According to review aggregator RottenTomatoes.com, film critic Mick LaSalle has written 2304 reviews for the San Francisco Chronicle. He says shenanigans – “I’ve been doing this since 1985. I have to be way beyond 3000 now.”
Stanford Arts Review: How’d you get into film and film criticism?
Mick LaSalle: When I was in graduate school, one of my best friends became editor of the school newspaper, so I started writing for the paper — not just movie reviews, but a lot of different things, really just for fun. But the articles were good so friends encouraged me to send them out to newspapers, asking for a job — there was just something about them that appealed to people — and so the San Francisco Chronicle ended up hiring me out of grad school.
I should probably add that I didn’t listen to my friends for a full year. It took a year after I left grad school to send the clips out, and that’s when I got hired.
StAR: What’s been the biggest help to you in your career?
ML: Probably, to be honest, the combination of being smart but being born into a harsh social milieu. The combination makes for a certain lack of pretension in expression. It forces you to be direct, because you don’t want to be a phony.
The other big help is that I’m 5’7” and not 6 feet. Tall guys usually can’t write. Very short guys have problems too. But men between 5’6 and 5’8” make the best writers, generally, because we live in the world of men, but we also inhabit the world of women since we’re as tall as tall women. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Or I’m not completely.
StAR: Why do people trust your opinion about movies?
ML: For that, you’d have to ask them. I’m not even sure if they do trust. It may just be that I keep them amused.
StAR: According to Rotten Tomatoes, you’ve written over 2300 reviews. Do you still get excited to see movies? If so, how? If not, do you think that this may impact the way you review a film?
ML: Rotten Tomatoes is way, way behind on that. I’ve been doing this since 1985. I have to be way beyond 3000 now.
It’s not a matter of being excited to see movies. I’m just as excited to see some movies, and just as unexcited to see most movies, as I was when I was 20 years old. The job is a writing job. It’s about being excited about your own writing. Willie Nelson said that a singer has to be in love with his own voice. I think a writer is the same way. If you’re not in love with your own voice, you’ll get burned out.
StAR: Based on your books and background in this field, you seem to be well versed as a film scholar in addition to having an eye for criticism. Can you talk a little bit about how being familiar with film history and theory impacts the way you approach the current film environment?
ML: I try to think in terms of what will last and how things fit into the grand scheme. It’s very hard to predict the future, probably impossible most of the time. But if you know the kinds of things that last, you can make an intelligent guess. For example, when Before Sunrise was released in 1995, I predicted on the day it was released that the movie would become a classic. I was able to do that because I knew that all the things in it were things that people many years later would completely understand – and everything that would date about it would simply make everything more poignant.
At the same time, I’m not going to the movies trying to be in a scholarly mode. The thinking part comes later. When I’m watching a movie, I’m watching it like anybody else.
StAR: You’ve written a book about contemporary French female film stars and I’ve noticed that you’ve given high praise to a number of recent French films. Where did you interest in French cinema come from, and what type of things are they (or other foreign film industries) doing right that Hollywood could learn from?
ML: My first book was about pre-code Hollywood actresses – a golden age for women in film. By accident, I started noticing that French cinema is in the midst of a golden age for women right now, so I thought I should write about it. In a way, my interest in French cinema just came from my interest in early thirties American cinema; I knew what movies could be and then I saw that being realized in the present in France. What they’re doing right is that they’re making movies about human beings – and movies tailored to great women stars.
StAR: Any reviews that you did early in your career that you disagree with in hindsight or on a second look?
ML: Oh, sure. Nothing springs to mind, but I run into that occasionally. It doesn’t bother me, I just think that’s what I thought then, and this is what I think now.
StAR: What’s your favorite film of 2013? Of all time?
ML: The best of 2013 hasn’t happened yet. I liked Disconnect and At Any Price so far.
My all-time list always changes. I’m pretty fond of Queen Christina and Gold Diggers of 1933, though.
StAR: Who is an underrated modern actor?
ML: Dennis Quaid. People think he’s overacting when he’s actually being brilliant and weird.
ML: Overrated? I’m not sure anybody is overrated. Nobody comes to mind. Oh – Johnny Depp. He thinks he’s a character actor, but he’s not that good at it, and not funny.
StAR: Who are young or up-and-coming actors and directors that are doing exciting, new or really high quality work?
ML: Anais Demoustier, Lea Seydoux — the French ones come to mind first, but there are plenty of others in the US. The Duplasses I guess have arrived, but they’re pretty amazing. Greta Gerwig is really good and interesting.
StAR: I read a piece you wrote about interviewing actors and talking about how constructed and groomed their lives seem to be, and that the key to a good interview is getting them ‘off message’. Can you talk a little bit about some actors that you’ve gotten ‘off message’ or any memorably candid interactions you’ve had?
ML: I’m not a good interviewer and never get them off message. The good thing is when I’m actually interested in the message — like when I’m writing a book and want to know about their work. In newspapers, the goal is to get them to say something else, something different, which is understandable, but then it becomes like a contest — and it’s one they’re bound to win, because all they do is deflect questions.
StAR: What’s the biggest challenge for you when doing a review/critique?
ML: Not being boring.
Mick’s thoughts are published regularly in the San Francisco Chronicle and online at his Chronicle Blog. Follow him on Twitter @MickLaSalle and check out (almost) all his reviews on Rotten Tomatoes.