It’s difficult to fill the shoes of America’s most-beloved critic, but Matt Zoller Seitz does it more than admirably as the editor-in-chief of RogerEbert.com. He’s similarly prolific, he’s managed other great critics like Glenn Kenny, Simon Abrams and Odie Henderson at the site, and he has a similar relationship to and innate understanding of Wes Anderson’s films as Ebert had of Martin Scorsese’s. More than anything else, Seitz has the same seemingly indefatigable enthusiasm for the movies, and his excellent work at Vulture and New York Press, not to mention his essential book "The Wes Anderson Collection," are essential reading for any aspiring critic.
Seitz was a guest on Catie Lazarus’s excellent talk show/podcast "Employee of the Month," where he talked about filmmakers that inspire him, what first got him interested in movies, and his response to one of the more obscene Letters to the Editor he received at New York Press. The show is more than worth a listen, but here are some of the highlights.
1. Seitz’s Start. Every film critic and filmmaker has a moment where they realize movies don’t just materialize out of thin air onto the screen, and Seitz’s began with a book club.
It started for me with Scholastic Book Club. I ordered this book from Scholastic Book Club, it was about the making of "King Kong," the 1976 one with Jessica Lange. That was the beginning of it for me because I had no idea that movies were actually a thing that were made. That there were people who directed them and built the sets and lit them and all that stuff. And that was kind of the beginning for me. From then, I wanted to learn everything I could about movies. It all continued from there, and the result is I get to continue to write about movies and television shows. Sometimes I say nice things, sometimes not so nice.
2. Meeting Wes Anderson. It’s well-known that Seitz was the first person to write about Wes Anderson after seeing his short "Bottle Rocket" at Dallas’s USA Film Festival. But when it came to interviewing Anderson, he didn’t get what he expected.
I saw "Bottle Rocket," and I thought it was really interesting, and I wrote a review and did a feature on him and Owen Wilson. I had seen Owen Wilson because he was in the movie, and I knew he was a young guy, but I assumed that Wes was like a 54-year-old community college professor, and I was shocked to find out he was the same age. As you can tell, he was a pretty talented guy, and he was ahead of his years then.
3. Supplements to "The Wes Anderson Collection." Seitz’s "The Wes Anderson Collection" features insightful interviews and essays on the director’s work, but what about films that come out after the book, like "The Grand Budapest Hotel?" Seitz has it covered:
We’re hoping to deal with each of his subsequent films in little supplements, sort of like the Encyclopedia Britannica in the old days. It’d be a slim volume that goes next to it, or something like that.
4. "The Oliver Stone Experience." Seitz’s next book is on a very different filmmaker, the eternally-controversial Oliver Stone. Slated for 2015 release, it’s likely to be more "combative," even as Seitz greatly admires him, and he has a story to prove it.
Oliver Stone is, as you know, he’s very aware of history, including the history of his own reviews. He has read every review that’s ever been written of a movie that he made, including some of my negative reviews of his films, and he ambushed me with quotes from them out of the blue just to mess with me.
5. Other Filmmakers Seitz Might Write a Book About. Seitz doesn’t worry about objectivity when it comes to writing books about filmmakers.
I’ve sort of eliminated that problem by only writing books for people I’m kind of in the tank for anyway. I adore Wes Anderson’s work, I feel the same way about Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Michael Mann. These are all directors that I just think haven’t made any bad films, only "good" and "better." So I feel comfortable doing a book about them.
6. New York Press, an Antisemite, and a Response. Seitz says that he’s known for being less "genteel" than other critics, particularly when it comes to feedback. When he wrote a negative review of 2004’s "The Passion of the Christ" in the New York Press, he received an Antisemitic Letter to the Editor that began with "Your review of ‘The Passion’ was written by a Jew, obviously" and ended with a long sentence that began "And by the way, I’m not writing to you as a Jew-hater, I’m writing to you as a concerned American." Seitz’s response?
First, it may surprise you to learn that not everybody with a Germanic last name is Jewish. My parents and parents’ parents are proud German-Americans whose ranks include Episcopalians, Lutherans, Jehovah’s Witnesses and members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Go back and reread my original review closely and you’ll notice a description of a painting of Jesus Christ that hung on the wall of a church I once attended. Second, fuck you, and fuck your piece of shit mother, too.
7. Seitz’s Relationship with Roger Ebert… While Seitz took inspiration from Roger Ebert, their first contact was actually Ebert asking for his advice.
I started this website called The House Next Door, which is sort of a clearinghouse for film and TV criticism, and I was the editor and publisher. And Roger had just started RogerEbert.com, and it was just a repository for his work, and he wanted to expand it and include the works of other people. He wrote me to ask my advice on how to run a multi-author blog site. We kind of became friends from there, and it was primarily an e-mail relationship.
8. …and His Friendly Competition. From there, Seitz and Ebert’s respective sites started to see who could amass the most talented young writers.
Remember that Warner Bros. cartoon with the sheepdog and the wolf where they punched the clock? Well, that was what it’s like, except with me and Roger it was each of us were competing to discover who could discover the most new talent. Roger usually won because Roger was a cyborg from the future. He seemed to have a cloning machine in his basement like the guy in "Multiplicity." There were like 12 Rogers. There was the film critic Roger, the journalist Roger, the TV Roger and everything else.
9. Ebert’s Inspiration. Seitz has seen the Ebert documentary "Life Itself" five times with an audience, and each time it inspires him.
I always seem to see it at the right time, because seeing him in those conditions continuing to be ridiculously prolific like this indestructible person, it’s inspiring. And it kind of was a kick in the pants to me.
10. Matt Zoller Seitz Sings "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," and Not Well. This one you really have to listen to the podcast for.