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Not Listening to No: An Interview with Elvis Mitchell

Elvis Mitchell—a Highland Park native and Los Angeles establishment—isn’t just a multi-hyphenate film critic (and interviewer and programmer): he’s also a consulting producer on the critically-acclaimed ongoing superhero series “Black Lightning” and the writer of “The Black List,” an inviting 2008 documentary about modern African-American public figures. Now, Mitchell is the star of “Elvis Goes There,” a four-part docuseries now airing on EPIX. On the show, Mitchell interviews filmmakers in their natural (or preferred) habitats—like Sofia Coppola in Paris or Ryan Coogler in Oakland—in compelling interview segments that sound like human conversations and appropriately look like cinematic scenes from a movie-lover-centric version of “No Reservations” (one of Mitchell’s primary influences).

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As an interviewer, Elvis never just talks at his subjects about their latest projects: he always tries to meet them on a level of mutual interest. I spoke with him last week about comic books, film criticism, and optimism.

You're a fellow comics fan and a reader of The Comics Journal, so I wondered if we could talk a little about [Comics Journal co-founder and Editor-in-Chief] Gary Groth's interview style.

The thing I love about Gary’s interviews is that he’s often as surprised by the answers he gets as his subjects are by his questions. His questions also feel—and this is hard to do—really conversational. I think there’s a … I don't want to say informality. But I’ve always strived to have the same kind of simpatico relationships with my subjects that Gary does with his.

Another writer who showed me how interviews could be done—and who I got to know a little—is Lawrence Grobel, who did the Marlon Brando interview for Playboy. I was like, “Wow, I’m now reading for the articles!” Sadly, I really was (and am still) reading Playboy for the articles. But I was just so struck by one of Grobel’s interviews with Brando: you could see the lengths that Grobel took to get Brando to pay attention and not be so distant. That’s not easy.

The common thread that I see between Gary’s interviews and your work on “Elvis Goes There” (and also Grobel’s interviews with Brando) isn’t just a general vibe though, it’s a matter of follow-up questions, too. Your questions are all follow-ups, whether you’re following up on something you said to your subjects prior to interviewing them, or you’re asking about something you previously read. Follow-up questions have become something of a lost art in documentary films, especially in talking head interviews. Are there documentary filmmakers that you especially admire?

Well, you can’t help but admire the Maysles brothers’ “Salesman”—or Fred Wiseman’s “High School”—and not see what you’re talking about. But also, there’s an interesting line to be drawn here, which is: sometimes, you take the interview process too seriously, but not the interview itself. Because sometimes, you can see the person on the other side of the conversation checking out, because they think the interview format is too restricting. I know you’ve done this, too, when you want the person you’re talking with to know you’re paying all due respect, but that you don’t take the interview format too seriously, because that itself can be kind of a dead end.

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I don’t know, maybe I like those American documentaries from the 1960s because they are really, in their way, part of the school of New Journalism, which was about shaking up this “Voice of God” thing, this omniscient person who’s delivering a Sermon on the Mount rather than engaging with the morals. But I think that’s what we were talking about, with those documentarians, or Groth or Grobel: they’re interviewers who engage with the world.

When I read your work at the Times, I always admired how you juggled your interests with the priorities of your readers and your outlet. I also often think about the introduction you did for the Comics Journal’s collection of Frank Miller interviews. I like that essay a lot because Miller is, for many modern comics readers, a sacred cow. Everybody tiptoes around his politics, his personality, his physical deterioration. You lightly touch on all of that, but it never feels like you’re self-censoring yourself. That piece is very you: it’s to the point, it’s informative, and it’s authoritative. When you write an essay like that—where it’s simultaneously an advertisement for a book, but also a personal essay and a tribute to a specific artist—do you find that taking an assignment like that comes with loaded expectations?

Well, no. Salman Rushdie never mentions this—though I do remind him of it—but he wrote an introduction to the first hardcover archive edition of the Justice League of America. I remember seeing that and thinking: “Wow! If Salman Rushdie can do one of these things, why can’t I do one?” I think that for you, and for me—and certainly for Gary—the great thing about doing this work is recognizing that the world is connected, that comics really don’t exist as a separate discipline.

Also: Jules Feiffer’s [collection of critical essays] “The Great Comic Book Heroes” is maybe, for me, one of the most influential pieces of writing ever. I just thought that was a perfect little Venn diagram of my interests: of politics, of satire, of knowing your subject, of loving your subject—maybe even a little bit of self-contempt from knowing your subject too much, and knowing him so well, maybe a little bit of self-contempt…all the things that came into play there! Feiffer did all that work and never gave the impression that he was better than the work, even after he made his own comics as a kid, and then came back to it as an adult.

For Feiffer, writing that book was his way of realizing that he still had love for comic books and superheroes. It was also his way of confirming that all of popular culture connects. I shouldn’t say “all of popular culture,” because all the culture connects. Now, there are probably a lot more critics who do it that way than when I started. It wasn’t always the case in criticism when I was growing up. Feiffer was part of a continuum with film critics like Manny Farber or Pauline Kael, who made links between disparate aspects of our culture, while many others did not.

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That synthesis of your interests doesn’t just happen with what’s happening now—you have to do that. And one of the challenges for you—or any other critic or interviewer—is that you have to balance your personal interests with your subjects’ interests. But there’s so much new stuff out there and on various different new platforms. Do you find that it’s difficult for you, as a fan, to make time to seek out new stuff, which then translates into new work, as a critic? How do you find time, and how do you know what to prioritize?

Well it’s a little easier than that because I don’t have Netflix! [laughs] That makes life immeasurably easier, probably. But I always feel that I don’t have enough time, don’t you? It doesn’t matter how much time you have. I mean, I try not to go on YouTube after midnight, or else I’m lost in a YouTube vortex until the sun comes up! It’ll be 5am after having gone through a bunch of stuff, and, in the end, landing on this audio clip of John Bonham’s drumming on “Fool in the Rain.” But then John Bonham takes me to Alicia Keys and Jack White on “Another Way to Die.” That’s why…long answer (way too long): I don't know how to spend my time, except I just find that if you bounce around long enough, you’re always going to find something that you don’t know about, which spurs your interest in something else. And the next thing you know the sun’s coming up, books are piling up at your feet, and you’re wondering how much sleep you’re going to be able to get before the day gets started.

I still live like that, and it’s harder now just because the world is so … popular culture is so fragmented. There are so many comics out there now. But the thing that I still do whenever I go to a new town is: I always go to a hotel and ask the night clerk, “Where’s the great comics store and where’s the great music store?” There aren’t really any music stores anymore, but the odds are there are music people who have got these jobs at night because they’re night owls, and they don’t want to talk to anybody else! So I see those guys, and I go to the comics store, and I ask for recommendations. Just because if I were going on my own, I’d always pick up the same kind of stuff. Finding new comics or music is the same as going to a film festival and being pleasantly surprised by a film made by a director you’ve never heard of before.

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But now, the films you’re watching at film festivals are being made by that process of fragmented consumption, that domino effect of omnivorous tastes where one thing inevitably leads to another. In that sense, the film of the moment has got to be “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” because there’s a movie that, like “The LEGO Movie” before it, has that meta-reflexive Phil Lord/Chris Miller sensibility that everyone’s really into. It’s basically an all-in-one pop culture flea market. What kind of influence do you see this movie having other than, “More animated superhero films,” or “More superhero films with meta-humor?” What do you think is going to be the impact?

People are excited by it and spurred on by it…spurred on to do more work like it. But I can’t imagine that it could have been made 10 years ago or 20 years ago. A lot of times people make these movies just so they can retain the rights. I still remember seeing that Fantastic Four movie from 1994. I thought: “Wow, you can almost feel some lawyers writing subpoenas on the set just to keep the rights for this!” So it took probably 50 years for us to get here. How thrilled was Stan Lee to see Robert Redford do “Captain America: The Winter Soldier?” He was probably thinking, at one point in the 1970s, that Redford should play Captain America. But Lee would have been laughed out of any movie studio for saying that! Now here’s Robert Redford as a bad guy in a Captain America movie.

There’s another thing too: with any great work of pop art, you’re seeing, in some ways, the creator trying to get everything that they know into their work. Just because they wonder, on some level: “Will I ever get the chance to do this again?” To go back to Phil Lord and “Into the Spider-Verse”: that movie has an obsessive level of detail. It used to be that there were all kinds of wells that you dipped into, just to see what was out there. Now there are wells everywhere. I mean, I don't know how anybody else does it, but I try not to be so attached to a certain era.

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But what you’re talking about is—and this is a word I hate—the curatorial impulse in criticism. It’s the impulse to basically take the work, make otherwise arcane connections seem apparent, and therefore get people to appreciate the work’s idiosyncrasies rather than dismiss them as being eccentric, or indulgent, or whatever. I thought about that a lot this week because it’s Chinese New Year, and, once again, I’ve been told by publicists, distributors, and editors that there’s no American audience for coverage of contemporary Asian films outside of, I don't know, arthouse lovers and indigenous-language speakers. I guess I want to know: as a programmer, curator, critic—how do we get more people to look at stuff like this?

We just talk about it. Whenever somebody tells me “No, that’s not going to go,” I just start laughing and say, “OK, well, we’re going to prove this wrong.” My entire career is based on what happens when people tell me no. I’ve had people telling me I shouldn’t be doing this since I was in college. It’s always been my impulse to react in a contradictory way when I hear that kind of thing. We’re talking about comics, and if we were having this conversation 30 years ago, nobody would be listening. Nobody would take us seriously. If you said to them, “Well, there wouldn’t be a ‘Star Wars’ without Jack Kirby and Jim Starlin” they’d go, “What are you talking about?”

True.

“Starlin wha? Kirby who?” That’s not the case anymore. Every time we’re told something can’t exist in a certain way, it eventually gets upended in the culture, you know? And, a lot of times, it’s almost always a good thing. Because it forces people to re-examine what they were thinking, makes them reset ideas. In fact, all of art probably exists because the people who created it were told “No, that’s a dumb idea,” and they refused to listen to them.

I think it’s not even a refusal to listen, it’s almost like a kind of color-blindness: they just can’t see the work. I get inspiration from that. Whenever I’m told something … I remember doing an interview … I briefly had a CNN show for Entertainment Weekly; it definitely wasn’t my show. I was on the set of “Sports Night,” and I got into a huge argument with a publicist. Because I was talking to Aaron Sorkin about the show’s laugh track, which I think they only used intermittently on the show. And the publicist said, “People won’t watch comedy without the laugh track.”

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I thought, “Why? When you’re by yourself, are you so pathetic that you need to be cued in to laugh? You don’t ever laugh in your home or on the phone, it’s just about getting somebody else to laugh with you?”

That was a big argument! And now the idea of a show with a laugh track is almost kind of quaint! It’s like a throwback … it is a throwback to radio! That’s what it is! So: for every idea we’re told is untenable and there’s no place for: you might as well set a clock and wait for the wheel to land on it, if I may mix a metaphor.

There’s a lot of optimism in “Elvis Goes There” and in your interviews in general. Which is not nothing since you leave people feeling optimistic while also acknowledging the fact that it’s hard to be optimistic. Did you ever read that Tom Crippen essay in the Comics Journal about how Superman is the comics industry’s iconic but useless hood ornament?

[laughs] Yes!

Film criticism has become this field where everybody wants criticism but fewer and fewer outlets can afford to run a variety of reviews. In that sense, it feels like movie reviews have become the hood ornament of the criticism industry, or “industry.” Is that too harsh? What’s our next step?

Film criticism is now everywhere. It’s become democratized so that, for good or ill, everyone thinks that they can be a film critic, the same way that everyone thinks they can now be a filmmaker because they can shoot with their smartphones. There’s also not this line that used to basically say, “You have to be a white person to be filmmaker.” So some of those walls, those barriers have been sundered, and that’s a good thing.

The unfortunate thing now is that newspapers and magazines, in general, are fighting for their existence. So they look to the things that they think are the most expendable, and unfortunately, that’s criticism of all stripes. Film criticism, music criticism. They think, “Nobody sees that kind of stuff anymore,” because they all move in lockstep to try and ferret out those last few loyalists who will buy trend publications, and maybe because of that we’ll subscribe to the newspaper online or something like that.

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So I think it’s a slightly deeper ill. Because you can’t say you don’t want to read criticism; there’s so much around. You may not want to pay for it, but I don't think people want to pay for information the way they used to anymore, and that’s what’s really happened. That’s gone away. I remember getting excited at the thought of running out to read the day’s paper, just at the thought of what the reviews are going to be like. I remember, as a kid, being excited to see what adult critics were going to say about a movie I was looking forward to.

Maybe the bigger issue is how to stem the tide of people not wanting to pay for information anymore. It’s a huge thing, and again, maybe too often it’s about this, but the good thing is that there’s information everywhere. The unfortunate thing is that now, because there’s no longer a handful of guardians to watch over most of the information, people don’t know where to look anymore.

[I think] the idea of not listening to “no,” that’s one way of linking the people who helped me to do “Elvis Goes There.” Ryan Coogler wouldn’t hear “No,” Sofia Coppola wouldn’t hear “No,” Guillermo del Toro wouldn’t hear “No.” And Paul Feig, growing up, was kind of like you and me. He and I are closer to the same age, when you were a freak or a geek if you were interested in movies and comic books. Highbrow intellectuals used to sniff at me, because films and comics weren’t the kinds of things adults paid attention to. It was also a lot of: “Well, why is your head in the clouds when there’s no way, if you’ve ever done a deal, to turn this thing into a career?” I guess I spent my entire life proving these people right because I’m still trying to make a career out of it!

But I think there are many things that are exciting about what I do, and what you do as well. We get up every day looking for that next thing, whether it’s a comic, TV show, book, piece of media, somebody to meet who’s going to give us faith that there are still good things in the world. I may seem a little Panglossian saying that, but it’s what keeps me going. I’m continually enthused about possibilities.


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