Review Fix Web Exclusive: Maltin Talks Movies and Life

lmThere are about 17,000 reviews in the new 2009 edition of “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide,” an enormous volume that gets thicker every year. Maltin, one of America’s most popular and appreciated film critics, has so many reviews in it that a lot of the old ones were omitted and republished in his “Classic Movie Guide,” a different book altogether that includes at least 7,000 titles. Even with the new book, his yearly “Movie Guide” groans with enough reviews to make “5,001 Nights at the Movies” by Pauline Kael seem shortchanged.

Now that the new edition’s been published, the challenge of updating his “Movie Guide” can wait until next year, but Maltin’s got lots of other jobs to keep him busy. For example Maltin started his 10th year teaching “Theatrical Film Symposium,” a popular class at the University of Southern California this past September. It’s a joy for film majors especially, but Maltin says that all kinds of students take this class. “I have football players, industry students, math and English majors,” he says. “I tell them on the first night of the semester – ‘My goal is to make you a smarter audience.’”

Considering Maltin’s knowledge and love for movies, it’s not easy to name anyone who can do that better than he can.

QUESTION: It must be hard adding new material to “Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide.” Sometimes, you’ll even have to reevaluate the old movies. For example, Alien was upgraded from two and a half stars to three and a half.

LEONARD MALTIN: That happens more by chance than anything else. In the case of “Alien,” they actually reissued it theatrically, and [director Ridley Scott] tinkered with it a little bit – added some footage. I said, “Well, I’d better go and revisit this.” So there was an occasion, but I don’t go seeking out films to re-review, because you could re-review everything. So much time has gone by now: Nothing’s going to look the same as it did 10 years ago, 20 years ago, 30 years ago. So my colleagues and I try to keep our eyes and ears open, but you can’t rewrite a 1,600-page book every year.

Q: Your expertise is such that you’re even teaching a class at the University of Southern California that deals with film studies.

LM: I inherited a famous class that was started in the early 1960s at USC by Arthur Knight. He was a very prominent film critic, and he had the idea – which others have done since – of showing new movies and having the filmmakers come for question-and-answers. But when he started it, John Ford was still making movies. He taught it for many years, and it was taken over by Charles Champlin, who was for many years the L.A. Times film critic. George Lucas took this class – that’s how many years it’s been going.

Q: That’s a long time ago. How popular is it?

LM: Almost anyone who passed through USC has taken this class. It’s very large now – it’s 360 students. I’ve been doing it for the past 10 years, and every week, we show a film just before its release, so no one has seen it. We might have the director, the writer, the producer, a film editor, a cinematographer, a composer, a production designer, or an actor, or sometimes a combination of several, and it makes for a really interesting discussion.

Q: Are there any films your students were especially fond of?

LM: I had a chance, four or five years ago, to show “City of God,” the Brazilian film, on the first night of the January semester. I didn’t really know my students yet at all – didn’t have a sense of them – but I knew from past experience that most of them don’t like to read subtitles. But I felt that that film was so powerful and so visceral that they would go for it anyway – and they did. They really liked it. I mean, even the football players liked it – which surprised them – and I had the filmmaker Fernando Meirelles there, who was a great guest.

Q: You make appearances on TV and video releases, and there are very few critics who do that. Does that exposure give you an advantage?

LM: People are maybe a little too easily impressed by someone who’s on TV. I was writing for years before I ever got on TV, and the first time I did, it was to promote one of my books, and I found that people were much more impressed that I was on TV than with the fact that I’d written a book, which is a little discouraging. [Laughs] But for me, it’s been only positive having this career on television.

Q: What critic – yourself included – would you say has the most influence on movies today?

LM: None.

Q: None?

LM: I suppose just by sheer virtue of being at The New York Times, Tony Scott probably does, but the truth is that critics don’t have that much influence – period. They have some influence on a certain sector of the public that may be looking for an opinion or some advice about what’s worth seeing, but if critics really had influence over moviegoers in general, they wouldn’t see, you know, uh, “Saw IV.” Conversely, films like “City of Men” [the sequel to “City of God”] would be more successful because critics like to get behind films like that, but it’s like pulling teeth to get people to see some of these good indie movies that are out there. And foreign films.

Q: Has a film ever surprised you with its awfulness?

LM: All the time – that happens all the time. I went to see “Speed Racer” earlier this year. I wasn’t expecting “Hamlet,” but I thought it might at least be fun – and it was just unbearable! Unbearably awful, and it went on forever. So sometimes you’re sort of surprised that something isn’t even competent. [Laughs] That was a big surprise.

Q: On a more refreshing note, has a movie ever caught you off guard with its greatness?

LM: Sometimes films come out of the blue, something like “Frozen River.” It’s really worth seeing, awfully good. Seeing a film like that, not knowing anything about the filmmaker: I only recognized Melissa Leo, having seen her in a few films, but I didn’t know anyone else on the cast. When you see something like that that’s so good, that has no advance buildup – well, this one did of course, it won a big prize at Sundance – that’s a very happy surprise. I thought “The Wackness” was a happy surprise this summer, and seeing Ben Kingsley in such an unlikely role – that was great. Seeing that a French filmmaker could do such a great job making a whodunit like “Tell No One” – that was a nice surprise.

Q: What do good critics owe readers?

LM: Honesty. Passion. Knowledge. I think if a critic lacks either knowledge or passion, he or she is in the wrong job. There is a belief sometimes by newspaper and magazine editors that anybody can write about movies: It’s just movies, and everybody knows movies, right? But you’d never send somebody unprepared to cover sports, they wouldn’t think of it. Oh, I’ve seen some baseball games, I’ll write about sports – that’s ridiculous. But people do treat movies that way, and that’s a pet peeve of mine. It doesn’t happen often these days, but it does still happen. I think a critic has to be knowledgeable: You have to know movies, or else you’re not really qualified to give an informed opinion. Because it’s not just an opinion that matters – it’s an informed opinion that matters.

Q: Do you have high hopes for the newly found footage from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis”? It was unearthed some time ago.

LM: I’m certainly as curious as anybody. It’s one of the towering movies, one of the great movies of all time, something I saw when I was 13 years old the first time. I used to own an 8 mm movie print of it when I was a kid. [Laughs]

Q: Do you have it now?

LM: I probably do, in my basement somewhere. More footage doesn’t necessarily guarantee a better film, but I’m really curious to see it.

Q: You wrote in the new edition of Leonard Maltin’s Movie Guide” that you hope the best critics survive a time of uncertainty for newspapers. Who do you think will survive?

LM: I have no idea. I would hope that the people who have established themselves and have a loyal audience at the major newspapers and magazines will always have a place to write. I would hate to see good writers – good thinkers – not have an outlet for their work.

Q: Here’s hoping, huh?

LM: Going back half a turn, I just thought of another big disappointment this year – M. Night Shyamalan’s “The Happening.” And I’ll tell you my least favorite film of the summer – “Hancock.”

Q: Really? David Denby at The New Yorker adored Hancock.

LM: I know – he was one of the few. And I like David Denby, I respect him, but I respectfully disagree.

About David Guzman 207 Articles
I just received my degree in journalism at Brooklyn College, where I served as the arts editor for one of the campus newspapers, the Kingsman. When it comes to the arts, I’ve managed to cover a variety of subjects, including music, films, books and art exhibitions. I’ve reviewed everything from “Slumdog Millionaire” (which was a good film) to “Coraline,” (which wasn’t) and I’ve also interviewed legendary film critic Leonard Maltin.

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