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Behind the Scenes -- December 1995

An Interview with Michael Sragow

How did you carve out a niche for yourself as a film critic?

I really just always did it. I was doing in it junior high and high school.

So you always knew that you wanted to be a film critic?

Not really. I always did movie reviews, book reviews, and things like that. I always reviewed. I don't know what that means, but I thought I would get involved in the making of movies. I left my junior year of high school at Cherry Hill High School in West Cherry Hill, New Jersey, to go to NYU film school for a year because they didn't require a high school diploma at that time. I just took the SAT.

How old were you?

I was 17 when I entered NYU. I don't know what it's like now but then it was impossible to be an undergraduate major in film. You basically took regular liberal arts courses until you were an upper classman. I thought the undergraduate film courses were kind of stupid. The film history courses I'd already had. You took a core course called Perception where you had to do things like take a blindfolded trip down St. Mark's place and invent something based on your experience. I thought that was pretty awful. My classmates included Paul Barnes who is now Ken Burns' film editor, he dropped out of NYU film school too. And Franz Litz, the guy who wrote the book Unstrung Heroes was based on, he transferred out too. I transferred to Harvard. I figured if I'm going to read books then let's really read books. I majored in history and literature.

Did you go back to high school at all?

No. I got my high school equivalency after about a year at NYU.

You got into Harvard without a high school diploma?

Well, Harvard just looked at my NYU stuff and my SATs. I majored in history and literature there and wrote reviews for The Crimson. While at NYU I submitted a piece to Film Studies Review on The Wild Bunch and they took it. That was the start of my serious career. That was Film Society Review, a publication put out by the American Federation of Film Societies. I think that both those organizations are defunct now. It was very socially conscious to the point of crippling after a while. Although it was ideological, the intent of the publication was to focus on a historical and social content which I didn't think was bad but had its own sort of distorting effect after a while. I kept writing for them through college and the year after. After college The Atlantic was one of the places I started free-lancing pieces to. It only took me about 15 years to break in.

The Atlantic doesn't run a lot of movie columns. The ones that we run, what do you feel is special about them?

The challenge of selling a movie piece to The Atlantic is to try to do something that talks about a set of movies at hand and not to go on endlessly about theory or trends. Deal with the actual works. Readers like to have criticism that is connected to the object being criticized. The challenge for someone like me is to come up with a particular thing that will open up different issues that are important for general consideration. In each of the pieces I've done I've tried to do that.

It is hard to explain why some things have a deeper resonance than other things. And what those are and if they're just in the film world or outside the film world. You just try to explore as many of the aspects as possible. The challenge with movies coming out so fast is to do something that is mildly topical and is not being done everywhere else. The first piece I wrote for The Atlantic was on the progression of pop culture superheores from James Bond to Rambo in 1985. The hook was this new film in a series which was supposed to be the new Bond series, which was called Remo Williams, based on about a fifty book series. Then I did a series of three pieces for The Atlantic. One was on the restoration of the Bridge Over the River Kwai, which turned into sort of a piece on the difference in the level between what was regarded as a blockbuster back in 1950s back when it came out and what is a blockbuster today. Here was a movie that has a very complicated attitude toward the military and was a huge box office success, so I compared it to The Fugitive that year. The second piece I did was on The Wild Bunch about the ratings fight and about movie violence. About the difference between violence that meant something and didn't mean something in movies. As well as being about the particular great movie. A lot of reporting went into why the rating fights developed and how the rating board operated.

Why did you chose Walter Hill for this piece?

This piece started because I got to see this movie early and I thought it was Walter Hill's best movie. I could tell already that studio people, though they knew how good the movie was, were nervous would find any audience out there. I also felt watching it that we were at a point to talk about defending the right of filmmakers to make depictions men of violence and not just violence itself, the whole ambiance of it. We have reached a certain point of decadence in which it becomes so jokey, so hip and cool to play with violent elements in movies like the Tarantino films and the Hong Kong films. Here was an attempt, even though the violence was done a way that was extremely terse and the opposite of what Hill had done before, to treat those materials seriously and to do other things with the type of action movie form that were very complicated. It gets into the state of mind of a hero who doesn't like to explain himself; through flashbacks and a fractured narrative the movie maker could explain him without violating his integrity. This was really something worth pointing out to people. That this kind of character who we're used to apologizing for in terms of revisionist movies and stuff--the western gun fighter who does kill a passel of men sometimes with motives that are somewhat shaky--but seen in his time he can be justified and stand for certain positive things. So you can take a clear-eyed view and come out with a balanced ledger sheet--another thing done well in the movie.

Will this movie get a big blockbuster advertising budget?

It's likely not to get that big kind of push. There's no merchandising thing you can do with it. It is definitely an adult movie. It's about the end of a man's life. There is a twenty-minute stretch at the beginning that is really rip-snorting frontier stuff, but if you sell that, people will feel cheated about the rest of the movie.

In general there has been sort of a main-streaming just in term of the movie press. You have niche audiences and the blockbuster audiences. If you're a niche movie you get a grand prize at Sundance, you get a certain acclaim and a certain push legitimate for that kind of movie. If you're a big mainstream type of movie and you're starring Tom Hanks then you're given a slice of Americana or some suitable romantic comedy then you get the other surefire push. If you're in the category of the action movie or the Western--which is even more suspect now--and you try to do something different with it and it has elements that are subtle, ironic, or more downbeat than people expect then it doesn't necessarily play to the big numbers. Then not only do you not get the big push from the studio you don't get the push from the rest of the press out there that you really need.

Films that are more challenging like this one, if there's a sense that it could be a commercial failure, then critics don't want to be attached to it. If there's a box office risk. Critics are like studios today: They don't want to be associated with a box office risk.

Interview by Marty Hergert

Copyright © (1995) by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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