Saturday, March 12, 2011

about face : interview with oregonian film critic shawn levy

Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy explains why Portland is second best to Paris when it comes to watching movies.

"When you think of Portland, Oregon, you don’t think one of the world’s great movie towns, even though I would argue that it is," matter-of-factly states Oregonian film critic Shawn Levy. "But more from an exhibition than a production standpoint."

Portland is approaching "film museum" status, according to Levy. A land where many independent films run for weeks, even months, longer than any other national market.

Self-described by his Twitter handle as: "Writer. Dad. Film guy. Soccer Fan." the Brooklyn-born but present-day Portlander has been writing for The Oregonian since 1992 and serving as the paper's chief Film Critic since 1997.

Under the early tutelage of a father who was a comedic writer turned florist, but truly an old school film buff at heart, Levy knew that "writing was what I always wanted to do."

Publishing six entertainment-related books while working at a daily newspaper, Levy has delved into subjects like The Rat Pack, Paul Newman and Jerry Lewis and he's currently at work on a biography of Robert De Niro, slated for tentative release in 2013.

Feeling "fortunate to write about a subject that I'm passionate about and still entertained by after 25 years," About Face asked Shawn Levy:

Why is Portland a great movie town?

If you draw a line from City Hall to the Hollywood Theatre and make that the radius of a circle, in that circle you have more screens dedicated to independent, alternative, documentary, avant-garde, and experimental cinema than you do Hollywood studio films. And that is a unique situation for an American downtown. There may be more screens dedicated to those things in New York, LA, San Francisco, Chicago, but they are spread out all over the place. And in that spread they incorporate many multiplexes. We have a situation where, in that area I described, there are five commercial multiplexes but one of them is dedicated to this type of film (The Fox Tower). Then you have things like the Hollywood and the Laurelhurst and the Living Room and about a half a dozen single screen theaters.

So, what happens in Portland is a picture like the Stieg Larsson movies, The Girl With the… whatever the hell she has opens at Cinema 21 and plays for a week or two and then he replaces it. But then it can play at one of these neighborhood independent theaters for weeks and weeks and months. There are movies that have lasted in Portland longer than they have played anywhere else in the country. The filmmakers come here. Last year, The Secret of Kells, the Irish animated film that was up for an Oscar, played in Portland for like five months, and at a certain point, the director [Tomm Moore along with art director Ross Steward] flew over from Ireland to come to Portland to do a Q&A at a screening because he was so overwhelmed by the support the film had here.

Truly the only city on earth that I can think of where there are more central city screens dedicated to alternative than mainstream film is Paris, France, which to me is the best movie city in the world. You go to Paris tonight and you can see twenty Hollywood classic films in the original English with French subtitles--Westerns and film noir and musicals and they’ll have a Peter Lorre series or Lana Turner series. It’s like the city is a film museum and Portland approaches that.

The average American sees around 5 to 8 movies in the theater per year. How many do you see per week?

I see as many in a week as people see in a year. I see about 300 new movies a year--that’s an average year.

Many people fantasize that watching movies all days would be a dream job. Is it your dream job?

Yeah, it’s a dream job. But when you wake up, the reality of the job is that it’s only partly about watching movies. The real job is writing accurately, entertainingly, and on deadline constantly. In a film market like Portland, which is pretty robust, we get about 800 new movies a year. And when you start talking about 800, you’re not talking about kicking back and watching a movie. You’re talking about cobbling shoes or moving bricks from one end to the yard to the other. It’s just becomes like a labor at a certain level. And, particularly with newspapers shrinking down, there are fewer hands on the oars, and since we’re online and in print, there’s more work to be done. I know for a fact, I have a great job. But, it is definitely a job; it is not a golf vacation in Hawaii.

What’s your first memory of film?

It was definitely from my dad. I don’t know what anyone was thinking, but when I was about eight or nine, In Cold Blood came on TV and they [my parents] let me watch this movie. I fell asleep before it was over so I had no idea those bastards were hung or caught and for years I had nightmares. I mean nightmares! Dick and Perry were going to come in my house. It wasn’t until [laughs] I was in college that I saw the whole movie and I was like, “You mean they’re dead!” My parents didn’t sensor what I saw. I was allowed to see a lot of things.

I grew up in an era when there were no VCRs, no cable TV, and if you wanted to see a movie you had to wait for it to show on television and of course it would be chopped up and in black and white on a tiny screen. But my dad was really a film buff of the classic Hollywood era, and he would lead me to different films. He’d say things like, “Why don’t you take a nap after school so you can stay up and watch On the Waterfront with me.” I have specific memories of watching things with him, but I am never sure what films they were. I know what sort of films: Bogart and John Wayne and James Cagney.

It was also a time for a movie buff where you used the library. You read about movies and then you would pour over the TV Guide to see what was showing that week because you had these movies that you’d read about your whole life that you’d never had a chance to see--even in New York City where there were these great repertory cinemas that showed programs of Fellini films and film noir and all these other things--you could go ten, fifteen years waiting to see a particular film.

We live in a golden age. You can watch thousands of movies without getting out of your chair. I remember it was decades before I got a chance to see [Orson Welles’] Touch of Evil. Same with The Manchurian Candidate or certain foreign films that you would read about but you just never saw [in theaters]. It was a different time and a challenge to be a film buff.

Has something been lost with all this convenience?

Oh, I don’t know. I suppose it winds up throwing all movies into the same pool, but I think we’re better off being able to see things. If I get interested in Carl Theodor Dreyer, or some obscure director, I can see most of his work without traveling to Denmark. It’s kind of overwhelming, but it’s definitely better.

What influenced you to become a film critic?

I was always steeped in journalistic writing and I always wanted to be a writer. [As a child,] The writers that drew me were columnists and opinion writers--the people who had their little picture in the paper seemed to carry more authority than the guys who just had their names.

But it wasn’t until after graduate school that I started writing about film. My first gig was about 26 years ago, and it barely paid. I mean barely. I was lucky because I was in Southern California and even though I didn’t have any relevant degree or experience, there were a lot of entry-level jobs at entertainment publications.

I got hired by a magazine called Boxoffice, which is a trade publication for theater owners. We wrote articles about peanut or coconut oil for popcorn. "Cup holders: Are they the new thing?" But we also reviewed every movie, including porn.

How was that?

Well, I didn’t do it, we had correspondents. The mail would come and the other editors and I would look at it and say, “Do we draw straws to see who touches that thing?”

We were a very active magazine and I got to do all sorts of reporting, writing, interviewing, and reviewing. It was a real introduction to the field and within about a year and half I went to a much better magazine called American Film where I was senior editor. Before I was there, it was owned by the American Film Institute and everyone in Hollywood was a member of the AFI so they all got American Film Magazine.

We would get letters, not for publication, from Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Steven Spielberg, Spike Lee. These people would call if they saw something they didn’t like or they would try and get things into the magazine that they were interested in.

On one hand, that was a kind of pressure. On the other hand, it meant that if we wanted to send a reporter to a set or get an interview, we had a lot of good fortune. We were very successful even though we weren’t a massive magazine like Premiere or Entertainment Weekly. We were prestigious. We weren’t interested in gossip. We weren’t interested in who is making how much money. We were interested in the art of films so people felt safe talking to us. I interviewed Akira Kurosawa and Pedro Almodóvar and Wim Wenders. You could get these people on the phone because you were American Film.

Give me a highlight from your time with American Film—whether it was someone you interviewed, a celebrity you met, or maybe even if Spike Lee called you to bitch.

All those things happened.

I was invited to the opening gala for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Library--the people who give the Oscars. It was the most star-studded thing I have ever been to and I’ve covered the Oscars. But this was like a cocktail party and you were surrounded by legends. It was still the late '80s, so in the room were Elizabeth Taylor and James Stewart, Gregory Peck and Shelley Winters and lots of contemporary stars, but I saw those people all the time. These people were done making movies and you never saw them out.

As I said, I got to interview Akira Kurosawa, which was a crazy interview. He was in Japan, I was in Los Angeles, and we were conducting the interview via fax. I would fax a question and he would fax an answer. He was so kind about the whole thing that afterwards, I didn’t ask for it, he sent me a copy of his autobiography in Japanese, autographed.

What gets you excited in today's film world?

There are a couple of dozen filmmakers that I get excited by. Not so much actors anymore. Actors I enjoy, but actors are kind of like pitchers on a baseball team. If it’s a good baseball team, you could pitch a good game and if your team scores nine runs and doesn’t make any errors, you’re the hero. But you pitch the exact same game and you have a shitty team that doesn’t score and they keep dropping the ball, you’re gonna lose. That’s the way it is with actors.

In Portland, the directors whose work I always look forward to include Todd Haynes, Gus Van Sant, Aaron Katz, and increasingly Kelly Reichardt. Then people like Almodóvar, Scorsese, Soderbergh, Wes Anderson, Bryan Singer, the Coen brothers, David Lynch, Sam Raimi, Spielberg. There are so many.

How do you view new films? Do you physically go to a theater for a screening or do you get a lot of DVDs?

Both. I would say maybe 40% of the movies that we review are from [DVD] screeners. But, the major studios do not release screener copies of their films because they are so worried about bootlegging. For studio films, we’ll see them anywhere from two weeks to three days in advance of opening day.

And when you watch a screening in a theater, do you always sit in the same place?

Left side aisle, about two-thirds of the way back. I’m fidgety. I am really fidgety if I don’t like the movie.

What's your best advice for aspiring writers?

You can't follow everyone out of the bookstore and explain what you meant. What you meant has to be on the page, otherwise you're not doing your job. Publication is a form of letting go and when you let go, the words are subject to scrutiny. You may not always like what the scrutiny brings, but that’s the job. If you're writing for readers, then readers do have the last say.

Read this article in About Face Magazine.

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