A new day dawns and, from this side of the web, it seems business as usual. Perhaps that’s because I’ve been aware for a while now that my co-editor and friend Matt Zoller Seitz is leaving behind the world of print journalism.
It’s long been a point of conversation, one of those topics posited in off-the-cuff “what-if?” asides, always leading to deeper discussion, though no definitively stated absolutes. That is until a month ago when I received a nighttime phone call from Matt, his voice unwavering and decisive. “I’m out,” he said in regards to his seventeen years plus profession, going on to state his reasons, though, in that moment, he needn’t have justified his choice to me. It was unmistakably prepared for, and though I felt a twinge of wistful sadness (impossible not to), I was more happy for him and the potential futures he was now laying out before me, his tone crystal clear and infectious. There was a part of me that wondered if this wasn’t an extended prank, that we’d get to zero hour and he’d say—with a mischievous, Cheshire Cat grin—“Just kidding.” But the point of no return has passed. The clock has struck midnight. The DeLorean’s hit 88 mph. And, where Matt’s going, he don’t need roads.
All this to say that I think I’ve personally had enough time to deal with any resultant aftershocks of Editor Emeritus Seitz’s announcement, of his entrustment of The House Next Door to me, of the great responsibility that comes with that, and of my desire, determination, and commitment to maintain the continually high level of collaborative quality that Matt has instilled in this venture. It’s the least I can do, and I hope you’ll all (contributors, constant readers, and newcomers alike) come along for the ride—it’s far from over. Yet any passing of the torch requires more than just an announcement. As I say in the accompanying podcast conversation, I think we’re presented with markers in our life, signposts directing us down a certain path or away from it. Sometimes we heed said marker’s advice, other times we ignore it, but it always makes an impression, and we more often, whether regretfully or not, remember the road not taken. I thought it important that Matt and I create our own signpost, to mark a moment that shouldn’t come off as an end of things or a farewell, but as a present-tense point in time that has its own complicated history, ripe for retrospective exploration, and which portends a future filled with endless and abundant possibilities.
So we have done below: Laughed much. Explained and enlightened. Spoken from the heart and bared the soul—now to an audience. It remains only for me to thank Matt for his friendship and guidance, his trust and love, and to wish him well on his each and every future endeavor. You’re a brother to me, my friend. And an inspiration to many besides. Keith Uhlich
To download the podcast, click here. The conversation is transcribed in full below, with minor edits for style and clarification.
Keith Uhlich: Hi, this is Keith Uhlich, co-editor of The House Next Door. As you can hear, we’re in relatively quiet surroundings, which I know is a rare occurrence on podcasts at The House—I guess, all things new as they come. I’m here with my cohort and fellow editor Matt Zoller Seitz, and this podcast has probably, if all has gone to plan, gone up a day or two after he’s made a rather big decision on The House, so I thought it would be good to do an interview with him. Let’s begin, Matt, by recapping what that decision is.
Matt Zoller Seitz: Well, the short of it is: I’m out of print criticism. I’ve been thinking about it for a while and for a variety of reasons. One of them is that I’ve been doing it for seventeen years now as of May of this year, and I’ve done it for a variety of different outlets in a variety of different forms. I’ve enjoyed it…I’ve always enjoyed it, but I just don’t want to do it anymore. Part of the reason for that is that I don’t write as quickly as I used to and I don’t have as much time to do it as I used to. But the more important thing is that, according to the actuarial tables, I’m probably about halfway through my life, if I’m lucky. And there’s a lot of things that I would like to do, and I haven’t done them yet. And I want to get started on it.
KU: One of the things I wanted to stress in this interview is that I don’t really see it as an end of things. You and I have talked about this—I feel there really is a point to this decision. It’s not just an entirely big left turn. I think it’s been prepared for in a lot of ways. So what I thought would be good to do is to look at your history in criticism not with an eye to it being an end of things, but more how it brought you to this particular place. Could we talk a bit about some of your history? I guess, let’s start with…you know there was a feature that I don’t think has been completed yet on The House, and maybe it will be someday, where you remember certain movie memories that sort of spark things, so maybe you could trace a path of the movie memories that sparked your path of criticism.
MZS: Yeah, well…Gosh, I don’t know if I’m ever going to finish that piece. I have a lot of half-completed pieces in the queue at The House, but…that one…I dunno, why would you bring that one up?
KU: Well, for me, for example, there was a memory when I was younger. The first movie memory I have is going with my grandmother—I must be about three, four, or five, somewhere in that range. It was the grandmother who was my mother’s mother. She died when I was five, actually, but we went to a local theater in Lynbrook where I grew up and we saw Tom and Jerry cartoons. That was very much imprinted on me, and I not only remember Tom and Jerry, who became very favorite cartoon characters for a long time thereafter, but just the experience of the theater itself. I think the key image for me when I go to the movies—the reason I’m not one of those who says that movies are worse now than they were then—is because, quite simply, the first thing I remember from going to the movies is the white screen and the lights dimming. What that whole action meant: in the sense of it holding a kind of promise, and a kind of faith, I guess, that I then had in what it would show me. And not everything it showed me—and continues to show me—is something that I like, but that key thing is enough for me to justify what I’m doing and the general pursuit of it.
MZS: I don’t know where my love of movies began, honestly. I really couldn’t tell you, and I know there have been critics and people in a lot of other professions related to movies who can tell you what the movie was that made them want to be a critic or a filmmaker or a movie buff. I couldn’t name it.
KU: But this is a good thing, I think, because then it points to a lot of different points that coalesced together.
MZS: Yeah, I guess so. I wouldn’t say it’s so much the movies itself as it is experiences that are somehow related to the movies. To give you just one example: 1976. The Dino de Laurentiis remake of King Kong came out, and that was a really big deal to me because I was really into monster movies at the time, and I was really into the classic monster movies like Frankenstein and Creature From the Black Lagoon and Dracula. Wolf Man. The Mummy. And Godzilla. And when I heard this remake was coming out and that it was going to be in color, and that they were actually building a giant King Kong that was fully animated, I wanted to find out everything I could about it. There was this thing called The Scholastic Book Club, which I guess they still have because my daughter brings home the sheets for me to fill out. They had a book on the making of King Kong and I believe it was available before the movie had even come out. And I ordered it, along with some other things, and when it came I just read it from front to back. That was the first instance I can think of of my wanting to find out how movies were made. I don’t think I really knew anything about how movies were made. I just thought they were these things that kind of magically appeared on the screen when you went to the theater.
And to see these photographs of the various models of King Kong being built: there was the full-sized one that I was so interested in, but there was also Rick Baker in a suit, playing one version of it. And I think there was a fully automated hand and head for some tight close-ups, and then they talked about the green screen work and some of the miniatures that they did. And all things considered, if you look at it now, it’s not a very good movie. I mean that’s putting it mildly. But it was fascinating to me and it sparked something in me. And I found myself looking at movies, not just watching movies, but looking at movies and thinking, “How did they do that?” Particularly fantasy, science fiction, and horror, of course. I think that’s probably true for a lot of kids because they’re the most like dreams or nightmares. But looking at the films that Ray Harryhausen did the special effects for (the stop-motion skeletons in Jason and the Argonauts) and finding out about the makeup that Boris Karloff wore in the original Frankenstein films, by Jack Pierce. And subscribing to Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine, which—I don’t even know if that still exists. I don’t think it does, but I’m sure someone will say if it does. But to find out that it took hours to do that and all the different layers of chemicals that were necessary to create [the makeup] and all the different appliances.
I guess what it came down to was the idea that there was so much work behind things that ideally should seem effortless. And that got me to thinking about all of the people who work on movies. The 70s was the beginning, and I say that as if I’m Methuselah, but the 70s, among other things, was the beginning of the long credits roll. It didn’t used to be that way. It used to be that the movie was over and it said “The End.” [laughs] And they put some of the credits at the beginning of the movie, but in the 70s, that was when they started to put the credit for almost everybody who was remotely associated with the movie. I guess that was irritating for some people, but I loved it, because I loved finding out that there were all of these people associated with this film that I’d just seen, and the fact that, in the cases of big special effects films like Spielberg movies or the Superman films, the credits roll would last minutes. It would be five minutes long, six minutes long or more. The credits would just keep going and going. And I would think that, not only does every person on that list have an individual skill, but, also, every person on that list is from a different place. They’re probably a different age, different gender, different ethnicity. They come from a different walk of life and they all ended up on the same set at the same time somehow. Who the hell knows how they got there. And they’re all working together for a common cause to create this thing, and you never see any of their faces, except for the people who are in the movie as actors. And this was mind-boggling to me.
That got me to thinking: the person who’s the key grip or the best boy or the gaffer or the makeup person, how did they arrive at this particular point in their life, to be working on this film? How did they arrive in this particular profession? Well there had to be a bunch of personal influences, and a lot of those had to include: Who were their parents? Who were their friends? Where did they grow up? What sort of movies did they watch when they were a kid? And the sheer vastness of all of those influences, and the network of experiences that resulted in this one movie ending up on the screen was just overwhelming. I mean it was more magical, it was more enthralling for me than, a lot of times, the movies themselves were.
KU: Although getting all this from King Kong...how profound!
MZS: Well that was the spark for it. I mean, it wasn’t that movie exclusively. It was a bunch of ’em, and some of ’em, I guess in retrospect, you would call classics. Like I’d say certainly Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind would fall into that category. And then there were a lot of others that were just things I happened to see at the time, like this terrible Burt Reynolds movie called Hooper.
MZS: Where he played a stuntman. I don’t know if you ever saw that.
KU: I have not, no.
MZS: Oh my god, it’s a testosterone festival! I mean it begins with, I believe, a close-up of his crotch bulging out of his jeans as he buckles this belt on with this buckle the size of the mothership in Independence Day. And I think there’s some kind of crazy mariachi music playing on the soundtrack. Oh, it’s demented. I think everyone in the audience spontaneously grew hair on their chest from the sight of that opening credits sequence. But at the end of that movie, him and Jan-Michael Vincent—
MZS: I know, that’s all you gotta say…
KU: You say Jan-Michael Vincent it’s like…[laughs]
MZS: That’s all you gotta say. Jan-Michael Vincent, I think, is actually a synonym for the 70s.
MZS: But they do this crazy stuntman ride through this exploding town. I think there was an earthquake going on, allegedly, and there’s smokestacks falling down and things exploding. It’s the finale of some movie that he’s in, which I believe is directed by Adam West, although I have to check that.
MZS: I think Adam West might play the crazy director of the movie that Burt Reynolds is the stuntman in. And, or, no maybe he’s the leading man. I can’t remember.
KU: OK. [laughs]
MZS: But Adam West is definitely in the movie.
KU: Alright, alright.
MZS: But seeing that and, of course, they do this a lot of times in movies that are about the making of movies, which is they show you something happening in one take. And they say, “We gotta get this right! We only have one shot at it!” And it’s something that would never be done in one take! But they’re actually making a movie. They’re building and destroying an entire town, and they’re dropping things on and around stuntmen in a car that’s driving seventy miles an hour through this exploding town. They’re not gonna have one camera on it!
MZS: They’re not gonna do it in one take! And I didn’t know this, and in fact I actually looked into it as a kid. It bothered me. I thought about it for months afterwards and me and my friends were kind of obsessed with it, and there was even a kid who lived a couple of doors down from me who did a Burt Reynolds impression, complete with the weird high-pitched giggle that Burt Reynolds has. The “hee-HEE-HEE!” laugh. And we used to reenact the end of Hooper...
MZS:...in the backyard with big wheels and tricycles and things. There’d be somebody standing off to the side throwing objects at us and going “PUHM!” And at one point it dawned on me…there’s no frickin’ way that this was one take. Then I started to go to the library and look up books about filmmaking and find out how they actually did this stuff. Then I realized that there was such a thing as coverage, and there was such a thing as multi-camera shoots, and that they tended to be used for sequences that had a lot of things blowing up, or things where you couldn’t risk having only one shot at it and not getting it right. And it just kind of all built from there. My interest in the making of movies and the history of movies has always been intertwined with the experience of watching movies, which in turn has always been intertwined with the people that I saw the movies with, and the friends I saw them with, and the adults who, in some cases, brought me to them and introduced me to them, or who introduced me to new types of movies that maybe I wouldn’t have seen before.
It’s all part of a whole, really. That’s why when I harp on the idea that form and content are intertwined (which to me is so basic that I don’t understand why more criticism doesn’t reflect it) that’s where I’m coming from. Then there’s the additional layer on top of that, which is that experience and aesthetics are intertwined as well. And it’s not enough to say you love this movie because you saw it at a particular time in your life, or you were having a good day when you saw it. That absolutely may be true, but it’s also very likely true that the feelings that you felt when you watched a movie were due to the aesthetic choices of the director. It all works in concert. It may be entirely possible that you see a movie that is innovative in some way, perhaps even a masterpiece, and it makes no impression on you, or less of an impression than it might have if you’d been having a better day. If you hadn’t had something horrible happen recently. If you weren’t worrying about paying the rent or, you know, “What’s that spot on my neck?” I mean there’s all kinds of factors that come into play. Aesthetics produce an emotional reaction, and—in turn—emotional reactions on the part of the filmmaker produces a certain aesthetic. Wong Kar-wai is a perfect example of that.
KU: It’s interesting hearing you talk about all this because there’s a very strong “man behind the curtain” fascination here that I don’t know if I share as much anymore. Not to say that I don’t believe criticism has an aesthetic purpose, but I think that where I am is that…going to college—Tisch School of the Arts—actually killed my desire to ever make a film…ever…
MZS: [laughs] I’ve heard that from other people.
KU:...ever again. And I’m not just blaming Tisch specifically. I think it was always there in me. That I more preferred movies after they were done, experiencing them in that way. But it seems now where you have come is that the “man behind the curtain” aspects are really getting more of a hold and driving some of your decision making. Could you take us through how that’s come about?
MZS: Yeah, sure. Well part of it is…you know I produced a feature film, a low-budget thriller, a few years ago and then went on and directed a little movie myself. I have been working on projects that are in various stages of completion since then and it’s been slow going for a variety of reasons. But I would like to concentrate on that exclusively. I want to concentrate on filmmaking exclusively for a while and see how it goes because I’ve never given it my all. The two features that I’ve been associated with were done while I had a full-time job and a part-time job. So my thinking is, “well if I am not doing anything but filmmaking, what might I be able to accomplish?”
And I’m not just talking about making another feature film, although certainly I want to do that. But I also have some short films that I not only want to make, but am going to make this year, starting with a featurette or possible short feature this summer, a science fiction movie aimed at kids. And there’s another short film, a drama based on a short story that I really like, that I would like to shoot in the fall. That’s probably going to be about fifteen minutes long. And the project this summer is gonna be shot with a lot of special effects, green screens, miniatures, sort of taking me back to my childhood, I guess. It involves puppets and stuffed animals, and it’s sort of a chance for me to indulge my fantasy of being George Lucas and Jim Henson at the same time. Then the one I want to do in the fall is much more traditional. It’s just a two-character drama and it’s completely realistic and it’s mostly conversation driven. It’s a chance to see how dynamically I can shoot a conversation between two people and have the shots actually mean something.
KU: One of the things I’m hearing here is this real emphasis on collaboration. I think what the credits rolls were showing you was that there were all these people working together to create this beautiful thing.
KU: Whether the movie ended up being necessarily great or not, it seems like you had profound experiences both at good and bad movies.
MZS: Yeah, absolutely. And I learned something from every movie. I think I’ve probably learned something from every movie that I’ve ever seen, even if it was just a little tiny piece of information that I didn’t know before, or a feeling that I hadn’t felt before. Sometimes there’ll be a little sublime moment buried in a movie that’s otherwise pretty terrible. And, by the same token, moments of awfulness inside films that are regarded as masterpieces. That’s one of the reasons I think I’ve always…it’s a pretty rare thing for me to have an unabashed rave or an unabashed pan for something. In fact, when I look back at my reviews, most of ’em seem to be mixed, in that I can be pretty rough on movies that I seem to like. And, in some cases, people who like the movies more than I do, or more wholeheartedly than I do, take me to task for that, saying “Well if you loved the movie so much, why did you hate on this performance?” or “Why did you have all these bad things to say about the cinematography?”
But on the other end of the scale, I’m often accused of being too nice to certain movies, and particularly to certain directors. And, well…guilty as charged. You know, Wong Kar-wai is an example of that. My Blueberry Nights, which I just saw recently, which I think I’m probably gonna see again, has gotten almost exclusively pretty negative reviews. I mean even the most positive ones have been what you’d call mixed. And that’s putting it real mildly. But I was just in love with the movie. I loved it, and I loved what it was saying, and the way that Wong Kar-wai was saying it. Particularly the message of living in the moment. And it’s not a coincidence at all.
There’s got to be a review out there that’s pointed this out, but I haven’t seen one yet, that the movie is broken up by…you know, it’s a fragmented movie that’s really a series of vignettes and almost a series of character moments. Some of ’em are big epiphanies, and others are just kind of fleeting conversations. But they’re broken up by these intertitles that are “time” and “distance.” It’ll say, “Four Days Later, 3,221 miles.” And the title cards don’t really mean anything. They’re there and they pop up onscreen, and they seem to be very momentous, and the first time you see them you think, “Ah, this is important. This is the key to everything.” And they keep popping up throughout the movie, and they don’t illuminate anything, and they don’t mean anything. And that’s the point of putting them up there…these distinctions of…Where are you from? Where are you now, physically? What time is it? You know, is it a holiday? Is it an anniversary? These things are not as important as the life that’s going on inside of you, which doesn’t obey any calendar or any clock or any map.
KU: So in a sense it enhances the mystery?
MZS: I think so. I think it’s Wong Kar-wai sending a message, and it’s very much in tune with the one he’s been sending throughout his filmography, which is “life happens in the moment.” Life happens in the moment; it doesn’t happen…you know, if you spend too much time looking forward or looking back, you’re not really living. And that’s why his movies are focused on…they’re built around the moment in the way that Michael Mann’s films are. They’re about emotions, and when he kicks into slow motion, or fast motion, or freeze frame, it’s almost never to italicize a plot point. It’s usually to italicize a feeling. Or to extend a feeling, or to truncate a feeling, and it’s all about the feelings and the sensations, and what people see and what they hear and what they feel. Very few movies are about that. That aesthetic is not shared by most movies. And I was looking back over the filmmakers that I am generally most attracted to, and they all have that in common.
KU: Well, let’s talk moments then. Let’s go several thousand miles back in the career of Mr. Seitz and talk about the moment journalism took hold.
MZS: OK. Well, in high school, at Arts Magnet in Dallas, I had started some publications, including the literary magazine and a newspaper, which I was the editor of. And so, I dunno, I guess my beginning in journalism was starting a comics publication in the fourth grade.
KU: And also drawing in the margins of your books.
MZS: Well yeah, I did flip books most of my life and I still have saved a few of them. But yeah there was a long period where I was buying books mainly on the basis of how wide the margins were.
KU: Just so you could draw on them. [laughs]
MZS: Yeah, exactly. And there were many times in fact where…my mom onetime…I kind of unnerved my mom. I was eleven years old and she was in the supermarket checkout line and I came up to her, and I had this paperback copy of “The Love You Make”, this somewhat salacious biography of The Beatles. And I said, “Mom, can I have this?” And she said, “Um, um, um…” and she kind of stammered because I guess she’d read reviews and she knew this was not a book for children. And she said, “I didn’t know you were interested in The Beatles.” And I said, “No, I just want the book,” and it was because it had a nice, wide margin that I could draw in. Then I ended up being interested in The Beatles as a result of having bought that book. So there you go…the unintended connections.
But I would say my first job as a critic, really, was for the campus newspaper at SMU. I was a freshman. It was my spring semester of my freshman year, 1988. I wrote a piece for the campus newspaper on Vietnam films ’cause there were a lot of ’em at that time. And I submitted it just on a whim. Didn’t expect anything out of it, and the editor liked it and published it, and they didn’t even tell me they were going to publish it. I just picked up the paper one day and it was in there. And I said, “Oh, okay.”
I went back the following fall and said, “Hey, do you want me to write more?” and they said, “Sure!” And I was very flattered until I realized that they just wanted someone to write. Anybody. [laughs] And I started writing film reviews for them. (Me and my friend Robert Abele, who is now the TV critic for L.A. Weekly and a film columnist for L.A. Times, we were critics there at the same time.) That was a formative experience. And I did it, and I won some student journalism awards doing it, and I wrote a lot of other articles as well: features and news pieces and editorials, and some silly stuff that was sort of half Dave Barry, half Hunter S. Thompson where I played this fictionalized hard-boiled journalist—but he was a complete idiot—called Scoop. And I referred to myself in the third person as, you know, “Scoop wants this. Scoop wants that.” And it was kind of a send-up of that entire Gonzo school.
Unbeknownst to me, while I’d been writing all this stuff, and staying up all night at the paper doing it, and falling asleep in class the next day, one of my editors had been sending my clips to the local alt-weekly, The Dallas Observer. And when I was about to graduate…well I was supposed to graduate in the spring of ’91, but I had been smoking too much pot and getting drunk too many nights a week.
KU: [laughs] Hear, hear.
MZS:...and doing too many all-nighters at the paper, so I got a bunch of F’s that year, and I didn’t have the credits necessary to graduate. I got this job at The Dallas Observer that summer as a calendar editor, which paid $250.00 a week, which—to me—was a fortune. I was like Navin Johnson in The Jerk, you know…“Two hundred and fifty big ones!” And I did this job, and I was thinking, well hey, I’ve got a paid journalism job, they like me, they want me to do more stuff. I don’t need to finish college.
I told my girlfriend at the time, later my wife, about this and she said, “You’re gonna need to finish college because if this doesn’t work out and you need to get another job, you’re gonna have a better chance if you’re a college graduate.” And I said, “I don’t think I really need to do that. I’m gonna be fine.” And she said, “Well let me put it to you this way. If you don’t go back and get that degree, I don’t think we have a future together.” And so I had to figure out how to get that degree.
I got as much student loans as I could, but it wasn’t enough. It was only about half of what I needed. I went to my editor at The Observer, this guy named Peter Elkind, who actually wrote the book that was the basis for the Enron documentary The Smartest Guys in the Room. I told Peter my situation and I said, “Basically, you’ve got to help me finish college, Peter, or my girlfriend’s gonna leave me.” [laughs] And he said, “How much do you need?” It was six thousand dollars or something. And he said, “Well why don’t I just write you a check for that, and you pay me back by writing. And every time you write a piece, we’ll just knock $150—which I think was the going rate for a 1200 word piece at the time. It was actually not that good of a rate, now that I look back on it…
KU: But compared to some things today…[laughs]
MZS: It was not bad. But, yeah, “every time you write a piece, we’ll knock a little bit off the amount.” And I write a lot, so I paid it back in six months. [laughs] And I didn’t have to have interest, which was great. I worked at The Observer for a few years, and then in ’95 moved to New York and got a job at The Star-Ledger as a pop-culture columnist. And around the same time I saw an ad in the New York Press saying that they were looking for a film critic, so I sent my clips over there and Godfrey Cheshire pulled my clips out of a pile, and called me up and said, “Hey, why don’t you come in for an interview?” He interviewed me, actually, at a coffee shop near his apartment in the Village. I had been reading him for years, and Godfrey was…awesome! He was like a Yoda. [laughs] And I couldn’t even believe I was having a conversation with Godfrey Cheshire. So I got the job, and wrote for them for a while. The Star-Ledger and the New York Press, I wrote for both of them for eleven years. I’ve had very few jobs, actually. I’ve only had really three jobs in the entire time I’ve been in journalism. I’ve done some freelance work here and there, but mostly I’ve just done those three jobs.
KU: It seems that journalism wasn’t really on your mind when you were a kid or coming up through high school. You actually did, in a way, fall into it. But there was a way to channel the love of film that was there from your earliest memories and make something out of it.
MZS: It was, and I didn’t…you know, it’s funny. This is a story that I haven’t…I think I’ve only told it to two people, but I might as well just share it now: When I was in the third grade, I told my mom and my stepdad that I wanted a movie camera. They got me a Super 8 Bell & Howell movie camera. It was really nice. It had a pistol grip and it was battery operated and it had a split-diopter focus and different speeds and everything. You could do slow-motion, fast-motion, stop-frame, everything. It was really a beautiful camera, and I played around with it for a couple of years, and I still have a few of the movies that I made. A lot of ’em involved shogun warriors and micronauts and Godzilla toys in my backyard.
And then I took it on a Texas history trip—I’m from Dallas—in the seventh grade. We were piling out of a hotel room in San Antonio to go to, I think it was The Alamo. And I brought my bag…Oh, no…we were leaving Austin…I thought we were going to San Antonio, but we were just going to somewhere else in Austin that day. I came out of the hotel room with my suitcase in my hand, and I didn’t realize that we weren’t relocating, that we were just going somewhere else for a field trip. All the kids were on the bus, and I was one of the last people to get on the bus. And they saw me coming up with my bag and they started laughing at me. ’Cause I had my bag in my hand, and they were like, “We’re not leaving. We’re just going to the, you know, Tower of the Americas, or whatever the hell it was. I was mortified. Absolutely mortified. And I don’t know why I was so mortified by not knowing what was going on, but I wanted to get on that bus as fast as possible. So I went back—my room was on the second floor of this motel—and I went back there, opened up the door…actually I went back up there, and I was gonna go inside and drop the bag off, but I didn’t want to spare the extra five minutes that it would take to go in, open up the door, put the bag in the room. So I hid the bag behind a Coke machine.
I don’t for the life of me know why I did that. But when we came back from the trip, the bag was gone. And my camera was in that bag. I think, probably…not to get too Freudian about it, but I really believe that that camera that I lost is in some way responsible for my not pursuing filmmaking more aggressively. I almost feel like in some way it’s like I didn’t deserve to do it. And I went to college to study filmmaking, and I did it. I made some short films, and I learned how to shoot and edit in 16mm. And I worked on video projects and learned how to edit Beta 1 tape with the machines with the big knobs on them and all of that. But I always stayed on the margins of it. And I think that was probably it. I poured myself into film criticism, and then at a certain point I started to get this itch that I needed to scratch, and that was when I started to get back into it.
I guess that’s my “girl on the ferry in the white dress with the parasol” story from Citizen Kane...is that camera. But yeah, I fell into journalism. And a lot of people say that, but in my case it’s actually true. It wasn’t what I went to school to study. I went to school to study fiction writing and filmmaking. In fact, I took enough credits in both of those to get majors in them. If the school allowed multiple majors in the same school I would have gotten one in filmmaking and journalism, but they wouldn’t let you do that. So I had to pick one, and I picked journalism.
KU: You don’t feel that these years have been wasted in that sense, in that you’ve lost that thread of filmmaking? Or do you?
KU: Because just thinking from my own experience, I’ve had my fair share of “cameras in the bag that have gotten stolen” and put me on another path. One of the things I do believe is that there are markers put in our way at certain points in our life that are directing us down a certain path or steering us away from it. Sometimes we choose to take the path anyway, or sometimes we do listen to the marker and just go away from it. Then it was saying, “Now you have to go on this detour” and now it’s sort of bringing you back to it.
MZS: Well, yeah. And in a way, it’s like I never stopped being a filmmaker. One of the things that I’ve noticed during the years that I’ve been doing this, is that I tend to get a generally respectful response from filmmakers because I notice the filmmaking. And I notice the filmmaking because, at heart, I’ve always been a filmmaker, and in practice have been a filmmaker. And so I notice that stuff. And I think a lot of critics who understand the process of filmmaking notice that stuff too, but I think they maybe don’t fixate on it to quite the same degree. And I know this is true from talking to other critics, that they don’t sit there when they’re watching the movie and they’re simultaneously in the movie, and having an emotional reaction to the movie, and also thinking, “That’s beautiful, that shaft of light coming through the window. What kind of light did they use? What kind of gel is that?”
It’s a weird, bifurcated response to things, and that’s the response that I’ve always had, and I think that’s where the need to balance form and content wherever possible comes in. That’s why when I would do an 800-word review of something in New York Press, I might spend half of the review talking about the shots and the editing, and the lighting scheme, and certain visual motifs in the movie. I’ll never forget this one piece that I did. It was a review of a movie called Travelers and Magicians. Which is a great movie, and if you haven’t seen it, then you should. But I was fascinated by the way that they used slow zooms and rack focus in that movie. It was very, very precise, and very deliberate the way they used it. And it wasn’t just willy-nilly. It wasn’t just for effect. And I had to think about it. I had to actually see it a second time to realize why they were doing it, why I thought they were doing it. And it was particularly in the sequence where this guy who is staying at a farmhouse with this old farmer and this young woman, his young wife, and he falls in love with the young wife. They use rack focus a lot in that sequence. And it’s like it’s reflecting the slowly dawning awareness of the situation that this guy is involved in, the way that it gradually creeps up on him, you know. The focus gradually creeps up on him, or it gradually creeps away from him. And it seems to be a visual analogue for what’s going on in his subconscious mind.
I only had 800 words to play with on that particular review. I think it was the second review of mine that week and I spent half of it talking about rack focus. And I got a letter from the cinematographer the following week saying, “Thank you so much for noticing what we were doing. That’s exactly what we were doing, and that’s what we meant to do, and thank you for noticing.” That sort of a thing has always meant more to me than almost any response because it means that…first of all it means that I’m not just talking out of my ass, you know, that I actually do have a film sense and that when I have a pretty strong idea of what a filmmaker is up to, there’s a pretty good chance that I might be right. There are times where I’m just flat-out wrong, but there’s other times when I’m actually right about it. And often when I pursue the things that I think are wild goose chases in my reviews, those are often the times that it turns out not only am I right, but I’m the only guy who called it. And that’s important. That comes from having that reptilian brain of a filmmaker even though I’m sitting there being employed as a critic.
KU: The final thing I had on that particular question is the story you tell about the camera in the bag. It’s a very powerful image and story, and does that portend any regret, or are you not a regretful person?
MZS: Well in some ways, yes, and in some ways, no. No in the sense that I’ve seen…since becoming a critic professionally…I started out seeing about two hundred theatrical releases a year. And then when I moved to New York and there were more things to see, and more things I had to keep up with to feel like I was current, you know I would see two hundred fifty, then three hundred movies a year. I had a couple of four hundred movie years, but my average is about three hundred a year. Sometimes more. You can do the math, but that’s a lot of hours. Then on top of that there are all those hours that I spent watching television shows for my gig as a television critic at The Star-Ledger. And I didn’t have to watch everything, luckily, because there was another full-time critic, Alan Sepinwall, and Steve Hedgpeth, who was the Sunday TV book editor and also wrote some reviews and features. So I didn’t have to see everything that was on television and I couldn’t have even if I needed to. It’s just impossible. It’s like visiting every city on the planet, you know?
But I still watched hundreds and hundreds of hours of TV each year. And all of these things informed my sensibility, they gave me a sense of the various aesthetics that were out there, the fads that were out there, the movements that were out there, and the people, the filmmakers, the producers, the actors. All that was very, very valuable and it gave me a sense of how the culture was changing over time, and what the influences were. But at the same time, there’s more to life than movies.
MZS: There’s more to life than movies, and I don’t think that, ten years ago, I don’t think I would have said that. But I’m saying it now: there is more to life than movies. And I remember a conversation with Sean Burns—I think it might have been in the comments section of the blog—he casually mentioned that Gene Siskel, God rest his soul, was…there was somebody who looked down on Siskel for saying that he skipped some film festival to go to a basketball game. And Burns was completely approving of [Siskel], and I am too. I am too: Go to the goddamn basketball game! And when I look back on those hundreds and hundreds of hours that I spent watching movies—many of which were not that memorable, and many of which did not tell a whole lot that I didn’t know—when I realized that they were hours that are gone now and I’m not getting them back…It makes me mad. It makes me mad, honestly, that I’m not gonna get those hours back. You know those are hours I could have been spending with my family. With my loved ones.
KU: And so is the jump to filmmaking, in a sense, to give to this art that you’ve written about from an outsider perspective some of the stuff that you would like to see?
MZS: No, it’s not that. I just want to do it. I just want to do it, and also I’ve spent too much time doing something other than that, and writing about it in theory and not doing it in practice. And I think there’s a way to combine the two. To be actively engaged is the goal here. And, you know, critics, I think we get very defensive when filmmakers and people who have a problem with critics say that critics are people who just can’t do [filmmaking]. Well…I think that’s probably not true for a lot of people, and there are certainly examples of filmmakers who are also critics and critics who are also filmmakers, but I do think that there’s value in the idea that you should be able to really know what you’re talking about if you’re going to critique these people who do it for a living. And I think it’s unreasonable to expect that someone could be a book critic if they can’t write. [laughs] You know, that goes without saying. You have to be able to write to be a book critic. I don’t think you have to be a professional filmmaker to be a film critic, but having done it, even to a limited extent, is gonna help you. And it’s also going to make you less inclined to spout off some bullshit where you don’t really know what you’re talking about, which happens all the time.
KU: It’s true….So let’s bring it around to The House Next Door now, and how this all came about. And how I’d like to lead into that is to see if you recall how our paths first crossed.
MZS: Well I remember we met at a…I don’t remember a screening of what movie. But yeah…
KU: I do.
MZS: What was it?
KU: [laughs] OK, if may hijack the conversation momentarily…
MZS: Please do.
KU: 1999, folks. A more innocent time.
KU: It was a screening of Bringing Out The Dead by Martin Scorsese.
MZS: I feel like there should be ABBA playing for some reason.
MZS: The memory scrim appears…
KU: Now I have to set this up somewhat. New York Press, when I was in college, was a haven of film criticism for me. It was something that just inspired me to no ends. I think back on it very fondly and in some ways regret the loss of it, but understand why, after a period, the trio of you, Armond [White], and Godfrey went away. The critic who really inspired me when I entered college was Mr. Seitz, sitting right here in front of me. And it was specifically [his] remembrance of Star Wars. It was a person who was writing positively about Star Wars and not negatively, because I had been so inundated with the negative critiques, or felt the negative critiques more than, say, a Roger Ebert positive critique. Especially the one that Pauline Kael wrote. I was indignant that Kael didn’t like Star Wars. I understand it more now…
KU:...to be perfectly honest, but I was indignant at the time. And so to have Matt, you come along and write about it in that way was so inspiring that I made you a weekly read in the Press. I had to read Matt Zoller Seitz.
MZS: Ah, that’s nice.
KU: Then from there I discovered Godfrey, who was also writing there as well. And it was interesting because when I first started reading you it was “you, you, you…only you”. And every time I read Godfrey, at first I was like, “Who the fuck is this Godfrey Cheshire? He doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about, goddamnit!”
KU: And then suddenly I warmed to him.
KU: And then Armond came along, and when Armond came along I was like, “Ah Matt, Godfrey…Who the fuck is this Armond White motherfucker?!!” And then I came to love Armond too—Armond is a prickly one to love sometimes, but…we love Armond, nonetheless. But when that whole trio came along it was incredible. And then at the end of college I had this chance to meet Godfrey through Tom Noonan, who I was working with on his never-released film Wang Dang. He knew Godfrey because he had written an article for him several years back in the New York Press about “Why I Make Movies.” And it had Tom’s e-mail address on there, and I e-mailed him through that, and that’s how I got to know him. Then he casually mentioned to me that he knew Godfrey and he said he could set up a meeting. So he introduced me to Godfrey and Godfrey and I became very friendly. Then it sort of proceeded from there that Godfrey introduced me to Armond. And I happened to have a copy of The Resistance under my arm when I first met Armond.
KU: Which was too fawning, probably, but then even more fawning was finally getting to meet Matt Zoller Seitz at Bringing Out The Dead. Which I was so, so excited for and I didn’t want to make a fool of myself. But I absolutely did. I was a fawning sycophant.
MZS: I just don’t remember it being like that at all, Keith.
KU: I have to say my piece here. I talked about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. We had a great conversation about that, I remember. We sat in the same row in this big Paramount Theater, I think, or Universal Theater…I forget which one it was. It was Godfrey on my right, Matt on my left, and Armond on my further left. And it was me in the center of the New York Press trio, and I was like “Oh my god!!! Ahhhhh!!!” That whole thing just made me so damn excitable, and at the end I didn’t want it to end. So of course I went with the person who I didn’t know very much, which was Matt. And that was where I think I pushed a bit too far. So advice to all people who might have star fantasies or intellectual crushes on people: don’t push too far. You know, be kind, be courteous, but don’t…
MZS: I just…I don’t recall…I think you’ve made this into something far worse than it actually was. I remember you just being a nice guy.
KU: I was awful. I rode home with you on the subway. It was like I was the stalking fan in Misery.
KU: It still rubs me a little crazy the wrong way, so of course years later I’m so happy that now I can count Mr. Seitz as a friend of mine.
MZS: Oh, Jesus!...Well I’ve had my share of those sort of moments myself. In fact, I felt more or less that way the entire time I was at New York Press. I felt that way in regard to Godfrey and Armond. And it was partly because they are both about the same age—they’re both in their fifties, they’ve both got almost twenty years on me, so they’ve been around a while. And I often felt like the junior acolyte there. And I was happy just to be there, quite honestly. And the breadth of experience that those guys had was just mind-boggling. I’m still stunned. When I look at, you know, particularly the pieces that Godfrey was doing, those longer pieces like the piece on the Ashes of Waco, which was as much an indictment of the fascistic culture of…
MZS: Mm-hm. Yeah. Yeah. An indictment of the culture of Janet Reno and the Clinton administration and that whole sort of crackdown on dissident elements. It was incredible, it was a massive, monumental, New Yorker-length piece. And “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema”, which, you know, if there’s a more important piece of criticism that’s been written in the last twenty-five years, show it to me.
KU: Many of its prophecies now coming true.
MZS: A new one every week or so, it seems. I remember at the time there was a colleague of mine who I was discussing it with, another film critic, and I said, “You gotta read this piece. In fact you should be writing about some of this stuff for your paper.” And he got really irate, and he said…basically he thought it was highly theoretical, abstract bullshit, and he didn’t understand why anybody would want to write this much, less why a paper would want to publish it in two parts. In retrospect, [Godfrey] was right on.
But Godfrey, one of the things I learned from Godfrey is that Godfrey was never just a critic. Godfrey was a journalist. And I think there are a lot of critics who do not feel the obligation to be journalists, in the sense that they confine themselves mainly to the movies. You don’t get a sense of them paying attention to the culture at large, except for some second hand sort of remarks that they might have picked up at a cocktail party or that they cribbed from the front of The New Yorker. The sideswipes about Iraq and things like that you’ll read in certain film criticism doesn’t really feel felt or earned. And it always was with Godfrey.
I got the sense that he, well, not just that he paid attention to the world politically, but that he also did some reporting. And “Death of Film/Decay of Cinema”, there was a good deal of reporting involved in that. And a lot of his Iranian cinema pieces, which introduced me and a lot of other people to that entire area of film, were as much reported pieces as they were critical pieces. There are a few other significant critics who follow that model. Jonathan Rosenbaum certainly does. Manohla Dargis does as well, and in fact I always get a kick out of it when I read Manohla’s stuff. There’s so many instances where I’ll read a little aside that she makes regarding the circumstances behind a production, or a particular technical process. She’s a real geek for aspect ratios, as it turns out. And she makes phone calls. She picks up the phone. She calls the studio, if not the filmmaker then the representative to get the answers that she needs. And I certainly don’t do that all the time, but I’ve done it on occasion and it’s because of examples of people who I admire, like that.
KU: So I guess point being, from both our ends, that we all have our Yodas.
MZS: Oh totally. Godfrey was one of the big ones.
KU: And Matt was one for me. And so, it became a wonderful thing to meet him a few more times over the years and then eventually to connect over The New World, which was also the birth of The House Next Door.
KU: It started out as a personal blog and then sort of snowballed into this big contributors site and I think also allowed for this collaborative aspect of things. Hopefully it still does allow, and under my aegis it will continue to allow, I will state definitively here, the collaborative nature of many voices. Hopefully having everyone express their own points of view in as strong a voice as they can. You started The House Next Door, so how have you seen it grow from the initial seed to what it is now, and what do you hope for it for the future?
MZS: Well things never go the way you think they’re going to—that John Lennon quote about “life is what happens to you when you’re busy making other plans” comes to mind. I had envisioned the blog as a solo venture. In fact, I was writing multiple pieces a week for it in the first few months. Then the events of April 27th of that year made it impossible for me to write for a while. There was a brief hiatus, then we came back, and Odie stepped up with a piece on Mother’s Day.
KU: And Sean had previously covered The Sopranos...
MZS: Sean took over The Sopranos beat, which was really nice of him, ’cause he was working like a dog on his own critical stuff at the time. And he was a perfect guy for that job too. And there were other people who were already in the mix. Odie, and you, and Jeremiah.
KU: With his interview with Charles Taylor, right?
MZS: Yeah, actually that was the first piece not written by me that appeared on the site. And it was funny, as soon as that appeared…you know, he e-mailed me out of the blue and said, “Hey, do you want this?” And I said, “Sure.” Then after that, more people started e-mailing me, ’cause they realized, “Oh, he’s publishing stuff that he didn’t write. Well, maybe he wants this.” And in a lot of cases, yeah, I did. It was good stuff. In some cases it was people soliciting me, and in other cases I was soliciting work from other people. But it was always a mix of things. Other people kept the site going for a while, and I didn’t really kind of get back into it until the late summer of ’06. By that point it was very much a collaborative venture, and it always has been since then.
But I like that and, you know, collaborative ventures are…they’ve always been an aspect of who I am. Ever since I was a little kid. Like when I saw Rushmore for the first time, I went, “Oh my god…somebody made a biography of me when I was in elementary school.” Because that was what it was like. I mean, I put on a play…in the fourth grade I did a science fiction play that was a shameless ripoff of Alien, and gave myself the Ian Holm part. Then the following year I did a sequel to it, which was basically a ripoff of The Empire Strikes Back, which was three times the scale, three times the length, and had a dry ice machine and some other strobe lights and other effects. And I’ve always done projects. I’ve done student publications, sometimes more than one in a single year, and participated in the production of plays and all sorts of other projects that didn’t necessarily get me any credit at school academically, but were just fun. I just like starting things. I just like to start projects and get ’em going. And the main reason for doing them is to see what other people are gonna come up with. You know, that’s the main reason to do it. The point is not to do it all yourself. It’s to find other people who are, if not like-minded in the sense that they are exactly the same as you (’cause who wants that, that would be boring), then to find people who have similar enthusiasm or similar spirit and then turn ’em loose.
That’s what The House is and that’s what…you know, the first movie I directed [Home] was very much that way. There were entire sections of that movie that were either improvised by the actors or that were suggested by one of the other filmmakers. Scenes that were supposed to be shot a particular way were shot an entirely different way at the suggestion of the cinematographer, or one of my co-producers. You know, whoever had a good idea. If it was better than my idea, I’d take it. I’m grateful to have it. Most of all I like the idea of starting something that wasn’t there before, creating something that wasn’t there before. And then watching it become its own thing. Then it doesn’t need you anymore. And I feel like that’s the case with the blog right now.
I certainly wouldn’t mind sticking around and continuing to write pieces, but in all honesty I write a lot more slowly than I used to, and I have a lot less patience with print than I used to. When I’m writing, when I’m doing pieces in print, that are print only, I find my mind starting to wander, and I’m thinking about movies. I’m thinking about watching movies and making movies and I’ll go off and start storyboarding the puppet movie. Or I’ll start combing through my DVD collection looking for scenes of a similar type. Like one night I went through my DVD collection and looked for scenes in movies that reference the famous shot of the bouncing ball in M. And there are a lot of ’em. There’s the head of Newt’s doll in Aliens floating in the water, in that brackish water. There’s the bouncing ball in Mad Max when Max’s son gets killed. There are a lot of those. I find that I’m often more interested in rifling through my DVD collection and seeking out visual patterns throughout film history than I am in sitting there writing a piece of film criticism. And that tells me that maybe, you know, what I need to be doing is, you know…it doesn’t have to be either/or I guess is what I’m getting at. I think Kevin Lee and Jim Emerson are two guys who’ve really shown me that and, in fact, I’m going to be doing some of that as well. I’m already starting some of that, some visual criticism that combines the written word and filmmaking.
KU: And so will we have the pleasure of that on The House Next Door?
MZS: Oh yeah, absolutely. I don’t know when I’m going to get to it ’cause I’ve got these other things that I feel obligated to do first, but certainly. And I’m also gonna be making some really short apropos-of-nothing documentaries on whatever the hell I feel like doing them on, and I’ll probably post those on The House as well. I mean, I’m certainly not gonna go away. I’m just not gonna be writing straight out print reviews, certainly not very often. I’m just at the point where I feel like I need to try to concentrate my energies, which are not as profuse as they used to be, on things that I think have a reasonable shot at making me happy. Print does not satisfy me in the way that it once did. In fact, it feels too much like work. And I want to do things that feel like play. And maybe turn ’em into work, you know? The ideal is to have your job be something that doesn’t feel like a job, and that was the case for me for years with print criticism. It’s not the case anymore.
KU: Well thank you very much for passing on this responsibility to me, with running the blog. I hope that I will do as great a job as you have done. Certainly you’ve acted as a tremendous inspiration to me and to a lot of people—whether you see it or not, I do believe that there are lots out there. I think we’re gonna see them in the comments section for this and probably a few other pieces as to how much you have influenced them and will continue to.
MZS: Ah well, thanks Keith. And, you know, I got no worries. You helped me take care of my boy for a while there, so, you know, you can take care of this kid.
KU: And that’s what I’m going to do. Thank you very much and thanks for talking us through it all.
Matt Zoller Seitz is a filmmaker and Editor Emeritus of The House Next Door.
Keith Uhlich is editor of The House Next Door and a contributor to various print and online publications.