I have spent untold hours in the dark with men other than my husband. Owen Gleiberman was one of them. The place was Boston in the mid-‘80s and the beat, movies. We often sat near each other at screenings but were never close. This might be, as he writes in his naughtily entertaining new book, because film critics tend to live up on Planet Movie rather than down here on Earth.
American film criticism long has been a startlingly small geekery of those of us who like to watch. And Gleiberman’s "Movie Freak" is a blushingly candid account of its folkways, a work of cultural criticism that brings to life the movies of the past 40 years and the subculture of nerds who wrote about them.
Equal parts memoir, confessional and Netflix queue, the book chronicles the unsentimental education, professional success and challenges of this Michigan-born kid early on stirred by music and movies. He recalls of "The Sound of Music" that he “wanted to possess it, to fuse with it, to live inside it” —as pithy a description of movie love as I’ve ever read.
For many in the profession Gleiberman calls “the cushiest job Western Civilization ever coughed up,” the movies are more like religion than job and thus criticism more similar to prayer than work. As Susan Sarandon in "Bull Durham" was a high priestess of the “Church of Baseball,” so Gleiberman is a priest of a movie faith practiced by a disproportionately high number of Catholics and Jews.
His conversion begins over Thanksgiving break in 1976 during his freshman year at Ann Arbor, just blocks from where he grew up. Brian De Palma’s "Carrie" marks Gleiberman’s transformation from Film Buff to “full-on cinema-syringe Movie Freak,” a conversion experience he describes in the language of religious ecstasy. Not long after he picks up a New Yorker and reads Pauline Kael’s review of "Carrie" he experiences rapture, if not The Rapture. In the movie and in its critique he finds religion. Then he meets Kael, the five-foot giant of film criticism, who recommends him to Boston Phoenix. He would part company with her when he sensed that she expected him to parrot her film opinions.
Who knew, in between critics’ screenings, that my auburn-haired colleague was also a voracious consumer of pornography? Turns out that Gleiberman enjoyed the profane as well as the sacred. In anecdote after anecdote he reveals himself as one who uses movies to compensate for what is s lacking in his life, whether it be intimacy with a partner or positive relationships with his parents. Still, in "Movie Freak" his writing about films of the X-rated kind is less urgent than that about movies such as "Nashville," "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" and "Crumb."
He is as frank about his sexual obsessions as he is well the situational ethics of film criticism. Does consorting with directors and actors have an effect on a critic’s review? Do studios apply pressure to periodicals and barter an interview with a hot actor to mitigate a tepid review of his movie? Are critics vulnerable to groupthink? To an extent, "uh-huh" and "yes," he answers, mostly exempting himself.
What I admire most in Gleiberman’s writing— how he zeros in on a film and shows how it distills the zeitgeist— is there on almost every page of his book. Likewise in high relief is his correlation of what’s happening on screen with what’s happening in his life, illustrating that when we go to the movies we project ourselves up there.
The chronicle proceeds from the alternative-weekly demimonde of Boston to the Time/Life decorum of Entertainment Weekly in New York. (In movie-geek shorthand, that’s a leap from "Between the Lines" to "The Big Clock.")
It’s at EW, where Gleiberman spends 23 years, that he encounters the obstacles between having a critical opinion and expressing it. For one, there are those pesky editors. For another, there is the phantom presence of “Media Mike,” the invisible shepherd who is responsible for the herd mentality among critics. And there are the flattering celebrities, like Oliver Stone and Ben Affleck here, who, in courting critics, may have a hidden agenda of indemnifying themselves from future bad reviews.
"Movie Freak" is a clear-eyed backstage account of the parallel, and sometimes converging, dramas of movies and the reviewing of them. It’s both tragic and comic.
“If you want a happy ending,” Orson Welles liked to say, “it depends, of course, on where you stop your story.” Gleiberman’s denouement, about the perception that movies and critics don’t much matter anymore —is a cliffhanger.