INTERVIEW WITH FILM AND TV CRITIC DOUG PRATT


"My primary goal is to provide a reader with enough objective information to identify the movies that he will want or will want to avoid." 



RICHARD FINNEY: From 1984 to the present you’ve been writing your newsletter. There’s no coincidence that the time line matches the rise of the “digital” home entertainment market in America. I see your newsletter as a printed record of not only the different content of entertainment created since silent movies, but you’ve also maintained a continuous narrative about how home entertainment technology continues to evolve.

How would you summarize what you’ve accomplished with your newsletter?

DOUG PRATT:  When I began the Newsletter, I was the first to recognize specific differences between reviewing theatrical or broadcast product and reviewing home video product. 

When I started it in 1984, the Newsletter was intended for consumers of the high end home video format, Laser Video Discs.  In the previous decades, reviewers had only covered the program itself, and not its secondary delivery format. Judgments on the quality of the video and sound transfers; the specific formatting choices (the placement of chapters and so on); the inclusion of special features with the program (etc.) was a brand new concept.

Even when my first book, compiling the laser disc reviews (“The Laser Video Disc Companion” published by New York Zoetrope 1988) was published, there were reviewers who thought I was being a snob by spending so much effort on image and sound quality.  I like to think that when you surf the Net today, and peruse the scores of DVD and Blu-ray review sites and blogs that are out there, every last one of them is following the template that I invented.

But there was a subtler innovation as well. 

Reviewing home video meant I could talk about every movie I had ever seen and had an opinion about in my entire life.  It also meant I could readily explore avenues of films I hadn’t seen but wanted to—I wasn’t just beholden to the release agendas of the film companies.  To be sure, it is in the interest of both myself and my readers that I cover the major releases distributors have chosen for the month at hand, but those are not the only titles I review, and it was the freshness of the choices I could make, month after month, that set my newsletter apart from other film review periodicals.

There is one other innovation, which I cannot take sole credit for, but I believe I helped to foster and advance, and that was to persuade the film companies themselves to change their perspective on the product they were putting out, and to have more respect for it.  I was an early proponent of letterboxing, and it is entirely possible that presenting movies on home video in their true aspect ratios would not have been implemented quite as early as it was, had I not been pressing for it. 

In 1984, private individuals who collected 35mm films were considered criminals by the film companies, but through the championing of quality home video presentations, the studios started paying more attention to their own source material, and began realizing collectors were not the enemy, but were, in fact, the keepers of the flame.  Within a decade, there was a true d├ętente between the film companies and collectors, and “film preservation” became a worthwhile corporate investment.

RF: I started reading your reviews/critiques because you were the only writer covering Laser discs. And I still read your newsletter because you cover DVDs and Blu-rays like no one else can. Of course part of the appeal is your sensibility, but another part is the perspective you have that I can’t find anywhere else.

For example, often times in a review you will say, “This release is so immaculate that the previous Paramount release (September 04) is rendered unwatchable.” Most critics are assigned specific films to review and haven’t the vaguest idea of any previous version released to the marketplace. Do you take pride in probably being the only film critic with such a perspective? Or do you feel like you’re sort of the King of the movie geeks, which I’m certainly one of your acolytes.

DOUG PRATT: If a consumer is thinking about buying a copy of a movie he already owns because the marketing says it has been upgraded, that consumer deserves to know if the marketing is telling the truth.  I never feel I’m able to do it enough, especially with the simultaneous releases of most new films, and many re-releases of older movies, in both DVD and Blu-ray format, but putting out a monthly newsletter also requires that I manage my resources carefully.  I try to be thorough, but not obsessed.

RF: As a filmmaker, I’ve always been impressed by your insight regarding studio movies created for mass audiences. I never detect a built in “sneer” from you which is more obvious with other reviewers dealing with the same big budget movie. Is this a mandate… or something less conscious about your approach to properly appraising studio movies?

DOUG PRATT: Watching movies, especially older movies, is an intensely nostalgic experience, for the period in which the film was made, for the period that the film depicts (as reflected by the period in which the film was made), and for the period and environment in which the viewer first viewed the film. 

Much has been written about how movies are “dreams.” Hollywood is even known as “The Dream Factory.”  But less is said about the catalytic emotional power that films have, not so much because of their content directly, but because the multi-sensory content is merging so deeply with a viewer’s psyche.  Whatever movie I’m watching, I’m also psycho-analyzing myself at the same time (or immediately afterwards), to understand what it was I did enjoy within the experience, or what there was that was so unenjoyable that it spoiled everything else.  I then must pivot and express in general terms what those pleasures or displeasures were. 

I always only expect a film to be true to itself.  “Mindless” action films are great if the action scenes are genuinely creative; “stupid” comedies are great if there is genuine comedic talent being exhibited; and “art” films are enthralling if there is genuine artistry guiding them.  I recognize that a variety of readers are not all going to have the same interests that I do, so I try to be clear that if a film is meeting certain genre conventions, it is succeeding or failing within that genre, rather than outside of it.  I also admit that because there are so many movies on home video to choose from, I try to pick the ones that I think I might enjoy, and avoid watching or writing about movies I suspect I will not enjoy.

RF: I’ve been in attendance during a couple of Quentin Tarantino’s “road shows” where he would screen some of his favorite older films for theatre audiences.  Both times I was in attendance, he would first make a speech about how anyone who had come to the screening just to laugh at certain dated aspects of the movies he was about to screen should just get up and leave. Reading your newsletter, there’s no doubt you share Tarantino’s sensibility. What is it about the way you approach your job, let’s say, evaluating the merits of “The Gene Autry Collection” that when I read your take, on that collection, it feels as authentic as if you were reviewing the latest digital version of “Touch of Evil.”

DOUG PRATT: First, let me say that I love making fun of “certain dated aspects of the movies.”  Nothing makes better copy, and sometimes, some films are so absurdly ridiculous they are masterpieces of accidental Surrealism.  A lot of it depends, however, on the cynicism or plain ineptitude of the filmmakers.  Are they making movies from their hearts or their wallets? 

Gene Autry, Roy Rogers and so on were second-generation “cowboy” stars, following the stars of the silent film westerns.  They knew what they wanted to do, and their pride and sincerity in their own iconography is palpable.  The fact that their screen roles are symbiotically tied with the foundation of America makes them even harder to dismiss.  Making fun of Liberace in “Sincerely Yours” is irresistible, because he is trying to be a movie star and failing at it spectacularly, but anyone with a soul cannot begrudge Autry or Rogers the sentiments, simplicity or moral purity of their “B picture” vehicles, because those films were the core of their chosen vocation.  They deserve to be judged on their own terms, and from today’s perspective, the historical relevance and nostalgic power of their work is enduringly compelling.

RF: I find it fascinating to read your take on movies and TV because I can see where you are always trying to understand why a certain movie or TV show might appeal to its “target audience.” And though you will flag titles that you deem worthy only for “film historians” you rarely go off (in a negative way) on a film or TV show as an outright failure. So when you do, it always seems noteworthy.

I’ll throw out an example -- Zack Snyder’s movie “Sucker Punch.” About “Sucker Punch” you described it as a, “fetishistic spectacle,” and “… there is way less to the movie than meets the eye, and the film’s appeal remains as superficial as a pole dancer’s.” I hated this movie as well.

Prior to your review of “Sucker Punch” you wrote positive and deep appraisals of Snyder’s previous directing efforts, “300” and “Watchmen,” two films which I also absolutely loved.

However, the above is typical of the circumstances I’ve noted when you actually write negatively about a particular movie. It seems as if the failure is not so much that the movie is “bad,” but mostly because the film failed to achieve a level of quality matching reasonable expectations from a viewer sitting down to watch the next effort by the director and studio responsible for “300” and “Watchmen.”

DOUG PRATT: Again, I cheat.  I try to avoid watching things—or even stop watching things—that I don’t enjoy.  Once in a while, however, I will be trapped by my own misguided anticipation or curiosity, and must therefore flail about in negativity to escape it. 

My philosophy on reviewing films has always been to play the matchmaker.  It is not so much whether I like or do not like a movie, but whether I can be accurate enough in my descriptions and consistent enough in the expression of my feelings that readers can look past those feelings to understand whether they themselves will be interested or not interested in the program.  While I am enthusiastic about the movies I love and disdainful about the movies I dislike, my primary goal is to provide a reader with enough objective information to identify the movies that he will want or will want to avoid.  The subjectivity is what I provide to make the review itself readable and entertaining, the seed and the fruit, as it were.

RF: A while back in one of your newsletters you wrote movingly about your father’s death. You mentioned a bond you had with your father  -- both of you enjoyed good movies and TV shows. I related to what you wrote because of a similar bond with my own father.  I grew up watching such movies as “The Great Escape,” and “The Magnificent Seven” dozens of times, because my father and I would both love watching those films together.

How is it that often times music can separate two generations, but movies can be a bridge? And, was it tough writing about your feelings regarding your loss in the context of your newsletter?

DOUG PRATT: To answer your second question first, writing my father’s obituary in my Newsletter was the most natural and easiest way to express my grief, because the partial anonymity of the forum allowed me to open up emotionally while still maintaining a guarded distance of a sort.  It’s a guy thing.  I would add that I have since discovered one of the toughest things to come to terms with when someone you love passes away is that you can no longer share things with them.  I keep seeing movies now that I know he would have enjoyed, and I have no release for that frustration.

I would have to disagree with you, however, about “music separating generations.”  That appears to have been a unique Baby Boomer phenomenon.  The favorite music groups of my own children, when they were teenagers and still today, included many of the groups that were my favorites at their age, such The Who, Jimi Hendrix, The Doors, The Beatles and so on (I could never get them to appreciate Jefferson Airplane, however…).   As we grow older, our musical palette tends to expand, but I really don’t see much of a generational gap, nor do I anticipate one burgeoning in the future.  

In 2003, reviewing the 1967 music documentary, “Monterey Pop,” I wrote, “Whereas, in 1967, it is unlikely that too many young people would have been interested in watching a concert filmed in 1931, as many years after the Festival, several of the bands are as popular as they have ever been.”

RF: Your newsletter is so important to people who really love watching movies on Blu-ray and DVD but don’t necessarily have a ton of time. Sure I have enough time to watch a movie, but I also enjoy listening to a good commentary by a filmmaker. You cover the quality of commentaries in your newsletter, enabling me to be selective about what commentaries I end up listening to. But I can only imagine how long it must take you to get through each commentary, each special feature. I shudder to think how many weeks some of these DVD/Blu-ray sets must take you to properly evaluate. What’s the process like?

DOUG PRATT: After initially watching the movie, I listen to commentaries while I’m driving or doing other things that don’t require my direct attention to the screen.  After the invention of the portable DVD, I used to listen to them when I went shopping, waited in a doctor’s office, or attended my children’s soccer practice, never a game—I had my standards. Now I can usually fit them in with just the driving or the grunt work I’m doing on the computer (such as updating my subscriber database, or compiling the lists of title releases). 

As for the other special features, I try to fit them into slots where there isn’t enough time to fit a whole feature film.  I do, unfortunately, review far fewer discs now than I did before the special features proliferated, but I don’t regret it, because the education that comes from absorbing it all is invaluable.

RF: Can you make the case that an audio commentary is an art form, almost like a really great performance by an actor?

DOUG PRATT: I wrote an article in the Summer 2010 issue of “Cineaste” magazine about the best audio commentaries.  The pinnacle, I feel, is director Michael Radford’s talk on “Il Postino,” because of the drama he describes in delicately extracting the performance of the star, Massimo Troisi, as Troisi was dying. 

Audio commentaries can be an artform, but they are usually more haphazard than that.  Some filmmakers are natural teachers and their talks are highly rewarding—and the talks by film composers are surprisingly consistent with insight—but others are just creating a memento of their own, as a capstone to a project that took weeks or years of their lives to complete.  Over time, certain rules have built up that you can hear them following (don’t say nasty things about your co-workers…), but you really never know ahead of time if a talk is going to be worthwhile or not, and the quality of the film itself can have no bearing at all on the quality of the conversations about it.  Even third party analysis is inconsistent, with some film scholars providing sweeping contextual analysis of the films at hand while others trudge through regurgitations of IMDB credits and a few production anecdotes.

Commentaries have already had their generational effect on filmmakers as well. Younger directors often speak on commentary tracks about having listened to other directors’ commentaries and how those comments affected their choices.  Commentary talks also, simply, raise the awareness of the existence of “filmmakers,” that contrary to the term, “movie magic,” movies are created by regular people, and that anyone with a passion has a shot at it.

RF: I believe the value of film critics today is different than years ago.

In 1968 Pauline Kael wrote an appraisal of “Bonnie and Clyde” in “The New Yorker” informing the magazine’s readers, who might have been dismissive of a particular American genre movie as “art,”  that the film wasn’t just a gangster flick, but something more definitive, representing a shift in film-making as a more relevant art form.  

In 2012, movies and TV are treated more seriously and the role of a film critic has changed as well.

You often write about movies which might have been missed by a wider audience because it was perhaps too low on the radar. I’m thinking of the really fine zombie movie, “The Dead.” And you also highlight movies such as “Inland Empire,” ill-treated in its initial theatrical release and little seen, but might be one of director David Lynch’s best career efforts. And I see you often times trying to get film enthusiasts to re-evaluate a particular movie which might have been initially dismissed by critics, such as Stanley Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut.”

Do you believe that your role as a film critic has changed? And do you get satisfaction from drawing the attention to films that deserve your effort?

DOUG PRATT: Home video changed the world. 


To use Lynch as an example, I remember people suddenly talking about “Eraserhead,” who would never in a million years have gone to a midnight screening to see it.  If you look back at critical consensus, such as the “Ten Best” lists, in the Thirties and Forties, there is this horrendous prejudice against genre films.  You could almost call it political, in that if it did not have the stamp of a mainstream, “A” picture studio production, it was unworthy of respect. 

Then after the War, the young French critics began listening to their hearts and started to nibble away at the edifice, and the younger American critics picked up on it (whether they were willing to admit it or not), and there was a liberation in criticism as in everything else during the social upheavals of the Sixties, but it really wasn’t until home video put relatively all movies in the hands of all viewers and critics that the playing field truly began to level.  Without home video, there would not have been an “Independent Film” movement, either, not because of costs and returns, per se, but because of the lack of dissemination. 

Like I say, I still just want to play matchmaker, because that was what the best critics did for me.  There are some movies like “Eyes Wide Shut” that I think more people ought to love, but usually, I am enthusiastic about a movie because I was surprised and enthused by the viewing experience.  I have a fairly even temper, but if I watch a movie in the afternoon and don’t really like it, then I’m a bit depressed for the rest of the day.  However, if I watch a movie that I wasn’t expecting to be anything special and it turns out to be a serendipitous pleasure, then I’m floating on air in delight, and that is naturally going to be reflected in my writing.

RF: You write in your review of the 2009 release of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” – “Since Martin Ritt’s 1964 spy thriller is dependent upon mood and atmosphere to sustain its appeal as it lays the foundation of its narrative, Criterion’s version is far more involving and far more effective. It isn’t just that the movie looks and sounds nicer. It’s a better movie.”

Not only do I agree with you about your assessment, I will go on record as saying that I have watched, and re-watched movies that aren’t very good, like the “Chronicles of Riddick,” because they just look so damn beautiful on my plasma TV and sound great with my 7.1 setup. Can you explain why a movie can be “better” because it looks and sounds… better? And why sometimes the experience of watching a beautiful DVD or Blu-ray can overwhelm such minor considerations… like plot and characters?

DOUG PRATT: This was a phenomenon that I first noticed with Laser Discs.  Films that would seem mediocre on another medium suddenly perked up when the transfer was well executed.  “Grease” was one that stood out for me. 

I think there is a tiny, fastidious movie critic sitting in everybody’s head, and when the picture is soft or bland, the critic dismisses the movie, but if it is even subliminally sharper, the critic becomes more engaged, and more prepared to embrace the positive qualities of the film rather than the negative qualities.  There are also genre considerations.  The image and sound components of a special effects extravaganza are a larger part of its intended entertainments than they are of, say, a Garry Marshall comedy.

RF: Modern Home Entertainment options have profoundly changed the way we now experience media. In some ways I think it has changed the very way we now appreciate a particular form of media.

There is almost no question that watching the “Lord of the Rings” trilogies, first on DVDs and now on Blu-rays, that the additional extra narrative content is a profoundly deeper experience than the shorter versions of the three movies shown during their theatrical run.

And TV series, as an art form, has gone through an even deeper evolution. There is now the opportunity for a viewer to experience the entire lifespan of a specific TV show in one weekend, rather than the normal experience of having to endure the process of watching just one episode per week for several months, with perhaps a programing “hiatus” interrupting the narrative flow. Such programs as “The Sopranos,” “The Wire,” or “Breaking Bad,” watched in a DVD or Blu-ray context where a viewer experiences one episode after another, with limited interruptions or distractions, has the potential to create a creative immersive experience that simply cannot be rivaled by any other form in media… including film. And as a result, along with obviously other major factors, the last 10-15 years have been golden years for the TV art form.

I know you understand what I’m writing about because you live it every day. Are you excited about what home entertainment has unleashed concerning what a viewer can now enjoy regarding the narrative art form?

And are you optimistic about the future?

DOUG PRATT:  Peter Jackson was, literally, filming pickups for the home video “Extended Version” of “Return of the King” after the film won the Oscar for Best Picture.  The theatrical release was no longer the end product, but just a finance mechanism to produce the DVD (and now, Blu-ray).  

But then there was the dark side—Jackson’s film “King Kong” should have been an hour shorter than it was, but home video had unbridled him.  

As I mentioned in the discussion about special features, home video has become the primary keepsake filmmakers have for the arduous birth process they endure, and it has enhanced their own self-awareness of the process and the goal.   

At the turn of the most recent century, television, because of cable, underwent the same deconstruction of censorship rules that the movies underwent in the Sixties, and the results, once again, were a flowering of creativity and an enthusiasm for the freedom the medium offered, subsidized in part by the additional returns home video could add to the initial cable broadcasts. 

There is still a lingering “political” prejudice that separates movies from TV shows in the minds of many critics - the TV Series, “Mad Men,” (Season 4), was the best motion picture of 2010, with “The Social Network” coming in a distant second. Heaven forbid an established movie critic admit as much in print, but just as the barriers that prevented westerns, crime films, horror films and SF films from being considered legitimate cinema were gradually struck down, so, too, will that bias eventually fall by the wayside.  And after that, YouTube won’t be far behind.