Buffalo is full of people helping to cultivate cinema and we want to celebrate those involved. The Cultivators is a new monthly feature in which we highlight individuals who are integral to the presentation, promotion and production of film here in the queen city.
THE CULTIVATORS #003
Film Critic | Frequent contributor to The Buffalo News, Buffalo Spree and The Film Stage
Website: filmswoon.com / Twitter: @FilmSwoon
QUESTIONS & ANSWERS
Film was always part of my family’s ongoing conversation growing up, thanks to having an older brother and parents with an awareness of what was happening in pop culture. Timing was certainly a factor; I was born in 1980, at the midpoint of the original Star Wars trilogy. For a suburban kid during that decade, the availability of Star Wars, Indiana Jones, E.T., and Back to the Future on VHS was huge. So by the time I was old enough to truly develop my own taste in movies and music, I was already hooked on cinema.
One movie always led to another, and there were two elements that kept my film diet steady: There was a store in West Seneca called Movies Plus that had a “five movies for five days for $5” deal, and I was able to talk my parents and brother into driving me there with regularity. That’s where I first rented some of the films that would change my life: The Godfather, Blue Velvet, A Clockwork Orange, Raging Bull. Plus, Turner Classic Movies showed “imports” on Sunday nights at 2 a.m., so I recorded these every week, no matter what they were showing. That’s how I saw Godard, Truffaut, Kurosawa, Bergman, etc. for the first time.
Part of what made me a cinephile was that finding some of these films involved a real quest. Not everything was easily available, and tracking them down became part of the joy. Stumbling upon something I’d read about but never saw, like Purple Noon or Swoon, seemed to be a real victory.
One of the first films I saw in a theater was Return of the Jedi, and I remember that seeming like a major life event—even for a 3-year-old. It felt epic on a big screen, and I walked out spellbound. Another important moment was seeing Pulp Fiction a few days after it opened in 1994. My view of that film today is a bit more mixed, but for a 14-year-old, it seemed so fresh and bold. I had a similar experience watching Trainspotting a couple years later. Incidentally, that one holds up better for me.
My favorite memory from recent years is probably when my wife and I took our son to his first film at the cinema. He was 3 at the time, and we’d pondered whether he was ready. Finally, we decided to give it a go. We took him to Monsters University at the Maple Ridge 8—flawed Pixar, to be sure, but more enjoyable when viewed with a child!—and we almost made it through the whole thing. The whole experience was pretty wonderful, especially when the theater darkened and the film first started. It was certainly a life-has-come-full-circle moment for me. Since then he’s been my steady movie-going companion. He hates wearing 3D glasses, and I can’t say I blame him … My daughter is 2, so her first outing to the cinema awaits.
I should mention sneaking into Basic Instinct at the now-defunct Holiday 6 in 1992 as one of those great movie memories. My brother bought us tickets for an Alec Baldwin-Meg Ryan flick called Prelude to a Kiss, and we high-tailed it into BI. I was a lunch-table hero for a few minutes, at least, and I loved the idea of seeing something controversial, and not meant for my eyes.
Covering the Toronto International Film Festival each year results in some fantastic memories. This will be my 10th year at TIFF, and it’s been extraordinarily fun, and occasionally surreal. Having Megan Fox ask me about my son’s astrological sign and then chatting with Michael Shannon a few minutes later about how excited we both were to see Antichrist certainly ranks high on the absurd-memories list.
Lastly, seeing my first film review in The Buffalo News in 2005 was very special. I have my late UB professor Mark Shechner and Buffalo News critic and arts editor Jeff Simon to thank for making that happen, since Mark recommended me to Jeff as a possible critic. I’d grown up in a house that had the News delivered each day, so seeing my name in those pages—reviewing a film, no less—was a great honor, even if that film was a horror flop called Venom. My wife later had that review framed for me, and that’s one of the most meaningful gifts I’ve ever received.
Clearly, I have too many movie-related memories to limit it to just one …
I was born here, and I’ve spent my entire life in Western New York. I graduated from UB with a degree in media study, and many of my friends went to work in film and media in California and elsewhere. But I can say with some certainty that I never really thought about leaving. I met my wife here, got married here, and we had our children here. Buffalo is our home, and it’s hard for me to imagine living elsewhere.
I love that a number of truly unique films are coming here thanks to CCC, Squeaky Wheel, Hallwalls, etc., since many of these would not have been available here in the past. It always makes me sad when something extraordinary completely skips Buffalo, so I’m thrilled to see things like Mommy and The Tribe make it to WNY, even if it’s for one night only. It’s also fun to see how many film series are now happening here. I write a monthly screenings column for Spree, and I’m continually impressed by what I find.
I do wish we had one more second-run theater. The Dipson McKinley cinema is comfortable and affordable, especially if you have kids. And you have wonderful, historic venues like the Palace in Hamburg and the Aurora in East Aurora. But I’d like to see one closer to the city, and perhaps another in the Northtowns.
When I first truly embraced cinema in the early 90s, I was desperate to find real criticism, and even after I had internet access at home I was still mostly reliant on whatever books I could get my hands on. Chief among these was Roger Ebert’s annual Movie Home Companion. These were pretty much destroyed due to over-reading; I can’t stress enough how vital these were to teaching me about films and filmmakers. That’s where I first ran into names like Werner Herzog and Terry Zwigoff.
One of the key books for me in general is Easy Riders, Raging Bulls by Peter Biskind. I’ve probably read it four or five times in full, and I still enjoy jumping in at random points. It’s relentlessly readable, just like a few of my other favorites: Julie Salamon’s Bonfire of the Vanities chronicle, The Devil’s Candy: The Anatomy of a Hollywood Fiasco; Steven Bach’s Final Cut: Art, Money, and Ego in the Making of Heaven’s Gate, the Film That Sank United Artists; and Hit & Run: How Jon Peters and Peter Guber Took Sony for a Ride in Hollywood by Nancy Griffin and Kim Masters.
The “Directors on Directors” series was hugely important in my film education, and my favorite was and still is Cronenberg on Cronenberg. I had the 1992 edition, with Naked Lunch on the cover, and I was so thrilled after reading it and watching his work that I sent him a fan letter. I received an autographed picture from his office, and I’d like to think I was the only 12-year-old in Erie County with an autographed Cronenberg pic on his wall. I still enjoy paging through anything by David Thomson and Pauline Kael, and of course Hitchcock/Truffaut. Richard Brody’s Everything Is Cinema: The Working Life of Jean-Luc Godard is essential. And one of my recent favorites is Movie Freak, by Owen Gleiberman.
One book that’s very special to me is Kubrick, by the late Michael Herr. It includes one of the great passionate defenses of Eyes Wide Shut I’ve ever come across, and it’s downright inspiring to read. I don’t think anyone who writes about film could aspire to more than that.
TOP TEN FILMS
This is always a tricky question for me, since things rise and fall depending upon age and life experience. But my top four are set in stone: Chunking Express (1994, directed by Kar-Wai Wong), Eyes Wide Shut (1999, directed by Stanley Kubrick), Dead Ringers (1998, directed by David Cronenberg), and Goodfellas (1990, directed by Martin Scorsese). After that, things are always shifting … Today, let’s go with The Shining (1980, directed by Stanley Kubrick), Bottle Rocket (1996, directed by Wes Anderson), The Godfather Part II (1974, directed by Francis Ford Coppola), The Empire Strikes Back (1980, directed by Irvin Kershner), Chinatown (1974, directed by Roman Polanski), and Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989, directed by Woody Allen).
Next week, it might include Trainspotting, Blade Runner, Zodiac, Star Wars: A New Hope, Black Narcissus, Barry Lyndon, The 400 Blows, Alien, The Godfather, Rushmore, Blue Velvet, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Blood Simple, Drive, Ed Wood, Lost in Translation, Sid and Nancy, Caché, Breathless, The King of Comedy, Boogie Nights, Love and Death, In the Mood for Love, Mean Streets, Let the Right One In, Reds, Z Channel: A Magnificent Obsession, The Naked Gun (oh yes), Heat, The Wages of Fear, Do the Right Thing, Inglourious Basterds, The Lovers on the Bridge, E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Small Change, The Player, and, and, and …
Oh, if Road House or Point Break are on, I’m watching them. Make of that what you will.
Film stills from left to right, top to bottom are Empire Strikes Back, The Godfather, Purple Noon, Trainspotting, Monsters University, and Basic Instinct.