Stephanie Zacharek was one of the first critics to make a name for herself in an online publication, with her work on Salon reaching people across the globe in ways that she didn’t fully grasp the significance of until after she left in 2010. Currently the chief film critic for The Village Voice, Zacharek has the privilege to write about films both new and old, the latest blockbusters and whatever retrospectives are playing at Film Forum or other New York theaters. Few writers are so astute in their negative criticisms without ever feeling mean-spirited or churlish, and Zacharek’s most enthusiastic reviews read like songs of movie love.
Zacharek appeared on the latest episode of Peter Labuza’s indispensable podcast "The Cinephiliacs," in which Labuza asks critics questions about their movie love, how they got started as critics, and their taste and past writing as critics. The whole episode is terrific and well worth a listen, either on the podcast’s website or via iTunes, but here are some of the highlights.
1. Zacharek’s First Movie. Some people cite the first movie they saw as a major event in their lives. For Zacharek, "The Three Lives of Thomasina" mostly just made her want her own cat, which she got in her Easter basket the next summer.
That was the first movie I saw in theaters. I’d like to say it was a really formative experience, but in reality I just remember it being big and overwhelming. At that point, you don’t even know what movies are, really. It’s just this kind of big amazing thing that I was party to. I didn’t see the path to my future.
2. Pauline Kael Part I: Influence. Zacharek is just one of the countless number of critics who cite Pauline Kael as an influence, describing how her mother brought issues of The New Yorker home from work for young Zacharek.
At that point, I hadn’t seen a lot of the movies she was writing about…I just loved reading her. It was definitely criticism as performance, though it was a lot of other things, too. Her language was so descriptive and so evocative that even though these were movies that I hadn’t seen, I felt that they were coming alive for me on the page. I just fell in love with that, and I still love it to this day.
3. Pauline Kael Part II: Encouragement. Zacharek talks about how some of the "Paulettes" who have since written cruel articles about Pauline Kael don’t describe the woman Zacharek got to know. Where some complain that "you couldn’t disagree with her," Zacharek says, "So what? Grow a pair. That’s what criticism is about. You can’t ask somebody permission to allow you to disagree." She also talks about Kael’s encouragement:
She was really generous, not in terms of helping me get a job…but she was really generous with her time and encouraging. I didn’t give her a lot of my stuff to read. I remember talking to her about movies, but I also remember gossiping about her. It wasn’t nasty gossip. She was really trying to steer younger people toward being kinder and more generous to their friends and colleagues, and that’s a lesson that I took from her. I have to try to pass on some of what she gave me. That kind of warmth and encouragement and generosity.
4. Salon’s Reach. Zacharek talks about how writing for Salon spread her criticism to places she wouldn’t have reached in print.
The thing that I was aware of is that I was getting really interesting email messages from all over the world. A lot from Australia and New Zealand, I don’t know why, but there was a huge proportion. Apparently Salon hit some sort of a chord there. A lot of people from the UK and Europe, a lot of nasty, accusatory letters saying, "You made a mistake here." I wrote back and started a correspondence and friendship. I slowly became more aware of its reach, but I didn’t realize how significant that reach was until after I left.
5. The Editing Problem. Zacharek describes her self as "old school," citing her journalism background and how good editors help shape great criticism. She talks about major problems in modern online criticism:
I look at what’s happening around the web. I wish there could be more editors on the web, because the writing would be a lot stronger. I look back at some of the things I wrote for Salon, and it’s fine, but I think, "This is too long, this doesn’t need to be 1500 words, this point isn’t central to the argument, this is repetitive." It’s an unfortunate development. I don’t think it’s the end of the world (there are other things that are). My chief complaint about most of the criticism I read on the internet is that the only other person who’s be interested in it is the person you’re trying to impress or the person whose job you’re trying to get. Pauline Kael was writing for just about anybody.
6. What She Looks for In Movies. In 2012, Zacharek wrote an article for The A.V. Club pegged to the release of "The Master" and "Premium Rush" arguing that "serious" filmmaking and filmmakers shouldn’t necessarily be taken more seriously than those that are ostensibly less serious, and why she responded more to the latter than to the former. Labuza asked her about the piece and what she looks for in movies.
The thing about "The Master" is that I really respect Paul Thomas Anderson and have really loved some of his movies, and I saw that and thought, "Oh my god, there’s just not a lot here." Which is fine. The reason I wrote that piece was I was reading these articles saying, "To grasp its full genius, you need to see it more than once." I was like, nobody is going to dictate to me how many times I need to see a movie to get it. I saw it once, and I got everything I think there was for me to get. It’s interesting when you throw something out there how many different ways people are going to misread it. People came at me like I was a kind of philistine, that I was only interested in movies that were sensationalistic or entertaining, that I didn’t want to be fed any deeper more meaningful way. Which is not true. "The Master" was not doing it for me. What I was responding to was this dictatorial thing of people saying, "You didn’t get it? Go see it again." No.
I never really know what I’m looking for in movies. I am eternally hopeful, much to my detriment. I didn’t really have high hopes for "Get On Up," but I think that thing is a knockout. There are some things that are odd or don’t work, but it’s this mainstream film that’s so full of life and energy, and has a really clear sense of who this person was. I’m not saying that everything happened as it was portrayed, but I got so much out of this movie. I was really tired going in, and I came out walking on a cloud. I live for those moments.
7. Faux-Serious Blockbusters. Beyond being told which movies she needs to see more than once, Zacharek is also frustrated with the modern self-serious blockbuster.
It’s gotten worse. It frustrates me because I really believe in the power of the blockbuster. I really believe in movies as a communal experience. I want to see movies with people. And these blockbusters are structurally such a mess. There’s no pacing, everything’s pitched at this high level of intensity. There’s no cool-down moments. Nobody has any sense of that anymore. And there’s this faux-depth…"Batman is really serious, and Christopher Nolan was the first person to see how serious Batman really is." Please, you’ve got to be kidding me. I accept that there are serious things about comic books, and they’re serious as a kind of mythology. But a dozen movies every summer mining this alleged depth that’s really just disguised nostalgia for childhood is really frustrating.
8. Exciting Contemporary Actors. Labuza praises Zacharek for how she writes about classic film actresses like Marilyn Monroe, and he asked her which modern performers she finds equally exciting.
Angelina Jolie really has a lot of that. I love watching her move. "Maleficent" is not a good movie at all, but her carriage and her presence is really unusual in the landscape today. I love Cameron Diaz. That woman is not afraid to be a total goofball. She’s not afraid to look like the biggest klutz.
9. Brian De Palma Love. Few major directors are as divisive as Brian De Palma, and Zacharek is firmly on his side. Citing "Blow Out," "Carlito’s Way" and "Casualties of War" as her favorite films of his, she talks about what there is beneath the baroque camera movements and love for "really sick stuff" (she and Labuza also fall under the umbrella of people who are on my side that "Mission to Mars" is wonderful, so more power to them).
There’s a lot of emotional depth in those that people don’t necessarily give him credit for. People talk about what a trickster he is, and the visual stuff, and I love all of that stuff. But sometimes I find these movies painful to watch. There’s a lot of raw feeling to them. It’d hiding behind technique. The recurring thing in his movies is the man who’s unable to save the woman in "Blow Out" and "Casualties of War," and in "Mission to Mars" you have the woman who’s unable to save the man. For a woman, that’s kind of intense. It’s interesting to see the tables turned.
10. "Pootie Tang" Love. In 2009, Stephanie Zacharek’s decade-best list included consensus picks like "Mulholland Drive" and "Yi Yi" alongside blockbusters like "Casino Royale," arthouse curiosities like "Tropical Malady"…and Louis C.K.’s "Pootie Tang," long before C.K. was hailed as a genius for "Louie."
I am so ahead of the curve! I didn’t even know who Louis C.K. was at that point. I’m really happy for him. I don’t watch the show, and I feel like I should, because I think he’s brilliant and I love his stand-up. Words cannot express how I feel about "Pootie Tang." It’s just totally nuts and yet so incredible astute and sharp and crazy. I love it.