Kim Basinger in L.A. Confidential

Manohla Dargis began writing for The Village Voice in 1987: like J. Hoberman, her initial field of concentration was the avant-garde. In 1994, she moved across the country, becoming the editor of the L.A. Weekly film section the following year. Expanding its film coverage, she always maintained a dedication to genuinely independent and foreign (her 1999 Top 10 list begins with a tirade against critics who write about the supposed death of world cinema) films. Within the past few months, she’s moved to a daily paper, the L.A. Times, which has given her a surprising amount of space to write about films like In Praise of Love (Jean-Luc Godard, 2001) and Manoel de Oliveira’s I’m Going Home (2001). Additionally, the BFI is publishing her monograph on L.A. Confidential (Curtis Hanson, 1997) next spring. Her current film reviews for the L.A. Times, can be viewed here.

– SE

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Steve Erickson: Had you done much film criticism before entering The Village Voice? If so, where?

Manohla Dargis: The Village Voice was the first place I published. I was in graduate school, studying for a Masters in Cinema Studies at New York University, when I began writing for the film section in 1988. I had taken a criticism class with Jim Hoberman (one of the other students, by the way, was critic Chuck Stephens), specifically in order to take a writing course. As far as I remember, Jim’s was the only writing class the department offered the entire time I was in the department. I was having a tough time finishing my final papers and thought it would be good discipline to take a class in which I would be forced to write on a weekly basis. As it turned out, the course was one of the best I took at NYU, as well as one of the most important.

SE: When you started there your ‘beat’ was the avant-garde. At present, the paper devotes little space to this area. Do you still follow it much?

MD: About the worst thing about living in Los Angeles outside of the lack of decent public transportation is the lack of avant-garde film venues. Filmforum is about the only L.A. organization that screens avant-garde film on any sort of consistent basis. It’s great that it’s there but when you look at programs from around the country – for instance, at the programming Mark McElhatten and Gavin Smith are doing for the Film Society of Lincoln Center – it’s painfully clear that Los Angeles is only getting a tiny sampling of what’s out there.

SE: Did you have any editing experience before coming to the L.A. Weekly? Was that your main reason for coming to the paper?

MD: Well, to explain why I made the move I need to give you some background. For most of the seven years that I wrote for the Voice, I was what’s called a Bargaining Unit Freelancer. Essentially, what that means is that I wrote enough for the paper to be eligible for union membership that, in turn, entitled me to annual rate increases and health insurance for myself and my partner. It was intellectually and personally satisfying – I was very close to the film editor and the section’s other writers – but an economic dead end since the Voice‘s owners have always been loath to hire full-time staffers who could collect the sort of benefits and livable wages they deserve. Ironically, not long after I joined the staff of the Weekly in 1994, the Voice bought the West Coast paper. At the time, I was in the middle of suing the Voice for having broken the union contract; I lost the case but I never lost my revulsion at the way that the paper conducts business. I became the Weekly‘s film editor in 1995, after the existing film editor, Elizabeth Pincus, left the position. It was the first time I edited anything – I learned fast.

SE: As an editor, what were your biggest accomplishments? Were you able to get your way most of the time?

MD: My biggest accomplishment as the Weekly‘s film editor was reviving a dormant section. The Weekly has a long history of great film sections and film writers but the paper had taken a huge hit in 1993 when most of its staff writers quit in support of editor in chief, Kit Rachlis, who had been fired by then-publisher Mike Sigman. When I joined the paper in 1994, I was unaware of the section’s past and its terrific film writers, including Michael Ventura, Ginger Varney, Helen Knode, (the other) Steve Erickson and John Powers; I was just trying to learn how to do the job. When I became editor in 1995, I quickly decided that I wanted to move away from what was then, essentially, a review-based section and start folding in a mix of interviews, essays and reported stories. I later discovered that what I was trying to do wasn’t all that different from what the paper’s previous film writers had been after in terms of relevance and urgency. During my tenure as the film editor, I brought in new writers and expanded the film coverage to an unprecedented degree. Among other accomplishments, we started regularly covering what little avant-garde film programming there was in the city; for the first time in the Weekly‘s history, we began covering the Cannes Film Festival (among other festivals); we ran interviews with directors, screenwriters, actors and below-the-line talent from across the world. Additionally, it was my mandate that we review every film that opened in Los Angeles, which means, given the ever-increasing number of new releases and the ever-expanding number of L.A. film venues, I created a situation in which my job could only get progressively more difficult. It was a ridiculous, punishing amount of work since I was also trying to write full time. My biggest failures were protecting myself from burnout and my inability to persuade my bosses to put more film stories on the cover. For most of the time I was there, the people who ran the paper didn’t care about movies but at least they tended to leave me alone.

SE: Do you plan to follow the BFI L.A. Confidential monograph with any other book projects? What attracted you to that film in particular?

MD: The film was suggested to me by the series editor, Rob White, who intuited that L.A. Confidential might be a perfect fit with my sensibilities. I had written quite a bit about film noir, action movies and masculinity for the BFI’s film magazine Sight and Sound, so there was an extant body of work to support his conjecture. I would love to write another book but I would need to take off some serious time from my job; I’m in awe of people like Jim Hoberman who can write books while holding down a full-time job.

SE: Do you think cinephilia is more stigmatized for women than other kinds of ‘geeky’ pursuits, like following science fiction or particular TV shows? Looking at online film discussion groups, this often seems to be the case.

MD: I find the gender divide puzzling, and exasperating. I wish there were more women – as well as more black, Asian and other non-white male critics writing about film in this country – not because of some “politically correct” imperative but because it makes the discussion more interesting. It’s unbelievably tedious how similar in voice and thought many American film writers are, no matter what clique, school of thought or dead film critic to which they adhere.

Frankly, I am pretty bored with most of the film criticism I read, to the point that I am beginning to think we need to start re-examining what it is and what it’s good for, if anything. Of course, most of what’s out there isn’t really criticism but a degraded form of reviewing – just thumbs up, thumbs down, with a heavy dose of plot synopsis. Even reviewers who are somewhat more ambitious than the average hack tend to write about movies as if they’re reviewing books. They pay very little if any attention to the specifics of the medium, to how a film makes meaning with images – with framing, editing, mise en scène, with the way an actor moves his body in front of the camera. To read most film critics in the United States you wouldn’t know that film is a visual medium.

There is smart writing on movies out there – Film Comment and Sight and Sound are two oases – but there is a wearying homogeneity nonetheless. I’m not really sure where it comes from or why it exists. All I know is that there are received ideas about how to look and write about movies, and that not many critics deviate from those received ideas. (And frankly, it can be hard to do so when you’re on deadline and when you’re writing a lot. I’m still figuring out how to get out of the box.) At least some of it, I think, is due to the phenomenon of critics who absorb the ideas and voice of other critics. Although I’m sure it would horrify Hoberman to hear this, there are writers who now slavishly write in imitation of Jim’s style, much as an older generation imitates the late Pauline Kael in voice and prejudice. The thing is that although Jim’s imitators can, to a modest degree, approximate his style they’re simply nowhere as smart. They also don’t get that he has a definite worldview and that his style dovetails with that worldview.

I love Jim’s writing but at the same time the best thing that ever happened to my development as a critic was leaving the Voice and New York. The reason has less to do with any sort of anxiety of influence than the suffocating uniformity of thought that exists in the New York film world. Los Angeles is a far more liberating city for me – it may be driven in part by the movie business but here I could embrace my idiosyncrasies and my mainstream proclivities. I don’t read most of the New York press anymore and I find that as time goes by I’m not reading as many film critics, either. I still read The New Yorker because I envy David Denby’s words and Anthony Lane’s jokes. I read my smart friend John Powers, who’s writing again for the Weekly, and I try to keep up with Hoberman and Jonathan Rosenbaum from the Chicago Reader because they’re two of the few American film critics from whom I consistently learn something new about movies. It’s the same reason I read my friends Amy Taubin and Kent Jones, both of whom write regularly for Film Comment.

When I first started writing about avant-garde film for the Voice, I started reading Clement Greenberg to get a sense of how you write about non-representational art. One of the things that struck me about Greenberg’s work – and what strikes me about John Berger – is how they’re always able to keep their eye on the object while also opening the discussion further and further outward. I don’t think you have to write an essay every time you review a movie but I do think you need to keep one eye on the film and one eye on the world beyond. If nothing else, reading Greenberg and Berger, along with great contemporary critics such as John Leonard and Peter Schjeldahl, also reminds me that when I think about movies I need to get beyond the stranglehold of pop culture. I think one of the problems with film criticism is that we rarely talk about art anymore – we obsess about the grosses, we gossip about the “industry,” we talk about this week’s new movie in relation to last week’s new movie. We have, in other words, let the movie business set the agenda for how we look at and write about film.

SE: You recently wrote an essay about the decline of adventurous American indie films and their replacement by cookie-cutter genre hackwork. Given that the Sundance/Miramax version of “indie films” keeps reaping box office rewards and earning Oscar nominations – á la Monster’s Ball (Marc Forster, 2001) & In The Bedroom (Todd Field, 2001) – do you have much hope that this situation might change?

MD: I live in hope – seriously. I used to work in a bookstore and one of my favorite duties was opening up the boxes of books that had just come in. The anticipation of what might be inside was wonderful – I never grew tired of it. I try to maintain the same hopeful attitude toward movies. Even when I’m skeptical about a film or haven’t liked a filmmaker’s previous work I try remain hopeful. The day I stop being hopeful is the day I quit writing reviews.

SE: Does working in L.A. tend to place special demands on a critic?

MD: It’s tougher here than in New York for a several reasons. First, because so many people who live in Los Angeles seem to work in the industry or are somehow involved with the industry, even peripherally, they tend to be very attentive, very involved and very unforgiving of film reviews. I was queen of hate mail at the Weekly – one of the paper’s long-time copy editor once told me I had received more hate mail than anyone in the paper’s history, which is kind of bizarre. And I’ve already racked up a sizable number of hate letters and e-mails in the three months since I started writing for the Times. For the most part, the criticism doesn’t bother me. I just wish that my hate mail was more interesting, more of a spur to discussion than the usual blanket rebuttal. The other demands are subtler and more difficult to negotiate since they involve the human factor. You’re more likely in Los Angeles to meet people whose work you’re reviewing, which is not something I relish. Unless I’m writing a profile, I don’t want to think about the people who make the movies I write about – I don’t want to think about their mortgages, their alimony payments or that their last movie was a disaster. Neither do I want to be swayed by the fact that I like a director as a person or – just as bad – that the director seems to like me. Film critics are terribly susceptible to flattery and I’m no exception. It is cool, even a turn on, to have a director whose work you admire tell you that he or she really likes your writing in turn, but flattery doesn’t makes you a better critic, to put it mildly. As a result, although they’re impossible to avoid outright, I tend to shy away from parties in Los Angeles. The unfortunate thing about keeping this sort of professional distance is that you may miss out on forging relationships with some of the smartest, most interesting people who live in the city. At the same time, you save yourself a lot of grief. There’s nothing quite like being at a party at which you’re suddenly shaking hands with a director whose movies you’ve panned – which has happened to me.

SE: Have you had any problems writing fairly lengthy reviews of foreign films for the L.A. Times?

MD: I haven’t had any problems writing long reviews for films such as the Godard and the Oliveira. The paper is interested in good work and if I say that these are important movies I want to go long on, my editors say go for it. They also understand that some movies don’t need or merit long reviews, which is great. I don’t like to waste my energy and words on films about which I have nothing to say and I don’t think I should be forced to waste the readers’ time, either.