In the October 29 issue of Newsweek, veteran film critic David Ansen revealed his obsessive side to readers. The article is called 7,714 Movies, And Counting, and in it, Ansen admits to keeping a list, since 1958, of every movie he’s ever seen.
Ansen writes, “I started by retroactively listing all the movies I’d seen since 1950.... The first entry is ‘Cinderella’ (Very Good).... I’ve kept up the list my entire life. It now fills 146 handwritten pages — close to 8,000 movies.”
Two weeks after the piece was published, Ansen came to Denver for the 30th Starz Denver Film Festival. He was invited to speak on The State of Cinema with moderator Bob Denerstein. The following afternoon he spoke with us about movies worth fighting for, the state of cinema, and the response to the story about his list.
“I’ve gotten a lot of reaction to that piece. It seemed to have really touched a nerve in a lot of people. All these list makers are coming out of the closet,” said Ansen in a Friday interview. “A lot of the letters said ‘I wish I had kept mine up’ or ‘I wish I could find it.’”
One of the more memorable letters came from a man in Bombay, India. Ansen recounts, “he started a list around the same time that I did. Not only that; the extraordinary thing was that they got this magazine that my family got, the Motion Picture Herald, and he used exactly the same rating system that I did [that came from the magazine].”
A simple list of movies hardly seems meaningful; a list is just raw data. But Ansen managed to find some stories buried in his notebook. He writes, “strikingly, the first two or three pages are riddled with the names of Roman epics and tales of medieval chivalry (‘Demetrius and the Gladiators,’ ‘Quo Vadis’).”
“By page five,” he continues, “I’ve reached 1958. [...] My list suddenly reeks of hormones, humidity and Freudian subtexts: ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,’ ‘The Sound and the Fury,’ ‘Summer and Smoke.’”
In the interview, Ansen also found personal value in having such a list. “You go back and look at it and it means different things at different times in your life... How [the movies] influenced you and the people you knew... It reminds you of where you were — what city — who you saw it with...”
As he wrote in the story, “It’s the diary of my life.”
Worth Fighting For
Averaging 135 movies a year is pretty impressive, but Newsweek usually runs only one or two reviews per week. Ansen explains, “I watch a lot more than I review. Often I want to be reviewing more than I do, but we don’t get the space.”
That can be frustrating, but there are ways around it. “When I’m really passionate about something... like I said last night, you pick your fights. If there’s something you really think is important, somehow you can find a way.” And when the magazine simply doesn’t have room, there’s always the Internet. “Sometimes I write a review for Newsweek.com and a [separate] review for the magazine. I’ve done quite a few pieces this year than ran on-line that didn’t run in the magazine. “
So what has been worth fighting for lately?
“There was a little movie that I liked a lot called This is England, Shane Meadows” movie. I managed to get that in the magazine. The other one — that very obscure one I mentioned, the Thai movie, Syndromes and a Century — I wrote about that on-line.”
Power of the Critic
Still, there are some fights that just cannot be won. At the festival’s “State of Cinema” conversation with veteran film Critic Bob Denerstein, Ansen lamented the public’s ability to ignore critics. “Critics,” he said, “still have power over certain kinds of movies. [But] I think we’ve become increasingly powerless over the huge... I mean... look at the Pirates of the Caribbean series. The first one wasn’t bad, actually, but the last two were incoherent. They’re terrible movies and I don’t really know anybody who likes them very much. And yet, it’s a juggernaut. It’s a fait accompli that these movies are hits before they even open. It doesn’t matter at all what the critics say. “
Ansen is probably right, which raises the question of whether being a film critic is a waste of one’s time. Denerstein, who had been the film critic for the Rocky Mountain News, joked in one of his first post-retirement blog entries that a retired film critic didn’t have a lot of marketable skills.
“There are moments,” Ansen concedes, “as in any profession when you doubt what you’re doing. Especially if you run into a patch where you just have to see one awful movie after another. There’s an annual slump I usually go through in the summer; who cares what I have to say about Pirates of the Caribbean 3?
“But no, I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my life at all. I feel very lucky to have been able to transfer my passion into my profession. And anybody who’s a good film critic has to be a good writer. So it’s not as if you can’t write other kinds of things.”
In fact, Ansen has done many of those other things. “I wrote a number of documentaries for television for TNT and PBS on different actors — one on Groucho Marx for HBO. And one on Bette Davis. I’ve done some commentaries for DVDs. I’m on this new edition of The Graduate. And Beyond the Valley of the Dolls... I did some interviews for that. “
So there’s hope yet for obsessive list makers and semi-retired film critics.
Thirty was the magic number at the State of Cinema event. It was the 30th Denver Film Festival; Ansen has been at Newsweek for 30 years, and that’s just about how long ago Denerstein started at the Rocky Mountain News. It’s also halfway back to the start of Ansen’s list. Denerstein and Ansen reflected on the changes since then. One of the most interesting was the advent of video and cable.
“Looking back 30 years ago,” began Denerstein, “if you watched a movie in your house, it was an old movie on television. The whole creation of an after-market has happened in the last 30 years. “
Ansen picked up the thread: “... and there are wonderful things about that, because so much is available. Great companies like the Criterion Collection are doing it really well. That’s the upside. There’s still great movies that haven’t made it to DVD. But I’d rather have them available.”
Of course we had to ask about TCM....
“I love that TCM exists. The truth of the matter is that I don’t watch a lot of television because I’m out every night at screenings. But I do watch old movies on TV sometimes.”
Making the Grade
Part of the problem with having such a deep after-market is trying to separate the wheat from the chaff. In fact, that’s one of the things film critics can really help with, and an easy way to do that at a glance is to look at a critic’s ratings. But Ansen agreed with Denerstein that ratings systems oversimplified things too much, so we asked Ansen to elaborate.
“For one thing, I think that it encourages people not to read your review, to just look at the number and make a snap judgment. If I wrote it, I’d like them to read it. And often I have very mixed feelings; ‘this part of the movie’s wonderful, and this part is a problem...’ It’s not a grade of beef.”
Nevertheless, Ansen pointed out that you can poach his top-rated movies on-line. “Have you ever seen the web site of the National Society of Film Critics? Because they ask us to give movies a numerical rating from 1 to 100. So I do play that game. I tend to be a little on the conservative side with the numbers; I don’t know if I’ve ever given 100.”
As for the early pages in his diary — ‘Cinderella’ (Very Good) — Ansen explained that he stopped giving every movie a rating when he started working as a professional film critic.
Birth of a Critic
On his early ambitions, Ansen said “I hadn’t really planned on being a movie critic — even though that list indicates otherwise. I always knew that I was going to be a writer of some sort. From the time I was very young I started writing stories, plays, poems... At a certain point I put together these two interests and something clicked.”
But as hundreds of bloggers and on-line film critics will tell you, an ambition to write isn’t the same as being paid to be a film critic. Ansen agrees and seems glad that he was in the right place at the right time. Specifically, he was in Boston in the late 1970s.
“It’s fascinating how many critics at major New York magazines came out of these same two papers at the same time. There was The Real Paper and the Boston Phoenix. When I was the critic at The Real Paper, Janet Maslin was the critic at the Boston Phoenix. David Denby wrote for me and then went to the Phoenix. Steve Schiff — who’s now a screenwriter but was a critic — I gave him his first assignment; he went to New York and was working for Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. And it continues. Owen Gleiberman from Entertainment Weekly was at the Phoenix a little bit later. People forget this, but Janet Maslin went to Newsweek for a year before she went to the New York Times. When she left, I got that slot.”
Unbeknownst to him, Ansen had a little help getting the Newsweek job. He recalls, “I later found out that Pauline Kael had recommended me. She had been reading me. She called me up one day actually to say how much she’d liked a review. It was a very strange review I had written of All the President’s Men; it was not written in the conventional way; it was numbered... ‘23 points about All The President’s Men.’”
In his notebook, it must be somewhere in the 3,000s, but Ansen still remembers the review. It’s a review he liked, he said, but also that “it’s a piece that I have subsequently read and disagreed with in many respects. I was asked to present All the President’s Men at the Academy; they did a 30th anniversary screening of it. What was funny was that when I went back and looked at my review, I predicted that the movie would date, that the movie would not make any sense ten years from [the time of the reivew]. At the time it seemed that the movie could not possibly hold up if you weren’t steeped in the moment. I was completely wrong because the movie holds up very well.”
The State of Cinema
Some movies hold up better after 30 years than others, but “the movies” are still with us. The experience of going to the movies, however, can be quite different.
At the Festival, Ansen told the audience about a friend who went to a screening of Spider-Man 3. “The whole front row was filled with 12, 13, 14 year olds... and they were all text messaging — during the movie — especially when anybody was talking, when something wasn’t blowing up.”
That’s frustrating behavior for all of us old fogies in the audience. But Ansen takes it in stride. “It tells you something about attention span,” he said. “And Hollywood knows that a movie like Pirates of the Caribbean 3 doesn’t have to make sense if the audience is sitting there text messaging. It just has to make a lot of noise and blow up things beautifully.”
Here’s hoping that David Ansen is still writing in 2037. We can check in again after another 30 years and talk about the state of cinema.
His Newsweek piece could be called 12,000 Movies and Counting.
by Marty Mapes
Republished by permission of Turner Classic Movies