I have lived in Los Angeles most of my working life, but I am also a member of the New York Film Critics Circle. And so it came to pass in January that I was present at its annual awards dinner, a chummy affair at a vast, multitiered Chinese restaurant in lower Manhattan complete with winners, celebrity presenters like Brad Pitt and Alec Baldwin, and, of course, the critics. Not all of us had voted for all the awardees, far from it, but everybody was on their best behavior. Almost everybody.
When it came time for writer-director Quentin Tarantino to accept his Best Screenplay award for Once Upon a Time…in Hollywood, he cut short his ingratiating ramble: “Peter Rainer, writer for the Christian Science Monitor, you have never given me a positive review in 30 years.” I put down my chopsticks. “Not to make you feel guilty,” he continued, “but I used to read you every weekend when you used to write for the Herald Examiner in Los Angeles. From 15 years old. I didn’t agree with all the things you said, but I respected it. And not only did I read you. I still have those fucking Herald Examiners in my fucking office.”
Not sure if I should feel mortified or flattered, I looked to my two nephews, my dinner mates, for guidance. Their response: “Cool!”
I reluctantly made my way over to Tarantino after the ceremony. I had never met him, and I felt some kind of rapprochement was called for. He seemed OK with that. Not wanting to wade into the weeds, I told him I found much to like in some of his movies, particularly Jackie Brown. He said I once wrote that Django Unchained was like Mandingo with better dialogue, but, in fact, he countered, Mandingo had great dialogue. This is how it went for a while. I recognized in him a true believer, not only in movies but in movie critics, highest among them, for him, being Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael.
So, yes, I did feel guilty. I closed things out by telling him I thought he deserved major credit for resurrecting the careers of John Travolta, Robert Forster, and Pam Grier. I said it would be a loss to American film if he pursued his nutty plan to direct only one more movie. And I meant it.
Such close encounters of the first kind have been rare in my professional career, which began some 40 years and 8,000 movies ago. Even in this overweening age of media access, the relationship most critics have with film directors is essentially imaginary. Watching the movies of famous auteurs, we might fantasize what the filmmakers are like in real life, but what we are really responding to is something more intangible and fundamental: the artist’s way of seeing. It’s similar to how we divine the temper of novelists from their books. Their presence, which likely bears little relation to their public self, bleeds through the text.
Still, there is an understandable if precarious urge for critics to meet the directors among us who inhabit our private pantheon. If, like me, the critic operates primarily in Hollywood, or covers the festival circuit, such opportunities are especially rife. I know of critics who, to preserve their professed objectivity, claim they avoid all contaminating contact with filmmakers. It’s a nice ideal, I suppose, but this holier-than-thou-ism is a bit much. Purity is such an easy pose. If a film director truly is your friend, then, yes, you probably shouldn’t review his or her film. But these filmmakers are not your friends. How can you find out? Give them a bad review.
There was a hallowed revival house in New York when I was growing up, in the early ’60s, the New Yorker Theater on Broadway at 88th Street; its lobby prominently featured headshots of the greats—Hitchcock, Huston, Welles, Renoir, many others. Pip-squeak savant that I was, I believed my destiny was somehow affixed to this holy shrine. As best I could in those days, I compulsively sought out their movies, ranking them, scribbling notes. Around this time, a TV show called Million Dollar Movie would air the same old movie every day for a week. Through repeated viewings, without my full awareness, I began to comprehend how movies were made, why they needed a close-up here, a long shot there. Unlike many in my peewee cohort, I understood that these films, for better or worse, were directed. They didn’t just happen.
The first famous movie director I ever met was Nicholas Ray. I loved the way he deranged conventional Hollywood genres. They Live by Night, his debut film, about young outlaws on the run, was a noir classic and Million Dollar Movie perennial. His Rebel Without a Cause was, for many of us, the Citizen Kane of troubled-teen movies. I met him in 1970. I was a freshman at Northwestern when he screened some of his films on campus and talked to the students and faculty. His Hollywood career at this point was long behind him. He wore thick leather boots, had a bristly shock of white hair, and sported a black patch over his right eye. I thought he looked like a pirate. I remembered what Godard had written about him: “The cinema is Nicholas Ray.” Awestruck, I asked him what he thought James Dean, the star of Rebel, might have become had he lived. Ray looked me square in the eye and said, “He would have become a washed-up old movie director.”
By the time I was a senior—I had transferred to Brandeis—I was writing regular film reviews for my college newspaper. The early ’70s was an extraordinary era for films, and I loved the immediacy of writing about them each week. I had found my calling. Except for a few early forays into screenwriting, it set the template for my career. The movie that astonished me more than any other was Robert Altman’s poetic western McCabe & Mrs. Miller. Its brutal, delicate, mournful dreamscape seemed summoned from the director’s most private precincts. How could a movie so radically, so heartbreakingly lyrical get made in Hollywood? And by the director of M*A*S*H, of all things? I decided Altman was no mere movie director. He was a conjurer.
In those days, the New York magazine movie critic Judith Crist conducted weekend film festivals at the sprawling Tarrytown Conference Center in Westchester, New York, with famous visiting guests as the lure—Paddy Chayefsky, Robert Redford, and Peter O’Toole among them. The audience was mostly adult suburbanite movie mavens, not professionals. In the winter of 1973, she staged a Philip Marlowe movie weekend with Altman. The Long Goodbye, his riff on Chandler’s famed detective starring Elliott Gould, would premiere in advance of its theatrical opening. My parents made me a present of the weekend. I was on air.
Festivities kicked off Friday evening, but Altman and his film editor Lou Lombardo didn’t arrive until the following morning. In the interim, we watched the famous Marlowe movies Murder, My Sweet and The Big Sleep and, later on, obscurities like The Brasher Doubloon and Marlowe, with James Garner. None of these films remotely resembled what was in store for us: Gould as a mumbly hangdog private eye valiantly trying to do the right thing in a 1970s funky, tie-dyed L.A.
I hovered on the outskirts when Altman held forth. Others were not so shy. He often had a drink in his hand, and if you wanted to find his room, you had only to trace the scent of ganja. The screening of The Long Goodbye was in a nearby shopping mall theater, with, as I found out later, several nervous United Artists executives in attendance, as well as All About Eve director Joseph L. Mankiewicz, one of Hollywood’s reigning cynics. After the screening, he reportedly turned to Crist and said, “Well, it’s goodbye to the Philip Marlowe legend, isn’t it?”
The postscreening discussion with the mostly discomfited weekenders did not go well. One guy stood up and announced that the film wasn’t worth anybody’s time. Attempting to keep his cool, Altman did his best to quell the dissension. I felt bad for him, although I shared in some of the dissent. (It was only when I moved to Los Angeles the following year that I recognized how quintessentially Altman had captured the hippie-dippie L.A. vibe.) When the weekend broke up, I hesitantly approached him in the breakfast room. I stood before him and blurted rhapsodic about McCabe & Mrs. Miller. He seemed amused. I asked him what his next project was. (Thieves Like Us, based on the same Edward Anderson novel as Ray’s They Live by Night, and, as it turned out, another masterpiece.) I was pretty much set on being a film critic by then, but if he had offered me a job hauling film cans on the location of that movie, I probably would have taken it. Not knowing what else to do, I thanked him and sprinted away.
LIFE IN REVIEWS
I often wondered, when our paths crossed in the ensuing decades, whether Altman remembered me from that time. I never brought it up with him because, now that I was a professional film critic, it felt slightly embarrassing. But Altman had his favorites among critics—Kael, for a time, was the standout—and the crafty conjurer knew how to court them. Because I had been highly complimentary in print about many of his ’70s movies, including California Split, Nashville, and Buffalo Bill and the Indians, he gave me, among others, privileged entrée into his process. He had a mini studio near Westwood called Lion’s Gate, and he would invite select critics and journalists to look at his works in progress.
Alas, this was the late ’70s, when Altman’s movies were at low ebb. The night I took him up on his offer, I sat in a small screening room watching rushes for Quintet, probably his worst film, feeling increasingly uncomfortable about the position I had put myself in. Altman woozily wandered in from time to time. Finally an assistant approached me and whispered that if Bob was in better shape right now, he probably would not want me watching this footage. I told him I couldn’t agree more and got the hell out of there.
I panned a fair number of his movies around that time. In my review of A Wedding, I wrote that maybe the problem was that he was too prolific. It was a diagnosis that, in an interview with the arts journalist Charles Michener in Film Comment, he specifically cited and disdained. In retrospect, I still think he made too many movies, and yet, if not for that career-long onrush of his, we might not have had, in the years that followed, Come Back to the 5 & Dime Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, the most haunting of his many stage adaptations, starring Cher, Sandy Dennis, Karen Black, and Kathy Bates at their peaks; or his fiercely soulful Van Gogh movie, Vincent & Theo, which conveys the true bone chill of madness; or The Player, his creepy, scabrous valentine to the Hollywood that turned its back on him; or the Garry Trudeau–scripted Tanner ’88, that sharpest of political satires.
The mystique of the movie director has mostly worn off for me now. Most are artisans; few are artists. I’ve encountered many directors I’ve admired over the years, but I can’t say that meeting them taught me much about their movies. Some of these confabs were still enlightening. In particular, I remember interviewing David Lean in 1989 in his suite at the Hotel Bel-Air when he was promoting his revamped Lawrence of Arabia. At one point, he jumped up on the couch like mad royalty and, transfixed, recounted in saddening, shot-by-shot detail a scene from his aborted Mutiny on the Bounty epic.
But with Altman it was different. McCabe & Mrs. Miller had widened my eyes all those years before to what movies could be, and I think my admiration for him, and my desire to reconnect with him, was also a way to invoke, and certify, that early ecstasy.
In the summer of 2005, I leaped at the chance to interview him for the DGA Quarterly magazine. I flew to New York, where he was editing what was to be his last movie, A Prairie Home Companion, and for a few hours, just the two of us, we jawboned about his career. He was still hurt that years earlier Dino De Laurentiis had bumped him from Ragtime. He told me, “I’ve had a great life. But I’m more perplexed than ever about what to do. I’m a little afraid because I don’t have any plans, I don’t have a great thing I want to make.” He took me into a small screening room and showed me rushes of his new film.
On March 5, 2006, Altman was given a long-overdue honorary Oscar for his lifetime achievement, and I wrote an essay, appearing that day in the Los Angeles Times, in tribute. I wrote that this most American of directors “is renowned for the buzzing expansiveness of his stories, the crisscrossed plots and people, but what strikes home most of all in this sprawl is a terrible sense of aloneness.” I attended the Oscar telecast that night, and afterward at the Governor’s Ball, Altman walked over to thank me. I felt a circle had been closed. He died, at 81, eight months later.
Peter Rainer is a film critic for the Christian Science Monitor and NPR and the author of the essay collection Rainer on Film.