IT’S almost impossible to find a word that can be changed in Peter Rainer’s film criticism, or a way to express an idea better than he already has. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way, during the year I served as Peter’s editor. It makes his work a pleasure – sometimes a revelation – to read. I can’t recall many critics who you really feel thinking on the page quite as well as Peter does; the ideas and critical themes unfold in the same way great storytelling does.
Here at The Misread City, we’re quite excited by the release of Rainer on Film: Thirty Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era. The collection includes plenty of film reviews – from Night of the Hunter to L.A. Confidential to Blue Velvet, as well as longer essays on cultural/aesthetic issues, pieces on actors and directors (Bergman, Robert Altman), and sections on documentaries, literary or theatrical adaptations, and the movies of Steven Spielberg.
In the book’s introduction, Peter talks about falling for film as a kid watching the same picture over and over on the TV show Million Dollar Movie, and his youthful attraction for critics Pauline Kael and James Agee.
Peter loves film as deeply as anyone I know, but he doesn’t keep his disappointment to himself when he’s let down by a filmmaker he admires. “Gus Van Sant’s Good Will Hunting is like an adolescent’s fantasy of being tougher and smarter and more misunderstood than anybody else,” he writes. “It’s also touchy-feely with a vengeance.”
Peter has served as film critic for the Los Angeles Times and New York magazine. He wrote for me at New Times LA in the late ‘90s (that work made him a Pulitzer finalist); he currently writes for the Christian Science Monitor.
This is my Q+A with Peter, who appears at Book Soup on Monday June 10 and at Vroman’s on Wednesday June 19.
Did coming of age as a cinephile in the ‘70s – writing for your college paper and programming a campus film society, then writing your first professional review of Chinatown – spoil you for the decades that came after?
I feel spoiled to some extent by the way in which I came up as a critic. I was film critic for my college newspaper, the Brandeis “Justice,” which was a great laboratory for putting my ideas into print and then hashing out the blowback from my students and teachers. There was a great immediacy about the whole process. In some ways, it’s a microcosm of the ideal situation for a critic – having as an audience a smart, contentious, captive audience of true believers.
What I didn’t realize at the time is that the movies that were coming out then, the early mid-‘70s, represented a golden age. This isn’t nostalgia. Week after week I found myself reviewing “The Godfather,” “Cabaret,” “McCabe and Mrs. Miller,” “Mean Streets,” “Straw Dogs,” “A Clockwork Orange,” “The Last Picture Show,” “The Sorrow and the Pity,” “Sounder,” you name it. I used to joke that back then even the bad movies were good. (Now *that’s* nostalgia).
One of the main qualities that distinguishes your criticism, I think, is
I love “looking through” a movie because there is often so much more going in a film, politically, psychologically, morally, aesthetically, than simply what is being presented to us. This is my natural disposition. I don’t like feeling conned when I go to a movie. I’m a natural skeptic who, of course, is also open to being gulled on a regular basis. I guess this makes me a magician’s ideal audience, and the best movie artists are indeed magicians.
Movies reflect the society in which they were made – this is a concept that runs throughout my criticism. I didn’t realize to what extent this was true of my writing until I began collecting my pieces. It’s kind of like packing up your library when you move. You begin to see patterns in the books you buy that you may not have been consciously aware of.
Pauline Kael said that the critic was the only thing that stood between the audience and the marketplace. These days we have a more sophisticated style of marketing, and perhaps a less sophisticated brand of taste: Blockbusters, sequels, an amplification of special effects that makes the corporate ‘80s look nuanced, and a Hollywood system increasingly geared to violence- and sensation-loving teenage boys. (In some ways it ‘s a parody of the kind of cinema Kael called for.) What’s the role of the critic in this 21st century funhouse?
The role of the critic in the 21st century funhouse, assuming there is a role anymore, is the same as it’s ever been – to write as well as you can on movies worth writing about. The increasingly overmuscled marketing juggernauts and the pile-on of pronouncements on movies from every quarter, digital or otherwise, makes life difficult for a critic who wants to be heard above the din and say something worthy of more than a tweet.
Is there a type of film – a genre, a certain budget -- that has become almost impossible to make, or at least to distribute with any hope of finding an audience? What are we missing?
Small-scale, handcrafted dramas, especially featuring people over 40, are difficult to finance in Hollywood nowadays. Television has become much more of an arena for the sort of serious, extended domestic dramas that used to be standard in Hollywood, before the franchise mentality took hold and the budgets went blooey. The life of a TV critic is in some respects more challenging these days than the life of a movie critic. But then again, I am writing this here in the summer movie doldrums!
It’s easy to doubt, lament, and lose faith in the movies. Who are a few of the filmmakers, from past or present, who restore your love of the medium?
There are wonderful directors working now and doing good work against considerable odds: I loved Paul Thomas Anderson’s “The Master,” a real risk-taker, and shot in wide screen; I think Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy”) is quite talented, Jeff Nichols (”Mud”), Deborah Granik (“Winter’s Bone”). Richard Linklater is extraordinarily versatile, maybe the best of his generation.
There are way too many directors I admire from the past, so just a brief stab here – the humanists: Satyajit Ray, Vittorio De Sica, Charlie Chaplin, Yasujiro Ozu, Jean Renoir. It doesn’t get any better than their best.