All in all, the best film critics in America are writing for alternative weeklies. They know who their readers are: not the guy who picks up his morning paper from the front yard, but the one who grabs a copy from the local coffee house, cinema lobby or club round about midnight. And they jibe with the rest of the editorial staff: sharp, inquisitive and usually (though not always) politically progressive.
Susan Gerhard is one of the freshest, most irreverent voices at an alternative weekly with a long and rich tradition of fresh irreverence, The San Francisco Bay Guardian. In the midst of the SF International Film Festival, and even as she was applying for (and scoring!) a fellowship, she was kind enough to take the time to answer a few questions.
GreenCine: In your recent piece on the Roxie, one of San Francisco's premiere repertory theaters, you remind us early on that "subtitled, noir, archival, B-, nonfiction, experimental, niche" movies are best experienced "the rep-house way -- with sticky floors and unruly audiences eating out of crinkly bags, tucked into neighborhoods that invite after-hours excesses."
I couldn't help but think that it's precisely these sorts of films that are becoming more and more available on DVD. For years, the contrast between watching a movie on a screen with an audience and watching it on video was so obvious, real movie-lovers never bothered much arguing about which was better. The communal, big screen experience won hands down. Now, though, fuzzy, washed out video is giving way to digitally correct DVD with its extras and director's commentaries and all the other goodies aimed at cinephiles. TVs themselves are bigger and sharper and people are mimicking the surround-sound effect by sticking speakers in every corner of the room.
To get to the question. Will the DVD kill rep theaters, and if so, is the immediate availability of an almost inconceivably vast library of films in tip-top condition worth the trade-off?
Susan Gerhard: Short answer: I sure as hell hope not! Does it have to be a trade-off? Can't mommy and daddy stay married, renew their vows to love, honor, and educate audiences? Really, who doesn't enjoy seeing all those DVD extras -- the "Max Fisher Players" spots for the MTV movie awards on the Rushmore DVD -- from the comfort of their own Plasma flat-screen TV? It's just that most of us really do need to get out of the house from time to time. And I would sincerely hope that the vast library of DVDs would enlighten audiences and encourage them to see movies the "real" way: as the strange social events they are.
I know that DVD is taking huge bites from the rep film market, a business which has practically come to a halt in 95 percent of the country. When San Francisco's Chinese-language movie houses were crushed under the weight of last decade's craze, plain old video, I knew the small movie house was perhaps making one last valiant stand. The few remaining theaters with calendar and art-house programming that exist mostly in urban areas like San Francisco need to be cherished, funded and visited as national treasures. Yet arguments that rely on guilt as a motive -- you "should" patronize rep houses -- never get far. I believe rep houses will survive because people, even those of us who appreciate DVD, like to see movies in public settings, where they eat popcorn so yellow it has to be radioactive while running into friends and strangers. I'll never forget the time a foot-fetishist sat in front of me in San Francisco's Strand theater and asked if I would take my shoes off and place my feet on his shoulders.
Hey, I'm such a believer, I just killed my TV, which leaves my brand new DVD player very lonely (it may make a comeback someday...). In situations like this, it's always helpful to remember that one generation's utopian technological breakthrough -- canned meats come to mind -- may become another generation's embarrassment.
GreenCine: Let's back up. How'd you get into film reviewing?
Susan Gerhard: I really became a film critic by accident. I was more a general interest reporter on lesbian/gay topics when New Queer Cinema rained down on audiences like a hailstorm. Many critics ducked -- it was difficult for outsiders to embrace these "scary" images coming from a new and angry and not-very-pastel generation of gays. I was eager to explain how films like The Living End, or Swoon, or Poison, films that challenged cozy notions of identity, embodied the anger of a generation that came of age in the AIDS era.
New Queer Cinema soon devolved into New Queer Commercially Viable Cinema, however, and I moved on to other filmmaking zones, many of which (the work of François Ozon, for one) embodied the kind of energy and approach I was so excited about when I began writing about film.
GreenCine: You've done year-end top tens; have you ever done an all-time top of the tops?
Susan Gerhard: Well, I have, and the funny thing is, my "all-time" list changes every year, depending on what sort of film most interests me at the time. Here are my picks of the moment.
1. Lessons of Darkness, Werner Herzog, 1992
2. In the Mood for Love, Wong Kar-Wai, 2000
3. Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story, Todd Haynes, 1987
4. Being John Malkovich, Spike Jonze, 1999
5. Salesman, Albert and David Maysles, 1969
6. Sátántangó, Béla Tarr, 1994
7. All Over Me, Alex and Sylvia Sichel, 1997
8. Close-Up, Abbas Kiarostami, 1990
9. Kikujiro, Takeshi Kitano, 1999
10. Safe, Todd Haynes, 1995
Photos: Dennis Woo