Thursday, December 21, 2006

THE ESSENTIALS—The Evening Class Interview With Molly Haskell

Continuing my inquiry into on-air film reportage and its particular contribution to film culture, I contacted Molly Haskell who graciously agreed to an interview. As her website attests, Molly is an author and critic whose education included study at the Sorbonne before settling in New York. In the '60s at the height of the Nouvelle Vague, Molly worked at the French Film Office, writing a newsletter about French films for the New York press and interpreting when directors came to America for the opening of their films. She then hired on at The Village Voice, first as a theatre critic, then as a movie reviewer; and went from there to New York Magazine and Vogue.

She has written for many publications, and has published From Reverence to Rape: the Treatment of Women in the Movies (1973; revised and reissued in 1989); a memoir, Love and Other Infectious Diseases (1990); and, in 1997, a collection of essays and interviews, Holding My Own in No Man's Land: Women and Men and Films and Feminists. I approached her, curious about her collaboration with Robert Osborne on Turner Classic Movies ("TCM").

* * *

Michael Guillén: Molly, you've been writing about films for a spell. Initially, working at the French Film Office in the '60s where you wrote a newsletter about French films for the New York press. You've reviewed films for The Village Voice, New York Magazine and Vogue, just to name a few, and have published several books on the role of women in film and the response of women filmmakers. Now you're reaching a whole new audience by co-hosting "The Essentials" with TCM's Robert Osborne. What precipitated the exploration into on-air television commentary? How did that opportunity come about?

Molly Haskell: I've done some interviews for programs about pre-code women and commentaries for dvds so I've actually appeared before the camera more than once. I guess Turner Classics had seen me do a few of these and felt that I could pass. [Chuckles.] So they approached me. The idea was they had this series called "The Essentials", which is essential viewing for people interested in movies. They'd had different hosts. I think they have a different host every year or so. Of course, Robert Osborne is their stand-by. He's the public face of Turner Classics. So they thought it'd be nice to do it as a conversation. So that's how it came about. They enlisted me and they sent me a list of—I didn't actually choose . . . the 30 films that we did aren't necessarily my all-time favorites—but they sent a list of 60 and I chose 40 and then they whittled it down to 30. That's what we came up with.

Guillén: I was wondering how the selection process worked. What differences can you distinguish between written film commentary and on-air commentary with regard to what you derive from the experience?

Haskell: I consider myself primarily a writer and, of course, when you write you can write—even when you're doing … well, I guess captions would be different—but, when you're doing an article or a review, of course, you can write at some length and express subtleties and reservations. On-air you really can't, even though this is considered a long time frame by television standards. I guess we talk before the film for about four or five minutes and then a minute or so after.

To prepare for this I spent the whole Fall last year looking at the movies. I would look at maybe a movie a day and make notes and then our producer would call each week and get my thoughts. She, in turn, framed that as four talking points; what she considered the major themes of mine and Robert's reactions to the movies. Initially, she was going to send us each the others' comments [but Robert] thought it would be better not to know what the other was going to say to make it more spontaneous. I think I would have rather had it the other way around. I like to know what the other person's going to say because he has such a different take. He's got this wonderful information and very high-level gossip—who was considered for what role—but sometimes [he would say], "Did you know that?" and I'd say, "No, I didn't know that." I mean it's really interesting when he does that but if I had maybe known he was going to say that, I would have still felt I didn't know that [but] maybe had further thoughts on the subject. I'm a little more analytical and he's a little more informational. It works but sometimes it works better than other times.

I also think I'm much better if I like a film than if I'm neutral towards it. Television is a performance and I'm not a polished performer, even though once upon a time I wanted to be an actress. I think if I were to do more of it, I would hone the performance better but it's hard to express thoughts. That's the real stumbling thing at the beginning is—if you have a lot of thoughts—to try to synthesize them or reduce them to a sound bite, which is basically what you have to do. I've watched people who are good at this. There's a lot of energy going into it all the time, a punch. Roger Ebert is basically a print critic and he learned the art or craft of television reviewing. As you suggested, it really is a whole different craft because it is performance, it is synthesizing, it is bite size bits of information, and it is punch. Of course in writing you do have to shape and emphasize and do all that, but in a more leisurely and a little more amplified way. It's very different. A lot of the people who are very successful at it are people who have gone into television fairly early on or maybe even done radio. That's a little bit the same thing.

Conversations are quite different from simply facing the camera—that's another distinction that has to be made—just facing the camera and reading what you've written on the teleprompter. That I have not mastered. [Chuckles.] It turns out that every time we go to the camera to do the intro, Robert ends up doing that. I didn't have any coaching. I think I might have mastered that if I'd had a little. But it was done in a very intense way. It was three days in Atlanta, actually two and a half because they decided to see if we could do 30 films in two and a half days and let the crew go a half a day on Saturday. So 30 films in two and a half days is pretty concentrated. Ten films [a day]. That meant we would talk for 20 minutes. We didn't have any retakes or stops and starts. Then I would consult my notes and we'd go to the next film and do 20 minutes on that one. It was a fairly pressure-filled performance.

Guillén: That makes me think of all sorts of things I hadn't even considered. Like costume changes!

Haskell: That was the most fun part of the whole thing. [The wardrobe] had to be something that would go with the set and would go with what Robert was wearing and all that. They had a wonderful wardrobe person who had quite an eye. She collected all sorts of things, which I'm still wearing. They gave them to me. That was a big bonus.

Guillén: Sweeeeet! I think you're being a bit humble, though, because one of the things I truly enjoy about your "performance" on "The Essentials" is your calm, measured and mannered approach in contrast to—let's say—Roger Ebert and his on-air performance, which tends to be more argumentative. TCM's general approach to movies tends to be appreciative rather than critical. Even with a one-star or a two-star movie, Osborne culls out aspects to appreciate in a film. "The Essentials" tends to be four-star movies but even there the two of you articulate appreciations rather than arguments. For example, in last night's broadcast of Sunset Boulevard, I really liked how you mentioned Hedda Hopper's brief but compassionate performance.

Haskell: I love that too. I'm basically an enthusiast and so is he. At one point somebody thought—somebody at Turner, I didn't talk to them directly, but I heard about this indirectly—that maybe it would be more interesting if there was some tension between [us] and [we] disagreed. People are so used to that format of two critics disagreeing. I said, well, that's absurd. First of all, you've got this thing called "The Essentials", which are films you think people should see. You're not going to start badmouthing them. I don't think that goes over too well. I agree with you. When you're trying to get people to look at movies and appreciate them, to just sit there and badmouth them is not great. You can have differences of opinion on degree of enthusiasm and that kind of thing and if you bring enough different kinds of perception and insights to bear, then it's going to be a rich program anyway. I'm glad you feel that way. I also think that's a more appropriate way of doing it.

Guillén: So what is your main hope for "The Essentials"?

Haskell: Well, I'd love to do it again. I don't know if they'll have me do it again or not. I love that channel, period. I would like to see a few more less-well-known films. I would like to do a few more that are in genres that I really love like film noir and screwball comedy, and directors like Lubitsch and Sturges. There's a whole lot of films I'd love to do. I'm better when I have a film that I love. I find more to say about it.

Guillén: I'd love to see you doing some interviews. In Holding My Own In No Man's Land you've conducted some very fine interviews. Would you be interested in that?

Haskell: Less so. Because my talents are more critical and analytical than interviewing; but—if it's somebody that I like a lot and am interested in—I'd love to do it. It would all depend on the subject. I've always made that my policy even in writing. There have been opportunities to do star interviews that the people haven't interested me. I feel I'm very good when I have to create something out of whole cloth or create enthusiasm out of whole cloth. For me it has to be genuine, which is maybe another way of saying I'm not a performer as much as a critic, I guess.

Guillén: That leads me to ask you, out of all the hats that a person who writes about film can wear—film critic, film reviewer, film commentarian, film historian—which fits you best?

Haskell: A little bit film critic and historian, I would say. I've taught and I love teaching film. I like research. I love going back to old movies. It's just a way of examining our history and where we came from and where women came from—all of that—so I'm more of an explorer than an up-to-the-minute reviewer. I don't really like having to write week after week. When I've done that, I've found that there's too much pressure and too many films that I didn't have anything to say about. I love writing about when Criterion is doing a dvd package of the Rohmer films, writing about Rohmer. So I love writing about film and talking is always easier. Actually, even though I say I'm not a performer and I'm not this and I'm not that, I actually love talking about movies. That's why I like teaching. It's less lonely and less neurotic in a way than writing. It seems more congenial when you're talking to somebody and somebody wants to hear what you have to say. If you're actually conversing, then you're getting another point of view. So I've tremendously enjoyed the times when I've been asked to look at a whole bunch [of movies]. Like I did a Theda Bara box set to finally get to see Theda Bara films, which had not been available and think about them, and think about what she represented.

Guillén: I've really appreciated what you've done as a film writer, but I'm at the same time thinking, "She would have been a good actress! She would have been another Rosalind Russell or Eve Arden."

Haskell: [Laughing.] Well, Rosalind Russell, okay. I don't want to be the foil. I want to be the heroine. Eve Arden was always the best friend. I want to be the star, of course. Everybody is the star of their own movie; the movie that they play in their inner life, right?

Guillén: In your contribution to Andrew Barker's Variety piece, you note that all the front-runners for this year's Oscars are incredibly violent and male-oriented and then wonder "if films that don't interest female audiences can win Oscars." That made me think about the demographics of film reception and if there's a gendered difference between the films being seen currently at the multiplex and those being appreciated on, let's say, Turner Classics?

Haskell: I do think so. Look at Apocalypto! They'll be very few women at that. When you look at all the good performances this year, they've all been mostly by Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. They're all English. There are really so few good roles for women. Even the serious American movies are father-son movies. They're just so weighted towards the male and to masculine themes. Then you have Volver and The Queen and all these European films that are the only ones that deal with women. And, yes, I think it's just so obvious when you look at almost any year of your classic Hollywood films that the balance is so much [male]. There are still more great male stars. Turner just published a book on the 50 leading female stars of the studio era and one on the 50 male stars and I did an introduction to each one. I was struck by how many more kinds of male stars there were, because you could have people like Edward G. Robinson and Jimmy Cagney, the female equivalent would be the best friend at best. So it was a much wider margin for male performance than women, but even so the women had equal salaries and almost equal roles in those eras.

Guillén: Is there any advice you could give to young female film writers?

Haskell: A great thing is to look at these old movies. It's pretty discouraging for women to look at Hollywood now and think this is where I want to be and this is what I want to write about. Even independent cinema's not that great. Turner wants to get a younger audience. This is what is really needed. This is why I'm so interested in film history, because it provides all sorts of emotional support and revelation about the possibilities for women that existed—even in a legally and professionally narrower world—still how much gumption and spirit women had in what they could do. It should be almost required for young women to go back into film history. There's a kind of willful amnesia on the part of the young. Sometimes they don't want to know what's been great in the past—it's sort of intimidating—but, at the same time, I don't think it is. I don't think it should be intimidating. It can be instructive and liberating.

Guillén: Well, thank you very much, Molly. I appreciate your taking the time. Thank you for your fine work and your wonderful thoughts this morning.

Haskell: I enjoyed the conversation!

Cross-posted at Twitch.

01/01/07 UPDATE: Great Variety discussion between Molly, Jonathan Rosenbaum of The Chicago Reader, and Brazilian critic Jose Carlos Avellar. Via Girish.


Anonymous said...

Molly Haskell is the main reason I'm jealous of Andrew Sarris. I enjoyed reading her in the "Voice" many years ago. Is it OK for me to say that I think she's still hot?

Michael Guillen said...

I'm sure she would protest mightily. Heh.

Anonymous said...

"When you look at all the good performances this year, they've all been mostly by Kate Winslet and Cate Blanchett, Judi Dench and Helen Mirren. They're all English. There are really so few good roles for women. Even the serious American movies are father-son movies. They're just so weighted towards the male and to masculine themes."

Cate Blanchett is an Aussie. (Yup, I'm too nit-picky for my own good.)

But I do second Haskell's sentiments in general. Hollywood makes films for and about men.

Michael Guillen said...

Tram, you nitpicker you. Heh. Thanks for stopping by to comment.

Anonymous said...

Molly Haskell! Thanks again for such great interview subjects...