Richard Brody on Cinema and Digitalization

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By Liz Smith

Waiting outside the fourth floor cafeteria in one of the most famous media buildings in the world, a small, older man approaches. He is well dressed and has an impressively scraggly beard, connecting to a mustache so thickly that it appears he has no mouth. Richard Brody is easy to spot among the Conde Nast lunch crowd.

As the Goings on About Town editor for the New Yorker, Brody is famous for his witty film capsules and eloquent language, writing in service of cinema and bringing a sort of passion to his work. A self-described auteurist, he shares deep thoughts about cinema as a visual medium on his Front Row film blog for the magazine, Twitter and in the print edition of the New Yorker.

As he buys coffee for our discussion, he seems comfortable despite how out of place he appears in his faded hounds-tooth suit. Once we reach our seats, he removes his big, round tortoise shell glasses and reveals two wise but weary light blue eyes. He has the textbook academic look and the highly contemplative, knowledgeable voice to back it.

One of the most compelling users of Twitter, Brody has grasped the digitization of journalism better than many writers in the field. Sitting in the orange villi-looking seats at 4 Times Square with light emanating and reflecting around Brody from the glass separations of the cafeteria, he explains how this aspect of his job came to be.

When he first came to the New Yorker in 1999, the online site didn’t post any news content regularly and as journalism elsewhere became widely available on digital platforms, Brody was asked to report short newsy items for an online version of the magazine daily. He found that the blog wasn’t popular and didn’t think a lot of people were reading his work, but he enjoyed the process nonetheless: “Printing has weight. Blogging doesn’t have any weight…there’s something kind of first person-y about a blog because it’s spontaneous.” After being inspired by a photography exhibit in Paris, he began to write longer blog posts of critical analysis in the first person, which got read and picked up by other bloggers. He explains “movie criticism kind of coalesces with life in some funny way. People see movies and they say, everybody’s a critic.” As his blog became more successful when he went in a new direction, he was asked to start his own, originally charged with writing 3 short posts a day, which he describes as good discipline for someone that never worked as a daily journalist. Eventually it became one long item a day after he developed his craft. “I find it liberating, I never sought to blog,” he explains of the phenomena. But he kept this up in a big way.

“If I don’t blog one day, I feel bereft,” he said. “I wonder what people do with their time if they don’t write, if they don’t blog. Really, I wonder how people live.” His blog for the magazine got its name from his strong attachment to the movie going experience. “I like going to the movies, like sitting in the room, like the movies unfolding in front of me, like staring up at a screen, like sitting all the way up front. That’s why the blog is called the Front Row” The blogging eventually led to a suggestion from another New Yorker staffer, Thessaly La Force, to join Twitter. He began the page in 2009 and hasn’t looked back. In a particularly snarky response to a tweet about Jason Reitman’s recent film, “@ruthmargalit Went to see ‘Young Adult and was laughing pretty hysterically,” Brody asked if there was a connection between the two events.

There is something about his long pauses, thoughtful remarks and the way his hand is draped over the edge of the booth that makes me believe him. His authority as a film expert is clear and his arguments are persuasive; to be near him is to know that you are in the presence of deep thought and meaningful cultural criticism. Although he is careful what to share, he knows what he is talking about.

Speaking with Brody inspired a call to his colleague, David Denby, who exposed more about the connection among one of the most famous film criticism teams in the world, who have been working together for just under a decade. “We talk virtually everyday,” Denby said about he and his colleague’s relationship. “In fact I think our wives are jealous,” he joked. Going on to explain the functional part of their relationship as phone calls and coordination over what films each critic will see and cover, the two also discuss movie history. Although their opinions may differ enough for readers to question how the two manage to work in the same building, Denby and Brody both expressed their gratitude for the other as a learning tool. “It is enormously helpful for me to talk to someone as knowledgeable as he is,” Denby said of Brody, “it’s a very important relationship in my life, and has been that way ever since he got here.” Cementing his respect for his colleague, he explained how Brody has “forged a major identity for himself,” through writing, blogging, tweeting, and “speaking around town constantly.”

Brody has been a staff writer since at the New Yorker since 2005. His online biography describes the editor and writer as a worker that writes film reviews, a column about DVDs, a blog about movies and an active Twitter Page while editing the Goings on About Town section, but this prestigious position was never in Brody’s plans. A lover of classical and jazz music as well as baseball, Brody graduated with a bachelor of arts in comparative literature from Princeton University in 1980. College is actually where he got his introduction to film as an art. In his freshman year, a young philosopher friend brought him to a movie. Brody had no interest in the movies, and would not go to see films other than the occasional Saturday night hangout with friends or family. The movie playing that night was Bergman’s Shame and it opened Brody’s eyes since it was interesting for him as it was “a movie that is like a book, that has deep thoughts and serious actions, interesting to know such thing as a movie that I saw as a work of art.” Even if he knew these existed, it was the first one he had seen. It wasn’t until he saw Godard’s Breathless the next week, by recommendation from the same friend that an epiphany came. “It was like reorienting all my electrons, which is a mixed metaphor, a physicist will realize that I’m saying nonsense.” It was inspiring, no matter how scientifically inaccurate, as he described this spiritual awakening showing everything Brody loved in one movie: philosophy, jazz, spontaneity. This was a moment of lifelong addiction to the movies. Even as a film criticism writer for the Daily Princetonian and then for Nassau Weekly during college, he described himself as “completely lost” in regard to his future career.

After a long silence, he questioned aloud if he should hide something before confessing solemnly and thoughtfully: “I must have been undiagnosed ADHD…I believe, now, from all I know about this, that if I had been a child now rather than then, I would have been diagnosed with ADHD, I would have been medicated and life would have been easier.” Although he loved writing in college and actively did it, Brody had a lot of trouble with it and described his issue as “sitter’s block” more than writer’s block.” Even though he had this love-hate relationship with writing, he never thought he would be a writer. He even worked in advertising at a New York firm for a while. “I actually enjoyed it which is why I left,” he explains without so much as a smile, “I was too happy at work, this was not my life’s ambition. I wanted to make films.” After working in documentaries as a researcher, he was eventually an independent filmmaker. He describes himself as “the world’s worst independent filmmaker…I was the Ed Wood of independent film making.”

Avid reader of the New Yorker, film aficionado, and award-winning filmmaker (2011 San Diego Black Film Festival – Best Comedy, and 2011 Atlanta Urban Mediamakers Film Festival – Best Feature Film, to name a few) Walter Tyler finds that Richard Brody “operates at a level of film criticism that is firmly entrenched in intellectualism.” Tyler goes on to explain how his cinematic analysis goes further than the average movie reviewer that is only concerned with populist films of the current year: “Brody digs deeper into the history of cinema to draw context and parallels between what is relevant about the past and what is contemporary.” Tyler appreciates Brody’s work as much as the art the writer studies: “As entropy dissipates film vocabulary over time, the need for diverse voices and articulate analysis about the medium only grows in importance. Hollywood has gotten more sophisticated at making the same films over and over again, but the lack of sophistication of the films themselves and the limited ambitions of their makers have put more pressure on the fringe, the artists, independent filmmakers, and critics (as distinguishable from movie reviewers) to keep the conversation going and the medium growing.”

Richard Brody sees films as often as he can, either at screenings or from DVD screeners at home. He explains that he cannot go to thirty or even twenty screeners a week, although he would love to. Instead, he samples work widely and averages about 8 new films a week, although it is heavily dependent on the time of year. Brody recognizes that screeners are a one-shot deal, but with movies sent home, he may watch the movie, hate it, and watch it again to make an informed decision about his critique. He has no problem with screeners, because his movie-going experience is “hardcore” in that he is able to completely submerge into films.

Brody may not write about every movie he sees, but knows that big studio movies require his coverage. “It’s a public event of sorts, a journalistic event whether or not it’s an aesthetic event,” he explains. One great privilege of his job, whether writing in the magazine or for an online forum, is informing people about a great movie, even if it is only showing in New York or Los Angeles or only accessible on demand. The publicity function of drawing attention to great work that might otherwise pass unnoticed or insufficiently noticed provides a certain thrill, but he recognizes that foreign and independent, or less known, films do not have a monopoly on quality.

He also recognizes the worthiness in a negative review. If a film is not going to be seen, there is no point in going out of the way to tell people that it is bad. However, sometimes readers read a negative review and seem interested in it or admire aspects of film making that Brody criticizes. Even he finds himself screening films after reading heavily critical reviews.

Revealing more opinions about the industry, Brody found that there are westerns, war movies, comedies, gangster movies and all kinds of films that superficially appear to be a product like anything else, but is actually a work of art made by a person. And when asked if this art is lost, he responds, “On the contrary, I think it happens everyday.” Brody finds this to be true now more than ever. What has changed is that there are more options for filmmakers to exist beyond Hollywood. What exists now is a “weird continuum between independent film and Hollywood where on the one hand, lots of filmmakers have trouble making movies on the same budget they were formally accustomed to.” Instead of turning to big studios, directors turn to independent financing and though they receive much less money to work with, they get much more freedom. At the Independent Spirit Awards and the Gotham Awards, Wes Anderson, Darren Aronofsky or Terrence Malik are considered independent filmmakers even though they are Hollywood people making films with big stars. Brody marks this as a critical change, and even notes that the knowledge of directors is in stark contrast with the past, where no one except the critics themselves would know what being a director means. And that is troubling for him, because directors are often uncredited for a lot of work they put into films. He also finds that the greatness of an actor’s performance tends to be proportionate to the greatness of the direction.

When asked specifically about this year’s movies, Brody offers “it was a great year for film and you’d never know it from the Oscars!” He didn’t think very highly of the 9 films that were nominated for Best Picture, but found that the best American films of the year were “The Master” and “Moonrise Kingdom.” He thought it was great that “Moonrise Kingdom” was nominated for best screenplay, but begrudgingly points out that it did not win. And he thinks it’s great that Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman were nominated, but they didn’t win.

Brody explains that the right movies “have always struggled.” In his opinion, many of the greatest movies of all time were flops at the time of their release and critically derided. He finds no correlation between the actual merit of a film and its commercial success, between the actual merit of a film and its critical reception at the time of its release. Sometimes, films work and sometimes they don’t but that can be for all kinds of reasons that are peripheral to the actual merit of the film.

Because of the changing business model, and Brody agrees with Denby that the business model is changing (maybe they do get along), movies are being made that wouldn’t have been possible to make otherwise. He also notes that what it takes to make a 15 million dollar movie a hit is different from what it takes to make a 50 million dollar movie a hit. Brody finds that “movies are more idiosyncratic than ever now,” partly due to the increased range of technical possibilities and partly due to the constructive relationship between producers and directors. He points to films that are not large studio projects, but know what they are and can be produced quickly with mainstream response.

But Brody isn’t too concerned about what “everybody” thinks about a film. His disagreement with the industry’s current “successes” is not on the movies themselves, but the question of the pedagogy of what is deemed a good film. “What matters is the movie exists, that it’s shown and that people become aware of it,” he says. What constitutes the mainstream isn’t necessarily what people are seeing this afternoon. It is not about the reception of a film the time it is released, but the time it endures. The studios are making some good movies, but they’re not the only ones. “They aren’t the only game in town,” he quips without so much as a smirk.

Brody himself has struggled with finding a solution to current industry woes – what people deem worthy of viewing and what is considered a good film. Denby agrees that he is “waiting as much as Rich (Brody) is for the revolution from below.” The twinkling in his clouded eyes mimics his belief that no one is giving up yet.

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