Dan Schneider – Movie Critic Interviews
This week’s edition of Critical Juncture is especially thrilling, as I welcome critic Dan Schneider to the ‘ol hot seat. Dan is, first and foremost, a poet, essayist, critic, and writer of fiction. He’s also the founder of Cosmoetica, a widely-read site devoted to poetry and fiction, as well as Cinemension, an equally compelling site centered around film.
Cosmoetica is also home to The Dan Schneider Interviews, which are billed as the “most widely read interview series in Internet history.” I see no reason to dispute that fact, as this series features comprehensive interviews with such wide-ranging figures as film critic James Berardinelli, novelist Charles Johnson, zoologist Desmond Morris, and cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker. Believe me, you won’t find more in-depth and high-minded discussions this side of a MENSA jamboree. After reading Berardinelli’s interview, I felt like I’d been married to the man for five years.
You’ll especially love Dan Schneider if you’re tired of the same old crap that Hollywood has been pumping out in recent years. He’s a big fan of true art and older classics, and Schneider even pre-reviews releases for the prestigious Criterion Collection. In addition, he works for Examiner.com as their National DVD critic for Criterion and Classic DVDs, and he’s also a member of the Internet Film Critic Society. This is one moviegoer who really knows what he’s talking about.
Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Dan Schneider…
Only Good Movies: What’s the first movie that you remember seeing?
Dan Schneider: That is difficult to say. On tv (which would have predated my first trip to a movie theater) it would likely have been an old Three Stooges short or an Abbott and Costello film. My dad loved them- especially Abbott and Costello. Or, technically, maybe an old Popeye cartoon short from the 1930s, or a Warner Bros. cartoon. Then, again, it may have been an Easter time showing of The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston, or a Godzilla film.
In an actual movie theater, it was likely one of two trips to Radio City Music Hall. I recall on one of the trips seeing the beginning of construction of the Twin Towers. It was either A Boy Named Charlie Brown, or a revival of The Sound Of Music. I recall the jazz score and psychedelic colors from the former, and how lovely Julie Andrews looked in the latter. It was later that I started sneaking into theaters to watch Japanese monster flicks, rerun Ray Harryhausen films, Hammer and Roger Corman schlock, and soft-core porno from Europe- the Paul Naschy type monster crap.
OGM: What’s the most recent movie you’ve seen?
DS: Just a day or two ago I finished watching and reviewing the DVD for Masaki Kobayashi’s The Human Condition. Excellent, but not great film. I only got into foreign films a few years ago. Growing up in a poor section of New York City, the only films available to kids like me were the cheap schlock I mentioned in query one. I educated myself on visual art, writing, and many other art forms, but foreign cinema was the last area to conquer, so to speak. I am still far from a comprehensive knowledge of film (foreign or domestic) in terms of total mass, but film criticism- be it the film school snooty type or the lowest common denominator pimping for Michael Bay films- is so uniformly horrid and filled with subjective biases, that I have found a niche online that I have exploited to quite a deal of popularity. In fact, in the last year it got The Criterion Collection to add me on as a pre-release DVD reviewer, into a film society, and recently a paying gig with the growing Examiner.com website. None of this matters re: why my reviews should be read by fanciers of film, but so few quality films, like The Human Condition, are seen by especially younger people addicted to video games and their mentality, that it is a good thing to push quality for people unwilling or unable to reckon that for themselves. It also becomes a responsibility to your readers.
OGM: Is there a particular film which you feel is criminally underrated?
DS: Of course there are many, from assorted genres. But, let me do what I said in the last query, and promote something that really is underrated, and will shock some folks. Watch the Val Lewton produced, and Robert Wise co-directed B film gem The Curse Of The Cat People. There has rarely been a better portrait of child psychology onscreen. Given it was made nearly 80 years ago, on a minuscule budget, its excellence astounds.
OGM: Which director do you feel has turned out the best overall body of work?
DS: Hard to quantify, especially since I can only comment on those things I’ve seen. Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita may be the best overall film ever made. It works as drama, comedy, satire, psychological portrait, musical, international starfest, etc. Its acting is great, the screenplay great, the visuals are fantastic. So that goes a long way in Fellini’s favor. Later films dropped off severely, although he had some other great films mixed in with the atrocities. Michelangelo Antonioni has a case if we talk of technical innovation, as does Orson Welles for doing the most with the least resources. Stanley Kubrick’s worst films (Lolita and Barry Lyndon) are still good to very good films, so overall excellence counts. Terrence Malick has only four films, thus far. Three are great and his first, Badlands, is arguably near-great. If we are talking most number of great films, then Woody Allen and Ingmar Bergman, and even Charlie Chaplin- were one to count silents and comedies, would have cases. Kurosawa may have been the most adept director in any genre, and his modern day Japanese films are even better than his samurai epics. Theo Angelopolos and Bela Tarr have done monumental films. So, on an objective critical basis, these and a few others, have cases. But, since I am known and reviled for always being objective, when others cannot be, let me state my favorite director. I love Yasujiro Ozu’s films (the 8-10 I’ve seen). I ‘get’ his filmic universe intellectually, and like/enjoy his films, aside from their greatness, whereas I can recognize Bergman’s greatness, but feel only an intellectual, not emotional, vibe. The inability to discern such things is why criticism today (and historically, across all the arts) is so uniformly bad.
OGM: From an artistic standpoint, which film do you think is most important?
DS: There are the obvious films, like Birth Of A Nation and Citizen Kane, as well as Rashomon, in terms of their technical advances in storytelling. But, let me go with three less obvious films: Chris Marker’s La Jetee, Bela Tarr’s Satantango, and Louis Malle’s My Dinner With Andre. Marker’s film is 99% still photographs with narration, but, in recall, the mind animates the scenes. Marker thus achieves empathy in a profound manner, by literally altering the remembered reality in the viewer. Tarr’s film does a similar thing. This seven hour magnum opus focuses so relentlessly on the tiniest moments for the longest time that, again, in recall, the mind compresses the seven hour film into a recalled film of about the same length as a typical new release. The mind is forced to filter out things, as it does in real life, and thus we are empathizing with characters in a more ‘real’ sense. Another remarkable achievement in storytelling, which, after all, all art is about. There is no such thing as non-narrative nor non-representational art. Those who claim differently simply are showing their intellectual limits. Finally, Malle’s film is basically all conversation, yet, again, in recall, there are scenes the viewer will swear he witnessed- like the ritual burial of Andre in a Polish forest. I will get the new DVD of this film soon and review it, since it’s been a decade since I watched it, yet the aforementioned scene, and many others, are seared into my memory of the film, even though they were never actually filmed! Like Marker and Tarr, Malle really and truly did something extraordinary.
OGM: All artsy considerations aside, which movie is your personal favorite?
DS: The little boy in me would have to rule: Godzilla’s Revenge. Like The Curse Of The Cat People it is an extraordinary depiction of a lonely child’s coping with life via fantasy. And aside from the first Gojia/Godzilla film, it’s the best in the series.
OGM: In your opinion, which film is entirely overrated?
DS: Again, this is a query that could fill a book. When I took apart Blade Runner and The Searchers I got many psychotic emails and cyberstalkers. It’s amazing how many people invest themselves so deeply in things they had no part of. Yet, in both cases, I gave merely lukewarm reviews for films considered great. There are works by Luis Bunuel and Jean Cocteau that are laughably bad. Y Tu Mama Tambien was a very overrated film. Saving Private Ryan and Schindler’s List are incredibly bad films that get labeled classics only for fiscal reasons. Film critic Ray Carney has said (paraphrasing) most film critics are merely pimps for Hollywood’s advertising machine, and he’s right. Salo is likely the most dull and pointless film ever made. It’s not erotic nor scary, despite its reputation. Crash and Brokeback Mountain were godawful PC films that were up for the Oscar. Unfortunately, this is only the beginning….
OGM: Have you ever walked out of the theatre during a film? If so, what movie was playing?
DS: I’ve been cursing at a screen over the stupidity I saw as I left. Two that come to mind were the aforementioned Saving Private Ryan. I could take all the stereotypes and melodrama until we got to the end where Ryan is asking if he’s a good man. When Jack the Ripper’s eyes turned black in From Hell, I gasped and screamed at the theater for the nosedive a good, solid historical film took into sub-Corman level tripe. I also rooted against Roberto Benigni and for the Nazis in Life Is Beautiful. I wanted that annoying bastard dead.
But I’ve never walked out of a theater during a film under my own power. In my youth, I was once escorted out of a theater with a young lady, after being caught in a state of undress and fornication in the balcony. I think it was Star Wars or Pretty Baby that was playing. But, this is not what your query implied.
OGM: In your mind, what’s the ultimate goal of a movie critic?
DS: To objectively analyze and evaluate the film. Period. Anything else mucks up the works.
OGM: Time to look into the future. Do you predict any major changes for the movie industry over the next 25 years?
DS: In terms of interactivity, possibly, for Hollywood is obsessed with outdoing the video game industry, just as the publishing industry wants to compete with Hollywood by having books with videos in them. Both will prove failures, and I think we will again get adult dramas aimed at the 30+ and 50+ crowds. The largest age demographic will be senior citizens, in a few years, and there is a goldmine waiting to be exploited by those catering to folks who want a little bit of intellectual depth in their films.
For the young crowds, they will keep fleeing films for video games and VR games. Films will likely give up on trying to be video games and go back to being a mostly passive medium for relaxation and edification.
There will also be the continuing merger of tv and film screens to the point that likely most middle class folk will have their own game rooms and film rooms with TVs that are wall sized or literally are the wall where images can be cast from.
OGM: Here’s another chance to predict the future. Name a relatively unknown actor or actress who’ll be a huge star within five years.
DS: I’m the wrong person to ask, as I’ve given up on recent films. History suggests it is someone wholly unknown now. If we are talking sex symbols- maybe a Jessica Biel could be the next screen siren/sex goddess for a generation- she certainly is gorgeous. Or she could already be on her way out because of an unknown 16 year old potential über-babe on the horizon. As for actors, let’s just hope he’s a better actor than the bland and limited ‘talents’ like Tom Cruise and Leonardo DiCaprio.
OGM: Besides yourself, who’s your favorite movie critic to read?
DS: I don’t know about favorite. As I implied, there has NEVER been a film critic, thus far, whose general ideas on the art are worth reading years later. Andre Bazin was a bore, the New York centered film critics of the mid-20th Century were stolid, the Cahiers du Cinema crowd were laughably bad in their ideas and worse in their actual writing. Roger Ebert is a mediocre critic, at best, but a good wordsmith and film historian. Pauline Kael was a joke- no insight, no ability with words. Paul Schrader’s early writings are seemingly seminal, but at the level of a junior high schooler. James Berardinelli, whom I interviewed, is hit and miss, like Ebert, but even when a miss he’s not just pulling reasons out his ass. That counts for something. Ray Carney is likely the best, in terms of recognizing what is wrong with the industry, as a whole, although, again, he seems to let emotion sway him too much on certain films.
(OGM: Thanks again to Dan Schneider for participating, and be sure to tune in again next week for another installment of Critical Juncture. Until then, here’s hoping your projector keeps running at full speed.)