Mick LaSalle on Film Criticism

As far as I’m concerned, San Francisco Chronicle movie critic Mick LaSalle is the Roger Ebert of the West Coast. So I was ecstatic when he agreed to an email interview recently. Here’s LaSalle’s bio “Mick LaSalle is the film critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, and the author of two books on pre-Production Code movies, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, and Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man. Both were published by St. Martin’s Press. The Turner Classic Movies documentary, Complicated Women, narrated by Jane Fonda, debuted in 2003.” In addition to discussing these efforts, I got to talk to him about his upcoming book, as well as his blog, Maximum Strength Mick, his podcast and his column, Ask Mick LaSalle.

Tim O’Shea: Thanks to DVDs, would you say there more pre-code films available for purchase or rental in recent years?

Mick LaSalle: Yes — there’s the FORBIDDEN HOLLYWOOD series, various musical series that bring out pre-Codes, and a terrific set from Universal coming out in April. Still, to really see pre-Codes, you need to have cable and Turner Classic Movies.

O’Shea: Since the mass availability of pre-code films has increased, would you ever consider revising your two pre-code books, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, and Dangerous Men: Pre-Code Hollywood and the Birth of the Modern Man?

LaSalle: I would consider it, but it probably wouldn’t happen. Of the two, the one I’d like to revise is COMPLICATED WOMEN, because I wrote it very quickly. (I researched it a long time — and for a long time before that, when I didn’t know I was researching it — but once I had the book deal, I only had eight months to turn in the manuscript.) Plus, I was under the impression that I had to strictly adhere to the 65,000 word limit that was in the contract. Had I to do it over, I’d have added about 10,000 words, mainly about actresses besides Garbo and Shearer.

O’Shea: Your pre-code book on women was the basis for a 2003 TCM documentary (Complicated Women) that you participated in, both onscreen as well as an associate producer behind the scenes. How much did you enjoy that entire creative process and what lessons did you take away from the experience?

LaSalle: I LOVED it. I can’t wait to do it again. I hope it happens again. Taking ideas and then putting them before a nationwide audience is a wonderful thing. I liked working with Jane Fonda the day she did the narration. I liked working with Hugh Neely, the director. We hope to do a second documentary, based on my next book, The Beauty of the Real, about the women of contemporary French cinema.

O’Shea: How far along are you on your book regarding contemporary French actresses? Can you mention who is publishing it and if there is a target date for you to deliver it to your editor?

LaSalle: Not that far along, but it’s not a book that will take years to write. The real issue is whether I can get a Guggenheim. If I do, then everything becomes easy — paying for photos, hiring someone to arrange the interviews for me in France, flying and staying there, etc. Without a grant, it will take longer.

O’Shea: Who all will you be writing about among contemporary French actresses–will you have to skip some lesser known actresses for space constraints?

LaSalle: If I skip lesser known actresses, it will be because I don’t know them. I don’t think space will be a problem. I’m very big on [Isabelle] Huppert, [Sandrine] Bonnaire and [Nathalie] Baye, but there are many others, including some most Americans don’t know about, like Geraldine Pailhas, Sandrine Kiberlain and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (and about a dozen others) who are great. This is like the pre-Code era over there, a golden age for actresses.

O’Shea: In your experience, having taught film courses, first at the University of California and more recently at Stanford University, do you find that students are coming to your class more or less informed than your past students? Or is it merely because of the internet, they mistakenly *think* they know more?

LaSalle: Because I’m teaching at night, most of my students are much older than college age, and some know a lot about movies, and some don’t, but the ones who don’t, know they don’t.

O’Shea: Your wife is playwright Amy Freed–while writing for movies and writing for theater are not the same, do you think sharing an intellectual life with someone possessing a greater grasp of storytelling than most folks has helped inform your critical view of films?

LaSalle: It’s not that abstract. We help each other in tangible, direct ways all the time. Amy has ideas about the movies she sees, and part of Amy’s process is to have me read whatever she wrote that day. So it’s not theoretical at all. It’s all very specific on both sides.

O’Shea: Digging back into a podcast from a few months ago, when did you first realize you could do a funny imitation of Terry Gross?

LaSalle: Out loud, in the car, driving by myself, five minutes after she was asking some veteran what it was like to have to stick his finger into his neck to hold down a vein to keep from bleeding to death. I do it much better in person, though. I had some mike fright the day of the podcast.

O’Shea: Is it hard for you to connect with other co-hosts when entertainment editor Leba Hertz is not available–or do you have a healthy stable of pals to call upon–ensuring some chemistry no matter the co-host?

LaSalle: It depends on the pal. As long as they aren’t shy, it’s fine. I like doing the podcast with Steve Salmons a lot. It’s the only time I ever see the guy.

O’Shea: Which do you feel has allowed you to connect more with your readership–your columns, your reviews, your blog, your podcast or a mixture of all four elements?

LaSalle: It’s a different kind of connection. I think the blog has the illusion of connection more than a connection. In a way I think the podcast is more personal. But the ASK MICK column is also a definite personality connection.

3 thoughts on “Mick LaSalle on Film Criticism

  1. MR. LASALLE….
    PLEASE TELL ME WHY YOU CHOSE NOT TO INCLUDE “ELEGY” IN YOUR TOP 25 MOVIES OF THE AUGHTS…….I WAS RELUCTANT TO WATCH BECAUSE OF THE (YAWN) PREMISE, YET FOUND MYSELF MESMERIZED BY THE RAW ACTING FROM KINGSLEY, THE SLY-DOG CHARACTER OF HOPPER AND THE VULNERABLITY BROUGHT FORTH VIA CRUZ……..A MEDITATION ON SEX AND DEATH… HUMAN EXPERIENCES RARELY MUTUALLY EXCLUSIVE (I WILL GIVE YOU THE PARTS WITH THE SON WERE NONSENSE….OTHERWISE(!), MOST EXCELLENT AND WORTHY OF AT LEAST MY TOP 25.

    I DO NOT CONCUR YOU ARE IN A REALM WITH ROGER EBERT (I THINK EBERT SUCKS) ALBEIT YOU ARE AT TIMES A CLOSE SECOND……

    TOO BAD WE LOST GENE SISKEL: HE HAD HEART, BRAIN AND WIT..

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