This week on Reddit, Vulture film critic David Edelstein held his very first AMA, and had the following to say about the experience: “This was a fun Reddit session. I confess that because three wonderful colleagues agreed to screen questions and even type the responses I rattled off, I didn’t get to read what people wrote until after the hour was up. I would have replied to more compliments — and more criticisms. I’d have tried to work faster and cover more ground. But as my 15-year-old likes to say, ‘shoulda woulda coulda …’ You can only go back in time in movies. Thanks again.”
Here are our favorite exchanges from the session, in which Edelstein talks about how the Internet has affected criticism, the TV versus movie debate, and why he left 12 Years a Slave off his year-end list.
What did you think when, before the wide release of Zero Dark Thirty and before seeing the movie himself, Glenn Greenwald used your review as evidence that the film is pro-torture?
I’m an enormous admirer of Glenn Greenwald. I wish he had understood the context of my review better, my attempt to wrestle with what I thought was a brilliant but deeply problematic film. I was an easy target for him because I both acclaimed the movie and also said I found its suggestion that torture led directly to the driver of Osama bin Laden to be suspect and possibly meretricious. He linked to my review without having seen the film himself and I don’t think he quite understood what I was trying to do. But, again, I understand his perspective and though I thought he was a bit of a jerk, it didn’t lessen my overall admiration.
Do you think Armond White is a troll or sincere? When I read some of the shit he writes I cannot believe a serious person would think/write that stuff and I feel like he’s just trying to get attention by being deliberately absurd.
In every review, Armond writes something that radically alters my perception of a work. Say what you will about him, that is my definition of a vital critic. No, he is not a troll, but he often incenses me. I could not support his attack on J. Hoberman, for example, which seemed wildly over-pitched. But, think of it like this: What other critics push your buttons in that way? Isn’t it good to have someone who throws a wrench into the god-damned Tomato Meter?
What is one thematic question you’d like to see addressed more often in American cinema?
Let’s face it, our way of life is about to change radically. Our economy is held in place by illusions, income inequality is wide and growing, cities are falling. Climate change will mean the end of our privileged way of life. There can be no more important subject for American cinema to address than the bubble in which we have lived for the last 100 years.
What are the most damaging trends or strategies in the film business today?
I’m going to say something thunderingly obvious: Hollywood’s increasing dependence on international markets threatens to be the ruin of the industry. This means that very soon =, 80% of profits will come from markets like China, where viewers tend to want spectacle, familiar characters, and 3D or IMAX. Like many of my colleagues, I am bored to distraction by many of the latest comic book adaptations but I can live with them. They are not made by unintelligent, untalented people. The problem is that they crowd out mid-budget movies by directors I care about. I am also bored to tears by CGI, a.k.a. computer-generated imagery, which I find makes cinematic miracles cheap.
Do you think the Internet has done more good or bad for film criticism?
This is a question with which I and my colleagues wrestle every day. On one hand, it has opened up the field to more idiosyncratic voices as opposed to, say, the ones deemed accessible by editors of major publications, some of whom knew bupkus, about movies. On the other hand, so many of my talented colleagues have not been able to put together a living doing what they love and what they’re great at as a result of the democratization of opinions on the Internet.
Do you think that the quality of shows such as House of Cards, Breaking Bad and Mad Men have pushed movies to ‘up their game’ so to speak? Or, do you think that those shows influences are more limited to the small screen?
What those shows have done – in addition to making me jealous of TV critics for the first time in my life – is to expand our sense of narrative storytelling on the small screen, which incidentally may well be a big small screen thanks to advances in television. In some ways, what this has done and might do in the future will free filmmakers from the pressure to create long Dickensian narratives. How can they compete with Breaking Bad or Mad Men? Those characters are so nuanced and viewed in so many different dimensions – you can hardly do this in a single film. And many filmmakers have screwed up in their attempts to condense great novels. However, as I said, this might liberate filmmakers from the pressure of telling stories in conventional ways. You are seeing more and more directors inventing their own syntax, their own form of storytelling. You are seeing the medium of cinema truly unfettered for maybe the first time since the silent era – at least in terms of mainstream cinema.
What is your opinion on comic book and other adaptations from various source material becoming more and more common. Do you think it is making it harder for something that is original and not am adaptation from getting made?
I’m answering the 2nd question first; yes. I do think it is amusing that the stereotypical 60s kid would hide comic books under the covers to keep his (it’s always his) parents from finding out. Nowadays, if the parents aren’t comic book scholars they come in for enormous and public ridicule. It is a little scary coming up against the wrath of the comic-connies. They are as hard on you as the communist party was on unacceptable authors in the 1930s. That said, there is no reason why comic book characters cannot have the kind of complexity of the historical figures that Shakespeare depicted. We just need a Shakespeare to adapt a Marvel comic-and not be terrorized by studio executives who have $200 million on the line.
Do you get annoyed when you think a movie is terrible and it makes a ton of money? or alternatively, when a movie you think is fantastic makes absolutely no money? Does it make you question your opinions?
I never question my opinions. One of the challenges of reviewing movies, which are, after all, a popular art form, is to anticipate the responses of a mass audience. Sometimes, that audience is right. Sometimes, they can tell the difference in a way I can’t between good and bad storytelling. I of course am heartbroken when a film I love and have even crossed the line for into advocacy does not break through to a wide audience. As I’ve implied, advocacy can be dangerous for a critic. We should remain disinterested (not uninterested, folks) but sometimes you can’t help falling in love with a film and a filmmaker, and wanting the best for him or her.
What are your personal favorite films? Was there one specific film that you saw as a kid that made you go “I wanna do that when I grow up!”?
The film that made me love movies was The Bride of Frankenstein. Of course, I loved the original James Whale Frankenstein but it was more or less a straight horror film. The Bride was the first time I understood that you could combine horror with satire with comedy with tragedy and elicit all kinds of complex responses. For the same reason, I love tragicomedy. I love those plays, some of them written by Chekhov, in which the surface is comic but at a certain point the bottom drops out and you suddenly understand the tragedy of these people’s lives. My favorite film is Preston Sturges’s The Lady Eve. I honestly can’t tell you why, except that I watch it again and again, and am constantly dazzled by the way he mixes the keenest psychological insight with farce and slapstick. I also love Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller very deeply. I should also say that my vision of the vocabulary of cinema was expanded by seeing on a big screen the snowball fight at the beginning of Abel Gance’s Napoleon. The rest of the film is good, but that snowball fight shows you the meaning of montage.
It must be easy to review movies you love or hate, but how do you find the words to represent a movie you didn’t feel strongly about? What’s your critical approach? Also, do you ever read another critic’s review and then question your own reading of a movie?
Sometimes, but there would be no point in my being a critic if I weren’t arrogant enough to arrogate the opinions of everyone else. I have worked all my life to write what I like to call “virile mixed reviews.” Readers often want a firm thumbs up or down, but so many films elicit conflicting emotions. To be able to take a reader or listener through my own responses is one of the challenges that I most love about this job. When I spoke before of trying to understand your own responses, I meant in part situations like this, where you don’t really know what you think until you sit down and go back over your reactions at the time.
It’s funny, a film can be like a glass of wine. You have the aroma that draws you in, and the color. Then you have the taste, which you either like or don’t like. And then you have the finish. You can love a wine but the finish lasts 10 seconds, and then you’ve forgotten about it. Or, it can go on and on, revealing endless nuances. A film is like that. There are films I’m still wrestling with 10 years after seeing it.
What’s the best “bad” movie you’ve ever seen (a la Sharknado, The Room)?
I don’t enjoy most bad movies, because where great movies expand my perception of what’s possible, bad movies contract it. I get a kind of claustrophobia. At the same time, there are certain works that are so inept they illuminate the artificiality of the medium in a way that makes you see good movies with new eyes. Edward Wood Jr. deserves his reputation as among the medium’s worst filmmakers because every single line, shot, and cut screams TERRIBLE. But I do enjoy Plan 9 From Outer Space because it’s so nuts.
What young American filmmaker are you most excited about in 2013?
How young does young have to be? I was very impressed by the three low-budget films of Ramin Bahrani, but his latest film At Any Price, his first with big stars, was a bit of a dud and lacked his personal touch. I have great faith that he can recover, however.
Would you rather fight 1 horse sized David Denby or 50 duck sized Armond Whites?
I could take Denby with my hands tied behind my back. However, Armond, in any form, will come at you from some angle you don’t expect (he’s that unhinged, I love him).
Does the death of 35mm film exhibition break your heart, or what?
Yes and no. Digital technology opens up new distribution avenues for low budget filmmakers. It also can down the line lower the cost of exhibition meaning that more films could conceivably be shown on a rotating basis at your local multiplex. However, I love the feel, the grain of 35mm. I love that intangible but palpable handmade quality that you get from film that you don’t get from digital (although digital is doing a pretty good job faking it).
Do you happen to have any “guilty pleasure” films?
Most of my favorite films are guilty pleasures. People laugh when I say that one of my five favorite films of all-time is Jaws, which is on one level a big dumb monster picture. However, I can watch it again and again and be dazzled by Steven Spielberg’s showmanship, by the way he transformed camera movement and camera placement. And, incidentally, there are similarities to Henrik Ibsen’s play, ‘Enemy of the People!’ But, my dirty secret is that I am a horror buff. I was weaned on horror, for better or worse, and have spent much of my life trying to determine the damage it did to my adolescent psyche. My conclusion is that it did much - but it might also have saved my life.
Any movies that you wrote a good/bad review of that you’ve since changed your mind about? And you had some notable criticism of 12 Years a Slave and left it off your best of 2013 list. What do you think should have been done to improve the movie?
I can’t say what any filmmaker should do to improve a film. I found 12 Years a Slave bludgeoning, and almost clinical in the way it depicted the horrors of slavery. I know this can come off as if I’m saying slavery was not torture – far from it. I’m simply saying that I felt a kind of zest for degradation on the part of the director. I think that the film, indeed, must be seen, as I think another film which I had reservations about, the Coen Brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, should be seen. Everyone should wrestle with these films and come to his or her own conclusions.
I often feel that I’ve gotten things…off in retrospect. The only answer to that is to try to be better. I gave a very mixed review to Woody Allen’s Blue Jasmine. In retrospect, I should probably have been harder on in. Allen borrowed the template of A Streetcar Named Desire. The difference is that Tennessee Williams loved and identified with Blanche DuBois while Allen clearly despises Jasmine, for reasons both political and misogynistic.
What’s the biggest positive change/shift/evolution in films since you’ve started reviewing them?
I became a film critic at a low point in American cinema. Large corporations had taken over studios run by often vulgar people but they were movie people. Suddenly, advertising people were being brought into the creative process. The 80s were ghastly teen movie after teen movie. ET ripoff after ET ripoff. There was nothing of what we now call the American independent cinema. With the start of this movement — which I think is written about well, if I may say so myself, in Christine Vachon’s book Shooting to Kill, which I co-wrote — everything changed. Suddenly, film school graduates in New York and Los Angeles found an audience. Great personal filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee were an inspiration. It’s too bad that Sundance has become so award driven, but having a place for independent filmmakers to gather and show their wares to enormous excitement has changed the way filmmakers personal visions are received. And so many of the director’s I love, such as David O. Russell, Steven Soderbergh or Alexander Payne, made the indiest of indie films before being embraced by the mainstream.
Do you have a philosophy of life you could share?
You should work your entire life to explain your own responses to things-in life and in art-to yourself. It’s amazing how little people sometimes examine their responses to things. I’m fortunate that as a critic I am paid to do that and I am always learning interesting things about myself.