NYFA: The opinions expressed in this podcast are those of Peter Rainer and do not necessarily represent the opinions of the New York Film Academy staff, faculty or students.
Eric Conner: Hi and welcome to The Backlot. I’m Eric Conner senior instructor at New York Film Academy. Today we actually have someone else in the studio with me, 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. He’s a finalist for the Pulitzer and also a teacher and fellow faculty member at New York Film Academy. He’s a native New Yorker and he’s the writer of Rainer On Film, 30 years of film writing in a turbulent and transformative era. This covers decades of his writing career. It’s a book that’s actually available on Amazon and is a terrific book. So, Peter, first off, thank you so much for coming and joining us in the studio.
Peter Rainer: Thanks, Eric.
Eric Conner: So I figure we might as well begin at the beginning. How you started with your love of cinema. If there’s movies when you were a kid that just immediately made you think like this is a career I want.
Peter Rainer: Right. Yeah. I grew up primarily in Westchester County, which is certainly close enough to New York City that I was able to go in all the time and see movies in the many revival houses that no longer exist in New York. But primarily, I saw movies on television growing up, which was an interesting way to get a film education.
Eric Conner: Sure.
Peter Rainer: You know, you didn’t get to see a lot of the so-called classics. At least not the non English ones. There was a show called Million Dollar Movie, which showed the same movie every night for five nights running. And so in that way, I kind of obsessively would rewatch all of these movies and unknowingly learned about acting and script and camera and all of this stuff just by seeing these films over and over again.
Eric Conner: Right. It gives you more of a critical eye.
Peter Rainer: Yeah, you’re sort of a critic.
Eric Conner: You become a bit of an expert.
Peter Rainer: Right. There were ton of newspapers in New York back then, something like 12 daily newspapers. And they all had critics, you know, many of whom are quite good. And so that sort of gave me the idea that, gee, I’m watching all these movies and I’m sort of thinking about them in ways that aren’t just as a fan. The big thing was when my dad gave me a copy of Agee on film, James Agee was a great writer who for a period of about seven years was a film critic. So I read this and I said, wow, this really demonstrates that you can write about movies and be a real writer. He’s not just, you know, the acting was good. This was bad, you know, a checklist and, you know, plot summary. And Pauline Kael had come out with with her first book called I Lost It at the Movies. And that was exciting in a different way because she was just coming onto the scene and writing about movies that were mostly current. So I would say between the two of them, that sort of got me thinking that maybe this is something that I sort of had an affinity for.
Eric Conner: And you went to, was it Brandeis?
Peter Rainer: Yeah, I was – I was at Northwestern for a year and I transferred to Brandeis. I was there from 70 to 73. I was for a time the editor of my college paper, which was really an excuse for me to control the length of my film reviews because I was the film critic.
Eric Conner: It was just a power grab. So you could.
Peter Rainer: Well.
Eric Conner: You could get as many columns.
Peter Rainer: Okay yeah right. I admit. No, I mean, you know, it’s the only time in my life I’ve ever had the opportunity to be my own boss in journalism. You know, and it was very fortunate because that was a time we’re talking, you know, ’70 to ’73 when movies were incredible.
Eric Conner: Yeah.
Peter Rainer: I mean, I’m not being some old fogy, particularly American movies just broke through. And week after week, I’d be reviewing, you know, The Godfather.
Eric Conner: Yeah Godfather came out in that time.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. The Godfather, Sounder, you know, Mean Streets, McCabe and Mrs. Miller, Sorrow and the Pity. I mean, just, you name it, Last Picture Show. They were all coming out week after week and cabaret.
Eric Conner: I mean, the thing is about that time frame, and really to come of age as a critic in the 70s meant you were there for really the modern golden age of Hollywood.
Peter Rainer: Right.
Eric Conner: It’s kind of like where TV is now is where film was then. I mean, that is such I mean, to be able to go into a theater. I mean, I got to see Godfather years later. But my introduction to Godfather was a VHS copy on a not very big TV, but to be able to see those movies on the big screen for the first feeling too, I’m more than a little envious.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, it makes a big difference even now, of course. But I think that’s really what set me on the road, because not only were all these great movies coming out, but I’m writing about them for very literally captive audience, my fellow students and teachers. And I think that’s why so many critics of my generation are critics, because we all pass through the same ether.
Eric Conner: And by the time you finished college, I can’t even imagine how many reviews you’ve written, especially if you were the editor as well, like it’s like you get to enter the professional world, sort of tested, you know, like you’re not.
Peter Rainer: In a way yeah. I mean, what I did was, you know, when I graduated, I said, alright well, now what am I going to do with my life? So I gathered my best reviews together from college and I went to the library and I wrote out a list of about 100 publications and I got, I think, two responses.
Eric Conner: Two out of, I’m sorry. Two out of like 100, you said.
Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah. One was from Mademoiselle magazine. Long story short, Mademoiselle gave me a shot at their monthly film review column. First time I ever reviewed professionally was Chinatown and it’s been all downhill ever since.
Eric Conner: I was about to say you’re starting with rarefied air right off the bat.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, that was pretty amazing. So so now I was in the in the bloodstream and it’s very, very exciting. And then The Herald Examiner, which is one of the two daily newspapers, opened up. And this was a chance to be, you know, the critic for a major metropolitan daily was what I always wanted. So that’s what I did. And I was with the Herald Examiner for 10 years from 79 till the day it folded in 1989.
Eric Conner: So then you had to find a new home.
Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, the L.A. Times knew before we did at the Herald that the paper was going to fold. So within an hour of the announcement, there was an editor who used to work at the Herald who was on the phone trying to bring me over. So that was all very nice.
Eric Conner: What is it like for you as a critic then? I’m sure you travel in these circles. I’m sure you’ve made friends with them over the years. But then part of your job is to give an honest assessment of your friend.
Peter Rainer: Right.
Eric Conner: And their work, which might not always be perfect.
Peter Rainer: First of all, you know, when you’re the film critic for a newspaper in L.A., it’s kind of like being the car critic for a newspaper in Detroit.
Eric Conner: Right.
Peter Rainer: You know, I’m a human being. So if I see films by a particular writer, director or an actor that I really respond to, and then you have occasion to be in a social situation with them, you know, it’s very hard to just sort of wall yourself off and not say anything. The downside is that you do often get played even by people who you respect. If you stop giving good reviews to them, then often you find out who your real friends are, if they’re friends. But, you know, it’s it’s tough. I’ve had, you know, people say, have you ever been dissed by an actor or something? Yes.
Eric Conner: Well, especially with Twitter now, where you read a review by Peter Rainer and you disagree, you can go and all of a sudden with a few touches your fingers, suddenly your three, four million followers find out directly what your thought is of the review by Peter Rainer.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. I mean, I’m not crazy about all that, but, you know, there’s nothing you can do about it. But it comes with the territory. And usually people only write when they’re angry about something or they’ll retweet something and they’ll say you’re wrong.
Eric Conner: Although I definitely know some people who, when they get a great review, they feel the need to share that with the world as well so.
Peter Rainer: Well, good. I wish I got more of that.
Eric Conner: What they call the humble brag, you know.
Peter Rainer: Right. Right. Right.
Eric Conner: It’s funny, too, because being an artist, being a filmmaker actor means you’re perpetually getting reviewed. Yet obviously, some artists know incredibly thin skin despite the fact it’s it’s it’s like part of your job.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I mean, I understand it. But if you if you think too much about how you know, you’re gonna be upsetting all these people, then you might as well be a carpenter.
Eric Conner: Although then you have to deal with people complain about your carpentry. And mind you, I haven’t read every review you’ve ever written, but they don’t come off as nasty even when you clearly don’t like a project.
Peter Rainer: Yeah, well, I try not to be gratuitously nasty because I don’t see the point of that. You know, people have this idea that all critics are like Addison Dewitt, George Sanders in All About Eve, you know, sharpening their knives and they’re only in it for the kill. And admittedly, if you really don’t like something or you’re really offended by something, you can get your rocks off by really flaying something in print. But that gets old awfully fast. And in the long run, it’s the films that that are really great that challenge you as a critic. Like when I came out of Blue Velvet, which I love, but it’s very confounding movie.
Eric Conner: Right. It’s not simple to review something that.
Peter Rainer: No, no you say, well, how on earth am I going to do justice to this experience? And, you know, in my book, there’s a section on masterpieces. And to me, the the mark of a critic is how good are they at really praising something? Because there are some critics who are really good at being nasty. But when they praising something, it’s like, you know, the cinematography was gorgeous and the acting was terrific. And, you know, it kind of doesn’t really sing. The thing is, you have to try to back up your negativity, which is not always easy if you don’t have the space to do it. You know, I’m talking in theoretical terms, but a lot of us, you know, space is is not what it used to be. And you can’t stretch out and really do justice sometimes to the full extent of how you want to support or tear down something. But, you know, there are all kinds of stories of, you know, John Simon who’s who’s still writing. He has a blog. At this point. He’s notorious for writing really defamatory personal attacks on how actors looked and everything like that. And he was at a function years ago and the actress goes over to the order table and picks up his big tray of food and goes over and dumps it on him. He says, I’m going to send you with a cleaning bill. But she got presents and kisses from all the Broadway and Hollywood contingent for years afterwards.
Eric Conner: She had the chutzpah to do what they all wanted to do.
Peter Rainer: I guess so yeah.
Eric Conner: Well, you bring up kind of this idea of space. For years these critics, these writers, they had the room, even Roger Ebert, weirdly enough, Siskel and Ebert sort of – I think maybe tilted reviews towards where it is now in that, you know, Roger Ebert’s written reviews of movies were fabulous. I mean, I think he won a Pulitzer.
Peter Rainer: He did yeah.
Eric Conner: Then they had a TV show called At the Movies, where it was Gene Siskel, Roger Ebert, two critics from the Chicago scene. And they then turned cinema criticing into something that was a little bit like a greatest hits collection. Suddenly it was a thumbs up or thumbs down.
Clip: …think about it with Jaws, which had three marvelous characters hunting the shark. Jurassic Park only has Goldblum. The rest of the crew stands around and smiles or schemes. Still, thumbs up from me. The action scenes are really enjoyable.
I gave a thumbs up too and also for the action scenes and I feel that really this movie, though, was a missed opportunity…
Eric Conner: Now we have tomatoes with a aggregate score, Metacritic.
Peter Rainer: Right.
Eric Conner: So it was curious your take on, I guess, where a large chunk of this industry has now gone.
Peter Rainer: When I was first starting out as a critic or reading critics was, some might argue, the golden age of criticism in the sense there were some amazing critics back then. There’s many more good critics now than there were in the 70s. It’s just that there are fewer places to show that you’re good. But when the Siskel Ebert syndrome kicked in, they were originally a local show and then became national and then Disney bought it, et cetera. That created kind of the critic as celebrity. Before that the critics I’d mentioned earlier were celebrities.
Eric Conner: That’s right. I was about to say they had their own celebrity, too.
Peter Rainer: Right. But in a rarefied circle because they weren’t on TV. But Siskel and Ebert, people would tune in to see them who had never heard of Pauline Kael or Stanley Kaufman or anybody. They just want to see these two guys fight, frankly.
Clip:…well I hated this movie more than any other movie on this show. And I’m I’m really surprised at you. You should be ashamed of yourself. First of all.
What, for not agreeing with you? I’ve never been ashamed of that. I’ve been proud of that.
OK, well, in that case, here’s another star for your lapel. OK. This movie is not funny…
Peter Rainer: And then there were knockoffs of Siskel and Ebert. Various other people tried to do it. Look, I knew Roger and I respected him and he was a good guy and a terrific writer. The problem I had with that show was not that it was two guys talking about movies, because if you actually transcribed their words, it’s probably more more words devoted to a given movie than most newspaper critics had in print. But I just felt that, you know, you have thumbs up and you have thumbs down. But most movies are thumbs sideways.
Eric Conner: Sure.
Peter Rainer: Right. I mean, you don’t usually love or hate most movies is kind of somewhere in the middle.
Eric Conner: And there are elements you love elements that don’t work.
Peter Rainer: So I understood why they didn’t have thumbs sideways. But I thought it sort of adulterated the whole concept by pitching it yes or no. Thumbs up, thumbs down. And it became, you know, literally a trademark. Roger copyrighted the thumb. You know, so when people started to see that, hey, you know, you can get on TV and talk about criticism. So suddenly, you know, you would find in the film schools and just in general. I remember talking to this this film class of people who wanted to be critics, a criticism class. And I said, this is awfully photogenic class. Oh I know why that is.
Eric Conner: Right, because they they don’t think of the hunched over the keyboard writing.
Peter Rainer: Right they’re not really. Yeah or they say I want to be a critic and I say, well, what have you written? And they say well I haven’t, I like to talk about film. I like to. I said well that’s not quite it. You know, cause everyone says what a great job. All you do is go to movies all day. And I say, well, yes and no. First of all, most movies are lousy and I see about 250 a year. And second of all, that’s half the job. You know, the real job for me is to be a writer.
Eric Conner: Right.
Peter Rainer: You know, a critic is first and foremost, or should be, a writer. And that’s really what the job is about for me. But the space that we have to do it in, you know, you mentioned is – there are still a number of outlets where you can stretch out. But to really stretch out is a luxury that is not only rarer than it used to be, but in some ways not expected, like what you were saying, the people just sort of want to look for the quick fix.
Eric Conner: Right.
Peter Rainer: You know, is it is it fresh or rotten? Is it this or that? Now at the monitor, I am asked to provide a grade. At least it saves me the trouble of having, you know, rotten tomatoes. People call me up, as they used to say, you know, is this a B or a B minus. But, you know, as far as those sites go, I don’t, unlike a lot of critics, I don’t really have a problem with rotten tomatoes, but I think it cuts both ways. On the one hand, you know, none of the critics whose stuff is being linked on Rotten Tomatoes gets paid for that. However.
Eric Conner: You’re not getting any kind of bump for being featured.
Peter Rainer: Not really.
Eric Conner: Even featured as a top critic.
Peter Rainer: Right. Not that I know of. Also, it’s too easy for editors and, you know, publishers to say, well, we don’t need critics. We can just link to Rotten Tomatoes. You know, if everybody thought that way there’d be nothing to link to because everything that you’re aggregating would be gone. The people who are aggregated on Rotten Tomatoes are people who have individual bylines. But what I like about Rotten Tomatoes is that, you know, in the past, if I wanted to read a critic, say, in Boston or someplace, the only way I could read that critic is if I subscribe to, you know, The Boston Globe or the Phoenix or whatever.
Eric Conner: Right.
Peter Rainer: Now, with the click of a key, you can read anybody. So in a sense, it’s the great leveler. You know, The New York Times and the Podunk Express critic are equally accessible, which is a good thing. It also means that if you’re good, but out there in the wilderness, you don’t feel quite as alone.
Eric Conner: Right no it’s true. Your review can reach so much more of a mass audience than ever. It’s not only limited to that town.
Peter Rainer: Yeah and that’s important. I myself don’t read a whole lot of criticism, you know, hardly any before I see a film, assuming reviews are even out there.
Eric Conner: Yeah I was about to say you also have the luxury of you get to see it early.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, you know, the trades and some publications usually come out earlier than the rest of us, but but for the most part, particularly if I’m at a festival like Toronto, I’m seeing films that are opening two, three months in advance, sometimes a year in advance, sometimes they never open. And, you know, I don’t review a movie right after I see it. Most of the time unless I’m on some big deadline. But I try to take notes just so I have some sense of, you know, what I was thinking. So that when I do review it, if it’s months later, you know, because I do see a lot of movies, I do have the luxury at the monitor of not reviewing everything I see. Thank God, because that’s another.
Eric Conner: You can pick and choose basically.
Peter Rainer: For the most part, I mean, if if if I didn’t wanna review Black Panther for some reason, I would have had to review that just for obvious reasons. But I did want to see it, of course. Or let, let’s say, Transformers movies. I have sort of at this point saying, you know, I just can’t take it anymore. I’m sorry.
Eric Conner: Like you can as a critic then say I think I think my audience is good not to read my review.
Peter Rainer: To some extent. I mean, the reason I have to do some of that is because at least the online version of what I write does reach everybody, not just monitor subscribers, particularly if you’re going through rotten tomatoes and hits matter, clicks matter, all of that stuff. So I can’t just turn my back because, I mean, I wasn’t kidding. There are 20 movies that open in a given week.
Eric Conner: Sure.
Peter Rainer: And the radio show that I’m a part of, Film Week, they sort of like it if the two of us critics see the majority of what’s out there as a great public service to all these people who are listening who then don’t have to see all this crap that we’re talking about.
Eric Conner: I see Transformers so you do not.
Peter Rainer: Well, if Transformers opened on a week when I was on the show, I would have to see the thing. But that’s a classic example of a so-called critic proof movie.
Eric Conner: Yeah.
Peter Rainer: This idea that the studios are clamoring for critics to write about their movies is certainly not true. And there are some movies that criticism has zero effect. It’s not like, you know, I’m going to give a terrible review to Transformers 12 and Michael Bay is going to sit there and go, God now we just lost 12 million at the box office. You know, the only critic who apparently had even the slightest real effect on studio picture box office was Ebert. Where you have an effect as a critic is with the small indie films.
Eric Conner: Sure.
Peter Rainer: That’s the big difference. Studio pictures. Increasingly, you know, they’ll screen it maybe three or four days before it opens at best. Sometimes they don’t screen it at all. If you’re known for not rolling over like me, sometimes you get to see it last. And then there are critics, you know, blurb whores who who see things real early.
Eric Conner: Well, back in the day, Earl Dittman, his stuff was like, you know, you would have a movie that clearly critics did not favor. And then all of a sudden it would say, like, the greatest epic yet. You know, Earl Dittman, what was it like Wireless magazines?
Peter Rainer: Something like that. Yeah.
Eric Conner: Some thing that doesn’t even exist.
Peter Rainer: Right.
Eric Conner: Yeah. I mean, there were so many critics out there that in essence, they’re they’re not reviews, they’re just glorified fluff pieces to just get their line on the commercial.
Peter Rainer: Right. Well, back in the day, you had some critics who were like that. They could always be counted on to give a great review. Very rarely do I get quoted at this point, but for whatever reason, they tend to go to the same people all the time. And, you know, if you use the word Oscar like it’s only January, but this film is going to clean up at Oscar time or, you know, Driving Miss Daisy, “drive this film straight to the Oscars!”
Eric Conner: Straight to the Oscars.
Peter Rainer: Right. You know, and it’s just shameless, you know. And sometimes, I mean, there are certain critics who are quoted a lot who if you actually go back and look at the full review, they’re kind of mixed reviews. But you have these, quote lines stand out in Dayglo. You know, it says, I didn’t think. For some reason I used always it quoted on John Carpenter movies, even though I was very mixed on them, you know, like The Fog, you know, not a very good movie, but a couple of really scary moments. “Really scary!” I very rarely use exclamation points, but they always put them into these quotes. Sometimes rarely they’ll call me up and say, we want to use this quote, which isn’t quite what I wrote or it’s or it’s the headline which I never write for these reviews. you know, that sort of thing. Look, I like getting quoted. You know, my my mom loved it, and it makes you feel good. But if it’s in the service of something that you genuinely liked. But as I was saying, you know, critics do make a difference for foreign films, independent films, documentaries, those movies, because they don’t have any money to promote their frame.
Eric Conner: Right, right. You are there advertising.
Peter Rainer: Right, we are their advertising and they will build a screening room in your home to show you their movie. I’m not big on streaming. But, you know, there’s a lot of stuff now that’s streamed or DVDs, you know, whatever it takes. And with the traffic in L.A., I have to say, if the choice is me driving an hour and 45 minutes to see a movie that’s an hour and a half or seeing it in the comfort of my own home on a film that is going to lose much visually. That’s what we do now.
Eric Conner: Yeah, on that end I was going to actually ask you about. I was wondering if there were smaller films, independent films. You felt like over the course of your career you’re really able to help champion.
Peter Rainer: Right yeah. Oh, sure. I mean, I, I guess I have two success stories, if I’m may say. One was the movie Blue Sky. Jessica Lange, Tony Richardson directed it, Tommy Lee Jones. Yeah. Yeah. So that was that was made and wasn’t released for like a year and a half. Then it came out, it got a an okay review by the first rank critic at the L.A. Times. And I was at the Times at that point as well. And I thought, well, Jessica Lange’s performance is just unbelievably great.
Eric Conner: Yes, she’s terrific.
Peter Rainer: You know I showed it at a NYFA class to acting students.
Eric Conner: Oh, that’s right. I think I saw the poster film like. Oh, cool.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. No, I wanted to pick something that.
Eric Conner: That’s a bit of a gem.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. And I write about it in my book too. But the piece in the book is taken from the L.A. Times. So what happened was I wrote this big essay about her performance and the paper played it up, front page calendar, and that was just when the Academy was starting to send out VHS tapes of films. So Orion got behind the film to the extent that they sent out VHS tapes with a copy of my review to all the Academy members of this film that no one had seen. And then she won the Oscar and she, I’m told, you know, has credited me for making that happen. At least getting the film out there. It would have died. Another example was Alfonso Caron’s first English language movie, Little Princess was a Warner’s picture. That was a movie that, again, it got an okay review in the Times. But I thought this is just a transcendent family.
Eric Conner: Beautiful film.
Peter Rainer: Beautiful, beautiful film. So I wrote a long piece on it, particularly cause at the time everybody was saying, well, why aren’t there enough good movies for families, you know? I said, well, here’s one and you’re not going to see it. The Warners campaign for it initially was terrible. So, again, they took out big ads. My review was sent out. They rereleased it on the basis of the review. It still didn’t do the kind of business it should have. And the ad campaign had the little girl’s glowing cheeks in the dark, like I mean, like a Stephen King movie. But I know that Cuarón said, you know, I. I really owe you. So, I mean, that that makes you feel good because you really championing you know, I think I speak for a lot of critics that, you know, it’s not tearing things down that we get off on. It’s championing films that might not normally have a life of its own.
Eric Conner: Sure. Well, and actually gets us into part of your book. I really was say to talk with you about which was overrated or under seen. And we’ll start with the under seen and we’ll we’ll start positive before we work our way maybe to the back of the house there. A few of them that I just jotted down that I thought really deserved some mention that I’m really glad you did the book. Wild Bill with a terrific performance by Jeff Bridges. Joe Gould’s Secret. And I’m going to piggyback on that and I want to talk about Big Night, which I love also. Stanley Tucci directed. Then Babe Pig in the City.
Peter Rainer: Yeah.
Eric Conner: Any of those you want to pontificate on?
Peter Rainer: Well, yeah. Wild Bill. I was the critic at Los Angeles magazine at that time, and I had a lot of space and I thought, you know, Walter Hill’s had a very uneven career, but at his best, he’s a great director. And at that time he was sort of not as highly regarded. And Jeff Bridges, I’ve always thought, was one of the very best actors around. And you know, and here here he is in a full scale starring role. Terrific script. I just thought it was.
Eric Conner: Ellen Barkin was in that too right?
Peter Rainer: Ellen Barkin. Yeah. I mean, it’s it’s an amazing movie that, you know, you and I and eight other people have probably seen.
Eric Conner: Yeah.
Peter Rainer: But it was a classic example of my trying to put into the spotlight a film that was terrific. And I knew needed some help. Babe Pig in the City is is one of the best sequels ever made. I mean, I love Babe. I think this is even better. It’s a turbo charged woop-de-do great. The script is really good. I mean, everything about it is just a terrific movie.
Eric Conner: And I think it like didn’t hit with family audiences the same way because there’s.
Peter Rainer: Dark.
Eric Conner: There’s a darkness about it, but it actually I mean the themes of it are beautiful and it died. Like, it like.
Peter Rainer: I know.
Eric Conner: And Babe was such a hit and such a hit on video too.
Peter Rainer: I think some people who loved Babe felt betrayed that this wasn’t, you know, the same tone. But I mean, if it had been, it wouldn’t have been as good. It was it was just a terrific movie.
Eric Conner: But you really could feel like the first one you like, George Miller worked on that? And then Babe Pig in the City, like ah yeah, there’s George Miller.
Peter Rainer: Right that’s the Road Warrior George Miller.
Eric Conner: Like there’s a scene that looks like it’s right out of Thunderdome towards the end of that film.
Peter Rainer: Yeah there’s some great chase scenes in it.
Eric Conner: And then Joe Gould’s Secret, which directed by Stanley Tucci.
Peter Rainer: Right.
Eric Conner: Inspired by a true story.
Peter Rainer: Yeah it was a New Yorker writer who sort of befriended this this homeless guy who claimed to be writing a million page history of the world. It was just a very touching movie. It was very well done. You know, it wasn’t a great work of cinematic art, but, you know, it didn’t have to be.
Eric Conner: And that’s what I feel about big night. I I’m curious your thoughts on Big Night. Because that’s one of those.
Peter Rainer: Yeah don’t see you when you’re hungry.
Eric Conner: Yeah. That film’s all about food, but but food not just as food. The food is a symbol of of art versus commerce. And two brothers Primo and Secondo.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.
Eric Conner: Stanley Tucci co-wrote it, co-directed it, starred in it with Tony Shalhoub.
Peter Rainer: And Tony Shalhoub. Yeah.
Eric Conner: And it’s this beautiful little gem of a film. I you know, I teach writing and I use that film every time I have a new group. If I’m talking dialog I go there. If I’m talking theme I go there. And Stanley Tucci, he’s only directed a little bit, but I feel like he really has a real auteur’s eye and auteur’s heart.
Peter Rainer: You know, Big Night, as I recall it ends with the two guys. They sort of make up, but they don’t say anything.
Eric Conner: It’s it’s a 10 minute scene of them cooking an omelet.
Peter Rainer: And they don’t say anything. Right. Sometimes the best dialogue is no dialogue.
Eric Conner: Oh, yeah, and that’s a lesson I teach.
Peter Rainer: That’s a classic example. You know, just just let it play out. You don’t need to say anything.
Eric Conner: No. No dialogue. No cuts.
Peter Rainer: Yeah.
Eric Conner: So. Well, we talked positive and, you know, without being nasty.
Peter Rainer: Uh oh.
Eric Conner: Some interesting choices for movies that you felt were overrated. Again, not necessarily terrible, but just overrated. And I’ll just list a few. Feel free to riff on any of them. American Beauty, Good Will Hunting, which I do want to talk about. Shine, Fight Club, Zero Dark Thirty. And then you didn’t get into this in the book, but you alluded to Silver Linings Playbook, which I think you just called, and I’m quoting you, “a crock.”
Peter Rainer: I mean, Silver Linings Playbook is entertaining. I called it a crock because I think the way it wraps up, it’s like, you know, mental illness is something that you can literally dance away.
Eric Conner: It’s easy as long as you. Right, right. If you do well in the dance contest, you’re healed.
Peter Rainer: I mean, really.
Eric Conner: But, yeah, I was wondering if any of those particular for you were like American Beauty wins the Oscar for best picture.
Peter Rainer: Yeah that pissed me off. I forget what should have won that year. But that’s actually the first review in my book. I just thought I really wanted to, you know, to come out swinging, you know, with the film that that won all these awards. But I have found that, and a lot of people who’ve read it say, you know, yeah, I kind of agree with you. That was overrated. Sometimes these movies, it takes a while before people really come down from the hype and see these films more for what they really are. You know, Shine, I thought. And we can talk about this in connection with Good Will Hunting also. But, you know, there’s this kind of romance of madness, the genius of, that is very much old school Hollywood, but tricked up in these new ways, people buy it in a way that they might not if it was so nakedly obvious. In the old movies, you know, some great composer tearing his hair out and “I’ve got it,” you know, and aha. You know, there are ways to do that story that are sympathetic and powerful and empathetic without distorting who these guys really are.
Eric Conner: Are there films you can think of that are like the troubled genius? You know, I mean, even Beautiful Mind, which I’m not sure.
Peter Rainer: Yeah, I wasn’t crazy about that either.
Eric Conner: And that one I know got some criticism for leaving out pretty large chunks of who this guy was.
Peter Rainer: Right. You know, all the stuff that’s going to turn people off.
Eric Conner: Yeah, but is there one that you feel like really nailed it?
Peter Rainer: It’s very difficult. You know, the Picasso movie with Anthony Hopkins didn’t work.
Eric Conner: I guess Amadeus maybe to an extent, although it’s not the same category though, right?
Peter Rainer: No and I had a problem with Amadeus too. I’m sorry because the game plan there was that the real Mozart was this amazing genius. But he was this scatological twit in real life, you know, with all this cackling and all that. That’s what people remember, you know, and then somehow out of all of this comes this great music. Now, if you read anything about his life or in general, this notion that he was somehow visited by the gods, I think is a disservice to what genius entails, which isn’t all just, you know, you wake up and you’re a genius. Even geniuses have to work at it and have ups and downs. And there’s more of a psychology to their lives than is allowed for in these stupid movies.
Eric Conner: I think maybe Pollock, I thought might be one. That was good.
Peter Rainer: Pollock was. Yeah, Pollock was pretty strong. I’d have to think about that. You know, I mean, Geoffrey Rush, who was in Shine, was played Einstein in the TV series and he wasn’t bad. But that’s sort of an impossible role to do. It’s very hard to portray genius.
Eric Conner: Well, and I think it, right. And I think Pollock, it’s such a grounded film. You know, in essence, like he was so driven, and he would sort of put his work before all his relationships.
Peter Rainer: Right yeah. No it’s funny because it’s like the ones I think have been sort of successful that I can recall are mostly about painters. With writers, it’s a little more difficult. You know, you’re sitting down and all of a sudden you got. It’s not a very photo, you know, cinematic thing to do.
Eric Conner: A movie you brought up in your book. And this one’s not based on a true story. But Wonder Boys, which is, I think, a terrific movie about writing.
Peter Rainer: Underrated. Yeah.
Eric Conner: Yeah. That, right, that. Was that on your underrated list?
Peter Rainer: No that’s in another. That’s in the Curtis Hanson auteurs section.
Eric Conner: Oh right right. The auteurs section. I thought Wonder Boys if you haven’t seen it, it’s Michael Douglas and it’s that thing Paul Newman was so wonderful at. It’s like it didn’t feel like acting, and you realize how much work into making something look like you’re not doing any work.
Peter Rainer: Yeah, it’s really, I know for fact, that’s one of his very best performances. Yeah. It does capture the writing life in ways that most movies don’t.
Eric Conner: Right. Yeah he doesn’t have writer’s block. He writes too much, which is, that one detail feels so lived in where it has no center because he has no center.
Peter Rainer: Yeah.
Eric Conner: Gosh I want to watch it like tonight again.
Peter Rainer: Yeah it’s a terrific, terrific movie.
Eric Conner: And who, was it like Dede Allen edited it? I’m trying to remember.
Peter Rainer: Oh Anne Coates?
Eric Conner: Yeah, it was one. It was either Dede. I think it was Dede Allen.
Peter Rainer: Might have been Dede Allen.
Eric Conner: But yeah the idea that Dede Allen and Anne Coates were still doing it, you know, and doing such a great. I mean, Out of Sight I think is one of the.
Peter Rainer: Terrific movie.
Eric Conner: One of the best sorta pulpy genre films.
Peter Rainer: I mean out of sight won the National Society of Film Critics award for Best Picture. And I remember, you know, because usually these awards are given to sort of Oscar bait or prestigious movies that fit all the categories, you know. And here was this terrific genre movie. And I was overjoyed that it won. But I got more calls because I was president of the group like The New York Times saying how is it that this film won? In other words, there was some conspiracy or what? What went on? And I explained to them what happened. And then they they published their own version of it anyway. You know, they they they refused to believe that that you could actually. Babe, the first babe, won best picture also from that group. And I remember there was a picture of a pig on the front page of Variety, you know, and people couldn’t believe that.
Eric Conner: I tell you, watch the last 10 minutes of that film. You know, Farmer Hoggett and Babe and his his big day at the at the sheep herding contest. It is like the most beautifully directed scene.
Peter Rainer: Yeah.
Eric Conner: And it is such a, I love showing that movie to my kids. If anything, I wish they would want to watch it more times because some of their movies they want to watch a hundred times I’m like, really?
Peter Rainer: What’s an example of a movie that they want to see hundreds of times?
Eric Conner: I mean, listen. I love Star Wars, but those prequels, it’s it’s rough.
Peter Rainer: Really the prequels?
Eric Conner: Listen, they’re young. I try with them.
Peter Rainer: Empire Strikes Back is for me a great movie.
Eric Conner: Sure. I could watch that a hundred times. I probably have watched that a hundred times. You know, and you actually talked a bit about Irvin Kershner’s work on that and Irvin Kershner directed Empire. He passed away a couple of years back, right?
Peter Rainer: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Eric Conner: So I was wondering if you could talk even a little bit about him.
Eric Conner: Cause he’s kind of like him and I feel like Hal Ashby to an extent.
Peter Rainer: Yeah.
Eric Conner: They’re these like great auteurs who were sort of overshadowed by other auteurs of those time periods.
Peter Rainer: Definitely. Yeah. I mean, Ashby directed a string of terrific movies.
Eric Conner: In the 70s he basically like Babe Ruth up there.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. I think even Harold and Maude, I think may have even been the 60s.
Eric Conner: What was that like 68 or 69?
Peter Rainer: Right but his first film I think as a director was, wasn’t it The Landlord? Beau Bridges, a terrific script by I think Bill Gunn. It was a really, really good movie, but he was a marvelous director. I gather he had some, you know, personal and drug issues that did him in early, but he’s not nearly as recognized as he should be now for those films. Kershner even more so. I mean, here’s a director who, you know, he started out he did a Corman movie. There’s a film called The Luck of Ginger Coffey with Robert Shaw and Mary Ure, which is a great newspaper movie. It’s about a newspaper man.
Eric Conner: And he was like George Lucas’s teacher at SC, I think.
Peter Rainer: I believe. Yeah. He he went to SC originally himself. And he was incredibly versatile. He did every you know, from creepy noir, supernatural, you know, Eyes of Laura Mars to Empire Strikes Back. He did a wonderful, very under seen Streisand movie, maybe her best performance, Up the Sandbox. Incredibly versatile and good. I’m missing some, you know.
Eric Conner: Well, one to miss, Never Say Never Again. I believe he directed that.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah.
Eric Conner: Which was the remake of Thunderball with a slightly older Sean Connery.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Right. No. There were, you know, he did the sequel to Robocop. I wasn’t crazy about that.
Eric Conner: Oh my god. That’s right. With the. Just stop at Empire and call it a day because. Yeah and I mean, Empire has such – there’s so much more to that. You know, it elevated the whole genre, really. I mean it’s.
Peter Rainer: Still the best, I think, of them.
Eric Conner: And it’s beautiful. I mean, I’ve been able to see it on the big screen. I saw it when I was a little kid. But you see it now. And there is such artistry to that.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Kerschner had a great graphics sense, too. I mean, really.
Eric Conner: The use of color, the use of framing.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. He worked with Connery much earlier on than than that misbegotten Bond movie.
Eric Conner: Oh yeah, that’s right.
Peter Rainer: A Fine Madness.
Eric Conner:Yeah. Yeah.
Peter Rainer: It’s a terrific movie, which is apparently, you know, recut by the studio. But but Connery is wonderful in it. This is pre James Bond even before Dr. No, I believe. But the word on on Kersh as everybody called him. I only met him a few times briefly. But you know, he said one of the reasons he was more well-known or made more movies is that he said nobody can turn a go project into a development deal. You know better than Irvin Kershner. You know, so. Because he at one point he was going to do a movie with a ninja, and there were always these projects were announced.
Eric Conner: Yeah.
Peter Rainer: But a wonderful, wonderful director.
Eric Conner: And that’s the hope is like you, you know, your book and your reviews. It does. You know, as you’re saying, it shines a light on the ones that aren’t as seen. And that’s honestly for myself teaching at a film school. You know, I try to make a point of bringing in stuff that spans decades and trying to find that balance. And it is hard to sometimes get past the, you know, let’s call it the little bit of aging on top, but there’s these beautiful stories that you as a critic have been able to bring to people and vice versa, which I think is to me, I imagine, the most rewarding part of your job by far.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Yeah. Well, you know, and Night of the Hunter, I often show that in classes or talk about because it really is is such a difficult movie. In some ways it’s it’s comedy. It’s scary. It’s funny. It’s you know, you really have to sort of be on its wavelength.
Eric Conner: Mitchum is so good in that.
Peter Rainer: Mitchum is incredible in it. And you know, the script is by James Agee. Only film Charles Laughton ever directed. It was shot by the guy.
Eric Conner: Oh that’s right. Right, right.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. It was shot by Stanley Cortez, who did Magnificent Ambersons. You know, it’s it’s just an amazing movie on every level. And another director who’s even more well-known than Kershner but still, Paul Mazursky is a director who I feel is sort of falling out of the landscape, who did some wonderful, wonderful movies.
Eric Conner: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Peter Rainer: Real humanist. You know, Harry and Tonto, Enemies, A Love Story based on the Isaac Singer novel.
Eric Conner: Oh yeah terrific. Lena Olin and.
Peter Rainer: Great movie. Yeah. Angelica Houston.
Eric Conner: Ron Silver?
Peter Rainer: Ron Silver. It’s an amazing it’s his best work and his early films, too. You know, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice I saw again not that long ago.
Eric Conner: Oh you wrote about that. Yeah I know you love that film.
Peter Rainer: Yeah. And even Alice in Wonderland, as misbegotten as a lot of it is, has some classic Hollywood satire.
Eric Conner: Was he Down and Out in Beverly Hills, too?
Peter Rainer: Yeah. Downtown Beverly Hills.
Eric Conner: Which which is really good actually.
Peter Rainer: It’s a really funny movie.
Eric Conner: That one aged nicely. Like, some of those you were talking about this, I think with American Beauty, like some movies were great then, and then you watch a little later like.
Peter Rainer: Right. Right.
Eric Conner: That one I saw not that long back again. It was. It really aged beautifully.
Peter Rainer: Holds up, yeah.
Eric Conner: Well, listen, I really appreciate just sitting down and chatting with you. I’ve seen your screenings that you’ve hosted at our school. And I think what you do here for our students is look deeper. Right? Like there’s so much new stuff and there’s so much great television, but you just have to scratch a little bit and you find things like the Criterion Collection.
Peter Rainer: Oh, yeah.
Eric Conner: And I mean, pretty much anything you get in the Criterion Collection, you’re going to be happy that you watched it.
Peter Rainer: Right.
Eric Conner: You might not always get it. You might always like it. But it will expand your film vocabulary and your film knowledge and your film history, all of which if you’re looking to write, direct, produce, act, cinematography.
Peter Rainer:Absolutely yeah.
Eric Conner:You gotta learn from the giants in order to stand on their shoulders correctly, I suppose.
Peter Rainer: Yeah.
Eric Conner: Well, Peter, thank you so much for kibitzing with me.
Peter Rainer: Thank you Eric. It was great. Went fast.
Eric Conner: And we will do this again. So thank you, Peter, for joining us. And thanks to all of you for listening. Again, his book, Rainer on Film is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and all other legitimate booksellers. It is more than worth it. If you want to check out some of our other Q&As you can go to our YouTube channel. That’s YouTube.com/NewYorkFilmAcademy. This episode was edited and mixed by the wonderful Kristian Heydon. Our creative director is the also wonderful David Andrew Nelson, who also produced this episode with Kristian Heydon and myself. Our show is executive produced by Tova Laiter, Jean Sherlock, and Dan Mackler with a special thanks going out to our staff and crew who made this possible. To learn more about our programs, check us out at NYFA.edu. And you can subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you may listen. See you next time.