written by George Hickenlooper
FFC rating: 9/10
by Walter Chaw Finding himself at the cusp of the supplementary-material revolution, filmmaker George Hickenlooper was afforded the rare opportunity to speak with a wide panoply of cinematic luminaries in the early-Nineties as LaserDisc changed the way that film historians could appreciate--and filmmakers could preserve--film. It's possible to find in the dialogues collected in Reel Conversations: Candid Interviews With Film's Foremost Directors and Critics (a book that seems at least partly inspired by a FILM COMMENT debate between Richard Schickel, Roger Ebert, and Andrew Sarris concerning the decay of popular film criticism in the United States) an ironclad justification for the very process of serious film criticism and authoritative discussion. I mentioned to Mr. Hickenlooper a few months ago that I thought it was something of a shame he was a filmmaker instead of a critic: People who understand movies are in short supply on both halves of the thin celluloid line between critics and directors. Speaking selfishly, I wanted one more good thinker on our side.
Reel Conversations is as brilliant a contribution to the pool of cinema knowledge as Faber & Faber's similarly interview-themed Projections series (if falling short of their 'director on director' series), a surprisingly diverse collection that formulates reclusive figures like Michael Cimino and the late Louis Malle with notoriously reluctant interviews like George Romero and Ken Russell. The best exchanges in Reel Conversations about the process of spectatorship and the value of film as art are, as they always are, with critics (Ebert, Sarris, Schickel, and Annette Insdorf), while chats with John Carpenter and David Lynch uncover a surprising amount of venom reserved for their profession and with the way that art and culture have been perverted into something alien. The greatest regret of collections like this are that one often pines for an update with these folks to see how the times have fed their pessimism, or given them reason for optimism; at least with Lynch and his late-Hitchcock troika of Lost Highway, The Straight Story, and Mulholland Drive, there seems cause for excitement--something that should feel suspiciously like jubilation. Others haven't fared nearly so well.
Each interview is thorough and lengthy without ever being overlong or repetitive. Although the conversations can occasionally seem strained (Russell, in particular, is a tough (and weird) nut to crack, while Costa-Gavras seems overly defensive for no good reason), Hickenlooper maintains an intellectual distance whilst betraying a fulsome knowledge of history or, at the very least, a dedication to exhaustive research. There is a respect implicit in Hickenlooper's questions that remind of how rare that quality is in the modern media/publicity machine that has swallowed most film journalism whole.
Hickenlooper broaches the topic of whether television is affecting film critics and their criticism with his quartet of critic subjects, with Ebert, predictably, the only one of the four who disclaims the affects of fame and the pressures of producing easily consumable opinions on a consistent basis. Insdorf responds: "I think that there is a sizeable gap between what Roger Ebert does and film scholarship [...] I think that Roger knows he's writing for the masses." Not to be taken as a slam on Ebert (and, indeed, at the time of the writing, Insdorf suggests that the two are friends), the statement does highlight a gulf that has only widened between the time of Reel Conversations (first published in 1991) and today. As film has generally undergone a decline into the post-modern muck of meta-watching and filthy lucre, so has film criticism proliferated and bottomed-out with folks so unschooled and disrespectful of medium and audience that the art of criticism--which enjoyed its pinnacle with the observational dysfunction of Manny Farber, the intellectual self-obsession of Sarris, and the populist gymnastics of Pauline Kael--has become the business of consumer reports. Even the term "film critic" is in pejorative disrepair, as most smaller major daily editors will underline an interest in "movie writers" or "reviewers" rather than "film critics"--the homogeneity of what passes for mainstream "criticism" these days is the dismaying end result.
Reel Conversations inspires (self-pitying) ruminations such as this that do and should haunt the teatimes of folks interested in film as a medium worthy of examination and serious discussion. The way that Hickenlooper approaches "B-movie" directors like John Sayles, Lynch, Carpenter, Romero, and David Cronenberg demonstrates an unusual respect and understanding of first the power and immediacy of "pulp" cinema, then, and most importantly, the ability of particular films (and their directors) to evolve in importance as time goes on with the sea-change that critics--and critics only--are able to affect. Understanding the "Auteur Theory" to be vital at the beginning of any discussion of film (if most definitely not the end), Hickenlooper presents in his collection of interviews a document that is smart without being obscure and an impressive enough roster of subjects to suggest that there's still a community of filmmakers interested in "smart." Originally published: July 16, 2003.