Peter Rainer on Films & Directors | The Backlot Podcast | NYFA

Peter Rainer: Hi, I’m Peter Rainer. I’m with the faculty of the New York Film Academy. I’m the film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and NPR’s Film Week in Southern California. I have a book called “Rainer on Film; 30 Years of Film Writing in a Turbulent and Transformative Era.” It’s a collection of my essays and I’ve been at the critic biz for a very long time. What I’m going to talk about today is the films and filmmakers that have really inspired me as a critic and as just a regular moviegoer. Films that have really stayed with me and become a part of my life and have really opened my eyes to what movies can be.

Peter Rainer: I grew up in New York, mostly in the suburbs, but the city was where many of the great revival houses existed. They had a great old revival house in the village called the Bleecker Street Cinema, which was an amazing place. And I often would see as many great films as I could see. Also on television, there was a show called Million Dollar Movie and every night you would watch a film that they would show repeatedly throughout the week. So if you wanted to, you could see a film many, many times. In a weird way that sort of schooled me in how to look at film because when you’re obsessive enough, like I was, to keep seeing the same film over and over again, you begin to pick up on on what it’s like to put a film together, what the acting is like, the performances, you know, all of that kind of combines in a way to let you know that this film didn’t just happen. There were people who made the film, but when I was coming up, I’d sort of gave myself an education and in the process, I was also reading, you know, critics as I went along who wrote on movies. And when I was in college in the early 70s, that was a particularly fervid time for a film, I think, especially American film. It was a real breakthrough in what you could do as a filmmaker. You know, all of these films that I reviewed as a critic for my college newspaper, you know, week after week, you’d see Cabaret, Sounder, The Godfather, Mean Streets, The Sorrow and the Pity, The Story of Adele H., you know, all these great Altman movies, films by Peckinpah, Clockwork Orange, etc. I mean, there was just a ton of great stuff all the time. And I think what I discovered without really realizing it, although some readers pointed it out, was that I guess I sort of favor films that have a sort of humanistic angle. Which is not to say that I don’t love really all kinds of movies if they’re good. You know, people often say to me, well, are there any types of films that you particularly like or any genres that you really like or don’t like? And my answer is usually, not really. It sort of depends on the film, not on the genre. But I do sort of favor films that have a sort of humanistic angle, as opposed to the great big scale epic directors. There are certain directors who who have really stood out for me over the years, such as Vittorio de Sica, the early neorealist pictures that he made. John Renoir an all time great director. His focus was always on the human element. The Indian director, Satyajit Ray, is for me perhaps the greatest of all film artists. And his Apu Trilogy is for me, probably the greatest single entity and film. That and the first two Godfather movies.

Clip: I want you to rest well and in a month from now this Hollywood bigshot’s gonna give you what you want.

Clip: It’s too late. They start shooting in a week.

Clip: I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse.

Peter Rainer: And then also, Yasujiru Ozu, whose film Tokyo Story especially, is this is for me one of the three or four greatest films ever made.

Clip: [Clip from Tokyo Story in Japanese]

Peter Rainer: And Ozu was was a director who worked in an extremely rigorous style. You’d be hard pressed to find any camera movement whatsoever in his films. But what he was able to accomplish as a director was was to really, again, bring out the human element in these people and focus on what’s important. And I think that that’s really something that people have to be reminded of, particularly in this day and age when people are making movies and they often feel that if they’re not showing off with the camera, that somehow, you know, something is, is amiss. That they’re not really utilizing the medium, that they’re, they’re just being, you know, stage people and not movie people. And my feeling is, if you get a powerful experience from watching something on screen, then to argue if it’s, you know, not movie-ish enough, it has no real value. Some of the best films ever made have been movies that could probably have worked on stage. What you’re looking for is the experience that you take away from seeing something. And I think that that can work with a director as spare and rigorous as Ozu, stylistically, or as flamboyant as DePalma or a Japanese director like Mizuguchi or Kurosawa, who are always considered, particularly Kurosawa, the, quote, most western of directors. And that was because he filled with such dynamism in films like Seven Samurai, one of my favorite films, or Yojimbo or Rashomon or any number of other of his films, that he, in a sense out-Hollywood-ed Hollywood. But that’s a very different approach to film than Ozu and they’re equally great if the results are.

Peter Rainer: Ingmar Bergman, I know, has a sort of mixed reputation these days because there was a time when Bergman was thought of as the, the film director that the people who didn’t really like movies liked. Because he was sort of highbrow. He talked about the big issues, you know, religion. And I think a lot of people thought, well, OK, that’s what it really means to be a movie artist. But I think an early film of his like Summer Interlude was quite wonderful and it’s very simple and beautiful. It’s like a Renoir movie in some ways. De Sica is another one who was very important to me in terms of of the sort of humanistic angle. When he teamed up with Zavattini, the two of them made some of the most groundbreaking neorealist pictures ever made. And I don’t know that any director has made more great movies within a shorter span of time than De Sica did, from the late 40s through the mid 50s. In something like eight years, he made, you know, like six masterpieces. Bam, bam, bam, bam. What de Sica often did was he use non-actors. The Father and Bicycle Thief.

Clip: [Clip from Bicycle Thieves in Italian]

Peter Rainer: Or the old man in Umberto D. who was, I believe, a professor and had never acted before. The notion that they had, he and Zavattini, was that you don’t want people to be acting, quote unquote. You just want them to be. And when this approach works, you really do feel like you’re watching the unvarnished truth. But when it doesn’t work, and it didn’t always work with De Sica, you feel like, well, gee, I wish the great actor had been in that role. It all depends. Another great French director who was a big inspiration to me, who had a similar idea was Robert Bresson. Bresson disdained actors and didn’t want anybody to be really performing in any big way in the films. He just wanted to kind of read the lines and have a certain blank affect. And that, in this way, the true spirituality and the power of the story would come through. And again, when this works, it works incredibly well. And when it doesn’t, it doesn’t. But there are tons of Hollywood movies that have inspired me of all types, The Godfather movies, as I mentioned the first two and portions of the third, but mostly the first two, are really so novelistic, so, so rich in characterization.

Clip: A crooked cops who got mixed up in the rackets and got what was coming to him. That’s a terrific story. And we have newspaper people on the payroll, don’t we Tom. They might like a story like that.

Clip: They might. They just might.

Clip: It’s not personal, Sonny. It’s strictly business.

Peter Rainer: I remember when I saw them in college, it just seemed like, you know, where did this come from? You weren’t really prepared for, for the power of what he did in that movie. I’m not sure he was either and he’s talked so much about it ever since in interviews and he’s, I think, become tired of all the adulation on those films. And he’s gone back and forth about even whether he thinks they’re great or whether he should have made Godfather Part 2, which is maybe the greatest film ever made. But those films were were just so revelatory because he could have done it an entirely different way. He could have just done some slam bang gangster movie like so many others that were being done at the time, or had been done. And instead, he made, of all things, this deeply personal film about this family and really movie about the dark side of the American dream.

Peter Rainer: I’ve always had a problem with movies that depict violence without showing the consequences of violence. That show people getting blown away and, you know, and then you go out and have a smoke or you go out to dinner and it doesn’t really seem to affect the characters very much. Bonnie and Clyde, this was a movie that really put the violence right in front of you.

Clip: This here’s Miss Bonnie Parker.

Clip: Glad to meet you.

Clip: I’m Clyde Barrow.

Clip: Clyde.

Clip: We rob banks.

Peter Rainer: And because it started out in a kind of rompy way, the film kind of faked you out in order to make that point. It was a very powerful film, as was The Wild Bunch, if we’re talking about movie violence, several years later. Peckinpah should be more recognized, I think, than he is now. But he was a great inspiration for me as a director. The Wild Bunch is, I think, the equivalent of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai as a piece of epic action, a movie about the nature of violence. Peckinpah had such a phenomenal sense of how to make a movie, how to frame and shoot and cut. Everything that he did was just so instinctively right.

Peter Rainer: Robert Altman has always been a very special director for me, despite his extreme unevenness. And he’s a director who really, in a sense, came out of nowhere. I mean, he was doing episodic TV and Sugarfoot and a lot of, Whirlybirds, a lot of these TV shows. He was really kind of a journeyman director, you know, well into his 40s until he started directing features. And even then, the first couple of features that he made that were nothing extraordinary. Then he made M*A*S*H, which is wonderful, tremendously entertaining movie.

Clip: [Clip from M*A*S*H]

Peter Rainer: But you wouldn’t really look at that either and say, well, this is the work of a great director. It was just sort of this really highly entertaining, smart movie, but not the work of a great artist. When he made McCabe & Mrs. Miller… Where did this come from? How could anybody make a movie, this Renoir-esque within the studio system? It was a period Western with Lauren Beatty and Julie Christie.

Clip: You’re John McCabe?

Clip: Yeah.

Clip: Mrs. Miller. Looking very forward to see you.

Peter Rainer: The music was from Leonard Cohen and it was a film of such deep poetic resonance that it stayed with me. And you know how sometimes when you see a film and you worry, gee, it meant so much to me when I was growing up,, but I wonder if I see it, you know, 10-15 years later, whether it’s going to still mean the same thing to me. Cause sometimes that happens, right? You see a film and it meant a lot to you, then you see it again and it doesn’t look so great? It’s a cruddy feeling, right? Because you feel like you’ve been mugged. But that didn’t happen with McCabe & Mrs. Miller or quite a few of the other films that that really meant a great deal to me. If anything, when you return to these films, they reveal more to you. Although I have to say that, especially with movies, I don’t find that if I go back and look at a film repeatedly that it does a whole lot for me if the viewings are, you know, close together. If I see a film and then I see it again two weeks later, I don’t bring that much more to the party than I did when I saw it the first time. For me, it sort of has to marinate for a while. And also you have to do a little bit of growing up. When I was a kid, I would see films like L’Avventura or Jules and Jim, and I’d say, well, yeah this is a great movie. But really, what did I know? You know, I was 15, 14. What did I really know about life that I could say that L’Avventura was a great movie? It really, kind of, doesn’t work that way. You know, you have to live a life in order to be able to appreciate some of these great films. And that’s a very important thing, not only for people who write about films, but for all you filmmakers and actors, that you have to have built up a certain amount of experience in your own life in order to be able to connect up emotionally to the material that you’re working on. And it’s not enough to simply put a story on the screen and fix it up with a lot of camera pyrotechnics. You have to have a knowledge of life that will bring something to life on the screen. And a lot of the directors that I mentioned, Renoir, Ray, de Sica, Ozu, Kurosawa, Coppola, these are directors who understood that completely.

Peter Rainer: I could go on. There are so many movies that inspired me and I will go on in subsequent podcasts, I’m sure, but this is just a taste of some of the movies and directors who really inspired me to do the kind of work that I do.

Peter Rainer: The show is edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. The creative director is David Andrew Nelson. Executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler. Great talking to you.

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