Trial by Fire
The film plods at points, trudging along, and there are a few misguided narrative "devices" tacked on, but still, "Trial by Fire" bristles with anger.
Karina Longworth has been writing about film, in some fashion or another, for nearly a decade. Beginning in 2005, she was on the frontier of online criticism, serving as a voice of reason and intelligence against the domineering print critics who believed online "bloggers" and "journalists" were ruining their sacred profession. Eventually her work at Cinematical (which would eventually be bought by AOL and fade into oblivion) led to an editor position at Spout.com, which would eventually be bought up IndieWire.
In the year following, Longworth would be hired as the chief film critic for LA Weekly, a position many would sacrifice a limb to procure. After three years of working at the vaunted Village Voice publication, she left it all behind in favor of taking on the daunting task every critic says they'll get around to eventually: writing a book. But she didn't just write one book. Since jettisoning her stable position at LA Weekly, Longworth has published two entries into the "Anatomy of An Actor Series" series by Cahiers du Cinéma, one on Meryl Streep the other on Al Pacino. As if her body of work wasn't impressive enough, she has another book coming out in September of this year entitled "Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen In Contact Sheets."
All of this is to say that her latest artistic venture, a podcast called "You Must Remember This," is worth your time and energy. In only five episodes, the program has solidified itself as a mandatory listen for anyone who enjoys thoroughly researched and brilliantly written storytelling on the "secret and/or forgotten histories of Hollywood's first century." For those curious, Longworth was kind enough to sit down with us to chat about her first foray into podcasting, her disdain for the Internet and why she feels a bulk of the work she published at LA Weekly was artificially composed.
What was your inspiration behind "You Must Remember This?"
KARINA LONGWORTH: Basically, the reason I started doing it was because I was feeling creatively frustrated. I think it's not a secret that it's a really difficult time to be somebody who writes about movies. I specifically have some unique circumstances that make it difficult for me to work in the marketplace as it exists. So you know, I was promoting a book earlier this year, and then I was teaching, and I was just feeling like I was doing a lot of labor that was helping other people but wasn't really doing much for myself. And I wanted to create a place where I could be researching and writing and talking about movies, but only in terms of stuff I'm actually interested in, and not pretending to be interested in things because whoever was paying for it wanted that. So I decided I had to create a space in which I could do these things, where I wasn't depending on anyone else's money and figure it out from there.
Looking through and listening to each episode, your subjects range from Frank Sinatra to Kim Novak to Frances Farmer. I keep wondering, what's the through line here? How do you get about selecting these various people and events?
Well, right now, it's just stuff that I know a little bit about, but don't know a ton about and want to learn more. I just have a long list of topics like that. I could keep on doing them this way at least till through the end of this year. There are so many stories you read, and then you don't know the story and you think "Wow, that's really interesting. Someday, when I have time, I'd like to do all the research and learn everything about that." And then I just never had time on so many of these things, and now I do because I decided to create this space in which that's the only thing I have to do.
And the research is incredibly meticulous. Could you briefly go through your process? You were telling me that when you're working on a show you cut out off your email entirely—which is pretty impressive in a time where I can't seem to go two hours without checking it.
It's not a problem for me because I don't really like the internet. I feel like every time I do check my emails something bad happens.
It's funny to me that you don't like the internet considering you were on the frontier for online criticism with outlets like Cinematical and Spout.
And maybe that's why I don't like the internet. No, I mean, the internet is obviously larger than any one thing and it encompasses many things, and a lot of things about that are wonderful. I do a lot of my research on the internet and a lot of people are doing great work on the internet. But I do find that social networking is something I don't have a lot interest in. My email is 90% stuff that I can ignore and nothing will happen. Then there's like 9% where people are asking me to do things I don't want to do. And then maybe 1 or 2 emails a day that I'm actually interested in.
Well hopefully my email was in the 1%.
Haha, no if I didn't want to do this I probably wouldn't have responded. You know, a lot of those things like people asking me to do criticism or talk about criticism.
Alright, let's talk about your research process.
The first thing I do is Google whatever it is that I'm interested in. With the exception of the Frances Farmer episode, because with that there were some important resources that were only available online, I don't think of internet research as the stopping point, I think of it as a starting point. For instance, on somebody's Wikipedia profile there will often be conflicting information; information from a lot of different sources. The good thing about Wikipedia I think is that all these sources are outlined. So then you can go to the books, you can go to the articles, watch the documentaries, or whatever it is, and put that information in context. I do a lot of that. I spend a lot of time at the Margaret Herrick Library, which is the Academy's library in Beverly Hills, where they have these clippings files, which are both physical clippings and microfiche. You can search them by movie title, director title, actor title, and just get these folders upon folders of any sort of magazine or newspaper article that they've collected. So I dedicate a lot of time to looking at the way various things were covered by the media while they were happening. Not because that's necessarily an accurate report, but because it's interesting to me to see how things were spun and perceived while they were happening.
How long does it take you to complete each episode?
It's been 2-3 weeks, which I think is unacceptably long.
Well you talked about that a couple weeks ago, claiming that you're dedicated to making this your "summer project" of sorts. But considering the amount of information you're packing into each episode, 2-3 weeks seems appropriate.
Well, maybe, but I know that as a podcast consumer when it comes to podcasts I really like, I can't get enough of them. The ones that I do have to wait 2 or 3 weeks for I just get annoyed with. I feel like they need to give me more than that. You know, I can only hope that people would like my podcast enough that they would want more episodes and that it would be worth it for me to try to work harder to see if I could do them faster.
I can imagine thoroughly researching one topic for 2-3 weeks nonstop would be a bit exhausting, perhaps even drive me crazy.
For me, I really enjoy the focus of it. I really enjoy just slowing things down and only focusing on this one thing, which honestly I haven't been able to really do yet because I've been producing these podcasts while I was teaching, and so I had a pretty demanding teaching job where I was teaching this very large lecture class and there was a lot of work to grade.
What class were you teaching at Chapman?
It was a class called Evolution of Narrative Film that's a required course for graduate production students. Basically it's one of the only places where they are asked to watch movies and think about them. It's an unusual thing for students. It would be a little less taxing for me as a professor if it was just a film studies class.
What or who prompted you to teach?
I was asked to do it. I have a Masters degree, so I always thought that I would do some teaching. You know, I was very generously paid, and I thought it would be something interesting to do.
Have you found being a researcher and author (you've published three books since leaving LA Weekly) to be more rewarding than film criticism could ever be?
Well, I don't know about could ever be. But it's more suited to what I want to do right now; what my interests are and sort of the pace of life that I like to lead. As I said, I really do like focusing on a topic and trying to learn everything I can learn about it and step back from it and get a bigger perspective. That's something that film criticism doesn't really allow much time for, at least in today's marketplace.
Yeah, the modern critic has to review at least 2-4 movies a week if you have a steady position at an outlet.
I can't really stand behind a lot of the film criticism that I did. I'm not proud of that work. I was really under a lot of pressure to crank material out. I found myself really not dealing well with the pressure to have opinions about everything. Maybe for some people that works for them, but for me, most things I don't have opinions on naturally. So, in order to be participating in the opinion economy I had to sort of force myself to take a stance on things. A lot of the time that was somewhat artificial because I just didn't care enough, one way or the other.
Well, I will say, as someone who read your work rather religiously, it didn't read as "artificial" ... it seemed genuine.
That sort of stems from being a teenage debater. I competed in debate as a teenager and so I learned how to take a stance on things. But it really, really wore me down.
Have you considered ever returning criticism?
Not interested in it right now. There's no reason why I would do it. But, never say never.
I stumbled upon something you wrote awhile back. You said:
“Writing about film is the only thing, in any sphere of life, that I’ve ever been even a little bit good at — other than promoting my own writings about film, that is — and I can’t stop doing it just because there are no jobs to be had at magazines. I have to write online, or perish. And apparently, that means I have to keep dealing with the same blanket dismissals from the same generation of critics, who essentially seem to be saying that they’d rather see film criticism die on the vine than join every other genre of journalism in a media evolution."
Do you remember this?
(Laughs) Well you wrote this in 2009 when online criticism was still in sort of the nascent stages. Have you seen the profession evolve? Do you think there's still a stigma attached to writing online?
Well, I think that it's definitely not what it was because the mainstream publications who were sort of espousing those views that made me upset, their entire business model now involves the Internet. Things have changed. Also the landscape in terms of the outlets that exist online are very different now than it was in 2009. But I think the community of web cinephiles is probably stronger. I think it gets stronger all the time, but it also becomes more niche and it becomes more fragmented, almost like cliques. You know, I really don't want to talk about film criticism. I'm sorry.
Let's talk about "Hollywood Frame by Frame: The Unseen Silver Screen In Contact Sheets."
Yeah, this was a project that I started working on in the beginning of 2013. The publisher came to me and they were looking for an author because they had realized that throughout a number of archives they just have these sort of stores of contact sheets that photographers have donated or whatever the case may be. Basically the company that put out this book had put out the Magnum Contact Sheets book and that book had done very well, and so they decided to try to do one based on these movie contact sheets. They were looking for a writer who could to the research, both on individual films and the idea of the contact sheet and how it functions in the world of still photography. Eventually they asked me to do it and I didn't know anything about this stuff. But that is the sort of assignment that interests me the most right now—ones where I am able to learn everything about something. I worked on it a little in the beginning of last year and they weren't sure they wanted to do the book and then they came back to me sort of in the fall last year and said "Yeah we're going to do it." The process was they found the contact sheets and sent them to me. Then I would try to figure out what was going in the contact sheets. Who the photographer was. Are there any interesting stories about the taking of these photographs? If not, were there any interesting stories about the photographer on set? A lot of the people whose photographs are in the book are dead, so it was a lot of library research and archival research. In some cases I did talk to photographers, and I learned a lot of things that are really interesting and hopefully they are in the book and hopefully find them interesting too. And it's a beautiful book, the way they produced it is very well done.
And it's coming out in June or September, there are two dates listed on Amazon.
Yeah, it was commissioned by a British publisher, so it's coming out in England in June. From what I've heard, it's coming out in the US in September. Usually, the author of the book is the last to know about these things.
The book seems to very much play into your proclivity to capture the sort of unseen moments of movies and culture. Has that kind of writing always spoken to you?
I think that kind of thing is interesting to everybody, right?
It's interesting to everybody to read, yes. But it's certainly difficult to write about it in a way that's coherent and interesting.
You know, writing is really hard. I think it's hard for everybody, but one of my problems with being a writer—and this definitely comes out in that thing you quoted from 2009—is that I'm a very emotional person about my work, and I have more of a creative temperament than an analytical temperament. So I really agonize over the actual work of it; it's really hard for me to do and I have to throw myself into it. I've come to the point in my life where I feel like it's not worth it for me to put that kind of effort into something if I don't care about it a lot. And for me the things that I care about are learning about things that I don't know already. That's why this idea of the "secret and forgotten histories of Hollywood" (the tagline for "You Must Remember This") is designed to create a framework for which I can explore those things. But also I think it's really difficult to take any kind of writing about Hollywood in terms of reportage, whether it's from the past or the present, at face value. It's an industry which is different from other industries in that most of the time people have an invested interest in not telling you the whole truth. And so it's interesting for me to try to basically compare stories and try to figure out what is more true than not.
From the four shows you've put on, it seems like you've collected all these sources and then construct the story as accurately as you can. It feels as if this is the closest we're ever going to get to the truth with these stories. Where do you see the podcast going from here?
The dream would be able to continue doing it without interference from anybody else. Support from somebody else might not be a bad thing.
But you want to keep autonomy.
Yeah, and I really do want to keep writing and editing it myself. Even though it's difficult to do that, I just feel it needs to be something that's handmade by me. Again, I think I touched on this before, but when you accept money for services rendered, then you have to do what the person whose giving you the money wants you to do. And it's petulant and childish, but I want to do what I want to do—at least for right now, and I want to see just how long I can get away with doing it.
I will say, one of the first things that struck me about the show was how professional it sounded. It could be your voice that makes that impression, it's very NPR-ish sounding.
(Laughs) I kind of get into character when I'm just sort of alone with a microphone. But yeah, I taught myself how to use Garage Band in ten days when I was editing the Kim Novak episode. The episode that I published was sort of my third draft. I had to start from scratch twice just because I messed everything up. It wasn't the first time I used any sort of editing software. I want to art school. I used to make videos that were basically like video essays. So I understood this stuff conceptually, but I had never used Garage Band till late March.
Do you go through multiple drafts during each episode?
No, that was just the first two drafts on the Kim Novak thing. With subsequent episodes sometimes I will re-record and re-record my own voice several times. But I haven't had to just completely scrap a project in Garage Band again.
Each show clocks in at around 30-minutes. When you're writing the script up, how much do you have to edit out?
This is the weird thing: I have never tried to make this podcast a specific length at all. I've just written what I felt needed to be included, and then for some reason they've all been somewhere between 30-35 minutes. I do sometimes cut out things that I've recorded, but it's just because they don't work, or in the editing I realize that they're redundant. And actually for the Frances Farmer piece I had written about 1,000 more words in the script than I had previously and thought "Oh god, this one is going to be so long." And that was like 32-minutes. It's not like with screenplays where you can say a page of screenplay is a minute of film. It doesn't really work that way. I have been approaching every episode a little bit differently in terms of the different types of sounds that I use. So I wouldn't know how to tell you this much writing equals this much podcast. But maybe at some point I'll figure that out.
Also I like how you're integrating people doing the voices for these actors and actresses in the story. I haven't really seen that tactic employed in other podcasts.
Because we can never really know the full truth of any of these things that we're taking about, I like the idea of this podcast being a document that is purported to be a truth telling document but actually includes methods of fictionalization.
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A tribute to Doris Day.