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Ballad of Narayama

"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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Meet the Writers: Matt Zoller Seitz

Editor's note: To give you a chance to get to know our writers better, we've asked them to respond to some questions. In coming weeks, we'll be posting their responses, which will always be available as a link from their contributor biography page. Here's Editor In Chief Matt Zoller Seitz.

The Movie Love Questionnaire

1. Where did you grow up, and what was it like?

I grew up mostly in Dallas, Texas, except for a five-year stretch in Kansas City, Kansas, where my brother and I lived with grandparents while my parents were getting a divorce. I guess technically I'm a New Yorker, because as of this August I will have lived there twenty years, but my accent is Texas plus Kansas. Kansas City is a golden, nostalgic haze for me. Dallas I remember as very flat and hot, and not a good place to live if you're an insomniac, as I am, because there aren't a lot of places to get a good meal after midnight.

2. Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?

My dad likes movies a lot, and he used to take me to movies whenever he would come to visit me in Kansas City. My mom and stepfather were into movies as well. We watched a lot of stuff on VHS. They had atypical taste, which is to say, good taste. They liked movies from a lot of different eras and didn't get too hung up on what was appropriate for me at a certain age. I come from a family of jazz musicians so the standards there are different from most families.

3. What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?

The first movie I have a very strong memory of seeing in the theater was "Star Wars," in 1977. I know I saw a lot of things in theaters before then, but that was the first movie I saw where people cheered loudly and often. That made an impression on me.

4. What's the first movie that made you think, "Hey, some people made this. It didn't just exist. There's a human personality behind it."

That would be the 1976 remake of "King Kong," which I think I saw when it came out, but I didn't appreciate until I ordered The Making of King Kong through the Scholastic Book Club the following spring. It was filled with pictures of the production, and it showed how they made all the models and the creature suit and the sets. I'm pretty sure I read that book around the same time that I saw "Star Wars," and the two experiences might've joined together in my mind to set me down the course that eventually ended up in my being a critic.

The first movie that I realized was directed, in the sense of "showing the personality of a particular person," was "Raiders of the Lost Ark," and I wrote about that realization here, in a piece at my first film blog, The House Next Door.

5. What's the first movie you ever walked out of?

"Hot Stuff," starring Dom DeLuise. I must have been ten or eleven. I went to see it by myself, at a theater near my house. I didn't know much about movies at that point, but I knew that I thought it was terrible. I think I lasted 20 minutes.

6. What's the funniest film you've ever seen?

"Raising Arizona." It still makes me laugh.

I fell madly in love with the girl who would later be my first serious girlfriend while watching that movie. Seeing her laugh so hard that she actually fell to her knees and held onto the seat in front of her is what did it for me. Seeing somebody give themselves over to a movie in that way is really something.

7. What's the saddest film you've ever seen?

Probably "Boys Don't Cry." That movie is so sad that not only do I not want to see it again, I don't even like to think about it.

8. What's the scariest film you've ever seen?

"The Exorcist." I saw it on ABC when I was about 11. I literally had trouble going to sleep for months. I was afraid a demon was going to possess me. And this was the edited version where Regan is telling the priest that his mother sews socks in Hell.

9. What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?

"The New World." The way that both Colin Farrell and Christian Bale look at Q'orianka Kilcher is love. 

10. What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?

"Hill Street Blues," the episode where Captain Frank Furillo turns loose a couple of accused rapists that he can't prove the case against, so that they have to walk out of the police station and though a howling mob, and they're so scared of being lynched that they confess on the spot. The last scene of the episode is Furillo walking into a confession booth and closing the door and saying "Bless me father, for I have sinned." That blew my mind. I had no idea you could end a TV episode that way, where you kind of hated the hero, or at least wondered if he'd done something horrible that compromised him in a deep way.

11. What book do you think about or revisit the most?

"Slaughterhouse Five," by Kurt Vonnegut. The more often I read it, the more convinced I become that it's not science fiction.

12. What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?

Songs in the Key of Life, the double album by Stevie Wonder. I feel like most of life's big themes and emotions are contained within those four sides.

13. Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?

I don't know. I feel this way about a lot of pretty good tragedies, including "A Perfect Storm." But weirdly, there are exceptions, like David Cronenberg's "The Fly," which has a horribly sad ending but that I've seen probably 40 times.

I also have an allergy toward movies with domestic violence or rape in them. I'll watch them, and I don't dock points for that kind of subject matter, but it's hard for me. "This Boy's Life" destroyed me. I saw it when it came out and haven't watched it since.

14. What movie have you seen more times than any other?

"Raising Arizona," "The New World," "On The Waterfront," "Do the Right Thing," "Wings of Desire," "Salesman," I've seen those I don't know how times each, and the films of Wes Anderson and Oliver Stone I've probably seen almost as many times, because of the film books that I write.

This one's a tough one. The films I love tend to get worn out at my house.

15. What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?

My first R-rated movie was "Slithis." I snuck in to see it with my brother. I saw an ad on local TV and thought it was going to be like "The Creature from the Black Lagoon," and I talked my grandmother into talking the ticket guy into letting us see the film without an adult. I was nine, my brother was five. That was a big mistake.

16. What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?

Probably "Apocalypse Now," although any of Terrence Malick's films could give it a run for its money.

17. Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?

Channing Tatum at the moment, Marlon Brando for the past.

18. Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?

Kristen Wiig and Katharine Hepburn.

19. Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?

Malick. 

20. Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?

Michael Bay. Whenever I hear one of my colleagues trying to make a case for him, it saddens me. He represents the most thuggish and arrogant and retrograde of American attitudes, and the films tend to be proud of their stupidity and crudeness, and his visual style is not nearly rich enough to compensate for any of that. Sam Peckinpah, now there's a caveman poet. 

21. What film do you love that most people seem to hate?

"Wyatt Earp."

22. What film do you hate that most people love?

"Top Gun."

23. Tell me about a moviegoing experience you will never forget—not just because of the movie, but because of the circumstances in which you saw it.

Seeing "JFK" in a Dallas movie theater. During the reconstruction of the assassination, the entire audience was in tears.

24. What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?

People checking cell phones during the movie, sometimes texting or updating Facebook. It's a sign of unbelievable selfishness. When you confront them on it, they're angry.

25. What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?

Better movies. When I was a kid I used to get excited about seeing films that I thought showed me a grownup world, and made me think about how big the world was and how complicated it was. Now everyone gets excited about seeing films that make them feel like little kids again, uncritical and giddy. There's something deeply screwed up about that. It makes me worry about us as a society.

26. Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?

Can't think of a specific instance, but there have been times where I have recommended a movie to a friend only to have them come back and say, "Are you mad at me?"

27. What movies have you dreamed about?

Too many to list here.

I keep having this recurring dream about the nonexistent fourth season of "Deadwood." It's set between Thanksgiving and New Year's, there's snow on the ground through most of it, and the final scene of the final episode is Al Swearengen dressed as Santa Claus, reading "The Night Before Christmas" to a bunch of orphans and prostitutes.

28. What concession stand item can you not live without?

Goobers.

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