Kantemir Balagov has the confidence to tell his story chiefly through the faces of his characters as well as their placement in the frame, thereby…
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 Simon Abrams.
Where did you grow up, and what was it like?
Little Neck, Queens in a four-family co-op. I lived across the street from a public school, and a public library. The weird thing was I only went to that school for two years, and not even consecutive ones. My parents wanted me to go to better schools, and/or the same school as my older sister, so I changed systems four times before I got to high school. My sister was, and probably still is my best friend. I was kind of a lonely kid until I got hormonal in high school, and developed a radioactive-enhanced chip on my shoulder. None of my Manhattan friends would visit Queens, and my Queens friends didn't stick around much longer. I read a lot, and rewatched the same junky movies over and over. Also, I had a cat, my mom persistently asked me how my day was and who my friends were, I played soccer (right wing, usually defender, except that one time I scored a goal somehow), and I stole money to buy trading cards until I got caught. It was nice enough, my childhood.
Was anyone else in your family into movies? If so, what effect did they have on your moviegoing tastes?
I think they all were, to some extent, but not as much as me. My parents were pretty encouraging because neither they nor I knew I would wanted to become a film critic. Fools, the lot of us! Ahrm. I used to go to the movies with my paternal grandparents a lot. They lived in Roslyn (my grandma still does), and would take my sister and I out to Roosevelt Field, Port Washington, Manhasset. Never understood why they only took us to the Long Island theaters. We lived much closer to Douglaston, and they always eventually had to return us home. Anyway, my grandparents were even more encouraging, but I also watched some of my favorite R-rated movies on VHS and DVD at their house when they weren't looking. Like "Alien," "Blade Runner," that kinda thing. Movie-going was usually a family thing, but when I got angsty later on, I went to the movies alone. I guess it took a while to break the habit of only going with other people.
What's the first movie you remember seeing, and what impression did it make on you?
Maybe "Big Bird in China?" I used to own that on VHS, and would rewatch it a lot. The Monkey King both terrified and delighted me. And the scenes where Big Bird looked for his dog Barkley made me anxious. But the musical numbers annoyed me; I didn't like the actors' voices. Too pitchy, I think.
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."
"Akira Kurosawa's Dreams." I mean, it's in the film's title, I know, but I saw that when I was...maybe 11, or 10. And I couldn't make it through some of the segments in the film because it scared me so much. But I didn't pursue Kurosawa's other movies until later. I do remember seeing "Brazil" when I was 12 or 13 and being so thunderstruck that I had to see more films by that director. "Brazil" also made me want to get serious about watching movies. Then again, I think Mel Brooks was baby's first auteur. I remember seeing "Young Frankenstein" and "The Producers" and "Blazing Saddles," which was a little risque for a prepubescent, single-digit mouth-breather like me. But I knew there was a personality making those movies, and was instantly attracted to it.
What's the first movie you ever walked out of?
"Star Trek: First Contact." My sister and I were terrified of the Borg, so my grandparents dragged us out of the theater. This was kind of a jolt for me, but only because I was so busy covering my eyes that I didn't notice my sister was doing the same thing. We tried rewatching it again (and in theaters, at that!), and survived well enough though.
What's the funniest film you've ever seen?
"Flying Deuces" was the first movie that made me laugh so hard I cried. But the funniest movie? I'll always love Mel Brooks's films, so probably "The Producers." I also love Blake Edwards's comedies, even the sloppy ones. And the Marx Brothers' movies, especially "A Day at the Races," "Cocoanuts," and "Duck Soup." And "Top Secret!"
What's the saddest film you've ever seen?
"Why, Charlie Brown, Why?" No, seriously, this is not a joke, I have seen this film, and it is…hoo, man. It's about a little girl that has leukemia. The girl doesn't die, but yeah, you try feeling good at the end of that. I also love "Goodbye, Mr. Chips" and "Umberto D."
What's the scariest film you've ever seen?
Probably "Akira Kurosawa's Dreams." Most of the film's vignettes, like the one where the little boy is banished from home after spying on a fox wedding ceremony, are still pretty traumatizing.
What's the most romantic film you've ever seen?
I'm tempted to be a wise-ass, and say something stupid like "Death Wish 3," but nah. I love romantic movies. I think Frank Capra's films are beautiful, especially "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," and most of Charlie Chaplin's films also very romantic, with the exception of some of his talkies (I love "Monsieur Verdoux," but that movie is in no way romantic). That's not really the question though, is it? "Harold and Maude" comes pretty close for me, and there's always "In the Mood for Love."
What's the first television show you ever saw that made you think television could be more than entertainment?
I get what this question is asking, and will therefore refrain from answering with "America's Most Wanted." But it might have been "The Twilight Zone." That show's intelligence and sense of imagination instantly captivated me.
What book do you think about or revisit the most?
H.G. Wells's "The Invisible Man."
What album or recording artist have you listened to the most, and why?
The Beatles. They were the band that made me interested in listening to music. I didn't really care to listen to music until high school, and even then it wasn't a great passion. But when I was younger, I used to take out "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band" (I loved the cover art), and their Apple Records' "Best Of" collections. This one librarian used to make fun of me because I used to checked out the Beatles so much. She thought I was listening to it for a class. I didn't understand why she looked at me funny when I told her it was because I liked them. Kind of an odd way to discover the Beatles, I guess.
Is there a movie that you think is great, or powerful, or perfect, but that you never especially want to see again, and why?
"Shoah." Not a finger!
What movie have you seen more times than any other?
"Bananas," maybe? Yeah, that sounds about right.
What was your first R-rated movie, and did you like it?
The first R-rated movie I checked out of the library was "The Bodyguard." I had hoped there would be a lot more sexy, sexy sex in it...like an orgy's-worth. My expectations were obviously a mite bit high. And yet, eirdly enough, I kinda liked "The Bodyguard" in spite of everything. And the first R-rated movie I snuck into was "Enemy at the Gates." It was playing in the smallest theater at Movieworld Douglaston, and I was the only one in the auditorium. I almost got caught when the usher saw me, but he looked the other way. I kinda liked that one too, but I can't remember much about it.
What's the most visually beautiful film you've ever seen?
Aren't you tired of me by now? Sheesh. Uh, let's go with "2001: A Space Odyssey."
Who are your favorite leading men, past and present?
Who are your favorite leading ladies, past and present?
Who's your favorite modern filmmaker?
Who's your least favorite modern filmmaker?
I dunno if there's one filmmaker that really sets my teeth on edge more than others. They're all terrible, really (KIDDING). I guess I hate the Happy Madison filmmakers, but again, not so much that I'd die if I had to rewatch "Jack and Jill" at gun-point. That having been said: please don't make me rewatch that film, please, take my life, I mean wife.
What film do you love that most people seem to hate?
What film do you hate that most people love?
Again, another winner. Um…why don't I qualify this to film-that-was-released-this-year-that-has-generally-been-ecstatically-received-but-I-cannot-stand-for-anally-specific-reasons: "Leviathan."
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.
Volunteering at the New York Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) in the summer of 2004. I loved working with and getting to know the festival programmers, and got to watch a lot of fun movies for free. That was a real treat in spite of the fact that the Anthology Film Archives' air-conditioning wasn't working, and it was early June. Still, the movies, and fascination I've since developed with films from Asian countries was fostered at NYAFF. I can still remember conversations I had at that year's festival. And I remember the seats (blue, standalone bucket seats). And the little aluminum cans of Mr. Brown coffee, and the bags of shrimp chips I used to sell. And the experience of seeing my first film directed by Johnnie To ("Running on Karma" blew me away). And what it was like to watch movies on the side of the auditorium for the first time instead of center-middle (my current preference) or all the way in the back (my former preference).
What aspect of modern theatrical moviegoing do you like least?
Noisy patrons. Come on.
What aspect of moviegoing during your childhood do you miss the most?
Looking forward to trailers.
Have you ever damaged a friendship, or thought twice about a relationship, because you disagreed about whether a movie was good or bad?
Not really, though I remember being a little heartbroken when an ex told me she thought "The New World" was only "ok." I was so ecstatic about the film, and couldn't articulate why. But she seemed to basically enjoy the film, though not as much as I did. And I've resented her ever since. All kidding aside, nothing really comes to mind.
What movies have you dreamed about?
I don't dream about movies as much as I dream about characters or actors. Like the dream I had recently where Chico Marx sings part of Lou Reed's "Perfect Day" (I have no idea why he was telling me I was a-gonna reap just watchoo sew, but woomp, there it is). I do however dream about this one movie theater in Florence that I used to go to when I studied abroad. It was (probably still is) the only theater in the city that showed movies with English subtitles in "versione originale." The theater is the Odeon Firenze, and it's a converted opera house. It has beautiful architecture I really do not have the vocabulary to describe. But sitting in the balcony watching lousy American films made me very happy. It was kind of like the first scene in "Holy Motors" but never in real-life.
What concession stand item can you not live without?
Junior Mints, no contest.
A TV review of Star Trek: Picard.
The 2020 Oscar nominations.
A review of FOX's 9-1-1: Lone Star, starring Rob Lowe and Liv Tyler.
A tribute to the late, great Terry Jones.