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David Elliott Reflects

The longtime San Diego film critic looks back


AS A MULTITALENTED FILM CRITIC, David Elliott has built an impressive career that began at the Chicago Daily News, continued at the Chicago Sun-Times (as backup to Roger Ebert), then at USA Today. In 1984, the San Diego Union hired him to grace the pages of the paper with contributions that made him a household name. In all, he estimates he's produced some 10,000 pieces to date. It seemed only right to turn the tables on the man behind the reviews and interviews.

What was it like to be a movie critic in Chicago, then on the East Coast, and finally for 24 years in San Diego?

It is amazing how many movies one can cover and then forget. That is not a senior confession. Some of them I began forgetting decades ago. The ticket of survival and pleasure was writing, which allows you to endure the junk and hopefully rise to the good films. But neither the movie industry nor most newspapers find critics a comfortable fact. They are made uneasy by the sort of expertise that must be personal to be any good and depends on steady growth. Criticism is an old-growth forest that is being cut down, and that is not a good environment for the saplings coming up, even on the Web.

What's the worst thing to happen to movies in your time reviewing?

I’ll mention two things. One is the almost obscene obsession with numbers, the noise about grosses, budgets, “number one this weekend,” most Oscars won, weeks on the box-office chart. That blather only serves a small and often mediocre minority of films. It also pressures movies into the do-or-die panic that only one or two weekends matter. As both art and entertainment, films need to be about matters of quality, and the zeal to quantify them degrades that. The other thing is the slow death of genres like musicals and Westerns, romantic dramas and mature comedies. The buddy comedy, the chick flick and the big effects machine are proving inadequate substitutes. Too many modern movies are childish and want us to be childish. It’s a bad symptom that the hot ticket at Cannes this year was for Spielberg recycling his old Indiana Jones fantasy with bigger effects.

And the best?

The best was that I so often enjoyed covering over 5,000 films for the Union-Tribune. Brain damage was minimal, or do I kid myself? The very best thing was finding the so-called “little movie” that slips into view with almost no buzz but is a wonderful experience. Works like The Cruise, Before Sunrise, The Whole Wide World, Offside, Ruby in Paradise, The Scent of Green Papaya, Colma: The Musical, Persuasion, The Dreamlife of Angels. Those films require critical spotlighting. They are not pre-sold events.

Why did you leave the paper in January?

I had hoped to retire next year, my 40th in journalism. But to paraphrase Rick in Casablanca, the problems of some critics don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy media world. Proven expertise seems to have lost its edge in the ongoing debate about the value of criticism, which may be, like poetry, an endangered species. There has always been a certain amount of envy and confusion about what critics do, but then some critics are also confused about it. When I began in Chicago there were four daily papers, opinions were popping constantly and it was seen that strong voices make stronger papers. In this more anxious corporate era, the bottom line seems to ordain that papers try to speak in a kind of generic, consolidated voice. Against that, vivid critics can stand out like — forgive me, Roger Ebert — sore thumbs.

Was San Diego a welcoming city to you?

Sure, but my approach was formed before arriving in 1984. I learned the trade in a great newspaper town, Chicago, went on to a national paper and worked in New York. I wrote about everything from daguerrotypes to Liberace. I interviewed lots of major film people. I shared drinks with Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael, though not together — they weren’t on good terms. Several times I attended the Oscars, a limited thrill. The gowns now seem to be displacing the talents in importance. What I realized is that a strong, versatile critic is a sparkplug for the ongoing cultural conversation, and readers want someone who breaks through the buzz and baloney. That demands good writing. You can’t do it by simply tossing the confetti of opinions.

What was it like to be on the receiving end of criticism?

Criticism is personal journalism so people respond personally. Only a fool would try to be “a cross-section of the American public,” which is what Charlie Kane called his second wife. Your taste can really tick some people off. One woman raged that I was unpatriotic because I panned For the Boys, Bette Midler’s awful soaper. When I praised Casino, someone said I was endorsing gambling. My dislike of Forrest Gump churned up quite a few people. But I give thanks to many loyal and also demanding readers ... Movies are a cafeteria. If you can’t fill your tray with many forms of stimulation, you should be in the little diner that only serves your private menu. I may be the only American reviewer who was moved by the corny but astonishing Titanic, and yet also admired the Portuguese nightmare vision about a gay cruiser, O Fantasma. Now there’s a double bill.

What are some highlights of your tenure?

Having Cary Grant reach over and straighten my shirt collar when I met him backstage at the Spreckels Theater was a thrill. I walked away thinking: Cary Grant has just been my valet. Getting to know director Budd Boetticher, who lived here, was a big surprise, because as a kid I grew up loving his Randolph Scott Westerns. Maybe the oddest interview was in Chicago, when Alfred Hitchcock insisted on keeping his hotel windows open in frigid February. We still had a fine talk. Bette Davis was a tiny lady with a vast personality. Peter Ustinov’s witty answers elevated your questions. And John Wayne really did seem to be from Monument Valley.

What one thing would you change about the San Diego movie scene?

I would find a rich person who loves movies more than profits to buy the old Loma Theater, which is a bookstore, and restore it as a beautiful place for film revivals. The Ken is to be cherished, but people should have one great theater for the classic single-screen experience. The multiplexes lack magic, maybe because the context is usually a shopping mall. And many of them seem designed for livestock.

What's your opinion of Roger Ebert’s television show?

He and Gene Siskel developed a popular show, true to their taste. They must be the only newspaper critics ever to grow rich from reviewing. There are obvious limits to a quick-digest format that depends on clips, and I am not sure that the thumb, although a fine evolutionary advance for mankind, has done much for movie reviewing. It is curious that Kael, the best talker as well as the most gifted writer, never had such a podium. Michael Phillips is adding some real zip to the show, yet without Ebert it seems orphaned.

Does the decline of criticism say something about our culture?

Yes, something bad. The Web is a buzzing hive of fierce opinions but papers are shedding critics, which is like screaming, “Go to the Web!” A local astute critic with an involving style provides a rooted focus that the Internet cannot. I do think some people resent mature film reviewing, maybe because they prefer to keep movies the sort of almost unthinking experience they had as kids. I am not saying that only art matters or that all youth films stink — “suck” is now the preferred term. Dumb and Dumber has moments of comic genius. Jack Black is a blast of fun in School of Rock. Juno cut some corners but was not fluff. But the avoidance of adulthood has become a curse. Crowds pack into the hyped-up Jason Bourne machines or the Danny Ocean idiocies but ignore a powerful, humane drama about the war like In the Valley of Elah. At some point, the need for escapism simply becomes evasion.

What do film critics really provide?

Stimulation. And please, no lectures. I never understood the culture commissars who want to lay down laws of taste. With set positions you don’t truly respond to the film. You just pour the movie into a mold. The most warping factor now is the fixation on fast hits, though I praised quite a few. How can you not love Finding Nemo or the abundant storytelling of the Harry Potter films? But I also welcomed films like Blue Velvet, The Last Temptation of Christ and Boogie Nights, not only because of their artistry. Their directors made no effort to be demographically correct, and they trusted us to be adults.

Do you read other critics?

As an opinion writer, you don’t need a voice whispering in your ear. I would read a few other critics only after finishing my own piece. Sometimes I broke that rule for Kael, or the very funny Anthony Lane. I’ve never been impressed by critics who keep trying to impress their professors. The academic impulse curdles their prose.

What was your favorite film experience as a critic?

Bob Altman’s The Long Goodbye was like a banquet for movie lovers, though the L.A. preview audience split down the middle. I remember the New York premiere audience for Close Encounters of the Third Kind being unified by elation. I loved the way Tarantino advanced his talent with Jackie Brown. It was a high privilege to meet Kurosawa. And it was a kick when Warren Beatty and Julie Christie greeted me in their Chicago hotel suite, fresh from the shower and wearing only towels. The interview had a special sparkle.

What are your favorite movies?

Games, must we? James Mason said that line far more suavely in North by Northwest. I can offer some threes. My all-time personal trio is The Maltese Falcon, Citizen Kane and Roman Holiday. Behind them would be La Dolce Vita, The Long Goodbye and North by Northwest. For pure style I recommend M, Point Blank and Vertigo. For beauty, nothing beats the ‘60s Italians: L’Eclisse, 8 ½, and The Leopard. Three amazing oddballs are Mr. Arkadin, The Cruise and I Am Cuba. The finest humane achievement is Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy. I believe Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton and Marlon Brando are Platonic forms of talent. Finally, a twosome: Menilmontant and The Red Balloon, my favorite short films, were shot in the same area of Paris 30 years apart.

What was your first film experience?

The first I recall loving was The African Queen. I was truly scared by the creepy Martian machines in The War of the Worlds, but decades later I finally got healed by laughing at Mars Attacks! As a teen, my best viewing was finally seeing Citizen Kane on a non-TV screen with an awed crowd, at the University of Chicago. When I came out in a daze, a lovely snow was falling, and I felt that it was spilling out of Kane’s glass ball. Truffaut touched on those emotions in Day for Night.

Do you have a favorite era in films?

Growing up with films in the 1950s was an incredibly rich experience. I was lucky to cover movies as a young critic in the '70s. Films also had some real fire of youth then. I don’t mean youth-driven. That came with the '80s Brat Pack cycle, which was like suffering someone else’s long, whining adolescence. Molly Ringwald got me through most of that. I do not miss Judd Nelson. I’m amused by the awful A&E “reality” series The Two Coreys, a bizarre regurgitation of the Brat Pack-era icons Corey Feldman and Corey Haim.

What is your major strength as a critic?

I’d say my main virtue was not walking into movies with pet ideas or axes to grind. I tried to take each as fresh experience. Maybe that is like Doris Day being a serial virgin, but it did keep my mind open. My fault was sometimes over praising or being too harsh. That comes from going with the experience and its emotions. Criticism is never just intellectual, and any attempt to impose a system is as destructive to criticism as it is to movies.

Can movies survive as a popular medium?

Yes, as both narrative and spectacle they will, but not in the form that we grew up loving. What they now mostly lack, in spite of the hoopla, is the old glamour. The death of the classic star system and charismatic theaters is part of that, but also, films have been commodified. When I was an usher, I had to carry heavy cans of films to the projectionist and I felt like a young priest bringing the sacred idol to the temple. Today our films are possessions shown on TV screens, in little plastic boxes that we manipulate, rush through, toss out or stack on our shelves. In a wonderful way, movies used to own us and had magical access to our dreams. Now, we own them, and the aura is smaller. They no longer fill us imaginatively in the same way.

Are there any recent developments in the San Diego film world?

The best local news is the maturing of our festivals. They have such passionate organizers and supporters. I do wish that Landmark would try more of the gutsy revivals that Scott Marks did at the photography museum. They certainly have better parking, which means a lot. Even though Landmark has become more mainstream, without their theaters we would be a poorer film town. I think the death of young Greg Muskewitz was a serious loss. He would have become an excellent critic or filmmaker. Local talents may be expanding here and not just running off to Hollywood.

Any parting words?

Even a retired critic has words. Some of those will go into a writing project I’ve begun, a film book if anyone decides to publish it. Okay, last thoughts. Never fail to see anything by Orson Welles or Akira Kurosawa. The two Hepburns were a double miracle, enough for any medium. And please, don’t oversalt your popcorn.

David Elliott can be reached at dceabc@gmail.com.

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