I met Richard Corliss in the late Seventies when he asked if I would write for FILM COMMENT. That was the start of a family friendship—Richard and Mary, David and Lucy—that has extended to our children. We have all talked a lot, not least in 1990 when Mary, Richard, and I drove from San Francisco to the Telluride Film Festival in a white Cadillac, by way of Las Vegas (I think it was Richard’s first time there, and it was hard to drag him away), the Burr Trail (a 68-mile dirt road through Capitol Reef National Park), past Lake Powell, Monument Valley, and Canyon de Chelly, and so on. So this is an interview by a friend—but I think it shows how much Richard was, for a crucial period, the hub of a wheel for movie writers. A non-friend might have said: “Oh, we can’t have that silly song!” But Richard is mad on songs, just as in the old days he spent as much time and trouble on the FILM COMMENT back-page puzzles as he did on the articles. I have heard rumors that he is very close to 70, but I see no reason to believe them.
In childhood, where did you go to the movies? What would your top 10 have been when you were 12 or so? Did you have guilty pleasures yet?
Germantown, the Philadelphia neighborhood I grew up in, boasted more movie theaters than any part of town except Center City. The Orpheum, the Upsal, the Sedgwick, the Bandbox, the Rialto, the Walton, and the Wayne Avenue Playhouse were all within walking distance or a short trolley ride away. My mother and aunt would also take me to the Hill Theater, which showed English comedies; I remember laughing unstoppably, age 7, at Kind Hearts and Coronets, though I couldn’t have understood it, could I? Aunt Margaret also took me to see The Moon Is Blue at the Hill—a big deal for a Catholic 9-year-old, since the Legion of Decency, whose ratings of films were posted in our church, had condemned it for using the phrase “professional virgin.”
In 1953, my family began summering in Avalon, New Jersey. The local theater showed five movies a week, and employed kids each Friday to deliver circulars announcing the week’s fare; the payment was a voucher to see all five shows. That began my film education, which increased when I began working as an usher there and could see movies more than once. Back in Philly, I now had subway privileges, and often went in to Center City to see the new pictures. It seems odd now, but I did not watch many old movies on TV; my late-night stars were not James Cagney and Greta Garbo but Jack Paar and Johnny Carson. As a child of early television, I was a more serious connoisseur of TV comedy: Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, Martin and Lewis on The Colgate Comedy Hour, Mr. Peepers, Steve Allen, and our morning-show host, two hours a day, five days a week—Ernie Kovacs. This means that I was a chronological adult when I saw most of the classic American films I wrote about in Talking Pictures, my 1974 book on screenwriters—and ever since. So my criticism isn’t a secret justification for movies I loved as a kid, but for movies I loved as a twenty-something.
My first Best of the Year movie list was for 1959. The top five: The Seventh Seal, Some Like It Hot, Imitation of Life, North by Northwest, and Anatomy of a Murder—I had excellent taste back then. But of the films I’d seen by 1956, when I was 12, a good list of 10 that touched, scared, moved, or delighted me would be, alphabetically, and with no adjustment for auteur éclat or my post-preadolescent taste: Carousel, Diabolique, Dial M for Murder, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Man With the Golden Arm, Rabbit Seasoning, Sailor Beware, and Unknown World. Of these, I guess the guilty pleasure would be Carousel. I saw that movie at the Avalon and whirled home on the boardwalk singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”
What film magazines did you read or look at? And what did you think a film magazine might be?
The pre-teen me read Dell movie magazines, including Screen Stories (synopses of new films). Occasionally a nugget of faux-news would stick in my head. In 1958 I read that starlet Jill St. John had an IQ of 162 and had entered college at 14. When I met her 40 years later, I inanely and proudly parroted that information to her. In high school I became a constant reader of The Village Voice, where Andrew Sarris was newly ensconced, and of Film Quarterly, where rowdy Pauline Kael broke the dulcet drone of the other critics like a brilliant bag lady at a prayer service. Back then, I didn’t imagine what a film magazine might be; I just knew what Film Quarterly was; Movie, with its Anglo excitement over Hollywood auteurs; and that bachelor uncle Sight & Sound, came later.
What were your ambitions in life?
Did I have any? I wrote movie and music reviews for the St. Joseph’s College newspaper, and, of course, a thesis on Ingmar Bergman; but until I was 19 or 20 I suppose I thought I’d be a teacher, like my mother and two of her sisters. I can remember the turning point, though. Our Education professor advised us that, if we were to teach in Philadelphia high schools, we should walk down the corridors slightly facing the nearest wall, to keep from being stabbed in the gut by a student. The same week I was in the St. Joe’s library reading Film Quarterly, which had a story on graduate film schools. That suddenly seemed a cheerier alternative to being skewered at a job I had no particular aptitude or fondness for.
I went to the Columbia University film school for two years, getting an MFA and having the most sensational career luck. John Lehman, a friend from St. Joe’s who was running a libertarian magazine called the Intercollegiate Review, told me that a review I had written for him of the JFK documentary, Years of Lightning, Day of Drums was too “political” for his magazine, but could he send the story to National Review? So I became their occasional film critic for four years, until the editors unearthed me as a leftie.
While at Columbia, I was reviewing films for both campus newspapers, the Spectator [undergrad] and The Owl [night school]. An editor at Commonweal found a copy of one of those papers on the subway, and in short order I was writing film pieces for that liberal Catholic biweekly. Seymour Peck, the editor of The New York Times Arts and Leisure section, read a Commonweal story; by the time I’d graduated from Columbia, in June 1967, I was also writing pop culture stories for the Sunday Times. More luck: that spring, the wonderfully nurturing Ernesto “Chic” Callenbach ran my first submission to Film Quarterly, a review of Bergman’s Persona, as the cover story; and my master’s thesis, on the Catholic Legion of Decency, was published the following year by Gordon Hitchens in FILM COMMENT.
My streak, in what I acknowledge has been a preposterously fortunate life, continued when I went to NYU’s film school, figuring to get a doctorate. One of my teachers there was Andrew Sarris, as great an inspirer of students as an analyzer of films, and he allowed me to write occasional reviews for The Village Voice. He also wrote the foreword for Talking Pictures, which was an obvious rip-off of his The American Cinema, replacing directors with screenwriters. And I was hired on a two-year grant as an intern in the Museum of Modern Art’s Department of Film, where my boss in the Film Stills Archive was the ineffable and, as we both know, indestructible Mary Yushak. For reasons I will never comprehend or cease thanking her for, she agreed to become Mary Corliss in August 1969.
That fall, Austin Lamont got in touch with me. He had bought FILM COMMENT from Hitchens and was looking for an editor. He asked Erik Barnouw and George Amberg, respectively the deans of the Columbia and NYU film schools, to recommend someone, and I was on both of their lists. At 25, I became the editor, at a salary of $750 per quarterly issue. I chose Melinda Ward, a friend from the MoMA Film Department, as assistant or associate editor. We worked out of a ground-floor apartment on East 11th Street, sending edit copy to Boston, where Austin and Martha Lehtola, the designer, assembled the magazine. Throughout those first four years, before the Film Society took it over, Austin was the ideal patron. He not only paid for the magazine but encouraged it, and Melinda and me, in every way.
When you arrived at the magazine, what did you feel was its place?
Gordon Hitchens’s FILM COMMENT emphasized the social values of cinema and coverage of the then-burgeoning avant-garde—Bruce Conner, Jordan Belson, and the Stans VanDerBeek and Brakhage, all of happy memory. Coming to the editor’s post after an ecstatic four-year inundation in older American and European movies, I had a convert’s enthusiasm for classic films. The lead story in my first issue [Fall 1970] was Sarris’s “Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1970.” The second issue was devoted entirely to screenwriters—research for my book—and ran a mammoth 116 pages. Other special issues followed. In 1973 we did Cinema Sex, which included a Roger Ebert essay on Russ Meyer and a piece by The New Yorker’s eminent critic Brendan Gill, a Film Society board member, who blithely declared that, “Simply as theatre, cunnilingus isn’t a patch on fellatio.” Two years later Greg Ford produced a huge issue on the American cartoon (cover art by Chuck Jones), which within a short time was going for $50 a copy on the nerd nostalgia market. Whatever the place of Gordon’s FILM COMMENT, it had changed.
Did you have strong feelings about where to take it, or did you assume that those who wanted to write for it would determine its direction?
The French called their preference for directors the politique des auteurs. I’d describe FILM COMMENT as pro-auteur—if I can expand the definition to include screenwriters and eventually cinematographers, art directors, and editors, and of course actors—and anti-politique. We didn’t go the structural or semiological route, which the BFI’s David Francis called “semi-illogical”; the tone was more medium-brow authoritative. The writers determined its direction; I just had to find them. At first I corralled friends I knew from grad school, like Richard Koszarski and Paul Jensen. (Tag Gallagher, the John Ford exegete, had been at grade school with me.) Other recruits came from the MoMA Film Department—Gary Carey, Charles Silver, Stephen Harvey—and from two genius outliers, Carlos Clarens and Elliott Stein. Elliott’s annual review of the New York Film Festival, and his pieces on everything from Indian cinema to Peeping Tom, still make me laugh and think out loud. If I was visiting Mary in the Stills Archive and distinguished scholars dropped by, I would pester them for contributions to the magazine. Hence Alfred Appel Jr., Russell Merritt, and Miles Kreuger—also the infant David Bordwell, who wrote a superb Citizen Kane piece in 1970.
Almost all of the writers I admired agreed to contribute to the magazine when I asked them, out of the blue. Sarris was the first big catch, with Molly Haskell in a terrific buy-one-get-one-free deal; then Robin Wood and Raymond Durgnat; and, a little later, Manny Farber and Patricia Patterson. They all said yes! Like Charles Foster Kane, I was the kid in front of the candy store who got his candy, most of it. Not Kael or Susan Sontag. Roger Greenspun came from The New York Times, Joe McBride and Todd McCarthy from The Velvet Light Trap, and Richard T. Jameson—surely among our most prolific, eloquent lasting contributors—from Movietone News. My reviewing job at New Times [1976-78] brought an infusion of their writers and editors: Peter Kaplan, Tracy Young, Harry Stein, and Paul Slansky. James McCourt, the novelist, and Terry Curtis Fox and Dan Yakir did invaluable work for us. Later, Dave Kehr, Jim Hoberman, and the Magnificent You came on board. To pick at random one treasured story from each: John Travolta, Bad Movies, and Hitchcock. In general, I might suggest story ideas, but the impetus and inspiration was from the writers. Where they wanted to go, the magazine followed.
Robin and Ray Durgnat were the stars of those first few years. Robin was at the apogee of his auteurist-humanist phase; I would read the pieces to Mary and knew that they had emotional clout if she cried at the end. Often she did. On a trip to London we visited Robin and his wife, Aline, sipping wine in the garden of their Greenwich home as their young daughters Carin and Fiona frolicked demurely in a vision of English domestic utopia. In his Bergman book, Robin said that Aline provided “the sort of environment—stable, yet stimulating—that makes work possible for me.” A year or two later he changed partners, to John Anderson, and continents, to York University in Toronto. On that 1973 trip we also met Ray, who looked like a friendly Ed Koren troll in black leather, and his gorgeous Afro-Anglican amour Jackie. Fun fact: Ray and Schrader were both raised in strict Calvinist households.
Gradually we established features to run at the front or back of each issue. Richard Roud, my boss at the New York Film Festival from 1971, began contributing a London Journal; Jan Dawson and Harlan Kennedy succeeded Richard. We also ran a Los Angeles Journal, usually by Stephen Farber, and one from Paris, written variously and authoritatively by Jonathan Rosenbaum, Gilbert Adair, and David Overbey. Amos Vogel, a New York Film Festival co-founder who had taught me at NYU, started a column called Independents. The impossible, irreplaceable Stuart Byron convinced me that the business of movies had a place in a film magazine; he would write a column called The Industry.
What did you feel about its publication schedule and how did you get on with the Film Society administration?
We began as a quarterly and went bimonthly in September/October 1972. I don’t know that anyone who mattered thought FILM COMMENT should be a monthly. In 1974, Austin sold or gave the magazine to the Film Society. Joanne Koch, its executive director, and Richard Roud had taken me on as a member of Richard’s New York Film Festival selection committee in 1971, so I was known to them and the staff. The big difference was a consolidation of venues. Instead of our ground floor on East 11th Street, we now worked out of the Film Society offices at the American Bible Building (which Manny, whose day job was carpentering, had helped construct) at 1865 Broadway. Brooks Riley replaced Melinda as associate editor, and George Sillas, a gentle man with a high tolerance for my chimerical editorial decisions, became the designer. Suzanne Charity was essentially the managing editor, Sayre Maxfield handled the business end, Tony Impavido the advertising. Anne Thompson became the associate editor in 1981, before heading West to her destiny, and Harlan Jacobson, who had been at Variety, took the job in 1982. I’d call the office atmosphere collegial and congenial.
During those years you were also part of the Film Festival selection process. Did that fit comfortably with the magazine?
Members of the New York Film Festival selection team usually served a three-year term. When I became a Film Society employee, I was named a permanent member. Getting early looks at some of the year’s films, at Cannes in May or in the summer siege of screenings in New York, gave me a great advantage as the magazine’s editor. We’d devote annual pages to the festival, less to promote the Film Society than to offer readers a preview of ambitious new movies. I joined Time in 1980, after regular gigs at New Times and, for a couple of months before Time, SoHo Weekly News. Joanne and Wendy Keys, second in command at the FSLC, were fine with my being at Time; what surprised me was that the Time bosses let me continue editing FILM COMMENT and serving on the festival. They believed, as I did, that the three jobs were complementary. They were all about movies—words and pictures.
You had a long run, but there would be turning points, or problems. Can you describe them?
My editorship effectively ended, to my surprise, in August 1985, when Joanne named Harlan co-editor. I was editing copy mostly from the Time offices, and in the summers was holed up watching movies with the festival committee. Joanne thought I was not in the Film Society offices enough, or maybe that I was acting as an absentee landlord to Harlan. She told me that he said it was as if your big brother went off to college but he hadn’t cleaned out his bedroom. So they cleaned out my bedroom. The chat with Joanne was one of those blood-draining moments that still haunts my gut. I had another one of those confrontations two years later when Joanne removed Richard Roud as head of the festival, asked me to take over, then declined my request that Richard stay on as a committee member and I resigned. I remained on the magazine’s staff, in a diminished capacity but at full pay, until the end of 1989, when Harlan was out and Dick Jameson took over. Splendidly, I add.
All in all, I had a great time at FILM COMMENT. To paraphrase Charlie Kane again, it was fun to run a magazine. I enjoyed building a through-line of stories in each issue, letting them collide with and nourish one another. I loved researching the photos, usually at the Film Stills Archive but also at the legendarily dank Movie Star News, where Paula Klaw and Howard Mandelbaum provided stills from infra-dig cinema. Providing input to the designers, especially George Sillas and Elliot Schulman, allowed me to think of myself as an auteur, second-class. But the biggest treat was tapping the minds of wonderful critics—and of course I mean you, David. I had to love the writing; I was reading each piece three or four times in various stages of copy and printing. Together, I think, we did our bit in elevating popular taste and popularizing elevated films. We also managed to popularize the magazine: from 1970 to 1985, the circulation increased from 4,000 to 35,000.
In the mid-Seventies, when DDB’s Bill Bernbach, a FSLC board member, graciously got involved in helping spread FILM COMMENT’s brand, I figured we needed a catchy jingle to run on the radio. Nobody else thought so—but here are the lyrics (music upon request):
You gotta read Film Comment
To find out what’s behind the scene,
Because you need Film Comment
To know what to see, to see what they mean.
Yes, you’ll want to go to movies again.
You’ll be in the know about mise-en-scene.
To learn what every hit or bomb meant
Get Film Comment magazine.
You gotta buy Film Comment
To know Nick from Satyajit Ray.
And if you try Film Comment,
You’ll know what to see, you’ll see what to say.
The Sarrises, Gill, the Farbers and Wood
Will tell you if films are bad or they’re good.
To learn what each film prize or Palme meant,
Get Film Comment now, today.