Peter Rainer: The Life of a Film Critic | The Backlot Podcast

Eric Conner: Hi and welcome to the backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. Today, we have noted film critic Peter Rainer. He is the critic for the Christian Science Monitor. He’s also written for The New Yorker, for L.A. Times and a lot of other publications. And he has been a finalist for a Pulitzer. And if that’s not enough for you, he is also the author of the book Rainer on Film 30 years of film writing in a turbulent and transformative era. It is available for sale on Amazon, Barnes and Noble and all the other booksellers online. So thank you so much for coming Peter Rainer.

Peter Rainer: Thanks, Eric.

Eric Conner: One thing you had talked with me about before is this idea of in essence we all think we know what a critic does because we read their stuff like, oh, they see a movie, they write a review. But obviously there’s more to it than that. So I was wondering if you could talk about maybe your typical day?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Well, a day in the life, it does vary. But I would say on average, if we’re not talking holiday seasons or, you know, run up to awards, Oscars or festivals, I guess I see at least a movie a day more often than not in theaters. But sometimes, you know, in home viewing situations, the way I find out if a film is opening is you go on various sites to see what the schedule is of openings. You know, often out of date, almost immediately, the various movie companies and publicists will send invites to me and now almost exclusively online invites saying you and a guest are invited to so-and-so movie. And a lot of the smaller, independent foreign films, documentaries and so forth, they often screen them months in advance, sometimes key to when the so-called talent is in town. Studio pictures increasingly either aren’t ready until pretty close to opening date, which is generally on Friday, or they don’t want you to see them all that early for bad word of mouth.

Eric Conner: Right right right, the embargo until.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, the embargo thing is fairly recent development.

Eric Conner: One minute before it comes out, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. They say, you know, 12:01 a.m. the Wednesday before the Friday opening the embargo is lifted and so forth. My reviews generally come out day and date with the opening, so I’m not really looking to break embargoes anyway.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: But the embargo extends even to blogs and just sort of online commentary of any kind. Although I notice it doesn’t seem to extend to the publicist contacting you the day after the screening to ask you what you think. That doesn’t seem to have been embargoed. And my response is always, you know, I think it’s somewhere between Creature from the Black Lagoon and Citizen Kane. But beyond that, I’m contractually unable to answer that question, which is sort of vaguely true. I mean, I don’t like to feel like I’m part of the PR system, but anyway, so then I show up at the screening and I usually take notes, with a pen and pad, which I can’t read afterwards, but it’s kind of useful.

Eric Conner: You don’t have like one those little light up pens.

Peter Rainer: No, I probably should get one that they use be more common than it is now. People going with their computers. The lighted pen thing. I always thought was kind of obnoxious, not to mention, you know, you’re sitting next to someone and the light keeps clicking on and you say to yourself well, what great insight that I miss, you know? I mean, the light came on.

Eric Conner: The man with the pen knows.

Peter Rainer: What did I. Right. Yeah. What are they seeing that I didn’t see?

Eric Conner: Well, though probably less obnoxious than a monitor. Like an actual computer screen.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Illuminating half the theater.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. You know, people say, gee, you’re so lucky. You’re a critic. You can go to these screenings. And there aren’t all these people who are like texting and talking around you. And I say, are you kidding? It’s worse in some ways. I mean, a lot of critics say if if they’re bored by a movie or they’re making deals or they’re doing whatever they’re doing during a screening, it’s just as bad. I mean, that personally kind of drives me up the wall.

Eric Conner: Yeah. When you’re at an advance screening too, not everyone in there is going to be a critic, right? I mean, it’s also sometimes like I don’t know, friends, family.

Peter Rainer: Yeah I don’t know who any of these people are.

Eric Conner: Like they tried to fill the seat sometimes like, yeah, you know, you’re in there with regular citizens.

Peter Rainer: You never know. Yeah, no. The dentist of the of the gaffer, you know, I mean, they just bring all these people in there, especially for the big ones, but. OK. So then I, so I take notes and then I, I generally don’t review a movie like right after I’ve seen it, unless for deadline purposes I have to do that. If I’m at a festival like Toronto where I’ll see maybe four movies a day sometimes or more. A lot of those movies don’t open for many months or a year or more later. So I’ll do sort of an overview of the festival, but I’m not going to get specific or write full take reviews on anything.

Eric Conner: So you don’t. Because I know sometimes like.

Peter Rainer: Well the trades do that.

Eric Conner: Yeah yeah the trades will do reviews when they’re at the festival. Right. But like Christian Science Monitor and NPR, like you don’t.

Peter Rainer: No, not really. And part of the reason for that, I think I mean, it’s it’s good that. I mean the trades are sort of, they’re the trades. So I guess the they have to be on record as saying something about the film at the time that it opens. But if I were to review a movie, a full length review of a movie that’s in the Toronto Festival that then opens in December. You can’t re-review it, so you’re reviewing a movie that won’t be released for several months, just from the filmmaker’s point of view. If you’re not going to run the review again in December, then they’ve lost whatever you said about the movie because it ran too early.

Eric Conner: Now is there a way you can – let’s say you saw something at Toronto and you think it’s great and maybe it’s like a sort of a smaller prestige pic. Is there something you could do to help build buzz for it.

Peter Rainer: Oh, sure. Yeah. I mean, when I do the overview, I single out in critical terms what I thought of many of the movies. It’s not like I just sort of say what’s there? And that’s it. you know, if if there’s a really great movie or if I discover something or whatever. Absolutely. That’s the main purpose of why I’m there, actually. But I’m not going to do a separate long review. So I’ll see a movie. I’ll write it up based on my notes and recollections and whatnot. And I try to keep the films in my mind strongly enough so I don’t have to see it again. I don’t really like seeing movies twice within a fairly short timeframe at least. I find that I don’t get that much out of it the second time because I’m already kind of bringing to it what I saw the first time. You know, on the other hand, there are almost by definition, a great movie or a difficult or innovative movie is not something you’re likely to pick up altogether on a first viewing. But, you know, I see 250 something movies a year.

Eric Conner: Yeah you don’t have much to.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it’s very difficult for me to go back and look at something again, even if I want to watch, which on occasion I do. And eventually I will. But, you know, after the reviews out and all the big change for me as a critic is that when I first started out in the 70s, mid 70s, there were maybe six or seven movies maximum that opened in a given week. Now, not just because of streaming and whatnot, but also there are often 20 plus movies per week that play in theaters.

Eric Conner: Right and you have such a wide range beyond just like different platforms.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, sometimes films a lot of the the lower end movies that are part of that 20 are films that for contractual reasons.

Eric Conner: Right they have to.

Peter Rainer: They have to show it, you know, theatrically to get a better sale on the screening or whatever.

Eric Conner: But yeah, there’s so many movies where it’s like day and date where they’re on OnDemand or Netflix or whatever. Well more on demand, but they might be in a handful of theaters that same day.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean a lot of VOD movies are before the theatrical opening. You know, and then there’s the whole issue with Netflix and whatnot.

Eric Conner: Actually what are your thoughts on that with. I know there’s been such a blowback against Netflix films playing the festivals.

Peter Rainer: Right. I sort of disagree. I think that Netflix movies should be in the mix. If they have a theatrical release, this argument that Spielberg and others have made that a TV movie is in the end a TV movie, you know, it doesn’t quite hold water because there are a lot of movies that aren’t particularly well designed for the big screen either. You know they’re just that’s the way they were made.

Eric Conner: Smaller scale.

Peter Rainer: And they could look, look just as at home on a TV screen as anywhere else. But I mean, it is a little sneaky to essentially make a TV movie that you play in the theaters to boost the Netflix viewership and get awards. But you know what else is new? I mean, there’s always a scam. Also, I think even if you agree that these films should not be part of the awards mix, I just think it’s a losing battle. You know, I don’t think that you can rule out so much product that is coming out. You know, a corollary argument was when the O. J. Made in American documentary, which was ESPN.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: They showed it in theaters either just before or day and date with the initial TV airing. And I thought it was the best film of the year of that year. I thought it was an extraordinary film. Absolutely extraordinary. And it won the Oscar for Best Documentary, at which point the documentary committee said we’re not doing this anymore. The argument there was that on the part of other documentarians, you know, Ava DuVernay had a strong, socially conscious documentary that year. That was.

Eric Conner: Right the 13th, was that?

Peter Rainer: Yeah. So their argument was, you know, O.J. is a great film. Congratulations, you know. But if I’d had eight hours at my disposal to make my movie, it would have been significantly more powerful. You know, that argument says that longer is better by definition.

Eric Conner: Well, it’s funny. It’s it’s like the opposite of the argument. Remember when Emmys started really recognizing HBO shows like The Sopranos and, you know, and and the networks were like, well, if we only had to do twelve episodes a season, we would make ours better.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: And I don’t know how much water that holds that argument.

Peter Rainer: Yeah no.

Eric Conner: It’s like blaming like the fact you have more money, more time, more staff and like but we can’t create more good product.

Peter Rainer: Most writers will tell you, you know, journalists and critics that if you have like two months lead time to write a review, it doesn’t mean that you’re going to write a better review than than when you’re on a tight deadline. Sometimes that forces you to really be more creative and come up with stuff on the spot that, you know, the sloth would erase otherwise. So it’s complicated. You know, Netflix, when this movie Okja came out about the pig. So that was sort of their big push, at least for critics and for awards to position themselves as a movie studio, sort of an odd movie to be using as a test case.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: You know, and the experiment didn’t quite work on that level. Some people liked the film more than others, but I think they’re just going to keep trying to do it. You know, a lot of TV shows going back, you know, a lot of Colombo’s and, you know, Spielberg’s Duel, they were all shown theatrically as feature films in Europe.

Eric Conner: But were on TV.

Peter Rainer: Here were on TV here. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Yeah Spielberg’s first real massive movie that kind of put him over.

Peter Rainer: Yeah Duel.

Eric Conner: You know, the top, Duel. Yeah. Yeah, it was. Yeah. That was a TV movie here.

Peter Rainer: Absolutely. It was a Universal TV movie.

Eric Conner: And I mean it aged pretty well in that as TV movies go, it looks like a heck of a cinematic TV movie, especially for that time.

Peter Rainer: Right. I mean, I would think that that probably works better. I’ve never seen it on a big screen but but I would think that it’s gonna come across better on a big screen.

Eric Conner: Right and if you haven’t seen Duel, it’s the movie that got him Jaws. And so, I mean, technically remarkable what he pulls off with what I imagine is a rather small budget.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it was it was a pretty incredible film. It’s kind of like Jaws, only a giant truck instead of a shark.

Eric Conner: And I think that’s the thing, too. It’s like a lot of these stories won’t get out otherwise.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s if it plays in a theater, I think it should qualify.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: However it got there. And I mean, you have to make some kind of rules. Otherwise, you know, you’re going to start, you know, Game of Thrones best picture of the year. You know, you have to make some distinctions.

Eric Conner: It might, they actually might pick up a lot of technical awards.

Peter Rainer: Yeah right.

Eric Conner: Well, you know, actually, before you mentioned some of the kind of unusual choices your critics group made, but the movie Brazil had kind of a legendary.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: Troubled journey. And if I remember correctly, I think the L.A. critics had named it like the best picture of the year.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, there’s a very interesting story behind that.

Eric Conner: And were you part of that?

Peter Rainer: Yes.

Eric Conner: Oh, great. Do tell.

Peter Rainer: I mean, I like the movie a lot. I don’t think it was my best film of the year, but I wasn’t dissatisfied that it won. And particularly given the circumstances, I thought it was great. What happened was Terry Gilliam had made Brazil for Universal and Sid Sheinberg, who was the head of Universal, didn’t like the movie. And he just kind of sat on it for a long time. And Gilliam, who is not a shrinking violet, was doing everything he could to make this film happen. Took out a full page ad in the trades saying, you know, ‘Dear Sid Sheinberg, when are you going to release my movie Brazil?’ And then Scheinberg had people come in and do their own cut of the film. They really, by all accounts, messed it up. And that was what they were going to release. And contractually, I guess they had the right to do that. So Gilliam knew one of the critics who was at the L.A. Times at that point, Jack Matthews, they arranged a clandestine screening for the L.A. critics of Gilliam’s cut of Brazil, which technically was illegal. So the critics saw this movie, they said this is a great movie. So now we’re voting that day for the year end awards and Brazil wins best picture Gilliam’s cut of Brazil. So Sheinberg had no choice but to release Gilliam’s cut after that, it was activist criticism at its finest. You know, I mean, you never.

Eric Conner: It was a protest vote.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I mean, that’s how that came about. And Gilliam was, you know, forever grateful. Because his, there’s a very good chance. That is certainly theatrically at that time, his film would never been released. And the Sergio Leone movie, Once Upon a Time in America is a classic example of a film that was released in a butchered version. I think 40 minutes were taken out of it.

Eric Conner: I think, I’m going to say even more than that. I think it might have been an hour and change might have. Cause like, yeah cause the full cut’s close to four hours.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, I mean, Leone’s cut that eventually was shown is a terrific movie and considerably longer and better and more complicated in terms of the editing and whatnot.

Eric Conner: Yeah and very poetic the way it transitions in and out of scenes.

Peter Rainer: But his movie was originally hacked up by some guy that cut trailers in New York. And that’s what was shown. And a lot of critics. They saw both versions. And I remember I think it was Kael or someone said, you know, I’ve never seen a worse butchering job than was done to this movie.

Eric Conner: I was wondering, you know, we were talking before about some of these movies we like that they don’t quite come together as much. And yet we still have this kind of a soft spot in our heart for them. Guilty pleasures. Even that term might be a bit of a misnomer, because if you like it, why should you be guilty?

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: I was wondering if there were some films in your vast collection that maybe hold a special place for you but didn’t hold a special place for pretty much any critics.

Peter Rainer: Well, the most recent example is the movie Mother, Darren Aronofsky’s film which I normally don’t like his movies, and most people do. Mother, which I saw in Toronto, was loathed by my colleagues almost exclusive. Didn’t make a dime. People hated it. It was loathed. I thought it was a really fascinating movie. It goes off the rails completely the last 15 minutes or so. But, you know, I won’t bother to give my defense to the jury. But it was. And I don’t feel guilty about it. I just feel besieged when I say it to people. They say, ‘really? You like that film?’ and I say yes, and I didn’t like Black Swan. I didn’t like blah, blah, blah. I like smart dumb comedies a lot. I seem to be more tolerant, just like I like bad standup. Sometimes I enjoy watching too. But, you know, Dumb and Dumber when new line. They had a trailer for it, but they weren’t going to press screen it. And I thought, this looks really funny. What’s the problem? You know, bad reviews aren’t going to have any effect on this movie and good reviews will bring people in who would not normally see it. And it’s really funny. So they did press screen it. I just kept after them. I said what do you have to lose? So in that vein, I go every year to the Alex Theater in Glendale for the Three Stooges marathon that they have.

Eric Conner: And now I have to go.

Peter Rainer: Well, yeah. And your kids would. I mean, it’s kids love that stuff. It’s, you know, don’t try this at home. But I think, you know, the Three Stooges is sort of the essence of comedy. Right. You know, it’s just about poking and bashing. And I mean, you know, Curly is a comic genius.

Eric Conner: Jerome Horwitz, right?

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: The artist formerly known as Jermoe Horwitz.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, they were. The larger thing here is that I think that if you really like something, whether you’re a critic or, you know, just an audience member, you know, you should go with it. This idea that there’s something guilty about liking something, there may be a very good reason why you do like something. It’s more important to be ostentatiously wrong then self censoring yourself to the point where you, you know, you know I mean.

Eric Conner: Yeah well, I think Mark Twain said taste never should be defended. I’m paraphrasing him. And Sheryl Crow said, if it makes you happy, it can’t be so bad. And I agree with both.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah. But I do think, you know, as a critic, there are some types of films that I might enjoy, even though I know they’re not good movies. And as long as I’m up front about that, you know, it’s OK to enjoy these movies but don’t enjoy them as something that they weren’t meant to be or aren’t.

Eric Conner: You’ll say that in your review, like upfront that. Yeah. Fair warning. I enjoy this kind of thing.

Peter Rainer: Well, I’ll say, you know, I, I enjoy this kind of stuff because it’s kind of kitsch, probably in ways that the filmmakers did not intend. Sometimes the films are good in ways that are intended to be good. There’s some parts of Towering Inferno as I recall, it’s been many years, that are first rate for what it’s trying to do.

Eric Conner: I was wondering then. So one thing that’s definitely happened is over the years, the phrase everybody’s a critic has taken on grand new proportions because, you know, on YouTube, that’s where a lot of people are getting their reviews. And sometimes, like, you know, they can go from crass to comical, you know, hilariously crude, but also really astute. Yet at the same time, some of these are just fifteen year old kids with Facebook Live. What are your thoughts on sort of that end of the critic sphere? You know, the idea of really, truly, because of the Internet, people are getting their sort of critical takes from those who really don’t even have a writing background.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, I mean, what you’re describing impinges on the professional life and careers of actual working critics because there’s less and less incentive for publications to go with critics when there’s this whole gabble of voices out there. I don’t know. I think there’s nothing wrong with being, quote, elitist and saying that not everyone is a critic in the sense that not everyone brings to the fore the kinds of ideas and whatnot. That is what criticism is all about. You know, I’m not putting down blogs. I myself am not really a social media person. But, you know, I’m past the point where I think that if you have a blog that you have nothing to say or you’re just blathering. You know, there are a lot of fine critics now who write exclusively on the Web for various publications. You know, my own publication is primarily online now. So I don’t think that by definition, if you’re a blogger, you’re not a, quote, critic. But I do think that the odds are highly stacked against you because people think that, you know, criticism is not just opinionating. That’s the thing. Everyone says, well, if I just. It’s just my opinion. It’s as good as your opinion. What makes you any better than me? Well, that’s one way to look at it. But the thing is, speaking as a writer, I think you have to be able to be a writer, a real writer to be a critic. I don’t think that just opinionating is what it’s all about, because in the end, everything that I say about a film could probably be reduced to a couple of sentences on a blog and convey essentially the same message. You know, I like the acting didn’t like the direction, the story was sucked, etc.. You know, it’s how you say it. And the arguments that you deliver in the course of the criticism to support what you’re saying that makes a criticism. Not to mention that movies are kind of the, I mean, they encompass so many different things, not only all of the other arts, but what’s going on in society, a reflection of society. I’m not saying that to be a critic, you have to have a comprehensive knowledge of the history of film and have seen all the great movies. It can’t hurt. But I don’t think that just, you know, if someone says, well, I’m a critic because I’ve seen 4,000 movies. No, some of the most interesting articles I’ve read on film have been by people who are not professional critics who are often in the English and American lit departments or sociology or philosophy, you know, people who bring a whole other thing to the table.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: That is much more interesting in many ways than the, you know, the so-called professional critic who’s too often insulated. So, you know, for me, the great critics have been the ones who have covered the waterfront and broaden the spread, talked about films in much larger ways while never forgetting the fact that the critic is first and foremost a member of the audience.

Eric Conner: One thing you’re saying that I think is great is that, you know, the fact is it’s not so much about who’s giving their review. It’s like, are they informed or not? Can they shine some light on their review? Reading Roger Ebert’s longer reviews when I was young, I remember they didn’t always have stars or thumbs up, thumbs down and New York Times still doesn’t do that. You know, I think a lot of really reputable publications, they invite you to read the whole thing because it doesn’t sum it up for you.

Peter Rainer: Right. Well, I mean, it varies in my career. Like you know at the monitor in some of its iterations now, I do have grades, which, you know, if I had a choice, I probably wouldn’t go with. But, you know, nevertheless, it is a way for people to at least latch onto what your overall opinion is and maybe drive them to read the full review.

Eric Conner: Kind of puts in a frame at least.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Or not. You know, in in a sense, all reviews have implicit grades. You know, where it gets a little nutty is like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes where they they sometimes will contact you. You know, that that review read like a B minus. But you gave it a B plus. It’s like, well, please.

Eric Conner: Like like they’re grading your grading, basically.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Right. See, the thing is true criticism, I think is not about the value judgment in the end. In other words, you can read a critic and disagree with everything he or she is saying and still think that it’s it’s it’s an exhilarating read. You know, that that, you know, I disagree with everything you said, but I really enjoyed reading you. That’s to me a better compliment than someone that comes over you and says, I loved everything you said about that movie because I agree with everything. You know, it’s not the value judgment. It’s how you get to that judgment that I think makes for a critic.

Eric Conner: Well, has it changed your approach as a critic that initially when you started people you knew were reading the whole article or, you know, it was in.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: A brick and mortar newspaper so to speack. And now most of your audience is clicking.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, it does it. I mean, there are all kinds of ramifications. It’s very easy on the Internet to just click around. And I mean, I myself have some difficulty in reading long articles still, you know, on an iPhone or a computer. But I know that for the next generation, that’s not going to be an issue at all. Whether that means that there’s gonna be less extensive criticism by virtue of people’s viewing habits on the Internet. I don’t know. I mean, that’s a good question. I hope not. But I think it all comes down to what do you want from film criticism? If you just want value judgments, if you want to know what movie I should see on a Saturday night. That’s a perfectly good rationale for reading a review and writing a review, because in the end, a lot of reviews. I mean, I don’t like reviews where they go on about everything and then you’re like, yeah, but what’d you think of the movie? You know? I mean, I think that’s part of it. And if you have no opinion or if you’re mixed, which is often the case, then that should be in there. That’s generally how it is with with most movies, you know, that I write about. And I don’t like this notion that criticism is something, you know, that sort of comes down from on high. I don’t see it so much anymore. It’s partly because of the Internet. But it used to be that a lot of publishers and editors would say, you know, well, don’t use the first person when you review, really. But, you know, for me, criticism is is very personal. And you’re writing out of your own experience. You’re writing out of who you are. And that that’s another thing you have to connect certainly with movies. It’s, you know, because movies have a way of really hitting you in places that you, you know, aren’t defensed for. And, you know, it’s it’s it’s a very powerful medium and it affects people in very powerful ways, which is why, you know, if you say you really hated a movie that someone loved, on the one hand you could say, well, that’s just the way it is. You like some films I don’t. But, you know, a lot of people take these personally. And I can understand that if you really love some movie and someone says ah it’s a terrible movie.

Eric Conner: Worst movie ever.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, there’s a way in which, you know, you’re going to take that personally because films are a very personal medium. It’s important to put all this in perspective and realize that that a critic is first and foremost a person, you know, who is reacting to what’s up on the screen and. It’s a very personal medium, and so writing about it, I think, should also be a personal thing. You know, not in the worst sense of of, you know, the extreme bloggers who just, you know, like I said, opinionate about everything without backing anything up.

Eric Conner: You know, one of the things I’ve always really enjoyed about film criticism and really, you know, criticism of the arts is it introduced me to movies I never would have seen otherwise. And so on that end one thing about your book is that you found sort of room for these lesser known things. We talked before about, you know, the sort of underseen gems.

Peter Rainer: Right.

Eric Conner: But even I I don’t think we talked about this before. But one documentary you brought up that I wish more people knew about was the stone reader.

Peter Rainer: Oh yeah.

Eric Conner: I’ve got a few of these, but a couple thoughts and stone reader and.

Peter Rainer: You’ve seen it?

Eric Conner: I have. And I saw it a long time ago. But yeah, if you can talk about this like kind of little lesser known documentary that sort of went under the radar of everyone.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it was a terrific little film. You know, the director had read or started to read a book by a writer named Dow Mossman. I believe his name was the Stones of Summer. But he had written nothing since. So the whole movie is sort of trying to track down this guy. Yeah, it was a fascinating movie in general. I love to discover films for other people to see. I don’t know that he’s directed anything since. I mean, I worked on a lot of political documents.

Eric Conner: Yeah. I don’t know if he did. Because I don’t think he necessarily.

Peter Rainer: Was a filmmaker.

Eric Conner: Yeah he wasn’t a documentarian, but he just.

Peter Rainer: Right he’s not not primarily known as being a filmmaker that I have no problem with that either. I think there are a lot of people who discover film and maybe they only make one or two movies, but they bring something new.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: To the mix. And it’s particularly true in documentaries. I always tell people when they go to a film festival and they want to know what to see. Of course, the program says everything’s a masterpiece. How do you decide? I would choose a documentary over a dramatic film, sight unseen, because documentaries are often made by people who who really care about the subject. They know they’re not going to make much money on this film. You know, there’s just more passion involved. And and if nothing else, you’ll probably learn something that you might not have learned from a dramatic film about a particular subject.

Eric Conner: It might be your only chance to see it too.

Peter Rainer: That too.

Eric Conner: Some of those don’t get distribution, then that’s it.

Peter Rainer: Right. You know, I have a whole section in my in my book, Rainer on film, on documentaries. For me, Fred Wiseman is the greatest living American director of any kind with a body of work that’s unequal. He’s made 40 something movies. He’s in the mid 80s, makes a movie a year, and his films are absolutely extraordinary. The early ones are more accessible because they’re not so long his films tend to be rather long. You know, it goes to what makes a film great. I think to to explore the film in the process of making it in many ways a luxury that not every filmmaker has of any stripe.

Eric Conner: You know, one of the filmmakers you mentioned in I think it was in your auteur section, Richard Linklater, I feel like he’s sometimes not given the credit he deserves, even though I think critics like him. But in terms of a general, maybe the general population, like, doesn’t gravitate to his films, like they might some others. And he is one that for me, and I don’t know, maybe it’s because I saw before sunrise my last night in Europe, I’ve always just found his stuff, even his misfires, so personal and so unique, you know, even boyhood, which got such a response. But he’s been doing this for.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: He’s managed to do this.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I’m not nuts about more recent, more conventional work that he’s done, but he really is an extraordinary filmmaker who is incredibly versatile. You know, Boyhood has a lot to recommend it. He did a film that hardly anyone saw called Me and Orson Welles.

Eric Conner: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Peter Rainer: Which I that was one of the best sort of coming of age in the theater.

Eric Conner: Yeah Zac Effron.

Peter Rainer: You know a life in the theater. It’s a terrific, terrific movie. And then there’s, you know, School of Rock, which is a great, very funny commercial film.

Eric Conner: Yeah. And still somehow personal.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: You know, that one. I felt like he managed to go big without losing anything that makes it Richard Linklater.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, he’s he’s an extraordinary filmmaker, you know, incredibly self prepossessing person. But I think that humility kind of works to his advantage as an artist because he’s not all over the place with you when he makes a movie. He he works rather subtly, which is maybe one reason why he doesn’t have a more widespread public acclaim, because he’s not one of these directors who assaults you and you know jumps all over you. Look at this. Look at this. Like Tarantino or somebody.

Eric Conner: In some ways he might be the exact opposite of Tarantino.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, I like some of what Tarantino does also.

Eric Conner: Me very much so yeah.

Peter Rainer: But I do think that that there’s room for yin and yang in that world. And Linklater, he works cheaply enough so that he can do these kinds of films on a regular basis. I think he took a page from Robert Altman in that regard.

Eric Conner: Which it’s funny I was about to say we got to talk about Robert Altman. I mean, one of the all time greats who somehow never won an Oscar as best director. I think he got an honorary Oscar.

Peter Rainer: Honorary Oscar, yeah.

Eric Conner: Do you count those?

Peter Rainer: Yes and no.

Eric Conner: It’s a little bit of a consolation prize.

Peter Rainer: I mean, it’s it’s a great consolation prize, but it’s outrageous that he never got any. Of course, that’s true of Cary Grant. That’s true of.

Eric Conner: Oh yeah the list is long.

Peter Rainer: Charlie Chaplin. Unless you count his Limelight Oscar for the music.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: Hitchcock. All of these guys.

Eric Conner: Kubrick right? Kubrick didn’t win best director.

Peter Rainer: And I don’t think he ever got it. No.

Eric Conner: Yeah. So he he joins a healthy list of some of the.

Peter Rainer: Astaire.

Eric Conner: Some of the best filmmakers we ever had.

Peter Rainer: Yeah Keaton.

Eric Conner: And performers.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I mean, it’s it’s almost a better you know, it’s a better club to be in than the one that.

Eric Conner: Though I’m sure winning an Oscar in a bad club either but.

Peter Rainer: No. No.

Eric Conner: Yeah. And he’s he’s so went to that. He spanned decades too. And it’s kind of amazing that in essence, like his style didn’t change.

Peter Rainer: Well, yes and no.

Eric Conner: Discuss that. So yeah. Let’s talk the yes and no of it.

Peter Rainer: I mean, there’s a long essay on him in my book, and I knew him somewhat over the years. I did probably his last interview for the DGA magazine when he was in New York cutting Prairie Home Companion. He used to have his own movie company in Westwood called Lions Gate, no relation to the current company. And he would invite people there sometimes to see rough cuts and stuff. It was a little awkward and, you know, stopped doing it after a while. But.

Eric Conner: Awkward just because, like, what if you don’t like it?

Peter Rainer: Well, it was awkward for me because I admired him so greatly. But I also didn’t want to see him, you know, I mean, it’s well known he would have a joint in one hand and a bottle of whiskey in the other, and he would as the evening went on. Finally, one of his people came over to me. He says I think if Bob were in better shape now, he probably wouldn’t want you to be seeing the rest. I said, I agree with you completely. I’m out of here. But that was during his low period where he did films like Quintet and Perfect Couple and Health. But he started out doing well, he Kansas City, and he did industrials and promos and all sorts of weird stuff. He came to Hollywood. He did a very low budget movie, completely off the radar that had Tom Loughlin of Billy Jack in it. He did a film called The James Dean story. Not terribly good movies, to put it mildly. Then he went back to Kansas City and did other stuff. But one of those films brought him to Hitchcock’s attention. So he did some Alfred Hitchcock Presents TV. So for about 10 years, he was doing episodic TV, you know, Whirlybirds and Sugarfoot, Bonanza. All this stuff, very traditional stuff.

Eric Conner: Yeah kind of straight down the middle.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. You know, and he was one of the great innovators in American cinema, and yet he had a good 10 or 12 years of doing this stuff. And by the time he started directing features, he was I think he directed MASH when he was in his early mid 40s. So even though he was part of that, you know, Spielberg, De Palma, Coppola, he was a good 15 years older than any of them. So, you know, That Cold Day in the Park was, well no, his first feature was for a studio was was a film called Countdown for Warners. It was an astronaut movie with James Caan and Robert Duvall. And he got fired by Jack Warner because he had the two of them speaking over each other in some scenes. And Warner was like, what is this? You know, they’re talking over each other.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer: And so that was when Altman first became a little bit of who Altman was, but he was.

Eric Conner: Right that became like his hallmark eventually yeah.

Peter Rainer: Right but you would never, ever know that he he he made masterpieces like McCabe and Mrs. Miller or Thieves Like Us or Nashville or Long Goodbye. Based on the first 20 years of his career, it’s one thing I think that distinguishes film from some of the other arts. You can look at the early writings of Virginia Woolf or Mailer or Austin, you know, and and you can see glimmers of the real artists in those writings. But in movies, for some reason, you know, can you draw a line between Dimentia 13 and The Godfather?

Eric Conner: Easily. No of course not.

Peter Rainer: Or, you know, I mean, there’s a million. So. So Altman.

Eric Conner: Well all those guys came out of the Roger Corman world like that.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. But I even, you know, went when Boxcar Bertha came out Scorsese’s film, I was in college, so I, I hadn’t seen any of his movies. Saw it in a Grindhouse on the second half of a double bill with 20 convicts and a woman on forty second street. And then I wrote about it for my college newspaper and I said, this is like the best directed terrible movie I’ve ever seen. It’s like incredibly well directed. You know a Corman knockoff of Bonnie and Clyde, but and everyone said, ‘oh, you’re just trying to make a name for yourself and discover someone you know’. And then when Mean Streets came out I said, you see. But Altman, you know, MASH is a terrific film, very funny, very hip, very loose. But even there, you couldn’t draw a line between that and because when McCabe and Mrs. Miller came out a couple years later in ’72, I just thought, my God. I mean, if you can really do something like this in Hollywood, then it’s not all corrupt. I mean, it was just unbelievable that he was able to pull that off.

Eric Conner: Although I do feel like even though like maybe he kind of genre jumped, I do feel like you could look at MASH and McCabe and Mrs. Miller and see the same director behind the camera.

Peter Rainer: Well yeah, there’s an iconoclasm.

Eric Conner: Even even like Gingerbread Man, which I enjoyed, actually. But yeah, I mean, to that end, like, he definitely had his stylistic devices and touches that would kind of tell you who was behind that camera.

Peter Rainer: Yeah and and, you know, the Nixon movie that he did a Secret Honor. It’s just a staged play reading. But it’s so cinematic. He didn’t really work from scripts in any traditional way. But at a certain point in his career, when he was at a low point, he became known for directing plays. And so he did films like, you know, streamers Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean. There were about six or seven movies that he did that were based on plays. And you thought of of all the directors to be doing that, Altman would be the least likely, you would think.

Eric Conner: Right.

Peter Rainer:Come Back to the 5 & Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean is not a very good play, which somehow became an extraordinary movie. And I’m not quite sure how he pulled that off.

Eric Conner: I guess he was almost like a visionary, but also a bit of a Willy Wonka. He’s always like kind of testing things and seeing what.

Peter Rainer: Yeah.

Eric Conner: What could he get away with?

Peter Rainer: Yeah, he was very iconoclastic. He didn’t. With very few exceptions. After MASH, he didn’t really like working in the studios. His big comeback, quote unquote, was The Player.

Eric Conner: The Player in ’92.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. Which was a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: Fabulous.

Peter Rainer: But it’s kind of like his love hate letter to Hollywood.

Eric Conner: Yeah.

Peter Rainer: Because the paradox of that movie is that it’s a great Hollywood movie about the inability to make a great movie in Hollywood. You know, I mean, he’s saying this is what the industry has become. And yet it’s a terrific movie.

Eric Conner: Amazingly, too. It’s a good thriller. You know, it’s great satire. It’s funny. It’s dark, but, there’s a thriller in there that really works.

Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s a terrific film. But, you know, he he never liked to do the same thing twice. He. I think I’ve seen every one of his movies even. But actors loved him for obvious reasons, you know, because he’d just say, let me see what you’re thinking. You know, try anything you want. If I don’t like it, we won’t it won’t be in the movie. But he didn’t say, you know, hit your mark here, do this to that. He allowed them to be very much part of the creative process, which if you have creative actors and you’re a director who can really work that way, is is the best.

Eric Conner: And is it true, like actors didn’t always know if they’re being filmed or not?

Peter Rainer: Right. If he I mean, the way he used sound, he had so many different mics going that there’d be like, I think 14 different that he could pick up on. People always complain, well, I can’t hear what people are saying in his films. Occasionally, I think that was a valid criticism. But mostly he was trying to get at a kind of poetic naturalism or some way in which, you know, because it wasn’t just a lot of gabble. And that’s what, he was very selective in, what he made you hear and what he what you didn’t hear. Yeah. I mean, when you saw his movies, you always felt like you were in for something. You know, you aren’t just going to see another product. And, you know, I thought that it was it was heroic, the career that he had, basically, because it was such a difficult thing for him to do. And especially since, you know, like I said, he came out of episodic TV in the 60s. And to be able to have that and then do the kind of work that he did after that is some kind of heroic thing.

Eric Conner: That’s an artist at its most pure. Right. You know.

Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.

Eric Conner: Just wanted to tell the stories and he would keep telling them his way and he somehow managed to keep making them. And I remember when when he passed away, too. It’s like you feel sad, of course, because loss of life, he’s gone. And then you feel this weird, selfish sadness of like, I don’t get to see anymore new films from him. But, luckily for you people listening, beauty of a book like Rainer on Film, it reminds you all these movies are out there. And back in the day, some of these were like impossible to get. And one of the great things about the technology we have is like now a lot of these movies. You can get you know, you can find these things in the annals of the iTunes and Amazon libraries. And they’re out there. And the hope is with film criticism, it might bring you to things you otherwise wouldn’t have seen and might make you appreciate things you might not have otherwise thought about or noticed. And I think that’s a thing that that Peter Rainer has done with his career for decades now. Peter’s still doing this and still has new reviews available. What Web says should they go to to check out your material?

Peter Rainer: Well csmonitor.com is for the reviews, which can also be picked up on Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes and on the radio KPCC.org. Podcast of the shows that I do for a film called Film Week. But the book I feel is, you know, it does collect I think much of what I really.

Eric Conner: Yeah there’s a breadth to this book. Well, a massive thank you to Peter Rainer for talking with us. And thanks to all of you guys for listening. Remember to check us out NYFA.edu to learn about our school. And also we have some of our Q&As a whole, actually a lot of Q&As on our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was edited and mixed by Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself, executive produced by Jean Sherlock and Dan Mackler with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. See you next time.

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