Summer 2008

My Friend the Director

The reviewer for Entertainment Weekly muses about the relationship between directors and critics.


Lately, if you're a movie critic, it's been easy to feel that the whole world is against you. It's not just the job losses—all the local newspaper critics who have been kicked to the curb, one by one, usually as they clutch the gold watch of a buyout. Just as disturbing, and maybe more significant, is the burbling resentment, the basic questioning of our role (who cares if we panned that blockbuster? It's critic-proof!), all the venomous Internet chatter—the hating. Decades ago, the popular image of a critic in America was that of a snooty elitist: a pompous bow-tied bitch-man who swanned into rooms tossing his opinions around like poison darts. You can trace that image from the Addison DeWitt character in All About Eve directly into the real world, where a critic like John Simon, in his cutting erudition and wit, always did his best to keep it alive.

Yet that image now seems almost quaint in light of the way that critics, in our time, have been cast as demons of snootiness—and irrelevance—in the pop culture wars. To judge by the postings I regularly get on the Entertainment Weekly website, our sins are legion. We are useless wankers! We have zero qualification for our jobs! We despise good old crowd-pleasing roller-coaster popcorn movies! Or we love the wrong one, and are therefore a tool of the studios! We lard our reviews with spoilers! We are, in short, the devil.

And how do film directors feel about all of this? More than a few of you probably think that we're getting our just desserts. There have always been filmmakers who despise critics—who consider us parasitical vultures, just waiting to pick apart the movies we write about. These filmmakers may publicly tolerate us as a "necessary evil," a glorified cog in the publicity machine, but behind closed doors they wish we didn't exist.

But then there's another kind of director, the kind who respects critics, even likes them, and—more than anything—recognizes our value. In my years of reviewing, I have come to know a handful of directors personally, a few of them quite closely, and I've seen how their ability to be wounded by a bad review is the flip side of something more complex and positive: the desire to have their work understood. Appreciated. And loved. In my experience, the feelings that directors have about critics aren't simple—they're profoundly ambivalent. And so it's no surprise that our relationships, on a personal level, play out in a unique and complicated way. I have, in fact, often pondered a question that's a variation on the one in When Harry Met Sally. Namely: Can a director and a critic be friends?

The short answer is: Yes—kind of. Movie buffs, almost by nature, start out by idolizing film directors. They're our artistic rock-star hero-gods, inherently much cooler than, say, novelists. And so meeting them, in college or wherever else, we're incredibly starry-eyed at first. Then, if you're lucky enough to become a professional critic, you find that you have opportunities to meet directors all the time. You might bond, for instance, at a film festival, where a director has just premiered his or her first movie (or first really terrific movie), and you've become its proudest advocate. This thing you suddenly have in common—you're a champion of their work!—is genuine, yet there should be no delusions: The relationship is political from the get-go. In a sense, it's a two-way strokefest. The director gets credibility, maybe a kind of flattery; the critic gets to know someone fascinating and famous. Yet a genuine camaraderie can blossom from there. I've learned much of what I know about how Hollywood really works—what truly goes down on a film set—from hanging out with filmmakers.

Back in the '90s, I became friends with a brilliant and provocative filmmaker who was just coming off one of his great creative periods. We would go to dinner, or to bars late at night, sometimes with other writers. To me, our conversations were memorable—thick with sordid gossip and studio secrets, with an inside view of this man's unique fusion of genius and rage. This went on for several years. Was he just playing me? I truly don't think so. Yet before long, I came up against that primally difficult situation: I had to write about my famous friend's latest movie—and I thought it was so-so.

What to do? I did the only thing I felt I could do, which was to write an honest review, and to let the personal chips fall where they may. I should add that there have been instances, over the years, when I got to know a filmmaker well enough that I recused myself from reviewing that director's work. Admittedly, though, it's a gray area, a slightly slippery slope that any good critic must be scrupulous about not sliding down. It's almost inevitable that a veteran critic will get to know at least a few directors in a casually personal fashion, much as political pundits and reporters often get to know the politicians they cover. The challenge doesn't lie in obsessively avoiding that situation, which strikes me as a rigid and almost puritanical response. The challenge lies in how, properly, to deal with it.

As time went on, the quality of my director friend's work began to slide downhill, and as that happened, so did our friendship. Was this inevitable? Perhaps not. Yet there's no question that hanging out became more difficult. He had initially felt that I was one of his supporters, and outside that role, our relationship turned... not awkward, but a bit depressing. You could say, quite starkly, that he no longer had use for me. At the same time, it became quietly exhausting for me to keep listening to the furious tales of his own ambition that he was no longer quite making good on.

We never had bitter words, but our relationship lost its juice. To me, its rise and fall couldn't help but bring to mind a more notorious, and maybe more tempestuous, roller-coaster of a friendship between director and critic: namely, the one in the '70s between Robert Altman and Pauline Kael. More than Altman's champion, Kael, in her reviews of M*A*S*H, McCabe & Mrs. Miller, and others, had become his bard—the critic who totally, poetically got Altman, who made the most inspired case for him as a major artist. They came to know each other socially, and Kael was sometimes given the privilege of seeing Altman's movies early, most famously when she sat through Nashville three nights in a row at his screening room, an experience that prompted her controversial jump-the-gun rave for it. (It remains one of her single greatest pieces.) And then...

Then, the year after Nashville, Kael was invited to a private screening of the new Altman film, Buffalo Bill and the Indians, or Sitting Bull's History Lesson. She didn't much care for it, and afterwards, she wondered if they could tighten it up in the editing. "It's so droopy!" she exclaimed, with that pitch-perfect colloquial snap that made Kael in conversation as riveting as she was on the page. Was she being too blunt, too Pauline-ishly impolitic? Probably. Altman, on the other hand, may have been oversensitive. To him, she had betrayed the friendship, and he dropped her like a hot potato.

As a critic, I've always been saddened by this story, because its moral, to me, isn't that Pauline Kael or Robert Altman had egos too big for the room. (Okay, they probably both did.) It's that critics and filmmakers enjoy friendships that, however sincere, are built on a foundation that is by nature fragile, political, and perishable. The irony is that in our era, with critics being hammered from every angle, there's something that critics and directors may now have in common more than ever before: We both need all the friends we can get.

Owen Gleiberman is a film critic for Entertainment Weekly.

Critic's Corner

An open letter from prominent critics to Guild members about the craft of directing from their point of view.

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