Critics in Conversation by Manuela Lazic and Adam Nayman

Critics in Conversation: Talking about Filmmakers and Talking with Them

Note: This conversation between film critics Manuela Lazic and Adam Nayman, the last in a three-part series, is a continuation of “First Cinematic Loves, Current Inspirations and Finding Your Voice” and “The Critic and the Actor.”

Manuela: We were talking about the public/critic divide in film discussion, and the fact that non-film people tend to look at actors more than they do directors. This makes sense because actors are performers — performing for an audience, whereas directors are behind the camera, invisible. And, of course, actors are the ones to cover the tabloids. Yet I think that this divide is becoming less true, as some directors become stars onto themselves, perhaps because of the online culture, or because cinema is struggling. I see directors like Christopher Nolan, who just 10 years ago wasn’t talked about as much as the stars of his films were (I’m thinking of The Prestige in particular). Now, I believe that people who aren’t film critics are perhaps more familiar with his name. Although his case is perhaps a very particular one, as he made the most popular superhero movies ever, and I think that does speak to a wider trend. Releasing films in IMAX or 70mm seems to be a tactic for him and Quentin Tarantino or Paul Thomas Anderson to remind audiences that their touch is special and their films are events to be celebrated.

The other side of this struggle is film directors turning to television: David Fincher’s name may have become better known amongst regular audiences when he made House of Cards, the first big Netflix show, also starring big screen actors. Ironically, entering people’s houses via television might make film directors more popular. The streaming revolution is still running its course, however, and its consequences seem very uncertain to me. Steven Soderbergh directed a massively popular franchise with the Ocean’s movies, then moved to TV with The Knick, then back to film with Logan Lucky, and has just released Mosaic, an interactive, multimedia, choose-your-narrative… product. I’m not sure what that means for the fame of his name. He strikes me as a fascinating frontrunner of the constant change in the film industry — let’s not forget that he basically made Sundance the industrial machine that it is with his astonishing debut sex, lies and videotape — and I will keep looking at his path to try and figure out where we’re all going. And maybe he will end up becoming the most famous of all current directors, in the eyes of everyone, as he keeps revolutionising the medium by changing the way we enjoy audiovisual art.

Adam: That’s a really nice pocket-sized summary of Soderbergh’s impact and the way a single career — if it goes on long enough and if the person is protean and ambitious enough — can come to symbolize larger shifts. (There’s a book in there somewhere, maybe — A Grand Unified Theory of Soderbergh.) But I also think it’s telling that you gravitate towards Soderbergh since he tends to work in an agile and sometimes self-effacing style — he’s a formalist, but a chameleonic one, and I get the feeling you prefer filmmakers who let the content determine form rather than the ones who impose an aesthetic in a consistent, obsessive way. OK, maybe not Brian De Palma, but God forbid we start in on him or we’ll be here forever. Although at the risk of getting you going, Body Double (I take it you’ve seen it?) is for me a hilariously extended joke about acting in cinema and life: about the dichotomy between “acting” as technique and moral imperative, and the places where those two mindsets intersect. And — is it the greatest gag of all that the key song on Body Double’s soundtrack, which is visualized via a music-video-within-the-film and which is predicated lyrically on an acting-class-style imperative — “relax, don’t do it, when you want to go to it” — is sung by a band whose name describes a guy becoming a movie star (Frankie Goes to Hollywood)?

Anyway: looking over Soderbergh’s body of work, it’s amazing how many different kinds of movies he’s made, and while I hesitate to use the word “experimental” when discussing a filmmaker who generally has access to big-ticket resources, there’s no other way to describe something like Bubble. One other thing I’d say about Soderbergh is that he’s seemingly more enthusiastic to do interviews — and, within them, to explain himself and what he’s thinking and why — than many other directors of his stature. (I wrote something on Haywire recently, which is why I was going through lots of Soderbergh interviews). This transparency about intention, process and self-criticism also undercuts the grandiosity and mystery of the “auteur.” Not that Nolan, Tarantino et al. don’t do interviews or make pronouncements about themselves and their work (QT has a big mouth), but I’m always struck by the way Soderbergh can speak intelligently but unpretentiously about every aspect of filmmaking and make it feel like it’s about the work rather than him. And yet… while I respect and even admire his career and really enjoy individual titles — The Limey is the best, I think, followed closely by Out of Sight and sex, lies and videotape — that quality of lucidity doesn’t leave much in the way of mystery.

Another part of film criticism that might be fun for us to talk about is whether or not a critic’s role is to “solve” works — to use writing as a skeleton key to open them up and then, after taking inventory, lock the door behind us. Maybe it’s because I’m knee-deep in a book-length interpretive analysis of the Coens (whose refusal to clarify their films’ meanings is quite apart from Soderbergh’s genial self-contextualization), but it seems like a contradiction that the things I love most about cinema —  sensations of being unnerved, surprised, made helpless, manipulated, taken out of one’s own immediate reality — are the same ones I’m compelled to try to “explain” in my own work, out of respect, of course, for the intelligent design that went into generating them. Or maybe it’s not respect so much as an arrogant conviction that there’s no camera movement or editing choice so sophisticated that it can’t be understood. An illustration of this principle can be found in a great recent work of Jewish satire: “God doesn’t owe you any answers,” says the Rabbi. “Then why,” says his unsatisfied customer, “does he make us feel the questions?”

I tend to get annoyed with reviews of dense, challenging films (like Cemetery of Splendour) that fall back on adjectives like “dreamlike” or a rhetoric of bafflement (“accept the mystery”), but I’m not sure how rewarding it is to read those works “decoded” either. There’s a necessity for interpretation in criticism, but also a danger of confusing that subjective analysis for a knowledge of intention, which is what I think Rodney Ascher’s Room 237 is actually about (and note the irony of that sentence). Not to sideline this into a discussion of The Shining, but what’s brilliant about Stephen King’s novel (and communicated in Stanley Kubrick’s film) is the idea that physical spaces leave traces of individual experience that people with sensitive psychic equipment can perceive. No wonder Kubrick styled the movie as a meditation on spectatorship — “shining” is seeing and dreaming things that were once really, physically there and even projecting oneself into them, which is to say movie-watching itself. Who’s to say that I’m any more or less reasonable than the Room 237 fans are if I say that I go back to The Shining over and over again because Danny’s experiences in the Overlook say more about the pure, ideal, defenseless state of movie-watching than anything I’ve ever seen? And I wonder if the ideal critic is somebody who’s wide open to that kind of blank, receptive, fully affective viewership or if s/he has to be more armored somehow. Practicality suggests that it’s somewhere in the middle, and neither of us — or anybody we know — can claim to be one or the other all the time. But I know that the movies I think I write the best on are either ones I love that completely enrapture me to the point that I can’t analyze them in real time, or the ones that get my guard up so early that there’s no danger of submitting to them in the moment. When I watch Zama, I’m wide-awake but frozen in front of the screen; when I watch The Neon Demon, I’m writing the review in my head as I go. And maybe in the middle we have — ummm… — Body Double, which toggles between immersive, hypnotic set pieces and a wicked self-reflexivity that’s the equivalent of somebody pinching you to remind you that you’re dreaming. And really, has any director ever had so many movies end with somebody waking up?

Manuela: I hope it’s not too naive of me to say that when I review a film, I never really set out to “solve” it for my readers. I try instead to remain clear about how the reading I’m offering is subjective and self-aware. I try not to pretend that I, the critic, am in on the secret of the movie’s mysterious ways. I think a way to “explain” a movie is to describe how what it’s doing generates a certain reaction in us, not simply a feeling but also a cognitive response. It’s talking about the emotional and intellectual route that the movie takes us on. Seen that way, criticism does leave room for the unexplainable, the undecipherable, because you can still express how amazed and intellectually stimulated you are by something you cannot really explain. You can describe your surprise and communicate your enthusiasm, and when talking about experimental films, that’s often the best and the most useful thing you can do! When films only make you feel the questions, but don’t give you (or let you find) the answers, feeling the questions itself is worth writing about. I remember starting my review of Personal Shopper with no clue about what I was embarking on, but the resulting piece ended up being one of my favourites at the time, even though — or perhaps because (!) — it was mostly speculative and up-in-the-air. The fact that I grant a lot of place to subjectivity in criticism explains, I think, why I (and really, everyone) have favourite critics. I appreciate the particular angle they tend to adopt, even if I don’t agree with their taste.

Your take on Body Double just proves that I am right to consider it one the best films ever made! It is a perfect example of a film that can be explained but keeps pinching you to remind that you’re dreaming (a wonderful metaphor). The piece I wrote about it went deep into the psychoanalytic dimension of the film, the idea of voyeurism and how the movie functions as a metaphor for cinema and cinema-watching at large, but the reason why I keep rewatching it is that I still cannot comprehend how it operates at its core. It seems to be propelled by an energy that I can’t explain away, it has a life of its own. And that’s ok! It’s even more than ok, it’s what makes Body Double more than a pseudo-psychological experiment. Even when analysed, the film remains dreamlike and mysterious because of all the things in it that seem to not make sense logically, yet that’s part of what makes it work! It’s an hallucination of a film, and how do you explain hallucinations, really? Some films seem to have been conceived using the “exquisite corpse” method of writing: putting random things together and seeing what happens. Body Double, although still following a rather clear narrative, seems to have something of that random mental connection element, with the sudden eruption of a music video in the middle of the film, or simply the way the endless swirling kissing sequence ends, abruptly and after an awkwardly long time. This dose of absurd insanity is what makes me adore films the most, and art in general. It’s the element that makes me rather uninterested in some interviews where the filmmaker is asked to explain his work. If he or she could put into words what was intended, then why go through the difficult process of making a film about that intended meaning in the first place?

Interviews can still be thrilling to do and read, and indeed Soderbergh is excellent at them, but I think that’s because he usually talks about his process and what inspires him generally, rather than try to tell his interlocutor what really was going on in a given film of his. I am always interested in hearing about what makes a director want to work a certain way, or choose a certain script, and I couldn’t care less about what each odd camera angle was supposed to say. It’s more captivating to me to hear about the person responsible for a film, and how they perceive their job, than it is to learn about their own understanding of their final product. Interviews are a big part of our job as critics, and I’m beginning to do more and more of them, but I’m still wary of falling for the boring questions I just referred to. How do you approach an interview, and what strategies have you developed through the years to deal with uncooperative people?

Adam: Most of the best interviews I’ve done have been ones where set question lists are abandoned and things take on the tone and pace of an actual conversation, which isn’t always the case. When I was writing for The VICE Guide to Film, we had the bizarre experience of writing interview questions to be delivered by somebody else — the show’s producer — and getting the transcripts back could be frustrating because the writers knew that they could have gotten different answers with different follow-up questions, instead of having our surrogate just read through a list.

In terms of interview subjects being uncooperative, that’s fortunately been quite rare; it’s more usually the case that I’m ill-prepared or intimidated, or else I have a hard time articulating what I want to ask. I remember talking to the Dardennes when I was in my early 20s and asking these long, complicated questions that were really just statements about the movie, as if I wanted to show them that I understood it and loved it. And they both sort of just said “yes” or “ok,” which was, in a way, the approval I was looking for, but it didn’t make for great copy. I think the best thing to do as an interviewer is to ask the kinds of big, broad, open questions that allow space for response. And then if the answers permit it, you can start to zero in on things. And sometimes it’s obvious that somebody is on autopilot as a subject, going over talking points or rehearsed anecdotes, or else seeming totally bored. One of my most disappointing experiences was getting to interview a Canadian filmmaker whose work I admire and realizing 10 minutes into our conversation that he didn’t much care about what I was asking him — this was work for him, and he was just trying to get through the 15-minute phoner. That was him being cooperative, not uncooperative, but it was a bad experience for that exact reason.

What you say about not caring about camera angles, though… in my experience some directors are much more comfortable, and revelatory, when they focus on that. I remember interviewing Kelly Reichardt and getting much better stuff out of her about the framing in Meek’s Cutoff and the use of sound than any of the script or thematic material. I think technical or procedural things are more neutral territory than interrogating an artist about his or her intentions. As for interviewing actors, well, I’m bad at it: I did glossy magazine profiles of actresses for years, and I never felt happy doing it. I used to interview actors a lot, now I almost never do, and with a few exceptions, I don’t miss it. One idea I had was to do a book of interviews with film critics, although I can’t imagine who’d read it.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications.

Adam Nayman (@brofromanother) is a film critic and lecturer in Toronto. He is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope and writes regularly for Reverse Shot, Quill & Quire and The Ringer. He is one of the writers for the Viceland television series ‘The Vice Guide to Film’ and has taught classes on film at the University of Toronto and Ryerson. He is the author of two books: ‘Showgirls: It Doesn’t Suck’ and ‘Ben Wheatley: Confusion and Carnage.’


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