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Why Criticism: Interview with Josh Spiegel, Co-Host of ‘Mousterpiece Cinema Podcast’

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In the past few years, Disney has set the tone for the mainstream cinema cycle and remains one of the oldest studios currently producing films, as well as the second largest media conglomerate in terms of revenue in the United States. In the world of criticism, a giant Mickey Mouse has become something of an elephant in the room, something that too many critics prefer to dismiss rather than to engage with critically. Since 2011, Josh Spiegel and his co-host Gabe Bucsko have been sitting down once a week to discuss the wide world of Disney films for the “Mousterpiece Cinema Podcast.”

Talking to Josh over Skype, we discussed the role of podcasts in film criticism, the love of Disney and the bizarre world of theme park podcasts. 

What made you start “Mousterpiece”?

I got impatient as a listener of podcasts. I had been listening to podcasts for a few years, this was back when podcasts weren’t quite as common. Now it seems like everyone has a podcast, but that wasn’t the case back in 2011. I wanted to do something other than sitting down and listening, and while podcasting isn’t the most active of activities, I wanted to do something so that I had the feeling I was contributing. I had been writing online, and I thought podcasting was an exciting avenue to explore.

Now, I did one podcast before “Mousterpiece”, but it didn’t really go anywhere. It was a couple of guys, myself included, just talking about pop culture and there wasn’t enough commitment to it. If you do a podcast, you really have to commit to doing it for a while. I feel like a lot of podcasts, as soon as they get started, are dropped. And I told myself that if I really want to do this show, I have to commit to doing it. On the one side, I was worried that no one would listen to one guy talking about Disney movies. But on the other side, I thought “if it fails, it’s only your fault and you can’t blame anyone else.” So, I pushed myself into it.

How do you think that podcasting differs from written criticism?

Well, I’m sure some podcasters will tell you it doesn’t have to. I know there are some very good podcasts out there that maybe not entirely, but partially rely on writing down everything you’re going to say before. I’m thinking of Peter Labuza’s “The Cinephiliacs” and “Filmspotting“, both of which are very good shows, and I think you can tell for Peter’s podcast, in the non-interview portion, that he has written down what he is going to say first. I think in “Filmspotting”, a lot of the discussion that Adam Kempenaar and Josh Larsen doesn’t have the sort of free form style of other podcasts. For me, that looseness is what is different from written criticism. I mean, I don’t know about you, and I don’t know about other critics, but I know when I write a review, 10 minutes later I think “I wanted to say something else, I wanted to add more.” Obviously, you can write follow-up posts of some kind, but it’s not the same as that initial review. There is always this sense of wanting to say more or wanting to say what you said in a different way. With podcasting, there is a downside to that looseness, that sometimes requires a more judicious editor of audio. I think that looseness is what is different, and what can be a benefit or a demerit.

You’re working with other people’s voices, and when you’re writing by yourself, you’re only dealing with your own problems, biases and experiences. Whenever you step into a podcast situation, as soon as there is that other person — even someone you know very well — they can take it in a completely different direction than you ever would by yourself.

With Gabe and I, it’s not remotely planned. I don’t want to write everything up in advanced because then you’re forced again to stick to it. You don’t want to be forced to stick to the script. I mean, you can, but I think the beauty of the script is that you don’t have to stick to the script. I don’t want to compare it to improvisation, but there is this sense that when you turn on the microphones and start recording, you can be taken anywhere, within reason.

Do you think there will ever be the same “prestige” surrounding podcasting as written criticism? I mean you can win a Pulitzer for film criticism, but you can’t win a Pulitzer for podcasting… yet.

I don’t know if there is ever going to be a Pulitzer Prize for podcasting, and I don’t know if there should be (laughs). In general, I think podcasting has gotten there, some podcasts. I don’t know if this is automatically a good thing, but I’m thinking of “Serial“, which we all know is the first podcast. It came first — there were no podcasts before Serial. We all finally learned what podcasting was when we figured out whether or not Adnan was guilty or not. That was a very popular show, at least the first season, that was a phenomenon. For good or ill, “Serial” introduced a lot of people to podcasting who previously would have been like, “What is podcasting, I don’t know what that is.” Certainly, explaining to people what a podcast is, before you even explain what your podcast is, can be a little annoying.

There’s a level of prestige that certainly has happened. There is that Panoply Podcast Network, with shows like where “You Must Remember This” and “The Next Picture Show” (and all sorts of other non-film podcasts). It’s becoming a lot more popular, I’m not sure that’s what you’re talking about. I mean, a Pulitzer Prize for podcasting, that might be a little too lofty for us to ever achieve. Failing that, I would like to win the first one. One of those two options.

I think you deserve it.

That’s very nice of you, I don’t know if I deserve it, but I’d like it!

At least one of the first people who set up the Oscars had to have won one, so if we pioneer the award, as a token, at least one of us deserves it.

That might be true!

I mean, there are podcasting awards, and there have been for a while, but I don’t think they cover the wide breadth of podcasts that are actually out there. There are just too many of them nowadays and part of it, I’m sure, is that it’s hard to pull your head above the general sea of them. But yeah, some podcasts do win awards.

What advantages does podcasting have for criticism?

One of the biggest advantages is that it allows a wider amount of voices to be heard. Literally and figuratively, it is akin to creating a blog and a Tumblr. There are a lot of ways to have your voice heard that weren’t previously available. I think podcasting, one, and I’m not sure it’s the best — I mean, it requires the commitment of making a show once a week or at least on some kind of schedule.

Do you see any disadvantages compared to writing?

There are disadvantages, but I’m struggling to find one. I mean, sometimes it can be that you say something that offends and pushes the wrong buttons and maybe you wouldn’t be saying it if it was written. It’s like the way you present yourself online, and how you present yourself offline. Maybe you say something on Twitter that you wouldn’t say in real life.

Let’s dig into Mousterpiece. Why Disney?

I mentioned that podcast that I had done initially and failed, and one of the reasons it failed, well, first, it was about commitment. Second, it was about pop culture. Even in 2011, there was a million, really a ton of podcasts, about general pop culture. I realized that if I was going to do a podcast that I’m just one random guy who wrote for a website. I don’t think that anyone had heard of me before. I did not have a name recognition, which is fine, but I wanted to do the podcast and not just for myself. It needed to have some kind of hook, whether it’s “oh, it’s that person doing this person,” or “it’s on this specific topic.” I didn’t have the name recognition, so I thought “I love movies, but there already are a lot of movie podcasts. What am I going to do differently?”

I had kind of rekindled my love for Disney a few years before that, both the theme parks and the films. I thought to myself “maybe that’s where I should explore it.” There were very few Disney movie podcasts. If you go online, there are what feels like a billion of them on the theme parks — there are so many theme parks podcasts, way more than anybody needs to have. When I started the show, unbeknownst to me, there was one other podcast that did what I was going to do: every week, talk about another movie from the Disney company. There was one! It’s easy to compete with one person — again, not even realizing it — versus one of a thousand, or 10 thousand, on a general topic. One was a logical decision, one was a love that I had rekindled in my mid-20s.

Okay, maybe this is because I’m Canadian, or that I’ve never been to a Disney theme park, but why exactly are there so many theme park podcasts? What do they talk about?

That is an excellent question: “Why are there so many theme park podcasts?” Because the community of people who love the Disney theme parks and track its daily movements from ride refurbishments to new upgrades to new menu items. There is a vast number of people interested. There is a massive fan community of online forums, of message boards, where people are just talking about the theme parks every day. It’s a very big thing.

Some of the people who do those theme park podcasts, they’re fine, they’re enjoyable, but some of them are basically just cheerleaders for Disney who just work for Disney. It’s almost like they’re the publicity machine for Disney. I saw that comment someone posted on your other piece! That made me laugh because “Mousterpiece Cinema” is obviously not a Disney publicity machine, but there are a lot of theme park podcasts that basically just taut the company line. They don’t work for Disney, but they might as well.

I was going to ask you about your response to the comment!

I hadn’t actually read it until you pointed it out in your email for this interview, because I think I skimmed the comments but didn’t notice the other one. I read that comment and it made me laugh, they clearly haven’t listened to the show and that’s fine. A lot of people haven’t listened! The podcast is not intended to be a publicity machine, and if it is, we are doing a very bad job because the show is what it’s always been, and we’re giving our honest opinions. It is what Gabe and I feel, and that doesn’t mean we’re going to love everything because that’s boring! Not only is it boring, it is a lie — no one loves everything. That’s why it’s sometimes hard to listen to the theme park podcasts. Sometimes you can tell someone really doesn’t love something — like a new ride or a new show — but they have to find something positive to say because their listenership expects them to be these rah-rah cheerleaders. That is very much the Disney publicity machine.

There is a note of dismissiveness about someone talking about something popular, like Disney. There is this camp of film critics that still thinks that the mainstream isn’t worth considering, even if there is this huge international audience. That should be a reason to discuss, deconstruct and explore a work of pop culture — not a reason not to.

Sometimes, I wonder if that’s an act of rebellion to not acknowledge how popular something has become. Certainly, I will freely admit that in 2011, when I started the show, Disney was not quite as dominant as it is now. They had purchased Marvel but they didn’t actually begin releasing Marvel movies yet. And they hadn’t begun to make Star Wars movies. They have become even more unavoidable in the mainstream. Definitely, there is a note of dismissiveness that a lot of people have, and there is a lot of value in discussing these films. What frustrates me is this attitude that it’s just Disney and this attitude of “who cares,” which gives Disney a license to not care about how they are making their movies, because nobody will engage them critically.

We should be talking about the underseen films, but at the same time, you’re also talking about an audience. You’re talking about millions or even billions of people now who watch these films, and you’re just casting them aside.

It’s very frustrating because there is a lack of engagement with certain types of Disney films. Like Pixar, people are more eager to engage with them critically because they’ve been more well respected from the beginning. People might look at the live action reboots of animated films and just shrug them off, just put them in the same pile as everything else in the mainstream. There is value in talking about it, because there is value in talking about all cinema — not just art house, not just foreign language cinema. Everything. I’m certainly more of a poptimist? Is that the phrase in music? Being pro-mainstream stuff than more indie? I don’t know if that makes me a poptimist. I think there is just as much value engaging with mainstream stuff, not even what I’d call low-mainstream. I don’t even know the differences between low brow, mid brow, high brow — I think we all make it up and are shocked when someone else doesn’t categorize them the same way.

Do you have recommendations that you would give to someone who would like to start their own podcast?

The biggest thing is to be committed to doing it. Can you foresee yourself doing it in three months times? It’s more than just saying that you want to do a podcast, it’s to see yourself doing it three months, nine months and a year later. It doesn’t cost a ton if you want to do a basic level podcast, which is what we’ve done, though I’d like to go further than that. There is audio recording and editing software available for free. Skype is free, Skype recording software is free and there are downfalls to that. Being free sometimes means it won’t be as fancy as something that’s paid, of course. But there are ways of doing a podcast without spending a lot of money. That’s why I think the most important thing is that you have to keep yourself in command, because if you don’t make it a part of your weekly routine, then it becomes a lot more challenging to maintain.

What episodes would you recommend to someone who has never heard Mousterpiece before?

I try to recommend episodes where we typically have a good guests. That isn’t to say that the episodes with just me and Gabe aren’t good. I think we did an episode on Up with Dana Stevens from Slate.” I liked our discussion on Maleficent from a couple of years ago — we had Tasha Robertson and Genevieve Koski. It’s an obvious one, but our Star Wars: The Force Awakens episode with Anthony Breznican of Entertainment Weekly was a good show. In terms of episodes, where it’s just me and Gabe, I would probably recommend one of the goofier movies we discussed, which sometimes leads to silly episodes. The Monkey’s Uncle, that was episode 194, it’s a very silly movie as the title properly alludes. It turned out to be similarly, it was us just blowing off steam, but it can be fun to listen to. At least I hope so.

Do you have a Disney movie that people maybe haven’t heard of that you’d recommend?

I don’t know necessarily that they haven’t heard of it, but The Rocketeer. I think that movie deserves a lot more credit than it gets. I know it’s a cult classic, but I wish more people paid attention to it. It’s a genuinely good movie and a lot better than a lot of the Superhero movies out now.

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