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Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw

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Keep Up, or Get Out of the Way: An Interview with Film Critic Walter Chaw

As newsprint-based dailies and weeklies get the squeeze in terms of word count and content, one increasingly has to look to the World Wide Web for no-holds barred criticism. If Film Freak Central film critic Walter Chaw feels uncomfortable with the “Web critic” label, it might be because the medium throws amateurs and professionals onto the same playing field, and studios and publicists fail to distinguish between the wheat and the chaff. But when you find an online critic with writing chops as strong as Chaw’s, you don’t want to keep him to yourself. Where many Internet-based reviewers mimic the acerbic aspects of Pauline Kael, Chaw takes his caustic, occasionally hostile wit so far that one sometimes wonders if the Paulettes might ask him to tone it down a little. Barbed language aside, though, Chaw’s approach owes less to the obvious film critic models than to satirist, science fiction author and cultural pundit Harlan Ellison, who famously said, “Not everyone is entitled to an opinion. They are only entitled to an informed opinion.”

In that spirit, Chaw often references artistic sources that predate cinema’s brief history. Praising Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator as an “ode to needing to make movies—and needing to watch them,” Chaw invoked William Blake’s “idea of gods created in the breast of man [being] transmuted into the cult of personality and the patina of nostalgia for the titans of the silver screen’s golden age. This is a shrine to individualism and a critique of the dreadful cost of individuality.” In his review of Harmony Korine’s second film, Chaw said that Puccini’s ’O Mio Babino Caro’ aria from ’Gianni Schicci,’ a plaintive appeal for the acceptance of a lover, finds itself scattered throughout ’julien donkey-boy’ to further underscore these themes of alienation, sexuality, and a frustrated desire for familial harmony.” Chaw clearly expects his readership to keep up or get out of the way.

He shows an affinity for art house fare, singing the praises of Claire Denis’s astonishing and frequently misunderstood masterpiece Trouble Every Day as “the most insightful film about sex and gender that has perhaps ever been made.” But he’s equally quick to assault the pretentiousness of Sundance favorites like Primer, writing, “I suspect that a lot of people are afraid to admit they don’t understand what’s happening in the film, which talks too much in too stultifying a fashion, obscuring its heart of glass with blizzards of expositive candy.” He is frequently accused, at least by those who write in to Film Freak Central, of being an elitist and a snob.

But those readers might be surprised learn how many mainstream Hollywood films Chaw has championed over the years. He has given four-star reviews to V For Vendetta, King Kong, and Spider-Man 2, which he said “takes chances with its story that lesser films would not, affirming, along with Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, that big budgets don’t just by the fact of them quash unique, distinctive, ambitious voices.”

Chaw rages against the Hollywood machine’s depictions of class, gender and race, puncturing political correctness, but assailing films that still think it’s okay to use xenophobic or chauvinistic stereotypes. His jihad against dumbed-down content is so wide-ranging that I’ve occasionally wondered if he needed to take a break. He’s incinerated movies that were paper-thin in the first place: Bringing Down the House, The Dukes of Hazzard, Bulletproof Monk, xXx: State of the Union, Last Holiday. Maybe he justifies his vitriol on the grounds that he watches this junk so we don’t have to.

Where did you grow up?

I was born and raised in Wheat Ridge, Colorado, where I went to school with the children of Denver Broncos and Coors. They called it “White Rich”, my high school. I was one of three Asians in the building, I think, [during] my three years there. I like to say that I didn’t even know that I was Asian until freshman year of college. I went to lots of neighborhood six-plexes as I was growing up, and a couple of art houses that I never went to until I moved to Boulder in my late teens.

What were some of your formative movie-going experiences?

I saw Star Wars when I was three before I could speak English (it’s better that way, perhaps) and spent the next 10 years playing with action figures and wrapping tubes. My wife remarked once how interesting she found it that men of my generation all knew how to breathe like Darth Vader instantly. I saw Dragonslayer when I was eight and spent a goodly portion of it hiding underneath the seat in front of me—didn’t stop me from seeing it three times that summer. Also, I sat through three consecutive screenings of Back to the Future with a pal of mine by telling the ushers that we’d missed the opening and would leave after a few minutes. The film that decided me on this path, though, was a screening of The Conversation for a college critical theory course…It was the first film that competed with poetry, literature and music in my mind as a testament to the soul.

When did you get started as a film critic, and was this helped by the rise of Internet film criticism?

About seven years ago now, I guess, occasioned by a massive heart attack that my father happened to survive. It caused me to reassess the path I was taking into owning a corporation and working something like 80 hours a week. I didn’t want to end up in my early fifties with a spotty relationship with my family, terrible stress, terrible health, wondering how it was that I squandered all the important things in my life in the pursuit of some hazy idea about financial/material comfort—though, ironically, being really poor and a freelance columnist puts you right back into that straitjacket in a lot of ways. I will say that the decision probably saved my marriage, though. It wouldn’t have happened as quickly without the Internet, for sure. I’m not a good hoop-jumper. Query letters and résumés give me migraines, [though I’m] probably just lazy or mentally ill. The Internet allowed me to essentially just write—to post/publish in free public forums, and to eventually get picked up to do a few pieces in cult analog journals before [editor] Bill Chambers asked me to go to work for FilmFreakCentral.net “full time”.

I assume then that it’s “full time” without getting paid.

This is true—or, at least, not paid in the traditional manner. I’ve parlayed my visibility through the Web sites into teaching assignments, public speaking opportunities, festival panels, and now books collecting the reviews published annually. But from the start, Bill had a strong philosophy about pop-up ads and so on, so that even before the Internet ad bubble popped, we weren’t exactly cash cows in terms of selling bandwidth for sponsors. It does keep us honest though, in that I don’t know if I’d be as moral if I were banking [Roger] Ebert’s, or even a living, wage.

Has the public perception of Internet critics changed since you’ve started?

I don’t believe that it’s changed at all. People who know about it as its own entity either embrace the freedom of discourse online or scorn the same. The great thing about the Internet is that everyone has a voice. The terrible thing is that everyone has a voice—ditto film’s digital revolution—so we tend to get lumped in with the Ain’t It Cool News-type gossip/blog sites rather than the “legit” online sources like Salon or Slate. Feast or famine.

You’ve had some big issues with the way films are screened for critics. Can you describe your essential gripes with the system, and recommendations for changing it?

It’s a complicated thing. I’m in a small market here in Denver—lots of stuff never makes it this far within months of their East/West releases, if ever. We don’t have private screening rooms and there are a goodly percentage of major releases that sport private, daytime showings only for “major daily” writers. Internet guys are shut out completely. I’m not certain—and here’s the complexity—that I’d even argue with that ban in 99% of the cases. Of course, I don’t think that I deserve to be lumped into that ghetto. [But] it still burns, and it gets worse as time goes on. It’s harder, not easier, sitting in a public/filled screening, rubbing elbows with the entitlement freeloaders, the pass-rats, the other Internet guys who work out of their basement without editors or taste, and the rude. [It’s harder] knowing that there was a better way to see this film just a few days earlier with just one or two other critics in the auditorium. I had a falling out last year with the Denver Film Society over a festival screening of Brokeback Mountain that Focus Features allegedly shut all “Internet” critics out of. Less than a week later, of course, Focus sent all of us in the Online Film Critics Society a DVD screener. So my big issue with the screening process is it’s undemocratic and essentially corrupted with an eye towards manipulating the absolute best result somehow for the studio. I don’t know what the truth was in that festival screening, but I do know a few of the yahoos who did get the invitation, one of whom can’t spell and has never crafted an elegant sentence, and boy if that didn’t sting.

The only recommendation I have is that national publicity read the reviews that we, collectively, produce. If my work doesn’t stand up to that of my “major daily” peers, then it doesn’t. But if it does—and taking into consideration that our “circulation” is more than three times the circulation of both Denver major daily papers combined—then treat me accordingly. Of course, there are some films that are only screened with the public to confuse or influence, I guess positively, the critical response. I don’t see how kids kicking your chair, answering cellphones, narrating to one another, and generally acting like asses can influence you positively, but there you have it.

Do Internet critics have any influence whatsoever, or are they just mosquitoes dive-bombing Hollywood’s white elephant?

We’re all just mosquitoes dive-bombing Hollywood, man. Unless you’re Ebert, and then you can manipulate the middlebrow as their most-beloved enabler and mouthpiece and then go on to influence the Oscars. The function of film criticism seems now more than ever—if you’re genuine about what you do—to just be on the record when the wind changes and we move away again (if we ever do) from all this consumer reportage of bankable product. I’m not concerned about anything other than putting on paper what my reaction is to a film within the context of my personal experience and prejudices: strengths and shortcomings. Pauline Kael was asked once why she didn’t write an autobiography, and she pointed back on all of her reviews and said that she already had. I believe in that. Good film criticism, any good criticism, is 1% savvy, 99% auto-psychoanalysis. I don’t like Kael, by the way. I think she was a brilliant writer, but a mean person, a borderline personality, and a shaky critic. She did have a way of articulating ephemera like performance and fashion, though. But ultimately, I’m not certain her bully tactics and popularization of film criticism did anybody any favors.

Are you in the Andrew Sarris camp?

Not exactly. I think auteurism is a grand place to begin a discussion of a film and I think that Sarris’s great contribution to the conversation is that permission to stratify directors—but ultimately, like Kael’s “gut & fuck” philosophy, it’s strict ideology applied to a slippery beast. I’d much rather take the bits from each that are useful for my own deconstructive instincts, and use them as sharpening stones, if you will, for my instrument. That’s a pompous way of saying that I’m a product of my experience and the things that I pick up along the way, from [Sigfried] Kracauer and [Lotte] Eisner to [Manny] Farber to Sarris to Ebert and Kael. They just feed into the mess of my own critical shortfalls, convictions, and contradictions.

Can you name some movies that in retrospect you feel you were wrong about? If there’s any auto-psychoanalysis involved, as you said earlier, one has to admit we look back on earlier decisions and learn from them, including learning from our mistakes.

Spike Lee’s The 25th Hour. I was ambivalent about it, disregarded what admiration I felt about it at the time, and underestimated the power of the auteur presence in that piece. Looking back on it as I have a few times since then, I can almost not think of a Lee film that I respect more. Summer of Sam has, likewise, risen in my rearview. I was wrong about my effusive praise for In the Bedroom as well. I went so far as to name it the best of a year that also saw The Royal Tenenbaums and Mulholland Drive, so yeah—pretty far off on that one. I was a sucker for the melodrama and a sucker, too, for Marisa Tomei’s amazing facility with weeping. Looking at it now, I still admire Tom Wilkinson and Sissy Spacek (and Tomei’s) performances, but the whole thing feels a little…well, a little Canadian to me now.

What are your thoughts on organizations of Internet critics like the Online Film Critics Society [OFCS]?

Well, I think that they’re problematic when they have no desire to limit membership or establish bedrock standards so as to make themselves unimpeachable as an institution. You don’t invite someone to the New York Film Critics Circle just because they live there. You shouldn’t invite someone to the OFCS just because they can’t find an analog outlet for their writing. Essentially, you become useless when the perception—even amongst your membership—is that you’re bloated by non-professionals [who don’t have] a lot to add to the conversation. Too much liberal panty-twisting is to blame—this idea that no one is qualified to judge critical standards. It’s the kind of soft thinking that’s killed liberal arts in American colleges and, more, the kind that makes me very suspicious of the value of their film criticism. If you’re not sure you’re qualified to say what’s good, you’re probably writing equivocal pap that’s wasting all of our time.

Broadening the discussion, what is the state of film criticism today?

It’s bankrupt and in bed with the industry for the most part. I think a lot of us are bought and sold. When Sony invented a film critic to create blurbs for their films, I wasn’t so much dismayed as I was thinking that there are a lot of people I’ve met in the flesh in this business who were also invented as film critics by the studios. Did you ever hear the story about journalists personally invited to Skywalker Ranch pre-Episode One and offered a list of blurbs (pre-screening) that they would like their names associated with in the publicity materials?

Sure.

I just saw a thing for the new animated The Wild the other day with yahoos calling it the best animated film of the year—and I know that until last week, there wasn’t even a print cut of it. And, more, it’s the goddamn fourth month of a year that’s going to have a new Pixar film. I don’t care if these idiots bleed when they’re cut, you can’t tell me that they’re not studio, test-tube inventions.

Are there any critics out there you feel are taking passionate, provocative or contemplative looks at cinema? Who are the critics you read regularly?

I read Jonathan Rosenbaum because he’s brilliant, if sliding into obscurity most times now, Armond White, J. Hoberman, Michael Atkinson—I like a lot of The Onion A.V. Club though more in the past than now—all of them because they take a sociological prism to film that will make their work on the medium endure…I used to read Godfrey Cheshire when he was at the New York Press, and I’m glad to have found him again. I avoid Ebert because it’s heartbreaking after a while to see the kind of apologist and glad-hander he’s become, who likes 75% of everything he sees.

For a while, you were struggling with the idea of continuing to run interviews with filmmakers and actors on FilmFreakCentral.net. What was the source of your frustration, and what made you decide to continue the interview process?

I was contemplating throwing in the towel for good at that moment, all aspects of it, so dropping interviews, [which] I did for a couple of months, seemed a good partial measure. I was just sick of feeling grateful for getting interviews. It’s some kind of personality defect or something, this need for recognition or acceptance or respect in this business that’s so niggardly in regards to any and all positive feedback. But I came to a point where I started to wonder why the only interviews we were ever getting offered were from one guy out here who represents a studio where the publicity reps actually read our work. Doesn’t take a lot of digging to figure out which studio that is. But even after we did these massive pieces on David Cronenberg and John Sayles and so on and so on, we were still just getting offered, like, first-time documentary filmmakers stumping for mediocre works. Requesting guys like Charlie Kaufman or Wes Anderson [above] or even Steven Soderbergh was just out of the question. We wouldn’t even get the courtesy of a “no” from the decision-makers. Fact is, though, that if you fight the machine, the machine wins—so we’re back to doing interviews, though I’ve been a lot more selective about who I try to chase down.

You are very active on the blog for FilmFreakCentral.net. What are the advantages of having a blog?

My editor offered the blog in large part to give all of us a vent for our frustrations. At least that’s certainly the direction that I take in my writing there. I did do free-form reviews of The Last Detail and Swimming to Cambodia there, too, and hope to do more with a few of my favorites into the future. But as a means to blow off a little steam, it’s rejuvenated me a lot this year.

Yeah, talk about auto-psychoanalysis!

No kidding. I’m way too poor to go to a real therapist, I’m the best that I can afford and film and film writing is my Rorschach. What I put down to paper right now is full of stuff I hope to be able to decode somewhere down the line. I’ve also been rejuvenated by the fact that I’m reviewing about a third as many films by this time of year as I have in the last six.

Do you feel you need to cover every movie that comes out on a given week, or as many movies as possible, to feel you’re on the front lines of film criticism?

I did, I did. Now, I just feel like I need to see them sooner or later…certainly before a year-end list, maybe in second-run, maybe first. The urgency to cover them weekly has diminished. Bless [my editor] Bill for letting me ease up on the throttle.

I mean, does the world really need another review trashing Failure to Launch?

Well, yeah—I understand the gist of your question, but that is a particularly vile picture. There’s not enough trashing sufficient to bring that one down in the rearview. The spirit of your question, though, is an interesting one, and in truth I don’t take much satisfaction anymore in trashing a film that’s just bad in an inoffensive, sort of incompetent sort of way.

Does the fact that you have children affect the way you perceive movies, family movies, “children’s” movies, and/or movies in general?

I don’t think so, not yet at least. But in saying that, I have to acknowledge that having children is so transforming a life event that the way that it’s affected my watching and writing could be something that I’m unaware of until somewhere down the road. I will say that I don’t write my reviews like some do, with caveats like “My toddler loved it: 3 stars!” One of my favorite saws is that our culture, when it says that something’s “just for kids,” it means that it’s better (food, toys, clothes), except when it comes to film. Then “it’s just for kids” means that it’s [such] an appalling piece of shit that no person of any kind of moral or developmental maturity could possibly wring the slightest bit of edification or enjoyment from it.

You frequently cite references to literature and poetry in your reviews, including William Blake, John Donne, T.S. Eliot and William Faulkner. Could you describe how your literary tastes have evolved, and how you find it a useful point-of-reference in your reviews?

Is it frequent? I thought the hate mail beat it out of me. My training is in British Romanticism and critical theory, primarily; they are, at least, my great loves.

Obviously, it couldn’t hurt if your readership is inspired to read.

This is true, but I’m not evangelical about my tastes or experiences. I don’t—as Ebert did this year at the Conference on World Affairs at Boulder—my, what a gasbag he’s become, between commenting proudly about his love of tits to his recollection of last year spent reading the works of Willa Cather—[I don’t] demand that folks who read me have read the same things that I’ve read, nor gotten the same things from those texts for sure. Rather, when I’m talking about a film, I’m talking about my experience of it, and sometimes the only way that I can relate that experience is through an analogue. Sometimes, too, like with Brett Ratner’s piece of shit Red Dragon, a discussion of the poems and paintings upon which the source was inspired [see above] leads to a few insights into the film. I got heat for referencing Blake in that review, by the way, which is particularly puzzling because it’s sort of like catching hell for mentioning Shakespeare in a review of West Side Story.

You’ve been a partisan of movies adapted from comic books/graphic novels to cinema, such as Batman Begins, Sin City and Hellboy. Is it fair to say you don’t look down your nose at that popular art form?

Absolutely fair—and don’t forget A History of Violence and From Hell. I love graphic novels, and was a big Neil Gaiman junkie, for all of Gaiman’s self-regard. His Sandman series for DC’s Vertigo line was transformative for me in that medium. They’re just bound storyboards, aren’t they?

I don’t believe that at all. I think they’re two radically different mediums.

[Listen,] almost no other medium is as conducive to filmic translation and when you begin to capture the work of Frank Miller—and Batman Begins is an analog to Miller’s Dark Knight Returns—in atmospherically faithful adaptations, I’m as slavering as the next fanboy about it. But, of course, it can be done poorly. Constantine comes to mind, as does Road to Perdition as does any adaptation, I suppose.

You’ve also adopted some seemingly controversial takes on older films, such as Casablanca (three stars) and Dark Victory (one star). Do you feel you’re attacking these films in a modern context, or viewing them from their place in film history?

Ah, and Gunga Din, too. I got some nice, juicy hate for that one, too. Regardless of the place of films in history—and I do think that it’s important to talk about that if, like with Casablanca, there’s actually a semi-interesting thing to say about [that]—the best art breathes no matter the era or the context. With Casablanca, I just don’t get the romance/sacrifice of its love story and so the rest of it: Curtiz’s static camera sets, Bogie’s Old Hollywood heroic postures. The story is done better, more cinematically and with more humanity at stake, in Alfred Hitchcock’s Notorious, with Bergman and Raines again, and Cary Grant in place of Bogie. With Gunga Din, I found the treatment and characterization of the title character to be frankly abhorrent. He’s compared to a performing elephant most of the time. I’m consistent across the board with being repulsed by stuff like that. It’s one thing to excuse its empire-attitudes as byproducts of the age, and another to excuse cruelty and ignorance at any time. You walk a line sometimes, but Mickey Rooney’s Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s was never “okay.” Good thing I’ve never been asked to review Gone with the Wind.

Do you feel you have any catching up to do with films pre-1960?

Always. Post, too. I never will know everything that I want to know, nor see everything that I want to see. I recently saw that Val Lewton-produced The Seventh Victim and almost wet myself in excitement. Robert Wise’s Blood on the Moon, too: a revelation.

Despite the fact that in some circles you’re accused of being an elitist, you’ve shown populist taste in your praise of certain studio pictures such as King Kong and Black Hawk Down. How do you figure some of your more hostile readers accuse you of hating all Hollywood movies when you’ve gone out of your way to recommend these and other blockbusters?

My more hostile readers seem to fall into two camps: the ones that liked the Star Wars prequels sight-unseen—did you know that Lucasfilm put us on a “banned” list?—and the ones who read one of my reviews and stalk off to flame me on some chat board somewhere as being some arthouse champion, blinded to the charms of Fantastic Four or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

I’m curious as to what review sets people off, really. Is it that I hated Failure to Launch or Eight Below that you’re now making the assumption that I hate mainstream films? What about my dislike of garbage like Crash and March of the Penguins? My tastes are pretty Catholic. I put Fahrenheit 9/11 and Passion of the Christ as co-“Worst Of’s” a couple of years ago, but I still get these weirdo emails from folks who loved the drab/harmless Chronicles of Narnia flick about how the “Lion loves you passionately anyway,” while prehistoric feminists lambaste me for disliking The Hours, and black people pepper me for saying that Bringing Down the House is a racist picture, and on and on. What I’m saying is that most people who hate me haven’t read more than one—if that—review of mine in its entirety. I’m not making a play for “man of the people” here, but I agree, according to Rotten Tomatoes, with the consensus a pretty depressing 73% of the time. I think what gets people is that I’m not all that equivocal about dislike of a film and, more, will actually say if something is repugnant about a picture’s message, or if it patronizes its audience. Folks don’t like to be called—even if it’s just by the association of their affection for a picture—racist, misogynistic, dimwits with retarded critical faculties. Can’t say that I blame them, but unless they’re willing and able to frame a cogent response to my outrage about some of that shit, they’re just bolstering my sad, hermetic little beliefs about the kinds of people who get a real charge out of North Country and Million Dollar Baby.

How would you respond to the perception of you as a “bomb-thrower,” or a guy who employs hyperbole to get a rise out of people?

Is that the perception of me? I think that’s the easy way out of assessing what it is that I actually write about in my work. Maybe I don’t succeed—I certainly don’t for those folks. Let me say that in my mind the “guys who employ hyperbole to get a rise out of people” are the Earl Dittmans and Jeffrey Lyons and Larry fucking Kings of the world who call every neo-Stanley Kramer piece of leaden dreck that floats down the bilge the “best film of the year” or “a masterpiece” or “the first great. . . of the year.” When I look at what I write—and I seldom have to, thank god—I hope that what I’m seeing there is a real, throbbing outrage at films that are out to do harm and, on the other side, a real live joy at films that feed me. Stuff that’s just out to make money off of easy stereotypes and nakedly shill to robotically-demarcated demographics of imaginary people– and looping back around, here, offering up all this feckless garbage to the blind eyes of the vast majority of the critics in lofty positions that I (if no one else) hope are manning the gates—makes me exhausted.

You sense a sea change this year with all the unscreened films, don’t you? I think the studios are getting wise. It’s like the girl who molds her boyfriend into the model boyfriend and then dumps him for being boring and untrue to himself.