change, especially in the last year, was they began squeezing criticism out, and expressing their displeasure with some of the criticism there was.

Can you give an example?

Yes, and this has never been stated publicly. When Stephanie was assigned to review Fahrenheit 9/11, and they realized she was turning in a negative review, they quickly assigned a positive review to balance it. I want to be very clear about this. They got Andrew O’Hehir to do the positive review. Andrew did not write anything he did not believe in, and he would not do that. He has a great deal of integrity. He liked the movie and he said that. But Salon used him to get the opinion they wanted because they were unwilling to stick by a critic’s negative opinion. I was told at various times that there were people I criticized in pieces who should not be criticized because they were “friends of Salon,” in one case because one person I criticized was the friend of a specific editor. That is part of the context of what happened. It wasn’t like I was told, “You can’t say that.” But it was being told after the fact that you had done something that displeased Salon, which is just as bad in a way because it makes you wonder when you sit down to write, “Oh, who the hell am I gonna offend now?” It puts the writer in a state of apprehension.

You’ve had time to get philosophical about this. What are the repercussions of the editor telling the film critic, “Don’t write this?”

It makes the editor a pimp for the publicist. We wouldn’t have a problem with the celebrity-driven or publicity-driven culture if we had editors who were either gutsy enough to stand up to it, or if the ones who had guts to stand up to it had support from their bosses.

What were the reasons given when you were fired from Salon?

There are two sets of reasons: the reasons given me, and the public reasons given. The reason given me was the person who fired me was carrying out the wishes of Joan Walsh, who had succeeded David Talbot as editor about a week before. I was told she believed the cultural coverage was too “criticism centered.”

I read that and never truly understood what they meant.

They meant there were too many reviews and not enough features or trend pieces. That’s what I was told. I believe that is essentially right, if you go past the euphemisms and if you look at the type of features they are running now. They felt I was a critic and wasn’t giving them the features or the pieces they wanted. So I was rather surprised to read Joan Walsh’s response to Roger Ebert’s querying her on why I was fired.

When I was fired, I immediately sent out an e-mail to tell people what happened because rumors inevitably spring up. I didn’t want anyone wondering why I was fired. Ebert, who has been very kind to me over the years, immediately wrote a letter to Salon expressing displeasure. Salon never made a public announcement that I was fired. It became comical when Stephanie went to a company meeting in San Francisco the next week and some people were asking her, “Where’s Charley?” She was the one who told them I was fired, not management.

I received many kind responses from my colleagues, and one of them was Sheila Benson, who I have never met. But she was incredibly kind. She wrote a letter to Ebert’s online column asking why would Salon do this, and Ebert called up Joan Walsh. Joan’s response was inventive to say the least. She said it was a question of marshaling resources because Salon had three full-time film critics.

The facts are different. Salon had three film critics when Andrew O’Hehir was the arts editor and he and I and Stephanie did the film coverage. But Andrew was made books editor in the spring of 2004 and stopped doing regular movie reviewing. He now does the “Beyond the Multiplex” column every couple of weeks. [Editor’s note: Salon’s book editor is now Hilary Frey.]

At that same time, the spring of 2004, Stephanie was told there was to be no more than three film reviews a week. I was told I was to do no more than three film reviews per month, and that number was raised from two at the behest of David Talbot who went to bat for me. So this claim that in February 2005, Salon was operating with three full-time film critics is bullshit. Whether Joan Walsh knows that’s bullshit or whether she’s convinced herself that it’s the truth, I cannot say. But the idea that there were three full-time film critics at Salon is absolutely false.

Does this illustrate a difference between a “news mentality” and a “culture mentality”?

To speak about this generally, in 90% of the cases it’s a real problem when a news person is put in charge of cultural coverage. In my experience, news people think that culture is frivolous and so, if they have pieces about how great America’s Next Top Model is, they think that’s what criticism is. The coverage of that show was the only piece of cultural coverage that Joan Walsh mentioned when she wrote a letter to Salon subscribers about what they could expect from her. People from a news background often think that critics are no different than journalists—and they are journalists, to a certain extent.

I’ve heard people say that if a critic has a professed dislike for someone’s work, someone else should review it so the artist gets a fair hearing. Well, we already have that. It’s called publicity. It’s not a critic’s job to go in concerned with being positive. But news people are trained in that journalist’s way of thinking, “You get the facts. You report them. You provide evidence to support the position.” Critics take imaginative leaps, they employ hyperbole and that makes the reportorial mindset very nervous, and they don’t get it. It all comes back to that line Truffaut said about how no one at a newspaper has less respect than the movie critic. No one is going to tell the dance critic or classical music critic how to do their jobs. True story: A friend of mine at a major metropolitan daily got called into the editor’s office and asked, “How dare you pan Men in Black II, because my daughter loved it!”

No one is going to say to a reporter who has been on the scene he or she is writing about, “Oh, you don’t know what’s happening there.” Of course, they know what’s happening; they’ve been on the scene. Like a reporter, the critic is the one going out day after day, seeing movies, thinking about how they fit into the culture. Editors, for the most part, sit behind their desk saying they heard buzz on this or that. But all that usually means is they heard publicity from somewhere, often from publicists who are calling to pitch them on getting coverage for their movies, or from other editors who’ve been pitched by publicists, or in magazine pieces which resulted because some editor was successfully pitched to by a publicist. They’re not relying on the people who are actually out doing the footwork. That’s a real problem. I’m not saying critics don’t need editors or guidance, but their instincts have to be respected. They have experience and knowledge about what they’re doing, and the ability to say, this is important and this isn’t. They have to be able to say to their editor, “No, we don’t have to cover House of Wax because Paris Hilton is in it,” which is why an editor at Salon insisted it be covered.

What is the cultural obligation of a film critic?

The critic should reflect the culture as honestly as he or she can. If you’re a regular critic and you’ve got that weekly outlet, you’re essentially writing a diary of the culture, and not in the stupid think pieces sort of way. You’re reflecting the tone of what’s going on week in and week out. A portrait of the culture you’re dealing with can’t help but emerge from that. If you’re honest about what your response is, you’re serving your reader whether they agree with you or not.

You’ve frequently cited Pauline Kael as a major influence.

I got a paperback copy of Deeper Into Movies by Pauline Kael when I was in eighth grade. That was a major influence. I still think she’s the best film critic that is ever going to be. She was the best influence and the biggest influence. It was about trusting your instincts, which was always the line about her. This is what I loved. This is why all of the “I Was a Former Paulette” articles I’ve read are all, to a one, simply wrong on the facts. I had countless disagreements with her, even arguments. I was never excommunicated. Some of the critics she liked were people she didn’t agree with. She wanted people to be honest. Art should be pleasure, not work. You have to bring your life experience to it, your experience of the other arts to it, you have to be well read, and no one should tell you what you have to like or what you should be interested in. The job of the critic is to help you formulate your own thoughts. Articulate them. Not to tell you what to think, but to get you to think. There was a freedom in her.

Of course, the world is different now than it was during the heyday of Pauline Kael and Andrew Sarris.

I came in to this professionally in 1985, at the tail end of the atmosphere people like Kael and Sarris created. When I started writing for the Boston Phoenix, films were still covered at length, thoroughly, not just in capsule reviews. My first editor there was Owen Gleiberman, who remains one of the best editors I ever had. He has a really good ear for how things should sound. He had come of age in the film culture with the same antecedents I had. Obviously, the audience that came out of the counter-culture is not there anymore. It is a younger audience that has grown up not knowing movies can be anything but spectacle, and disposable because something is knocking off the Number One spot every week. An old movie to them is Raiders of the Lost Ark. I’m not trying to make fun of them, but the limits to the kind of movies they know is the inevitable result of that accelerated pace. Audiences are not as adventurous in what they will go see. Foreign film distribution is as bad now as it has probably ever been, if you’re living outside of New York and Los Angeles. And sometimes in those cities, great movies play for only a week or so. Tropical Malady, by one of the most exciting new filmmakers around, plays for two weeks. In Boston, where I came from, a city that had an enormous repertory and art-house scene when I was growing up in the ‘70s and ‘80s, there is now one first-run art house in Cambridge. In terms of mainstream movies, there are movies I look at now that would have been huge hits [back in the day] and now they don’t do business at all.

Ray is a perfect example of a film that maybe not 15 years ago, but 20 to 25 years ago, would have been a big hit, and now is almost considered specialty filmmaking. Movies like Devil in a Blue Dress, The Russia House, or What’s Love Got to Do With It, which is a melodramatic star bio, were not hits. You see something now like A Very Long Engagement and I remember when it would have been a hit because it’s a big romantic mystery. In some ways, this is even more worrying than what’s happening at the art houses because it represents the withering of movies as a popular art form. What we think of as art films find a way to get made, they find a way to get shown, they may be playing to a small audience, but it really worries me when we have a mainstream audience that doesn’t care for mainstream cinema…That scares the hell out of me.

Do you think this is because the movies are getting geared towards a younger audience?

Yeah, I do. It’s not to blame young people, but it’s what they’ve been targeted with and have grown up watching. I think the place that is grown-up is TV. It’s not self-contained anymore. When I think of the television equivalent of the mainstream movies that might once have been hits I think about Alias, 24 when its good, Veronica Mars, or Lost. I see good writing, performances, and good storytelling, week in and week out on those shows. If you’re going to watch those over time, you can’t have an abbreviated attention span. Now, people are watching them on DVD and digesting them in these huge bites.

Where have you landed now?

I’ve been doing stuff for the New York Times Book Review, some things for the New York Observer, a monthly pop culture column for the Newark Star-Ledger called “High & Low.” My editor there, John Hassell, absolutely understands cultural criticism and has been great to work for.

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
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