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Against Consensus: An Interview with Charles Taylor

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Against Consensus: An Interview with Charles Taylor

[Editor’s Note: Today The House Next Door publishes its first piece by a guest contributor, Jeremiah Kipp, whose writing on movies has appeared in Slant Magazine, Filmmaker, Fangoria and other publications. Kipp interviewed Charles Taylor, an influential and compulsively readable film critic for Salon, after he was fired from the online magazine last year. He can now be read in the New York Times, the New York Observer and my home, the Star-Ledger, where he writes a monthly pop culture column called “High and Low.” A transcript of their conversation follows.]

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

Jeremiah Kipp: How did Salon begin and when were you brought aboard?

Charles Taylor: 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.

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

CT: 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.

JK: What would you describe as the tone of Salon?

CT: Then or now?

JK: Let’s say then.

CT: 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.

 

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