American Fable is ambitious, maybe too much so sometimes, but there's an intense pleasure in the boldness of the film's style.
"I saw the people on screen and felt their passion, and I knew, all of a sudden, that it was my passion too. These people weren't just movie characters—they were my people. And right then and there, I realized I didn't need anything else. Because this was it. This is what I had been wandering around and searching for. This was everything."
With this early passage from “Movie Freak" (from Hachette Books), his vivid and deeply engrossing memoir about a life spent infatuated by the movies, critic Owen Gleiberman evokes a beautiful and ecstatic sense of surrender and release.
The title suggests cultists, obsessive or aficionado. For Gleiberman, the movies provided a world, a life of possibility and wonder; from when he experienced their furtive, almost transgressive power from the perspective of the drive-in as a child, through an enveloping passion in which his own developing consciousness was shaped and deeply influenced by the thrill, anarchy and voluptuousness array of images, sounds and words.
"No matter how any individual movie works out, the promise of ecstasy is always there," he writes. What gives the book its kick and observational power is its highly detailed and expressively lived-in feel for what it means to be a practicing film critic.
"Movie Freak" articulates a state of mind, a love letter laced with dark and idiosyncratic flourishes that freely intertwines the personal and professional.
Most impressively, Gleiberman shows with grace, subtlety and sharp humor the attendant follies and vicissitudes of the trade, how his early friendship with Pauline Kael helped make his career but his refusal to fall under her sway ended their friendship, the stylistic experimentation of writing for a major alternative weekly at the Boston Phoenix and the surreal, funny and sometimes appalling corporate culture he had to negotiate during his nearly quarter of century writing as the founding critic of Entertainment Weekly.
In an interview with RogerEbert.com, Gleiberman talked about the book, his life and art, Kael and the future of criticism.
Your book is remarkably candid about your life, your relationship with your parents. I was curious how difficult it was to mediate this conflict between the personal and the professional.
I decided early on I wanted to talk about my personal life, not out of some misplaced, confessional, exhibitionist impulse. I was trying to tell the story of what being a movie buff, a movie critic, is really all about. I felt like I needed to make myself an individual, and to tell that story I needed to talk about who I really was, to deal with the whole question of what drives somebody to become a movie freak, to live in this world of movie obsession.
The more I thought about that, the more I realized that I couldn't answer that and not deal with some aspects of my personal life, including some pretty problematic ones. As soon as I decided that, I figured I'd try to write about myself the way I always tried to write about the movies, as deeply and as honestly as possible.
How did you develop the structure?
The structure came to me pretty organically. As soon as I got the idea to do this book, it sort of took hold of me. Suddenly, I'd be standing on the street and taking out my phone to text notes to myself because all of these ideas would start just coming out of me and they were ideas about themes of the book, stories I could tell and they were ideas about structure. The more I thought about it I saw my life falling into place as a story. That was really fun to do.
In all of my years as a writer I never wrote anything long enough where you really had to deal with the question of narrative. I think that's really important in a memoir. It was new to me. At the same time as a film critic, I've been wrestling with questions of narrative for a long time. Compared to a lot of other critics, I'm kind of obsessed with narrative. That's one of the reasons I have less patience with some European films than some people do. I recognize their qualities but often feel they don't have strong narrative. I have a sort of American, Hollywood-narrative DNA inside of me.
I got very interested in the way my life could fall into place as a story. I never wanted to shape it in a false way. I discovered that the way you portray an incident here, or a moment here all becomes part of the structure. That started to possess me, and it was one of the fun things about doing the book.
Being Jewish, which is not something I ever connected deeply to your work, in a way you might with J. Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum, is a recurring thread. Do you think in your life and work, it is more comparable to the fiction of Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, the secular Jew who's estranged or adrift?
I deal here and there in the book with my identity as a Jewish person. Except, even to say that kind of misstates it because that's never the way I experienced my life. Part of what I try to capture is how I really grew up in a very assimilated world. I didn't have a Jewish upbringing. I mentioned that the first time I ever stepped foot in a synagogue is when I was 30 years old at my friend's wedding. Growing up I just saw myself as an American. I had the luxury of being born and raised at a time when you could do that, when the world was past a lot of these prejudices. Certainly that was true of Ann Arbor, Michigan. It probably would have been less true if I had grown up in some other part of the country. When I was growing up, that never seemed like a big deal in my life.
The older I got and the more I developed a sense of history and my own family's history, the more I saw that—even though I might consider myself a fully assimilated person—those kind of things had been in play in my family. I think they were real conflicts for my father. Inevitably the conflicts of your parents are going to be echoed in your own life. Those issues are there, they have a kind of presence in the book, but I think in the background, and that's appropriate because they have been in the background for me.
Do you remember the moment your influences shifted from images and ideas to language and words?
I don't think my images ever shifted to literature. I don't talk about reading very much, and I'm probably a little more of a reader than I let on. I talk about loving Edith Wharton. My two writer gods who were really influential on me were Pauline Kael and Norman Mailer. They had by far the most seismic impact on my thinking and how I thought about language. That all happened when I was in college. In a sense I don't think of myself artistically as being influenced by literature. The absolute overwhelming influences in my life are film and pop music.
Pop music might have had a greater presence in this book, but I simply didn't have room. I've always been as passionate about music as I have about movies. It's pretty equal. It's just one ended up being my profession and the other didn't. I flirted with being a classical musician when I was growing up and that really formed a lot about me. Movies and music were it for me.
Pauline Kael was significant to your life and work. A quotation attributed to you in the Brian Kellow biography I thought was the most illuminating part in the book. You said, "To be true to what Pauline taught us, you had to break with her."
I echo that in the book. It's part of the grand paradox about Pauline. I felt the acolytes she surrounded herself with were mirroring her opinions, maybe even a lot more than they'd admit. The so-called Paulettes would say, "I'm not mirroring Pauline's opinions. We just happen to agree on all of this stuff." I think it was a little too much agreement to be a coincidence. I always marveled at the paradox of that. Becoming one of her sycophants and mirroring her opinions was to me a complete violation of the spirit of independence that she represented, a violation of the very thing that had drawn all of us to Pauline in the first place.
Pauline was prized as a critic and as a writer for many qualities. One of them was surely how independent and unpredictable she was. Every week the New Yorker came out, you never knew what she was going to say. It was a total surprise. That taught me something, because that seemed very dramatic within the world of film criticism. But I actually I think it just echoed the way people are. I don't think people are that predictable in their opinions, and Pauline was true to that. In my own case, believing in that spirit of independence I found that it ultimately took me to a place where I couldn't be around Pauline anymore. It wasn't fun. I sometimes told her when I disagreed with her, but I also found just as often I was holding back, especially if I sensed the movie we were talking about was one of her sacred cows. You knew she didn't want to hear that. You felt you'd get slapped down verbally if you insulted one of her favorites. That was okay if it happened some time but it wasn't something you wanted to seek out. There was a message put out by Pauline, almost between the lines that, "You're here to back me up."
One of the reasons she wanted that backup was that there was probably more pressure on her than she ever acknowledged in being so independent at the New Yorker. It's tough being the lone wolf in journalism, having people wondering how could you say that. It takes a lot of strength, and I think one of the places Pauline drew that strength was from her club of aficionados who surrounded her with praise and agreement. That allowed her to say I am right about this, and she used it to shore up her own ego and her own security as a critic.
Your first major job was at the Boston Phoenix, an alternative paper. How did that particular opportunity allow you to shape your sensibility and style as as writer?
I totally found my voice at the Phoenix, and that was because it was a place of total freedom. I took that for granted. It was an alternative paper and it was also an era when people were writing very long movie reviews. Sometimes the reviews got too long. We were all imitating what Pauline was doing. Her reviews would go off into 12 different directions at once, and that's what was so great about them. It was a free zone. I saw reviews as a kind of a playground, to sit down and write a movie review each week. It was going to be 1,500 words long, and what were you going to do. You couldn't just tell the plot. You were going to get into the details of the movie. You were going to talk about what the movie was about and have the freedom to go into digressions—thematic digressions—about how it connected to the world. You could go into any direction you wanted, and you needed to. For me that was always built into the form of movie reviewing.
At the Phoenix we had the freedom to do that. They made movie reviewing seem like this all-encompassing form that could talk about movies, society and everything in between. That for me was the absolute amazing premise of what movie reviewing was. It was also the heyday of the alternative weeklies. They'd been around for a long time. For a while they were these scruffy, underground papers and then they became essentially [above] ground. They started making money. They started becoming these middle class, consumerist bibles for the cities in which they existed. They became very good publications. The Phoenix was very well edited. It retained what was best about the underground press, which was the freedom of length and subject matter, and the freedom to be a real writer. I learned how to be a writer at the Phoenix. Today the Internet offers the same kind of freedom. It just doesn't offer the same opportunities to make a living at it.
At the same time, I found many of your details of the cultural environment at Entertainment Weekly both fascinating and appalling. In retrospect, are you surprised you lasted there for 24 years?
In retrospect maybe I'm a little surprised that I lasted that long, only because that seems like a big number. I actually thought I'd last a lot longer. I felt I became part of what Entertainment Weekly was. One thing I did figure out after a while was you could not keep a job like that by coasting. I developed an attitude of writing each review as if it was almost my audition to keep the job. I developed the attitude that you are only as good as your last review. It was a way of staying fresh, youthful, of not becoming some kind of dinosaur.
I learned to play office politics, which I hadn't done at the Phoenix. I learned a lot about that with my relationship with Jim Seymore, because we had such a interesting, ambivalent relationship that I think is played out in the book. He really saved my job in the early days of the magazine. He protected me and shielded me from the Time, Inc. executives. At the same time he sometimes looked askance at my reviews, feeling that they were out of the mainstream. There was an ongoing tension. I knew he respected my work but we didn't come to film from the same place, and those tensions played out between us over time. I actually think that can be quite healthy as long as you don't get this pressure to like this movie or like that movie and I never got that from Jim.
What I loved about the book is that it satisfies my primary demand of what a being a critic is, and that is being somebody with something to say. I disagree completely about what you write Jean-Luc Godard or Rainer Werner Fassbinder, but I concede yours is a cogent and well-argued counterpoint.
I will tell you why I put that stuff in the book about Godard, Fassbinder and [Pedro] Almodóvar, apart from the fact it was just honest. I think a lot of people have thought over the years that I have some kind of hostility to these people or their art. The irony is that the exact opposite is true. I'm enough of a movie freak that I understand pretty well what revolutionary artists they all were.
I am in theory attracted to their aesthetic. I love the idea of Godard films. I love the idea of the kind of films that Fassbinder was making in the '70s: these scrappy, scraped from the soul psychodramas about desperate, angry, lost people in the post-war German world. All of that always sounds intoxicating to me, and I will always sit down and watch a Godard or a Fassbinder film I haven't seen before to try to get on their wavelength. Almost inevitably halfway through I'm looking at my watch and I cannot seem to connect with those filmmakers.
I do think there is a postmodern element to each of their aesthetics that I just don't relate to. I like some pretty adventurous filmmaking. There's another side of me that's a four square, meat and potatoes kind of person. There's a certain kind of postmodern, or Brechtian filmmaker, who I just don't connect with almost chemically.
I just wanted to put that out there and say it doesn't mean I'm not a cinephile. It doesn't mean I'm against European filmmakers, but I've been watching these guys' films for 40 years and they just don't do anything for me. Isn't that interesting? They don't need to have 100 percent of cinephiles in their fan club. They can have a few detractors. Just as there are filmmakers I revere who have detractors. Robert Altman is my artistic hero, but there are people who don't like Altman. There are people who think "Nashville" is overrated or snide. Though I don't agree with them, I'm glad those people are in the universe with me and they can share their dislike of Altman.
Are you optimistic about the future of film criticism?
A part of me is optimistic about the future of film criticism in that I think there are people who want do it, and I think there are people who want to read it. To me criticism is such a natural outgrowth of what movies are. As long as we have a thriving movie culture, which I think we do, we will have a thriving critical culture. In some ways the biggest threat to film criticism are the corporate media institutions that are the best home for it.
I think critics need homes in order to really do what they do. They need bully pulpits. I hope that doesn't disappear. I hope that editors stop being so constricting about what critics are supposed to do. More and more I think editors think of critics as a kind of delivery system for information about movies rather than voices. I think criticism needs to come in the form of voices, people who are really speaking their deepest thoughts and feelings. That's when criticism thrives. I think readers understand that. I think readers instinctively seek out criticism and are still addicted to it.
I think there are a great many people out there—maybe more than ever—who really get criticism and really want it, need it and understand it's a delightful and vibrant form. I think critics get that, and readers get that. I hope editors and the people in control get that, because they're really the ones who are going to end up determining whether this can be a viable profession and a viable part of the culture.
What's next for you?
I'm still figuring that out. I will say that I loved writing this book. I've often felt before writing about a film that I really loved, the question always hovering in my mind is whether or not I can do justice to this film. That's the great challenge a critic has, not tearing something apart, doing justice to the movies you love, in part because movies that are works of art, work in very complicated ways, and the challenge is try to understand and explain how these movies work.
Early on when I was writing this book I said to myself, I'm getting to tell the story of my life. God knows you know the terrain. Relax. If you don't enjoy writing this, there's something wrong. That became my mantra on any given day. If I found that I was approaching writing the book as if it was some work or some challenge I didn't feel up to, then I knew I had the wrong attitude. I said to myself, "Have fun writing this book and that will make it more fun to read." I think more or less I stayed true to that. I really got bit by the book bug. I enjoyed the process, and I would be interested in trying to do another one.
Has writing this memoir occasioned a personal reckoning about your life and art? Do you feel content or satisfied that you honored your gifts and talent as a critic, or is there a sense you could have or should have done more?
At Entertainment Weekly I would often get asked if I ever wanted to write a book. My answer was always noncommittal, and what I always thought in the back of my mind was I don't know what I'd write a book about, and even if I did, I don't think I'd have time on this job.
In some ways I began to stretch myself when I started blogging. That was really the impulse that led to this memoir. I even wrote one piece in particular, about Brian DePalma's "Carrie," when the remake came out in 2010. I used that as an occasion to go back and look at the original and why I loved it so much. Writing that, I wrote around the movie. I wrote about my experience of going to see the movie for the first time in 1976 and I discovered I was not just writing about the movie, I was writing about myself and I was writing about my own life. I discovered that was exhilarating. That prepared the way for this memoir.
When I did that, page after page, and wrote about my life, I discovered that it was liberating. It unlocked something in me, and it made me think I didn't have the ambition to do that all of those years and I'm glad I found it.
I think the lesson for me is you have to keep growing as a writer. Having done this [book] now, that's my attitude. What could I do that's the next growth ring? I don't have the answer yet, but I'm really curious to find out.
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