MOVIE BLOGGER SUMMIT PART 1: The SIREN and the SLIFR on Origins, Childhood Visions, Writing Philosophy and the Beetlejuice of Film Bloggers
Brooklyn resident Farran Smith Nehme, aka the Self-Styled Siren, and I both began our blogs in late 2004-early 2005, round about five and a half years ago, and by various degrees of kismet and good fortune became aware of each other’s tiny fiefdoms and mutual admirers of the work contained therein. She made me swoon with her passion for classic film right from the start, even though I think the first thing I read of hers may well have been her celebrated takedown of one of my favorite movies (we’ll get to that later!) I’ve linked to everything but her grocery list, it seems, and she once mentioned a piece I wrote while she was being interviewed in Cineaste magazine, which was probably the first thing anyone in a national print audience had ever heard of me or this blog. After several years of reciprocal support and enthusiasm we decided it was time to get together and talk. So, about two and a half months ago she and I each submitted six questions for the other and then connected up via Skype to yap about the answers. We sat down for about an hour and 45 minutes over two sessions, and the following two-sided interview you see before you is the result. (Well, this is just part one, but we’ll get to part two later too.) Farran proved to be just as delightful and quick-witted live and (almost) in person as she is in her writing, one of the telltale signs of The Real Thing in my book, and it only took a couple of seconds after anticipating actually getting to speak with her about matters of our movie hearts for the jitters to dissipate. Hopefully the conversation, as transcribed here (and edited, especially whenever I’d start rambling, as I am wont to do) will be as entertaining for you to read as it was for both of us to engage in.
This conversation isn’t exactly fresh, however. It was recorded on May 31, 2010, and thanks to an unusually busy and frantic summer it has taken me this long to get our little summit talk in reading shape. Over that summer there has been a lot going on at both of our houses. Farran became friends with Mary Astor’s daughter, did a definitive check on women’s costumes in the movies, turned a furtive glance toward a host of hunky movie directors (her word was “handsome”) and, oh, yeah, helped save a couple of silent movies from certain extinction. Of course, that’s not all. It never is with Farran. Is it any wonder I was over the moon about her even before I got the privilege to sit down and trade words in real time with her?
I spent my own summer reflecting on the late Ronald Neame, sitting down for a merciless interrogation, becoming part of the TCM Horror Dads Roundtable and calling the Los Angeles Times’s Patrick Goldstein out for suggesting David Edelstein had no right to write a negative review of Inception. (This, in turn, got me plenty of unexpected attention from Mr. Edelstein himself, Roger Ebert, and even the gosh-darned New York Times! WT f-in’ F?!)
But on top of all that, Farran and Self-Styled Siren headed Paul Brunick and Film Comment’s humbling list of the Top Film Criticism Sites on the Internet. It was a genuine thrill to see her continued acknowledgment and heightened profile as one of the best, most passionate writers out there in the blogosphere because she damn well deserves it. The fact that this blog you’re reading now was also included in that heady list was a great thrill, make no mistake, but it was made greater by the pride I took in knowing I was sharing that space with Farran, someone I genuinely respect and, yeah, okay, love. She’s an inspiration, and despite what my extreme tardiness over the transcription of this interview may suggest, I am eager and thrilled to share our conversation with you now. So without further messin’ around, here’s part one of the blog summit between the Self-Styled Siren and, if I may, the self-styled SLIFR. Enjoy!
DC: Describe your childhood with the movies. Were you always interested in films of the past, or was that an interest that developed for you as you grew older and developed more of a sense of film as having a significant history? And what got you to the point where you felt you wanted to or had to write about them?
FSN: Well, this is the type of movie (classic film) I always watched, from the very beginning. I was sick a lot as a kid. I spent a lot of time in bed, and I spent a lot of time reading, but even I could not read all the time. So I would go into my parents’ bedroom, prop myself up on pillows and quickly discovered that I didn’t much care of series TV, but I did like the movies. There would be one on in the morning and one in the afternoon, and this was just what I watched. I quickly developed my own sense of taste, and then as my parents saw that I liked older movies—they both did too—they would kind of point me toward things that they thought I would enjoy. Then as I got more interested, I started getting books for Christmas that were about movies. So it was a long-time hobby for me. But when I look back it’s odd to me that I never really considered going into movies or writing for them. It was just something that was part of my personal life.
DC: Were your parents big movie-goers?
FSN: They were at one point. I don’t remember them going out to the movies that often, but they were frequently very happy to sit down and watch with me. My father’s taste ran to westerns and war movies and adventure stories and things like that, although he would sit still for a musical if it had Cyd Charrisse. (Laughs)
DC: I can understand that.
FSN: Oh, he had a tremendous crush on Cyd Charrisse! My mother, on the other hand, liked a lot of the old melodramas that she had grown up with, so I credit her with my love for Douglas Sirk and Delmer Daves and people who made movies like that in the ‘50s. And she also loved any kind of screwball from the 1930s, so if Irene Dunne was in it I could guarantee that Mom would pop down and watch. And, of course, Cary Grant. Everybody liked Hitchcock. So that was how it developed. But I didn’t really consider writing about them until I moved to Toronto with my husband. He got a job there and I quit work to be with him and spend some time with the twins while they were small, and I found myself very much at sixes and sevens. It’s difficult to make friends in a new city—we were in a suburban part of Toronto. I didn’t have much to occupy my time, and I started thinking that my brain was going to turn to Cream of Wheat if I didn’t do something to keep up my intellectual vigor. I had some friends who had started beauty blogs—they were blogging about things like make-up and perfume and fashion, and so I thought I’d start a blog too, but I didn’t think I was going to be able to muscle in on their territory. My original concept for the blog was that I was just going to write about whatever the hell I pleased. I never thought I would write about personal matters. But I quickly discovered that I enjoyed most just writing about old movies. So if you go back—Most of my archives are still there. I’ve taken down a few posts that I grew to intensely dislike— (Both Laugh)
DC: I wondered if you indulged in that kind of practice. I know I have!
FSN: Oh, yeah. There are a few that have disappeared down the memory hole, but for the most part it’s all there. You can kind of see it developing—very casual, chatty things giving way to more analytical pieces and me trying to think more deeply about movies that I liked and bring in more of the film history that I had always enjoyed as well.
DC: With your blog there’s a completeness that’s, I think, unusual. You can see the searching at first, but Self-Styled Siren doesn’t seem as scattershot as certainly my blog did when it started.
FSN: I don’t know. I think everybody has to find their voice and their footing, but Self-Styled Siren did develop very quickly that way. Basically, I just wanted to keep up my writing. I wanted to keep those muscles flexed and toned. I once saw an interview with Mikhail Baryshnikov and something he said stayed with me forever. He said that if he skipped morning bar class for two days, it took him two weeks to get back where he was. And it just struck me that that was true for anything, even mental exercise. So I felt if I could do this I would be able to keep things in shape.
FSN: My first question also kind of dovetails into this. You’ve written about how childhood viewing sort of formed your taste, but I was curious how growing up altered it. Are there things you used to avoid that you now seek out, or things that you used to love that have sort of palled in adulthood?
DC: It’s interesting how this question kind of fits in with something I’ve thought about over the past couple of years in terms of what I wanted to do with the blog. I’ve become more interested in going back and looking at movies I initially hated, or didn’t understand, or for some other reason dismissed when I was younger, and trying to determine just how life experience contributes to my outlook on any given film. Did I even have the experience to understand the movie to begin with? It’s strange to conceptualize it, but in terms of what I like my childhood viewing habits really haven’t changed an awful lot. I think back on something like The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad or any of the Ray Harryhausen adventures I loved watching on TV, or any movie I loved as a child, and I still have the intense desire to experience them, but I don’t feel like I’m slighting either the movie or my original experience with it if I can look at those movies through eyes that I acknowledge are 20-30 years older. Some people I know might frown on examining those movies any closer than as pure entertainment, while others would just as quickly laugh at you for taking them any more seriously than that—you either dishonor them or give them more credit than they are due. But going back and taking that look is important to me. I don’t just assume that what I thought about them 30 years ago is still going to hold true, or that they would even necessarily seem like the same movie. Sometimes they “hold up,” sometimes they don’t. Sometimes they are significantly different than what I remember, or sometimes I will notice things that completely escaped me before. In a way it’s disorienting to reassess like this, but on the other hand it’s something that has made my movie-going habits richer, and that has everything to do with what you were talking about—using your writing muscles to dig in a little deeper, both into the movie and into my own reaction to it. For three years I wrote reviews for a newspaper in Ashland, Oregon, from 1983-1985—that was the only time I’ve ever written professionally or with any kind of regularity outside of college, and since that time, before starting the blog, I really hadn’t written much of anything. So like you, I started the blog more as a way to get those muscles in shape again so I could understand more about what I was seeing. I had no expectations of any actual readership.
FSN: I think we started our blogs around the same time, and an amusing thing is, one can go back in the archives and see posts where there are two or three comments and they’re all from close personal friends. (Laughing)
DC: Oh, if not for those poor, selfless souls…! I was tracking that very thing a while back, and it was interesting to see the names of relatives and friends who were in there initially lending their support and how some of those names just kind of drop off after a while. My wife always says, “I’m too intimidated to post comments on your blog anymore! The company’s too smart!”
FSN: Yeah, that’s the line I get from my friends too! (Laughing)
DC: So I suppose there’s a level of success that’s reflected there, especially from relatively humble beginnings, in terms of what we’re trying to do.
FSN: But don’t you occasionally find yourself getting worried when you don’t hear from someone for a long time?
FSN: I mean, I’m really hoping they’re off doing something fabulous like having a passionate love affair in Tahiti or something! (Laughs)
DC: It’s like not being able to interpret the tone of an e-mail. I take these things more personally than I should, I guess, but when I haven’t heard from someone in, like, three months or something I always think, “Well, I guess I bored the hell out of them!” One of the things I really like about your site is that I never get the sense you’re fishing for the topics you think will draw in a wider readership. It’s very clear that you’re writing about things that reside in your heart and soul, even if it’s just a short post or a comment in response to someone else’s thoughts. There’s always the sense that you need to write about what you’re writing about. That’s the hallmark of a great blog to me.
FSN: Well, I think there are a lot of bloggers out there like that. Most bloggers aren’t getting paid for it and are doing it more or less strictly for love. A relatively small minority of blogs are trying to do it in a big, commercial way, and if you’re going to do it there is a certain thing that you have to accept, I suppose, about what’s going to appeal to a major audience, like it or not. But neither one of us ever had any aspirations to be D-listed or whatever, so— (Laughs)
DC: No, not really.
FSN: There are a variety of gossip sites out there, but when I read the comments on some of them it’s astonishing to me how much bile people have stored up toward celebrities, the incredible level of personal venom that’s expressed.
DC: And not just toward celebrities, but venom just across the board. And one of the things I like about your site, and it’s something I’ve tried to cultivate too, is a sense of the comments thread not being a place where you come to blow off steam or rub somebody’s nose in their inadequacies or whatever. Certainly in your case that thread is much more of a place for people to trade ideas.
FSN: Well, that sort of prepares for my second question, so maybe I’ll just take an extra turn here and go ahead and ask you: There are some critics and bloggers who almost never mix it up in their comments, and then there are others, like us, respond to as many comments as they can. What do you think are the merits of each approach?
DC: Well, it seems to me that if you’re blogging and you’ve got a comments column open, you are at least open to the idea of interacting with the people who stop by to take part and leave their impressions. So it doesn’t quite make sense to me that someone would take the time to create a long post full of ideas and angles and provocations and then not take part in the discussion of it. I don’t see that happening as often as I used to, but certainly for me whenever I don’t participate in any conversation about something I’ve written, it’s usually because I cannot take the time to stop down out of the non-writing part of my life and get into an extended back-and-forth. Sometimes I can only jump in after 20 or 25 people have already checked in, and then I’ll go back and try to address each comment at least briefly. But I always try to get involved to some degree. My models for that were certainly you, and Matt Seitz, when he started The House Next Door-- I’d throw down a comment, and he’d be right back, immediately it seemed. It gave me a real sense of being connected to the blogger and the blog, and the community that makes up that particular slice of the universe. So I took that as my example, though it’s one I don’t live up to nearly as well as I used to or should, and it’s simply because I can’t locate that 25th hour in the day.
FSN: I don’t quite live up to it as much as I used to either, just because the volume has increased so much. There is a point where you get so many comments—I haven’t reached that point, I’m not even close—but there’s a point where you get so many comments you can’t possibly— Dave Kehr would be the primary example. He’s got a column for the New York Times to write, and presumably he wants to shave and shower and eat every once in a while, and he simply cannot respond to 500 comments.
DC: I think about that in terms of general output too. I’ve really had to scale back from those heady days where I’d post once or twice almost every day—I just don’t write as much as I used to. And as I’ve started to find my voice, thankfully along with that has come an understanding that it’s quality, not quantity that matters. That extends to the comments too. If I don’t feel like I have anything to add to the conversation, maybe someone else will goose me and make me think of something that I missed and give me a reason to stay in the discussion. I did get a comment recently that made me feel like people understand somewhat what’s going on outside the writing. I wrote a piece on John Williams for a blog-a-thon and I talked specifically about his score for 1941-- and everybody knows how I feel about that movie.
FSN: Yes, right! (Laughing)
DC: But what was funny was, I had described a little section in the movie and I described a scene in which Slim Whitman is kidnapped by Japanese naval soldiers dressed as Christmas trees.
DC: I proudly hit “Publish Post” and off it went. A day later somebody writes in and says, “Um, you can erase this comment afterwards, but… it’s Slim Pickens,” not Slim Whitman. So I’m a dummy. I know it. No way am I going to delete that comment!
FSN: I’m sure you were thinking Slim Pickens, but the fingers didn’t cooperate!
DC: I blamed it on having my “Yodeling’s Greatest Hits” LP blasting while I was writing. Okay, moving on to my second question. Your sense of film history seems well-lived in and certainly well articulated. There’s an old quiz question I’m going to crib from because I think people would be interested in hearing your answer: At what point in your film education did you become aware that movies were actually directed as opposed to just happy accidents or acts of God?
FSN: Not exactly, because it was really very early, and it was largely because of my father. Mom certainly knew about Busby Berkeley and Sirk—we both liked those movies a lot. But my father was the one who would really talk to me about directors. I didn’t have a strong sense of what exactly the director did; it was more a sense of what I could expect from a movie if a certain person had directed it. So for my father a movie was always worth watching if it had been directed by John Huston or Howard Hawks or, above all, John Ford. Ford was his god. So that was how I kind of became aware of it. Through watching things with him I also learned that I could expect certain things from each director, like Monument Valley and the sweep of American history and some slapstick interludes from John Ford, as well as his stock company of familiar faces. From Howard Hawks I could get very strong, wisecracking women, and from John Huston a sense of adventure. This is all very general, of course, but that was how I started looking at and hearing about directors. From there I moved on and started looking more at their work, although I would have to say, like most classic movie fans your gateway drug is stars and actors. I did look at that more than I looked at directors, at least initially. There were people that I was just in love with and would sit down and watch in anything. Stars were directing my viewing, but I was certainly aware that certain directors were associated with certain styles, like wisecracking showgirls with Busby Berkeley… (Brief Pause) I love wisecracking showgirls. I miss them so much in contemporary movies! (Laughs) You know, I feel like I need wisecracking showgirls in my life!
DC: Lately I’ve been lucky enough to see a bunch of old Universal-International westerns (in Technicolor!) in very close proximity to each other, and wow, there are some great wisecracking showgirls in those movies! Mara Corday, Yvonne de Carlo, Luana Patten…
FSN: “Wisecracking showgirls” is something of a euphemism in those westerns, isn’t it? And “dance hall girls”?
DC: Yeah! Remember what I was saying about discovering new angles on childhood favorites?
FSN: Earlier this year you wrote a long, excellent piece about the Turner Classic Movies Film Festival that I loved. Somebody said it belonged in The New Yorker-- I thought that was totally true. Based on that experience, where you saw people from all over the country and what you’ve observed going to revivals in Los Angeles, are you optimistic that the market for classical film is going to widen, or do you think we’re fated to continue to be a niche? In my nightmares, we devolve into something sort of like string quartets, where there’s this small group of connoisseurs who passionately appreciate it, and to the outside world you’re sort of largely not a factor.
DC: I don’t know that we can ever expect the audience for classic movies to ever be a force that would ever even make a blip on a box-office chart or anything like that. But given that slice of reality, it’s hard not to be at least encouraged by what I saw at the TCM Film Festival. And the venues like the New Beverly Cinema and the UCLA Film & TV Archive and the American Cinematheque here in Los Angeles always provide an excellent balance of classic film to go along with contemporary and cult favorites and oddities, and they always have an audience. It might not always be as large as you’d hope, but there is an audience for these films. And I wouldn’t necessarily even think that there would be much of an audience for some of the more adventurous choices. But the man who programs the New Beverly, Michael Torgan, is very smart and very astute at not only putting together double features that play well together and connect up with each other, but he’s also very good at balancing out a month’s worth of programming so it doesn’t get weighted too far in any one direction—classic, contemporary, grindhouse, what have you. And the audience feeds on that. They are very much in support of this kind of programming, and they will take chances, but it’s really hard to say how viable a test sample it is because I see a lot of same people there over and over again. It speaks to a tightly knit community of filmgoers, but that community may not spread out as wide as we may hope.
FSN: That’s true of Film Forum as well.
DC: So it’s a big question: Is the audience growing at all, or is it just an enthusiastic group of people, fairly large for a niche but nothing compared to the folks who pony up for the opening weekend of Iron Man 2, who just keep circling around this network of revival screenings? I get the feeling that many of the people in this audience, as young as it is, may be encountering a lot of these movies for the first time, on the big screen or not, and I think that can only be good. Young people broadening their scope and experiencing something other than the contemporary or the received cult classics and kind of laying the groundwork for adding to that experience and branching out into movies they may have never before considered seeing. What I love is seeing parents bringing their kids to these screenings. Maybe I just wasn’t tuned into it, but I don’t recall seeing a lot of tots in tow at the New Beverly 15 or 20 years ago. (And maybe it was just the movies I chose to see.) But every once in a while you’ll overhear someone talking to their son or daughter about how Randolph Scott starred in “X” number of movies for Budd Boetticher, who was a director of westerns, blah blah blah, and it’s really encouraging to see that happen.
FSN: What ages are we talking?
DC: Nine, 10, 11. I mean, my own daughter, the New Beverly is pretty much her film school. She’s moved on from being tolerant of old movies to being actively interested in them.
FSN: Aha! A future Siren!
DC: I hope so! But it’s neat— Maybe she just likes the time with Dad (I hope so!), but she doesn’t even question me anymore if I say, “Oh, let’s go see Kansas City Confidential or The Lady Eve.” “Oh, okay. Is it funny? Who’s in it?” Over the last couple of years she’s really gotten to know the Preston Sturges stock company. She recognizes William Demarest and Franklin Pangborn, by face if not by name. And she doesn’t seem to be put off by black and white the way a lot of young kids are either. So if this is happening in my family, I have to believe it’s happening in other families where film and film history is important, and I think that translates into something to be cheerful about when it comes to thinking about the future of the audience for classic movies. And Turner has everything in the world to do with that.
FSN: Oh, yeah. They’re doing the Lord’s work. (Laughs) No doubt about it!
DC: Yeah, and that’s why it’s annoying, all this speculation about people’s motivations for attending the festival or just watching classic films in general. I don’t give a crap about people’s motivations. Who cares? They’re there. They’re open to the experience. Let them develop their own thoughts and feelings about the movies. I know several people I talked to who could have gone to see Sweet Smell of Success again but instead chose to see, I don’t know, this Z-budget British noir they heard good things about. For some people venturing off that beaten path is a whole new world, and I kind of envy people who get to discover some of these films for the first time. I was in that position myself—I’d never seen Wild River or Murder, He Says or The Story of Temple Drake before the Turner Classic Film Festival showed me the way. I came away from that weekend with such a high. I could have cared less about the stars introducing—Well, I’ll take that back. Seeing Eli Wallach was pretty goddamn great.
DC: But in general, I don’t care whether they’d programmed somebody to come and visit beforehand. It was usually neat when it happened, but that’s not what was dragging me to these things. I mean, seeing Martin Landau wasn’t reason enough for me to pick Crimes and Misdemeanors over something I’d never seen before. Maybe it would be for some people, but for most I got the sense that it was the movies themselves that were the draw. You don’t stand around for two and a half hours just to see Anjelica Huston introduce The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. You’ve gotta love that movie to get sore feet like that. Speaking of old movies—and gee, what a shock that we would be speaking of old movies--
FSN: Right. With me? What were you thinking?
DC: We tend to be very civil and cool-tempered, but recently you stood up against a dull-witted attack on Douglas Sirk which was fueled by a pretty ugly undercurrent of homophobia padding the usual macho bluster. At first glance it seems like classic Hollywood could be divided into “Chick Flicks” and “Movies for Men Who Like Movies” just like modern films could be. But I wonder, apart from the usual garbage being slung on this site (the manliness of which continues unabated re Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and the inevitable chop-licking over its less-than-impressive box-office take-- Ed.), do you think people who like classic movies are maybe a little more resistant, or maybe even unaware of these kinds of divisions? I mean, I know plenty of people willing to give themselves over to Written On the Wind as readily as they would to 3:10 to Yuma.
FSN: Well, I think we can go ahead and say his name. He’s not going to pop up like Beetlejuice—Jeffrey Wells! I think he sort of perceived this sort of far-off, dull hum somewhere and attributed it to a malfunctioning refrigerator—Well, that was me taking him to task for his take on Douglas Sirk! (Both Laughing) We’re so off his radar! I don’t read his blog often enough, frankly, to get a sense of what his sense of film history is, so I can’t address him specifically. Maybe he does like classic movies, but he just likes classic movies about manly men doing manly things. (Laughing)
DC: I always feel there’s some sort of agenda attached to the things he likes or dislikes. Whenever I get sucked into one of his comments threads, I almost always come away from it feeling like I’ve been in a car wreck, yet I never get the sense that he loves the movies as much as the sound of his own voice railing against the tide or being in the movie culture and bumping up against some unfortunate starlet at a screening.
FSN: What was encouraging about that whole dust-up was, if you went into the comments on his post most of the people taking him to task were men saying, “I like Douglas Sirk just fine.” I wouldn’t so much as a classic movies fan, but I think if you have a broad sense of film history you are generally more resistant to easily classifiable kinds of tastes. You’re naturally resistant to that. You want to try and acquire a certain catholicity of taste—it’s considered a desirable quality. I will say that what I do find is—I find a certain resistance to taking certain films seriously, and that rankles a bit. People will go back and parse every moment in an Anthony Mann film, and yet somehow not deem it necessary to give the same attention to a woman’s picture like Back Street or Now, Voyager. Somehow they seem more trivial, or it’s regarded that way.
DC: That’s certainly the case in modern movies too.
FSN: Oh, yeah, you can see it in the reaction to Sex and the City 2. Let me say up front that I have absolutely no doubt whatsoever that it’s a completely atrocious movie, and in fact I hated the series. But in some of the threads that I would read on it, there was this kind of sniffy insistence that the very subject matter was inherently unworthy of any serious person’s attention. That does get up my nose a bit, you know. Excuse me, but your fantasies about being a scientist in a really cool iron suit are not any more serious than my fantasies about Manolo Blahnik. They’re just not. (Laughs) And increasingly, the coverage (of SITC2) started to take on a tone, after a while, where I was like, “Guys, it’s called piling on and you get penalized 15 yards for it! Just back off!” (Laughs)
(Next: Thoughts of Mother Russia, Claudia Cardinale, High Profiles and Unexpected Pleasures as the Blog Summit between Yours Truly and Farran Smith Nehme, the Self Styled Siren continues. Part Two is up on this coming Friday!)