Nathaniel Rich Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

San Francisco in Film Noir: Conversation with Nathaniel Rich, Associate Editor, Paris Review, June 23, 2005, by Harry Kreisler

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Being a Film Critic

Why do you think you found film an attractive medium to be thinking about? Was it a generational thing? You obviously come from a generation where the visual media have exerted an enormous influence.

That was part of it. When Pulp Fiction came out, I was about fourteen or fifteen, and that was the first contemporary film that I'd seen that really excited me and made me think about film in a way beyond just whether I liked it or not. Since then, I began to be interested in certain contemporary directors and started to see in them interesting things and ties to previous generations of directors that I'd seen as I was growing up. So in that sense, yes.

The other thing is that many people my age who are creative tend to go into film now, and I'm especially seeing that now that we're in our mid-twenties. A lot of creative people and writers tend now to go into film instead of literature. So, there's a generational aspect to that as well.

Help us understand what a film critic does. We all go to movies, we all enjoy them or dislike them intensely, [but] some people think about them and they don't wind up becoming critics. What makes critics special when they write about film? Is it that they put it down on paper and get it published?

Possibly! I don't know how special they are. My experience as a film critic, and being published as a film critic, is limited to this book, so I can only speak from my limited experience; but one thing that I tried to do was to explain what a director was trying to convey, what kind of points they were trying to make, try to understand what traditions they were working in. With this book, that meant laying out a lot of history of how film noir came about, what kind of filmmakers were interested in making film noir, their background. There were a lot of, for instance, émigrés from Germany and Austria, and you see in a lot of these films a German expressionistic style that comes out of German and Austrian films from the thirties and earlier.

It's trying to introduce the film to a reader and trying to convey what the experience of watching that film is like. As to making a judgment about whether it's a good film or not a good film, I think that should be secondary and that ideally -- and this is true of any kind of arts criticism, I believe -- the role of the critic is to convey accurately what the experience is of watching this film, or play, or reading a book, to explain where it's coming from. If he or she does a good enough job, the reader or viewer should be able to tell whether or not they would like it, regardless of what the critic thinks.

I tend to enjoy criticism that makes interesting points about works or art, rather than the thumbs-up, thumbs-down which tells you very little except for the critic's personal taste. Many of the films I included in the book are films that are not very good and I think are often pretty silly in some cases, but I still wanted to explain what was interesting about each one and why they're worth talking about, even if they were bad.

Let me ask you one other general question before we get to the book, and that is: What do you see as distinctive about film as an art form? You've worked in literature, you come from a cultivated background in which people were talking about different aspects of culture, literature, drama, and so on. Is there something special about film that, even though you're just starting out with one book under your belt, helps us appreciate the medium and maybe also tells us why you were so drawn to it?

It's a good question. I think there's something intangible about the experience of going to a movie theater and having the lights turn out and the film start playing. There's something about that experience that maybe I associate with very happy, early experiences when I was very young. But I enjoy it as just another art form, another way of putting across creative ideas.

What's interesting about it as opposed to literature, which is my other main interest, is that it's such a collaborative effort. Even when you have directors who are serious auteurs and control as many aspects of the production as possible, there's so much collaboration going on, and compromise, and interactions between different artists, whether it be cinematographer, or set design, actors, director. There's something that becomes a little bit out of any one artist's control with films, where in a novel a masterful writer will control every aspect of it. So there's something else going on in film, like other collaborative arts, that separates it from that.

I guess it's also that it's a product that has to, through this collaboration, make it in the marketplace.


Because that's the goal. That's how you get the shot at the hoop, so to speak.

Absolutely. That's one thing that's interesting about certain genre films, because many of these films were made to make a profit, and that was very much the goal of a lot of these films, unlike maybe a Godard film or art house films. These films were made to make a profit. That's another collaboration -- between the producers and the studio who is funding the film and wants a sellable product, and the artists at work, who also might just want to make a lot of money. That's another interesting compromise that takes place, and it's always fascinating to me to see how directors go about finessing that relationship and trying to make something that has artistic merit, as well as something that's profitable.

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