Michael Barrett is a San Antonio writer and critic who has been publishing essays about cinema and TV for more than 20 years. His screenplay for an animation feature is currently in going through “development heck.” Other projects include writing children’s fiction actually intended for adults and appearing in a still-unreleased comic video about the life of John Ruskin. In addition to currently writing articles and reviews for the San Antonio Express-News, Video Watchdog magazine, and the website PopMatters, he keeps busy selling old books on Amazon. I’ve known Mike since college where we collaborated on a literary magazine and I ran the film projectors for an international films series Barrett headed. Barrett’s forte is writing longer analytical essays about obscure cinematic genres under the guide of DVD reviews. In one of his more notable essays, You are Living in the Golden Age of Cinema, Barrett asserts that he doesn’t believe in the myth of declining quality of cinema (when compared to “golden ages” like the 1970s). “The new problem is getting … noticed amid all this overwhelming superfluity of access, but I submit that this is a much happier problem than not finding a distributor—of which there are a surprising number during this so-called decline, and an increasing number of festivals and labels and channels hungry for product.” (An brief annotated list of his cinema essays is at the end—Also, every text link included in this interview takes you to the relevant Barrett essays). The interview took place in February, 2012.
You once mentioned to me that every film inevitably has a mirror scene, something which I’ve noticed ever since you pointed out. Are there any other secrets or rules of thumbs to cinema which you’d like to share?
Yes, and the mirror scene is often the very first or last scene. I’ve just watched Fassbinder’s German sci-fi TV movie World on a Wire, which we can safely say has a mirror in every scene!
I have facetiously complained that all foreign movies have a scene where somebody urinates; this goes all the way back to Bicycle Thief. Maybe it’s not all foreign movies, but more than fifty percent, and now it’s spread to American cinema.
My personal rules of thumb have been to watch anything silent and anything Japanese (so Japanese silents must be the apotheosis!), and I pretty much think anything from Eastern Europe is worth watching, and most items from Iran and Africa. Eastern European movies are very “film school”, while films from “emerging” countries have a directness bordering on audacity, which has nothing to do with lack of sophistication and perhaps something to do with oral traditions.
What sort of things do you notice in movies that other people don’t? What sort of things do you miss that others tend to notice more?
I wouldn’t know what I miss, if anything. I notice compositions, edits, music–the stuff people aren’t supposed to be focusing on b/c they’re following what happens next in a story. No, there is something I always miss. For some reason, whenever they show a close-up of a clock, I don’t register what time it is, even though that’s the info they’re delivering! I’ll notice if it’s a digital clock, but most of the time I just think “a clock” and I look at the shape or design of it or something. Then it’s over and I’ll think “Wait a minute, what time was it?”
Can you talk about a movie which impressed you initially but over time seems less impressive? Also, what about a movie which didn’t impress you over time but initially you grew to admire?
I don’t generally recommend re-watching the movies you loved as a kid (or any movies for that matter), as I was disappointed to realize that things like Thoroughly Modern Millie and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World weren’t the incandescent masterpieces I recalled. If we’re talking about mature experiences, I don’t have any, by which I mean that I don’t go back and revisit movies.
That said, I think certain movies are more like symphonies than a narrative play or a novel, in that you can watch them many times for the visual rhythms, motifs and counterpoints, without caring what’s happening. An example is Last Year at Marienbad and other examples are movies of Godard, Tarkovsky, Fellini, even Bergman (e.g. Persona). You know, movies that people often find boring or baffling. It’s because they’re not “like movies”. They understand the secret affinity between film and music, and they orchestrate emotions and responses thru the visual flow rather than the story.
I think also there’s a phenomenon of “2nd viewing” movies, in that it takes a second view to see the movie clearly because now your head isn’t cluttered with expectations and the desire to know how it’s going to come out. It can’t disappoint you any more. Vertigo is an example for me. The first time I saw it in a theatre, I had the same experience as American critics in 1958, who saw only the absurd story and thought it didn’t work. When I showed it to my parents on VHS, I knew everything that was going to happen, and this time I saw how Hitchcock deliberately set up and frustrated narrative expectations, how he couldn’t care less about the story but only the morbid psychology, and this time I saw the film clearly. That’s also a movie that’s more about music than story. It’s practically a Bernard Herrmann symphony with pictures.
What’s the most subversive movie or video you’ve seen?
Perhaps Vertigo for reasons described before — Hitchcock doesn’t care about the story so much as the moment, the tone, the music, the disturbed feeling as we separate ourselves from identifying with the hero to examining his problems. Several other Hitchcock projects, e.g. Notorious and Marnie, pretend to present us with standard heroes with which to identify and then make it increasingly discomfiting to do so. We won’t even discuss Psycho. These films are subversive because they seem to fit squarely and successfully into mainstream Hollywood, as opposed to an avowedly alternative film by Godard or Peter Greenaway, for example.
I won’t distinguish between the wittiest (verbal, conceptual) and the funniest for me, and so include the works of Preston Sturges (esp. Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, which also qualifies as subversive), His Girl Friday, Annie Hall, Take the Money and Run, One Two Three, How to Get Ahead in Advertising, and others I’m forgetting.
The most disconcerting?
I mentioned The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On, disconcerting because it’s a documentary. When it’s imaginary, you always have that retreat.
Probably Shoah. Among fiction movies, let’s say a Chinese movie called Devils on the Doorstep. Or maybe Seven Beauties? Or maybe On the Beach, watched as a kid. Truly, it’s hard to say, because good movies confuse you by making you glad you’ve seen them. You smile and say “Wow, that was grim! You should see that!”
The most restrained?
What’s your favorite animation movie for the adult sensibility?
Please give in 1 or 2 sentences an original/unique take on these directors: Spielberg, Altman, Lynch.
Spielberg — His “juvenile” phase from Jaws to E.T. are secular retellings of Bible stories, including resurrected messiahs and second comings, which might have been how a Jewish kid related to these cultural myths. Even The Color Purple is heavily biblical. He began to embrace his Jewishness in Raiders, then more fully in Schindler’s List and Munich, which is a great movie.
Altman — Stated that he made movies to be watched more than once before people begin to “get” them. This was self-aggrandizing to some extent as a way of explaining that his critically neglected movies are better than people think (true), but the flipside is that the movies that critics and audiences loved at first glance are his simplest, most accessible and obvious, and often his least interesting.
Lynch — The key to understanding him is knowing the extent to which he’s not at all being “hip” or “ironic”, which are signs of critical distance and discomfort. He knows people will take things “ironically” but he’s quite serious within the expected humor. He makes movies about characters who have ingested modern cultural mythology and who take it seriously.
Fill in the blanks: Movies should have more ___________. Movies should have less ______________.
Confining my remarks to mainstream Hollywood, the studios used to have among their contract players an army of character actors who played special types — old ladies, bankers, snooty butlers, cops, etc. Such roles/actors haven’t actually disappeared, but I wish movies today had more of these special character actors, which means writing parts for them. Today such roles aren’t usually presented as particular characters; it would make a lot of comedies more distinctive. I also wish the average movie had a greater sense of visual style. I wish they had fewer edits within scenes and action sequences.
Evolution of a Sensibility
Compare the way you watched movies now with how you did it at the age of 12 and 25. What has changed? Are there any movies you wish you might have watched sooner or later than you did?
At 12 I watched anything that was a comedy or a monster movie, and pretty much enjoyed it at some level. Thus, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein was my idea of a perfect movie.
In middle school I bought a copy of Movies on TV by Steven H. Scheuer. This triggered a transitional period of several years in which I watched many kinds of things, seeking out what was rated as “good”. College was when I finally was in a position to start seeing some illustrious classics, and by the time I graduated–so by the time I was 25 and working at Blockbuster, where I watched hundreds of movies–I had emerged as the new me. I discuss this somewhat, and my relation to reference books, in an essay called Showing My References.
Do you think a 70 year old person watches movies or TV very differently than someone in his 20s?
I’m sure a 70 year old is even more conscious of the nagging question: “Is this worth my time?”
I guess the question is related to whether the 20 year old would be more interested in escapist fare than the 70 year old. Would a 70 year old enjoy watching the latest Star Trek?
Why the hell are you asking me? Star Trek fans are closer to 70 than 20. Why would a 20 year old be interested? 70 years olds are probably more interested in escape than ever. I know my mom just wants nice quiet movies that don’t disturb her. And I don’t like to be “disturbed” that much either. I’m most pleased by beauty and serenity.
What kinds of movies do you currently regard as unwatchable?
No type of movie is unwatchable. Movies that I tend to stop watching after 30 minutes are either comedies that aren’t funny, or “action” movies in which nothing actually happens except a lot of flickering edits. There are times when I watch a captioned or subtitled movie at the “2x” setting to speed it along – but only for movies I won’t be reviewing!
Has your ritual for watching movies changed much over the years (in terms of setting, time of day or furniture).
Until the new century, I saw a lot of movies in a theatre. I now haven’t seen a movie outside the house in many years. The last new movie I saw when it opened in a theatre was Terry Gilliam’s The Brothers Grimm, and that was after a very long dry spell. Last year I saw a couple of Japanese movies in a museum. It’s been important to see movies on DVD because it’s an optimum presentation except for the size of the screen, and even the TV is pretty big now. My theatrical experience always had something wrong with it — people making noise, cutting off the credits, wrong lenses, even reels out of order or upside down. When I went to see a revival of Godard’s Contempt, two reels were out of order!
At some point an individual realizes that movies offer more than thrill and entertainment, but also the potential for beauty and transcendence. Could you remember the first movie that made you realize cinema’s potential for profundity and beauty?
I don’t really recall a “profundity” experience, although as a kid I remember watching a PBS broadcast of Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast (a monster movie!) along with a half-hour discussion by somebody who showed how the tricks worked, and in the same series they showed Bergman’s Smiles of a Summer Night (a comedy!) that I didn’t much get, along with another egghead lecture about symbols in it that made me wonder. These indicated to me that movies had more going on in them than you “see”.
While working for Blockbuster, there were a bunch of Paramount silent classics released on VHS that I watched, and The Docks of New York gave me a stunning revelation about the silent era having complete, fresh works of art in a form unto itself. I rapidly followed with Greed and The Wedding March and silent Chaplins. A year or so later at UC Davis, I watched a terrible print of The Last Laugh at the library that made me realize formally that talkies offered nothing thematic that hadn’t already been done. (Barrett has written many essays about silent movies. See here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here , here, here, here , here and here.)
Maybe it’s appropriate to mention here that the greatest experience I ever had in a theatre (maybe “profound”) was the original Close Encounters of the 3rd Kind when I was 14 or 15. I saw it in an old-time, very large palace-type theatre with a balcony that was on the Air Force Base near our home and where I saw many movies as a child. The line outside was endless, and this was the first time they ever opened the balcony when I was there (the second time was for Superman: The Movie), so for the first time I sat up there and saw a movie in an absolutely packed, huge, sold-out house, and the climax was overwhelming. We all gasped. I remember thinking, as Richard Dreyfuss went into the ship, that it should end now, it should end now, or else it would just be too much. And then it ended!
Recently I spoke to someone who said how disappointed they were with that ending and how they wanted more, and Spielberg tried to accommodate them with the Special Edition (which I’ve still never seen), and I wondered if this person saw the original on a massive screen like I did. I couldn’t have taken any more without passing out.
More about this theatre. I think I benefitted from never being taken to a movie until I was five or so. My parents took me one day to this building as a surprise, and we watched The Wizard of Oz. I was amazed that things like this were going on, although I was slightly disappointed at having seen the movie before! (though not in color, as we had a black and white TV) I looked in the little printed schedules they were giving out, and I noticed that the following Saturday matinee was something I’d never heard of called Million Dollar Duck, a Disney movie with Sandy Duncan–someone I knew from TV! My idea of a star! I said I wanted to go, and my parents said “Are you sure? It’s not a cartoon, you know.” I wanted to go, so the next week we all went and had a great time laughing our heads off, and some of those moments are burned into my brain. I consider that the first official movie I saw in a theatre. Outside of that theatre, the theatrical experience was never so grand.
Tell me about a time when you radically changed your mind about a particular movie. Does this happen often?
The biggest example is the aforementioned Vertigo case, and it doesn’t happen often because I rarely watch movies a second time. I’ve also alluded to the experience of re-watching a movie you loved as a kid and realizing it’s not good.
This reminds me. Pauline Kael was famous for arguing that our opinions change about movies when we see them again, and it’s true, but I want to point out that it tends to happen only in one direction. The movies we want to see again are those we really liked, so people constantly expose themselves to the possibility of disappointment. Contrariwise, if we didn’t like a movie in the first place, we’ll rarely ever have the occasion to see it again simply because we have no wish to, and thus we’ll deprive ourselves of the possibility that now it will be a revelation.
Music and Cinematic Style
I know you appreciate movie scores. What would be your pick for the perfect movie score and why? What should a musical score for a movie NOT do?
I remember an article where people were asked about their favorite score and someone picked Ennio Morricone’s The Mission, although he said something to the effect of “You could say it’s the worst score in history because it totally overwhelms the movie, but the hell with that, it’s great!” That sounds good to me, because I mainly like a score to be good music. I’m annoyed, like most people say they are, with the cliches of thudding pounding action or heart-tugging pianos when people are crying. There are various rules about what a score shouldn’t do (like “call attention to itself”) but the only ironclad rule is that it should somehow work. I often like scores that call attention to themselves.
Can you recommend any movies which work better because they don’t have a musical score at all?
There have been three periods in Hollywood when movies without scores were common. First was the early talking era before the sound mix had been invented. Then came the early 50s with such films as THE ASPHALT JUNGLE, EXECUTIVE SUITE, and a great brilliant movie I just saw this week, THE TALL TARGET. It’s one of the best suspense films of its era and has no music. Then in the 1970s there were films of low-key realism that dispensed with scores or used music very sparingly. There’s no rule that background music is necessary and movies have done fine without it. Music can help or hurt, but these are subjective responses.
One of your most provocative essays was the “Millennial Reality” essay which made the cover of Video Watchdog a few years ago (excerpt here). Why did you write that article?
I made up the term “millennial unreality” in 1999 when I realized that all the movies I was watching that year were about pulling the rug from under the hero’s (and viewer’s) reality. They were about an idea of reality as something unstable and shifting, including what you think you see and who you really are. Life turns out to be a dream or illusion or a movie, or you don’t know what.
The Matrix, Being John Malkovich, Fight Club, Run Lola Run, Eyes Wide Shut, The Sixth Sense, Magnolia, In Dreams, Open Your Eyes, Existenz, The 13th Floor, and The Blair Witch Project came out that year, including many films in which the hero turns out to be someone other than advertised: The Astronaut’s Wife, Boys Don’t Cry, The Insider, Man on the Moon, The Talented Mr. Ripley, etc. It was equally in serious dramas, arty indie and foreign films, special-effects epics, and light comedies like Bowfinger and Blast from the Past. You could say these are “high concept” movies in which the concept is some variant of “everything you know is wrong.”
I speculated that this sense of disorientation and distrust or paranoia was part of the millennial vibe (end of the world, Y2K bug) and a general zeitgeist springing from cultural developments like the internet, virtual reality sci-fi, and a hyper sense of image over substance in politics and media. We’re still living through this trend in cinema, and it’s been exacerbated by the events of 9/11, so that we now commonly accept plot twists that were unusual or controversial before (the hero is dead! he’s really somebody else! the flashback was a lie!). The overwhelming prevalence of amnesia as a character trait is one of the signs.
I was using this term in various reviews, but I’d never gotten around to putting down these thoughts in any kind of formal way, so that’s what the Video Watchdog article was about. (It’s issue 152 from 2009, back issues available from their website.) I will say that although I’m a recovering English major, I managed to write the thing without dragging in references to Eco (postmodern hyper-reality), Baudrillard (the prophet of simulacra), Lacan’s mirror theory, or Foucault on how cultural discourse creates its own reality, but maybe if I had, I would have been the darling by now of all the academic journals!
What stylistic or technical innovation have you noticed in recent movies that impresses you? Bores you?
I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it, but the recent trend in 3-D carries with it a natural emphasis on both depth of composition and on lengthy shots full of camera motion, as opposed to the over-edited approach that’s been killing action (and which is what bores me). I recently saw Scorcese’s Hugo and Spielberg’s Tintin in their flat versions, and it was a pleasure to see such sinuous, detailed movement, much of which is done without an actual camera of course. The latter isn’t even such a great movie yet has astonishing visual imagination. I had to replay one hectic two-and-a-half minute shot over and over just to savor it.
This leads back to the other question. I’m always surprised by beautiful pictures. Check also the complexly layered yet essentially static visual style of Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, based on a Brueghel painting, or Bela Tarr’s intense approach to The Man from London. I guess I become surprised when confronted with evidence that people can pull off such audacious projects, and then I get surprised when people think nothing good is made today and there’s nothing to watch!
Genre, Social Issues & World Cinema
Have you ever thought, “There’s no way that Book X could be made into a movie” only to learn later that someone had made a movie which captured the spirit of the original book? Is it easy to predict what kinds of novels make the transition most easily to a movie?
I’ve never had such a thought. I’ve always thought every book could be filmed well, although not necessarily in the way they’re normally filmed. Maybe nowadays I wouldn’t think any book could be filmed, but when I was reading books as a kid and teen, I always redd them as if I were picturing a movie in my head, complete with credits. When I redd Heart of Darkness in college, I saw a brilliant movie in my head with hoarse voiceover narration and multilayered imagery.
Right now I’m reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin which had a profound influence on American society. Has a movie or TV show in the US ever had that kind of an impact?
I’m not sure this is a question I should answer in particular. I’m not aware of any movies that contributed to a war, although it’s interesting to note that North/South slavery movies have had the greatest impact at the box office. Birth of a Nation had a cataclysmic effect on film history itself and the path of film as a popular medium; I’ve heard that it also encouraged the KKK to re-organize, which is a hell of a legacy. Like Stowe’s book, it was both bitterly controversial and thunderously popular. It also encouraged such black entrepreneurs as Oscar Micheaux and Noble Johnson to found the independent African-American film movement in order to tell stories from their POV. It is still possibly the biggest box-office hit in terms of its profits relative to today’s money, although the other big Southern-POV Civil War epic Gone with the Wind is also a contender. Movies that appeal to racist nostalgia can’t be underestimated.
TV broadcasts have sometimes influenced public policy in the US, such as a 1960s news documentary called Harvest of Shame. TV always has a more immediate impact that tends to be broader in terms of general trends rather than specific shows or movies. It’s possible to argue that movies and TV don’t actually have much impact beyond fashion and slang, as they’re more interested in reflecting than shaping.
Do you personally find the best documentaries to be as engaging or aesthetically pleasing as the best traditional movies?
Yes, although I don’t have an impulse to watch a lot of docs. But now and then there’s an astounding one, like The Emperor’s Naked Army Marches On.
In your opinion, have the best documentary directors also been the most politically-aware? Can you easily separate the artistic value of a documentary from its stated or unstated political agendas?
Probably not, though I suspect that a political agenda IS an aesthetic agenda, and “bad” politics more easily makes bad aesthetics. Though it’s perfectly easy for “good” politics to make bad aesthetics as well.
Sex and violence is a perennial topic for people when talking about movies and TV and its effect on youth. Have your opinions on this issue evolved significantly over your life? Or do you basically have the same attitude that you did when you started writing movie criticism?
No, I still think sex and violence are to be recommended. Without them, you wouldn’t have all those corpses at the end of Hamlet and Macbeth. And very few movies couldn’t be improved with a little gratuitous nudity.
Given the easy availability of videos of all ratings, doesn’t that imply the need for better ways for parents to supervise what children watch or for the state to set reasonable labeling standards?
No. If this thought doesn’t occur to people regarding books, why should it occur about other media? Because of ingrained habits of thought rooted in fear and snobbery, not logic.
Leave aside for the moment all the movies with trailers chock full of helicopters or 100 million plus budgets, what do you think is unique about U.S. cinema today as compared to movies made in Africa, Asia, Europe (i.e.,, Subject matter/style/economics, etc)?
The recent trend is for American cinema to become less unique. It used to be derided for big stars, slickness, expense, action, etc. and to some extent still is (the platonic Hollywood movie seems to exist in everyone’s mind), but two things are happening. Other territories are adept at doing the same thing now, so that one thing you constantly see in reviews is a “compliment” like “outdoes Hollywood” or “as good as Hollywood.” Meanwhile, the growth in personal indie cinema, influenced by foreign films as much as anything else (now that so much cinema is ubiquitous to download or rent by mail wherever you live), means that American cinema (as opposed to “Hollywood”, which isn’t the same thing although everyone uses the word loosely to mean “movies”) has lots of low-budget studies and artsy ambitious stuff. Since these usually aren’t distributed to theatres by the big studios, they’re not trying to grab a big opening-weekend “mainstream” audience. But even a lot of highly formal concepts are getting wide releases now, for example the “Paranormal Phenomena” movies in the wake of Blair Witch Project.
Can you point to one country whose recent movies enthralled you more often than others?
Not really. One of my long-standing rules of thumb is “See anything Japanese” and for the last 20 years Iranian cinema has been consistently interesting, but let’s not go overboard.
Recommend a movie or two from Africa and Asia. What visual or narrative conventions from these regions might strike Western audiences as peculiar or off-putting?
Africa: Yaaba is the best I’ve seen. Films of sub-Saharan Africa are often “simple” and direct in “slow”, undecorated narratives, abetting both the oral tradition of fables or parables and the lack of budget.
Asia is huge kettle of fish. If we mean India, there’s everything from the Bengali art films of S. Ray (e.g. the shimmering and delicate The Big City) to the Hindi Bollywood movies (e.g. the spaghetti western influenced “Sholay”, or the older wonders of V. Shantaram and Bimal Roy, or modern crime films like the brilliant Company or the utterly astounding Hey Ram which everyone should see at once). Some western viewers might be put off by the length, the melodrama, or the songs. These melodramas are often about family strife that mirrors India’s communal divides and history (e.g. Pakistan) and repeats national folk myths, so this may seem alienating to westerners.
If we mean China, there are of course several traditions. I’d like to call attention to the very Hollywood (yet very Chinese) productions of the Shaw Brothers, who are famous for martial arts movies (those directed by Chang Cheh are boss) but also did wonderfully colorful Chinese operas (all great, often with Lily Li) and splashy musicals (often with Peter Chen); and also to a rival studio who made musicals with the star Grace Chang, of which my favorite is a remake of Carmen called The Wild Wild Rose (video excerpt), though western viewers would probably sooner be drawn to one with the campy title Mambo Girl. These commercial films are often about changing family values and divided families (an allegory for the break with mainland China and the lure of the west).
These days Hollywood seem to produce nothing but big budget escapism, simplistic morality tales and the faux problems of the young, affluent and beautiful. Does this sort of thing bother you?
These days pundits characterize “Hollywood” in this way, and it’s more tiresome than what Hollywood actually produces.
I can’t think of any non-Western examples of blockbuster escapist/sci fi/adventure movies comparable in scale to the ones I just mentioned. Can you think of some? Do you expect the budgets for these kinds of projects will eventually hit a ceiling?
French and Chinese cinema are trying it on pretty well, and I’d also point to the Russian films Night Watch and Day Watch, whose director was imported to Hollywood. So was the French director of Brotherhood of the Wolf, and so have been several Hong Kong directors. In China, Zhang Yimou is working with quite a budget these days. But budgets have actually been getting lower for handsomer movies; in other words, a lower-budget movie can look like yesterday’s high-budget movie. The biggest budget in a US movie would probably be paying the extras, which is why you can do huge crowd scenes in China.
Being a Critic
Which role for the critic do you view as more important: decoding (of subtexts and layers of meaning), or advocacy (explaining why something is important and ought to be watched).
If we call the former (Academic) Criticism and the latter Reviewing, the former is much more important to me b/c I don’t read reviews until after I’ve seen the movie, and by then it’s pointless to read something telling me I shouldn’t have bothered. Also, I know what I think at that point, and don’t much care what others liked or disliked. And if I don’t much care if someone else liked it, I can’t believe they should care if I liked it.
On the other hand, academic criticism can be helpful in calling attention to themes, patterns, background info, etc. Of course most film writing can’t help being a mixture of the two, but to me what’s most interesting about a film often has nothing to do with whether one “likes” it.
What is the silliest interpretation you’ve read of a movie? The most ingenious? The most controversial?
I should stress that I don’t much read other people. I have neither time nor inclination. A few times I looked at some reviews of Pauline Kael and found her often off target, but she was useful in that there was always at least one valuable insight per review, and even when she was wrong, she made you realize how to disagree with her. I remember long ago looking thru a collection of film reviews by John Simon, a theatre critic whose film reviews seemed even more off target to me (Harlan Ellison opined that Simon didn’t much like movies). Simon made an interpretation of Last Tango in Paris that was silly and ingenious and controversial, to the effect that it’s a homosexual story in disguise. He used this as a reason to trash the movie, while on the face of it I’d say it makes the movie more fascinating.
What’s the hardest thing about being a video & movie critic?
I realize that movies can change you internally, but can you think of a concrete and externally apparent way that a single movie has changed your life?
A single movie? No. I honestly wonder whether movies, or art in general, really influence people except to become artists. There are concrete ways that movies effect my life in that since I spend time on that, I don’t spend time on other things.
If you had an unlimited budget to put together a film series and film symposium, what theme would you choose for it and why?
I’d probably devote one to silent films with live music, for two reasons: 1) to indoctrinate others to this powerful drug, 2) to see all the stuff I still haven’t seen.
You’ve watched 1000s of movies from all over the world. Does what you watch still surprise you on a regular basis? Can you describe the biggest surprise you’ve experienced while watching a TV show or movie?
I’m surprised periodically, not regularly, and the biggest surprise is usually that I’m surprised. I’m surprised when anything is really great, even if I had reason to suspect it. I don’t recall any especially big surprises, outside perhaps of my early revelations about silent films. In my wasted youth, I recall being utterly gobsmacked by the first reel of “Blade Runner” seen in a theatre (then the film broke!) and by the nonstop-ness of “Brazil”. While working at Blockbuster, I discovered Preston Sturges nearly all in one week, and that was another revelation of dizzying creativity.
What’s the most common shortcoming you find even in movies you generally enjoy?
Most movies aren’t beautiful enough. That is, they aren’t sufficiently a pleasure to the eye. It’s also true that most movies don’t especially try to engage the mind beyond a simple following of a basic story in a basic structure, with basic dialogue. In the best cases it would be possible to do both, and use storytelling approaches that are beautiful to the eye and mind. Most movies settle for letting you “enjoy” them and say “That was good” without it having that extra spark beyond professionalism that would make it a positive pleasure, and more memorable. Most movies rely too much on acting.
Give advice to a 16 year artistically-inclined student about how to watch movies (what to watch, what to look for, etc).
Watch widely and patiently; don’t be worried about “having” to like it, nor embarrassed about what you like; look at the image and structure as much or more than following a story. Listen to the music and think of the whole movie as a form of visual music.
I realize this is very non-English-major advice, since I’m saying nothing about themes or interpretations or symbols, but I think that comes later. It’s also non-drama-major advice, since I say nothing about acting or “realism” or “believability,” all of which I think is pretty much secondary.
Now for the final question. You have spent a considerable amount of time writing about vintage American TV shows. Can you recommend some? What kind of shows tend to become dated most quickly, and what kinds still seem fresh despite the passing of time?
I’ll be glad to recommend some forgotten shows that have somehow made it to DVD. I don’t think shows tend to “date”. If anything, the passage of time has an inherent way of making a show more interesting as a social artifact (as opposed to being funny, say). Sometimes that can be the only interesting thing left about a show that was never very good. At least we see the styles and slang of the time, and the guest stars. (Case in point: The Girl from UNCLE.)
On to the recommendations:
Tales of Tomorrow was a live SF series in the 1950s that had a few excellent episodes, the greatest being “The Window” (although beware–the onscreen title is “The Purple Planet”), which is one of the best examples of how live TV could be its own unique art form. It was directed by a forgotten pioneer of live TV style, Don Medford, who also directed a remarkable-for-many-reasons version of Sherwood Anderson’s I’m a Fool with James Dean and Natalie Wood for another anthology series, and this has been floating around on public domain discs for years. (Note: The episodes are available for free on Archive.org, and the complete episode of The Window can be watched here).
Studio One Anthology is a DVD set of about a dozen kinescopes of this live series. They are variable but interesting, and some of the best episodes are precursors to The Twilight Zone. Writers include Gore Vidal, Reginald Rose, Rod Serling. Directors include Sidney Lumet, Franklin Schaffner.
Speaking of Twilight Zone, another anthology series of the same period is on DVD as One Step Beyond (first season only so far), hosted and directed with excellent style and economy by John Newland. These are straightforwardly handled incidents that seem to pay special attention to the problems of gender roles (e.g. “hysterical” women, neglected wives).
Johnny Staccato is a one-season wonder starring John Cassavetes as a detective who plays piano in a jazz club! It’s got excellent black and white atmosphere. JC directs a handful of episodes, his earliest work, and those are esp. fascinating, including a truly great one with Cloris Leachman that uses a kind of Brechtian self-conscious style. (There are also very good episodes in another b&w crime series of the same era and some of the same personnel, M Squad with Lee Marvin, and in the more workmanlike Mike Hammer series with Darren McGavin from the same company, but Staccato is really a step above.)
The Prisoner (with Patrick McGoohan) isn’t very forgotten and has always had a strong cult following, but I’ll mention it because we’re always trying to recruit unsuspecting members. It’s a precursor to all paranoid agency and identity shows like Dollhouse.
Another cult series is the late 60s/early 70s soap Dark Shadows, which is collected in multiple box sets. I haven’t actually watched these DVDs but watching the series on the air is one of my earliest vague TV memories, and I watched a chunk of reruns on a local station in the early 90s. It was a tolerably poor show technically, and slow as molasses, but fascinating for its play with reality–flashbacks to the past, going sideways into alternate realities, resurrecting dead characters, having actors play multiple roles. The show was willing to do anything with its narrative, and I think you see that full sense of play coming into fruition in the last decade or so with shows like Lost, Heroes and Dollhouse.
Another cult series that had a great deal of influence is the 1974 horror series Kolchak the Night Stalker with Darren McGaven in a defining role for his persona (you can see much the same persona in his late 50s series Mike Hammer). It was only on for one season, but of course it was watched by all the adolescent boys of that era, and they grew up to be people like Chris Carter. This is why Kolchak was revived for another brief series a few years ago, and I think there’s a movie coming. As a 10 year old, the show scared the hell out of me. When I saw reruns years later, I was surprised how much comedy there was.
The Goldbergs is a DVD set that gathers all existing episodes of this excellent, once-popular, now-forgotten series derived from the long-running radio show about a Jewish family in the Bronx. It was a live show, only very partially preserved, but the filmed syndicated season is intact. That featured the family’s move to suburbia, and these shows are pretty darn perfect. Also it had no laugh track or studio audience.
Life with Elizabeth was an early series with Betty White, and the few I’ve seen are delightful and unusual. They’re short skits, and one has her collaborating with the announcer to pretend she’s psychic! I see there are now public-domain box sets with about 40 episodes. Probably on YouTube.
Car 54 Where Are You is a hilarious cop sitcom from Nat Hiken, creator of the equally hilarious Sgt. Bilko. Both are about job sitcoms in the world of uniformed fraternities having something to do with power and authority, and Hiken uses this for satire on a broad range of topics.
This is from a style of sitcom that just wants to be funny and will do anything (weird characters with funny accents, slapstick, arbitrary plot rules) to achieve that. That’s very different from the warmly believable character comedy of The Goldbergs (though that also used funny accents), so TV comedy always had these dueling strands of the crazy and the credible. I have a theory that sitcoms tend to fall broadly into the camps of Chaos or Order, with most family shows emphasizing order as its dominant state, while the Hiken shows dwell in a dominant state of chaos. Seinfeld picked up the strand of chaos, although most of the “Seinfeld-like” shows actually preferred order. Malcolm in the Middle was unusual for a family series in preferring chaos.
Surely this is enough for now. The list of series that deserve to be revived on DVD is of ungodly length, and my first candidate would be the late 60s one-season wonder My World and Welcome to It, based on James Thurber. Also at the top would be long-running sitcoms with Jack Benny and George Burns and Gracie Allen, which are only available in very scattershot ways.
Postscript — Barrett on TV
(Here is an excerpt from Barrett’s 2011 Christmas email where he explains popular TV shows).
MAD MEN is about:
3) what’s not said
4) anti-nostalgic minefields amid the inevitable nostalgia
5) a New Yorker observational story somehow turned into a TV show
6) a melancholy diagnosis of the American dream by the people who sold it to you
7) my favorite current show, hands down.
TRUE BLOOD is about
1) sex, sex, sex, and all the better for it. TWILIGHT without all the virginity.
2) all forms of addiction
3) alternate sexualities and identities–desires, prejudices, repressions, liberations
3) mainly absurd satire, light in tone
4) the art of the cliffhanger
5) how The South is America, at least Louisiana gumbo-wise
6) a smouldering courtly dead fox who squints and whispers “Sookie!” in a gravel voice.
BREAKING BAD is about:
1) mortality. 2) midlife disappointment. 3) family.
4) money and its lack, including health coverage.
5) how the above may all be the same.
6) morality, the line between legal and illegal, gradations of good and bad, rationalizations on same, and how they suck you in.
7) amazing structural ideas in storytelling, stretching and snapping and turning back on itself.
8 ) the seven steps of cooking crystal meth.
The best scene in the first season is the long, wickedly observed “intervention” that’s a parody of intervention, a compassionate study in human foibles, and a touching, serious act of communication.
GLEE is about
1) how the snarky, hip, jaded facade conceals a naive innocent heart that can only be expressed with
3) moments of queer identity that actually feel important on TV.
CAR 54 WHERE ARE YOU? is
1) classic screwball satire disguised as a cop sitcom.
2) how tiny details spin wildly out of control (a device rediscovered by Seinfeld)
For example, the squad’s charity money is invested in the soundest company in America (“doesn’t sound safe” says the hapless buffoon), and the sight of uniformed officers in conclave with the CEO triggers a panic that almost brings the world ecomony to its knees. It’s the early 60s!
ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS is about
1) the same as Breaking Bad really.
Middle-class discontents of marriage and work, leading to droll domestic murder among respectable people. Can be variable and monotonous, and now and then a real zinger.
THE GIRL FROM UNCLE is about
1) sheer stupidity in candy-colored mod dresses.
It’s coeval to the “camp” 3rd season of MAN despised by most fans of that show, and although I found that season amusing, there’s little to say for the virtually unscripted morass of chases, captures, escapes, recaptures and senseless running-around here. Only a few moments glimmer with the right tone, such as Boris Karloff in drag on “The Mother Muffin Affair”. But notice how idiotic is the episode as a whole!
IT TAKES A THIEF is about
1) how spies are legalized thieves and crooks
2) how luxury and glamour are a trap you want to be in, even with the watchdogs,
3) how jet-set naughtiness is fun
Almost all text links in the above interview go to articles by Barrett on the subject.
Here is the direct link to Michael Barrett’s articles on Popmatters. You need to click the More button to see a complete list of columns, features, reviews and blogposts. (That is the only way you can see the list). A large number of the Popmatters articles are about vintage TV.
Barrett does some of his best writing for the print-only Video Watchdog journal. Occasionally, he contributes things to the VW blog such as Favorite DVDs of 2010, Favorite DVDs of 2008 (by various contributors, but a great list!) and Memorable Scenes. (His Best of 2009 is appended at the end of this article). Below is a small collection of his DVD review essays.
Odd TV Subgenres/Vintage TV: American Film Theatre | Medical Center & Old School TV Medical Dramas | Turn of the 70’s Teenage Murderous Mayhem | It Takes a Thief | M Squad | 70s TV Movie-of-the-week | (a whole lot more on Popmatters).
Silent Movies: Gaumont Silent Treasures (1914-1920) | Buster Keaton | Talmadge Sisters | Fantomas | Avante Garde | Henry King | Chaplin | Discovering Cinema: A Documentary | Rupert Julian & Seafaring Silents |Texas silent films | Pierro Antonio Gariazzo | G.W. Pabst, Robert Wiene, Arthur Robison | Edwin Thanhouser
Unclassifiable: Don’t Let This Happen to You: An Intervention (Barrett talks about the addiction of collecting DVDs and music)